Prufrock’s Well

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

For me there is no more tragic, aching line of poetry than this from the closing of T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.  There is a beauty, sublime and magical, out there that is beyond our reach and worth.  The tragedy of J. Alfred and many of us is that we do not bother to listen, because we think we can never hear.  We do not ask the “overwhelming questions” because we fear.  We fear to ask, we fear the responses, we fear what those responses might require of us.  We live in a constant state of treading water, arms flailing, the waves threatening to overcome us.  If only we can get ahead, swim to shore, we’d be safe.  Whole.  Happy.

I have struggled with depression my entire life.  My first bout was as a young child, 5 or 6.  Back in the late 60’s, no one looked for signs of trauma or mental illness in children. My homelife was unstable, wracked with alcoholism and anger, which, while not always directed at me, nevertheless seemed to me to be all my fault.  As an adopted child, I lived in fear of being sent back.  To what, I had no idea.  I had been adopted when I was old enough to speak, but too young to recollect.  As a girl, I would listen at the door of my room for hints that my parents were making arrangements for my removal.  These were my childish imaginings.  My parents never threatened or alluded to such a betrayal.  Nor did I ever voice the terrors that woke me at night for fear that discovery would force their hand,  so there was no way for them to assuage my paranoia and deep sadness. 

Thus it grew over the years, sullen and silently as a teenager, rebelliously as a 20-something.  I gathered to me relationships with people who confirmed my unworthiness.  I sought experiences that would help me to justify my existence.  The outward face of Sister Margaret, shy, church-going, innocent, belied the angry, desolate soul that cannibalized itself in quiet hours.  It would take decades to exorcise that demon and surrender the rage and hopelessness, to overcome the ineffable worthlessness of my being.  

Even now, as I edge toward my 60’s, that well of inadequacy can still start to form around me.  Depression for me is rarely connected to circumstances or a surfeit of any one emotion.  I’m not sad, or unhappy, or grieving. Far from there being overwhelmingly emotion, there is an utter absence of emotion. I’m hollow, numb, amorphous.  Shape without form, shade without colour.

It’s like walking around in a cylinder made of wavy glass blocks.  You know, the ones that populated 80’s kitchens, clear but warped, light comes in diffracted and indistinct.  You can see the people outside; their voices float down from the open roof – we wouldn’t want to be protected from the rain in our funk after all! – but they do not penetrate.  They do not sing to me.

It has been several years since I’ve fallen into the well.  I have from time to time caught sight of the walls forming in the periphery of my gaze.  At such times, there are warnings that allow me to make choices that kick down the upper bricks.  It’s rare for one to spring up fully-formed anymore, but it has recently and with staggering force. The worst part is that you realize you’re not nearly as evolved as you had thought you were.  How dangerous to let those thoughts take hold.  How much more dangerous to fail to examine them from a distance and thus fail to grow.  

I started writing this blog as a travel journal preparing for my spiritual awakening in Nepal.  I’ve meandered through the past year’s pandemic induced maze, touching on this or that, never quite finding a path once Nepal was postponed (2023 now.)  Maybe I’ll just write about climbing out of the well, the small, arduous steps that takes each and every day.  

Step One.  Here we are.  

The Day Tipper Gore Saved my Life

There was an afternoon maybe 6 months after the birth of my second child.  The baby was secured in a little bouncy seat, my 2 year old playing in the sun on the window sill of cinder blocks in the boys’ dorm room that doubled as our apartment.  I was wearing, honest to God, a shift.  Yes, really.  Those of you with Italian grandmas will know what that is.  The same shift I had been wearing for several days, I might add.  I was still carrying a few stone of baby weight and the after-effects of eclampsia.  My father was recovering from a colostomy reversal; my mother had just been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would in less than a year claim her life at 65.  My husband was working on campus, a short walk away and yet somehow never available.  I was fat, tired, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood, mourning the loss of my career – I had quit my doctoral program to focus on my family.  Nothing seemed within my control.  I sat on the couch in the shift, eating doughnuts and watching bad daytime TV.

Suddenly, there was Tipper Gore on the screen. The wife of the Vice President appeared before me, regaling the talk show host with details of her own battle with depression.  She mouthed all the usual platitudes:  you’re not alone, help is available, there’s no shame.   I stared at the screen, recalling being in the hospital after the birth of my first child, while a woman in the next room cried without ceasing.  She would stagger to the door and the desk nurse would pop up to usher her back to bed, smoothing her hair and saying “it’s ok – we’re getting you your happy pill.”  

I felt a stab of aversion that I was on the verge of needing The Happy Pill.  Wasn’t I stronger than that?  More self-aware?  I had been through rounds of therapy already.  I knew what my problems were.  Medication is for the weak.  

Nevertheless, I called the scrolling number below Tipper’s head for a 5 minute phone screen.  Nailed it.  I’ve always scored very well on tests.  The screener on the other end of the phone had the appointment booked before I could refuse. 

In the end, although I credit Ms. Gore, I think it was the shift what done it for me.  I mean, who wears one of those?  Whatever the impetus, that call set me on a path.  Not a straight path by any means, but the first healthy step on the journey to where I am now.  

Thanks Tipper.  

Every Day is like Wednesday

Since my last post, the world has closed in upon itself.  The bell tolls and we’ve all retired to our respective corners.   Fear more than disease seems to permeate the air.  People when they do dare to leave the house dress like asbestos workers, eyes darting to search out anyone breaching the perimeter.  In the stores, we pile frozen foods, toilet paper, cleaning supplies up in our carts; fights break out over bleach wipes.  

Fear is the death of compassion.  

So I’ve been home for a while now and fortunate in that I can work remotely in comfort without fear.  No one comes in; I have few needs that require my going out.  I’ve plenty of work too – most people don’t see insurance as an exciting field and they’re right – but at such times as these, being a health insurance and employee relations expert has made me highly sought after.  The lethargy that has hamstrung others, including many in my own organization hasn’t hit me.  I’ve not baked anything or started drinking at 3 or watched so much as one minute of Tiger King.  

Maybe if I had, I’d be better off at this moment. 

In general I like to think of myself as energetic and goal oriented.  Checklists are my jam; seeing the elimination of tasks, a completed report, a mowed lawn, a nicely-turned paragraph, brings me joy.  Here’s your chance, I thought.  All this self-improvement stuff, more time reading, praying, creating – by the time we go back to the office, I’m going to be my Best Self Ever.  And so I am, assuming my best self eats an entire coffee cake at a sitting, walk-runs a 3 mile jog, and cries in the shower (which are rather less frequent than they could be).  

Hubris as every high school English student knows is overweaning pride.  Thinking himself better than others, better than even the gods, Oedipus ignores the prophesies of wiser men and commits the very crimes he is warned against.  Pride is a very dangerous sin because it’s the only one that can catch you even when you’re trying to be good.  Start feeling a bit too virtuous about yourself and wham.  Pride.  

Here’s the conundrum.  You want to do the “right” thing.  Be a ‘good” person.  You should have goals; it’s how things get done.  It’s harder to find a path if you’re not thinking about a possible destination.  And accomplishments make us feel happy – we’re built for creativity and meaningful work.  With me, however, I occasionally find that I am building myself up on these things, buttressing my flagging ego by proving myself better than.  There’s not even a real object of that comparison. Just better than something else.  

Humility is hard.  It needs to operate from a secure space for it to be fruitful.  Because it is, humility is the ultimate fruit-bearing characteristic.  When you acknowledge that there’s more than you, something larger, something greater, that’s when the real achievements come to the fore.  Sometimes that means realizing you’re not always going to play at the top of your game or even at the upper half.  Sometimes that means being okay with not being okay, hackeyed though that phrase may be.  You have to pull in, increase the tension, like a bowstring as you pull back an arrow.  If you throw an arrow, it won’t getting too far.  But when you pull that string back and hold it ack steady, briefly,  look ahead and seek the target, your chances of coming at least within range of the goal are much improved.  

So… what?  Try not to compare so much.  Try not to think I have to be X or Y in order to be worthwhile.  Try simply to be the expression of God that I am, that each of us is.  Whatever that may be.   


Well, that was short-lived.

Back in February, I was researching 24 hour flights to Kathmandu, wearing a Darth Vader breathing mask, and reading up on cerebral edema.   Gathering my resources, checking out sales on supplies, shoring up my team to take over while I was off grid.  

Now it’s April, and while the Adventure to Annapurna is not officially off the 2020 table, I’m pretty sure that it will come to that.  Given the preparations necessary, I need to decide within the next few weeks.  But as with so many decisions that we think we’re making, I am becoming subtly aware that the choice has been made already.  

So instead of Nepal 2020, it will be Nepal 2021.   

That does however leave 2020 wide open for some new scheme to be born.  What?