Sunday, December 21, 2014

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love." ~ A realization

Mother Teresa originally spoke these words, and today I thought of them ... with a tweak.

I went to church this morning, and was washed with music. "O Holy Night" performed by our worship band -- singers, a cellist, a vibraphonist, and a guitarist. Gorgeous. I stuttered to sing through the tears that were arising after our pastor's sermon -- he spoke of the 'Holy Night,' in part, as the dark night of the soul ... as the longing we can feel, especially during the Christmas season, for presence, love, mercy.

After the service, my bestie asked me if I'd like to share lunch with her. I had to say no. Brain-injury wham-o. Sideswiped by all the stimulation; a nasty surprise. Dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, inability to participate in conversation and to think of responses when people spoke to me; stammering utterances and staggering balance ... and a need for sleep.

Mother Teresa's words struck me after I got home ... and could begin to discern what was happening in my brain. The last word of her quote -- love -- began to change to other words: Mindfulness. Awareness. Kindness. Mercy for our human condition. 

I've pretty much accepted that I can do only small things now. Sometimes I can do no things for a while. I need to sleep in quietude at these times; need to not read, write, be with other people, engage in any stimulating activity ... even when I want to. I need to say Yes only to rest.

I've calmed myself with the wordplay; reminded myself that in this moment, for this while, the saying is true that I can do no great things, only small things with great ... rest.

I can do no great things, only small things with great mercy for my present human condition. 

For right now. For the next while. Until the staggering nausea and dizziness pass; until I've laid down with my cats and allowed myself some rest.

For now.

This, I realize, is an act of great love.

I've done this one small thing ... and so to bed. With love.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Stay steps ... one step at a time.

"Step aside from it," I thought this morning. "Step aside, just a little. One step; just one step."

One step away from whatever ails and hounds you. One step towards LIFE. One step is a stay. One breath is a stay.

One step is a choice. So often, if we have been ill or injured for a long time, we feel stuck ... like an inverted November sky that refuses to move. But above that mass of grey is the sun; beyond the mass is clarity. Beneath the mass, inside your own body, is an open atmosphere: your breath. One breath is a step. One breath is a stay. One...breath. One...breath...and another. One breath at a time. Sometimes I lie down on my bed, laying one hand over my heart and another over my solar plexus. I breathe. Inbreath: "One..." Outbreath: "...breath." My body begins to warm, to pulse. Sometimes I do this to remind myself to stay; sometimes I do it because my body forgets to breathe. My autonomic nervous system has been kiboshed since I was born, and many of the most basic regulatory functions and systems are out of whack -- one being breathing. I have to remind myself to breathe several times a day. Breathe ... Stay ... Breathe ... Stay.

My dear physician, a few years ago, referred to the form my depression takes as "brainstem depression" (also known as anaclitic depression). It's been with me since infancy ... and I have to tend to the absolute basics: body temperature, breath, appetite, movement. "One step at a time" keeps me alive. "One stay at a time" reminds -- re-minds -- me to stay alive ... one step at a time away from shutdown, from paralysis, from the terrible force within my own brain that compels me to leave.

One step is a shift. One step is an act. One step is volition -- will -- moving you in another direction.

A single step. Sometimes a single step for me means that I wash one dish. It can mean that I run a hand along my cat's silken back, or smush my face into his belly, murmuring his name. It can mean grabbing one of my holy books and reading, for dear life, a poem whose beauty latches me to Life. Sometimes it means allowing myself to weep. It can be prayer -- simply a Help ... Are you there? Touch me; move me ... please. Give me a reason to stay. Often, the response from life is so simple: Eat. Nuzzle your cats. Give yourself music. Pick up the phone. Skype someone. Weep. Count your blessings, one at a time, slowly. Count them again. Know you are loved! Know it ... know it. You are still here because you have been loved. You are still here because you have loved. Tuck yourself into bed and turn on the warming blanket that your cousin gave you last Christmas. Grab a pillow; grab the teddy bear you've had forever whose nose and one eye have been repaired and replaced by someone who's loved you. Grab on. 

We are not asked to take big steps or small steps, but we are asked
to make every step a step of faith.
(The Bible, Romans 4:12)

One step ... one song. Here is one of my stay-songs:

One step ... one poem:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

Give Life your hand. 

Stay, dear heart. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

"Do you WANT to be depressed?" -- redux

Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue, recently headed a blog post with this question, "Do you WANT to be depressed?"

Do you, dear reader? Does anyone want to be injured or ill?

I wonder if major depression is the only condition that draws forth such an ignorant question. How often do we hear people ask others, "Do you want to have cancer? ... a broken leg? ... heart disease? ... ALS?' It seems to me that even people labelled with other conditions that we call "mental illness" aren't subject to that question ... "Do you want to have schizophrenia? Do you want to live in a state of panic? Do you want to have been traumatized?"

Of depression, if we were to play with "Do you want to be depressed?", we might also ask, "Do you want to be depleted of vitality? Do you want to live in a state of corrosive loneliness? Do you want to despise your existence? Do you want to stand far outside every circle of relation in the world?"

How would you answer these questions?

Only a person deep in the mire of major depression might answer "Yes" ... but this answer is not a natural one. We are beings, creatures, of relation. We are mammals; we are wired to bond.

To consider the question, and to answer "Yes" to it, is a symptom of depression in itself. A more apropos question, though, would be, "Do you want to be dead?"

The first article I ever read on depression -- the one that opened my eyes and began my journey to understand what I'd lived with since I was born -- was written by a psychologist named John Welwood. It was titled, "Depression as a Loss of Heart." I have no doubt that devastating heartbreak, however it comes, is one of the primary formative factors in major depression. There are as many forms of depression as there are people who suffer it. Many, many other formative factors are at play, but there is something common at the core of this condition that the World Health Organization has ranked the #2 cause of disease-related disability worldwide -- superceded only by (hmm...) heart disease.

I wonder if a primary something is heartbreak -- a devastation of bonded, loving, reciprocal relation. Think of the injuries done by humans to other humans in the infinite number of ways that we can harm one another -- from child abuse to torture and war; from bullying in the playground to callous firings at the workplace and "entertainment" that features murder, rape, and other forms of intentional harm. Think of trauma. Think of the deaths of those we love, of all the ways we leave and are left by others, and how the losses pile up over the years. Whether we know it or not, no matter how hardened to it all we might think we are, our hearts are still battered by each blow ... and our brains, master regulators that they are, resound with the damage done, wiring the rest of our bodies to mutate into klaxons of alarm and fear. We cut ourselves off and away from relation with other people; we retract like crabs; we burrow into isolation. We fend off what we most need: engagement and relation with other human beings. We all have a limit of how much loss, how much existential injury, we can endure.

In major depression, a singular element is added to heartbreak, loss, and the damage done to our brain's capacity for energy regulation: self-despising. We turn against our own goodness, our own being. Here is another core something that seems to be unique to major depression.

Therese Borchard tells a story of how she hid the effects of a burst appendix until she needed to be rushed to a hospital. I did the same, at age ten, with an infected laceration on the top of my right foot. I'd cut it on a jagged, rusting spear of metal that was jutting off the edge of my brother's pedal car. A huge triangle of flesh hung from my foot; the injury bled like a bastard and I snuck up to my bathroom, into the bath, and then I doused the wound with rubbing alcohol and layered it with Band-Aids. I got through the next day ... but the day after that, I was sent home from school on crutches because I couldn't walk. My foot had swollen beyond the bounds of my shoe ... and shot agonizing pain up my leg. Many years later -- I was in my mid-20s -- my mother told me that my blood had been poisoned ... and that if another day had gone by, my leg would have had to be amputated below the knee.

Somehow I believed that I was bad for having been injured; that I needed to hide the injury; that I deserved no help for being so stupid to cut my foot. I was terrified of being punished for having been hurt.

I was already living in a state of major depression. I was a child who, at the age of five, sat at the kitchen table with a bowl of food in front of me (having been told that I had to clean my plate before I could go), thinking this thought over ... and over again: "I want to die."

My soul was injured ... and bleeding. I was already gravely wounded.

Dr. Richard Mollica, in his book Healing Invisible Wounds, calls trauma "the existential injury." The word "trauma" derives from the Greek for "wound" ... so a trauma could be anything from a cut foot to a direct threat on one's life -- thus "the existential injury." It could be said that major depression is an existential illness -- and a life threat -- a trauma? -- in itself. One of the mysteries we grapple with in relation to major depression is how we can threaten our own life, our own existence. We can believe that we want to die, that we are being compelled to die.

But Life does not want to die. The force that fuels and sustains us does not want to die. Andrew Solomon, one of our world's leading experiential and scholarly authorities on depression, has said that "depression is the flaw in love" ... and perhaps depression is also a flaw in our relation with our own life force. Somehow, we believe that we should be dead ...

The flaw in love. Major depression cleaves such a flaw in our capacity to love, to bond, to be in relation, that we not only believe we are cut off from our natural inclination to bond with others, but we also cut ourselves away. Somehow, this double-edged severing of relatedness is one of the central symptoms of depression ... and could depression be a symptom of our species' penchant to do battle, make war, sever our bonds with other people, other beings, and with Life itself? To varying degrees, we all do battle. We argue and fight with our families, friends, colleagues ... and with others whom we call strangers ... others we deem to be a threat. We scrabble to acquire, succeed, gain status; we compete and contest; we engage in countless forms of lording-it-over to arrive at the top of a heap; bloodshed and soul-shred be damned.

Most of all, we tend to hack away at our own souls. Therese writes of what she calls "death thoughts" ... She eats a handful of potato chips, and on rushes the vile voice that taunts her. We all have our death-thought triggers ... and it often happens that for those of us with major depression or in the aftermath of existential trauma, we are triggered by merely being. 

Merely being is my primary trigger. There was a predatory person in my early life who had constant access to me, who told me I was filth, that I was bad to the bone, rotten to the core. By the time I was five and was sitting over that bowl of food, unable to eat, I believed these curses. I was infested, infected, in-formed with death thoughts, with a suicidal imperative. The natural self-centeredness of a five-year-old child guarantees that whatever she's told about her being, she'll believe to be true. If I believed that I was filth, that I was rotten to the core ... what else could I think except that I wanted to die, that I should be dead?

The flaw in love. I once had a husband who was the great love of my life ... and he told me again and again that I was his ... until an unrelenting bout of depression -- brought on by over two years of existential trauma and cemented into place by my history -- ruined my ability to be in relation. I was broken of my ability to bond; I could not reach out to my husband, nor to anyone else ... and I could not, for a long time, be reached. For as long as he could, my beloved remained by my side, tending to all aspects of both of our lives. He was so generous of heart ... until he couldn't be any more. He was tormented by the break in my ability, my capacity, to bond; he'd lost his primary relation. He did what any person would do who is shorn of relation and desperate for it -- he sought elsewhere. He left me. He had to save his own life.

The flaw in love. The flaw in me. Talk about death thoughts.

In the years since my husband left, I gradually came to understand that I left the marriage first. I did not choose to leave; trauma and depression took me. Several years later I was able to forgive  the man who had been my mate ... and I still struggle to forgive myself. Still. I have to forgive myself for merely being, every day. I have to forgive myself, daily, for the flaw, the injury, in my capacity to love. Paradoxically, nothing matters more to me than love, and if my character has a primary virtue that I do my best to act on, it's mercy.

It's been said that depression is selfish. It sure as hell is ... and I believe that this is one of the foundations of our stigma against it. How many of us are told to join this or that, to slap a smile on our face, pull up our socks and just get on with it, pick up the phone and call someone, anyone, to essentially pretend that we are happy, happy, happy? To stop being such a downer, such a drag?

I often wonder if major depression is a symptom of something else. The essence of this condition is still largely a mystery; through history, we've attributed its presence to everything from neurochemical mayhem to inflammation to gluten intolerance to laziness to a lack of faith to a weakness of will. God knows. (Just found: an excellent article in the latest Psychotherapy Networker that questions our general assumption that depression is "largely a problem of the individual." Thank you, Jonathan Rottenberg!)

I do know that depression is, in part, mourning writ huge; that it can wreck our inborn, biologic mechanisms of affinity; that it does its damndest to destroy all our relations. We are wired to cling to our mothers, fathers, and other sustainers from the moment we're born ... and we yearn and pine and reach for love our whole lives long. We live in an overriding culture that teaches us not how to love, but how to compete and fight and do more harm than good. And in major depression, the fatal flaw is that we turn against our own goodness, our own beings, our own natural urge to be in relation.

The flaw in love ... The flow in love. How to we mend this flaw, this injury, and restore our natural capacity, this supreme inborn gift?

For we need love -- both to give and receive it -- like we need air, water, food, warmth, shelter. Love keeps us alive and thriving.

I know that one of the essential medicines in my restoration is love. I would be long dead were it not for the love of people who have sustained the soul in me, who have reminded me of my goodness, who have held and tended me through my life. I know that I'm alive because all along, there has been at least one person who has loved me without fail, and whom I have loved without fail (except during that harrowing time a few years ago when the effects of trauma and depression nailed me to my bed and to the terrible interiority of existential despair and illness).

We reach out. We reach in. Like breath ... in, out, in, out ... and we allow ourselves to be reached. To reach beyond ourselves, into ourselves, and to be reached ... this is essential medicine. It is what we live for, no matter what else we tell ourselves. We're born to blend with those we share love with. I have a saying on my bedroom wall, directly across from my bed, which is the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see before I go to sleep at night:

And God said,
love your enemy
so I obeyed Him
and loved myself.
~ Kahlil Gibran

Do we want to be depressed, to live in a state of existential despair and shearing loneliness? My answer is a resounding NO. We may believe at times, as Therese writes, that it's easier to be ill, to contract, to disappear, to hide in the mire of long illness, to give up. Depression and the aftermath of trauma can exhaust our vitality to a point where we feel "that far" from dead -- and it takes a certain amount of base vitality to engage. Sometimes we just don't have it ... the well is dry.

Or is it? Again, I say NO. We're still alive; there's still a drop of fuel in the tank. If we're alive, we're still vital ... even if we can't feel the vitality. It is there. This, we must believe. I apply this belief in the face of all despair; I practice it like a discipline. I am alive, therefore I can love. 

You are alive ... therefore you can love. One drop at a time. Believe it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Writing to stay alive

"I love my life. I regret my life. The lines eventually blur." ~ Patrick Stewart, in the film Match.

"I never want to get out of bed again." ~ Me, this morning.

Some thoughts are alarms, and that first thought catapulted me to vertical today. Three days ago, my waking thought was, "Best to die in my bed while I still have a bed."

Thoughts like these are what writer Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue, calls "death thoughts." Somehow, in major depression, our thoughts compel us to die.

I am considering thoughts, now, as symptoms. Symptoms of something gone desperately awry in the human brain. Thoughts as end results, sometimes as emergencies. Death thoughts are not natural. Every organism is driven to live, to exist. Depression drives us to die. We humans are animals who think, and it may be that this unique capacity -- to think as we do -- is what triggers the despair that compels us to believe we must die.

Other animals, I am sure, despair as well ... Think of a fox with its leg snapped in the jaws of a hunting trap. Think of Harry Harlow's infant rhesus monkeys who were forced to be alone in metal cages with only metal "mothers" to cling to.

Humans are the animals who can articulate despair.

After I threw off the blankets this morning and jumped to my feet -- I did jump in reaction to that first thought -- I began to wonder. I know that curiosity is a saving grace; it leads us to questions, to the larger world beyond our own thoughts, to engagement. I knew I could stay alive by wondering. I also knew that I had to feed my cats. I've vowed to them that I will stay alive. They are the ones I live with, the ones who depend on me for their own survival. They need me to stay.

Today is International Suicide Survivors Day -- we honour the memory of people who have lost their lives to despair. Perhaps we could also call today "Stay Day." For those of us who grapple with the despair that wants to take us ... Perhaps "Stay" could be our prayer, our chant, our mantra, our call to Life.

Speaking of Life ... I noticed, as I threw myself out of bed, an underlying rage to be. This imperative we share with every other creature on Earth. A rage that arises from the force that fires and fuels us. A rage not of anger, but of ... love. Cherishment.

Cherishment ... makes me think of mother-love. Perhaps we need a new mother tongue, a new language, one resurrected from the old. A new mother tongue to lap us (as a beloved dog or cat will lap our face) out of despair. A language of love, of bonding, of beloved relation. Andrew Solomon has said that "Depression is the flaw in love ... a disease of loneliness." I think of it also as a grave injury to our capacity to love, to our capacity to be in relation, to reach out, to attach. Our culture's treatment of major depression errs on the side of cognition -- on how we think. While our habitual thoughts express as a sure "barometric reading" of our emotional state, they are only outward evidence of how the deeper structures and strata of our brain are functioning. As Thomas Lewis and his coauthors write in the magnificent A General Theory of Love, "... the neural systems responsible for emotion and intellect are separate, creating the chasm between them in human minds and lives." Neuroscience has begun to map the mysteries of brain function and opened new avenues for understanding and healing brain disease and injury in exciting ways ... but often at the expense of our existence as a whole. In a sense, the mind is what the brain does ... and we need to consider and treat the whole person, not just the neurochemicals.

It may be that we need a more "mothering" approach in how we treat depression and other conditions that shatter our ability to bond -- PTSD being one. Somatic approaches to psychotherapy, like Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing, employ strategies that first address a person's need for relative safety and a sense of presence in the world. In short: a return of embodiment ... and of feeling, of the sense of being alive.

Deeper than all thought runs the current of feeling ... the fuel that drives us to bond and to love. Feeling is what drove me up from and out of my bed this morning ... Feeling is what drives me to write, to communicate, to blend my voice with others.

Feeling extends our desire -- our intrinsic need -- to reach out to others and to receive them; feeling is what saves us. Feeling drove two of my cherished friends to reach out to me today after I reached out to them; they arrived at my home with the fixings for a big pot of chicken-veggie soup. Feeling drove me to ask one of those friends if I could lie on my couch with my head in her lap; feeling brought her hand to my head, which she stroked again and again. Feeling impelled me to sob with the relief of being touched, cradled, tended to. Feeling activated my appetite, and allowed me to eat ... and allows me to write with nascent courage, to extend my own experience to yours, dear reader.

How will you mother yourself today? How will you stay?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Out, out, out of the closet...with thanks

Every once in a while, brain farts -- those embarrassing gaps in memory that open up and stay open -- conjure up happy surprises! Such was the case this morning when I clicked on an article about depression that was posted in an online forum I participate in. Authored by Margarita Tartakovaky, who writes for PsychCentral, "What I Wish You Understood About My Depression" is helping to take our cultural dialogue about this condition to a much deeper level, to a place where we are finally beginning to understand that the world's #2 cause (after heart disease) of disease-related disability is worthy of respect and urgent attention.

Sweet relief! Over the many years that I've lived with major depression, I've heard everything from "Depression is a neurological disease" (I agree) to "Join a glee club!"  to "You're just lazy and irresponsible!" from people I've dared to speak with about it.  Our collective judgments are beginning to evolve into curiosity, a hunger for facts and experiential expertise, and compassion. We've been jolted into wiser enquiry through the shock of Robin Williams' death by suicide -- How could one of the funniest, richest, most humane and generous people in the world have taken his own life? The articles I'm linking to give us some clues. I feel honoured to have my thoughts included amongst those of leading-edge writers, professors, and clinicians ... and will continue to raise the bar of my own thinking to match their excellence and understanding.

One of my dearest friends recently told me, "In your vulnerability is your mission." I've taken her words to heart, to the keyboard, and now out to the larger world. Every voice, every story shared, is a glimmer of light and truth ... Someone will be reached; an eye will open; a mind will latch to a voice that understands ... and lives will be saved and salved.

If you're reading this, no matter what you're going through -- depression or otherwise -- You are not alone. Somewhere in the world, amongst the 6+ billion souls we share this planet with, other voices resonate with yours. If there's a treasure to be found in life, it's the nodding of one soul toward another: a Yes that will enfold you and your experience into its understanding, that will lead you to arms willing to link with yours, to walk beside you as you open yourself to learning, speaking, writing, sharing ...

I've dared myself to share ... and my voice is joining others. My eyes are blinking open into a vast light and into gazes of empathy. Yours can, too. Speak out, dear reader. Find one person you can trust with your story ... and begin there. Someone will hear you ... I promise.

Margarita Tartakovsky and Therese Borchard, author of Beyond Blue and The Pocket Therapist,  heard me ... and they've graciously invited me to contribute my thoughts to some of their published work. Here are the other three articles that include my words:

"8 Lessons People with Depression Learned from Their Illness", by Therese Borchard

"How to Support & Help Someone with Depression" , by Margarita Tartakovsky, and

"Personal Experiences of Depression", by Margarita Tartakovsky.

As I type, my eyes are drawn to the sky outside my window. Two flocks of Canada geese soar through the huge beyond ... and I'm reminded of how they support each other in their "V" formations, riding a collective slipstream, leading and following as energy and vitality allow. Leaders lead until they need to draw back and borrow fuel from their fellows; followers, having rested a little in flight, surge to the fore, guiding the flock until the next rotation of full strength is ready to aim for home.

That's how it's done ... and we're doing it. To every dear soul who has been helping me back into the slipstream of viability and resurging vitality after so many fallow years ... I bow to you with tears of gratitude slipping down my cheeks, onto the page, and into new form as proof of what's possible.

Come out, come out, whoever you are. Blend your stories with ours. You are surrounded by kindred souls!

Photo: Jeanette Allen, via

Monday, November 17, 2014

Musings on mercy

Art: Lisa Ballard, "Mercy and Me"

I keep arriving here: at the warm, open palm of mercy. A wise man once gave me a directive that I've not heard before or since ... one that got under my skin and into the center of my brain: "To thine own self be merciful."

What a potent hit to the head of the existential nail! Is anything we can do more imperative? If we can't live in our own skin in a state of truce (at the very least), how can we live with one another?

No wonder mercy can be such a visceral challenge. As a principle, mercy is often overlaid with religious overtones -- seen as a saintly state that few of us can attain for more than an instant at a time, if at all. But an instant is enough ... and it flares like a sun, warming us to and from our core. We are saints in that instant, in that choice. We are grains of pure goodness when we reach out or in with unabashed kindness.

Is our capacity for mercy intrinsic to our makeup? Are we wired to salve, rather than to savage ourselves and other beings? (Are we wired to do both? We can fire up into fight or flight in an instant ... and then there is a state called flow ... We do flow when we reach out in gentleness ... )

Mercy makes me sweat. To thine own self be merciful ... I dare you. I hear this invitation, this challenge to look long and deep into every being I encounter -- and into a mirror ... Mercy calls us to look beneath apparent appearances, into the depth of a life ...

Sometimes I think that mercy is the opposite of madness. Mercy is lucid ... like the noon sun without the burn. Sees all; denies nothing. Sees into, within, and through. Eyes the soul, and the pupils soften and expand. Bestows warmth; suffuses with light.

I wonder about mercy in relation wtih kindness, compassion, altruism ... and I hone in on what makes mercy mercy.

It's the quietude ... that warm, open palm. Whenever I imagine and recall my own experiences of mercy, I know touch. Skin meeting skin with loving intent ... and we soften. The entire body sighs ... We are safe; we surrender.

A warm, open palm ... a belly, a cheek, a shoulder ... a hug, a spoon, a palm spooning a face ... a nuzzle, a snuffle; breath warming the skin. A laying on, a gentling ... and rest.

Mercy reaches and receives the core ... and warms us there.

Mercy says, Been there, done that, lived it -- without cynicism. And then, with tendresse, I dare you to be kind ... to yourself. Like this. 

Art: Lisa Ballard, "Whisperer"
Thank you, Lisa, for the beauty you create ... 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Stay, dear heart.

Two days ago, I posted a sudden thought to an online forum that I participate in: "Today, I realize, is what I'm calling a 'stay day.' I just invented this term while cooking some broccoli and garlic. Made myself arise from the 'despair chair' (where I can get, and remain, stuck and sinking...). Looked at my two beloved cats and thought, 'Stay alive for them.' Then more stays arrived: 'Stay nourished ... Stay hydrated ... Stay on your feet ... Stay in the kitchen and cook ... Stay in touch with someone -- anyone ... Stay in tune with your music (James Taylor, Cat Stevens, etc.) ...' So. Today's a 'stay day.' One breath at a time."

Stay here ... stay now. It's a mantra that I recite when desperation urges escape. Stay here ... stay now. Stay. 

Stays are fasteners; stays bind something with something else. 

There are stays ... and there are mainstays. They're the stays that challenge us to remain in the world no matter how urgently we feel driven to leave it. I suspect that our mainstays revolve around our relations; mine certainly do. My mainstays are my cats, my cherished friends and family, the memory of my honoured ancestors and mentors ... and the young ones in my life who light up and run to me whenever we meet. I don't have children of my own, but these little ones may as well be -- It takes a village, after all, and how does my choice to stay influence their souls? How might my presence help them to stay in the world? We are irrevokably bound by every bond we create with other beings ... and eventually death will arrive in one form or another ... but our choice to remain alive helps to ensure that someone else will also choose to stay. Our love is a tangible force; our choice to be is a source of sustenance to someone -- we don't always know whom, but the force of our choice is a link in a chain, a hand reaching out, a voice urging presence, a pull toward the heart. 

There was a huge response to the "stay" post. Amazing how something so simple can galvanize other people to stay, too ... Major depression, for some reason, lures us to leave the world ... I wonder if it's the fundamental exhaustion and loss of vitality of this illness that is so deadly to our remaining present. There's a mystery at the core of major depression that began to reveal itself to me when I was sixteen and found an article written by psychologist John Welwood, called "Depression as a Loss of Heart." I'd not, up to that moment, related my own experience to depression; I just thought I was another lazy, useless teenager who was constantly being berated for being ... lazy, useless, and irresponsible; sleeping in too much and sleeping into the afternoon, sluffing through the days like so many teens do (Now we understand more about how much havoc the hormonal changes of adolescence cause to the entire person -- including that persistent need for sleep, sleep, and more sleep...).

Now I understand the persistent loss of vitality as a chief marker of major depression. Andrew Solomon, who wrote The Noonday Demon, has said that "the opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality." YES! -- everything in me cried when I heard him speak those words. He nailed the core symptom of depression! Here's a link to his TED Talk, "Depression: The Secret We Share": 

Now, two days later, one of my forum-friends told me that the members of a support group for bereaved parents have adopted the stay-practice! How beautiful that one little idea, popping up from my own choice to stay for my cats, has been taken up by others. There's another stay for me ... and now, for so many more! Depression, as Andrew Solomon says, is a secret that we share ... and stays are a sacred practice that we can share too. I imagine hands reaching out and grasping one another ... taking hold ... fingers interlacing ... warmth seeping from palm to palm ... the musculature of bondedness squeezing an invitation from pulse to pulse ... 

The stays that my online friends shared range the gamut of goodness and relation. Here are some of them (and a few more of my own) ... 

Housecleaning (!)
One's children and grandchildren
Husbands, wives, beloveds
Colour and art
Creative acts like knitting and sewing
Beloved animals
Kayaking and canoeing
Being needed
Laughter, humour, jokes
Playing a musical instrument
Cookies (!)
Best friends
The scents of love
Skills and gifts shared in the world
Helping others
Honouring those whose pain left them so bereft that they couldn't stay
Literature and poetry
The knowledge of death -- being alive is so precious

Reader ... what are your stays?

Stay, dear heart. Fasten to love. Hold on. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Softened Fawn (for a friend in depression)

My last post was a poem, Fawn in the Grass, which offered a question as its coda:

What will we do,
oh my hands,
with this dear
in the grass?

No sooner had I posted the piece when I found this photo:

"What will we do, oh my hands...?"

We will soften. Soften our hands, our thoughts, our hearts. We will soften ourselves into sanctuary by offering one another -- and ourselves! -- what this young woman offers the fawn: essential safety, sustenance, and mercy. Look at the fawn's throat ... It's melted into the woman's shoulder. The little creature is at ease, at rest. Eyes, ears are softly alert ... fearless.

Dear friend, you told me recently that you fear the maw of depression may be claiming you. We share this wound in common; we understand one another. I am holding you in constant presence and prayer like this woman holds the fawn. I want to tell you that Spring will return, and so will you. Your soul seems to be slipping, as on black ice, into despairing Winter, and the surprise of this has knocked you askew. I'm reaching for you, right now, and I'll keep reaching. In my mind, I'm holding you, dear fawn. 

There was a time when you and prayed together, holding hands. I felt mired in despair and loneliness; you prayed for "peace in every pore." I'm praying for you to be streamed through with peace ... flooded with Light. With Love.

If I've learned anything about what can sustain us through depression, it's that we must hold fast to what we know sustains us ... and know that we are being held by the Spirit of Sustenance Itself.  The very Force of life is holding us, breathing us, softening us. 

Can you hold yourself ... hold your own hand? Can you lay a hand over your heart and remember that what you long for is what you have already known? Can you remember that Love is sustaining you right now, even if your heart feels like a black hole? You are being held: you have reminded me of this truth again and again ... and I am returning this gift to you.

You are being held ... However you know Love, It's holding you.  

(Photo credit: unknown) 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Fawn in the Grass

I have been, all my life,
so afraid.
Afraid to go out,
to go in,
to stay in,
to be gone into.
Frightened of people,
of eyes, of a gaze.
Of a mouth
open toward me,
of teeth, of jaws,
of a word.
The word is 
Fear. I have lain here,
livid with fear.
Feral, mammalian fear:
the deer. 
The dear
infant fawn
curled in the grass,
mother gone.
The dear little one
who waits
to be preyed upon
or prayed over.
What will we do,
oh my hands,
with this dear
in the grass?

(Photo: artist unknown.)

The Ten Thousand Things

Oh, Lord, we tire
of chronicity,
the same old,
same old, our ten
thousand terrors. 
But ten thousand
await us in the shadows
of fear, which are
light in disguise,
awaiting our hands
to wring
inevitable love
from the stones
we have piled
around our ten thousand
failures to love.
We learn again
the chronicity
of compassion,
the shock of our will
to care again,
to soften our hands
away from the stones, 
to reach for the faces
begging for light,
the first
being our own,
for a dusting
of mercy, for the alms
of tendresse
to spill 
from the boundless
bowls of our hearts.

(Art: "Metta" -- artist unknown)