Drugs

 

Image by David Coursin

Image by David Coursin

I take drugs. The fact that I have an anxiety disorder that is greatly helped by the right doses of medication is a cause for celebration for me, not shame.  Celebration that there are drugs that help, not that I have an anxiety disorder.  That’s been a hard thing to live with, going back to when I was a very young child.

The first episode of intense anxiety that I remember happened when I was five and a kindergarten classmate died of a heart condition.  His obvious frailty and my robust health meant nothing to my five year old brain that was busy imagining all the ways I might die, especially while I was asleep, making sleep terrifying rather than a refuge.  In third grade a class mate died of leukemia.  In high school a student in the next town died of spinal meningitis.  Life was dangerous — it ended in death.

But I didn’t need a death close by to feed by anxiety. I made up many of my fears by myself.  When I was a pre-teen it was brain tumor that was going to kill me.  One day an aunt asked me why I was always feeling my scalp and I told her I was checking to see if the lumps on my head were getting any bigger because I was afraid they were tumors.  She laughed, kindly, and told me I wouldn’t be able to feel tumors from the outside and I just had a lumpy head.  For some reason, that didn’t translate into a fear that tumors I couldn’t feel were growing in my brain, probably because that particular bout of anxiety was waning.

My acute phases of anxiety weren’t constant and usually lasted several months and then got better.  When I went through a particularly bad bout at 30, I thought back to other bad patches and realized the anxiety had peaked in six to seven year cycles since that first episode at five.  It was also when I was 30 that a doctor finally named for me what was going on and suggested medication.  I tried medication eagerly and have never regretted it.

I know there is still stigma about taking medication for mental health problems and I’m a bit of a zealot about trying to convince people to get over it.  In my professional life I watched many colleagues suffer through depressions and anxiety issues, refusing to try medication because they thought they should be able to take care of their moods and distress themselves.  Yes, I would tell them, you can take care of it, by seeing if you might be helped by medication.

It’s not always easy to find the right medication, and you have to find the right medical practitioner to work with you until you find the one or the combinations that work for you.  I feel lucky that my route to effective medication has been fairly straightforward.  I used to only need the medications periodically, when a flare up of anxiety would manifest.  But since Eric’s death I’ve only been off my anti-depressant for less than a year and needed to get back on it, and I’ve never even tried to stop taking my anti-anxiety medication.  I live with such a weight of knowledge of the pain in the world, I need the floor that the medications provide.  It gives me something to rest that weight on.

When Eric died, I admit (which is clear from reading The Truth About Death) that I turned at times to pretty hearty self-medication on top of prescribed ones.  And thus the third of the four truth-telling poems — death, drugs, sex, money.   I talk.

Drugs

I wake up drunk, I wake up hung over
on klonopin, I go for a run and hear
and then see a cardinal at the top of a spruce,
down by the lake still frozen but softening.
By now you were walking more than running
and I walked with you. I explode
inside my own brain, I want other brains
to explode, fragments hit me, I cherish
the bits, the glint of metallic memory,
the shine of light off your glasses.

Posted in Grief, Life Changes, Poetry | 2 Comments

Birth and Death

It’s been over a week since I posted “Sex,” a poem from The Truth About Death which was one of the four that addressed “the more universal, the more silence.”  I said I’d post the other three by the end of the week, but instead I was awakened early Thursday morning by a call from Adrienne, letting me know her labor had started.

At 9:30 that night, Ava was born, a pink package of baby life finally slipping free of the birth canal (lots of heroic pushing on Adrienne’s part) and seeming to fly up to Adrienne’s chest. I know it was the midwife who caught Ava and guided her up to Adrienne, but from my vantage, looking over Adrienne’s shoulder as I helped her hold up her head and shoulders to curl around her womb and push, it looked like a magic dance, a bright red face then chest then wormy body suddenly in the world and then snuggled against Adrienne as the cord pulsed between them.

So what does a birth and a new baby mean in the context of a poem about death, a poem written when I was entirely absorbed in the exit from life rather than the entrance?  It means it takes me over a week to write a new post, because my days have been full with being an extra set of hands for Adrienne and Matt and Emilio — shopping, cooking, cleaning up, washing and folding laundry, holding Ava, walking and rocking Ava, driving Adrienne and Ava to appointments, sleeping with Ava sleeping on my chest.  Right now she’s cuddled up against me in a fabric sling, squeaking and squealing, those tiny baby noises that come back in a flood of memory once I hear them again.  Her breath is so quick and shallow it feels like there’s a bird at my breast.

But it’s a person.  A birth.  So far from what was happening in my life when I wrote the poem “Death.”

Death

You took the crash course, and me along with you
because where else would I be except beside
you? Now I study death with the deliberate
focus you loved. People are afraid of me,
especially couples. I smoke on the porch
in your jacket, making the brown moleskin smell,
watching planes cross the dark sky as they fly
in and out of the airport to the south. I think
about quitting. What do we each know now
that the other doesn’t? And our children,
think of all they know that we didn’t.

Posted in Family, Grief, Life Changes, Moving On, Poetry | 3 Comments

Sex

IMG_3192

No, this isn’t a post about sex, or not exactly.  “Sex” is the title of a poem in The Truth About Death, which I thought about today because I walked out to the rock featured in the poem, the rock where I’ve built cairns since Eric died, and it was another icy day, like the day almost eight years ago when I first wrote it.

There’s a poem called “Talk” in the book with the lines:
The more universal, the more silence –
death, drugs, sex, money.  I talk.

So there is a poem for each of those topics — Death, Drugs, Sex, Money. I don’t know that anyone has ever noticed that, but it was very intentional on my part. Truth telling was my mission in writing the book and if a topic was difficult for people to talk about, I wanted to open a door to the possibility of talk that could lead to truth.

The truth about today is that the poem came to mind not because of sex, or how Eric’s absence continues to inhabit the world, especially on a day when the fog coming across the pastures like an enormous animal grazing on sleet is so thick it makes the nightlight in the hallway outside my study flicker on and off, as if it can’t decide whether it’s night time after all, but because of the ice lace on everything as I walked to the rock. Every twig, bud, bush, branch, berry, weed stalk and blade of glass sticking through the crusty snow like the white whiskers on an old man.

So, the poem. Probably the other three by the end of the week.

Sex

I walk to the rock we used in the years the house
had packs of children coming and going
in unpredictable waves and the two mile walk
across the open meadows of the ridge
and into the woods along an old road overhung
by hemlocks, rising into oaks and maples,
was just far enough, to the rock with a ledge
just the right height, a condom and tissue
in your back pocket. Today I start a second cairn,
an ice storm makes lace of the blueberry stems.

Posted in Grief, Poetry, Seasons | 3 Comments

Practice

Screenshot 2014-11-20 08.57.11

I’ve recently been corresponding via email with a friend who is fairly new to personal writing.  He’s sent me a couple drafts of a memoir essay he’s working on, asking for feedback and general thoughts about what is and isn’t working in the piece.  Reading his essay and framing my thoughts has been helpful to my own writing because it’s another way of looking at a collection of words and thinking about what arrangement would best work to pull in a reader and create associations that will resonate.  It’s doing what I’ve told him is the most important thing he can do to improve his writing.  Keep writing and read, read, read.  In other words, practice.

When we think about a musician getting better as an artist, we expect that he or she would practice, whether it’s hours spent at the piano or the guitar or the flute.  We wouldn’t expect a painter to be a good painter the first time oil met canvas.  The same with a dancer or singer of photographer.  But I think writing is often seem more as a talent — you’re either good or you’re not.  That may be true to some extent, but even if you’re naturally good, you’re not going to get better without practice.

Perhaps it’s that writing practice is often all the drafts of a story or novel or poem that no one but the writer ever sees.  Will the 36,347 words I’ve logged so far in this year’s NaNoWriMo amount to anything, or the more than 72,000 total words of the novel so far? Does the instant publication gratification of writing a blog post deem the words written any more worthy than words that fill my journals no one will ever read?  What about the boxes of old poems and stories and manuscripts stored in the barn, or the full file drawer in my study.

In a way, none of that matters.  It’s all practice.  Besides NaNoWriMo, I’m also doing The Grind this month, a practice-based endeavor that the writer Ross White organizes.  Ross sorts Grinders in to groups by genre (poetry or prose, new or revised, or manic mix, which is the group I keep choosing and I don’t want to think too deeply about what that says about me) 10 or 12 per group, then sends everyone each other’s email and you’re responsible to send a new piece of writing every day to each other via email.  You don’t comment on each other’s work or even acknowledge it.  This isn’t about feedback or workshopping, it’s about being accountable to other people, strangers in fact, to practice each day by writing.

Pairing NaNoWriMo and The Grind has worked out well, because I’m working on the novel almost every day.  On days when I don’t get to the novel, I write a poem to send my sister and fellow grinders, or send the revision of a poem I’ve just edited, or a fragment of essay, anything that makes me practice my writing.  I’m getting a lot of practice this month, and I have faith that it’s all going to make me a better writer if nothing else.

Writing this blog has been good practice, practice about practice.  How meta.

Posted in Writing | Leave a comment

Zero Week

photo (1)

Greeting David at mile 8, 4th Ave. in Brooklyn.

As those of you on Facebook know, I successfully finished the NYC Marathon last Sunday. It was a long journey from my no-running months last winter, due to a sore knee, through physical therapy, 18 weeks of training and then the long trip on Sunday morning, starting with a 5:55 am train into Manhattan, a subway ride to the South Ferry station, and a ferry trip across the Hudson River with the many runners from other states and countries snapping shots of the Manhattan skyline as it receded behind us and the Statue of Liberty as we slapped through the wind-whipped water to Staten Island.

There I got in a long line of people slowly making their way to a long line of buses, waiting to take runners to the start village.  Once there I wandered through the tented areas offering coffee and Gatorade, Power Bars and bagels, waiting until the last minute before getting in my starting corral to shed the extra layers I’d worn to say warm in the early morning chill, made much chillier by a hard, cold wind.

At 10:55 the gun for Wave 4 boomed and the last group of starters shuffled in a mass towards the starting line.  By the time I stepped over the line the mass of runners had thinned out enough that I could actually start running across the Verrazano Bridge.  In spite of the pre-race instructions to leave extra warming clothes in the start village to be donated to charity (or have them transported to the finish line, an option no one seemed to be using) and not to drop them on the bridge, I was dodging sweaters and sweatshirts, hats and gloves, coats and scarves for the first several miles of the course.  In fact, there never stopped being discarded clothing for the entire race.  Why would someone drop gloves 24 miles into a marathon and not just carry them the last 2 miles?

After the fierce wind on the Verrazano Bridge, the sun came out and the buildings of New York did a good job of blocking the wind for much of the course.  I churned along, listening to podcasts and then switched to a running playlist Adrienne had made, and which I added to, at mile 13, in order to pump  myself up for the second half of the race.  The music helped a lot as I finished the long run through Brooklyn, a corner of Queens, and powered up the incline of the Queensboro bridge, then let myself cruise down to the turn up First Avenue in Manhattan.

First Avenue was the highlight for me.  As I started to head north, I looked up at the sea of runners before me, stretching for miles, and the crowds of people along the sides, cheering and shouting and holding signs.  Through the music I could hear “Way to go, Grace,” “Go Grace,” “You can do it, Grace.”  It was definitely a good move to write my name on duct tape across the front of my shirt so I could get personal encouragement.

Knowing I’d see David at miles 8, 16 and 24 helped too.  “Just another mile and David will be on the sidelines,” I would tell myself, and when I turned south on Fifth Avenue at 138th street I started counting the streets in my head, “Just 46 more streets until I see David at 92nd, just 20 more streets, just 5 . . .  .” and there he was, smiling and cheering and holding out a PowerBar in case I needed more to eat (which I didn’t).

As I neared the finish line in Central Park I realized I was really going to make it.  I’d thought all along I was going to be able to finish this marathon, that I’d prepared myself and trained for it.  In the last six miles of running I understood why the training program peaked at a 20 mile run.  The last six miles are pure will and grit — once at 20, I kept going by locking in the one-foot-then-the-next rhythm, focused on the music blasting in my ears, and just kept moving.  Now I could see the finish line and all I had to do was make sure I didn’t stop.

I didn’t.  But now I have.  The Hal Higdon training program that served me so well in preparing for the race has a post-marathon recovery program, and I’m now in Zero Week of that program.  As in Zero running.  The first three days say “No running!”  On Thursday and Saturday you can do a gentle jog if you really need to, but the advice is to take the week off.  Rest!  I’m not good at that but I’m doing it.  My toes are still too sore to do much moving yet anyway.

Going in to this marathon I told everyone, and myself, I was just doing this one because I’d decided doing a marathon was on my bucket list.  Now I’m not sure I’m going to stop at one.  Running 26.2 miles seems like a good deal for an endorphin high that lasts this long.

Posted in Running | 4 Comments

NaNoWriMo

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

Yes, I’m doing it again, participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. My first NaNoWriMo was in 2011, when I met the challenge of writing 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.  NaNoWriMo was launched in 1999 when a group of 21 writers got together and decided to each try to write a novel in a month.  The idea has been growing ever since and last year over 300,000 adults and almost 90,000 young writers participated.  Clearly, deadlines and a sense of community, even if virtual, works for writers. One of the best reasons the website listed for writing a novel when I took part three years ago was that finishing a novel allowed you to change your “I’ve always wanted to write a novel,” line at parties to “I wrote a novel.”  True, I’ve used that line.

I didn’t completely finish my novel in November 2011, though I wrote over 50,000 words, and I finished the novel a month later.  And it wasn’t exactly a novel either.  I wrote a very marginally fictionalized account of a family situation that had happened the summer before.  It felt more like transcribing an experience, with different names for the characters, than imagining and writing a story.  I suspect it’s not a particularly compelling novel, because I’ve never even read it myself.

Now I’m writing a novel that is completely fiction and it’s more fun than I could have imagined.  After the fairly soul-wrenching work of the memoir I spent much of the last six months pulling into shape, I needed a break.  A decent draft of the memoir is waiting for me to make the next set of edits.  But before I go back into the sad and anxious time in my life the memoir recounts, I wanted to write something like the well-crafted but decidedly not-heavy novel I read just as I was finishing the last draft of the memoir.  “That’s what I want to write next,” I said to myself when I finished The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Before I left for Europe, I had the idea of writing a novel about a young woman traveling, visiting the places I went on my recent trip.  My idea of working on the novel while I was traveling and able to recount details of the places I stayed quickly fell aside in favor of just experiencing those places.  As a friend said to me in Europe, “You don’t need to be writing now.  You’re doing your research.”

That was a good enough excuse for me, and actually, it wasn’t an excuse.  Now as I’m writing, when I need facts and real experiences from Normandy or Amsterdam or Provence, my research brain is there to provide the details.

What’s fun about this novel is experiencing the delicious excitement of writing fiction, not fictionalized fact.  When I sit down at the computer every day to write the next few scenes, I don’t know what’s going to happen, what new secrets are going to pop out, what my characters will do and what they’ll say.  In fact, I’m just getting to know my protagonist and I’m 36,000 words in to the novel.  But that makes sense, right?  You don’t get to really know someone when you first meet her.  It takes awhile, like 36,000 words worth of awhile.

Being already 36,000 words in to the novel, does that mean I’m only going to write 14,000 words in November?  No, my plan is to write another 50,000 words, because that should be enough for me to finish the novel.  I want a first draft of the novel done by the end of December so I can get back to work on the memoir.  Trying to work on both isn’t working. My head is firmly in this novel — I think about the characters as I move through my day, plot ideas drift through my mind (though very rarely translate in to what actually happens when I sit down to write), and when I go in to my study and shut the door for my uninterrupted hours of writing, finding out what happens next to Cecelia and her friends Nina and Sally is all I want to do.

So, I’m doing it.  Fifty thousand words in 30 days, starting tomorrow.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Posted in Writing | 1 Comment

The View From Here and Now

IMG_3142

My study is a room with a view, full of light.  Three big windows face south and one faces west, all looking over pastures and the remains of a dairy farm, with the mountains of Epsom as a backdrop.  When Eric was alive, this was his favorite room, with the TV in the corner and his stylish Danish recliner positioned for a view out the windows or at the television screen. When Eric was dying this is where we put a bed for him to spend his last weeks.  That was partly because of the television so he could watch Red Sox games or his favorite movies, but it was also because this was, essentially, his room.

It remained his room for years after he died.  No one spent much time here during those years.  A new, large, flat screen TV had been installed in the family room, part of the finished upstairs of the barn, and the “tower room” as we called it then, the second story of the tower we built to connect the upstairs of the house with the rooms over the barn, served as a passage between rooms, not as a place anyone hung out.  There was still too much sorrow in the room, too much weighted memory.

Six years ago, when I first started to think about moving my study in to this room, my friend Marsie was over for a visit.  I brought her upstairs to show her how I might change the room in to a study and she stood by the western window for a few moments.  “There’s still a lot of Eric’s energy here, but Eric is getting ready for this to become your room,” she said.  “Talk to him about it and the energy will clear.”

Even though I’m not sure what I believe about how the energy of loved ones who’ve died manifests in this world, Marsie’s advice made sense to me.  I spent time in the tower room, thinking about Eric and all the changes in my life since he’d died.  I let him know I was going to transform the room, and six months later I did.

Now I have a glorious study with a view of trees snapping in a brisk wind and a hillside of russet and ochre oaks.  As I sit at my desk, I’m less than a foot from where Eric died.  He sits here with me and I sit here by myself.  I look out the windows and then look at the fall of sunlight in to the room.  I’m grateful and warm and reminded not to take any moment of this day for granted.  I’m here now.

Posted in Home, Light, Moving On, Writing | 3 Comments