It’s a cool December morning, scurf of leaf litter under trees and by the fences, pieces of blue moving with gray clouds. Tiny bit of snow wandering in the air.

I read a thing from the BBC about cold remedies just now. Garlic capsules and zinc lozenges are in, orange juice is out. Part of the piece was in a larger font: In a study on echinacea supplements, people taking daily doses of the herb who believed in its immune-boosting properties had milder and shorter colds than people who did not believe. In this time of my life, when I’m trying to metamorphose into a stronger, healthier woman, trying to move toxic elements out of my life and relationships, the idea of the placebo has a novel glimmer.

I’ve always known that some people who believe they’re getting efficacious medicine or therapy will improve despite being essentially “wrong” about the therapy. But I’d always understood this as slightly sad, because I hate anyone being lied to or the truth being hidden. More than almost anything, I hate seeing (or imagining) the moment when someone realizes they’ve been wrong to hold an optimistic belief. The placebo effect has always had a sinister sheen to it, too, for me, since I grew up in a culture steeped in the power of belief and its dualistic partner, the terror of disbelief: the steadfast certainty of “true believers” doesn’t exist in vacuo—certainty exists because God has given it. Certainty unmoored from the assurance of God is ridiculous, terrifying, damnable. I don’t have time right now to hammer all that out, but people from a conservative Christian background will get this.

So, these dark shades on the placebo effect have been lifting as my faith evolves. I no longer am what you’d call a “true believer”: I look for truth, and find it outside of evangelical (and episcopalian, and anglican, ad infinitum) fences. I’m trudging along in the footsteps of people much smarter and braver than I am, but am relieved to find the grass isn’t scorched & poisonous on the other side of the mainstream Christian fence. One particularly beautiful piece of ground is the placebo effect: mind over matter. (Though the placebo effect exists in mainstream Christianity, no-one in that world would admit it. And only a small groups of people outside the mainstream have considered the gifts of religious “placebo.”)

Anyway, I want to take care of myself—I want to learn how to not let my husband’s negativity or rage hijack my sense of pride in myself, or resonate too deeply with my old shame patterns of thought/belief. I want to learn how to look carefully inside myself and see strong, wise parts, instead of broken, slimy parts. I want to learn how to look carefully outward, scheduling my time so that I do the things that grow me, educate me, calm me, and beautify my experience of being a human skinsack. I have spent much of my life waiting for other people (or God) to take care of me for me. Feeling powerless, trapped, or stuck is a real killer. But I have never been, and it’s possible no conscious human can be truly powerless, truly trapped, truly stuck. The universe, or God, has seen to that.

What I would have called a transanctional relationship with the divine, in my early twenties, I now call a partnership. Calvinism fades mercifully, the power of my mind and my body are called up by a determination to—insofar as I can—heal myself.

God, whoever God is, clearly created the placebo. Because the placebo effect is, in fact, a miracle. And who is working the miracle? Both of us? God/the divine and—me.

This blog feels particularly pat and smug, for some reason. I’m actually writing it because I’m truly turning over a new leaf in my life, and it’s incredibly hard. If I write down what I believe, and what I want to grow into, investigate, then it keeps lighting candles for me in a place that feels—still—pretty dark. Trying to make big changes to a 9-year old intimate relationship feels like wandering in snowy hinterlands without a proper coat. Trying to grow, heal, and learn while being mother & primary caregiver to a young child feels kind of similar. But knowing that I can feed myself wilted garlicky greens, roasted beets and turnips, and herbal teas—and that no matter what my body does with them, my mind is using them to heal me—this is good.

 

Advertisements

At the farm where I work, we’ve had some heartbreaking losses this summer. Fall crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, beets, and chard are seeded in the greenhouse in the heart of our hot, humid Tennessee Valley summer, and transplanted into the field in late July and August. Healthy transplants usually need no protection in the field besides wildlife netting (if deer are around) or row cover (if they’re high-stakes, expensive crops like broccoli and cabbage, which our climate doesn’t coddle and our bugs find irresistible). Harlequin beetles, cross-striped cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, and aphids usually stay out in the fields, and only attack these brassica crops once they leave the greenhouse. Having been grown with high-quality seed, beautifully rich seed-starting medium, and vigilant watering under our high-summer shade cloth, they’re healthy enough as transplants to survive a moderate pest and heat onslaught in the field. This summer, however, the bugs took advantage of our farmers’ first beach vacation in ten years to move into the greenhouse and set up a 24-hour diner. My co-worker and I were in charge of harvesting and binning our CSA program’s produce for the week, and we just couldn’t stay on top of the bugs in the greenhouse. Kale, broccoli, cabbage, and Romanesco were reduced to a lacy, wormy mess.

Other growers in our region either use chemical pesticides or have given up trying to transplant fall brassicas completely, for the most part. Our farmers have high standards, and have tried ambitious fall plantings each of the nine years they’ve farmed here in Knox County. But success rates have been low. In order to keep bugs off the fall transplants in the field, we have to cover them with white, fleecy row cover, but even the lightest cover available (“bug cloth”) can trap enough of our end-of-summer heat and humidity to stunt growth, or kill. Our system of transplanting, covering, and removing cover can go awry if other parts of the farm need emergency attention, and we can lose all our fall broccoli and cabbage if the weather doesn’t cut us a surprise break. That’s what happened last year. This year, only half the fall brassica transplants made it into the field, and once there, half were so stressed by bug damage and heat that they died in the field. So precious late-summer work hours were spent direct-seeding hundreds of dollars’ worth of kale, cabbage, and broccoli seed into the field.

It’s difficult for our farmers to have to lose so many valuable crops (what’s a CSA without kale?), so much money, so much time trying to remedy a possibly irremediable situation, and then to have to look forward to next season, knowing outcomes will be the similar unless the already-fine-tuned system is tweaked some more … or altered entirely. And to have a reckoning like this linked to their first vacation as a family? Insult to injury. Another reason to doubt there is such a thing as “work / life balance.”

It’s been a difficult summer. But all summers have been difficult for me, since I became a mother. I need to work, because I need to contribute to household income, and because I turn into a crazy ass bitch if I spend too much time alone at home with my kid. I need to see other people, do other things. But working 6 hours at the farm in 90+ degree heat, going straight to Mary’s school to pick her up, then taking a shower and having to choose to either start dinner or “play”—a pretending game that involves me taking the lead in setting up imaginary scenarios and Mary’s stuffed animals of choice taking it from there—is exhausting. I just barely have the energy. My husband comes home at 6:30 or 6:45, plays with Mary or goes to the bedroom to lie down. We eat, divide evening tasks, then after Mary’s in bed Marshall watches tv and I usually do, too. I want to say, “This is not how I imagined I’d be spending my days at 32,” but I stop myself because I have a lot to be grateful for. But then I realize that most people can truthfully say this at 32. So I let myself say it.

Farming is usually uncertain. Farming is the definition of uncertainty. Farming is organizing a few elements within an open system, and having five backup plans. Farmers without government subsidies are staking their livings (and sanity) on uncontrollable outcomes, and farmers who don’t own their land (or have irrigation) are doing even more. Why do they do it? I think because they want to. I can’t think of any other reason you’d do it. I think small farmers met the life cycle of the earth in a vivid way, at some point in their lives, and fell in love with it. They sailed for the first time, were pushed and lifted by the wind, harnessing it, and felt yearning and love. Growing food for a community, and caring for the soil, is as beautiful a calling as any other—but for small farmers, the lack of a “safety net” beneath them makes the uncontrollable elements a normal part of everyday life. They hill their corn, and know storms and straight-line winds (if not hurricanes) will come. They care for seedlings, looking over them carefully every day, knowing that deer and rabbits and caterpillars are out there waiting. They lay irrigation, knowing that flooding could come, or drought. They know, in other words, there is loss ahead, and that that loss is unpredictable.

And so it amazes me that our farmers were brave enough to run a diversified CSA program for eighty families, and then to have two kids. Kids? TWO?? Babies, nursing, teething, crying, laughing, crawling, adding more high-stakes uncertainties to this exposed system. But why should I be surprised, since farmers already know more than most of us about how little control we really have over our beds of seedlings, our kids, our lives.

I’m honestly doing my straight up best. I’m hanging on to this farm because—exhausted as I am—I know it’s my teacher. I want to learn from it, because I want to learn from the earth, which is the only teacher I’m finding I can trust at the moment. Earth’s children grow up from the earth, eating the earth, breathing the earth, within the earth (no matter how little we realize it): I’m from the earth, and returning to it for lessons on living makes the most sense of anything I can imagine. And I do learn.

I learn that bacteria, viruses, and fungi are omnipresent in the soil, that there is no such thing as “pure soil.” I learn that plant roots “listen” for water, and some mine nutrients from deep ground and pocket it for future use; I learn that eggplants and some winter squash abort their blossoms when it’s too hot; I learn that leaves wilt in the hot sun, sending their moisture down to the roots so that leaf cell walls won’t break down, and then receive it again at dusk. Much of what I’m learning is, it seems like, how to interact with difficult times. How to sort and apply these lessons is less intuitive. Sometimes I feel like a delicious kale transplant, facing its first days in the field, and then I wonder if I will always feel this way. Unfit for the climate, or ecosystem.

But then I remember the severe drought we experienced in 2016, and how one field, sowed in a pea-and-vetch cover crop and only receiving a fraction of an inch of rain, managed to send up plants—out of nothing, with nothing, except the earth and a few drops of rain. Those plants were small, stunted, forced to flower early and go to seed, but that field became to me a symbol of true survival: not everything that lives after damage has truly survived, but some that live after damage are able to flower, and seed. They are small, what they create is small, but they are alive and have created something. And—more than that—they created a second chance for themselves, as they drop seeds and try again in a more hospitable season. This is what I want for myself.

What is the root of my pernicious envy? I grew up somewhat financially insecure, second oldest in a family of nine, and am a people-oriented socially inept hermit wrapped up in conflicting creative energies. I compare myself constantly to other people to see how far “ahead” or “behind” I am. I do it all the time. And I mean all the time. If you wondered why I struck you as competitive and resentful, yet charmingly yearning, then that is why. I don’t make a good pet.

I’ve been through beautiful periods of self-appreciation and self-forgiveness, free enough of spirit and mind to take hours-long walks, to see petals, leaflets, Mare’s Tails, dewshine, hues, glints, and grassy contour like I was new to the planet. I have been free, at times, to see and love the world the way I think it deserves to be seen, and loved. I’m a poet, and will be my whole life, whether I #amwriting or not.

But I’m the kind of person who sometimes makes a terrible mother. Sometimes ye olde conflicting creative energies blow up into shame-rage cyclones, and the isolated nature of this early-motherhood gig compounds the destructive forces. Once I finally had a kid, I never looked at the ill, dented mugshots of mothers who had hurt their children the same way again. Now I know what it feels like to be consumed by negative forces, swirling overwhelmingly within the self, and have to selflessly take care of a kid at the same time. I know what it feels like to want to hurt everything within reach, but retain the freedom of movement that my mind still has that mothers who try to drown their kids have lost. I always know where I am, and what’s happening to me. I always calm myself, talk myself into stillness. Stillness is an excellent consolation prize when peace is not to be had.

Postpartum depression and anxiety (with a dash of OCD) was a trip. But I never fought for a diagnosis because I’ve had periods of overwhelming depression and anxiety throughout my life—I knew something was wrong, postpartum, but I was kind of familiar with going through the wringer, and everybody around me told me that early postpartum felt like going through the wringer, so? Here we go through the wringer I guess? This is taking a really long time though?

According to Enneagram (have you taken the test what is your type & what is your partner’s type & all your siblings & also your parents), shame is a powerful motivating force for those with my personality (type? profile?). Shame is big for most everyone, but it is really big, for me. I am slowly making my way through Daring Greatly, Brene Brown’s Big Shame Book, and finding it all resonant. Somehow I know that my impulse to compare myself favorably with others is directly connected to my lifelong struggle with jealousy and anger, though I don’t know what to do about it yet.

I pulled some SOS quotes from Brown’s book and sticky-noted them to my dashboard, hoping that I can learn some mind karate techniques. My paraphrasing: 1) I can be warm and understanding toward myself when I fail; 2) feeling personally inadequate is common to humans, this doesn’t “just happen to me”; 3) I can be “mindful” by neither ignoring negative feelings nor “over-identifying” with them so that they sweep me away (Brown 131-132).

Maybe you’re like me, and can hardly imagine not flaying yourself within an inch of sanity for your failures. Maybe you, like me, believe that you are uniquely inwardly misshapen and maladjusted and therefore mammoth struggles are something that you have that not many other people have, those other people who look so chill and chic. Maybe you have “surfed” negative emotions like it was your sport of choice since early adolescence, and crying in bed has always been your idea of a relaxing night in. Eh? If so, these points are HARD TO UNDERSTAND.

But the fact remains that they are saving me.

Motherhood, right?? *slaps knee, spills drink*

Motherhood is to my life what salt is to a dish, a catalyst, an intensifier, it raises the boiling point, the air is super-saturated and super-thin up here. Army-crawling through my low points isn’t cutting it, anymore. Retreating to get a handle on my negative emotions isn’t possible, anymore. I can’t hibernate or become a hermit. So this is why I think motherhood is forcing me to grow up. I can’t get lost in my negative feelings anymore, so I have to slog down into my strange subconscious and do weird inventories, organizing motives, responses, etc. I have to read self-help books like they’re candy (Codependent No More and Daring Greatly were fucking incredible, next up: The Dance of Anger!), and write things that sound like the most common of all common sense on sticky notes and try to memorize them.

Those creative energies have to find new outlets, new syntax, new vocabulary. Even new purposes. I used to write at every serendipitous shoulder-tap from my own personal muse, but now I basically have to used my own hands to bend my own knees and force my own ass to sit in a chair and start writing in what feels like a new language that I have not got down yet. Ugh, God. And I have to soothe that horrible sense of being-at-the-very-beginning-again by creating other things, like gardens, bouquets, quilt blocks, herbal teas, roasts, raw salads, pestos, marinades. And when I can slow down enough to be kind to myself, I can (to borrow some language from my Evangelical days) rejoice, exult in my work, and in that little being who neither competes with me nor against me, who never envies me, who never compares me to all those other moms that I compare myself with daily: my own little kid.

One of my best “a-ha moments” as a mother came from a podcast interview, in which a childhood development researcher said that families (and communities) benefit more from a “gardener” approach to parenting than a “carpenter” approach. Yes, yes of course. A child is not a work-in-progress in a closed system, but a plant growing in an ecosystem that is (almost) impossibly complex. The accompanying thought, months later, was that I have to learn to treat myself like a plant instead of a WIP, too, if I’m going to ever be comfortable treating my daughter like one.

I haven’t written in a week, and after having cried about it and generally felt like a failure, I am back at it this morning. Unfortunately, my brain is motherhood-mush and highly distractable, tending to focus on how I’m going to take Mary to the mall today so I can look for some summer pants, with pepperings of intense jealousy that other adult people have time to write novels and screenplays while I’m just losing gray matter (because I’m a mother, look it up sheeple) and becoming more irrelevant to the world BY THE DAY.

Yeah yeah yeah, my “grand revelation” last week about how my “roots” are “perennial.” “Wow.”

OK I HAVE TO SETTLE TF DOWN.

Let’s begin again: Good morning. Because it is a good morning. Today I’m going to the mall to get summer pants, and treat myself, because I’m so jealous that other adult people get to sit in their quiet offices and write so many pages of creative nonfiction. And poetry. Dammit. One more try, then.

Good morning. Because it is a good morning. After a long dry spell, it is raining. I have easily a dozen large projects that I dream about finishing, but one of them—gardening—is moving forward. And it’s moving forward because I have prioritized it. It’s as simple as that, actually. I feel powerless and victimized by the demands on my time, as a working mother, but I have to remind myself (every day) that I’m NOT diving for individual pearls with only a snorkel mask; I’m allocating resources, of which there are many. I.e., life is not a game of Whack-An-Emergency, but more like Operation. Every wrong move triggers the loudest buzzer I’ve ever heard.

And! Neither of those children’s games are metaphors for real life,  just for my perception of my life and responsibilities. I’ve had to hit re-start on my brain three times already this morning.

It is a good morning, because I have a whole day ahead of me, and I get to allocate resources.

A chipmunk jumped onto the brick sill outside the window, just now, tiny and shiny russet, like a fallen oak leaf. Its tail, short and brushy, and ears like the smallest clamshells, or snailshells. Wow. It looked around with those quick movements unique to squirrels and birds, I saw its black, liquid eye, then in a burst it gathered itself and flung itself across the sheer brick, out of sight. It’s been raining, it’s been dry, and my seeds and plants are gathering toward greatness out there.

Sometimes I look at the natural world and am impressed by its unending cycle of growth. Nothing can truly kill it for long, nothing but nuclear holocaust or polluting corporate dystopia. Nothing so far. An isolated stand of hackberries and mulberries, brushed up with privet and honeysuckle, are slowly encroaching on the southeast corner of our property, a few inches a year. If a pandemic wiped out human life in this neighborhood, or city, these trees would finally be able to raise their thousands (millions?) of seedlings that pop up each spring, that we anxiously slice to fragments with the mower.

I like to calm myself with the thought of this house becoming a home to chipmunks and coyotes, forest marching steadily over and underneath it, till it is truly inside a wood. Our bluebells would spread, and irises, and the Bermuda grass and ground ivy would—finally—move elsewhere. I don’t want to think of myself, our family, as an environmental pollutant, an impurity, or an alien element. But our stain of blindness and frantic energy belies our natural place in this world: yes, a fellow-competitor, but a companionable competitor. If there’s such a thing.

How to allocate resources, how to compete companionably. How can I assert myself in my environment, plant a thousand seeds, and protect my roots? And what is a more useful metaphor, a tree in a clearing, or a biodiverse farm? How much control do I really have over what grows into my life, and how I myself grow?

If I’m longing for relief from burdens of responsibility, that’s important to consider. What can I let go, today? What little spirits of wildness can I let into my head, while letting the frantic energy out? The answer, again and again, is to look into my little wild heart and my daughter’s little wild heart, and let the dishes go to hell. Or, maybe I’ll do the dishes and let the garden weeding go to hell. Because dinner can’t go to hell, no way, cause it’s gonna be pizza and pizza is greatly beloved by my little wild heart.

I have this friend. And we are trying to do so much. She’s trying to do more, since she has two kids, and one of them has had a lot of heart surgeries because of a congenital heart defect, and basically has PTSD from some of those times when her son could have died. I’m just over here trying to sort out my socks. Just kidding—I’m trying to deal with my past and create my future, just like the rest of us. And what a shit-show it can be.

So this friend and I have something in common, and that’s high-achievement, perfectionism, and an amount of ambition that feels alternately inspiring and impossible. Actually, two of my friends are like this (probably most of us, to be honest), and the friend I thought of just now told me that she knew her pattern of “I feel like I’m killing it … and then I want to kill myself” was unsustainable, long-term. All of us high-achieving perfectionists can make that roller coaster work for us WAY longer than makes any kind of rational sense, and I think it’s because we remember what it was like before we had kids.

So many people—once the adorableness of our children has been the topic of conversation for a few minutes—open their mouths and “Do you even remember what life was like before?” comes out. Oh my god.

It’s a personal “pet peeve” of mine, because there are times I have regretted having a kid, and since no parent is supposed to admit that, I’m often in the position of having to smile and force a small agreement-laugh through my nose when asked (rhetorically) whether I have amnesia and forget what it was like to be a free and independent young adult with prospects.

I’m sort of kidding, but sort of not. All the truisms about parenthood (and motherhood in particular) rain down on my head and shoulders these days, when I’m wanting to make bread AND do the week’s meal prep AND clean out grass roots from the garden area AND go to an anti-white supremacy demonstration downtown AND split the goddamn bulbs in the front flower bed. This first friend and I, we think about our choking bulbs all the time. Who has time? I don’t even usually have time to condition my hair in the shower.

No, having experienced the vast surprising fun of creating a new human, I wouldn’t go back; children are a shock and a delight; I am growing in ways I might not otherwise be forced to; sacrificing greatly to nurture a kid is, in fact, worth it, for me. But I remember what it was like before. I daydream about it.

Sometimes when I am dragging stuffed animals and snack leavings out of the yard on my way to starting dinner, I think about how I used to climb trees and wait to be blown about by the wind, like a flag, or a bell, wait like I had nowhere in the world to be—because I didn’t. Sometimes when my daughter has her pants around her knees and is yelling for me to wipe her butt, and I have to leave the garden for the afternoon (after only having been able to weed one small area), I think about the long, lazy afternoons I used to spend alone or with friends at outdoor café tables, languorous and dreamy in the summer dusk. Sometimes when I have eight things I want to get done in a day, but after work I’m exhausted and I realize I can only do two of the things, and only one if I want to spend any time sitting down before I start dinner, I think about how I used to lie on my bed on my days off, reading and reading and reading and reading, till the shadows got long and the air grew cool.

One answer for me has been a hard pill to swallow, and even now I’m not sure I’ve swallowed it totally. It might be stuck in my throat right now. And that answer to my tearful, ragey, or numb responses to having so little time to do the things that used to make me feel whole and peaceful has come in different forms from veteran parents: Make new good times with your kid.

How? I’m working on it, after resentfully (“UGH” & “FUCK FUCK FUCK”) rejecting that advice for a few years. (And, to be fair, there are very few “new good times” you can actually have with a baby; now that my daughter is three, things are different.) Yes, my creative work will, in the end, have to wait for a while to be reborn. My love for solitude will have to wait to be reborn, my immense satisfaction in long to-do lists, manicuring both the front and back yard at the same time, fast-tracking the kitchen renovation. I used to look at this kind of admission as an admission of failure: I have failed to bring my whole self to the present, or to motherhood. But nothing essential can be lost for long, and losing ground in the battle for solitude and productivity is temporary. Solitude and productivity will come back, sooner than I thought: they are trickling back in, they are sending up different-looking shoots in surprising places. I still hate this, but finding fun with my toddler is the medicine I need.

Another friend—a writer whose kids are almost grown up—wrote to me in the midst of the fierce chaos of my early postpartum days, saying that when her kids were young, she had accepted that creative work would not get done in the same way as before. (She remembers the before, too, ha!)  She instead let her new environment reshape it. Instead of sitting at a desk and writing stories, she invented stories to tell her kids at night, working from prompts they gave her. At the time, I couldn’t hear this. All I could hear through my postpartum noise was, “You can’t be a mother and write.” Returning to that email a year later, it brought tears to my eyes and a place in my ribcage tightened suddenly, unbearably, because I knew she was right, and that I could understand her.

I work on a farm, and I’ve always been attuned to the mechanisms of the natural world—I should know this stuff. Our vocations are deep, perennial roots, and can’t be killed by the winter, or even a few winters.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

First lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

And why not? Why not.

I sit at a desk on another morning, stomach stretching and grumbling, feeling a bit crabbed and bent over, my beautiful coffee steaming in my face, and here is my 32-year old self in a robe and out there is a yard with old pines and sugar maples in it. And I read Whitman’s pride with himself, pride of himself—or better, pleasure. What does it stir in me? Envy, mostly.

Let’s go back to the dawn of time. Just kidding, let’s go back to the Enlightenment. Kidding again. Let’s just go back to my childhood.

Like any childhood, it had its glints of gold, and moments of joy and excitement that I won’t forget until death or dementia. But as I remember them from that time, my parents were stressed, tired people, whose main support community was a church plant started by young evangelicals fired up by remnants of the Jesus Movement and its energy, but bound securely by Calvinist theology. I’m still trying to pick apart how this community grew together and stayed together for decades—till its children grew and (for the most part) ultimately left it. Preaching and teaching, from my earliest Sunday school memories through high school and my waning attendance as a young adult, were heavy on sin, repentance, and grace. As any self-respecting Evangelical church should be, right?

But along with any focus on sin comes a concurrent obsession with it. Leaders spent more time defining sin hierarchies, rehearsing the virtues that scooted them further and further from any dangerous sinners’ circles, and writing congregational rules (as a non-denominational church, their pastors and elders were not subject to any larger governing body) than anything else. Children were expected to memorize Bible stories and verses about sin and repentance, and how God’s two main satisfactions in humankind were 1) that we were made in God’s image, and 2) that we repented. In a nutshell.

As a child, the imago Dei message was wholly contained, to me, in the idea of power: God is power, and God created small pieces of life to walk around under that power with a little power of its own. That “little power” was little indeed: by it, I could choose to adhere to God, or to run from God. All decisions in my young life were overlaid by this binary. As a girl, especially, I wasn’t taught that I had power to choose a nontraditional path through life, to take issue with conventional theologies, to disobey authority, to explore non-believers’ beliefs with an open mind, or to openly disagree with men (and most women) older than myself. I grew into a teenager who could barely speak in public, whose private life no one knew but my diaries and the God to whom I confided all (and whom, since I adhered outwardly to the structure of my church and family, I assumed I pleased).

As a sensitive type, I came to the conclusion on my own that God wasn’t mainly interested in power, but beauty, with all the mysterious complexity it necessarily involved. It was a subversive idea (for my community) that grew in my own private garden, carefully and secretly tended. I defined beauty by painting in broad strokes: I connected beauty with freedom, pleasure, play, deep attention, and love, small fiercenesses that defied categorizing and shushing. To me, the moon and stars, as I sneaked outside as an adolescent on summer nights with a blanket and pillow, affirmed my decision to break my curfew.

(No I had no real reason to fear repercussions from sneaking into the yard at night to stargaze. My parents probably knew I did it. But the rules that shaped my childhood were significant enough that I certainly wanted no one to know I was bending one, because bent rules had often resulted in revocations of small liberties before. I learned not to risk. And for the love of god I would never admit to anyone that I loved—LOVED—masturbating! All pleasure felt suspect in my childhood subculture, but sexual pleasure was the most suspect of all.)

While God’s interest in beauty (freedom, pleasure, play, deep attention, love) was, superficially, taught at my church and in my home, I saw no one in either place who seemed outwardly to prioritize these things, unless it was some of the women who closed their eyes as they sang Sunday morning hymns, looking rapturous. There was a pleasure that was allowed: music. Music indeed, and my own singing of it, was one of my first experiences of beauty, and more importantly, the idea that I could create beauty. But beauty was still, for me, defined within the limits of evangelicalism. I really hadn’t been exposed to any other system.

And then came G. M. Hopkins, whose Protestant but radical love of beauty gave me my love for poetry, a new little vine I cultivated, and whose green umbrage took over my garden. And you can’t love poetry for long without loving Walt Whitman. And “Song of Myself.”

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” “I loafe and invite my soul”—freedom, deep attention, and love emanate therefrom. But how can he love himself? How can he find deep attention to himself pleasurable? And how can that pleasure be unstained by shame? Of any kind??? I was sincerely puzzled. Calvinism teaches that humans are essentially marred, dirty, sinful, slothful—pile any and every malign epithet on us and history shows us we deserve it. For the Calvinist, every good human action springs from God in him, not him himself. Humans possess a substance that is not God, which is “self” (bad), and a gifted substance (gifted at “salvation”) that is not self, but “God” (good). I had been taught this from the cradle. How can someone love herself? I wouldn’t understand it till I became a mother, till I was in my 30s.

Today my alarm went off at 6:15 instead of 6:00  (lost so much sleep in a 5-day period I felt like I had the flu, probably also should start taking an antihistamine just before bed because my throat, nose, and sinuses are feeling v. raw and throbby). I’m dragging myself up this morning. Instagram tried to keep me in bed, scrolling, but I managed to resist. For a tired crawl from the bathroom to the kitchen to the bedroom to the bathroom to the office, where I am now trying to be pithy for 11 minutes and then I have to put on mud-encrusted Carhartts and go to work. I remember being excited about this writing project, and the slow build-up to actually starting it. I’m not feeling the excitement now, but according to People the important thing is to sit, and write.

God I’m tired. Yesterday I was so tired I felt like my head was a big steel keg, and stimuli gonged it softly every few seconds. Inside was jelly and the gonging sent thoughts traveling from one side to the other, little slow determined journeys. V. heavy.

This morning I can tell is going to be better. I’m eating something besides fig bars and coffee this morning, and I really did probably get almost 8 hours of sleep last night. I don’t know what I’m having for lunch, unless I have a banana and 3 of those super-expensive fruitynutty bars I got for 99 cents each (on way sale) at Kroger yesterday. Was going to save them, but? Who am I kidding? Ok so I’ll have protein. (I’m the worst at feeding myself. Why? My main daily preoccupation when I’m *not doing well in life* is what food to feed the fam for dinner, and that sometimes means I feed myself total garbage from 6am til 6pm, I behave really like a Smokey Mountain black bear rummaging through a campsite. Is this refined flour? Ooh yeah. Wait where did this wrapper come from, did I eat that already? Oh but there’s crumbs in there yay!

So the build-up to starting this project.

Red azaleas and lavender irises are blooming in the green shadow outside the window. I love irises but feel like they’re too cool & elegant to care about me. I do know that Nature doesn’t give a fig for the human race, but most plants have a very compliant kind of attitude about it; irises make me feel like if I say the wrong word they would all move out, maybe just go ahead and load up with all their iris friends and leave Middle Earth. I haven’t picked any since we moved into this house 2 years ago because I want them to like me first.

Anyway yeah ok right this writing project. I have 6 more minutes. Next time I get up to write (tomorrow morning, MUST happen NO EXCUSES) I’m going to go into a few things:

  1. Saving myself from drowning since no one else lifting a finger to do so, smh.
  2. Saving myself in order to (do what I can to) save the marriage, since I don’t think it could survive both of us being unhealthy to such a degree at the same time. Fortunately husband is also taking steps to gain health, and at the end of our therapy session yesterday our therapist basically said “You guys are halfway already to making this work for you,” and I was like (in my head), “Can I pat self on back? No that’s dumb he said ‘halfway’ you still have to get into Mordor ugh.”
  3. Saving myself involves being #codependentnomore and trying all the old numbers for God in my phone to see if anyone has his number or knows how I can contact, AND writing and reading. Writing and reading are what my soul is made of, and I used to say to myself (back in college days) “I just don’t know what would happen to me if I couldn’t write! *hair flip*” as if I was so sure that would never happen. Well guess what happens! *Draws self up fully into light, ominous music, claws clacking, scales glinting* Yes, I can forgive my younger self. And, theoretically, I can forgive my current self. Saving self also includes a thousand things, because in my life I have loved a thousand things. Can I make another bullet point for this? Yes I can.
  4. Saving myself involves resuming active love for the following: songbirds, flowers, gardens, exploring forests, sitting outside and thinking, baking cakes, distance from social media, creating visual art like quilting or bookbinding or home decor*, reading Hopkins and Howe and Hirschfield and Rilke and all the other spiritual writers and poets that I’ve been longing to return to but life is a maze & how, and lying on the grass and letting the earth hold me up, AND climbing a tree and letting the tree lift me up.

*assuming home decor is art. It is right? At the very least I need to put actual art up on the walls of this house. My God. I need that so bad.

Chapter 4.

Excellent news. So today I had some rage. That’s not the excellent news go to the back of the class. After a morning of farm CSA bin inventory (looking through stacks of plastic bins and lids, trying to check names off a list of 90, two bins and two lids per, and it’s more than a jungle down there in the farmhouse basement), I left feeling I had underperformed. I feel like this a lot at work. It’s not that my bosses pressure me—quite the contrary: they are part of the reason I’m learning to lean less on high performance for a sense of self-worth—it’s that I pressure myself. I spend a lot of time unconsciously thinking of myself as ye olde Atlas, shouldering the weight of my corner of the world. If I feel l wasted some of my farmers’ hard-earned and scarce money on frittering, I leave work at 1:30p.m. feeling like a moldy puck. And a sense of underperforming at work leads to a sense of underperforming everywhere. Because of all the things I spend time doing God knows parenting gets the absolute worst of my skill set.

On the way to pick my daughter up from school I was tired—tired because underperforming and because dehydration (you never feel thirsty on cool, windy days at the farm, it’s a goddamn fact), and also because the bread I made last night rose too long and fell in the oven, making a lumpy sunken loaf, which I stared at as I ate a sandwich therefrom on the drive from the farm to downtown, and also because there was a hair in it, and it was my hair. Some shite.

When I picked her up she wasn’t sure if she was glad to see me, which tepid (if not downright sullen) response seems to come in waves. She did this for a couple of weeks earlier this spring, but by this time I had been basking in a running, arms-open “Mama!!!” response for a month or son. Today it was ambivalent, and then in the car there were whines and tears and guess what, I am the worst mother, and therefore will I savagely tell my daughter that she will get NO cupcake for Black Kitty’s birthday party today if she continues to whine and throw things at me. THIS is the point I’m coming to.

At this point I became aware of rage, a feeling that I had been wronged by a powerful adult capable of hurting me further. I was conscious of it enough to poke around for a real reason—did someone also just cut me off? Did I just remember I don’t have dinner planned? Am I hungry? What did I even DO today? Nothing. Just my three-year old, pouting and throwing a balled-up piece of paper at me. And yet.

And yet my body, I slowly realized, felt like a gun tower: I have a prismatic miasma of ball lighting revolving and snapping in my ribcage, I am at high alert, scanning for The Threat which I am ready, more than ready, forever ready to destroy with a single razing advance. I’m in no hurry. The ball lightning sizzled and folded on itself with perfectly ready calm. Where is The Threat. I’ll fuck its shit right up.

Probably not the time to interject that I had my first real experience of road rage last week, racing some chick at 80 in the far left lane. Huge sigh? Staring into the middle distance right now.

Regardless: there I was, driving down the interstate swiveling my gun tower slowly. Surely The Threat isn’t my daughter, she’s just a toddler, what the hell.

And there was the point, and here is the excellent news: I was able to break it down (after a few shots and apologies) from rage to sadness. I’m beginning to think this is the right path for me, because there only seem to be two, and rage is done. I’m done with the damage rage does, however good it feels to respond to my suffocating limitations with the power, fucking POWER of rage. I feel powerless, unable to direct my life or move toward what I want, and the only power that comes up when I trawl the lake is dark monsters full of teeth and terror. I never knew they were down there. They give me fantasies of breaking dishes on the kitchen floor, breaking mason jars one by one against the side of the house, of breaking windshields and windows, of obstacles blowing away with twisting glitter like a dam bursting. But in reality. Not so. A little person in a rage only creates a little chaos, but even that little chaos is big enough for a three year old. So I’m off that, as much as I can manage it. And sadness manages it.

If I can move from rage at my lack (of a writing career, of time, energy, purpose, friends, cheer, beauty, kindness, patience) to sadness, I can be the dam that bursts. I can cry, and cry, and cry, and I will no longer push my daughter away (“No I don’t want Penguin in my face, people don’t like things in their faces, actually you know what? If you don’t stop touching me you’re going to time-out. Ok! time out it is!” *wailing* “I hate my fucking, fucking life.”) and instead she will stop making Penguin try to open my eyelids, she will sit in my lap and hold me, and what else could I fucking ask from this strange universe. It feels so godless. It feels so empty.

But what is ball lightning? In what retrograde way does electricity become water? Why do I begin healing the moment I resign what I thought was my only power? There’s a god in that.

Chaper 3.

I started this diary after re-reading “Song of Myself.” I loved Whitman as a teenager, those stormy days full of burgeoning self & independence. I had very little independence, even after I left for college, so reading Leaves of Grass was, essentially, an introduction to free living, mentally and otherwise. I never felt like I could live like that, though. I unconsciously believed that women, especially Christian women, couldn’t practically speaking have a free life: the real and fictional women (and those strange hybrids of real and fictive personalities that are female Christian missionary memoirs) I knew of were severely circumscribed by stone-tablet church by-laws and marriage vows and (no less powerful) social norms. But I opened that book and a freshening wind blew. This was the life I wanted.

Whitman seemed ambivalent about whether women could live this freely, and of course he was always paired in textbooks with Emily Dickinson, the essentially bound woman. This pairing spoke to me about what my conservative Evangelical upbringing had laid as the backdrop for my childhood: men are free and need a harbor from freedom; women are bound but never their minds. Jane Eyre’s pronouncement to Mr. Rochester on this idea was stamped indelibly in my person when I read (and re-read) the novel as an adolescent. Women are mentally free, but not otherwise.

Emily Dickinson and Jane Eyre became little furies inside their little places. It’s why they’ll never be forgotten, and will mean enormously subversive things to women until the world’s women don’t need them anymore. When will that be? The women I knew mostly went the other way, tamping their fury out and renewing vows to being nice and quiet in their little places. Yes, I saw them. Yes, I saw their little fury burst into flame occasionally, but the social contract of our time and place said “Put it out asap little bitch.” I exaggerate? No. I don’t.

To keep from being told to souse my flame, I wrote it out—into journals (neverending journals), poems, and I made graphite drawings, painted with acrylics and oils. I was on my way to follow Emily and Jane, my adolescent matron saints, on my way to freedom. And even the women I watched diligently put out their furious little flames unconsciously ushered me on my way.

Chapter 1.

Last night my three-year old daughter got out of bed three times: 1) her blanket had fallen off  the bed, 2) Papa had put her to bed that night and forgot to leave a cup of water at her pillowside [gears grinding], and 3) she needed her nose “sucked,” i.e., she still refuses to learn to blow her nose and depends partly on her own ability to pick with her tiny fingers but mostly on us in the middle of the night to suction her nose out with an infant bulb suction device that we still have for this reason alone. She gets hay fever in the spring and fall and wakes up truly congested, but my god. My current thought is, Why not throw it away so that we will have one night of misery and then she’ll have to learn to blow her own nose?

Regardless. I dragged myself out of bed at 6:00 am like a normal fucking human mom, and am writing. This child has rarely been a cock blocker; she has always been a writing block. Is that fair? Are children fair? Are moms fair? Notions of fairness recede a little further every day. For three years I’ve clutched my daughter’s slowly-expanding pond of nightly sleep (she’s given up naps already, though they were rarely a regular thing) with disbelief and the greed of the starving.

She was born three weeks early, and somebody (not sure, now, who?) told me to feed her every two hours until she reached her birth weight. If I’m remembering correctly, which of course I’m not, because I’m a mom now, it took her two weeks to reach her birth weight. I was setting alarms to wake every two hours for two weeks, and who says babies that little have no memory-storing ability? She was like, Every two hours? K. Forever. Much later, when I would take her in to see the pediatrician/nurse practitioner, I would lie about how often she ate, because although I didn’t know much (I was a mother now), I knew every two hours was too often, but I also knew she wasn’t like, ill, or weird, or anything. I was incredibly depressed, and the thought that I was doing something wrong was paralyzing—almost literally. Didn’t realize it till later, but I lied a lot about little things back then. Little tiny maniac of a woman doing jumping jacks behind my eyes, saying, YOU CAN DO EVERYTHING SO DON’T STOP DOING EVERYTHING YOU CAN THINK OF TO DO AT ALL TIMES! RAH! RAH! RAH! EVERYONE IS WATCHING!!

Years later I realized I probably also have fewer milk ducts (right term?) than many women, so my daughter was likely getting less milk per feeding than other babies. So she made up with frequency. And, as you can (if you’re a mom, and can’t if you’re anyone else SORRY) imagine, neither my body nor my time was my own from the moment she was born. BLAM.

Anyways, this is a diary of The Year I Got My Shit Together. I am committed to rising at 6:00 am 3x/wk, opening up the laptop in the pink salty glow cast by yon Himalayan salt lamp which are all the rage right now (or did I jump on the bandwagon late? Who knows—not me, I’m just a mom) and writing myself into a new season of life. This diary will show how a maniac climbs up a stem, weaves a cocoon around itself, undergoes a magical process that is super fast and efficient and unpainful, and then struggles for two years to not die of panic attacks while it tries to crack its imprisoning cocoon open and tries to keep believing in the outside world, freedom, courage, change, that it is not the ugliest insect to have ever existed, that wine is not the best answer although it is an ok answer in moderation, etc. R U EXCITED.

Blog Stats

  • 74,496 hits

Read the Printed Word!

My Flickr

Advertisements