I drove my younger son to work at a local market around 5:00 PM last night. Though the sun had officially set already, the sky remained light enough to not need the headlights for the fifteen minutes it took for me to get home. These little moments, long before Spring arrives, allow me a smile and a contented sigh.
How did we get to a place where January feels longer than any other month? Several have remarked upon it. There’s even a meme that I used last year complaining about it. Once again, this year we’re into February, a short month, and it feels like it will be smooth sailing until Spring.
It won’t be of course. Though we just had the warmest January on record, there is still plenty of winter left. We also have lots of experience with Spring snow. There’s the April Fools storm several years ago that people still talk about, and the year that it hardly snowed at all until March 10, my younger son’s birthday. He is my winter loving child and fort-worthy snow for his birthday was the very best gift.
Today, February 1, is Imbolc, a Celtic festival recognizing the midway point between winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is traditionally the beginning of the lambing season (don’t you want to go out to a farm and see lambs being born right now?) and a celebration of fertility. Because so much of Celtic tradition got subsumed into Catholic teaching and practice, it is also known as Candlemas, and St. Bridget’s Day. Of course there was no real St. Bridget, the name was borrowed from a Celtic goddess.
I’d never really heard much about Imbolc until this year when I was suddenly seeing references to it all over social media. I wonder why that is. Are we reaching for signs of hope in these incredibly dark times? Is the growing disaffiliation with organized religion, or perhaps a greater awareness of climate change, causing us to seek a stronger connection with the natural world?
For me, I suppose it’s a combination of all three of these things. I am desperately seeking something hopeful and positive to focus on in this political climate. I am tired of watching the bad guys win; tired of losing hope. It’s not good for my health, either.
As I continue to search for a way to live my life in this new reality, the calming constant is nature, the sun, the circle of life things like lambing and looking for the new ducklings in Boston’s Public Garden every spring. I mark the days, mark the seasons with my observations; a probably half-assed form of mindfulness. I see time moving forward as I struggle not to lose any more ground.
It started with a drive home. I dropped my son off at an event in the next town and rode back looking at all the Christmas lights.
I’ve lived in this town almost thirty years. I barely see it anymore. It remains a beautiful place, but after a while, you stop thinking about it. I’m not sure why my attention was caught by the Christmas lights that early evening, but for a few moments I really saw the beauty of an ordinary drive I’ve done more times than I can count. I was present, and content; the first time in a while I felt truly happy to be living here.
I’ve written about aspects of this before, but it has been a hard couple of years. Between getting laid off, health problems, huge medical bills, the politics of the age, and family-related stress, I went into self-protection mode and dropped out of everything. The health stuff was brought on by panic attacks, so my response was to remove myself from anything that might exacerbate my anxiety. I spent months feeling as if under siege, I needed to rest and to recover my equilibrium.
I do this from time to time. When I’m hurt, exhausted, embarrassed, or otherwise in need of emotional restoration, I retreat. I’m very much an introvert anyway (until you know me, then I seem like an extrovert), and people exhaust me. Every year I take the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and hermit myself away from the world as much as I can. At the end of that time, I am usually ready to go back to work.
This time, my self-imposed exile has lasted about two years. I’ve been in a mental and emotional limbo both waiting for this transplant to move forward and wanting the “second half” of my life post-transplant to move in a different direction. Most of what set me on this trajectory two years ago has resolved itself or at least become less of an issue. The family is stable; I’ve managed to stay out of the hospital for months now (knock wood) because I know more about managing my Afib episodes. We’ve just had one of the most pleasant holiday seasons ever. It was low key, but everyone in the house approached it with the same spirit.
This year, there’s no work to go back to. I’m still keeping my eyes open for something, possibly part-time, local or remote, so that I can have some money coming in, but avoid an exhausting and expensive commute. I’m still trying to write more regularly. I’ve been at a standstill for two years, frozen in place, stuck. It’s past time for me to get moving again.
I worked briefly with a therapist earlier this year and soon came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a match. She was more focused on the practical day to day stuff, and less about how I felt and how I could cope. I struggled with how to end the sessions and then I discovered that the deductible for counseling services with my health plan was enormous; decision made. I was relieved, but no better off.
Driving home that night before Christmas I decided I need to experience that present and contented feeling more often, and that by deliberately seeking those “moments of light,” I might be able to help get myself unstuck. I might be able to start changing my mind. I’ve been thinking about how I might help myself do this, and here is what I came up with:
Movement – This is the probably the most important effort, but also the toughest, particularly in the winter when the cold air can make it difficult to breathe. I was never an athlete, but I used to walk everywhere. The myriad health problems I’ve been dealing with have put me in a state of de-conditioning (that’s what the cardiologist called it). With osteoporosis running in my family, and the effects of my rheumatoid arthritis meds, I need to start battling back to regain my strength. When I was doing yoga regularly, I always felt this peace at the end of a session. I need more of that now.
Dial down the carb-reliance – I don’t diet. I don’t need to lose weight. I don’t eat a lot of junk food or fast food or fake food; but I love pasta, bread, potatoes, and other carb-heavy ingredients. I put sugar in my tea and I’m a fan of the occasional soda. A small chocolate treat is a staple of most late afternoons. I absolutely need more protein, particularly at the start of the day. I’m very curious to see if tweaking the balance here has any noticeable effect on my mood and energy levels.
Gratitude / Appreciation / Observance – After the last two tempestuous years, things have calmed down enough for me to notice and appreciate moments of family harmony and growth. Sure there’s still plenty to work through, but reason and cooperation are more frequent visitors to our home, and they are most welcome. I have been trying to be on the lookout for things that support this feeling – whether it is the the boys working together to decorate for Christmas, the birds at the feeder, or the flowers I buy to fill our home with something natural.
Confront Shame – At a workshop a few years ago we were asked to think about some of the messages we heard or internalized growing up. My parents had quite a few snarky sayings that stuck with me, but I came to realize that a major theme of my childhood, between school (nuns), church, parents, and the society of the age, was “It’s not okay to make a mistake.” That got me to thinking about how much we used to control children by shaming them. We still try to do this to a lot of women. On some level, I rejected these attempts at control (hence my allergy to authority), but I know they made a huge impact on how I see the world. I know that a lot of my paralysis, a lot of my impulse to cloister myself comes from a sense of shame.
Engage, Create – I do need to get out more, and since 2016, I have been searching for a way to have better impact than I did as a School Committee Member. I’m not a protestor or petitioner, but my interests have moved from education, to health care and transportation. Next week I will be going to a talk on Medicare for All, to try to understand, and see how much the proponents understand about our current health care system and a plan to move forward. Of course I will write about what I have learned. I am still hoping to find a role in the community, I’ve talked with a few people, but now I feel like I can be less tentative about it, and get myself out there.
Social Media Diet – Another tough one, especially for someone as hermited as I can be. For my own sanity I declared a moratorium of all things Trump for the holidays. I don’t want to hear him, I don’t want to hear about him, I don’t want to listen to the Sunday talkies, or other news programs, I’ve mostly stayed away from Twitter and Medium this week. It’s been glorious, and I feel so much less anxious. I’ve taken to leaving my phone upstairs for most of the day when I’m trying to write. I’m happier and less distracted that way. Writing longhand first is usually something that helps my creative process anyway.
I can’t call these resolutions. Rather, they are behaviors and ways of thinking that I want to use to check in with myself about regularly. I’m really hoping that this time next year, I will feel perceptively unstuck and moving forward.
I filled the feeders before the storm. When the snow stopped and the sun came out again, a pair of Cardinals, a reddish House Finch, and a large Red-bellied Woodpecker all came to visit, presumably breaking their fast. Occasionally, a squawking Blue Jay scatters the smaller birds, but when he takes a seed or two and flies away, the others return as if to say, “That’s just Jay, he’s obnoxious like that, just ignore him.”
These are the kind of winter mornings I can tolerate. The sun reflects off the newly fallen snow, making everything seem clean and bright. The sky will turn grey in an hour or so, but for now, I will sit here by the window with the light on my face, basking as if outside, on the patio, in the summer.
From my seat, I can see tracks in the snow where birds have sought seeds dropped from above. I’m fascinated by the behavior of some birds who light on the feeder, pick and toss seeds from the opening until they find just the right one. They fly off and come back to do it all over again. There are other critters out there, too. We didn’t used to have small brown squirrels, but now they’re everywhere. The dog sniffs about in the snow, pausing every few steps to bay at some unfamiliar scent. I haven’t seen a coyote recently, but I know they are around.
In a few days, we will go and get our Christmas tree, and part of the living room, including the table where I’m sitting now, will get shifted temporarily to make room for festive decor. The tree will be placed in front of this window, blocking the sun and my view of the feeders.
I really should move my workspace back upstairs, but the light is not the same. The guest room that also serves as my office faces west, so the sun comes in toward the end of the day. I will take the full spectrum light up there; that might help. I’m pushing myself to start the day earlier (still not early by most people’s standards), and the full-spectrum light makes it easier on grey days. I am napping less, and cooking more. I still have my flat days – when I can only accomplish the bare minimum, but there seem to be fewer of them.
In a few weeks the days will start getting longer again. It will be imperceptible at first, but I love noting the time of the sunrise, even if I’m not up to see it. There are still long months to get through after the holidays. I will be looking for ways to make the most of the available light.
The November rain is kicking my ass; the constant grey, a dampness that chills the bones even when the temperature is reasonable, in the 40s. Blustery days have more leaves in the wind than on the trees now. At this point, I think I might prefer snow.
It doesn’t help that when it’s this cloudy out, my house, which is full of windows, is very dark during the day. It can be really depressing to come downstairs to an empty house with all the lights off. I fell weird about putting the lights on when it’s just me in the house, but I really need them.
Last year, I think I slept through most of the winter. It was an extremely stressful year on all fronts; health, work and family. This year is better, so I’m a little surprised to be getting hit with the same sluggishness. I know part of it is the medication I’m on. We’ve talked about switching medications, but I have to be in the hospital for three days to do that and that costs money.
I was not this tired in the Summer. Yes, I still took naps, but I was also able to do stuff without constantly yawning and struggling to keep my eyes open.
Last winter I actually bought a full-spectrum light, but never opened it. It sat on my desk for months and today I remembered it was there. I was never sure about whether I really had Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), because I used to really love the winter months. Today I used the light for the first time and it made a difference almost instantly. My energy levels improved quite a bit. Considering that I haven’t been able to write much in the last several days, I’m grateful to have found a seemingly simple solution.
Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and a bit warmer, thank goodness. I need to get outside.
On Labor Day, we had a rare opportunity, because neither of the boys were working, to go out for breakfast together. I am not a morning person, but going out for breakfast is one of my favorite things about being an adult. In spite of my hermetic ways, there is something about being greeted and settled in by the waitstaff (especially if they recognize you as a regular) that brings a comfort to the start of the day.
Whether it is an elegant petit dejeuner in Paris, or a busy diner with sturdy stone wear plates of pancakes or eggs and endless refills of cheap coffee, there’s something strangely life affirming about sharing this ritual with other people; even if they are at the next table, and not part of your group.
Though a few of our usual breakfast spots were closed for the holiday or had very long lines, on this beautiful morning, we were lucky enough to get a table on the porch of a local go-to. Along with standard breakfast fare, menus around here are sprinkled with local favorites like linguica, a Portuguese sausage, and anadama bread, thought to be brought over from Finland by the early stonecutters in the quarries here. Anadama French Toast is a popular offering.
It was nice for the four of us to have a meal together to mark the end of summer. With both boys working, time to sit down together is rare these days. Now that the kids are older and need less management, they have become pleasant companions and these meals are much more enjoyable. There much less bickering, much more storytelling and joking around.
This part of the island is an art colony, and after breakfast we strolled through the neighborhood looking at the cottages and gardens. Many of the galleries were closed for the holiday, but there was still art and creativity everywhere.
The weather here has already gotten cooler. I find myself greedily consuming the views of flowers still in bloom from the height of summer, as if the memory of them will hold me through the barren months of winter. I know it’s coming. My youngest started his classes at the high school last week, and my oldest starts his college classes on Thursday. My days are going to get busier, carting them to school and to work, or other places. Though they both have their learning permits, neither has a full license. And even if they did, we’d be short a car (or two).
I am not ready to put my sandals away. I am not ready for football, or fat socks and boots, or pumpkin spice anything. I still want to walk down to the beach or the harbor. I want to listen to the seagulls or watch the sandpipers zooming back and forth along the surf. I want to be able to breathe without the frozen air hampering me. This kills me. Ordinarily I would be eagerly awaiting the trappings of autumn every year. Chronic illness has changed that. I truly love having four seasons, but it would be easier to live in a place where it hovered around 70º all year-round.
In other news, I am writing again. I created a piece for Labor Day on how corporate culture and public policy (or lack thereof) is killing the so-called dignity of work. You can find it here on Medium. I’m trying out Medium as a potential platform, but I am also looking at other markets. If last winter was about recovering and getting through a devastating year career, health and family-wise, I hope this year will be much more about working and rebuilding.
Almost as simply as turning a calendar page, the air of summer has changed. The humidity has lessened here somewhat and a cool breeze foreshadows the coming autumn. This is as ever, a bittersweet time for me. I need the summer warmth and ease more than I used to, and I will be sorry to see it go.
This school year will be a big one. T starts classes at the local community college in a couple of weeks. He is out of our tiny high school and into a much larger, more diverse arena. I hope that it will be good for him. P will be a Junior at the high school and starting to look at colleges as well.
I will try to make the most of my unemployed status. I have to get out of the house more this winter, and I need something new to work on. Ordinarily at this time of year, I’d be pining to take classes of my own. Of course since I am not working, no one is going to pay for me to go back to school. With all the medical bills, and tuition for T, loans for me are not an option.
I also seem to be going through something. It’s hard to tell whether it’s fatigue and depression or a true evolution, but I may be finally letting go of a career dream I’ve had for 20-plus years.
How do you know when to give up on a dream? I mean, it sounds so defeatist to say it like that, but I’m not sure that I really feel defeated anymore. I certainly did when my dream job was given to a less qualified man several years ago. It broke me. But I also knew that in the three months I had the job, I proved that I could do it and was very good at it. The hiring manager’s agenda had nothing to do with my qualifications or capabilities. I knew when I left though, that I would probably never get another shot, which is what broke my heart so completely.
That was over six years ago. When I think about it though, it still feels like yesterday in spite of since having had five years with a great manager and team, and lots of wonderful, creative challenges since. What’s different now is that I’m not sure I would apply for similar jobs anymore. I can’t yet tell if it’s because I’m tired of running up against an impenetrable wall or if I have truly moved on.
My lifelong interest in education and education policy also seems to be fading. I was on my local school board for 12 years and I loved it. For years I would independently dig in to the weeds of education policy and try to understand, without ever having held a teaching job, what made for a great school, teacher, classroom. I certainly still have my opinions, but I have noticed that our public school policies have gotten farther and farther away from what I might have considered ideal, The testing regime still lingers, charter schools have arguably made things worse overall, and it’s not a battle I have energy for or much interest in any longer.
Part of it, I think, is my age. I’m going to be 53 at the end of the summer. Assuming I make it, I will have outlived my father. When I was a child, no one could have predicted I’d live this long. Here, I am, way past expectations. The unexpected hiatus due to layoff and health problems has felt like a significant chapter closing. It has me asking; assuming I make it through transplant and regain my strength, what do I want to do with my “Book 2?”
For years I have wanted a job that involved less desk sitting, solitary heads-down work, more meeting, consulting and collaborating. Writing, of course, is none of the latter, but it might provide me with a little more variety than an office job. When I’m healthier, I want to do more travel, and I’m hoping that the things that I research and choose to write about will facilitate that. I’ve been dabbling a little, trying to figure out what the business of writing looks like, training I did not get in college. I have submitted a short story to a publication, and I’m looking to do more. I still am better at non-fiction than fiction, but I’m working on it.
The birds are busy at the feeder this morning, perhaps in anticipation of tomorrow’s snow. Among them is a large Red-bellied Woodpecker, nearly twice the size of the other birds out there. He’s been around quite a bit this winter, but it is always a treat to see him contrasted so brightly with the myriad brown birds that we normally get in the colder months. It is for visitors like this that I insist on maintaining the feeders in the winter, even though seed isn’t cheap.
It’s midmorning and I’m having the last of the real bagels with my tea. Even stale they are better than supermarket bagels. I feel lucky to be able to get them every once in a while. I consider what I might be able to get done today after I have decided that my morning reading is complete. I’ve just started Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. She is one of the most prolific writers I can think of, and yet this may be the first book of hers that I’ve read. I vaguely remember being assigned something of hers in college, but I don’t remember what it was (a poem, maybe? a short story?), and like most of what we read as English majors, it was dark and depressing. I’ve not tried anything of hers since.
I picked up Mulvaneys from the hospital exchange cart, and I will probably bring it back there when I’m done with it. Hospital book carts have saved my sanity more than once last year and I try to contribute to them when I can. You don’t really sleep much in hospitals, you might as well have something good to read. I’ve now taken to packing books whenever I think I’m going to be admitted, but I almost always get through the ones I bring.
So far, I like the Mulvaneys and the simple, almost religious optimism that holds their lives together. Yet, you know their happiness is tenuous, that something awful is going to happen that rips apart their carefully constructed lives; like a squirrel dashing through the dazzling but delicate web that took a spider so long to build. When Oates describes a non-central character’s effort to set his own children against each other, I stop and seriously wonder if this is common in Irish families, as it was certainly recognizable in mine.
This gives me something to think about in my own family and my own writing. Growing up I had this dollhouse that I played with well into my teens. My sister was four years younger and constantly begging me to play with her, which is part of the reason. The other reason, I didn’t realize until many years later, was that the dollhouses (there were three of them) served as a setting for the stories in my head. Those stories were almost always about the kind of family I wanted, rather than the one I had. The family in my head was always large, active and social. They enjoyed each others’ company had each others’ backs.
For decades I’ve wanted to set a story in a multigenerational family with a summer house. I have such wonderful descriptions of the place, I could make you want to go there. the place itself is a character. And yet, I can’t do it because moving the story forward would mean that one of my characters would have to do something horrible to another. I can’t bear to imagine what that thing might be although I have plenty of examples in my own family.
For a writer, there’s a lot to explore within the disintegration of a family. Society would like us to think that these are unbreakable bonds, but they fall apart all the time over money, abuse, resentment, and the smallest things can become the last straw. After those bonds have been broken, what makes them worth trying to repair? Or is it just easier not to?
This has been on my mind a lot since my cousin’s death around the holidays. I suppose there was an “event” that precipitated our all falling away when we were kids, but in truth, fault lines among the adults already existed. That my mother’s generation never thought those sibling bonds important enough to repair saddens me when I think of it. Yet, my own generation is similar. We all live in different states, we have very different lives and we would never reach out to each other for help. It’s just the way it is.
Perhaps I imagined this might change after many of my cousins started to reach out to each other, mostly on Facebook. Maybe my surprising anger at her passing is not just about her age, but about the fact that she won’t have a chance to be a part of that.
It’s 3º. The high today was 5º. It snowed and slushed for the better part of yesterday and then it all froze. Walking is treacherous. If it wasn’t already Martin Luther King Day, school would likely be cancelled. Post-holiday winter is here.
For my friends in upstate NY, the upper-Midwest and Canada, I realize this is nothing. Honestly, I thought I was going to be one of those crusty curmudgeonly types who retired in Maine, but now I am undone by single degree weather and the howling wind.
I can’t imagine commuting the way I used to right now. I worked mostly at home for so many years that it’s hard to remember what that’s like. I used to enjoy the commute. And the commuter rail used to be reasonably reliable. Now I don’t have the stamina for two hours door-to-door, a full day of work, and then another two hours for the journey home.
I can’t really do fourteen-hour days anymore, though I really do miss being in an office, being part of a team. I haven’t settled into a routine of my own as of yet. It is the hardest part of having ADD; routines don’t really stick.
Every so often, L will ask me how I’m feeling. After multiple trips to the hospital this summer and fall, he is now always on the lookout. Generally speaking, although the cold takes my breath away, I have been doing pretty well. The problem is though, I haven’t been doing very much.
I’ve been sleeping a lot. Whether that’s physical, or depression-related, or I just don’t want to get out of my warm bed, it’s hard to say. My days these past few weeks have been starting around 10 AM, unless I have a specific appointment. I have been reading a lot, which I guess is a good thing. I’ve been making a real attempt to set the phone / social media aside for most of the morning and read a real, physical, book.
I need to be writing more. I need to pick a direction and get moving. I have had the germ of a novel simmering in the back of my head for years, but it is really not going anywhere. I’ve had this eternal problem with it; the setting is more real in my head than the characters because the characters are based on real people and I’m afraid of them being too recognizable. I may just need to discard the whole thing and move on to what I thought would be my second project. Maybe I’ll come back to it when I get better at inventing people.
The rest of my days are often filled with managing medical appointments and chasing after prescriptions (which really should not be this hard to manage, how do seniors do it?).
In the meantime I took advantage of the fact that this cold weather makes me want to cook. A friend calls it procrastibaking, which, it turns out, is a real thing. I made apple-walnut bread for the first time (yum!) and chocolate pecan pie, which has become the new favorite around here. I also made a thing I’ve always called coq au vin, but is really like a chicken stew with white wine instead of red. It doesn’t reduce the way I’d like in a slow cooker, so I’m not doing it that way again. Cooking does make me feel like I’ve accomplished something anyway.