community, Mindfulness, neighborhood, spirit

Plenty of Time

clock jacek yerkaI’m racing for the light. The flashing orange hand counts down. On the other side of the street waits the supermarket where I’ll load up on almond milk and broccoli before hurrying back across to pick up my son at school. Still twenty yards away, my legs groan in resistance. The backpack chafes my shoulders. I curse under my breath.

When did reaching the other side of the street rise to such prominence in the pantheon of meaning? What is it I hope will happen when I achieve this singular purpose? In all likelihood, the produce section will revert to its simple functionality. Cinderella’s pumpkin at the twelfth stroke. I’ll grab what I need and try to outrun the lady with the full cart who’s headed for the short checkout line. The purchases will turn into a hasty dinner and an even hastier breakfast. At the office tomorrow, I’ll hustle through tasks, trying to stay a step ahead of the next item on the list. Then I’ll dash out to catch the metro in time to catch the bus in time to make it to my son’s school in time to pick him up at after care in time to go home and have dinner and do it all over again.

Continue reading “Plenty of Time”

Career, Mindfulness

Leap Frog

The Provost’s office announced it is offering up to half million dollars to a lucky PhD program at our university. My team received the news with a collective wave of nausea. Great prize, slim odds. A seventeen page proposal would be due in less than a month.

We’ve hacked through the dense foliage of earlier iterations of the RFP for three years running, and the only thing to show for our noble effort has been “great language we can use elsewhere.”

We accept the challenge this fourth time. Despite unfilled positions, anemic staff, maternity leave, and faculty stretched to breaking (or maybe because of all these things), we have to try. We tell each other to phone it in because other programs always win anyway. We say it knowing the idea is absurd, knowing we will give it our all. Because this is us, an earnest clutch of A+ students.

Also, $475,000.

My first impulse is approach-avoid this the way I do so many other tasks I despise: evade, excuse, put off, then CRAM. My rather irritating Better Self reminds me that as appealing as procrastination is, a more effective tactic might be to eat the frog. So I carve out half a day from my overtaxed schedule, shove everything else to the side, and start working.

A few hours in, I realize something marvelous.

This is a blast!

How lucky can a girl-writer get? The boss decrees that I ignore all my other business and spend my workday drafting and reworking a writing project — one whose goal is to land cash for my students. It’s a pain in the ass but it’s total flow. Challenge, creativity, reaching past my abilities to generate something meaningful. It’s a test.

A game.

So I play.

Only when I look up at the clock, close out, and plunge back into my burgeoning to-do list does the sickening stink of workplace misery engulf me.

And right there as I descend into the morass, I understand the mistake of my perception.

It’s not the task that sucks.

It’s all the tasks.

It’s the clutter, the questions with their missing answers, the half-complete puzzles waiting for someone else’s missing piece.

The desk-turned-junk drawer.

The “Do you have a quick minute?”

It’s the persistent drumbeat of financial crisis, and the knowledge that piles are growing while help is shrinking.

The hissing awareness that the only way out of a slow but steady downhill career grade is to eject from the vehicle and get behind the wheel of something else going somewhere else.

It’s the anxiety.

I carry the burden of all the tasks all the time, keeping myself frantically aware of everything un-done even while in the midst of doing. The irony? Evidence suggests this is a totally pointless expenditure of effort. All the things I set aside while tackling the Provost Award waited patiently enough. When my attention returned to those tasks, I took care of them just fine.

The world continued to turn. I continued to do my work.

As for the Provost Award? We wrote a fabulous proposal.

Our jobs are tangled up with so much of who we are. Work is values and perceptions. Work is what we believe to be real, and it holds so many of our wishes for ourselves, our families, the world. How is our performance? Are we making a contribution that matters? Can we afford the mortgage or will we find ourselves sick, broke, and homeless? Is there any joy in the work? Are we filling gaps and creating new paths?

Our livelihood is means and end simultaneously, existing in a thicket of uncertainty. Does protecting time for our families threaten our ability to support our families? Are we making a positive impact or making enemies? During the day-to-day minutiae, can we tell if our chosen methods are effective? How, under so much pressure, do we learn to do things differently?

Anxiety grabs all these drifting questions and presses them into one dense, throbbing, mass. What if I’m not good enough? What if I can’t cut it? These __________ (vague but terrible) things will happen to my family and me if I fail.

I can see the bold edges now of the lines that hitch anxiety to controlling behavior. It’s a comforting illusion. If I can clean up this mess or present this shiny object as an example of my capabilities or get this person to fall in line with my clearly superior M.O., then the giant black hole of chaos seems a little less threatening. The world feels safe (for the moment).

The problem, of course, is that this constant vigilance about every possible danger fails to keep that danger at bay. It also makes for a wretched existence, and it turns a person into rather miserable company for everyone in (her) orbit.

Life IS uncertainty and chaos. We know this. I know this.

Every so often, like when an award application turns a bright light on the flaws in my perception, I remember again that only one thing matters: This thing right here.

Like paragraph 3 of the Provost Award. Or composing this outline of a presentation. Or winding my way through one maze of inquiries that leads me to an answer a student needs.

Or sitting in the other room petting the dog while my son turns the kitchen inside-out so he can make his own eggs for dinner.

Or holding still the slack thread between my love and me.

Because I know the reel in my hands is a stage prop, and the only way to capture the shape of my longing is to let go.

When I keep such painstaking track of all things that need doing, and catalog all the possible disastrous outcomes if they are bungled or forgotten, then every single moment of my life is toil. Carrying around all that responsibility means that my feet are too heavy for skipping, my neck to bent for lifting, my eyes too fogged for seeing the wash of morning light on the willow branch across from the bus stop.

The only control I have is to give my full attention to what’s unfolding right here, engaging it as it is and freeing it from all the hooks of what it might cause or become. When I am here, I can do a much better job assessing what is effective. I can sense what brings value to my life and to the lives of the folks around me. When I see how we are faring right here, right now, I can choose my next move.

Keeping my head in the game means admitting it’s only a game.

Choosing a play.

And then leaping in.

Music, Things I Can

30. Things I Can Tap: The 4/4

Even on a day that saps breath, beat
Night, home, a high whine
sears the deep ear. When veering toward bed
or bread or any
webbed polyfil
to muffle
the last throb of momentum, habit
is the last hope.
Turn towards
Calabria, thud and sway
into currents
already in motion,
churn flesh inside
out. Turn up
here like sleepwalking
to Messina, like emerging
at the first dawn.

Career, Things I Can

29. Things I Can Fix: A Technical Glitch

Because I trudged out of the office late on Friday with at least 7 hours of work stuffed into my backpack
Because my son and I were both so wrecked at the start of our weekend, all we could do was pick and gripe at each other until 20 feet at least separated us during our evening walk
Because on Saturday morning, I was crying before I’d even gotten out of bed
Because the relentless pressure from work hadn’t abated during the night
Because my kiddo and I have outings already on the schedule for this sunny spring weekend
Because the week ahead at work is a vise grip on my mood
Because a roomful of PhDs can’t screw in a lightbulb
Because Sunday afternoon is not only my last shot at getting all the work done for Monday, it’s also my only shot at sharing this one weekend with my only boy
Because even though my 9-year-old laptop finally decided to glitch out on the VPN program that allows me to work from home

there is no way
no way on this green and fragrant earth
I am taking my son with me to the office
to hack through the ever-thickening tangle of tasks.

Because life is too
other than this,
too mine.

Because this computer is still a machine after all
an engine
a cotton gin
with codes and circuits that may be labyrinthine but they are also decipherable

Because I demand my weekend back.
My sleep.
My body.
Because despite the persistent phantom grip of performance on the back of my neck

these ribs this brain this family

these two days
belong to me.

So I run
outside under thawing sun and whipping wind.

I don safety goggles and drill holes in plastic buckets and turn black soil and drop in tiny rosemary seeds.

And then
after my son falls asleep, I come here
to this ancient, groaning, overheating machine and look and look and look
through security settings, Norton and Spybot
without a map
or a Rosetta stone for these codes, no
I read Cervantes at bedtime and dance to The Knife by candlelight.
But lyrics are no use now.
The only thing is to dig deep
and say
I can solve this
I will solve this
control panel, google, cut here to paste there, reboot, download,
adjust settings, override

Your remote session has been established. For security purposes, please close this browser window.

Tomorrow, I will sit here next to snow pea tendrils crawling toward the light,
the dog splayed out and baring her pearly pink belly to the southern sun,
my kiddo secreted away in his Blanket Palace reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid
and I’ll work.
I’ll work on my Sunday
which may be a sin or it may simply be
what’s needed.
But because I fixed what was broken,
it’s my Sunday
to work as I see fit.

Mindfulness, Poetry, Things I Can

6. Things I Can Manage: This

Even if he nudges at every edge,
carrying his dinner to the counter to eat
alone, back turned,
before coming over to wreck the card game you’ve set up
then filling up a squirt gun you didn’t even know he owned
just so he can get you in the face
and grinning
as he says he’d like to kill you
for real
so he could get all your money
to buy himself an Xbox

Even it’s 9:54 pm and the bed contains
sketch paper, markers, silly putty, pokemon cards, library books,
and a kid not anywhere close to sleep

Even if you know the student
you dismissed from university today
and the other one with the conduct hearing tomorrow
are having much worse nights than you

Even if the dog keeps knocking her bone
under the couch and digging
at a bamboo floor
that might be the sole selling point
of this, the lone asset in an estate
from which he’d be lucky
to wring an Xbox

Even if you know the bone
is just a surrogate for the play
or walk she really needs
and your back creaks and your stomach churns
and you haven’t finished the letter to your grandmother
you started last week or called
to thank your girlfriend,
lover, or any of the circle
of angels who’ve kept you
off the cliff
for a decade
or two

Even if you don’t have one ounce
of energy left

You draw
a drop
from somewhere

Even if
thin air

and write


Tonight, the sickle cuts a cool, slender tear
in the bruised night.

the boy in the back seat says
“I can see the full moon.”

This is the first time
in months
you know
what the sky holds.
The first time
you’ve remembered
to look.

“Isn’t it a crescent?” You ask.

His face fogs the glass.
“I can see the whole dark thing.”

You tell him the earth
casts shadows. “A little sun gets past,” you say.

It always does.

Even if we imagine ourselves so big.
Even if we forget to look up.


Learning, Reading

Woman, Mine: Eat, Drink, Overthink

When women are faced with a difficult situation, they turn inward to control or change themselves rather than focusing outward on the environment and individuals that need to change. Whereas men tend to externalize stress — blaming other people for their negative feelings and difficult circumstances — women tend to internalize it, holding it in their bodies and minds. When something bad happens to women, they analyze everything about the problem — how they feel about it, why it came about, and all its meanings and ramifications for themselves and their loved ones.

– Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Eating, Drinking, Overthinking: The Toxic Triangle of Food, Alcohol, and Depression — And How Women Can Break Free

The self-help stacks are my first stop. Over in biography and history, the finds are nourishing but bland in comparison. Substance rarely wins. On any given week, some bestseller on living the full life accompanies me home. I gulp down the first chapter for a fix of the hottest therapy-couch trend. When I get up to run the dishwasher or my fidgety legs, I plop the earnest analysis on the coffee table as a reminder of all that needs to be explored. It’s three days overdue when I dig it out from under the board games and magazines. I’m still the same stumbling, unpolished creature I was five years ago and undoubtedly will be in another twenty.

Sometimes these finds are good, a few are great, and most hover somewhere below mediocre. I paw through them, hopeful and willing. The self, after all, is a mine. A precious vein cuts a find thread through acres of the most primitive matter. It’s hard to resist skimming to see if any can offer up a new kind of pickaxe.

Nolen-Hoeksema is a diamond drill bit.

First, the qualifiers: her writing falls short of art and her research is miles from the cutting edge. Much of what she’s exploring has already turned itself inside-out in every issue of Psychology Today. That said, she strikes oil in her depiction of this one woman’s experience: mine. I doubt the insight ends here —  this work must speak to others or it wouldn’t have made it to the shelf.

If you are out there experiencing what I experience. . . well, you have my deepest sympathy.

Also, go find this book.

Nolen-Hoeksema layers description of the emotional experience of depression with the behavioral coping strategies that are common among women. The dynamic interplay of thoughts, feelings, and actions is not a new concept, yet the insight here strikes a bright chord. I have tried to pick each of these predilections apart as its own unique concern. In my disordered world, here are the areas of most pressing need: Food issues, compulsive/addictive issues, depression issues. Also, motivation issues, anxiety issues, perfectionism issues. Daddy issues are as loyal and true as gum stuck to my shoe. Oh, then there are the communication issues along with trust issues which contribute to sleep issues… You get the idea.

Culture, biology, and family paint the backdrop upon which these actions and reactions play out. While my sleepless internal critic insists otherwise, it is not all just chaos in here, and none of us is a hopeless mess. Indeed, giving up is another form of indulgence. It’s no small gift that Nolen-Hoeksema writes for popular consumption. Those of us who are working on something-or-other all the time would wilt at the idea of another task, even while reaching for it. The analysis here requires little more than a shot of receptiveness and a few quiet hours.

The book begins at a point central to the ways women cope. At that place, a kind of behavioral and cognitive Bermuda triangle — depression, drinking, and compulsive eating — draws other aspects of the self into it. With the same insidious force, it infiltrates what seem to be unrelated spheres of our lives. Careers suffer, bodies weaken, marriages falter, children pay.

Rooting out sources, subsequent chapters explore the patterns of over-identifying with other folks’ feedback and perceptions, the role physiology plays in stress and emotional responses, and the tendency even among successful women to swallow anger but wallow in sadness. These lines of inquiry will be familiar from feminist theory, neurobiology, clinical psychology, and human development theory. Nolen-Hoeksema tugs loose the component parts and assembles them into a new mechanism for self reflection.

After digging up the thickets and landmines, it’s time to lay new ground. The final section dedicates several chapters to concrete strategies for designing an alternative to the triangle. Practical guidance complements theory, providing tips for replacing avoidance and remorse with “approach goals,” and walking through simple problem-solving skills. The book finally urges the reader to think forward and beyond herself. The closing chapter guides offers readers tools for supporting girls and teens — particularly daughters — in developing practices and vocabulary for a healthy adulthood.

As I write this, I notice a force that seems to want to pull me away from focusing and finishing. Giving in to it would lead me to the refrigerator, or bed, or wandering through an electric smog of doubts and plans and urgencies about the unfinished business of my life. The force, of course, is less than an “it” and exactly as strong as the breath I waste fighting it.

Mine, this mind. I’m grateful Nolen-Hoeksema pieced this tool together and handed me the map. With them, I might be able to reconfigure the landscape to invite the bold step and a lifted gaze.


Learning, Mindfulness

Step into Space

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The theater seats over a thousand. It isn’t full but it’s come pretty close. We sit together in near silence for a minute with our eyes closed. Inside this collective pause, we pull back from what Tara Brach calls “tumbling into the future.”

This is not a spirit circle at a Zen retreat center. This is parents, teachers, and students packed into a public high school auditorium. At the threshold of something new-but-not-new, the moment tilts. Surreal. A congressman from Ohio takes the stage and tells the story of finding his breath. He is one of several voices reminding us that snapping at our kids to pay attention doesn’t do any good until we teach them how to attend. As always, we’re on the hook to show what we tell.

As the parents, teachers, and neighbors of the kids who walk the halls here every day, we have to be willing to learn. A churning stress and a “trance of unworthiness” keeps us doing, striving, reacting, and fighting. It is up to us to release ourselves from it so we can show our children how to have a say in drawing the map of their own minds.

In a county whose schools always ranks near the top of any performance rating and in a region whose inhabitants are among the most highly educated and overcommitted in the nation, this breath is a call to action.

Or inaction, as the case may be.

Any kid that hasn’t learned the pressure is on by second grade figures it out when they go through the Advanced Academics Program screening. The test determines the quality of their schooling for the next six years and no doubt well beyond that. This workshop, Managing Stress Through Mindfulness, is the first of its kind here. Overdue, of course, and also right on time.

Our children struggle as we do. Our children learn to place their attention as we do (or don’t). It is possible that we don’t need to keep ourselves in the hot grip of imagined success and looming failure to drive us to a good life. We strain towards illusion and flee fear and get nowhere right. Caught in a Chinese finger-trap, we strive ourselves into a kind of frenetic paralysis.

The first step in cultivating creativity and possibly even a sense of belonging in this world is a not forward or backward. It is a step into space.

Over the edge is a place between stimulus and response where the pause quietly waits.

Growing Up, Parenting


“Can I please stay at my daddy’s?”
“You’re with me tonight, buddy.” His backpack is weighing down my shoulder. One of the four books he’s checked out of the school library is a hardback Harry Potter, which we happen to have at home. “What do you like about your dad’s house?”
“I like my bunk bed.” His hair falls over his face as he drags himself along the sidewalk. “Daddy lets me play toys before bed.” My son’s pace diminishes in inverse proportion to my edginess. I open the car door for him and wait, forcing my face calm. Finally, Bug piles in, lobbing his lunchbox across the back seat before harrumph-ing down in his booster.
I climb in and start the car. “I sort of remember someone playing legos on the bedroom floor at our house before bed every single night. Maybe that’s some other little boy.”
He doesn’t take the bait. “Why can’t I go to daddy’s?”
We edge into a tiny gap in the tight string of red taillights lined up outside his school. It is so dark now. We were scaling the monkey bars at park before dinner just weeks ago. Was it years ago? “Our house needs you,” I tell him. “You have to come around to help all the rooms remember you. The dog, too.” Traffic is at a crawl. We have to wait through three turn signals to get to our street. I grip the wheel and babble on, cluttering the car with my major-key noise. “Our family isn’t complete unless you’re there.” Bug puts up a half-hearted argument and then falls quiet.
I weave around to discussing his new daily book – one after dinner but before bath and bed. His teacher wants him to practice reading aloud then and re-telling books on his level.
“So I get four books every night?” he says.
“Yep. You’re one lucky kid.”
In our complex, I pull into our spot and collect the backpack, phone, and keys. I open my door and start to get out but Bug is still in his booster. He doesn’t move to open the door. I turn and see him gazing off and slightly down. He is fiddling with the buckle of the seat belt and chewing on its edge. The clock is ticking past dinnertime. A surge of impatience crests. I order my shoulders lower then settle into the pause, letting my boy have this long minute to be exactly where he is. I reach back and stroke his leg. The sweatpants are fleecy. Cozy.
“What’s going on, Bud? Are you feeling something right now?”
He shrugs. “I’m homesick,” he says.
This is a new one. “Homesick. Boy, I know how that feels. Do you want to have a little cuddle and a book on the couch when we get in?”
“Okay.” He lets go of the buckle and collects his lunch box.
Outside, black night already, a fingernail moon. Bug stops in his tracks. “I can see the rest of it. The round part.” I glance up. The shadow of the moon’s full belly is hidden under a purple shroud. The shape is clear but only if you look a little bit away.
Bug is already up the stairs with my keys in hand. After banging open the door, he clomps right past the dog and into his room, kicking his shoes off in the corner. I give the pooch her momentary fix of head-scrubs and ear-flaps before joining Bug. He is on the floor with a Tupperware of little rubber bands. Three elastics are looped over his fingers.
“Do you want to do this instead of reading?”
“Yeah. See? This is how you do this new way.”
I sit down and pick up three of the bands. “Is this the fishtail you told me about?”
“Uh-huh. And you use your fingers like this. The bottom one goes – see – over the top.” He shows me and then watches me once through to make sure I do it right. Pink, blue, purple, pink, blue purple. Dinner is still just an idea. The clock pants and strains at her leash. I open my grip and let her run.
Bug and I sit together in the low light right in the doorway. We are half-speaking, half-turned away from each other. I-66 rumbles in a nearby distance. We each come to a decent wrist-length of woven elastic. We help each other stretch the bands wide to loop the finishing hook around to the other end then slip on our matching bracelets. When I get up, he follows me like a shadow. I am unaccustomed to his need for nearness. “Help me choose something to bake,” I say. He sits with me as I scroll through internet for a cake-mix-halloween-candy recipe I can use for tomorrow’s office baby shower. He hugs my leg like he did as a toddler then stays right at the bar to plays legos. Dessert goes in the oven and broccoli comes out of the microwave.
After dinner, we fall onto the couch with books. He reads Henry Builds a Cabin and re-tells how the bear (who he only half realizes is Henry David Thoreau) sits in the sunshine outside his new walls, calling the clearing his library. Bedtime has already come and gone. I restrain the urge to rush Bug through tough words. “Staircase.” “Shingles.” He leans into me as he finishes. “Then it starts to rain and he wears his house.” He smiles and looks up at me before a cloud crosses his face. “I still feel homesick.”
“I think it’s pretty neat that you are inside your home and you feel homesick at the same time. You have two homes that are yours. You can love them both and miss them both sometimes.”
He slips his arm through mine. “Still.”
The breath of my ever-growing task list is hot on my neck. Dishes in the sink. Dog needs walking. Lunches need packing. I force a pause. “What helps when you feel homesick?” I ask.
“Reading books in your bed. Extra cuddles. And staying with you all night long.”
I laugh. “Oh, baby. I don’t know about that. Neither of us will ever sleep.” I get up. “Listen. Let’s get your clothes changed and I’ll wash up.” He disappears into the back and then comes sashaying back into view.
“Mommy, you forgot dessert!”
I toss the sponge on top of the pile of dishes. The last of my restraint goes with it. “You know, it would be much more useful if you said, ‘Mommy, what can I do to help,’ instead of just telling me what I forgot.” He stops in his tracks and his face collapses in. I can’t unsay the words. The closed, angry boy I know so well appears before me just like he’s been here all along. He plods over to his stool and disappears inside his legos.
My tone is the too-familiar grit texturing our compressed days. The rough edge of my stress and clock-watching abrades my boy little by little, snap by snap. It becomes a day then a week then it just is. It is us, it is who we are together. I scour my boy flat and square-edged. I cannot press my fingers in to get a hold, to reach him. My attempts slip off.
How much of my son’s chilliness is protection from mine?
I shut off the water and watch Bug at his legos. Homesick. Herein the place I worked so hard to secure, the place with a room of my own and one for my son, I carry my own version of the affliction. It is a faraway sort of sensation cleaving low into you. You can hear echoes across a divide whose depth you can’t quite grasp and whose other rim you can almost-but-not-quite touch. Over in that before, all the hopes and plans and comforts live on. There, nothing has been tested. Nothing has been upended and the crew hasn’t come to break down the set and expose it for the plywood and clever lighting it was all along.
I can barely wrap my hands around the space where this ache resides. How can I possibly expect a seven-year-old vocabulary to capture it?
Maybe for all his usual stubbornness, for his fire and ice, this boy is not so tough. Maybe he needs me to be his safe place more often than not. My son took a risk by sharing his homesickness with me. Can I be the grownup here? Can I let him be small?
I leave the dishes, rehearse my new lines silently, and bend to him. “Listen, Buddy,” I kiss him on his head. “I’m sorry I snapped just now. That wasn’t fair. Why don’t we try again. You ask for dessert with a ‘please,’ and I’ll respond in a different way.”
We practice. We share double helpings of cavity-inducing, yellow-cake-Milky-Way treats. We sit close. After brushing teeth, I let him choose the books and climb into my bed for reading and songs. He falls asleep halfway through Baby Beluga, and I stay there until he is deep down. The cool blade of the sickle moon slips in between the blinds. I slide my arms under my boy like he’s a newborn and carry him to his bed. There, we curl around each other, breathing each other’s breath, drifting in our own in-betweens, alone together.


Happy 100 Days: 60

Now think for a second. Suppose you are gored by an elephant. You may feel a certain absence of pleasure afterward, maybe a sense of grief. Throw in a little psychomotor retardation – you’re not as eager for your calisthenics as usual. Sleeping and feeding may be disrupted, glucocorticoid levels may be a bit on the high side. Sex may lose its appeal for a while. Hobbies are not as enticing; you don’t jump up to go out with friends; you pass up that all-you-can-eat buffet. Sound like some of the symptoms of depression?
Now, what happens during a depression? You think a thought about your mortality or that of a loved one; you imagine children in refugee camps, the rain forests disappearing and endless species of life evaporating, late Beethoven string quartets, and suddenly you experience some of the same symptoms as after being gored by the elephant. On an incredibly simplistic level, you can think of depression as occurring when your cortex thinks an abstract negative thought and manages to convince the rest of the brain that this is as real as a physical stressor. In this view, people with chronic depressions are those whose cortex habitually whispers sad thoughts to the rest of the brain.

Robert Sapolsky has, once again, hit the nail on the head in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Granted, this excerpt would not generally fit into the “happy” category. Today, it tops the list.
The good Dr. Sapolsky has illuminated a connection between stress and depression that we all may intuitively know but can’t quite articulate. After reading this passage last night, re-reading, it, then going back for thirds, something clicked into alignment. The mind (and thus, the body) cannot differentiate between actual threats and psychological ones. The stress to the system is the same. A psychological battering wears on the brain and the body’s limbic, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, and other systems in much the same way as being gored by an elephant. Throughout his chapters, Sapolsky demonstrates the ways the burst of activity in response to a threat or injury is a survival mechanism for all of us in the animal kingdom, and that the eventual removal of the stressor returns the body and mind to a more centered state. The elephant thunders off into the brush, after all, and the wounds heal. Alas, the cognitive stressor is not so distractable. Ruminating on worst-case scenarios just keeps on digging at the ol’ gut. Enter the long-term health problems stage right. Yes, there is depression, falling into step between hypertention and heart disease.
So, what is a person with perennial despair to do? Suggestions abound, but first is this: notice that stress is created within the mind.
Quit running. Quit covering your head. Quit nursing imaginary wounds.
You can take a breath and even rest easy for the moment.
You are safe.
There is no elephant.

Sapolsky, Robert. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Holt, 2004.


Exorcise Plan

I love to cook. Aside from slapping turkey pepperoni and low-fat cheese on wheat bread and telling Bug it is “pizza,” I do not cook anymore. I love to garden, but I planted nothing more than one patch of shriveled beans last year. I love to read, knit, camp in the mountains, write meandering letters to friends, wander through museums, and learn the names of the trees. Nevertheless, for two years, I have barely brushed the edges of any of these pleasures.
With bittersweet relief, I have watched dozens of activities recede into the horizon. By bidding them farewell, I am able to welcome the simple joys of the few pursuits proven to sustain me. Long walks, dancing, writing, and a smattering of friends fill the scarce pockets of time around the duties of work and home. The things I do for fun are easy. They require little planning and even less effort.
My objective is to wean myself from stress.
This may not sound revolutionary. The same repeating loop of advice comes at all of us from multiple fronts every day: sleep more, eat less, take the stairs, reduce stress. The last one is the toughest for me. I have lived on a steady diet of drive and self-improvement for my entire adult life. It is hard to imagine what a more serene existence might look like. The first thought is “dull.” I have equated minimal stress with laziness and low motivation for so long that I do not know how to disentangle these concepts from one another.
The knot is beginning to fall loose. The ghost hunters have helped.
Over the years, lovers of the paranormal have explored the high incidence of hauntings in Victorian homes during the turn of the century. Entire families would descend into a kind of eerie madness, hearing noises and seeing poltergeists. For the skeptics among us, it is easy to assume the family members shared a tendency towards suggestibility or psychosis. Strangely enough, though, visitors to the homes would begin to report frightening, other-worldy sensations after a few nights. This tended to happen during the dark winter months, and it was common enough to catch our attention more than a century later.
Was it a mass insanity? The power of suggestion? Opium?
Tightly sealed homes, fireplaces, gas light, and an overactive imagination can brew into a deadly cocktail. Curious historians and scientists are now beginning to zero in on carbon monoxide. We all absorb a dusting of CO along with the oft-maligned mercury, arsenic and lead as we plod along the surface of the earth. In miniscule doses, these naturally occurring chemicals are harmless. It takes a barely measurable increase in any of these to initiate bizarre neurological effects. A flood is not necessary to tip the balance into madness. A steady, overabundant trickle will do the trick.
It is called poisoning.
I consider stress equally malicious. Stress, or more accurately, cortisol, seeps into the body when the panicking brain activates a fight-or-flight response. Cortisol is useful when you turn the corner and see a saber-toothed tiger. That burst of energy taps instincts and helps prepare you to respond. After that initial surge, however, the ongoing flow becomes problematic. Besides the delightful health effects of overdosing on cortisol (high blood pressure, weight gain, brittle bones, weak immunity), cognitive function deteriorates. The mind suffers.
Cortisol’s effect on sleep is only marginally understood, but I can tell you from personal experience that stress-saturated dreams can look like a joint project between Salvador Dali and Edward Gorey. In waking hours, paranoia becomes a constant companion. Hypersensitivity crashes the party, dragging along self-destructive thoughts, flashes of rage and sorrow, and distorted social perception. A person can get lost in the funhouse, walking at angles, conversing with ghosts.
This joy ride is the result of a primal mechanism whose purpose is to protect us from becoming tiger kibble. I suppose it makes sense. The ones who outran the big cats are the ones who passed on this genetic legacy. As with so many other instincts, this does not serve us well in an industrial society full of self-imposed “threats.” The brain cannot differentiate between a predator and rush hour traffic. It responds to both as if survival is at stake. A few too many hours or years of low-level panic, and some of us begin to fray at the edges.
While my bone-rattling descent into single motherhood is a significant factor in my cortisol dependence, neither parents nor divorcees have a corner on the stress market. Most anyone works, pays bills, or lands in the checkout line behind the dude with the bad credit card knows the upending power of stress. However, too many of us walk around bathed in cortisol from sunup to sundown. Some continue to marinate in it all through the night.
I, for one, have reached my quota. I quit. If that Victorian mama found out that her family had been breathing deadly doses of an invisible toxin for two years, you can bet she would have called a time out, opened the windows, and gotten her charges to a soft place to recover.
It may be impossible to control pressures at work and with the kiddo, but I can make a determined effort to regulate my responses to them. Another thing I can do is turn the pencil over and start erasing. Remove that extra class from the calendar. Say “no” to the next invitation, no matter how much I like the friend making the offer. Forget about the bin of yarn under the bed, the library of cookbooks on my kitchen shelf, and the next round of birthdays. My only job now is to handle the few things required of me with grace, and release my grip on the rest.
As for those few precious hours I call my own? I may head to Glen Echo then leave before the second dance. I may decide to sleep in until noon then rise at dawn to for a quiet run. I may draw a bath then drain it so I can eat strawberries on the back porch. Anything I do in the next few months will be because it feels good. I have never tried this radical approach before. I figure it beats spiraling further into an epic battle with phantoms.
To heal from any overdose, the only option is to purify the system. Stretch out beneath the cleansing breeze and let it chase the demons from the blood. The air has been there all along. The only thing left is the choice to breathe it.