Thoughts: A Contradiction in Terms

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I am in a good place just now.

A year into my marriage, I am still in love. My daughter has recently moved and started a new job where she wants to be. She’s ridiculously happy. My son is halfway through his college time, doing well and planning for an exciting future.

It’s spring and the lilacs are in bloom. In the evenings, when I leave the doors open in my house, their perfume fills the air. The cat, holed up through a long winter, wallows in the sun. Neighbors are emerging from their winter homes and we’re all reconnecting. Recently, I got a lesson in forgiveness from a long-ago friend and it’s been a good thing. (Not all lessons are, after all.).

I have interesting work, and the prospects of new challenges are in the air.

It’s a rare thing when pretty much all the aspects of a complex and rich life are aligned and doing well at the same time. Certainly, it seems more often than not life is a strange dissonance of good and bad, easy and hard, clear and confusing.

From time to time, I write of depression here. I write because I fight it. I write because I find writing about it helps me. And in recent years, after hearing from readers, I write because I have learned that sharing my story helps others, if in no other way than to let them know they are not alone. I’ve even written a small book about my story, which, if notes from readers can be believed, has been helpful.

Here’s another side of depression. Even when things are good, depression does not go away.

A lot of people think depression is brought on by events, and to some extent that can be true – events, physical or emotional trauma and the like can certainly trigger it. But it’s not that simple, because depression is also caused by chemistry in our bodies. Medication helps. (I love my happy pills.) and therapy helps (Our brain can do a lot of self-healing with help.), but it’s not a situation where Badthings = depression, and Goodthings = No depression. Good or bad things are just one of a lot of factors.

Life being wonderful is certainly a help. No doubt about it. And I am crazy grateful right now.  But it doesn’t go away. It’s a chronic illness and all you do it manage it.

So to say “Life is wonderful.” and “Getting going was a battle today.” are not contradictory statements. They are just a fact of life for us who live with depression. But mostly we’ve learned to shut up about the depression. People tend to say “But your life is so good, what have YOU got to be depressed about.”.

I can remember hiking along the Appalachian trail once when I was in college. It was well into summer and the trees and the brush were thick and green. I was high on a ridge somewhere near Front Royal, Va. I knew there had to be amazing views, but the undergrowth was so thick, I wasn’t able to see them.

After miles and miles of walking in the tunnel of trees and undergrowth, I finally couldn’t stand it any longer. I plunged into the undergrowth. I got whacked by branches and there were some thorny things that cut into my legs as I pushed through the green prison.

Finally, I got to the edge of the ridge. There were rock outcroppings and I climbed on one. The panoramic view went on for miles and miles. I could see forever. Other mountains. Farms in the valley. A crisscross of country roads cutting into the landscape. And sky. So much sky.

It was glorious.

That’s how it is with us people fighting depression. There’s joy out there. We know it. But we have to work to get to it. Fighting the chemicals in our brain and the effects of those chemicals, we have to push through the undergrowth of our own minds to get to that joy.

But when we do, it’s glorious. All the more so because we had to work for it.

I woke up feeling sludgy this morning. But a call to the woman I love (who was in Mass this morning.), some time on the back porch listening to some very happy birds. A prayer of thanksgiving, even when I wasn’t fully feeling it.). Meditation on the porch. All that and I had cut through the brush.

I could feel the joy I am surrounded by.

Don’t feel sorry for me. Depression has taught me the value of joy. It’s worth the work. And I feel blessed that I have the tools to cut through the underbrush, thorns and all. Not everyone does. I have found new strengths in my weakness. I have a sense of value for even the small things that I lacked before depression hit me so many years ago.

Life is good and I am going to savor the view. It’s glorious. And I’ve earned it.

Be well. Travel Wisely,

Tom

Poem: A Constant Sharpening of Swords

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A Constant Sharpening of Swords

The demons are quiet tonight.
For a week or more, they have been at bay,
the days and nights bright with color,
the song of birds uninterrupted with war.

It is a good place, peace, strange and uncertain,
a place both wonderful, and you have learned,
untrustworthy.
There is no rest in it.

It is in peace you prepare yourself.
That is the lesson you have learned.
You fill your mind with truths.
You gird yourself with Paul’s armor.

You sharpen your sword, burnish your shield,
You prepare.
You cannot afford the weakness of normalcy.
For you know the demons well.

You know they have not surrendered.
They too are resting, licking their wounds
and sharpening their swords,
sure you will let down your guard

and once again, fall,
become their prisoner, their victim,
another notch in their belt of lies.
another story of a journey gone awry.

But yours is the saga of Odyessus,
failed, detoured, damaged and worn,
but always fighting for the right to simply live and love.
And if peace is not your lot, so be it.

Neither is death.

About this poem.

It’s been a good week. I am grateful, and wary. That’s what depression does to you.

If you are not familiar with Paul’s armor, it comes from his letter to the Ephesians. Chapter six:  “10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” 

There’s wisdom there, no matter what God you worship. Fighting battles alone and unarmed is sure death, whatever the battle.

The picture is of a Greek model made for a larger statue of a River God. It’s only a foot or so tall, but I love the ferociousness of it. Day to day it lives at the Hyde Museum in Glens Falls, NY.

Tom

 

Poem: Portrait of Darkness

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Portrait of Darkness.

You don’t have to look far, just peer
behind the veneer.

It’s there.
for anyone to see.

I no longer hide it.
Enemies are easier to battle
in the light.

About this poem.

The name of the poem I stole from the name of the painting, part of a display. It’s by TM Davy and is currently on display at Mass MoCA.

The poem itself is all me.

Tom

Poem: It is Dangerous Out There

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It is Dangerous Out There

Everything you know.
Everyone you know
tells you:

It is dangerous out there.

And so you live in your rock castle,
nursing your wounds,
barring your windows,
chaining your doors.

It is dangerous out there.

They will hurt you.
Again and again they tell you
so fearfully you draw the shades
and no longer peer out as you heal.

It is dangerous out there.

You are sure of it and live in fear behind strong walls
until you realized each scar and wound
came in this prison you have built,
in this safety you believed in.

It is dangerous out there.

That’s the lie.
It is no worse there than here,
and you tear the bars from the windows
and escape.

It is dangerous in there.

About this poem

Isolation is the enemy.

Tom

Poem: Almost Monochrome

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Almost Monochrome

Another day. Almost monochrome,
with just a touch of green cutting through the snow,
the slightest hint of spring.
due tomorrow, a date on the calendar,
something to laugh at as the temperature falls in the night.

Another day. Almost monochrome.
Your mood and the distant trees are kissing cousins,
not quite black, the markers of boundary lines
between land and moods.

You smile at them. At the grey.
At the evening fog rising from the creeks.
For this is what they do not know,
those who paint you and your depression in black and white
when it is anything but.

For after a long season of cold and grey,
your eyes change. You see color like a cat sees light
in the midnight air.
Even the smallest hue burns your retinas
and makes them tear down your cheeks,
a beauty more treasured in the grey season
than in any other.

Another day. Almost monochrome,
but not quite.

About this poem. 

One of the misconceptions about people with depression is that we feel no joy and are never happy. Those who know us know that is not true. Happiness is perhaps more rare in our lives, but it is treasured all the more because of that rareness.

The picture was taken near West Rupert, Vermont, a couple of small towns down the road from me.

Tom

Poem: Temporary Casualties

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Temporary Casualties 

I am dragging this morning. There is no poetry in me.
The words in me are discordant,
bully words,
the words of people who loved me intermittently,
intimate allies one minute,
aware of each weak point in body and soul,
intimate enemies the next, just as
aware of each weak point in body and soul.

That’s what I know. Bullies have a particular power.
They know best, just where to place the knife,
and they know they do not have to twist the blade.
They know
I will do it for them.

“Talk to me like you love me.” I once told one
of these off and on lovers.

It is confusing, love with a bully.
And in the end, they leave you,
their voices become yours.
You become them, far better
at evisceration than they ever were,
far more persistent.

At sixty-two, I know them well.
I listen to them,
just long enough
to separate out the voices,
to know which are yours,
and which belong to the devils
who wish so fervently to become demons
and possess us.

It’s not going to happen.
(not a poetic phrase is it? It sounds
more like a bad adventure movie, still)
They have had their moment.
But it is past.
Like a Celtic army, they can scream and paint themselves
with false righteousness before the charge.

I am no longer unarmed.
My mildness is no longer weakness.
It has been built of wounds and wisdom.
I have survived and I know the difference
between the devil’s insidious song
and my own.
Let them charge with their painted faces and spears.
I will laugh as I pull the trigger
and begin my day,
each word I do not feel is a roman discipline.
I write them and watch the lies fall,
temporary casualties.

Better them than me.
I stretch.
I push aside the cat at the foot of the bed.
I get up.
There is a life to lead.
Until tomorrow’s battle,
I am safe.

About this poem.

Another dark morning conquered. This is what I do. Every day. I left out the victory dance, but my kids call it dad dancing and it’s not a pretty sight.

Laughing with joy.

Tom

Poem: Are You Happy, she asks

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Are You Happy she asks

“Are you happy?” she asks.
A tendril of dark hair drapes across her face
and her green eyes are clear.
Her shoulders peek out from the covers.

“I am.” I say. “But it is not that simple.”
Few things are, you have learned,
despite a life spent simplifying.
It is a battle for the moment, this thing called happiness,

A battle against traumas long past
and the chemical stew gone mad inside your head,
a watercolor wash of indigo and fog designed
to color all you see.

It is a battle fought inside the mind, invisible to onlookers,
A war fought for focus, for the ability to see deep into the night
and see light. A fight to claim each moment as it is,
to quell the voices in your head that have only one color,

and replace it with a palette of primary colors,
A battle over who chooses the colors, who chooses
the lens you see through; who chooses
whether you can see the moment in all its glory, or not; W\who chooses

the music you listen to, who chooses
what to do with the wild beauty around you, who chooses
even the taste of the coffee you sip early in the morning; who chooses
how you will live the next moment, and no more.

Distance scares you. That is the truth.
So much can happen. Much of it has.
And while you have survived the accidents
and wars that have fallen in your lap, you still feel the scars.

“You looks sad.” she says.  And she is right.
Indigo blue colors my world.
A sad clarinet in the night plays background music.
I could lose myself in their seductive whispers.

But I do not. Or at least rarely do. I take the drum
and pat out a rhumba beat.
I dance as I toss splotches of yellow at the canvas.
I brush aside the tendril of dark hair,

and savor the firm warmness of her presence.
These things are real. They are here, in this moment.
And they are alive, even when the moment passes
and we begin our day.

“Are you happy?” she says.
I smile as the tendril falls back down between her eyes.
I feel her lips as I kiss her gently. They taste of salt air and morning.
It is complicated. It is simple. It is, I realize, true.

“Yes.”

About this poem.

Being in love and fighting depression is a complicated stew. When someone enters your life that simplifies the recipe, it is a miracle.

Dancing at the diner,

Tom