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“Those people are idiots!” she said as soon as she got in the car. “They don’t know how to run a business.” My neighbor’s car was in the shop, so I picked her up from work one day.  “They messed up the schedule and asked me to stay later so I stayed till 4.  Now those jerks want me to stay till 8 and I refused.” She was talking about the managers at the drug store where she worked. “They said they won’t have anyone to work the register.  I said, ‘Guess what? Life ain’t fair.’”

It was only a few minutes’ drive from the drug store to the street where we lived, but it seemed like an eternity. I love my neighbor dearly, but this is the story she always tells about life, in one form or another.  Life isn’t fair.  Everyone else is an idiot. She’s not happy.

After a while, you have to realize that if you spew venom all the time, you’re also sitting in a pool of venom.  You can’t come out unscathed if you’re swimming in poison all the time.

You have to re-train your brain to stop focusing on the negative. The only way to do that is to tell a different story.

If my neighbor were really asking for advice, I’d tell her that she’s clinically depressed and really needs professional help.  I’ve told her this before and she agreed, but didn’t take the next step to see a counselor.

But she’s not asking for advice.  She’s playing the only tune she knows.  Life is bad. I’m not happy.  It’s someone else’s fault.

We’ve all been through dark days, that’s for sure, but the only time I think about hard times I’ve been through these days is to say a prayer of gratitude. The challenges were not a test, but training – a way of building resilience muscles and authenticating my compassion bona fides so it isn’t a hollow claim to say, I know how you feel.  I’ve been there. It seemed like it would never be morning again.

God always showed up to walk with me, but at one point in time, I didn’t see Him there.  I was laser-focused on what was wrong, the pile of stuff in front of me.  I can’t do this alone!  I don’t have enough! Why does this always happen to me? If only I had taken a breath and looked behind me, I would have seen that God always had my back.  All I had to do was tell a different story. I just had to close my eyes, put my hands together in prayer and sing a new song.

O troubled soul,
do not let falling
get you down.

We are not owed, we are owing.
Born to contradictions, day and night,
to tumble, to suffer, to
lament, to be rained on,
and to crawl out of the muck
panting and straining but alive,
more in love with life than ever.
Over and over we rise,
phoenixes, miracles —
the heart does not fail.
Love does not fail.
God does not fail.

It’s an old joke: A guy goes to a Chinese restaurant, eats his meal, then cracks open his fortune cookie, only to read the title of this post. Ha, ha. What’s less funny is that so many of us really are trapped: by the physical limitations and illnesses that beset our bodies, or by the more invisible, but no less crippling, illnesses of our minds. What do you do when there’s no fortune cookie around for you to send out an SOS?

It’s easy to say, “Talk to someone about it.” And most of us are comfortable — or at least willing — to discuss our physical woes with a doctor or other understanding soul. Our mental woes…not so much. Why? Perhaps we don’t want to burden others. Or we think our problems are unimportant compared to the afflictions others are carrying. Or maybe we are ashamed. Mostly the last one, I think.

Having a mental illness or issue is still viewed, by many, as a personal failure, a lack of will. If you’re depressed, think a happy thought! If you’re anxious, stop worrying — it’s silly. If you can’t control your thoughts or emotions — well, cowboy up! Grow a spine! None of these responses help someone. I know that mental illnesses are hard to understand — I watch “Hoarders” sometimes just to horrify my own inner neat freak, asking myself, “Why? Why on earth would anyone DO that?” But in point of fact, some people do. What are the rest of us going to do about it? How is my reaction helpful? (Note: It isn’t.)

I’ve lost friends (plural) to depression. I wasn’t close enough to help them, or maybe I wasn’t listening. Or maybe they never reached out. But from now on, I’m going to behave like everybody out there is carrying a heavy burden, mental or physical. Because they ARE. I just can’t see it. We are, each of us, trapped in a fortune cookie factory of our making.

We have two choices: reach out to God or reach out to one another. (Make that three choices: to do both.) If you are carrying something heavy, I want you to tell me. I want to pray for you. I want to listen to you. I want to tell you that I love you, even if I don’t know you. I hope you will afford me the same comfort. Let’s help each other. God put us together for a reason.

Depending who you ask, there are either five or seven stages of grief. Having recently become an expert on this topic (unwillingly — my father died exactly three weeks ago), I think I can boil it down to three stages, especially if the grieving person is a spiritual one.

Stage One: Acceptance. You think you can handle it. Sure, you’re sad, but you know your loved one is in heaven. You’re a religious person; you know God has taken your loved one to a better place. You cry, but you expect to. It’s okay.

Stage Two: Complete chaos. You’re angry. But not at God. Your spirituality won’t allow it. But you’re still mad. At whom? Not your loved one. Maybe you’re angry at Death. But Death isn’t a real entity. You’re stuck with feelings that you don’t know what to do with. So you yell at people on television, like those snotty folks on any given HGTV show who MUST have granite in their chef’s kitchen, although neither of them cooks, and a walk-in closet just for shoes, because why not? You’re sad, too, so sad you think you’ll never get past it. Some days, you just want to stay in bed with the covers over your head. But you’re embarrassed to say so because who wants to deal with a depressed person? I know people who went back to work the day after they lost a loved one. Why can’t I pull it together?

Stage Three: Acceptance again. You don’t get past it or over it so much as you get through it. And hopefully you gain a little wisdom in the process. Like this: Everybody grieves differently. Don’t let anyone tell you how to do it. You have to do whatever it is you need to do. But do listen to the advice of others: One friend told me, “Just cry whenever you feel like it. Even if it’s inopportune. Don’t hold it in.” I’m taking that bit of advice, probably to the consternation of others. I saw an older man in a white jacket the other night at a restaurant and nearly sobbed aloud. Because my dad had a white jacket. Stupid? Silly? I don’t much care.

Right now, I’m still firmly mired in Stage Two, with glimpses of Stage Three every once in a while. And I can say with some authority that grieving is hard, even for someone who considers herself a spiritual person. You’d think it’d be easier. You’d be wrong.

One of my friends says she knows her mother better now than when her mom was alive. She gets signs from her, the kind of signs you read about in Guideposts magazine: “My dad loved butterflies, and one day when I was thinking of him, a butterfly landed on my hand!” Maybe those things happen to other people, but they haven’t happened to me. (Unless the guy with the white jacket was really an angel, which I find difficult to believe…unless angels really like salad bars.) As much as I’d like a sign from heaven, I haven’t got one yet. Maybe I never will.

Grief tests you. It tests the things you believe in the most. And though my inner being is rocked by chaos, I haven’t lost sight of the things I believe. I’m holding onto them because I know they will get me through this. Whether there are seven stages or three, I’m going to get through it. Because all those things I said and thought at Stage One? They’re the truth. I’m counting on it.

A musician I admire once wrote these words: “Everyone gets tired of being out of reach.” The words are evocative, I suppose, of his life: He died this past April; Internet speculation pegs it as a suicide. We all get tired of being out of reach, of being misunderstood, unwanted, lonely. There may be millions of us crammed onto this planet, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling alone.

Some days, job number one is simply to hang on. My friend SueBE has been criticized by people who ought to know better for allowing her son to hang out with kids that certain Good Christians find “unsuitable.” Reading about these kids, I find the G.C.’s pronouncements of unsuitability ludicrous. These are not boys who are breaking into houses, taking drugs, flouting their parents. They’re just boys. A little unruly, but good as gold deep down. SueBE is hanging in there by writing about her struggles. I bet she’s feeling tired, too.

For everybody out there who’s just trying to keep it together, here’s a prayer:

let our fingers not slip from the rock.
Imbue our limbs with strength we do not feel,
with faith we are too tasked to ask for.
When others plot our fall,
redouble our resistance.
Remind us that to swim in place
is better than to drown.
You are in the struggle,
whatever comes next.

There’s a line in a poem called “Mornings Like This” by Annie Dillard that goes: “Give me time enough in this place and I will surely make a beautiful thing.” There are times when I look out into the world and think: Yes. With raw materials like these, how can we not make beautiful things? If not art or music, then beautiful emotions or actions or words.

Our planet is amazing. For every rare and strange pollen, moss or algae, there is some creature — some perfectly rare and strange creature — that keeps life and limb together by eating that particular pollen, moss or algae. For every seeming disaster to one species, there is a payout to another. The exquisite timing and balance of every living thing makes the innards of a cuckoo clock look like child’s play.

And yet there are people who purport not to be able to see God or to believe in God. That’s like saying you can’t see the elephant sitting in your lap. What’s not to see, to sense, to glory in? God is so huge, so magnificent, God imbues everything from the highest mountain to those little cup-shaped flowers I saw growing wild on my way to the dentist this morning. How can someone not be dazzled by all of that?

We must be pretty spoiled, pretty inured to the gifts spilling out around us from every bush, creek and night sky to not see God’s abundance everywhere and always. How can we keep from making beautiful things? What holds us back? Shouldn’t we be shouting from the rooftops, dancing in the streets and just generally making a lovely, lovely ruckus?

I’ve been quiet on this blog lately, through no fault of God’s but because of my own festering insecurities. The world is chiming alleluia all around me, but I’m turned away, sunk in a funk that would surely be laughable to God’s greater creations. You ever see a squirrel in a bad mood? A bunny lost in ennui? Of course not. We humans have the distinct honor of being the only species that can mess up our own good time.

So what to do? It’s a bit hard to heal a wound you can’t see or touch. But if I can just get myself to look up…. The paint and clay of an entire wondrous world are at my fingertips. Maybe I can’t make something beautiful yet. But give me time.

Life, like poetry, is measured in feet; the syllables ebb and flow —iamb (unstressed, stressed), trochee (stressed, unstressed), spondee (stressed! STRESSED!). What you won’t find is unstressed, unstressed. It does not rate a scheme. Oh sure, anapests and pyrrhics dangle them before our eyes, tantalizing as a ripe peach, but veil a stress just to one side. It cannot be avoided: For every exhalation (unstressed), there must be inhalation (stressed). But think of it this way — without the variation, how could we hear the music? Without the stresses, could the unstressed syllables of our life be nearly as sweet?

I see some spondees ahead of me. Funny, I always liked spondees (as feet, not metaphors) the best: The equal weight of the syllables forms a caesura, a rest of sorts. Stress, of course, does the opposite. But I’m beginning to think that’s okay. Throw a few unstressed feet in there — prayer does the trick for me — and the music starts to make itself heard, sort of the way even a war-torn country looks placid when viewed from far overhead. The topography smoothes itself out into simple shapes, city, mountains, sea.

I like to think that God hears our lives as music, as poetry. From His exalted view, it sounds rather lovely. And if we could get out of our own heads, we’d hear it, too. Still, it’s a bit hard to get off the ground when your life sounds like a dirge to your own ears.

I have no poetic advice for this. There are patches that are bound to be discordant, phrases that will never jump and leap like a great pentameter. Such is life. All one can do is seek the small pleasures — gather ye rosebuds while ye may, if I might poach a line from a greater bard than I. Better yet, turn it over to the greatest poet of all. In God we will find our unstressed syllable.

When my son was born, my mother-in-law crocheted him a beautiful blue blanket. It was tyke-sized and warm and infused with grandma-love.

It was around that time that I noticed I sometimes felt covered with a blanket of blue – but of a different type.  I had post-partum depression and couldn’t smile for a very long time.

My son is now thirteen and for the last few years, he’s been dealing with depression too.  Even though I blame myself for his downbeat-DNA, I’ve also had to find a way to make him face his issues for himself.

So, the other day when I asked him what was wrong and he shrugged, I left the room.

As I told him last time he shrugged when he felt sad, “I don’t do shrugs anymore.”

He knows that if he can’t articulate what’s wrong and talk it over, I’m no longer on duty as a mind-reader and all-around Mother MacGyver.  That guy could fix anything with a Q-Tip and a paper clip.  I’m just not into playing that thankless, unpaid – and might I add, fictional – role anymore.

The fact is, even if you’re clinically depressed, you can work toward finding a way to feel better.  Circumstances may affect you, but to an extent, you choose how you react to them.  The minute you shrug and act as if you can’t even find the words, it’s like saying “Poor pitiful me.  I have it so hard.”  And you may well have it hard. Perhaps harder than anyone else in the world.  So then what?  You win a medal?  That medal is rusty and heavy and will weigh you down.  Do you really want the Too Bad, So Sad Medal?

As you know from Lori’s post, nobody promised you a rose garden every day of your life.  And as you know from SueBE’s post, you don’t have to be a voluntary victim.  Depression may cover you like a blanket of blue, but you don’t have to wear it like a shroud.

So if you have it that hard, shake off the shrugs.  Don’t define yourself by the bad moments in your life. Never is hyperbole and always hasn’t arrived yet, so don’t get caught in those two black holes.  Keep going.  Keep trying.  Keep talking to the people who love you.  Before you know it, you’ll find a way to climb up out of your funk and get back to life again.

Remember how it felt to be a kid on Christmas morning? We don’t often experience highs like that as adults. Oh, holidays are still pleasant, but they’re more work than they used to be. And any “high” is immediately followed by a “low” — something that was easier to take in stride as a child, when the next holiday or birthday party or field trip was always just around the corner.

I’m coming down from a “contact high”: That is, time spent with my friends and classmates at a recent reunion. I’m not going to lie (although I am going to use blatantly ‘80s slang): I had a blast. But now the afterglow is wearing off. It’s back to business as usual.

I used to wonder, as many people have, why human beings couldn’t be happy all the time. We seem to expect it. We are uncomfortable with sadness; we don’t like it. We speak of being “depressed.” Actually, of course, depression is a medical condition involving certain brain chemicals. Most of us aren’t really depressed, not medically anyway. We’re just sad.

I’ve come to a conclusion about happiness. I don’t think we’re supposed to be happy all the time, or even most of the time. I think it’s unfair to suggest that we should. The story of the Garden of Eden attempts to explain what I’m talking about — namely, that our free will comes with a price, and that price is unhappiness, at least from time to time.

Our choices make us unhappy. Our ability to choose the direction our lives will take makes us unhappy. Even choosing happiness can make us unhappy, as happiness can only be fleeting. We are built for contrasts: There can be no satiety without hunger, no dark without light, no unhappiness without happiness.

Like any living thing, happiness (laughter, sunshine, love) takes specific care. You have to work at it. Maintain ties with people who make you happy. Choose positivity in your day-to-day demeanor. Remember good times. But don’t expect to be happy all the time. Flowers need rain to grow, too. And happiness in this lifetime comes only in glimpses. We’re not ready to see Heaven…not yet.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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