Friday, April 18, 2014

Feed These Beasts at Your Peril

Black Dogs of Depression

The black dogs of depression began sniffing near my heels on a recent day. I felt them creep toward my eyes and produce tears that brimmed in my lower lids like cups too full yet not quite spilled.
Dense, dark clouds blocking the sun validated the day’s forecast of heavy winds, rain, maybe tornadoes. The lack of blue sky and sunlight helped me rationalize the weighty thoughts and feelings springing into my psyche. Those feelings, however, reflected more than weather woes, more than the occasional dark day in my usually sunny Florida skies.
Sensing the black dogs approach, I gazed beyond the sky, knowing that more than clouds beckoned them near. Depression having been my nemesis for years beyond which I can count, when its dark scent heralds demons coming my way, I’ve gained the wisdom to know it’s a matter of life for me to act. If I don’t, the black dogs and all they entail might overcome me.
I sharpen my senses and begin the critical task of surveying my environment. I am aware that what I see, when I sleep, what I eat, where I go—or don’t go—and my actions and reactions either sustain my soul or provide a feast to lure the dark beasts nipping at me. To quell the beasts’ advance, I ask: What scraps of life have I tossed their way that they circle round me, salivating for more?
The question and its answers are essential because once the feeding begins, such beasts are never satiated; they will circle, sniff, and tug at my soul, until my most vulnerable marrow is exposed. Indeed, I ask, what scraps of life have enticed them? What did I choose from the “Menu for the Black Dogs of Depression” and put on the plate of my life?

Menu for the Black Dogs of Depression
Feed Them and They Will Keep Coming Back for More
Loneliness: Isolate yourself. Avoid social contact and interactions.
The God Hole: Fill the God hole with stuff, distraction, sensation—anything that isn’t spiritually enlightening and sustaining.
Sloth: Black dogs drool when they spy the vulnerable wasting time, frittering away opportunity, and letting food-crusted dishes, clutter, sweat-stained laundry, and dirt accumulate.
Junk Food: High-sugar, high-fat, white-flour-laden, nutrient-lacking food, and a scarcity of fruits and vegetables open a path for the dark side to edge into your psyche and provide a platter to serve up the scraps of your soul.
Alcohol and Drugs: Soul-killing substances are top of the menu for seeding dark clouds—and days and nights—of the soul.
Negative, parasitic people: Those who suck the life out of you, people who sap your time, energy, and strength—physical and emotional—leave little to ward off the nipping canines that howl, growl, and seek a place to sink their teeth.
Garbage In/Black Dogs In, Too: Words, music, movies, videos, angry rants, and rage, all rent a kink in the armor of your psyche where the black dogs can latch and then hold on.

Menu in front of me, appetizers, entrees, and desserts scanned, I noted the items on my order: isolation, lack of exercise, poor diet. Awareness was my first step away from the snarling, salivating beasts. Next, connection, exercise, and eating well made them fall back into the shadows, far from my heels, far from my psyche.
I remain alert, aware, and watchful because these carriers of depression aren’t cute, they aren’t cuddly; you don’t want to bring them home. These fierce, snarling, destructive hounds of hell will never be full. They are rarely satisfied. Leave a place in your life or heart open, and they charge, hungry, and cruel. When you refuse to provide them a single entrĂ©e from their life-wrenching menu, they will back away, heads low, tails between their legs, but nonetheless sniffing and ever-alert for their next meal.
I have power in the tools I use to keep the black dogs in the shadows where they belong. I keep those tools close by, knowing that life—and my menu—are likely to change.
From where I sit this day, my heart holds no fear of those recent dark days. The black dogs have trotted away and neither do I anticipate nor am I wary of their return. These feelings of safety, security, and serenity are a result of me seizing the gift of awareness—and giving my heart, my psyche, and my soul the care I deserve.
Depression enters and becomes a part of one’s life and heart for many reasons and wears many faces—not all as dark as described here. I must be watchful in all facets of my life to maintain the edge of awareness necessary for me to keep the dark side at bay.

* * * * *

The term black dogs of depression is nothing more than a metaphor. I mean neither disrespect nor disservice to black dogs when I use this term. My two mixed-breed Black Lab/Virginia coon hounds will vouch for me.

Important Information About Depression
Mild depression and situational depression are not unusual at unsettled stages of our lives. That unsettled aspect often lends the name adjustment disorder to such forms of depression. When our lives are askew, it is more important to be aware and not entice the black dogs with items from the menu presented earlier. Situational depression can often be addressed, soothed, and ended by positive lifestyle activities and choices.
NOTE: It is important to be aware that clinical depression is a serious, sometimes life-threatening condition and must be treated by a mental health professional. If you or someone you know or love has or shows signs of depression, it is of utmost importance to receive help right away. Signs of depression and resources for information and treatment follow.

Signs of Depression
Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or unhappiness
Angry outbursts, irritability, or frustration, even over small matters
Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, such as sex
Sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much
Tiredness and lack of energy, so that even small tasks take extra effort
Changes in appetite—often reduced appetite and weight loss, but increased    cravings for food and weight gain in some people
Anxiety, agitation or restlessness—for example, excessive worrying, pacing, hand-wringing or an inability to sit still
Slowed thinking, speaking, or body movements
Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself for things that are not your responsibility
Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
Frequent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches

The following links provide more information on depression:
Google the term depression for additional resources for depression and anxiety.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Kinsugi—A Different Wholeness

Cracked Grace
Beauty in the Broken
Some see beauty only in the pristine, the perfect, the unflawed. Rose petals dusting a counter after falling from a bloom catch my eye, sometimes more often than a rose on a vine or in a vase. Yellow tabebuia blossoms littering the earth beneath a tree capture my imagination.
What is now broken—a flower blossom, a treasured piece of pottery, a life—was once whole. The petals that break away from a bud were once a part of a complete flower. Beauty lies in the petals that fall just as beauty lies in the cracks of our lives when we patch them and continue to live, love, and laugh.
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a resin mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The mendedhealedbecomes obvious in the gold, silver, or platinum that marks that mend. The philosophy of kingsugi reflects the sense that brokenness and then repair—healing—are a part of an object’s history, rather than something that must be hidden.
Just as kintsugi marks what is now whole, but in a different form, the broken—a flower blossom, a prized piece of pottery, a life—often carry marks, scars, and the world is reminded through viewing those wounds. It’s important to note that the wounded and healed can point the way to the path back to life, love, and laughter, and that their different form of wholeness has beauty and immeasurable value.

Kinsugi is both an art form and a philosophy. You can find out more about it here:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Remembering to Live

I would never forget Alexa, but I forgot her birthday, and it kills me.
Forgetting a Date,
But Remembering to Live
Sun., March . . .
I stopped at the date because if today is March 23, which it is, that means yesterday was March 22—Alexa’s birthday. And I forgot. And it kills me. It rents a gash in my spirit—my very soul.

She would have been 35. I’m numb.
I am stricken, almost overwhelmed with new grief. Is this what happens twenty-eight years after your child dies? You forget birthdays? What kind of mother forgets her child’s birthday—even if there isn’t much to celebrate?
I searched my daily meditations for March 22 because I was so preoccupied and got so caught up in my morning that day, that I didn’t read even one. Did any of them hold a clue to remind me that March 22 was her birthday? No. Other than the date—March 22—which should have reminded me if only by seeing it—black letters on white paper—three times, once for each meditation.
What did I do that was so important that it struck the date of my child’s birth from my memory?
Her sister and I had an hour-long, heart-filled talk that morning. We spoke about our children and our connection to them. Her youngest children—twins, my granddaughters—graduate from high school in a year, and we spoke of wanting to hold on while honoring the process of letting go.
We didn’t, however, speak of the child in our life—her sister, my daughter—who was, and continues to be, so hard to let go.
What else was so important that it banished the date from my conscious mind? I weeded and trimmed flowers, enabling them to thrive and bless me with their blooms.
Other trivial things made up my day: I vacuumed, I cleaned, I did laundry, I bathed the dogs. I baked bread. I sorted flower, herb, and vegetable seeds and chose the ones I planted late that afternoon.
At dusk, I went inside, lit rose and freesia candles and filled the bathtub with lavender and rose-scented bubbles and salts.
I placed Sarah Brightman’s opera classics in the Bose on top of my dresser, and I turned it to point the speakers toward the bathroom. The music washed over me as lavender, rose, and warmth washed over my body.
I ate hot buttered bread and watched an Adrienne Brody movie, Discontent, before I took my contented self to bed, where I nodded off, after placing the pages of Pearl Buck’s Dragon Seed next to my pillow.
I forgot a date, but not a life—hers and mine—not a child, and not love. The loss and the life are what I live every day—not only birthdays and other anniversaries that one often marks after a loved one dies.
“What did I do?” I ask again. I lived life. I lived because after loss—the most heart-rending loss anyone can suffer—in order to become whole in any meaningful way, that’s what one must do: Live life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Growth Requirements

Light. Space. Air.
People and Pine Trees
Growth Requirements

Light. Space. Air. Hundreds of pine trees spring up uncultivated and untended in the patch of earth parallel to my street. Branches like tentacles reach to the sun while capturing the early morning moisture that sparkles like gems as it nourishes.

Such trees often cannot sprout in the tangled, tight undergrowth that lies at the feet of their parent pines. Wind and water likely moved these to their current home. These trees need light, space, and air to grow.

Light. Space. Air.
Also necessary for people to grow.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Say a Prayer, Then Get to Work

Cracked Grace
Work and Prayer 
Ask and You Shall Receive—Maybe Not
Pray for it. Just pray. Say a prayer and then let go. Release your desires to the universe, to God, to the cosmos: Choose one thing you want, you really, really want. Pray. Release. Let Go. And then prepare to receive because all of the wonderful things we desire, dream for, and hope for shall manifest themselves in abundance. We simply must be open for those gifts to show up in our lives. See it, imagine it, and it becomes real. Create it in your mind, your psyche, your heart and it becomes real. The Secret told us. The Power of Positive Thinking told us. The Bible told us. Gurus by the thousands told us.
Maybe not. I don’t dispute that prayer, sending desires, thoughts, and well wishes from ourselves to others and the universe around us have no value. I don’t dispute that generating positive karma and thinking positive have no value.
I visualized the stairs looking like this.
A desire, a wish, a prayer, a thought do have value, but alas, they are limited. I love to garden. I can visualize an English cottage garden in my yard. I can send the universe a message that a lovely garden is my heart’s desire. I can pray for the delight of flowers, bees, butterflies, and intoxicating scents. That garden will manifest only when I get outside and start digging, planting, and weeding. I have to do the work.

To make that vision a reality, I had to do the work.

I love to write, but it’s not easy. I must first plant myself in my chair, defy distractions, and quiet the naysayers (mostly in my mind) that would keep me from putting pen to paper or fingertips to keys. I have to do the work.
The painter has to sit at the easel and pick up the brush, pen, or chalk. The photographer must invest in equipment, study subjects, check lighting, and do all that creating an outstanding photo involves. Painters and photographers must do the work.
The out-of-shape, overweight, lethargic would-be runner can send all his or her desires to the cosmos and imagine a lithe, strong, healthy body and mind. Again, he or she must put on the running shoes and get to work.
Prayer, positive thoughts, visualizations, and desires do not create art. They do not create rewards. They do not create success. They do not create the life any of us wants or desires. They are the first step, of course, but the next step—perhaps the most important step—involves putting forth the necessary effort—doing the work. Only by doing the work will any of us receive the rewards of our visualizations, imaginations, positive thoughts, and yes, our prayers.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Thirteen Is the Loneliest Number

Thirteen Is the Loneliest Number
Omens, Superstitions,
Black Cats, and
Everyone’s Bad, Bad Luck
Superstitions: I have them. Few things give me the heebeejeebees like a black cat crossing my path.
Spill the salt? Pick up that shaker and toss some over my left shoulder; which, really, is “spilling” it again, but at least it’s following the rules.
Walking under a ladder is something I never do. It’s dangerous anyway, but it’s still a superstition.
Open an umbrella in my house and I will chase you outside with a branch of burning sage.
New Year’s Day is for eating black-eyed peas, greens, and herring (if you can stomach it). Washing clothes is forbidden.
Friday the 13th is best spent tucked beneath the covers.
Thirteen: No thirteenth floor for me. When I invoice, the numbers go from 12 straight to 14.
Black cats rank right up there with umbrellas in the house. Goosebumps and a racing heart ensued when a solid black cat trotted in front of my car as I left the Publix parking lot last week. I smeared an X on the car windshield with my fingers. (That’s supposed to cancel the bad luck.) Then I considered all the cars in the Publix parking lot. I wondered how people would get bad luck from that cat on the loose. It was Thursday, the day of the new weekly ad, so I figured hundreds were cursed. That black cat looked about three to four years old, so I then figured it had caused thousands of people bad luck just by walking around day to day.
Figuring yet some more, I realized that cat has crossed the paths of thousands of people and every single one of them has had bad luck. And it has nothing at all to do with the cat, or umbrellas, or spilled salt, or laundry on New Year’s Day, or choking down herring. It’s just bad luck. We want to believe that life, the universe, our orbiting orb has order, sense, sensibility and that if we do the right thing—toss salt, eat herring, avoid undersides of ladders, shun thirteen, and obey all the rules, superstitions attached or not—all will be well.
Life doesn’t work that way. Good luck/bad luck can be rephrased to positive things happen and negative things happen. Of course, life, the universe, and our orbiting orb do have some order, but any scientist will tell us that huge swaths of experiences we face are random, that much chaos reigns, in spite of our efforts to create order and sense. That cat won’t cause me bad luck unless I get so flappy that I don’t pay attention to my driving. The ladder’s underside might be dangerous if I bump it and something or someone comes tumbling down. Plenty of people are wealthy and I am certain they do not gag on herring each New Year’s Day. It’s silly to spill salt twice.
I have had only one wretched Friday the 13th in my 61 years. The rest were just fine, and I didn’t hide under the covers all day. It’s not quite safe to open an umbrella inside, so I’ll still chase you out with a branch of burning sage if you try it here.
My X-marks-the-windshield habit is so ingrained it will be hard to stop when a cat crosses my path. Perhaps I can simply take a deep breath and carry on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

We Sneer: "Do the Math!"

We Sneer, “Do the Math!”

It’s an insult: “Do the math.” We sneer it in a smarter-than-thou voice when the solution to a problem is so obvious that one must do only a simple calculation: 1 + 1 = 2. So, yeah, we roll our eyes, shake our heads, and say, “Do the math.”
Solve Life’s Most Vexing Problems
In many aspects of life, if we “Do the Math”—a different math—solutions to life’s most vexing problems often present themselves in rather profound ways. This math (I will not call it new math), involves much more than arithmetic. To illustrate, I share the following:
A close friend of mine died early this year. I didn’t know Kathy’s husband well, but we spoke often during the last weeks of her life, so I recently called him to see how he’s holding up. We spoke about Kathy’s memorial service, the people who attended, and his gratitude for everyone and everything they did to honor her life.
As conversations do, ours drifted and we began speaking of butterflies. Kathy loved butterflies and the symbolism inherent in them was a focus of her memorial service. Going beyond that symbolism, the conversation shifted and we discussed other aspects of butterflies, particularly monarchs. We spoke of their diminishing habitat, migration patterns, climate change, and the near-disappearance of milkweed (larvae host plants) in the Midwest due to herbicides and other farming practices. We also touched on how genetically modified crops such as Bt corn affect butterflies. We talked of gardening, extra gas cans (I need one), mulch, weeds, and native Florida landscaping.
As the phone call drew to an end, we made plans to share milkweed plants sometime in the future.
The next morning, I realized that the last part of our conversation wasn’t focused on illness, loss, and grief. I realized we forgot death, mourning, and sorrow—if only for a short while. We did the math.
Doing the Math
This is how you do the math.
Two months after my seven-year-old daughter Alexa died from brain cancer on November 2, 1986, I took a college-level math class. I don’t recall why I chose math or that time to take a class. I wanted to go work on my degree and I needed a math credit, but the timing and the subject are rather odd in retrospect.
Doing the math has always been hard—really hard—for me. Ask me to write, edit, grow certain plants, or turn flour, yeast, oil, water, and few other ingredients into bread and I’m all in. Ask me to do a calculation and I break out in a sweat. Math has always been a struggle. For whatever reason, I took a math class. I knew it would be hard, but I’d already done the hardest thing imaginable. I had watched my precious child die.
The class was held at Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Florida, on Mondays from 7 to 10 p.m. I sat in the first row on the far-right of the room, a few seats from the front. I knew from previous math classes that I’d have to pay attention, that I couldn’t miss a word from the professor, or I would be lost. During the break, I kept to myself. I was still raw and I wanted to be anonymous in the class. I didn’t talk to anyone about myself, my life, or my recent experiences.
I strive for A’s and generally do whatever it takes to get them. So during that first class, I focused. I listened. I took notes. I copied every problem and every detail of its solution from the board. At the end of that first class, as I walked to my car, I realized that for three hours, I was not consumed with grief, with longing, with sorrow. I did the math. I did only the math.
Doing the math relaxed me. Doing the math took my mind off the parts of my life that were simply too much to bear. Doing the math turned off my emotions for three hours.
The math continued to be hard. To keep up, I studied night after night. I did calculations on repeat, trying to imprint formulas and methods into my brain. I wrote and rewrote equations. I erased errors until my notebook paper was riddled with holes and then I copied my homework—again. I did permutations and combinations. I used my Texas Instruments TI-36 solar calculator into the evening, placing it beneath a bright lamp to keep the digital numbers lit.
I got my A. It took 15 hours of study each week for a 3-hour class. I also got part of my psyche back—the part of me that saw problems, worked on solutions until I found them, and completed those problems. For 18 months preceding that class, I lived in a world of a problem illness that had no solution. In that world, nothing made sense. Nothing computed on the most primal emotional level.
I entered a world that made sense for 3 hours a week (plus the 15I spent studying) and it saved me. Doing the math pulled me out of the deepest depression and sorrow I ever experienced. Those 18 hours a week still left 150 hours in which to process my grief, get accustomed to a different life, and continue to work through the mourning process, but those 18 helped me function in those 150 hours.
I remained anonymous in the class. I spoke only briefly and on superficial levels with my classmates. I believe that having those three hours a week when I was not the grieving mother helped heal my psyche. I was just another student. I needed that to define me rather than what I had experienced before that first class and continued to experience outside the class.
Looking back, I know that I “Did the math.” Having lived through much loss and sadness in my life, I also know that the grieving process is not to be ignored. Grieving is important, and each of us proceeds through mourning in our own way and in our own time. However, to save our lives, to keep our own precious lives worth living, I also know that sometimes we have to step away from grief. We have to step away from mourning. Sometimes we have to “Do the math.”
I did the math and it saved my life. A year or so after the class ended, I happened to see the professor in the Publix parking lot. She recognized me and we spoke briefly. I told her that I enjoyed the class, but that it was quite difficult for me. She said, “Oh, but you did so well. You’re really good at math.” If she only knew . . .

How to Help Someone Do the Math
1.  Grief and the process of mourning are important for healing after any loss. Grief and its process have no timetable. Give yourself and your loved ones the time to experience that process.
2.  Even while honoring the mourning process, it helps healing to step away from grief—to relax your emotions, to give your psyche a rest. This can take several forms: renewing or beginning an interest in art of any form, music, writing, painting; exercise, travel; exploring a new hobby; taking a class—even a math class.
3.  Support groups often provide valuable assistance to those in mourning. I mention only two here because I am familiar with them. Most churches, synagogues, and other religious groups have grief support groups. A quick Google search can help you find church-affiliated and non-church-affiliated support groups in your area.
Compassionate Friends is a well-known support group for bereaved parents. Their web site is
Share is a group to help with pregnancy and infant loss. Their web site is
4.  If someone’s grief is debilitating and ongoing, and support groups have not helped the healing process, a consultation with a qualified therapist could help ease the grieving person’s transition. If you or someone you know is struggling, I encourage therapeutic help.

These suggestions may seem trite in the overall experience of grief, but they aren’t. Taking a break—mental, physical, emotional—from the mourning process can and does relieve the pressure of overwhelming sorrow.
We grieve loss because life is so wonderful, so important. At times, it is right and healthy to honor and cherish our own lives. It’s a good thing to “Do the Math.”