Monday, January 28, 2008

steeped in filth.

For the past few days, I have been dirty. No. Filthy. And I’ve relished being so completely unclean. As I mired in my own muck– sweat layered upon sweat, oily hair that made my head itch, the general grime of day-to-day living– I also became mired in spiritual muck.

I’ve not wanted this blog to become a confessional. Rather, I’ve aimed to make it reflective – writings that deal with experiences already passed, or passed enough that I can derive out of them some kind of insight. But even avoiding confession, reflectivity should also be honest. In the spirit of honesty, I’ll admit this – after a great high (reported in my last silly-babbling entry), there comes a deep low.

Lowness is a terribly difficult truth to admit, particularly for me – a girl always dishing out practical, logical advice; a girl eternally helping friends twist their perspectives so they can see the bright side during difficult circumstances. But I am no stranger to occasional bouts of long-depression.

The first time I can recall being inexplicably swallowed by internal sadness was as a sophomore or junior in high school. I remember distinctly that one night –another night of insomnia – I laid in bed and cried until there were no more tears. Then, I simply prayed. I had not been a deeply faithful person, but in that moment of lowness, I knew no other options. I stared at a shadow cast across my closet door as I silently prayed, something to the effect of, “If there is a god, please give me a sign, please give me a sign, please give me a sign. Some sign that I am being watched. Some sign that I have a guide. Please give me a sign.” I could not stop praying as I stared at the shadow. I don’t know for how long I prayed, but finally and suddenly, a perfect square of light illuminated in the center of the shadow on my closet. It could have been that something disrupted the way the streetlight outside was hitting the ground and casting its shadow. I don’t know. But there was a perfect square. And relief washed through my body. Then the square was gone. Finally, I slept for the first time in months.

I never had to premise a prayer again, “If there is a god.” I didn’t become dogmatic in my beliefs – but I became faithful in the truest sense. I believed in god – in spiritual power higher than myself, in the idea that I am not alone in the universe, but instead that I am guided, protected, watched as I navigate my own purpose in the moments of my life.

The next time I recall a similar sadness was as a freshman in college. It hit for a third time two years later during the winter of 1995. I had been in the throws of a dissolving relationship that finally broke in the winter. Suddenly, what should have been a run-of-the-mill month or two of sadness extended into months, months, months. A year. It affected me so heavily that I’ve since apologized to my then-roommates for the misery that I was within our house. I stuffed myself into my bedroom. I didn’t socialize with anyone if I could help it. I cried. I hated myself. I slept and slept and slept. I felt like the bottom of the earth – like a worm, a slug, like dirt – not intelligent, not fun, not interesting, just brown funk.

Before the summer of 1996 I began having intensely strange and vivid dreams that I was compelled to write down. I knew intuitively that they had to do with healing. In one, blue corn was being given to me – I was supposed to eat it to cleanse myself. In another, I swam with a pack of bears in the Atlantic Ocean. The bears and I breathed and swam beneath the water, absorbing oceanic life with still awe, and finally, we went to an island where I lived with the bears at a makeshift campsite where the bears cared for me. In another, I was in a glass home – a contemporary home full of odd angles – so glass panes jutted out in various directions, sometimes intersecting so you might look through one glass pane to another before you observed the exterior world. Inside, it was minimal – the only furniture, a cushioned round bench. I sat on the bench looking at this glass home, and I said aloud, full of amazing discovery, “I can do this. I could have designed this. I never knew I was intelligent before.”

That spring, I stopped burying myself in my room. I stopped feeling afraid and stupid. I began, as I have been recently, attempting, attempting, attempting. I began socializing again. In the summer, I tried to sew – making a dress I actually wore and curtains that hung in my room. I took my first camping trip with a group of equally inexperienced girls. I read every book I’d ever thought might be interesting. I took art classes when the fall semester began, because I’d always loved art, but I’d always been afraid of it – sure that I could not possibly create anything worthy of being called art. I found myself making, pre-art-classes, simple little mobiles out of broken glass. It became meaningful to me, to make something new and whole out of something fragile – glass – and particularly out of things that were already broken. When winter came, I bought myself a plane ticket to Boston, a city I’d always wanted to visit. I stayed in a hostel and I explored the city alone and completely at ease. I began dating again, moving past the way it feels to think no boy will ever love you again and moving past the way it feels to think no boy will ever be as good as the boy you’re not with anymore.

I was waking from that inexplicable state of sad sleep. When it happened a year later, when I began waking, and a few months later when I really felt awake and had perspective on the barren recluse I had been, I made a promise to myself. I promised I would NEVER EVER allow myself to get so low again, to bury myself. I had been unhappy. The people around me had been unhappy. I was a presence in that time– and not a good presence.

I began dating my now husband soon after I had become, if I can continue to use the metaphor, wide-awake. It was April of 1997. When I met him, I felt I was a new person – courageous, social, adventurous, confident. I’d just emerged from my own cocoon, and I was glad he didn’t really know me before.

Since, when I’ve felt bouts of that sadness coming on, I’ve worked consciously to fend them off – truth be told, I think I created my own mechanisms for dealing – being positive, shifting my point of view to discover what good is coming out of the situations I am in.

Even when my mother had her first stroke in the fall of 1998, I never fell into the kind of depression I’d fallen into previously. And when my mother died, I can’t say I became steeped in a negative mental and spiritual sleep. I felt grief. But grief, for me, has felt distinctly different from personal internal inexplicable melancholy. Grief can be explained. That is the difference. Grief has an explanation.

I suspect that one of my coping mechanisms, when I determined I would never allow myself again to become swallowed by my own sadness, was simply to actually allow myself to feel sad when I need to. But it has a time limit – the sadness. It is like a guest – it’s welcome becomes worn.

These last few months, in the midst of extreme happiness over pursuing writing, I know I have also felt nearly equally sad. Inexplicably sad. Sure, part of it is grief. But part of it, I cannot explain. I’ve handled it, for sure, as best as I can. I’ve warded it off. When I’ve been sleeping too much, I’ve let a voice snap in my head – “It’s time to GET UP. It’s time to GET GOING.” When I came out of that depression during the late 90s, I came to rely on lists. My lists began, always: 1. Wake up. This item on my list has been the source of great humor for my roommate at the time and also my husband. I have laughed about it myself. But truth be told, I needed “wake up” on my list – I needed it as a command, and I needed to be able to scratch it off of my list as an accomplishment. As a completed chore. As a precursor to the other parts of my day. There certainly had been a time when I refused to wake up, when I refused to crawl out of bed, when I slept and slept and slept. I never want to be there again.

This weekend, on Thursday, I felt that sadness enter. No rhyme or reason, just a feeling. It settled in, thumbing its nose at the euphoria of the past week or so. By Friday, I could sense it more definitively – I could sense that I’d decided not to ward it off. All day, I thought, I am hungry for nothing. I am hungry for nothing. And I wasn’t – no appetite for food. But the emptiness in my stomach was not just the lack of desire to eat. It was a spiritual kind of emptiness that I lacked the hunger to fill or even the knowledge to know how to fill it.

That night, I dragged myself to a writing workshop at a friend’s house. I thought I wouldn’t be able to write a single word. As it turned out, I began a poem with those very words: I am hungry for nothing. And in the writing, the words got shifted, moved deeper into the poem, instead of introducing it. But the poem itself depressed me.

On Saturday night I did something fun – but I had to force it. Not only was I not in the mood, but my stomach ached and ached. “You go be social. You go have fun.” I commanded myself. And I did, but in the midst of socializing, I felt waves of chills come over me, and I left early, took two Tylenol and went to bed certain I would wake with the flu. Sunday, I didn’t wake with the flu. But I didn’t wake until 11:00. I got up and forced myself to be nourishing. I made blueberry pancakes and cut up some fruit to eat with them. I ran a few errands. By 3:30, I was in bed again – alternating between sleeping and watching TV.

My husband peeked in. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Nothing.” I answered. “Are you depressed?” he asked. “It’s the weekend,” I replied, as if I am entitled to do nothing on the weekend. At 7:30, he forced me out of bed – “Come on, let’s clean the kitchen together and cook dinner.” “No,” I said, “Why don’t you get started on the kitchen, and I’ll cook when you’re done.” I wanted to beg more time in bed. “No,” he said, “We’ll do both together.” I obliged. I skulked out of bed. I cooked. I felt a little better.

Later in the night, I commented, “tomorrow is Monday.” “And?” my husband asked. But he answered his own question: “You won’t be able to lie in bed all day.” “I won’t be able to lie in bed all day,” I confirmed.

Today I forced myself to go to my class at the Y. I walked on the elliptical machine after. I took my dogs around the block. I showered for the first time since this past Thursday. It was a ritualistic cleansing. First I bathed. I put scented oil in the bath water. I put a sugar-lemon scrubbing mask on my face – which is supposed to make my skin “GLOW.” I sat in the tub and made a to-do list full of things I knew I could scratch off (including things I’d already accomplished), and some things I knew I would not get to. As I let the facemask dry, I read a short story. When I finished reading, I drained the tub. I turned the shower on and scrubbed off the facemask. I needed citrus, sunshine – I cleaned up with lemon body wash. I washed my superbly greasy hair – which I observed had left a stain on the mat at the Y earlier in the day (I cleaned the matt off!). I conditioned my hair. I let myself rinse in cold water. I towel dried. I put orange-ginger lotion on my legs. I went to my yoga mat and stretched. I stretched, stretched, stretched. I thanked god that I have the luxury to reignite this way – to peacefully recharge.

The sky was blue. (It had been gray all weekend.) Cool outside, but the kind of day when your feel warm under the sun. I rode my bike to a coffee shop. I’ve been working today. Not sleeping. Not blanketing myself in sadness, or embracing it as I did this weekend.

I learned something when I came out of that last terrible engulfing sorrow. I learned that it is okay to feel depressed. But it’s up to me to chase it away. I’ve come to accept that sometimes I can chase it away alone, and sometimes, I need help scaring it off. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to feel it to some degree. Highs and lows come in pairs, I think. What would it be to experience euphoria at all times? How tragic would that be? So I also know I can’t allow myself to slumber indefinitely. Balancing joy and melancholy, I believe, is what I assigned to myself as a goal for 2008.

Today, while I am enjoying the taste of solitude I have been craving lately, I am no longer steeping in my own filth. But occasionally, I enjoy it – the impurity, the grime, my personal muck – internal and external, physical and spiritual. It helps me recognize when I am becoming awake and clean.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

weather change

It has been cold outside for many days. It feels as if it has been gray and gloomy too. But yesterday (as today) was beautiful. At 12:30 I saw that the clouds were clearing. I noticed the temperature increasing. An hour later I was riding my bike around the lakes, listening to my I-Pod and feeling grateful that I can notice the day transitioning, that I am not stuck behind a desk unaware of weather changes. Passing by the lakes, I saw that the pelicans are here. Every year in Baton Rouge, the lakes are visited by a burst of white pelicans – floating on the water full of stunning quietude. The gratitude I felt yesterday while I rode my bike was so powerful that it made me ache in some way.

I have been working to find balance between joy and melancholy, because instead of balance, I have felt both sensations so intensely that it overwhelms and exhausts me and somehow feels sharply painful.

On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I went to my friend a.’s house. She had gathered about twelve people together for drinks, a little food and sharing. We were to bring an object, a trinket, a song, a poem, anything that summarized what 2007 has been for us. When we gathered to share, we each spoke about the prior year and also about what we hope the coming year will be.

I scavenged around my office about ten minutes before we were supposed to head to a.’s house, and I picked out these items: a postcard of a Salvador Dali painting – a woman looking out of the window at water, a postcard with a black and white photograph of Flannery O’Conner standing on her porch and a peacock in the foreground, and the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes – marked in two spots.

I passed the two postcards around, and as I passed them I read two poems.

First –

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

The second poem was this.

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends
Soft as it began-
I loved my friend.

Why these four artifacts? How do they summarize the past year, and how do they relate to one another? On New Year’s Eve, my thoughts were disjointed. Even still, I’m not sure that I can adequately define their relationship to each other, to me and to 2007.

I will attempt. Attempting is a thing I’ve been doing lately.

First, for me – the last year began in August of 2006, and it ended in December of 2008. That period feels distinctly like one full cycle that can be summarized with these themes: experiencing, processing and accepting loss; re-evaluating goals and attempting with all energy to make dreams reality – to live in a way that is authentic to the core of who I am; and renewing friendships – renewing the fluttering social side of me which had been slumbering.

When my mom died, I felt numb for a long time. Even in that numbness, the writer part of me was rising. The week after I returned from her funeral I wrote a note to myself in which I proclaimed that it was time to be a writer – time for me to work at it. I agonized over whether this was a realistic goal. I wondered if I would have nothing to write about. I feared I would fall into the depths of poverty.

In my 8th grade English class, there was a poster on the wall that contained the “Hold Fast to Dreams” poem. I remember sitting and daydreaming as I stared at that poster. Reading and rereading those words, I could sense the depth of loss that comes from relinquising dreams. At Christmas last year, the “Hold Fast to Dreams” poem revisited my memory. I told my husband c., “I really want a collection of Langston Hughes poems.” He gave the collected works to me for Christmas, and I immediately searched out that poem. Two months later, in February, I decided to it was time to try. To attempt to be a writer. To attempt.

The Salvador Dali postcard is one my sister gave to me on my sixteenth birthday. On the back, she wrote simply, “Dream Big.” On New Year’s Eve, I told the people with whom I was gathered, “When I see this card, it reminds me that every sixteen year old should be told simply, ‘Dream Big.’ What more vital message can you offer a kid?” It reminds me still to dream.

The Flannery O’Connor postcard is one I’ve had for 12 or 13 years. I bought it myself, so nothing is written on it. I think it embodies my love of the south – its strange mix of flamboyance and crippling paralysis. The image also reminds me that forever I’ve wanted to be a writer. And in some way it is homage to a woman whose work I love.

I’ve kept these two cards in a visible space wherever my workspace has been over the years – in my bedroom, in my cubicles, in my landscape architecture studio, now in my office at home. They summarize the year because they remind me that I am finally attempting. In the past they have seemed like a nice inspiring but unattainable idea.

And what of the second Langston Hughes poem? It captures the sadness of the year. On New Year’s Eve day, my friend e. was at my house. Standing in my dining room, fresh from the memorial we’d held only days earlier for marcie, she began crying softly. She said, “I was just thinking about that Langston Hughes poem, ‘I loved my friend.’” A third grade teacher, she said, “I see it in children’s anthologies all the time, and I never know what to say about it.” And she cried more. I sought out my Langston Hughes book to find the poem she spoke of. I’d never read it before.

It was a helpless moment. A moment of missing marcie. A moment of knowing that acceptance is a must. “There’s nothing more to say,” the poem reads.

marcie, my other bookend of loss – she prompted something different than my mother. If my mother prompted me to revisit my oldest and inner-most dreams, to attempt them, marcie prompted me to revisit my inner-self as a friend. Losing her has made me remember a time when I was surrounded by female friendships, surrounded by the give and take of gossip, beauty, intense longing among women to be more like one another, and also intense unspoken understanding of one another. I don’t know if it is possible to capture the depth of my female friendships. But marcie remembered hers, loved them all and longed for her friends to always get along, to always gather, to always stay honest and not guarded with one another as we aged and grew more independent and less reliant on the security of togetherness.

Sometimes you meet a woman, and you note, “that is a guy’s girl.” I have always been “a girl’s girl.” When I think back to the time I first began dating my husband, I remember being surrounded by a gaggle of girls at all times.

As my husband and I began dating, I discovered that he loved his male friends as deeply (though differently in the physical and emotional and spiritual act of connecting) as I loved my female friends. It is a quality in him I admired quite a lot. When we continued to date, I somehow became immersed in his group of male friends. I remember that I was often the only girl in the group of his guy friends. Some of this was of circumstances – I’d had fallings out with some girlfriends, others had moved away. But as I think back, I also know that I allowed it to occur on some level. I wanted to be with my now husband at every turn. Luckily, my roommate at the time was not as outgoing as I was, and she stuck to us – a second female presence in a brood of testosterone.

In 2007, I made two new girlfriends. One is ten years younger than I am. She is Indian like I am. And American like I am. Her appearance is striking, like I like to think mine occasionally is. Like me, at her age, she is caught between her parents’ Indian expectations of professional and financial security (and the awareness that they traveled across a continent and an ocean to provide, provide, provide something better) and her own desire to live a life that expresses the art inside of her.

The night I met r.– I was leaving a restaurant, and as I was walking to my car I heard a distinct laugh filling the air. It was laughter that belongs to my other new friend a. I said to my husband, “I hear a.’s laughter – let me stop to say hello.” And I walked to the patio where I found her at a table with a group of people. She made introductions, and r. looked up at me. With all of the enthusiasm and pleasure in the world she asked, “Are you Indian???” I knew immediately from the tone of her voice when she asked, from the wideness of her eyes, that I liked that girl – a New York transplant working for Teach for America, and so sheltered in her Baton Rouge experience that in a year and a half she had yet to meet another Indo-American. And me – so judgmental and certain that I was different from every other Indian kid I knew in my nearly life-long Baton Rouge experience that I had never had an Indo-American friend – not once beyond early childhood.

My other new friend is a. What is that saying, everything old is new again? I wonder if that could apply here? a. and marcie were friends. Me and a. went to middle school together. a. remembers that I was her friend in 6th grade science class, and to her dismay, I do not remember. We also went to high school together where we were both in drama. Often we talk about how we ran with different crowds – hers was ultra-alternative. My own crowd was so internally and self-consciously quirky that we wanted desperately only to be status quo.

When a. moved back to this red stick, she and I encountered each other through some volunteer work. We ended up planning an event together. I recall thinking how much I liked her. Our friendship was slow to build – layering on top of itself through our community endeavors. Then last Christmas – the same time I received the Langston Hughes book that I was so happy to have on hand this year when e. recalled the “I Loved my Friend" poem, c. and I had a post-Christmas gathering at our home. marcie called to ask, “Can I bring a.?” I said, “Definitely!” So a. was at my party, and I remember that after, she thanked me for the good time.

We kept doing little things together, adding more layers to our slow blossoming friendship. a. is a remarkable, powerful, energetic woman – she exudes, I tell her. She simply exudes. Energy, sensuality, vibrancy, compassion, intelligence. When a. walks into a room, she exudes.

When I got news of marcie this past August, it was I who called a. We had a long phone conversation that night. And we’ve had so many long phone conversations since – along with late nights staying up talking in her living room 'til 5 a.m.

With these two new friends, with a few girlfriends who I already had and who live in town, because of marcie’s passing, I’ve remembered how it feeds me to be in the company of women. Before marcie died, I don’t know that I remembered what it felt like to fall in love with a girlfriend – to be enamored and to want to be inseparable, to want to talk all the time. Yet, as a girl-child, as a middle schooler, as a high school student, in college – I was never without those friendships.

I’ve desired more than anything recently, the space to re-cultivate that girlish part of me. I’ve wanted dance parties and girls’ nights reading magazines and eating ice cream. I’ve wanted intense conversation over things that wouldn’t interest any man I know. I’ve wanted to swap horoscopes and advice and humor – to be charged up. There is a kind of electricity between women friends, and I wonder, how do we grow out of making these kinds of fast and furious friendships as we age?

This is where the joy and the sadness merge in a deep and upsetting way. I know why I am attempting my own dream to be a writer – losing my mother prompted me to ask – “What do you want to do with yourself? Who do you want to be, and how will you live up to that? Because you won’t be here forever.” And losing marcie propelled me to remember the quality of friendship we once had – the way she loved her girls. I’ve had to ask myself, “Does being an adult mean you give that up? Does being a married woman mean you stay guarded and never share yourself with your female friends again? Does it mean there are no closets to raid but your own for the rest of your life?” In experiencing myself as a writer and as a girlfriend in a gaggle of girls, I get overwhelmed with the joy and sadness of how this has come about, the loss that has supplied joy. I act in extremes to try and accommodate the new things I’m attempting and the old things I’m rediscovering.

My head has occupied a strange space in the last year. I’ve been excavating my guts, so to speak – taking a look at what is inside of me – what parts I want to keep, what parts I want to toss out. Truthfully, I am still on this archaeological dig of sorts. Equally, I feel like I’ve been swimming in the depths of the ocean, seeking out treasure, finding some gold and some trash – torn fishing nets and sails, being amazed at all I see – things I knew existed in the ocean and other creatures I never imagined.

The other morning as I woke, a voice entered my head. The voice said, clear as day, “This is enough,” a command to move forward. And when I heard that voice, I immediately felt the sensation of coming up from water – a blast of air hit my face, I blinked water out of my eyes, my hair clung heavy to my scalp.

What prompted this digging/swimming? (For any astrology-savvy friends – my sun sign Capricorn is ruled by the element earth, but I think my moon sign is Aquarius- ruled by water.) It’s difficult to say exactly what – because along with, or perhaps as part of, the digging/swimming, I’ve been – as I announced to my friend e. recently – having a second childhood. She asked, “Did you ever feel like you grew up?” Never having considered this question before, I was still able to answer promptly, “Not until I realized I’ve been acting like a child again. And then I knew I’d grown up somehow at some point.”

The weather inside of myself has been changing. 2008 will be about embracing adulthood, but also embracing what is at my core, rather than telling myself that what is authentic to my core is childish or unrealistic. 2008 will be about finding the balance between joy and melancholy. It will be letting creative productivity and my social-self (myself as a friend) be the pivot on which I balance my life.

Friday, January 4, 2008

documenting change: seven.

the waiting game.

Last night I finished the last of my grad school applications, and this morning I mailed it off! I have applied to these MFA fiction writing programs: UT Austin, TX State San Marcos, UC Irvine, Sarah Lawrence, NYU, Johns Hopkins and UVA.

I have preferences – UT Austin, UC Irvine and Sarah Lawrence are my top three schools – all equally positioned in my mind. NYU is up there too. Truth be told, I’d be thrilled to get into any of the programs to which I’ve applied, and I'd be elated to get adequate funding so I can actually attend.

Now, I wait for spring. And as I wait, I work on new stories, I submit to journals, I continue working for an amazing poet, I continue this blog, and I continue freelance writing for Country Roads. And MAYBE, I take on just a bit more freelance work (that is yet to be determined)…

The other thing I do while I wait is burn off the energy that comes from anxious waiting. The triathlon I start training for in February takes place on April 22nd… For this very moment, I will revel in the fact that I am FINISHED with the GRE and FINISHED with applications.

In the meantime, if anyone has attended or does attend any of the MFA programs to which I’ve applied, I’d love to hear your thoughts.