March on the Plains

There’s not a green shoot of grass in sight, other than — somehow, miraculously — the tufts of wheat crawling up from the powdery dust that passes for soil in the field across from our house. The earth hasn’t seen rain in seven months and it shows: trees are shriveled, their bark wrinkled and cracked like the flesh of a centuries-old tortoise; last year’s grass looks more like last decade’s grass; even the slightest cough from the sky sends chalky particles upward in a dizzying pirouette to the sky.

Today, yesterday, tomorrow (most likely) — the wind batters from the south. And the west. And sometimes, the north. It shrieks and moans as it whips around the walls of our abode, which emit their own protestations at the unrelenting battering ram. Together, the wind and the walls squeal out a song of misery, day and night.

The floor lamp flickers again and again, its light a wavering attempt at courage in the wind-storm that rages outside. Its brilliance ebbs and flows, mimicking my inner dialogue — I will not last another day in this desert wasteland. Oh, but you must! Mmph…

Another gust blasts against the door, followed by another and another and another. I imagine our house a dinghy tossed about on the ocean — oh, to be surrounded by water! — it creeps beneath the door, the wind: an unadmitted visitor paying no heed to social niceties, barging in coldly to wrap its wispy fingers around my ankles.

The chill rises, a tingling slowness as though I have been lowered into a pool of water feet-first. Whispers of the furious gales outside crawl deliberately upward, snaking ever closer toward the destination. I am certain — the wind is alive, burning with the icy fire of the soulless wicked.

Hand on the brass knob, I repress a shudder and twist. For an instant, respite: silence descends, dirt hangs motionless on the horizon, tumbleweeds relax their grip on the barbed fence.

In another instant, the door is wrenched from my grasp and Chaos resumes its descent, drawing me into the fray.

Reflections on a Life Unlived

I sat down last night and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t pick up a book or fiddle with my planner (to make myself feel as though I’m far more productive, busy, and important than I actually am). I just kind of sat there, eyes glazed over with the exhaustion that sometimes comes at the end of a day with Henry. And I thought, Hey. You. You haven’t written anything in a long while. Not even a book review. Not even a reflective idea.

And then I thought —  You haven’t even acknowledged your thoughts for a while.

Sadly, I had to admit, these revelations are accurate. I’ve always been fairly adept at deflecting inquiries as to how I’m really doing — I’m fine; I’m busy; I’m doing okay, no complaints here — so it should come as no surprise that I am not always entirely honest with myself. But still. Sometimes, I am surprised. Like, whoa — there’s that dark place again; how did we get here, Renee?

I’m not sure what’s changed, or what’s spurred the recent self-evaluations that have become so all-consuming in my world, but suddenly I am considering my self and my place daily. It’s an absentminded sort of pastime, admittedly; and I’ve deflected my realizations a bit so that they haven’t arrived fully at the forefront of my mind until just last evening. But here we are, in a place of wonderment where I have begun to ponder —

who are you?

what are you even doing with this solitary life of yours?

and

when you die, what the hell will you leave behind?

When I was ten, I could’ve told any old stranger, without hesitation, that by the time I was twenty-eight I’d be a novelist. People would be reading my stories and they would be smiling and laughing and crying at all the right places; they would be touched in their souls by these words that somehow evoked feelings they didn’t even know could be held in common with a complete stranger from some remote home in a state called Kansas.

I would be special. I’d be a writer. My name would be on the cover of a book, people would speak of my ideas, they would press copies of my work into their friends’ hands saying You have to read this really great book, it’s amazing —

I would be somebody.

But I am twenty-eight, and I am not a writer, and I am not an author, and I do not have an editor or a publisher, and I have not done

anything

remarkable

at all.

And all that I can think of is — how very disappointed ten-year-old me would be to discover this version of myself.

I don’t even have to imagine.

She is still within.

Motherhood, No. 2

It is early morning — somewhere between the hours of three and four, when my brain is too fogged with interrupted sleep to comprehend things like time — and you have awakened me with your intermittent cries. Yelps, more like. Between outbursts, a pause of several seconds — long enough for me to think Sure, he’s okay then and sink back onto my pillow before another cry wakes me from my sleep-drunken stupor.

Grumbling, I untangle my legs from the winding vines that the sheets have become overnight: your father doesn’t believe in sleeping like a normal human being (under the covers), so he is forever bringing a blanket to bed and hunkering down in it, pushing the sheets and bedspread to the side or foot of the mattress so that I end up in some sort of twisted pile of bedding that seems intent on strangling me as I sleep. You cry out again — I think you’re probably mostly asleep, the cries are so far apart — and I murmur reassurances that I know you can’t hear as I blindly walk the familiar path from our room to yours.

Your room is awash in the eerie glow of a too-bright nightlight that casts shadows on every wall. The worst is a spidery looking apparition that covers half of the room, mostly over your crib: the ghastly result of light striking your woodland-animals mobile. I secretly shudder at that leggy shadow every night, certain that your cries must have something to do with its looming appearance above your resting place. Can infants fear spiders? I’m sure any child of mine must.

On tiptoes, I lean over the top edge of your crib, my gut — still not recovered from carrying you, seven months later — creased in half by the hard walnut edges smoothed by your father’s shop machines. Shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, Mama’s here — you stop the instant my hands grasp your torso and I lift you gingerly from the confines of your bed. You’re hungry, though, and begin to grizzle feverishly as I carry you to our chair. I brace myself against the shocking chill of polished wood against the backs of my thighs and shoulders. In the dark, your mouth works like that of a little milk zombie: open, shut, open, shut, open shut — until finally, you find what you’re searching for and your eyes fold shut in a mixture of relief and ecstasy.

As you feast, I close my eyes and lean back, wondering who you will become. It is three-something in the morning and I am awake, picturing you twenty years down the road, always with that cheeky grin and creamy, smooth skin. You stroke my hand with your tiny plump palm, occasionally pausing to wrap a finger in your fist, as if to tell me Thank you, Mama or — I like to pretend — I love you most. Not that it’s a competition between your father and me; just, I am your most beloved now, and I will savor that, because later you will have friends and classmates and girlfriends and lovers and I will surely lose the privilege of that most as I drift along in the wake of your expanding horizons.

Looking down at the rounded nub of your nose, I think of my teacher’s son, David, who took his own life a few months ago. Tracing the soft curve of your cheek with my fingertip, I pray. Please let this child grow up to know he is beloved and help him to find fulfillment. And Please always bring him home to me, whole. And Please make him need me always.

You’re through with the midnight snack, your head has lolled back onto my forearm and your mouth is agape, a stream of milk leaking from the corner where your lips meet and trailing down your neck: you are one satisfied little boy. I’m not tired any longer; I’m wide awake with the kind of fervent panic I can only assume all mothers experience at one time or another. It’s a futile panic: you will get older, you will grow up and out, you will leave me for a different life. These are certainties, and though I hate the leaving, I know that it is better than the alternative.

I am not tired anymore, though, so I will hold you a little longer now. I love you, I love you.

I love you.

Motherhood, No. 1

You’re clambering across the wood floor now, undoubtedly picking up stray hairs and particles of God-knows-what as you slap your hands down and drag your belly forward — the undusted floor beneath a bookcase teetering with stacks of beloved prose beckons you. It’s just you and me, all day every day, and you turn as you hitch your rump to one side and tuck your hips up underneath you, propping yourself up on one arm to look at me with a wry grin before resuming your destructive path to a Not-Play Area.

Two teeth jut up from your lower gums, neat and perfect and unchipped by any sort of toddler disaster, tiny white Chiclets in an otherwise gum-and-tongue world. Slap, swish, slap, swish, slap, swish — this is the music of my days, the thudding bass of your tiny body exploring the corners of our increasingly crowded living room. Peppered in among the thuds and scrapes, the excited pant and grunt of Baby Magellan en route to the Strait of Unclean Floor.

You watch me for a moment, lying on your back in all that filth that accumulates in forgotten corners beneath furniture, your head twisted to stare at me as you gnaw on a big toe with the dexterity of a contortionist. Saliva is pooling on the floor near your soft cheeks, and I think briefly — I should attach my microfiber mop to you, take advantage of this perpetual state of slobbering exploration. My own personal Roomba. I shake my head at the thought, and at you, with your body twisted in some sort of unnatural pretzel-ball while you make the kind of sucking sounds that would drive your father crazy if it were coming from someone at the dinner table.

Eyes still locked on mine — so steely blue, so unlike my chocolate browns — you release the foot from your firm grasp and purse your lips together, the tip of your tongue just barely visible before — pffffthhhhffffft — a raspberry, your favorite. Now I can’t help but laugh aloud, a quick Ha! that only encourages you to blow another and another. In these moments, I cannot deny the thought that you want to bring me joy, that you desire my happiness; and the very generosity of that from a seven-month-old baby is startling to my untrained self.

You turn your attention back to the dust-furred floor for the sparest of moments before the edge of a blanket hanging down from the couch captures your attention and you’re off again, thumpthumpthumpthumpthump. Through the belly of the coffee table, not around — So smart, I think — and in the blink of an eye, you’ve crossed the room and the purple blanket has an eggplant corner, already soaked in your saliva. As you examine the possibilities of this Other Region, I edge closer on my hands and knees, bellying up to you on the floor, placing my face nearby your fattened feet. Di-uh-beet-us feet, your father calls them; swollen and pudgy like mine were when you’d been in my belly for nine months. I know it’s likely I’ll take a foot to the face, but I want to be near. I want to be able to breathe the air that you expel, as if there is some sort of magic in just that — the act of breathing. I suppose there is. I suppose I had a hand in making that magic, now that I think of it.

While you fumble with the yarn in the deep red shag rug, I marvel at the callused pads on the tips of your toes which you maintain with regular intervals of kicking the floor in your belly-down position. At the whorls twisting inward on either side of the crown of your head, forming a spiky peak of silvery blonde. At the fingernails that never seem to be short enough, despite several weekly trims. You emit another string of raspberries, tongue proudly thrust forward as bubbles form and rivulets of spit follow the curve of your chins toward the base of your throat.

I wonder, not for the first time — is it possible that I love you too much?

A Few of My Favorite Things

Some days, I rise at the crack of dawn, knock back my multivitamin with a swig of lukewarm water, and in a blink — the day is over, I’ve survived without incident, Henry is well, there’s somehow dinner hot and awaiting the arrival of my husband, dishes are drying in a neat jumble to the right of the sink, laundry has been folded, and I’ve been wearing something other than pajamas since before noon.

Other days, Zack comes home and I’m like one of those kamikaze goats on the side of a mountain. You know, you’ve seen the memes — tiny hooves perched on tinier jutting cracks, body stretched impossibly wide with all the weight bunched up in his shoulders because his goat-butt is up three feet higher and his eyes are frozen in a combination of paralyzed fear and utter annoyance, as if he’s saying, Really, Frank? Again with the parkour? Fantastic idea.

On those days, I plop a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli or a crinkly packet of Ramen on the countertop, sniff my haven’t-bathed-in-two-days armpits before swiping on a double layer of deodorant, swap out t-shirts so it looks like I haven’t actually been wearing the same thing I wore to bed last night all day long, and shoot a few scathing looks at my screeching seven-month-old who is really friggin’ tired (as much as I am? naw…) but wouldn’t nap for longer than 30 minutes at a time — all just moments before Zack walks through the door smelling of wood shavings and Outside and the sweat of a man who’s just spent a luxurious hour lifting weights in the company of adults.

A Fergie song comes to mind here . . .

But I digress. I wanted to write about some things that help me through those jammies-till-I-die days, beyond the medication I take (which I talked about here because nobody’s got time for taboos anymore). I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite things that I like to have on hand (or available to stream) to pull me through meh-days. I’ve linked some of the items below, but I’m not benefitting from any clicks here (w/ the exception of #1).

  1. My Book of the Month Club subscription. Every month, I get to choose one newly-released hardcover title (out of 5 curated selections) to be shipped to my house for $15. You can sign up for 3, 6, or 12 months at a time (with discounts on the longer subscription services), or you can opt for their new monthly renewal. You can also add up to two other books per month for $9.99 a copy — and you can skip a month at any time with no extra fees or consequences. I typically love the titles each month and have only gotten one or two books in the past 18 months that just weren’t my cup of tea. Frivolous? Yes. Joy-inducing? You betcha. I could check these titles out from the library, but there’s just something purely magical about choosing a book at the first of each month and having something to look forward to in the mail. You can sign up using this link and get your first book for $9.99 (& a free tote bag). (Disclaimer — this is the one link that I will benefit from — if you sign up using this link, I get a book credit.)
  2. Happiness body care products from Bath & Body Works. I absolutely love the aromatherapy line at B&B Works, which is great because compared to other “luxury” skin care products, it’s an affordable option; but it’s also kind of a bummer, because the company rarely has sales on this line of products. My favorite is the Happiness line, which is this glorious fruity fragrance of bergamot and mandarin that inspires, well, happiness. I would probably fill a closet in my house with every product in the aromatherapy line, but since I don’t have an income and my husband would likely lose his bananas, I stick to the shower gel and body cream, occasionally splurging on the sugar scrub. Another favorite: the Stress Relief products, which are this divine combination of eucalyptus and spearmint that just melts my being into this chill, revived lump of existence.
  3. Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. Okay, here’s the deal — I think I might love Adriene a little bit. If I lived in a city, one of the first things I’d be interested in adding to my daily routine would be a yoga class. Alas, SWK doesn’t offer much in the way of yoga (or cities), so I scoured the internet a few months ago in search of an affordable option. Cue Adriene. I started with a 30-day challenge from a couple years ago and loved the diversity of daily practices. I also was amazed at how much my emotional well-being grew with each day I practiced. Sometimes she’s a bit more silly than I like, or a bit more chatty than I’m feeling on a particular day, but for the most part I love the variety of options Adriene’s channel offers and the practices that specifically target an audience (teachers, runners, nurses) or a problem area (back pain, for example).
  4. Essential oil blends, mostly for diffusing. A few of my favorites from DoTerra: Serenity (a great nighttime blend that I use in the diffuser in Henry’s room), Balance (an earthy, calming blend that I diffuse during yoga or extra-tense days), and Cheer (magic in a bottle — super citrusy and uplifting). I also particularly love Thieves, which is a YoungLiving blend that smells like Christmas and basically just makes my heart per happy.
  5. Walks with Henry! There’s very little that some sunshine and fresh air won’t cure; every chance we’ve had this winter, we’ve bundled up and hit the streets of our little town to air off the “house stink” (as my dad calls it). Even just an hour outside is so uplifting — I can’t wait for spring and summer, when walks will be a daily routine and days will last longer!

When I’m really lucky, I get to incorporate all of these things (reading = BOTM) in a day and I end up looking — and feeling — a little less like that mountain goat and a bit more like a Human Being. What are your joy-inducing go-tos?

The Plains: A Vignette

Out here, people are fiercely loyal to a land that has no love for any thing or any man.

The desertlike plains of southwestern Kansas are fiercely unforgiving; on any given day, you can expect to hear the relentless and mournful howl of a wrathful wind, uncorked from some mythical bottle that refuses to be stoppered until all its air has pushed forth. The wind charges furiously across open fields, encouraging earth to rise and seek refuge in every available crevice — the corner of an eyeball, a crease behind the ear, a long-neglected crack beneath a front door, a hole in the wall of a barn. The dust rises like powder into the endless sky and creates a galaxy of its own volition, daring any and all to enter its massive expanse and come out the other side.

It’s a trick, though.

Everybody knows that it is impossible to do such a thing — challenge the earth and emerge unscathed.

The furious wind and living, breathing organism that is dirt in the southwestern plains are maddening on their own; impossible to endure when they join forces. And just when the elements seem powerful enough to rob you of the most human things you are comprised of, the plains layer on another element of abysmal self-destruction: the drought.

One can live for months without a single cleansing drop of rain, it is true. But physical survival is not a close relative to spiritual continuance. As the earth shrivels and withers in the fiery kiln that is southwest Kansas, so, too, does the soul beat a hasty retreat. There is something primitive in our souls that can only be nourished by the pattering of rain upon dirt, and I often find myself wondering if I am the only one that feels mine rattling around within me like a tab in an empty pop can — or if the indigenous peoples have evolved over time to function with just a wisp, nestled securely inside the pinky finger.

I must remember to nurture my pop-tab spirit, to water it with something life-sustaining. It will not find a knuckle to burrow in safely until the sky opens up next; I am not a native. My soul will skitter about until it finds my mouth open at just the right time and whffft! — it will flee east, or north, witching water all the way.

Yes, it IS possible…

When Henry was a few months old, I was on the phone with my husband when I casually remarked in front of an acquaintance that I needed to run by the pharmacy to pick up my antidepressant medication. I will never forget the woman’s quick retort: “What could you possibly need antidepressants for? You have the cutest little boy!” I suppressed a cringe and evacuated the area as quickly as possible, unwilling to explain myself to this woman.

I was quick to leave the conversation behind, but the memory is vivid and lingers at the back of my mind most days. She hadn’t even hesitated to ask a question I’ve been trying to find the answer to my entire adult life.

I’ve struggled with manic depression since my middle school years, often at its worst during times of change. That first year of marriage? Lemme tell ya — they’re not kidding when they say it’s the toughest. You don’t know self-loathing until you’re living in the honeymoon phase and barely holding your head above water, all the while berating yourself for not being over the moon with the joy that is so trademark newlywed. And I never wanted to admit it, either — the vast depths to which my soul would plummet, the dark places I went in my mind; not while I was a teenager, and certainly not when I was newly married to the man of my dreams.

I was embarrassed. And I think, sometimes, so was my husband. As a naturally quite happy individual with limited — if any — exposure to people struggling with depression, he didn’t understand how I could wake up anything other than content. I don’t blame him; often, I’ve wondered the same thing.

But I digress . . . When I discovered I was pregnant, I experienced a pretty typical gamut of emotions: anxiety, anticipation, excitement, fear, joy, etc. As the months trudged by, though, that anxiety sharpened into something much more dangerous for me: I began to feel the darkness creeping up once again. It only got worse the more I thought about the dozens of ways my life was about to change. Try as I might, I couldn’t see past the negative changes barreling down the pipe — sleeplessness; lack of personal time; bills, bills, and more bills — so as our little one’s due date approached, I began to shrink into myself a bit more each day. Since I am manic, my highs are extreme, often bordering on absurd, and my lows are woefully deep. I could spend an evening at boot camp with my girlfriends, rubbing my watermelon-sized gut and laughing enthusiastically alongside them as we pushed through the paces; only to fall into a despairing pit of loneliness and melancholy two hours later, rendering me effectively incapable of moving from the bed or speaking.

So at 8 months pregnant, before we left the doctor’s office, my husband brought up The Subject to our doctor. We’d talked about broaching the topic several times prior to the appointment, and I’d even felt like it was a good idea as we walked through the clinic doors; but as soon as he asked my doctor about medication, I shut down. The doctor assured us it would be safe to take a low dose of something for anxiety/depression, talked about the very minimal risks associated with taking these drugs while pregnant, and then turned to me. Both my husband and the doctor waited, staring at me expectantly — as if I were supposed to just know the right answer, just like that.

What I said: “I’m not sure. Can we wait a few weeks to see if it gets better?”

What I was thinking: What if these drugs screw up my baby? What if they don’t help? What if I end up with debilitating postpartum depression after the baby arrives? What if the meds make it worse? What if . . . 

and here’s the thing I’d been dreading for years, the question I could barely ask of myself:

What if the baby inherits my proclivity for depression?

You guys, I was terrified. Terrified to admit I needed help, terrified to ask for it, terrified to screw up another life . . . I was frozen in time and space, incapable of giving the answer I so desperately needed to deliver: “Yes. Please help me, now.”

Thankfully, that husband of mine — the one who hadn’t understood my inexplicable sadness years prior — put his Converse-bedecked foot down and got bossy with me. (And before any feminists jump on me here and tell me it’s not my place to listen to my husband, you’re missin’ the damn point.) We left the doctor’s office that day with a prescription in hand, and though I was still apprehensive, my husband and doctor were clearly in my corner. Over and over again, they reminded me that given my history, my baby and I would face far greater risks if I didn’t medicate.

So I did the taboo: I took antidepressants while I was pregnant. And I continued to take them afterward. And seven months later, I’m still taking them, because being a mom is really, really freaking hard, as is adjusting to life alone at home. I never experienced postpartum depression (which was, honestly, one of my greatest fears about pregnancy); but I largely attribute that to my consistent use of antidepressants before and after delivery. In fact, I’ve had more happy days than not these past seven months, watching Henry grow. His smile is a salve to soothe even the most glum days.

I wish I could go back in time to that conversation — the one where the woman asked (not intending to be hurtful) how I could possibly be depressed with a beautiful new baby. I’d tell her I wasn’t depressed, not anymore, but I was taking preventative measures. I’d tell her how hard it is to be alone sometimes, at least for me. I’d tell her that for some people, it is possible to experience depression despite having a seemingly perfect or extraordinary life. I’d tell her it is possible to feel inexplicably alone and down in the dumps for no good reason. And I’d tell her that sometimes, people like me struggle because of a chemical imbalance in our brains — not because we aren’t grateful for the great things in our life, or because we cannot find joy in the little things.

And there’s nothing at all wrong with acknowledging you need a little help — because you can’t be everything to everyone if you aren’t whole to begin with.