SHE WALKED LIKE SHE WANTED IT

One evening near my fifteenth birthday, I was summoned to stand before the Kitchen Tribunal.  My mother was there;  recently widowed, understandably shell-shocked, and exhausted by the demands of a fragile household and three needy teenagers.  Also in attendance were my two older brothers, their adolescent snickering temporarily pushed aside by the weight and severity of the matter at hand, which was this:  A few days earlier, an acquaintance of  theirs (several years older, a bit snarky, and appropriately enough, named Dick) had driven past me as I crossed the Market Street Bridge, then reported to my big brothers that their little sister walked like she wanted it.   The family was solemn and disapproving;  the kitchen smelled of fried egg sandwiches and scandal.

Well, I was affronted!  I was mortified!  I was. . .intrigued.  So after clearing my good name with Mom and the brothers, I retreated to ponder this new development.  I turned it over in my mind:  She walked like she wanted it.  Those words couldn’t possibly apply to me, a self-described wallflower and slow starter who hadn’t yet learned how to flirt.  I mean, I certainly knew what IT was, but I wasn’t sure I wanted IT anytime soon.  To be honest, IT was a little scary.  Besides, exactly how did I walk like I wanted it?  What was happening back there that I didn’t know about? 

Therefore,  I turned to my cultural icons for clues.  The men on Gilligan’s Island (even the Professor!) were dumbstruck each time Ginger walked by, but I’d have described my walk as more . . . Mary Ann-ish.  And there weren’t enough Underalls in the world to make my back porch swing like Ann-Margret’s.  But in the privacy of my room, I had to admit I kind of liked knowing something about the way I walked caused Dick to take notice.  Is this what made Aerosmith’s Walk This Way such a dirty song?

Conveniently placed bamboo conceals Gilligan’s interest in Ginger’s leopard skin swimsuit.

Until that moment, the only womanly walk I’d ever analyzed was my mother’s.  Her long legs moved with quick, purposeful strides.  “Keep up, Lisa!” she’d insist as we rushed from store to store each Saturday morning, trying to get our shopping done before some deadline (Yes, I grew up in a world with downtown stores but no Amazon.com.). 

Mom also instructed me on how to walk like a lady.  “Move your legs from the hips, not from the knees, Lisa.”  And because I tended toward pigeon-toes:  “Point your shoes forward, Lisa.  Don’t let your toes turn in when you walk.”  I assure you, Mom was not being critical;  back in the day, it was a mother’s duty to teach her daughter the finer points of being a woman.   How ironic that the very walk my mom worked to cultivate in me would one day attract the attention of boys like Dick.

I never managed to duplicate my mother’s walk, though.  At 4′ 11″ inches tall, I just don’t have the equipment to cover ground in the same fashion.  Now 79, Mom still out distances me step by step.

But as I made my way through the mall recently, I couldn’t shake the eerie feeling of being stalked by my Great Aunt Lois (May she rest in peace.).  Great Aunt Lois was smart and generous, a veteran school teacher with a no-nonsense attitude, a woman esteemed by the family at large during my formative years.  Great Aunt Lois’s walk, however, was nothing like my mother’s. 

The Grand Dame was short, stout, and plagued by arthritis.  She waddled stiff-legged from here to there with knees and hips that moved like rusty gears.  I imagined her carrying an oil can in that oversized handbag on her arm.  And whoever was caught climbing a flight of stairs behind Great Aunt Lois had better not be in a hurry;  coaxing those creaky joints to rotate in such a manner was a process that simply could not be rushed.

And so it was Great Aunt Lois’s walk that followed me  past each store window— in the form of my own reflection.  Nowadays, I walk like I want some ibuprofin and a nice, long, soak.  And since he’s a grandpa now, I’m pretty sure Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler walks this way, as well. 

Dick, too.

And such, friends, is the walk of life. 

~lisa

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THREE O’CLOCK LOVE SONG

Three A.M. and I’m a cat
Sleep a mouse hiding in corners
My mind reels and muscles ache
Soul tired fighting scary monsters

Above the pounding of my heart
Your breathing, soft and low
The sound brings rhythm to my life
And makes the fear let go

My hand is gentle on your chest
To feel it rise and fall
Don’t wake up, I’ll just watch you sleep
And whisper of my love

The world outside has turned unkind
Tries to drag us both along
But we won’t go, no we won’t go
This world will see how strong

We are when we’re together
A fortress built by stone
By fight, by smile, by victory
A mighty palace has grown

Safe inside the castle keep
We watch the raging wars
Fly our colors, sing our songs
Defend our sacred doors

I smell the fragrance of your hair
Feel the comfort of your skin
My pounding heart begins to calm
To think of where we’ve been

And where we’ve yet to go
We’ll decide in morning’s light
The love I feel here in your arms
Will get me through the night

The world outside has turned unkind
Tries to take us both along
But we won’t go, no we won’t go
This world will see how strong

We are when we’re together. . .

HEART SHAPED STONE

All you need is love. . .

When he was young, my son loved to go on walks, using his keen little-boy eyes to scout for treasures.  What parent hasn’t experienced the excitement (and apprehension)  of unloading a little fellow’s pockets on laundry day?  After a particularly fortuitous walk, he presented me with a stone.  He didn’t really say anything; the message was the stone itself:  it was shaped like a heart.

 The heart-shaped stone has sat on my kitchen windowsill ever since, a reminder of feelings that are apparent even when not spoken.  Love lives in this house.  Over the years, the heart-shaped stone has shared its space on the windowsill with other serindipitous objects: heart-shaped jelly beans, toy hearts, flower petals. . .while peeling a butternut squash for Thanksgiving dinner, we discovered the cross-sectioned interior resembled a heart, and briefly flirted with the idea of displaying it alongside the stone.  But my soup recipe was calling, and stones don’t draw fruit-flies.

I picked up the heart-shaped stone today while clearing away some other kitchen clutter.  I held it in my hand and smiled.  Once evident of a little boy’s love for mommy, it continues to remind me to look for the love that’s all around; to look for love in unexpected places.  The heart-shaped stone will always reside on my windowsill.  And when I’m gone, I want it to be passed along so its message abides.

~ All you need is love.

~ And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

~ Brief is life, but love is long.

~ For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten son.

~ And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

LIVING JUST TO FIND EMOTION

This story begins with the ending.  Traveling home from a long Labor Day weekend visit, I asked our guest if he’d had a good time.  There was no hesitation whatsoever in his answer:  “Oh, yeah!  Your family’s lots of fun.”

“That’s right,” I wisecracked, “we’re dysfunctional, but in a totally loveable way.”   I was only joking, but my daughter’s response was heartfelt:

“But Mom, we’re not dysfunctional at all.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Just 48 hours earlier, twenty of us gathered around a table laid out with a seafood feast so vast and sumptuous it made our mouths water, our wallets weep, the Atlantic gasp, and the neighborhood crickets quiver in fear that we would run out of things to dip in drawn butter and come after them.  I could almost hear their crickety little admonitions:  “Dammit, Carl, keep your legs quiet—they’re down to their last dozen snow crabs!”

My family builds its calendar around beloved traditions, and the Labor Day get-together crowns our entire year.  Though it’s not a religious holiday, eveyone’s higher power is thanked freely.  And though the atmosphere is party-like, the only gifts exchanged are the gifts of each other’s company.   Gazing from face to face,I tried to define, tried to qualify this group of people each of whom occupies a special room in my heart.  Parent, child, cousin, niece, nephew, brother, sister, boyfriend, domestic partner, fiance, lifelong friend. . .every title an honor and a term of endearment.

By the numbers, we look like this:

2, 564:  the greatest distance in miles traveled to be there
650:  a conservative estimate of the dollars spent on seafood
148:  the combined years of marriage among the spouses
100:  average amount spent per family to make personalized t-shirts for the occasion
28:  the number of cell phones, iPads, and laptops running concurrently
18:  how many years we’ve gathered together for Labor Day
14:  various musical instruments played by attendees
13:  college degrees currently held by the group
12:  number of handmade trophies prepared to be awarded after games
11 – 79:  our range in ages
9 and 11:  the numbers of females vs. males
8:  hours held out until someone proclaimed Firefly to be the greatest TV show ever cancelled
5:  pots of coffee brewed each morning
3:  hours until someone compared our family to the one in the movie While You Were Sleeping; also the number of dogs vying for food slipped under the table
2:  hours until it was noted that the Orioles and the Pirates have lost a combined total of 162 games so far this season
1:  Irish Car Bomb consumed by me to the chagrin of my kids and the delight of my nephews

Demographically, we represent the following groups:
Christian
agnostic
Republican
Democrat
widowed
divorced
married
single
engaged
underemployed
upwardly mobile
recovering alcoholic
liberal
conservative
senior citizen
middle-aged
young adult
straight
gay
athletic
artistic
 

Around the same table each morning we laid out a banquet of a different kind:  tinctures and pharmaceuticals designed to manage hypertension, hypothyroidism, glaucoma, fertility, heart function, depression, anxiety, asthma, allergies, hormone replacement, attention deficit disorder, chronic pain—all of this because life is messy, and we live life.  We go out into the world and take what it has to offer, then bring it all back.  Triumphs and tragedies walk among us like poltergeists until they see that we are humans, whole and actual, because of—and sometimes in spite of—-their presence.  We absorb these experiences and emotions; they become part of our collective history, and then we move on to make even more memories and even more mistakes.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Later in the car, I contemplated my daughter’s firm proclamation, “But Mom, we aren’t dysfunctional at all.”  And here is my conclusion:

Taken as a group, we probably shouldn’t work.  We probably shouldn’t get along as well as we do.  And yet, year after year we seek each other out for company, for recreation, for playful hijinks, for advice, for lively debate, and perhaps most importantly, for emotional support.  In each other’s presence, we are unafraid to be imperfect, we are open to encouragement, and we are guaranteed to feel love—-the kind of love that is apparent even when we don’t like each other very much at the moment.

Every family has emotional baggage, and ours is no different.  We are just devoted to each other,  and through simple acts like cooking and eating together, playing card games, watching movies, making family t-shirts, giving out homemade awards, and somehow managing to keep track of seven rambling conversations at once, we help each other carry that emotional baggage.  Life is a big, old, emotional mess.  And we live life.

So now I amend my earlier comment:  We might be bat shit crazy at times, but we function like a well-oiled and time-worn machine.  As it is now, so shall it ever be. . .

LIVING WITH DEPRESSION: TONIGHT ON A VERY SPECIAL “CHEAPER THAN THERAPY”

At the risk of jumping the shark, I’m going to uncharted territory with today’s post. 

In this blog, I’ve written about everything from love and marriage to invasive medical procedures and bull semen.  I’ve revealed my thoughts on parenting, work, family, human nature, fashion faux pas, the tragedy of cat nip addiction, and my spectacular inability to master any form of choreographed dancing.  But one topic I’ve never discussed is my tendency toward depression.  It’s not that I’ve hidden this part of my life, and it causes me no shame.  Rather, I choose when and to whom I talk about a condition which I share with approximately 18 million American adults.

My goal here is not to provide you a comprehensive course on depressive disorders.  You can go to to WebMDWikipedia, or Google, for all the basics.  Instead, I want to write about my personal experiences, and how my life has been affected by the presence of such a stubborn condition.

Specifically, my type of depression is dysthymia—-a chronic condition characterized by consistently low moods.  I am not bi-polar.  I am not self-destructive.  I am not a substance abuser.  And I am generally thought to be a jolly, if not downright silly, person.  So how can I be depressed?  See, depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Our brains shift out of balance for lots of reasons—-falling in love, grief, extreme anger, terror, guilt, worry—all of these feelings happen because chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin have stopped working and playing well together.  When that happens, our brains are capable of resetting the balance and restoring order to our universe.  With depression, however, the brain cannot accomplish the reset by itself.  The feelings associated with depression (sadness, isolation, hopelessness, guilt, fatigue, apathy, anxiety, etc) become troublesome, and in the case of clinical or major depression, overwhelming.  Dysthymia (like other forms of depression) is more common in women and can develop into episodes of major depression, especially when paired with other health problems or stressful situations. 

I want it known that I’ve had a pretty sweet life.  All around me are folks who shoulder burdens much heavier than my own.  But I remember my first episodes of depression occurring after my dad’s death.  Cancer took him when he was 46 and I was 14, and chaos ruled our home during that time.  From the outside my family appeared to be adjusting to the loss and moving on; but trust me:  each of us carries individually relevant scars.  For me, they take the form of anxiety issues.  Experiences that cause me stress can transform my dysthymia into full-blown depression. 

It was years before I realized what was happening.  Hot flashes, obsessive thoughts, sleep problems, weight gain, guilt—both justified and undeserved—and worry, worry, worry.  The worst thing was knowing I was unable to control these feelings.  They seemed to live and breathe as they wreaked havoc in my mind and body.  Eventually I sought help, and a combination of medicine and behaviors keeps me from spinning off into outer space.  But  I live with it every single day of my life.

So how does it feel?  Most days I’m absolutely fine.  Don’t forget that in spite of my depressive tendencies I’ve worked, enjoyed a long and loving marriage, raised two fine kids, and maintained friendships.  I am, without doubt, a people person and a social creature.  But sometimes I do all those things through a slight haze.  And if I’ve recently had to deal with something stressful or I’ve had reason to be anxious, then that haze thickens into a heavy fog.  It feels like I’m trying to walk through waist-deep cement.  It’s a daily battle to accomplish simple chores like housework or cooking.  It’s realizing things that used to make me happy and satisfied no longer interest me, and I grieve their loss.  Thoughts are hard to control, and I ride a pendulum between nervous energy and deep apathy.   I might not make the best choices, I might act impulsively, or I might find it difficult to act at all.  Here are the words of an anonymous sufferer, in response to the question “What does depression feel like?”: 

Depression feels like a circle of guilt, worthlessness, inability, weakness, and fear. All wrapped up in silence and fog. You don’t function like you used to, you can’t think like you used to, you can’t participate like you used to and you let down those depending on you like they used to. You live in a circle of fear and guilt and your brain constantly reminds you that you no longer measure up and there’s no point in trying anymore.

The good news is I’ve learned to adapt and to adjust.  Yes, I take medications.  But more than that, I respect my condition and keep a watchful eye on it.  Remember when I said I’m generally known to be a jolly person?  I’ve always been a laugher, and since I know that laughter is a natural antidepressant,  I laugh every day— not just because I like the giddiness, but because it helps me maintain a positive outlook.  Reruns of FRIENDS and my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics work magic, as do intriguing conversations with interesting people, innocent flirting, great music, being social, and enjoying family time.  I write.  I make jewelry.  For awhile, I baked away the blues and really gave Betty Crocker a run for her money!  Especially helpful is having a husband who understands and is fiercely supportive of my needs.  During low periods I don’t watch sad movies, read scary books, or listen to news reports about tragic events.  Instead, I fill my mind with things that are happy and positive.  I also read devotional books, talk to God, and meditate on the Psalms.  That King David could really turn a phrase.

I also leave my own head and turn my thoughts outward.  My dysthymia (with its episodes of anxiety and outright depression) has actually made me more empathetic and less judgemental.  If people are incapable of knowing the twists and pivots of my mind, if they can’t feel what I’m feeling on a given day, then how can I know and feel them?  We are really, truly, all in this life together, and just as I’ve had to reach out for a strong shoulder or an attentive listener, I am determined to be those things for others in need.

Some studies have suggested that creative types (like me) are more susceptible to depressive disorders.  Perhaps it’s because we are a bit more aware of, or in tune with, or at the mercy of, our emotions.  The term tortured artist was coined for a reason.  But I’m certainly not looking for sympathy.  After all, I’m not the only person who struggles to manage anxiety or depression.  If the statistics are correct, anywhere one hundred people are gathered, at least 10 of them are suffering.  Life has dealt those of us living with depression similar hands, and even though we have to play them wisely, we’re still in the game.  Don’t you doubt that for a minute!

LIFE GOES ON, AND SO DO MY HUSBAND AND I

Despite being an incorrigible flirt and an ardent admirer of the male gender, I consider my long-standing marriage to be the crowning achievement of my time here on Earth.  When I mentioned my upcoming 29th anniversary at work the other day (unsolicited, of course—my coworkers have lives), I was challenged thusly:  “Yes,” asked Doubty Suspiciouston, “but how many years were you happily married?”  My reply, “All 29 years” was met with stunned silence, appreciative smiles, and respectful head nodding.

Couples are expected to sail through the first few years of marriage fueled by sex, stupidity, and dreams (if you don’t, you’re doing it wrong), but when you can mark your relationship in decades, people start to take notice.  How did you do it? they want to know.  Indeed.  How the hell did we do it?  As far as I can tell, marriage—like most of adulthood—is a make-it-up-as-you-go- along sort of proposition. 

Adaptability

Item #1:  He didn’t propose to me, and I didn’t propose to him; we simply realized that marriage was where we seemed to be headed and decided to plan a little ceremony to make it official. 

Item #2:  I was halfway through my first pregnancy before we even realized a baby was on the way.

Item #3:  We spent the money intended for remodeling on a trip to Ireland instead, and used money saved for a 25th anniversary cruise to buy our son a $2,000 musical instrument.

You might say those items simply prove that my man and I are just a couple of flakes.  And although I’m not denying our flakiness, I’d like to offer an alternate/complimentary explanation:  We are adaptable.  We’ve adapted through changes in attitudes, changes in jobs, changes in hairstyles, weight, priorities, goals.  Life goes on, and so do we.

Vive La Difference

A successful marriage might be seen as a living, breathing VENN diagram.  The partners are individuals with their own personalities, ideas, and values—and marriage (won’t? shouldn’t?) change their individuality.   But, oh,  there’s magic in the areas that overlap!  For example, my husband believes in the right to bear arms, and I believe in the right to arm bears.  But we both believe in human rights and civil liberties.  Bingo!  He refuses to acknowledge popular music beyond the 70’s, while I feel absolutely disconnected if I don’t at least give a courtesy listen to what’s currently playing.  But we both love music.  Bingo!  Marriage has to make room for differences as well as similarities.

Scott would walk barefoot for three miles on shards of glass if he were following Emily Dechanel. Lisa could eat David Boreanaz for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Bones = BINGO!

 
Perspective
 
As George Carlin said, “Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.”   I don’t care how perfect two people are at the beginning, eventually they will start to annoy the bejeezus out of each other.   Take Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie*, for example.  She probably can’t stand the way he slurps his coffee, and he probably hates how she eats in bed.  I’ll bet she despises his growing a long, gray ponytail as much as he despises her wearing pointy-toed shoes.  But are they going to let those little things overshadow years of memories, triumphs, challenges met, crises managed, laughter, inside jokes, and the pleasure of each other’s company?  Hell to the naw.  They find that keeping thunderstorms in perspective assures plenty of strength in reserve come tsunami season.

* You figured out that I'm actually talking about my husband and me, right?

 
  
Logistics, yo.
 
A successful marriage requires the touch of a civil engineer, as it is the construction, manipulation, and maintenance of elements both natural and manmade.  After years of trial and error, my husband and I have arrived at a balance of togetherness and space, bickering and laughter, parry and thrust, allowing and withholding. 

Handy chart for quick reference

There’s much more, of course, but you get the idea.

 
It’s All About the Dopamine, Baby 
 
Warning:  This section will make love and marriage sound about as romantic as a junior chemistry set, so feel free to plug your ears and sing la, la, la if you feel the need.
 
I’m as flowery as the next girl, but I have a healthy respect for the science of love.  As it turns out, falling in love is nothing more than a rush of dopamine** to the brain, a chemical imbalance similar to those which result in feelings of grief, anger, depression, or euphoria.  When such chemical changes occur, the brain struggles to regain its balance by raising levels of serotonin.  We are glad when our rebalanced brain is free of grief, anger, or depression.  But when the chemical reboot lessens the delicious headiness of attraction and lust, we fear we’ve fallen out of love.   Science tells us that partners who remain attached to each other long after the dopamine rush has subsided are also producing significant amounts of oxytocin, a chemical abundant in nursing mothers and especially empathetic males.  
 
 The real cupid.
 
So my long and happy marriage is, in fact, a combination of good timing, good choices, good fortune, and good science.  I can live with that, because we also make each other laugh.  Our marriage started with a belly laugh when the groom admitted to the congregation that he’d never memorized his personally written vows and would be winging it instead.  And we’ve been laughing ever since!  We laugh like fools at puns, dirty jokes, each other’s foibles, oft-told anecdotes, and our childrens’ antics.  In all this time, neither of us has encountered anyone or anything else worth giving up the life we’ve built together.  Here’s to the next 29 years!
 

Freaking adorable.

 
 
 
 
**I’ve simplified things a bit.  Read here and here for more details.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

TWO PRINCES

There once was a princess.  Although she had no golden crown for her head, she knew she was a princess because her daddy told her so.  “Goodbye, my princess,” he’d say every day as he went off to slay dragons and make the kingdom safe for his devoted queen, his two princes, and of course, for his daughter, the princess.

The princess was a happy child.  Her parents, the king and queen, provided for her every need, while her brothers, the princes, doted on their little sister.  The first prince was charming, outgoing, and athletic, with dark, curly hair and playful, blue eyes.  He brought the princess little gifts, taught her to dance, and always waved at her from the jousting field.  The second prince was tall, clever, and artistic.  His eyes were the deepest brown— like her own—and with him she discussed music, literature, and art. 

When the princess was only 13, the king became very sick.  One long year later he went to live in Heaven, leaving behind his deeply grieving queen, his two princes, and his princess—who by then was so preoccupied with becoming a young woman that she couldn’t understand the depth of his loss.  The queen took over slaying dragons and keeping the kingdom safe—in fact, she became the heroine of her own story, which is to be told at another time.   As for the princes, they struggled to find their rightful places out in the world while keeping a watchful eye on the princess

The first prince arranged for her to visit him at university and encouraged her studies.  The second prince recognized her creativity, and took her to concerts and the theater.  But the princess had become stubborn and headstrong, declaring to the princes and to the great, wide, world: “I am 14!  I can take care of myself!”  And she stomped her foot.  So the princes gave her some freedom so that she might find her own way, but they remained steadfast.  The first prince had become a young man of great faith, and he prayed daily for her safe passage onward.  When the second prince discovered the princess kissing a village rogue in the schoolyard, he stepped in with such uncharacteristic forcefulness that the princess dared not question his word, and the rogue was banished from her life forever.

The princess found triumph and failure and mischief and love and heartbreak—always with the two princes near enough to cheer her on or to cushion her fall. 

“Whatever will I do?” the princess cried one day when she could see no way out of her troubles.  The second prince laid a hand on her shoulder and told her plainly, “You will walk through the fire and come out the other side, as we all must from time to time.”  The first prince sent her daily messages of love, and shared with her his favorite verse from the Book of Hebrews:  I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.

So it went, year after year.  And in time, the princess learned a valuable lesson.  She learned that she was just a girl, after all.  But the two princes?  They really, truly, were princes.