Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When you can't get your spring to sprung

Sure, T.S. Eliot said, "April is the cruelest month." But what happens when May is gray, rain takes its time to leave and even the tulips in your yard seem to be protesting to bloom? I don't blame them. When all is cold and wet, not white, I too want to stay inside and sit cocooned in a duvet with a book in hand and stay seated until spring decides to push winter out of the way. Until something just bursts and decides that really, we have had enough of this flat light to last us a few months until we each need a good dose of November again. But not now. Now, we need a light-hearted breeze, a sun burn on white skin, a reminder that we can eat ice-cream cones with our naked hands, take naps with our head resting on a log, remember that we can exist in the sun without layers of down or wool. Frankly, I am waiting for my spring to come. I imagine I am not the only one either.

I've written a lot about the idea of the poet, the myth of the English teacher and the stereotypes of people who write, but sometimes there is some truth to these shallow descriptions. Sometimes people who find solace in well, solace can get sad. I am not saying that these people look like the women and men in magazine ads for antidepressants. These ads usually have someone who has had their hair done, lip gloss applied and even the men look like they may have recently spent some time at a gym. No, in our ads we cannot handle the look of depression. We can take a picture of a starving child, someone sleeping on a bench in a cold city and I even saw a large picture on the side of a bus of a beaten boy with a blackened eye for an ad against homophobia. We have images for hopelessness, fear, hatred and other reactionary feelings, but depression is something too hard to grasp to ugly to take as it is. It is perhaps too vulnerable, too personal to look at for a long time because well, it is just that; raw vulnerability. And how would we draw it? Photograph it? Paint it? Sometimes I think we cannot. It is simply that, too personal, not something you would want to hang on a wall and glance at while walking past from the kitchen to your bedroom, while thinking of your list of things to do for your day. It would be like hanging up some mirror you would be afraid to look at. It is simply not ad worthy.

And yet, really it is a mirror each of us has probably had to look at sometime in our lives. Depression affects each of us at some time, maybe for some momentarily, maybe some monthly or maybe others most of their lives. It is a heaviness that comes and stays like a season you just want to leave. It can come at any time and I have known some people who even get addicted to it. Call it strange, but some people live in a place of sadness, start each day in darkness and never look for light. They even just call depression home. Some convince themselves that they deserve to live like some dog in a fenced yard of dusted dirt and gravel. But it is not. Depression is not something you deserve, it is something that can come up, it can even surprise you, but we can also practice at also making it go away. Even if at moments you feel confined by it. It is not bigger than you. I also believe you cannot take a pill to truly rid it from you. It can be subsided by medication, but it will survive somewhere deep inside of you until you yourself ask it to kindly, just leave.

I have often told people that the loneliest time in my life was the summer I decided to stay in Rome. There I was in this ancient city of stone and beauty, mid-summer with sun and just hours to explore and walk. But I felt stuck in myself. I was stuck between what I wanted to be and what I was actually doing. This feeling was not new, but came up so suddenly that summer I was shocked that depression had found me in all places, Rome. Rome where I remember it as days of just dog shit and beautifully bored people. Rome where we all want to someday go and see the dirt outline of the chariot races. Why was I depressed in such a city? A city that I later return to in my sleep and only hear as fountains. But that summer, I felt stuck and didn't have any money to leave. That summer I would spend almost entire days and evenings alone surrounded by tourists and tired people working in summered city conditions. I spent days never speaking to a single soul. I know, poor me, white mid-western girl stuck in Rome. How pathetic, the stereotypical poet I can be. Yet that summer I learned something very simple: I decided on doing something to alter my mood instead of hoping for it to happen. I decided I didn't want to be sad anymore. I chose, however small a way to change; that summer I set out to ride my bike everywhere and anywhere I could navigate the city. That summer I rode myself out of a depression. 

I purchased the bike from a fellow teacher at my school who was similar size as I, and despite the fact that I had never seen another girl on a bike (pedaling, that is) in Rome, I didn't let it stop me. I rode it through the sweltering heat, the famed Campo di Fiori, rode it with high heels sometimes. But that simple rhythm, wind on my face and the feeling of moving on my own accord helped me out of my slump. Previously the depression found me with a feeling as though I was perpetually waiting at some bus or tram stop to go somewhere, but not moving at all. Depression makes your body heavy with a restless head. The last thing I needed, with my introspection, was to wait for some mode of transportation to take me to the city center or out. No, that summer I biked there. 

That summer on the bike, weaving through traffic and mopeds, I remember finally not hearing them. When my father came to visit me earlier that spring, he looked at me one night and said, "this is so loud, so busy, can we go back to your apartment?" Rome was perpetually loud and busy and yet on my bike, I could hear myself again: my pedals' cadence, my breath, my thoughts. On my bike, I only had myself to blame or to depend on to get where I wanted. It was a very simple switch in thought and it was just what I needed to remind myself that I was in this amazing city and I needed to learn about it by pedaling myself through every side street, every hill or neglected neighborhood. So in the middle of the summer, I taught myself the streets, the names of outer regions, and found every park and fountain I could.

A year later I found myself in Michigan before grad school and living close to my parents by the big lake. I bought a ten-speed and took that thing everywhere, for hours around inland lakes, into the dusk and sometimes into the night. I just rode and rode and let the momentum of the bike fill me until I was forced to return home to sleep. My mindset wasn't tainted by depression that time, but depression's better-looking cousin: I was in limbo. I was in limbo between teaching overseas and returning to school to write poetry. Yet during that time between roles, I felt like I was again waiting for some bus to get on that I didn't know if it was going to arrive. While I waited, I just biked myself in circles. 

And so I tell you all this, not to say something trite like "if you feel sad, get on your bike." I am not some amazing pro biker or even recovering depression survivor. I am just someone who sometimes gets sad and gets stuck in it. I am like a lot of people, but what I have found is that there are two solutions for being stuck. One, the physical change in moving your body helps like riding your bike. And the second, do something creative with your mind. A creative outlet helps you feel connected to that voice you probably first heard when you learned to ride a bike. If you think back to that moment when you were able to balance on your own and push and pedal until you found yourself laughing, maybe out loud, most likely the voice inside yourself was laughing too. That is the voice of joy, joy in being just who you are--the sometimes happy, the sometimes depressed, and sometimes stereotypical self that all of us can find us being.

Believe me, this sounds like a really simple solution to a not very simple emotion, but it is a start. I think depression is something so heavy that you have to move your body to work it out. Emotions are energy and energy cannot be created nor destroyed. But energy, can be transfered. For me, the momentum of riding my bike somehow displaces my sadness, throws in into the air and hopefully up into all this sky that seems to be able to handle a bit of grey. Also, I can hear myself , my internal voice better when my body is busy moving. This movement helps me be still, helps me return to my desk and to write. 

For me, the rhythms I feel when I bike are the same sounds I hear in my head when I write. My sister, who is an amazing cyclist, told me to try pedaling at a three syllable rotation--so your feet will rotate a full circle while you say the word, for example, thunderstorm, sleeping bag, atrium.  Say these words or find some new ones like: spring will come, to begin, rain away or maybe even my freedom. I don't know, find your own three syllable word of choice, but what ever you do, try to find that sense of joy that we each harbor and hold. It will get you closer to believing spring is really going to come. Until then, here's a poem. 

To Begin

I wear my seat belt when I like myself,
my hand at ten and two like the cuckoo
clock in my kitchen which I won't let coo
or chime since the elf hen inside started
saying shoes.  I wanted to shelve it away
with the pencils or ship it to Caracas,
but clocks are endangered there.
I leave my house before the sun finds
the alarm, ride my bike to work and flirt
with cars to nudge me into curbs, alleys or dirt,
so I can start my day face first to the morning
light and ignore all the people moving in boxes
of metal. I turn up the wren housed in my heart
who warbles from its perch on my desk
and sings with each tick of my pencil.