Where Everything is Music

handmade greeting card, collage artI hardly recognize myself.  Twelve days of clear skies and mental calm seas.  Fourteen days since the last time my illness made me jump in the truck and escape to the movies.  I get up, go to the Y and come home to my own table with my own chai.  A few weeks ago, the thought of living without a coffee shop would have made me weep with grief.  Now, it’s nothing.  Nothing.

I come home and journal with my own chai, work on my manuscript as easily as I type this.  No angst, no sharp hooks of remembered pain when I enter the old journals.  Just typing.

I prepare a hearty lunch of sautéed vegetables and pasta.  I cook every day.  Cook with pleasure.  A few weeks ago the idea of cooking filled me with terror.  Now, it’s nothing.  Nothing.

There’s a bone-deep satisfaction in all I’m doing, how I can choose to stay home, prepare my meals, walk to the Y.  I’m saving money.  Me.  When only a few weeks ago I didn’t know how I would survive to the end of the month.  The strangle-hold of poverty let go.  In this place of gentle weather, I have enough, and I can make this choice to set money aside for my car fund.  A choice.  I have a choice.

In the afternoons, I go back to the Y and walk with my iPod.  The music pulls the day together—the work, the pleasure, the satisfaction all flow into my feet and my swinging arms.  Here I am.

I go home to make a card, blend a fruit smoothie, and sit with Jane Austen.  The cats gather.  Night grows deeper.  We listen to the music singing us, so quiet and calm.  And it’s nothing.  Nothing.

• • •

Dont’ worry about saving these song!

And if one of our instruments breaks,

it doesn’t matter.

·

We have fallen into the place

where everything is music.

·

The strumming and the flute notes

rise into the atmosphere,

and even if the whole world’s harp

should burn up, there will still be

hidden instruments playing.

·

So the candle flickers and goes out.

We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

·

This singing art is sea foam.

The graceful movements come from a pearl

somewhere on the ocean floor.

·

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge

of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

·

They derive

from a slow and powerful root

that we can’t see.

·

Stop the words now.

Open the window in the center of your chest,

and let the spirits fly in and out.

—Rumi

The Good Fight

handmade greeting cards, collage artSo, I’m ducking and weaving with this whole idea of letting Life be instead of knocking it to the ground.  It’s a weird place for me, the Ultimate Gnat’s Ass Detailer.  My modus operandi is to schedule, make lists, revise the schedule, scrap the first list and make a new one.  I’m never comfortable without a Plan.  But, see, after all this time, the Plan is ingrained.  I know what works and what doesn’t as far as my bipolarness goes.  And there will never be an Answer. There’s no alchemy, no incantation of To Do lists that will halt the rapid cycling or turn me into someone who can work a day job.

What I’ve got are a few tools to help me be the healthiest I can be in the moment—daily exercise, an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, distraction that does no harm, and an attitude of skepticism when it comes to what my brain says.  That’s all really.  Turning from “what’s the plan” to “what do I need now” is incredibly hard.  I’m giving up my fantasy of the future.  But when I take a breath and notice the details around me right now, that unlikely future loses its glamour.

Yesterday, walking around the track at the Y, I had to dodge clots of teenagers.  Bored from watching the girls’ volleyball tournament, they hung out around the free weights or wandered aimlessly back and forth across the track, not paying attention to the runners and walkers.  Several times, I had to gently push them aside as I marched past.  One girl stopped right in front of me and I had to straight-arm her out of my way to keep from falling.  But, no one fell.  No one stumbled.  No collisions or recriminations.  No anger or scolding.  Just paying attention and making adjustments.

And then there was that golden, winter afternoon light that shot through the high windows and kissed me on every lap.  Sweet, blinding sunlight for a moment.  A flash of warmth on my face.  A gift, if I only turned my face toward it.

Of course, there will be backsliding in my acceptance of moment-to-moment life.  Last night I rebelled.  After seven months of vegan eating, I ordered a Super Supreme from Pizza Hut, ate half of it with a bottle of wine, and watched “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton.”  This, my sad and angry little brain told me, is as close to sex as you’ll ever get again.

Richard ArmitageYes, facing reality instead of living in fantasy is a little hard to swallow sometimes.  I watched Richard Armitage in The Vicar of Dibley on YouTube and cheered.  A handsome stranger falls head-over-heals for an obese, middle-aged cynic—oh, dream come true!  But, dreams like that keep me from living.  There are no handsome strangers in real life, just banter with the happily married help-desk guy at the Y.  Losing weight will not transform me into a young, desirable princess.  I am firmly in Queen territory now, fast approaching Crone-hood.

There are pleasures and delights in my life as it is—a purring, furry presence to wake me in the morning, an iPod full of cheer, train whistles in the dark, the kindness and patience of friends.  This is my life—quixotic and painful with moments of grace.  This is the fight now—to stand side-by-side with my bipolarness and duke it out together for place to stand.  To live together in the moment.

To be real.

Thoughtless

handmade greeting cards, collage artAs part of the “vacation from my life,” I’ve put a moratorium on thinking.  No ponderings, no plannings, no endless rehashing of what my moods mean.  I refuse to follow my thoughts into the future or back into the past.  And when I catch myself drifting along with my brain, I gently bring myself—empty-headed—back to right now.

It’s what we do in meditation, and what I teach as the beginning point of self-monitoring.  But as long as this respite lasts, I’m not shaking loose of my thoughts to monitor anything.  I’m just clearing space.

And what a lovely day I had today.  Without a routine or a plan, I got up this morning wondering what I needed.  Gentle exercise and warmth (I’ve been feeling the cold lately).  So I went to the later water aerobics classes in the heated, shallow pool.  After that, I drove to the city for a movie (Broken City.  Excellent.), then went to Half Price Books to look for poetry.  I spent a good hour leafing through anthologies and slim books of poems, something I never do.  I took my time, reading and browsing.  I picked House of Light by Mary Oliver, then found a cheap copy of Bird by Bird, my favorite book on writing by Anne Lamott.  Those thin volumes made me happy.

Across the street is one of my new favorite places in the world—Whole Foods.  What’s that smell when you walk in?  The flowers?  The produce?  Something super-saturates the air with life.  I love wandering the store with those tiny carts, touching the pretty greens and finding everything a vegan could ever want.  Fellow vegan blogger Jeff, linked to a recipe for Roasted Apple, Butternut Squash, and Carmalized Onion Pizza this morning.  On impulse, I decided to get the few ingredients I needed to make it this weekend.

Then, I went next door to Best Buy and found a Magic Bullet at a very reasonable price.  I’ve wanted a food processor for a while now, but since I wasn’t cooking much I didn’t think it was worth the cost.  But, today, when I saw the Big Yellow Box, I went in.  Compulsive?  Maybe.  I don’t care.  I’m not thinking about it.

What I sensed today was my brain relaxing.  Little bursts of inspiration, like when I first woke up and I had the solution to a problem in my manuscript.  I didn’t ponder it or agonize over it.  It just came.  A gift.  I also felt more kindly toward people—touched by the cashier who found a coupon for my pizza crust, touched by the young dad who carried his tiny daughter on his shoulders.  I felt my aversion to the human race softening.  I engaged the people I encountered today, something I’ve not wanted to do in a while.

Whatever this relaxing brain brings me is fine.  I’m not going to stew about it, second-guess it or write pages on it.  In fact, I left my book bag (with my ever-present journal) home today.  No thinking allowed.  Just experiencing my life as it is.

I may get to know me yet.

In and Out

hand made cards, collage art

♦ ♦ ♦

Awake at 4:00.  Panic and sinking despair.  Read email and blogs to calm, calm, calm. But the discomfort like gravel under the skin, ants in the brain.  Go! Go! Go!  Dash water on our face and find clean underwear.  Enough grooming.  Go!  Will jump in the truck and Drive.  To the Forbidden City.  Starbucks.  A movie later.

Another voice.  So quiet.  *wait.

Check billfold.  $45 to last two more weeks.  Not enough.  Check movies and times.  Ah, one we haven’t seen.  Print out the free soda coupon.  Check bank account.  Balance on the Visa is HighHighHigh.  Nothing left in checking.

*don’t do this today.

We lay on the floor to listen better to the quiet voice.  Want to bolt.  Need to bolt.  But can’t squeeze past the facts.  Have to.  Have to.  Can’t stay in town.  No proper coffee in town anymore.  No proper writing place.  Can’t come back to the apartment-prison.  Can’tCan’tCan’t.  Go now.

*wait.  can you hold the tension?

No.  Too much.  Drowning.

*think of it like an experiment.  try, and see what happens.  try one thing.

On the floor with Henry watching from the chair.  We can go to the Y.  Ride the recumbent bike.  Walk.

*yes, then what?

Then, we’ll see.

*good.

We walk to the Y.  Ride the bike.  Moving through syrup.  Pain.  Exhausted before starting.  Stumbling tired after.

*what now?

Experimenting and holding the tension of flight or fight.

*can you stay?  *can you keep from spending money today?

We will stay in town.  We have a gift card for the movies here.  Maybe go later.  Forget going to the inadequate cafe.  Make our own chai.  Need almond milk.  Forget going to the grocery store.  Too tired.  Too much pain.  Make a meal from what we have.  Healthy, but too much.  Staying, but eating.  Can only hold so much tension.  Drop into eating and watching a movie.  Then, drop into full sleep.  For hours.

Wake up like a drunk.  Out on the sidewalk with the iPod and an apple.  Walk.  Eat a proper snack.  Feel the breeze—sun-warm on the top, October-cool on the bottom.  Shuffle through drifts of leaves.  Plodding, plodding.  Still, the gravel under the skin.  Still, the ants in the brain.  Feet are platters, swollen and sore.  Body feels huge, bloated.  FeelFeelFeel.  But, the urgent voice is quiet.  Only the Other voice is here.

*breathe.  turn your face to the sun.  yes…

We miss our street concentrating on putting one platter in front of the other.  Funny.  At home, we pound a nail and hang a picture.  We need a companion for this picture.  TensionTensionTension.  Online we find one.  Not too expensive.  And we need double-sided tape.  And…and…and…  Tension stretches and snaps.  Running free.  Almost.  Remove items from the shopping cart.  DeleteDeleteDelete. $35 spent.  Not too bad.

*come back to holding the tension. be curious.  can you keep coming back?

Daylight fades.  Henry sits at the window watching the street go dark.  Time to shroud the TV.  Time to write.  Time to breathe.  In and out.  Like the tension.  Like the experiment.  In and out.

In and out.

Weirdly Good

hand-made cards, collage art

←  ↑  ↓  →

It’s been a weird few days.  Up is down.  Left is right.  I’ve given up on a definition of reality for now.

My friends who teach the deep water aerobics class bent over backwards to adjust the workout for me.  I was overwhelmed by their caring and determination to keep me in the class.  I feel like Sally Field at the Oscars.  “They like me!  They really like me!”  A week that started out miserable and discombobulated suddenly smoothed out.

I caught a 24-hour flu bug on top of my bipolar dive into depression, spiked a fever, lost my appetite (miraculous), downed Advil and lots of green tea.  Now I feel fine.  Wha??

Meghan GilletteMy beautiful and brilliant niece is a poor PhD student living in tiny quarters with three cats.  Her vet said the cramped space was stressing her male kitty and causing urinary tract infections.  So, Meg got Feliway, a diffuser that emits Momma Cat pheromones which calms and relaxes kitties.  She recommended Feliway to me when I told her I was worried my also-teeny apartment was making my cats stir-crazy.

Now, I’ve had Henry and Emmett for seven years.  In all that time, Henry has been companionable, but not overly affectionate.  He sleeps next to me in bed and will occasionally allow me to pick him up, but anything more over than that is frowned upon.  (And those of you with cats know what that frown is like.)  He has never sat in my lap or on my legs.  The only time he really touches my body is when he thunders over the top of me in the middle of the night during a Martian fit (He sees invisible Martians and attacks them like a good guard cat should).

HenryTwo hours after plugging in my Feliway diffuser, Henry crawled onto my lap and fell asleep.  I was so shocked I started to cry.  Then, when I went to the bathroom he didn’t follow me.  Since moving into the apartment, Henry has followed me everywhere. Toilet time is family time.

To be fair, Emmett is still skittish and squirrelly, but he keeps sniffing the air.  He knows something new and delicious is wafting through our home.  I can’t wait to see what happens, or doesn’t happen next.

At the moment, my mind is a quiet fog—like chenille dryer lint.  I took a shower to get rid of flu-hair and am about to walk uptown to get my take-out order of vegetable fried rice.  Life is weirdly good.

Scooping the Loop in Bipolar Town

hand-made cards, collage art

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. —Lao Tzu

= = =

Change is hard for me.  I guess it’s hard for most people.  We get comfortable in our routines, settle in and snooze.  Life rolls along in a predictable way that’s soothing and reliable.

Change requires attention, energy, planning, and action.  It shakes us up and makes us re-evaluate everything we’ve taken for granted.  It knocks us out of that fuzzy comfort zone.  Sometimes it’s painful—letting go of ideas, people, places, things we hold dear.  Sometimes it rocks us to the core.

Part of my bipolarness is the need for routine—a generally consistent schedule to my day or week.  My routine comforts me.  It soothes the anxiety and agitation that are constant companions.  It gives me a way to move through the day when that seems impossible.

Also, my routine helps me maintain my priorities and meet my goals.  When the mood swings start looping one after another, it’s hard to move forward.  Routine is like a light over a familiar off-ramp that I can’t see in the dark.  Instead of driving around and around on the Rapid Cycling clover leaf—not able to focus, not able to make a choice about what to do—I can maneuver my car to that off ramp with my routine’s help.  I can keep moving forward, however slowly.

Big changes to my routine can trigger a blow-up of my symptoms.  And, since nothing stays the same except change, I’m discovering I need a strategy to manage those times.

Last week I had to quit my beloved deep water aerobics class.  The routine had changed over the summer from mostly cardio and core work to more arm exercises.  Too much of that makes my bum shoulder worse, so I tried to adjust my workout, ask for help, do my own thing.  But I wasn’t getting the workout my brain needs, so today I went back to the shallow water classes.

I’ve made good friends in the deep water class.  We created a tight community that supported each other.  But I know how important a hard workout is to my brain chemistry and to my over all health.  The decision was excruciating.  Not just because of what I had to give up in the class, but because it mucked up my routine.

Add to that my homelessness in terms of a coffee shop/writing aerie, my conversion to a vegan diet, and developing several new friendships and my routine is pretty much shot to hell.  I know in time I’ll pull together a new structure, but right now I’m free-falling.  And the anxiety that produces keeps me from rational thought.

All I can think of to do today is seek comfort—not the bipolar versions of comfort which are all obsessive-compulsive (though those are really calling to me), but something more useful, healthy and safe.  And if I can’t do that, then maybe I can aim for the least amount of harm in my compulsive behavior.  I’m not sure I can even do that.

I have to hold Lao Tzu’s words as a mantra today.  Let reality be reality.  Let this illness be what it is.  Flow with the changes without resistance.  Breathe.  Eventually, I’ll start to slow down.  Eventually, a new off-ramp will show up with a light bright enough to steer by.  Hold that wheel lightly.  Observe.  Embrace the new road coming—a new life is on the other side.

Mental Meltdown of the Pneumonia Mind

collage art, hand-made cards

People said I’d go stir-crazy.  Being sick and incapacitated for weeks will mess with your head, they said.

Oh, my.

I’ve officially rounded the bend.  I’ve spent all the money I have left for September, mostly on food and DVDs, which destroyed months of work at losing weight.  I charged up my credit card so that I could put storage shelves in my bathroom—a project on Saturday that left me exhausted and overrun by my own mania.  I feel humiliated, and desperate, and absolutely out of control.

I’ve tried several ways to slow the train down—walking around the track at the Y, walking outside, napping.  They help in the moment, but as soon as I stop moving or wake up, the frantic scrabbling in my brain starts up again.  Every day I start out vowing to “do it different,”  to shroud my TV and do something else.  And every day I end up too tired, too bored, too lonely, too sick.

What I’m hanging onto at this point is that my body is starting to recover.  The lungs are clearing.  The voice is coming back.  I will return to my water aerobics class this morning to splash around if nothing else.  And as my strength returns, I can shift back into my routine, which will give my bipolar claws something else to grab onto.

It’s not like this is new material.  The compulsions, the frantic behavior, the way this illness blows up my life are all reruns of my personal sitcom.  It’s just that adding physical illness squeezes all margins out of the script.  The stress, the disruption of routine, the discomfort run the lines off the page.  I’m not making much sense.

But, there’s a balm in being able to admit the insanity.  Confession always starts a healing.  Lack of insight and secretiveness are part of this illness, so naming names is a good sign.  I’ll hang onto that today.

Rising from the Dead

A quiver.  A twitch.  A rheumy eye opens.

It lives!

It was time to make an attempt.  Give it a go, as our friends across the pond might say.  I managed to creep around the track at the Y for a half hour, flop-sweat and lungers not withstanding, then maintained an upright position at Haven long enough to write in my journal, sip a latte, and start reading the next bipolar memoir on my list.  I’m declaring the day a success.

Coming back from being sick resembles coming back from a bipolar episode in that much gets dropped, tabled or neglected.  Discipline sags. Housekeeping, in both figurative and literal terms, hops out the window.  With physical illness, there’s just more used Kleenex scattered in the drifts of cat hair.

I’ve never been a good judge of my own physical stamina, never recognized the magic margin between sick and well where one starts adding instead of subtracting.  Like most people, I went back to work too soon, tried to do too much too fast, and often got sick again.  But unworthiness, fostered by my bipolar disorder, also drove me to prove myself.  I wore the raspy voice and barking cough to work with pride.  I might still be sick, but I’d put in my eight hours.  And, somehow, that made me worthy.

Without the pressure of a job rushing me, I feel like I can finally hear my body telling me what to do.  It felt good to walk on the track this morning, and it felt right to stop when I did.  I enjoyed sitting at my table at Haven, and I was ready to come home and rest afterward.

Those of us with BP spend so much time in our heads, analyzing and monitoring our mental and emotional status, that we rarely pay attention to the body.  It’s just a sack of meat that carries our precious mind from place to place.  But to really manage our mental health we have to listen to our bodies.  We have to respect them, use them wisely, and make peace with their limitations.  It’s another form of balance, which is a strange and foreign word for those of us with mood disorders.  But, since balance is my aim, I’m willing to speak whatever language it takes.

So, tomorrow I will rise again and give it a go—if that’s what my body tells me to do.

Pendulum Swing

collage art, hand-made greeting cardToday the bipolar pendulum swings deep into depression.  The drive to sleep through it, to eat through it, pulls me like beefy fists wrapped around my shirt with another pushing me from behind.  I can’t quite stay on my feet.

But between the muggings, I keep breathing as mindfully as I’m able.  I keep walking, placing one foot intentionally before the other.  I look in the mirror and practice smiling.  I tally what I eat.  I move my limbs, so wooden, through the water in Penny’s pool.  I notice how I consider Penny as a safe haven for my cats should I chose to leave them behind, and acknowledge the death thoughts as part of the pendulum swing.  A swish of air is all.

No movies to escape to today, so I must be creative in my distraction when creativity is impossible.  I will plug in my ear buds and walk.  Then, ride my friends’ stationary bike.  Then, walk some more.  Because I can do this without thinking about it too much.  Because the exercise will make me feel better.

And the pendulum swings.

The Plan

collage art, greeting cardsOur YWCA is closed this week for its annual scrub and tune-up.  This year they’re refinishing all the pools, so we won’t be back in the water until August 20.  Since I get a little squirrelly on weekends when I don’t have my water aerobics class, a whole week without water or my other exercise options carries the potential for what my shrink calls “destabilization.”  After stumbling though this for a few years, I finally figured out that I need to put an alternate exercise plan in place in order to come out the other side without going completely yampy.  Like the Russians in Hunt for Red October, I always need a plan.

ω ω ω

This year my friend, Penny, generously offered me the use of her condo’s pool.  I’m also hitting Tom and Cheryl’s stationary bike in the evenings, setting up “walking dates” with other friends, and doing solo walks as long as my feet hold out.  I’m much more comfortable in the water than on land—my feet and joints get too sore pounding the pavement, and I have a congenital twist in one leg that generates monster blisters no matter what kind of shoes I wear.  But, as long as I can give myself a few days between walks, I’m good.

So much in my life has shifted since last summer’s break from the Y.  This year I’m deeply committed to getting the exercise my brain and body have grown used to and need along with continuing my exploration of the vegan way of life.  Another year of living medication-free and developing strategies for managing my bipolar disorder roots me in my Bipolar Bad-Ass way of life.  As a reminder this week, I added another mantra to my Inspiration Door.  The illness rises and falls, but my determination to live well remains constant.

Hunt for Red October, Sean ConneryI think even Sean Connery would approve.

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