You’d think you’d know what the triggers are–an image of the cause of death, an ICU room–but those things I can handle, in their odd familiarity. The triggers come from the most unexpected places, such as someone blaming me for their own problem.

Of course, this is simply “projection.” It happens. But when it’s happened to me, in various, and sometimes petty, ways in the last few weeks, I’ve felt something crumble inside. I can’t get away from the person fast enough. I know that I’m not to blame. I know that the other person is suffering in one way or another. Even if it’s just petty defensiveness, that’s a sort of pain, too. But here’s what else I know–that person is not taking responsibility for his or her pain or insecurity, and that person is willing to use their pain to hurt me. I do not feel safe around such a person.

My husband projected so much of his self-loathing onto me (and others), that after years of it, I couldn’t sort out the man from the illness or my involvement in it. But recently someone blamed me for something that was so ridiculous and such a caricature of projection that it became crystal clear to me that it was not at all my fault, and I started to recollect all the other things that weren’t my fault.

That would seem to be clarity, but then the trigger strikes again. They’ve made me an accomplice, made me feel responsible for their welfare. If I don’t play along, maybe they’ll hurt themselves. I am clearly doing some projection of my own. I’m carrying my husband’s experience everywhere, applying it to these everyday situations, as if the worst will happen if I bungle this interaction, as if I’m supposed to rescue people by absorbing their pain. People engage in everyday interpersonal relations, and they terrify me.

I’m working on this.

Despite the flight instinct, I don’t flee. I’ve established some healthy boundaries, I use some coping mechanisms, I deflect an attack that comes from a place of unreason and respond in a different way. The other person is suffering, in one way or another, and I have compassion, but I can’t help them if they’re not going to help themselves. I don’t give up on them, but I don’t give in to the manipulation, either. I wait it out. I’m there for them when they’re ready. To my great relief, I’ve actually ridden out a few of these episodes, resulting in renewed care and respect.

They’ve breached my boundaries. I’ve redrawn them, held my own, opened my heart a little while protecting it, too.  It’s hard, but it’s okay, and it may be my doorway back into the world.

Meanwhile, in the last few weeks and months, different people, in rapid succession, have shared their own turmoil about living with someone with mental illness. I guess I sent out quiet signals, and they sprung these stories onto me. I am surprisingly receptive. A person who loves a mentally ill person may bear the brunt of anger/pain/irrationality/false hopes/dashed dreams/insert your own rotten feeling here.  I can listen to the story as their story. This person is telling me how hard it is to live with and love and be loyal to someone with mental illness, and I affirm that it is. We don’t trash the sick person. We just acknowledge that it’s hard, for everybody. We remove the shame, chip away at one another’s isolation, dwell in the intractable puzzle of what is happening and what to do. This is pain, but it’s a pain that I can handle. This is a load that I can help carry. One person shared and ended with an apology for burdening me with the story, which was raw and real and heartbreaking. “What are you kidding?” I replied. “This is the most normal conversation I’ve had all day.”


My Driveway is My Teacher

One Day

I shoveled in the dark. It was hard work. It was very quiet, all around. The street had not even been plowed yet. I was the only one out there. To amuse myself, I groped for that charming Billy Collins poem about shoveling with Buddha. All I can remember is that he felt awkward because it was so cold. As I scanned my brain for more lines, I looked up, and the headlamp illuminated the tree branches, heavy with snow, making a roof over the driveway. “Now this,” I thought, “this is lovely.”

I cleared the snow and ice from the bottom of the driveway. I cleared a path to the storm drain, even. I came back inside, made a pot of coffee, ate someone’s leftover sweet potato biscuit, got dressed, walked to campus. As I neared the bottom of the driveway I saw that the snow plow had come…and dumped snow over the path I’d just cleared at the bottom of the driveway. I let it go. I walked right over the snow dump and kept letting it go, all the way to campus. School had closed that day, but I attended a lunch with a visiting scholar and got to talk to her about our shared research interests. And there, in the margins, I felt comfortable.

Another Day

A midday thaw meant that I could tackle the ice pool at the end of the driveway. It also meant that runoff poured down the street. I cleared the storm drain of leaves and snow and slush so the water could flow past the driveway instead of pooling up. I cleared a path to the storm drain from the other direction so the street wouldn’t ice up when it got cold again in a few hours. I looked across the street and saw a pool of water forming because that storm drain was blocked. I cleared it, and a waterfall of water rushed into the cleared drain.

As I cleared, I knew that the water would just keep coming. I knew that I was stemming the tide, but I couldn’t stop it. There is all this snow, a seemingly endless source of water to rush past my driveway. I thought of the Buddhist monks who’d visited the first year or two we lived here. They made a mandala of sand, and when they made a mistake, they’d clear it and start over. I remember how amazed people were by that. They’d see it, talk about it. I only now begin to understand it. The water will never stop coming. But I’ve cleared it, for now. I walked past my cleared bottom-of-driveway, up my cleared driveway underneath the tiniest, gentlest hail pellets.

Later That Day

After a few hours of work  in the house, I came back outside in late afternoon. The cold was setting in. All that runoff from the midday thaw just froze into place. The entire driveway was slick. It wasn’t ice, it was more like a sticky film. I tried to wedge a shovel underneath it, but it couldn’t penetrate. I skidded as I maneuvered across it. Slapstick! I began salting the whole driveway and ran out of salt. In texting a friend, I learned that there was no salt to be found in town.

I stood at the top of the driveway, feeling the terror return, the abandonment, the hopelessness. I was up here, and the world was down there, and the slick driveway was an impenetrable barrier.

I was supposed to go out with a group of women for a birthday outing. They all had cabin fever from the kids being out of school so much. I don’t doubt that it’s hard for them, but I can’t commiserate. Then there’s this, this slick driveway. Even if I could get down the driveway, how could I  frolic and sit with them when I all I feel is horror and incapacity?

This is when I’m supposed to reach out for help. I wonder if I should call a friend to ask her to buy some salt and leave it on the bottom of my driveway. But my road is slippery, and where would she get salt? I call a nearby gas station. They’ve got something that sounds eco-hazardous. Daughter and I bundle up, don headlamps and walk the half-mile to the gas station, return with each of us carrying a 12lb. container. We pass someone we know who remarks, “Oh are you the jolly neighborhood salt sprinklers?” We must look adorable. I am terrified. The chasm–it widens.

Daughter and I clear what the salt has melted, and we sprinkle more salt, but judiciously. As I go to sleep, I’m not even sure if I can get down the driveway the next day, by car or by foot. But we have such a good reading to discuss in class.

The salt did decent work overnight. The next morning I take my chances and as slowly as possible, glide the car down the steep driveway with minimal braking. I do not slide into the gully. I do not careen into another car in the street. I show up at big box hardware store at 6:30. They open at 7. Head to the grocery store. Out of salt. I buy a coffee, return to big box, grade papers until they open. No salt. I stop at the gas station and buy the last container of that eco-hazardous stuff. I head to retro grocery store and grade papers in the car until they open. No salt. Head to campus and get a good spot because I’m so early. The class discussion of the reading is great.


The snow has melted, and the driveway is clear, for now. On this blustery day, where the wind carries faint memories of spring, I tend to the driveway, again. All that salt we used to melt the ice has done damage to the top layers. The few days of mad runoff eroded it further. I patch the worst pot holes with a gooey filler. I bought a hoe, which I use to tamp it down. Bam! Bam! Bam!

My driveway taught me so much this year. It made me afraid, and I faced the fears. It made me develop new muscles. It made me buy a new pair of boots with excellent treads, and I wear them all the time because I never know when the driveway will need tending, so now I sit in department meetings next to my well-dressed colleagues, looking like a lumberjack. That’s all to say, the driveway is a hegemon, taking over my life. It taught me that accomplishments are fleeting and will be met with more snow, more ice, more runoff, and sometimes it’ll all clear up.

But when I stood at the top of the driveway the day of the ice storm, and I didn’t know how I would melt it, and wondered if we were stuck up there for days, that’s when something clicked. That’s when I felt isolation in my bones. I am isolated, from just about everyone I know. Grief is to blame for part of it. But really, it’s not that. It’s mental illness.

For six years I lived with a husband with a wretched mental illness. For the last two I’ve been taking care of someone else with a different mental illness. It’s the thing I won’t talk about here, but that day, as the cold set in and the sheet of ice lay between me and my town, I felt the despair and isolation bubble up from inside of me. It wasn’t imposed on me; I always carry that around.  There are barriers that prevent me from knocking back a beer with friends and colleagues, from showing up at the parent meetings at schools, from chatting in the grocery store. Taking care of someone with mental illness is enervating, deflating, soul-sucking, dream-crushing. It is isolating. Few people know, and very few know how bad it gets. I try to keep myself happy and healthy, but that is undermined by….never mind, I won’t spill those details.

Only this–now I know, with perfect clarity, the damage that mental illness has done to the people I love and the years it has stolen from me. Knowledge is no solace here. The clarity of it only shows me how powerless I am to stop it, how imprisoned I am by it, and have been for so long. I have gained wisdom, but it is a terrible wisdom. The ice has melted, but I am trapped like that, with feeling of horror and incapacity, any day, and I have been for a long time.

And what are ya gonna do? Chop wood, carry water, shovel the snow, patch the holes, get some sleep.

Finding Fellow Solitudes

NPR did a round-up of recent fiction about solitude. I selected one to read because of this line, about a widow:

Celia Cassill is a young widow who has retreated from the world in the wake of her husband’s death. She rents out three apartments in her building, but other than collecting payment and addressing tenant complaints, she keeps to herself. “American life asks us to engage in an act of triumphant recovery at all times,” she says, which is her own way of saying she’s divorced herself from such social expectation.


What’s Real

I’m playing tag team with Jean, who just wrote about reality tv. Reality and tv have been on my mind lately.

As I’ve been painting, I’ve carted my laptop around to stream The Sopranos. It started innocently enough. With my new HBO subscription, I could watch the last season on tv. I firmly believe that Tony was not shot in the final scene of the series. The screen went black and we were shut out. The characters went to a restaurant we’d never heard of and they went on to live their lives. Without us. (Just as Sherlock Holmes fans know that Holmes is retired and tending to his bees in Sussex.)

Seriously, a colleague of mine–who didn’t even watch the whole series–argued in the mailroom a few years ago that Tony died, and I got a little hot under the collar. I can’t reasonably disagree with someone on this. I was ticked at his mansplaining, but I had a nugget of doubt that maybe I just wished that Tony was alive. In rewatching the last few episodes, I feel vindicated. The therapist, who had been a stand-in for us, disabuses herself of her fondness for Tony and acknowledges him as a sociopath. If that didn’t persuade us, then Anthony, Jr., becomes the show’s oracle, quoting Yeats and urging us to recognize that the real world is all around us. The show’s makers were letting us go, urging us to let go on our terms, and if that didn’t work, they shut us out.

As I painted, I just started the whole series over, from episode 1. That theme ran throughout the whole series. They kept reminding us that this was not real. Italian-Americans who felt out of place in Italy, mobsters who built their identity on The Godfather. There’s one plot turn involving a stolen haul of flat screen tv’s. As the series continues, you see that every mobster and his mother has that tv. Nice consistency to the show, but also a message–this is tv. Resume your critical faculties. This is not real.

Funny, though, how warm and fuzzy it felt to rewatch the series. The opening credits, with  the NJ Turnpike, put me right back onto the scratchy rug in the back of the station wagon, where the littlest kids in the family sat, peering at the smokestacks and the HESS building. When I started my job, we were so broke and couldn’t afford cable, but one of the other stay-at-home dads would loyally slip my husband a videotape of the episode on Monday or Tuesday, so we were always caught up. We were even in NJ for the last episode. We watched it with my brother and left right afterward. I was so stunned by the ending that I sat in silence through all of Pennsylvania. The Sopranos is so embedded in my past, and it evokes so much Jersey and so much of my happy early years of parenting, that it’s like a warm embrace.

There is a lot of real experience that I’ve blocked and that I’m still recovering, bit by bit. This unreal experience feels more familiar, and much safer (even with the violence and sexism and rotten characters). Maybe I’m crazy, avoiding what’s real and embracing what’s constructed. But the academic in me knows that when an Italian-American can pronounce every deli meat with an Italian accent but can’t follow a conversation, well that right there is a culture. If a tv show is woven into the experience of my lie, both reflecting it and constructing it, then that’s experience. And part of recovering from trauma is having to reread your life as a text, and realizing that you were an unreliable narrator, and the beloved main character wasn’t who you thought he was, and not being able to fix that, and getting the story right doesn’t make the story any better.  Vindication is no solace, or even a factor. You just to accept those facts, and this life.

The academic in me also knows that there are multiple interpretations of texts, so you can believe that Tony was shot. To which I will reply, “Get outa town!”

Winter Storage

I stopped kayaking this fall. It was too painful. All that beauty felt like a slap in the face. I left my boat in its berth. It rained, it snowed, it might have hailed on my neglected boat. I had a fear/secret hope that the state office that issues the permits would just cut my lock and seize my kayak. It was some passive way of just getting that reminder of my lack-of-happiness out of my life.

Then, in mid-December, I received a call. It was the state office that issues the permits. I was ready to blurt out, “Go ahead! Just take the boat!” I heard him apologizing, instead. Everybody’s boats were supposed to be gone by December 1, but there’d been some mix-up. Could I please retrieve my boat? Okay, righty-o I’d get out there right away, sir, thank you very much. By Christmas, if I could, he suggested. Um, okay. I picked up my son, dropped him off, and pulled into the grocery store. He called again. I thought that now I was really in trouble, but, no, he was just calling to inform me to apologize for the mix-up and…He sounded like Carlton the Doorman from Rhoda. I stopped him and let him know he’d just called. I started to feel sorry for him. And I needed to get that boat.

The day before Christmas Eve, Daughter and I hoisted it off the berth and onto the car. That was the day that I spent hours (and hours) trying to rig up my new cable modem. At the end of the afternoon, on the phone with the cable company once again, I suggested that I just exchange the dud modem for a new one. Their office was closing in minutes. I raced out the door and saw the boat on top of my car. I grabbed the stool, undid the straps, heaved and ho’d and hauled it to its storage rack in the basement. I was relieved it was safe in its rack instead of seized by the state office that issues the permits. It took 2, maybe 3, minutes to get the boat from the car to the rack. I chuckled at how easy it was. Things that used to be so hard aren’t as hard now.

A friend remarked that she’s been driving past my driveway and wonders how I get out of it. It has had a pool of ice at the bottom for weeks now, what with this relentless cold. I told her that I try to fend it off by clearing the storm drain and shoveling the slush and snow off the street, but when that doesn’t work and the pool of ice forms, if I keep to the right of it and stop just before the pool, I can see if any cars are coming down the street. Then I take a quick breath and careen over the ice. Since no cars are coming, I have time for a little zig or zag if I get caught on the ice.

She peered at me. “You were so scared of the driveway last year.” I was. I still am. The driveway is risky, but it’s not impassable. My fear has not gone away. I am just learning how to be steady when the danger is all around me.

This, of course, is what meditation taught me. Bad stuff, good stuff, it’s all swirling all around. Move within it, not despite it or because of it. The meditation class ended, and I haven’t been going to yoga class, but I’ve kept up my practice. I practice it everyday. I’m getting better with the fear and uncertainty and regret and dread and despair. I’m not so good with the nice things, like beauty and joy. I sound like a brat just saying it. But I know what I feel. It’s all hard to face, it’s all so real and I feel so vulnerable to it, to all of it.

A friend of mine (whom I haven’t hidden on Facebook because she rarely posts) updated her profile photo with a picture that I took of her. We were out on the lake in late summer, at the end of the day. It was the “magic hour” of the light, and I saw the light reflecting off her and her boat. I pulled out my phone and captured it. When she posted the photo on FB, she got comments such as “You’re awesome!” but I don’t think she was looking for validation. Maybe she had a yearning for late summer in the midst of winter. I don’t know why she posted it, but I know what I saw. She reflected back to me the beauty that I see. It is just a phone picture, taken hastily and off-balance–she was floating past me as I fumbled to get the phone–but it captures warmth and light and, yes, magic. She showed me that I see this beauty. I can’t bear it, but I see it, and now I sort of get it.

Our everyday life is harder than it has to be, and the simple moments (school plays, parties, Christmas) of ordinary life are heart-wrenching for us. We are deprived of life’s simple pleasures, but I’ve also been privy to extraordinary beauty–of humans, of nature, of wonder. I’m so knocked out of the ordinary world and thrust into this other one, where kayaking isn’t an act of self-validation but a movement through something, a journey I don’t even understand. I’m not learning about myself, I’m learning about all of this around me. The trick is to be still and move through it, to receive it without feeling accosted by it, to accept it.

I’ve been eyeing my kayak a lot this past month. As I search for drill bits, or store the painting supplies in between painting surges, or add to my pile of recyclables (because I don’t want to make the recycling guys have to walk over that ice pool, so I’m storing them until the ice melts), I spot the kayak there on its rack, and I sure do wonder when I can get that boat back in the water again.

I am learning to be steady through horror and fear. Now let’s see if I can do the same with beauty, maybe with joy.