This week for some reason, Leonard has been particularly intense on the morning walks. Birds are grabbing his attention lately. And he keeps burrowing into bushes before I tug him back. Something about spring I suppose. Maybe the rats are already leaving their nests?

He was still wound up when I dropped him off at the house and headed to the trail. This morning’s run was unusually dark. Usually, we can see the lights from the houses blinking from the other side of the lake, but this morning the trail faded to greys and blacks, and then indigo ink where the curves of the stones along the shore meet the nothing. I guess it’s the fog that seems to close down the area, like a bell jar. Instead of getting a sense of an endless, dark abyss beyond the rocks, it felt claustrophobic. As though, if we were to veer to the right we’d not wade into the cold water, but hit a screen of woven night, woolly and coarse. I’m going to think of it as more like a tea cozy than a bell jar.

I ran slower than usual. Which is as slow as sleepwalking. Thoughts moving too quickly – out of sync with my breath and my body. I’m still feeling disconnected.

Back at our regular hour now, we see familiar faces. And a new one. Someone got themselves a shepherd puppy. “Good morning”. People here don’t acknowledge one another at the train station, at the store. Even at work, the administration has to remind us to say hello to one another in the corridors.

But walk those extra 300 meters from “civilization”, once you hit the trail: “Good Morning People”. It’s one more reason to force myself out the door at 5 a.m.

I have a week of winter vacation now and the timing couldn’t be better. I’m hoping that the quiet will help me fill my ballast again. I’ve been slowly destabilizing since long before the pandemic. Looking for something to hold on to. Even during meditation I can be side-swiped by a random thought and find myself knocked to my metaphorical knees again.

I’ve been thinking a lot about time. How we move through the world only seeing what has been. Only seeing an illusion of what has been. The story we weave as events pass under our arms and through our hands

time flows like water
from behind, around our ribs
under our armpits
and through our hands, as we weave
one of a million stories

possible

These past few days have been difficult. Something like a storm surge instead of the constant ebb and flow of effort and ease. Someone used the phrase storm in a teacup. But that’s not quite right.

I get it: sometimes drama is a diversion from a real problem. A shrew in the bushes on the loose riverbank in spring.

But sometimes it’s the sputtering leak before the hose bursts.

I typed out a list of things in a messenger exchange with my kid. He called it my anti-gratitude list. I felt a little foolish. But I’ve been considering since whether I needed to write one. Not to dwell on, but to see what I need to let go of. All the fancy therapeutic writing exercises, when maybe all I need is this list on a piece of paper.

And maybe a pair of scissors.
And maybe a thick, black marker.

A box of matches
(Something in a minor key?)
Driftwood and kindling
Fricatives and plosives

All spells are taken
back and forth and back again
until the very end
“for each man kills the thing he loves”
doused in oils and dissonance

Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.
-Pema Chödron

I meditated this morning on impermanence. Specifically the impermanence of moods. Tension crept into my shoulders and neck again last night. Despite an half an hour on the shakti mat, I lay awake a good deal of the night feeling like there was a rubber band wrapped around my brain. My jaw. My shoulders.

And this morning is a deep pool of why bother. But I’ve stopped looking for clues, for catalysts, or causes. This will pass. I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth three times – cleansing breaths. Then I peel a clementine. I rub the rind over my hands. I press my hands together, and to my lips. And I inhale again.

When Dix entered one of her melancholy seasons she went to England to rest with Quakers. They fed her fruit. I love the irony that these pious Christians turned to an orange, a peach, or… an apple for healing.

And quiet. They turned to Quiet.

I have been making an ever-greater effort to stop multitasking. And ever-failing. Yesterday I caught myself searching for audio apps to read the news to me so I could work on the computer simultaneously. This after I’d acknowledged to myself how I’ve been listening to podcasts in a weirdly performative way (paratheatre) while thinking about other things entirely.

So much noise. I may have stumbled on a catalyst to my rubber band situation, I guess. But this pain is a consequence, not a punishment. I know that.

I’ve been collecting worries for 9 months mow. I fretted as though my doing so would make the world easier for other people. As though it were a useful thing to do with my time. Yesterday a student complained about the educational law in Norway that prevents me from giving them the last day before vacation off. She insisted on having the last word: But it sucks. There was no way she was going to allow me to end the conversation otherwise: But you have to agree it sucks, she repeated.

How often my students are mirror versions of my own little oxpeckers. How often my efforts to change the world are substitutes for what I need to change in myself. I try to soothe what needs soothing within myself. I fret vicariously. Uselessly.

Nature Picture Library Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) pair  searching for parasites on Impala, Mpumalanga, South Africa - Heini Wehrle

I think about Dix and all her work on behalf of the mentally ill – and all her own mental pain. Like her, I’m a well-intentioned master of self-deception. Too often ignorant of my own motivations for choosing the lauded – but ignorant perspective: choosing the other, while drowning myself.

Every year I hold this thought that I will really relish Christmas. I will make things with my hands, invest in the act of creating and giving as a token of interpersonal gratitude. Instead, I rush things between grading exams and making dinner, and I curse and resent the entire season. I resent the fact that last year’s handmade candies are still in a jar on the shelf in my colleague’s office, unopened – and likely brewing something far less helpful than penicillin.

I think about all the almond flour and lemon that wedged painfully under my fingernails while I rolled the candies into small coconut-flour-dusted shapes. (What a frightening thought now, in these Covid times).

Yeah.

This year I’m making candles. I expect hot soy wax will bring with it a share of painful moments. But I’m hoping the scent of cloves and orange will help me focus on a brighter mood.

Essence of orange tends to stick around. There’s nothing smooth about it. Like a burr or a bit of Velcro, it snags and insists on attention. Like a toddler tugging at a shirttail, demanding to be lifted up onto a hipbone and carried through the day, pointing and clapping at everything that sparks a little bit of joy. Clove? That’s the old woman doing the carrying, paying attention, smiling warmly: saying put down the red pen and the grading, and come here and just sit a while.

Take a deep breath.

It’s no wonder we reach for supernatural explanations, incantations and spells. Feeling as I do now, so near to breaking, I can’t point to a single overwhelming event, fact, obstacle. Instead, small moments stretch out behind me like a long path of fallen dominoes, and ahead they stand precariously, vulnerable and threatening to fall so quickly one after the other that I won’t be able to keep up.

It is very hard to sit comfortably on the mat, breathe deeply and trust that things will change. My perceptions will change. My perspectives.

This morning the crows’ chatter was grating. It shouldn’t have been. But in the dark, in the drizzle, with my shoulders aching and my mind echoing conversations (that have and haven’t actually taken place), I wanted to shout back.

I’ve always found it easiest to shift my perspective when I shift it in the material world. Stand-up. Run. Leave town for a day. Leave the country for a week. For good. How big is the thing I need perspective on?

I wanted to rush through their gathering
the way the freight train does on most mornings,
so close to the grove you can feel the wind
rerouted by its intrusion.
The trees shake. The crows wait.

I can hear it now, actually – right on cue – passing behind the neighbor’s house, metal against metal in a high-pitched howl. I can feel a cry somewhere
behind my sternum. It presses
upward and is easy to mistake for heartburn,
though not acidic: rounder, fuller
like an over-ripe fruit.

Nothing like metal shavings of the railroad track, actually.
Nothing that can compete with the world’s ills and hurts and
imperatives.

No. This withheld cry will soften into rot
and something new will eventually
emerge. A new fruit – not better – but
a potential. Because
on it goes.

And catharsis? Well, that’s the stuff
of fiction.


On the other hand. Unlike yesterday, this morning I remembered to wash my hair while showering. I found my missing comb under the sideboard in the entrance hall. I remembered to take the pills that keep my blood from clenching into tight little balls of stop.

That’s my gratitude list for a Wednesday. How am I doing? For today: this is good enough.

Today I realized that I haven’t bothered with my appearance since the pandemic began. Not that I think that vanity is a virtue, nor have I ever been someone who checks my lipstick at lunchtime during the workday, but I have had a healthy baseline of care and pride when I’ve been well.

I’m aware that slacking in terms of grooming and hygiene are markers for depression. I once was shocked to get copies of a year’s-worth of my psychiatrist’s notes to see that he recorded little more than whether I’d combed my hair. I remember thinking it was the 90s. Did we comb our hair that decade? I forget.

Friday morning I showered, did an easy yoga flow, meditated, wrote for an hour, drank a kale smoothie – then ran out the door to work. No bra. I am not sure I’ve left a house without a bra since I was 10. I’ve been thinking about what this might mean – so many possibilities after all: dementia, stress, depression, laziness, age.

Bras have always felt like a kind of armor really. It wasn’t that I should wear them to be modest, but rather to be safe. An extra layer of psychological protection from the world. So maybe my thoughtlessly leaving the house without that kind of protection is not such a bad thing. And maybe it does have to do with age – and still not such a bad thing.

At lunch I went to the bathroom. No lipstick. Not that unusual. But I had bits of kale in my teeth. So, yeah, maybe there is more to this just being a newfound sense of the safety invisibility provides. Maybe I am sliding into a depression.

Many years ago I read an article in National Geographic about how women in care homes who had their hair done every week lived longer. No one knows for certain why. It could be just a matter of the physical contact with another human. But they also thought that it has been an aspect of human nature from the beginning: the impulse to adorn ourselves. And that bothering to adorn ourselves was a sign of health, both individual and communal.

When I was small we would go to church on Sundays and Wednesdays. Our church had a vaulted ceiling and I thought it was so high to make room for the Holy Spirit to look down on us. On Sunday mornings, I’d sometimes watch my grandmother get dressed. She’d stand in her pointy bra and silk half-slip. She had a small, round mirror on a wire arm that wrapped around her neck so she could see the back of her head in the big mirror while she used both hands to slide the bobby pins into the waves in her hair. She’d put on lipstick – only on Sundays. Then nylons, and a polyester dress that belted at her trim waist. I am guessing she was probably the age I am now.

I don’t remember what I wore. But I know we dressed up for the Holy Spirit.

When I was a bit older, the youth groups in the church became more visible among the general congregation and they would sometimes wear jeans to church. Neither of my grandparents approved. If you’re not going to bother to get dressed up for God, who will you bother for?

Vanity is complicated: finding that fine line between caring too much and not caring enough. My grandmother would criticize her daughters for being overweight (ie lazy and undisciplined). But she would also criticized the women her own age who would wear blue eye-shadow and kohl: who do they think they are?

I once had a boyfriend tell me he was ashamed of me because I didn’t iron my blouse. I once had an aunt tell me not to worry about a run in my pantyhose because if people were looking that closely at me “they deserve to find something wrong to gossip about”. (I now count the latter as true words of wisdom, but at the time thought: well, that’s fine for you to think – you’re old.)

I have overdressed and I have under-dressed when attending social functions. A hemline just too short to be”appropriate” sexy, just too long to be trendy. Social anxiety isn’t high on my list of mental health challenges, but this can still be a numbing experience.

I have simply never properly deciphered these fashion codes. Or even cared to for stretches of time.

It is always easier to stay home than it is to choose the clothes by which you want to be judged.

“Is this too much cleavage?” “Do I look like I’m trying to be 18?” “Do I look like I’m trying too hard?”

Once a colleague glanced down at my harem pants and said, “Oh, you’re one of those people who likes spiritual things”. What is the proper response to that? Another day, another colleague said, “My, those are a lot of pearls today.”

And?

Apparently on Friday I was one of those people who has completely given up.

It is easier to stay home.

And if I didn’t have bills to pay, I would… which maybe means I should make an appointment to get my hair done? Maybe try again to schedule an hour with my therapist?

I’m still waiting for the results of the second MRI. The doctor says it can verify a slipped disk, or cancer. But if it’s stress-induced, well – I function too well to qualify for a counselling referral. Despite my previous diagnoses. We go through the side effects for the various pain killer options.

I opt for wine.

Though it’s not on his list.

The chiropractor tells me I have an “irritation” of some kind in the C5, C6, and C7 vertebra on the left side. He says to carefully push my range of motion with the exercises the physical therapist gave me. Continue with yoga.

The woman whom I’ve been getting Thai massages from for the last two years tells me it’s a matter of crossed nerves. She says look up and down – not sideways – 50 times a day. Up. And. Down. She demonstrates, fingers laced behind her head, elbows tight to her ears.

I miss my daily asana practice. I sporadically work with flows. Warrior two – chiropractic approved, Reverse Warrior, compatible with the Thai-therapist’s advice. Sirsasana? Not happening.

All I know is that my neck hurts in a way that makes my heart ache. And that doesn’t make any sense. I’m feeling claustrophobic. Two months now.

We’ve been hiking on the few sunny days we’ve had. Or actually, the days that have started out sunny and ended with white-weighted skies and large, singular drops of rain.

I move slowly, sinking the pole into the dark wet to test the depth before each step. Or balancing tuft to tuft on the balded heads of sunken monks. Everything dead is alive on the long walks over the moor.

I try not to stumble, afraid of an inevitable stabbing pain in my neck.

There are tiny frogs on the trail. We counted five alive. I count each of them as a sign of promise. Blue dragonflies hover over the puddles like neon warnings. Their Norwegian name is “eye-sticker”, and it still freaks me out when E. says he sees one.

Bog cotton waves tiny flags of surrender: walk around this spot, or change your socks afterward.

Sheep’s bells. Always the sheep’s bells to let us know we’re not alone up there where we see clear to the North Sea.

Home, I prop my aching neck on a pillow and binge watch an old television series. I read a book and wonder why I’m not writing more. I nap.

And I wake to the sound of sand – or the roll of a maraca – my neck aching. I can’t even turn my head to kiss my husband.

I’ve a limited range of motion, and a fear of losing perspective.