Sneak Peek

In typical hypomanic fashion, I am working on 8,000 projects simultaneously. Here is a little snippet from my book I Am Awesome at Depression (very close to being done - for real). I would love feedback as I'm still in the editing stage.

This is my golden record*. It’s a space capsule waiting to be discovered by other potential life in the universe. It’s my life and my understanding of it transcribed into 21st century human English and transmitted electronically to whoever may come across it. 

Carl Sagan's Golden Record launched in the Voyager in 1977

Upon reading it, they will either decide it's gibberish, space garbage that floated into their atmosphere, or it will pierce a tiny hole in the illusions they use to shield themselves. They will know someone out there understands them.

When I was 24, I taught French at a school for gifted kids. In most ways, they were typical gangly middle schoolers, except when they looked at me from their desks, their sincerity and open heartedness took my breath away. Like most young adults, I was still carrying fresh memories of feeling ignored, misunderstood, and powerless as a child.

As the “adult” I promised I would never waste my students’ time and I would treat them like the precious beings they were. It was my chance to remake the world into a place I wanted to live. So instead of simply drilling verb conjugations, we sat together for 45 minutes every day and read The Little Prince aloud.

There are so many eloquent truths in The Little Prince. It is a gentle introduction to mortality, a reminder of what is essential to our existence, and the many paths we can take to forget what’s really important. It helps us remember who we are and why we are. The themes from the Little Prince’s story gilded my own. They helped me map my spirit and navigate the painful process of awakening into adulthood. It couldn’t have been any other way.

While I have lived my life chronologically, my understanding of things dips into the past and back to the present reverberating like frequencies in the universe, so that’s how I’m telling the story. We all have experiences that teach us something so fundamentally true, that it feels like we are coming back to an understanding that we had at one time already, perhaps before this existence.

When we are able to put this knowing into words, we feel in our bones that it has always been true, but we are just at this moment remembering it. I call this knowing God. We are an important part of this equation. Without our blundering and recognition and verbalizing, the truth is still there, but we haven’t illuminated it.

I don’t like to think of time as a straight line anyway. Imagine a sphere with an infinite number of offset pyramids drawn inside it. Each chapter here is a point on one of the circumscribed triangles. The point of light where the triangles meets the sphere is the point at which I bounced off the edge and traveled toward my next great life lesson.

*As part of the Voyager launched in 1977, Carl Sagan included a golden record, a time capsule he believed represented the greatest of human accomplishments and spirit. 

Chapter 1


An Unexpected Gift

The hourglass has been flipped. All four of my parents' parents are already on the other side of this existence. Losing them thrust me into reflection. Since my Uncle Abe and my grandmother have both recently passed away, I wanted to share this little vignette I jotted down a couple years ago. It is one way I choose to honor them and their imprints on my life.

Perched on the mountain brow in Hamilton, Ontario, my grandmother’s home was a special place to me when I was a kid. Video games, computers, cell phones, and the like hadn't yet crossed the threshold. Being in my grandma's home was a respite from the pressures of the world. This was a woman who used to bake the bread for her family in an outdoor brick oven as a girl. Her strength was forged by a simple Mennonite upbringing and raising a large family. 

I knew this might be the only time my own children could peek into their great-grandmother’s sewing room and be delighted by the upheaval of colors and textures piled on the worn wooden table. They might never again have the chance to see links of sausage hanging next to the old washtub, or collections of Mennonite history books stacked next to the record player. These were the intimate details that made my grandma so different from all the other grandmothers.

An 18-hour drive did not dampen my excitement to see the little brown house again. I raced ahead of my own kids and beat them to the front door. After hugs and customary greetings, my grandma turned her hearing aids down. This means, "I'm tired," so I sent the kids to poke around in the basement and turned to my uncle. He said, "I'm going to get some supper started, eh." He walked to the kitchen and gave me some time to absorb long-forgotten details in my grandma's house. 

I quietly slipped into my grandma's sewing room. I could hear my kids' whispery breath as they peeked through the cracked door to watch me run my hands over pin cushions, thimbles, and fabrics. Better than books, theses items told stories, showed their history in patina, long past trends, and stockpiled scraps from an entire lifetime.

Since my grandma was 95 at the time, I knew that soon this house would be emptied. All her remaining children would carry away the tiny bed opposite the sewing machine and the watchful portrait of a doe-eyed girl in a colorful dress that hung above it. The family would be forever changed. Instead of sadness, though, I felt grateful to have been a part of it.

Giggles brought me back to the present day. I was the mother now and my kids were growing restless. We walked to the park, played tag in the yard, and looked at old pictures. Finally the kids craved something familiar and watched a movie so we could finish getting supper on the table.

In my grandma's kitchen, the small juice glasses were standing on the counter waiting to be dunked, scrubbed, and rinsed. Warm water and clean-smelling suds always calmed my heart. 

I placed the last glass in its spot and carefully sidled up to my Uncle Abe under the glow of the stove light. I stretched my arm around his shoulders and squeezed. My head fell into his shoulder and we stared into the old cast iron skillet together. He couldn't get away because he was pushing potatoes and onions around in the oily pan with a fork. He wouldn't risk burning my grandma's Dikakeilkya just to escape my hug.

"You still do that, eh?" 

Random hugs to replace words I can't speak, I thought, Yes, I still do that.

I could have said, "Love me now, while I'm here. Let's have long conversations punctuated with explosive laughter or stifled tears. Tell me stories that only you know." I might have suggested that there are greater and more powerful things than failing organs and heavy regret.

Instead I hugged him tighter. Eyes shining, I left him with an imprint of innocent hope.

I'm glad I didn't speak and savored the stillness instead. Words would have only detracted from the beingness of that moment.

When  my first child was born, my Uncle Abe wrote her a letter. He asked that it not be opened until he was gone. When I read it I felt so loved. 

Dear little one,

If this letter has been opened before you receive it, I hereby grant you permission to yell at your mom, this one time – for 15 seconds.

I am your Great Uncle Abe on your mother’s side and as I write this you are only a few days old. A few months before you were born, your parents decided to move for reasons they described as a warmer climate. I suppose that’s my tough luck for I’ll miss visiting during the growing and learning years – watching you become an adult.

When your mom was a little girl, her mother regularly took the time and made the effort to visit. At that time I was unable to travel so I greatly appreciated the joy your mom always gave to me. As a three-year-old who told stories, as a pre-teen who had the ability to converse as an adult, as a twenty-something busy being courted, as a wife and as a mother-to-be, she always greeted me with a smile and a hug.

Everyone inherits traits from their parents, physical traits as well as personality traits. I remember that up to age 5 my parents were God to me. By age 10 I had discovered to my extreme disappointment, anger and dismay that they had feet of clay. In a few years I had resolved never to be like my parents in any way. But shortly it was confirmed as I had suspected earlier, my feet were no better.

So if there is a trait passed on to you from your parents, apart from your mom’s intellect and beauty and your dad’s brains, may it be your mom’s ability to give a hug. You must consider that your mom was cute as a child, pretty as a teenager and absolutely beautiful as an adult. When your mom gave a hug on greeting, it said, “Hey, I’m glad to see you.” It was one of her qualities that endeared her to me. If it was in my power to bestow a blessing on you it would be the ability to give a hug like your mom does. Master that and the world will be yours.

It is my belief that when people have children their primary purpose as parents from day one, is to prepare the child to leave home and negotiate their way through life. This, of course, means that the child has the obligation to prove that they are worthy.

By now your personality, character traits, and social behavior are well established, just not yet polished.

          When you cannot be a shining inspiration, 
          be a fearful example!



My Dragon Skin

This was inspired by another post I read here, written by a woman across the world whom I'm never met. We do, however, share a profound love for Kundalini yoga and meditation. I love to see how it changes and heals people if they let it.

The words skin, scales, facades, masks, and shields have come in and out of my world several times in the last few days. I'm also tidying up my autobiography for editing right now, and my anam cara suggested I take another look to see where I was adding fluff or censoring myself too much.

I lifted the veil of protection from my eyes and looked again. I carefully flipped through the pages and then tossed them to the floor like they were on fire. The gaping holes in the story were so much larger than what had been written. I cried, my heart fluttered, and all at once, I was relieved. 

Fellow creatives will understand when I say I've been wearing a hole in the floor trying to figure out what was lacking in my work. The answer was EVERYTHING.

I've been repeating to my people that I want to be very careful not to hurt anyone in the process of trying to share a beautiful, complete example of how I fell apart and put myself back together. While that's true, what I really meant was that I didn't want to hurt me in the process. 

Guess what? That's not possible. After all, the ego's job is to protect us. My ego was shielding me from my greatest fears: that my story isn't actually worth telling and that my mistakes and darkness mean I'm not worthy of love or joy. 

It will take some time for me to rework my story now, but it will be a truer depiction of how exactly my self-worth was destroyed and how I put on my dragon skin to hide who I really was. 

Where it all started

I wrote this piece a few years ago for an essay contest. I didn't win the prize, but I discovered that I had a lot of compacted rage. I haven't stopped writing since.

As a mother of three children under the age of nine, I am just crawling out from beneath the mountain of self-doubt, pre-packaged snack food, and society- imposed “shoulds” that can heave themselves upon uninitiated parents. Since I have never appreciated clich├ęs, when I hear “Everything happens for a reason,” it causes involuntary eye-rolling. “Live, laugh, love” and “It is what it is” fall into the same category for me: people putting on a happy face instead of examining what hurts and changing their understanding in a meaningful way. 

When you collapse into deep, senseless depression and you are desperate to be present in your kids’ lives despite it, those hackneyed expressions are a waste of your precious breath and mental space. Instead of turning to generic phrases to smooth over raw emotions, I prefer to tell myself mini-stories. In each one I am the same character in a different setting. When I imagined sharing this experience with others to light their paths and amuse them, I couldn’t settle on just one perspective. In reality, it depends on the moment. That’s what mothers do. They must find either the humor or the lesson in every situation.

Quick, Jaded Version of the Last 13 Years of my Life
I was driving along and crashed head-on into a pile of marriage, babies, confusion, headaches, mortgages, joy-sucking illnesses, dashed expectations, and rare glimpses of what I thought life was supposed to be.

Hillbilly Version
I crapped out three kids. They hauled out my busted uterus. I ain’t done nothin’ outside this house since 2005…”  Joe Jr! Shut Up!  Momma’s recordin’ her innermost thoughts!”  I told seven different bosses to start runnin’ and I’d give ‘em ten seconds before I got my gun.

Flowery Elizabethan Version
Loving a man more profusely than the sun shines through the rosettes at the most wondrous cathedrals in France, I joined myself to him for eternity. We met on the shores of passion and risk, dove headlong into the sea of uncertainty, bringing forth three magnificent babes. 

As any committed mother aiding in the formation of the future generations, I gave myself fully to their nurturing, education, and happiness. In this work, I too found my purpose, my nurturing, education, and happiness. But, man, this corset is a little tight sometimes.

Practical Midwestern Version
Well, we were married after an adequate engagement. We then discussed the possibility of children for a time. After our baby girl was born, we struggled to reshape our lives as parents, but that’s just what you do. We had two more sons, buckled down, and got to the hard work of teaching children and being good examples. Now we’re tired and we need to rest.

Denial Version
Being a mother is 100% fulfilling all the time. It’s made my marriage stronger and I don’t regret taking a backseat to Tae Kwon Do and second grade Christmas pageants. Kids need those things to learn about life and get a good job as adults. I don’t need any thanks and I don’t miss having too many choices and so many friends. Seeing the kids enjoy online games and new apps on the tablet is enough thanks. I love having other children over too. It just adds to the fun. It’s not a happy home unless there are muddy boots in the living room and marker on the walls.

Sweaty, Panicked, Downward Spiral Version
They got candy again for doing their homework?  I forgot to plan dinner for tonight!  We have chicken nuggets. They had those for lunch. I have canned salmon. Joe hates fish. I can make salmon cakes and cheese quesadillas. The lettuce is wilted, so they’ll have to have frozen peas. What a crappy dinner. I’ll make some cookies so I have something to bribe them to eat their peas with. I am already so bloated. But seriously, candy in schools!  Too many weeknight obligations. A Native-American Dwelling Project due for my third-grader. Quesadillas for dinner five nights in a row. My fat pants don’t fit. I’m freaking out!  I’m going to eat some of the candy my kids brought home from school. I feel guilty about eating their candy!. I’m such a terrible mom. 

Self-defeatist Victim Living in Fear Version
I am so tired all the time. If I didn’t have to work so hard to protect my family from the commercialism and gluten running rampant, I could have more time to myself. There is no way for a woman to have a good job and be a decent mom in this society. No one is there for me and I just need a break. If I look for a job outside the home, chances are it won’t pay enough and it won’t be worth leaving my kids for anyway. Somehow we’ll make it through the rest of this day. Only six hours until bedtime. 

Vignette Version
After a spontaneous decision to pick up and move across the country from the desert, we landed in a beautiful small town in Missouri. As I start to unpack the relics of our old life, I open the kitchen window and feel the freshest breeze on my face. My kids running around in the grass and laughing late in the afternoon on their first cool autumn day brings tears to my eyes. They are safe and silly and I am content to build a new story for our family.

Kooky Poet Version
            Wine trickles into the glass    
            Foreman Grill, my savior again

            Round ‘em up
            Fill all the seats
            Cajole, Nag, Threaten

            Let’s talk about our day!
            Confused silence permeates
            Laughable moments & strange coincidences emerge
            Just a few more vegetables, please

            A little too full
            Content in the cleaning
            Hugging my partner in this controlled chaos

            Breathing in the slow comfort of the evening
            Letting contentedness fill the empty spaces
New Age Version
These tiny celestial beings constantly test my mettle. They are doing the jobs they were sent to do. Instructive, rather than judgmental, they insist that I learn how to care for them. In doing so, I will find the humility and the divinity that comes from loving someone else so completely that you couldn’t imagine it any other way. 

My body, surrounded by an indigo flame, tells me that I’m making progress. If I continue seeking lightness, I will more easily pull myself out of the muck when I stumble, slowly tipping the balance in favor of serenity.

Surreal / Fear & Loathing Version
            The beast is real, snarling and foaming at the mouth.
            “Back off!” I say
            Wielding my stern voice, homeschooling, cooking, and discipline.
            These are a mother’s only weapons, after all.
When I have the courage to look it in the face,
I see society’s expectations hiding in its eyes.
            When it roars, the children look to me.
            I leap to the front and shield us all from its fiery breath
            Seductive promises and traditions.
            It disappears in a puff of smoke to morph and rally
            And return another dark day.

Normal Version I Normally Give Other Normal People
Oh, me?  I have three kids, aged 8, 6 and 4. We homeschool and love to cook and read and take walks. I am a writer. Sometimes I like to run. We eat a Primal diet, which means no grains, very little sugar, and whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. It’s great.

Version I Tell When I’m Drunk
I am from Illinois, not originally, but it is where I had my first and last shot of Wild Turkey, where I lost my virginity, where I read and appreciated my first great novel, and where I met and married my husband. Essentially, I grew up there. After a while we just needed to break away from everything we knew and start over in a new place. We couldn’t take the traffic, potholes, commuting, shoveling snow, commercialism, etc. So we moved to Arizona. I was six months pregnant at the time and it all started out great. Blah, blah, blah…three kids later, no job, unhappy, very few like-minded friends, desperate need to get out of the there, moved back to the Midwest and now we are waiting expectantly for our lives to be fabulous. 

Epic Tale Version
Once there was a young woman who went to give birth in the desert. The only tools she had were a Master’s Degree in French and unrealistic expectations. Despite this, she battled C-sections, post-partum depression, breastfeeding, body changes, a cooled-off marriage, and a bleak period of self-doubt to come out on top. What adventure will she face next?

Hero’s Journey Version
I knew a woman once, a neighbor who didn’t overthink things. She hosted friends for game nights, outdoor ladies’ retreats, wild let-loose parties, and relaxed back patio conversations on a regular basis. For a while she was my hero. I thought about all the things she was doing that I wished I could do. It took me a few years to understand that while this neighbor was pretty fun and had a great family, I was actually my own hero. 

I am one of those heroes who starts out down on his luck and pushed around by life, like Peter Parker. Then I face an unimaginable difficulty and instead of a radioactive spider, I am bitten by the insatiable desire to do the best I possibly can for my family. It makes me a little mysterious, a little crazy, and very bold. It gives me the strength to transform into a fearsome, mostly benevolent being.

I’ve pulled out of a major emotional tailspin. Becoming a mother for the first time was not what I pictured. It was traumatic, heartbreaking, illusion-shattering, ego-slashing. I felt like less of a person. Why was I struggling so much to pull it together when my baby was healthy?  Isn’t this what women have done since the beginning of…well…humanity?  Why did I feel like my life was over?  I listened to the advice my friends and neighbors offered. I latched onto a blessed few hobbies to keep me afloat and give me activities to look forward to. Slowly, I became light enough in spirit to see that my life wasn’t over. I was one of millions of people who indulged in various cover-ups, masks, and self-defeating cycles until a soul-saving, painful awakening. Depression can be treated, but only if it is acknowledged.

During my darkest days, one of my favorite distractions was learning about my ancestry, filling in gaps in the family tree. Running themes in my family include overcoming enormous obstacles, work, sacrifice, and austerity. The belief that to suffer is to be closer to the divine is common in many family stories. My own grandmother gave birth to one of her sons by herself in a small cabin in Northern Ontario while her husband was away working in the mines. She read a book on how to deliver a baby. The plug to the only heater was broken, so she straight-wired the heater and put it under the blanket to deliver her own baby. I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure she got up from the bed and went back to the housework after that. This kind of incredible perseverance made my people amazingly stubborn survivors. 

This trait, passed down to me, however, looks like insanity.
I am a fully digital, convenience-loving consumer, with a Masters degree in French and a weakness for 90s hip-hop. I don’t need to spend my days patching the house with cow pies (which apparently make fantastic plaster for mud houses on the plains) or mending my family’s clothes. This also leaves me feeling utterly ridiculous if I measure my worth in comparison to how hard the people in my family before me have worked for everything.

To divert my brain from the neurotic cycle it tends to produce and to prove that I worked hard and was therefore worthy, I too immersed myself in homemaking. It connected me to the women in my family and all women. Tasks like beating out rugs in the back of the house, washing pans in the sink, or planning a week of dinners after taking stock of the cupboards were comforting and reliable. Some things haven't changed for women in generations. I thought, “Maybe we need these things. We can control these tasks completely.” 

The sense of impending doom that accompanied the birth of our first child was not nearly as heavy after we had our next baby. I allowed myself to enjoy the process the second time around and cared for myself in ways that didn’t occur to me the first time. Responsibility and a lack of fun and excitement still flattened me some days, but overall it was not the end of the world. When our son turned one, we threw him a small party and celebrated the end of breastfeeding with a bottle of wine…Nine months later our third child was born.

The recovery period after giving birth to our third child was hectic and confusing. I knew I loved all my kids just like any parent does, but I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t be happy. I was better at masking my crazy at this point, but inside the turmoil was destroying me. Another year later at a regular gynecological exam, my doctor asked me if I had thoughts of hurting myself. (Thank goodness for that caring doctor.) Things became painfully clear. In one huge rush, I shed many tears along with the image that I was anything but crushed by depression.

I came slightly unhinged and all the crazy spilled out. I saw a therapist, started medication, and realized that maybe there was something more and possibly very ugly that needed to be purged and reframed from the mess that had collected in my psyche. I tried a few medications and finally found one that made me feel like I could leave the house for groceries and not cry in the cereal aisle. I also noticed that my daughter, then six, stopped asking me all the time if I was okay.

This break in the clouds gave me the chance to look at myself. My ugly truth was the heap of choices I’d made throughout my life that I was spinning in my mind as the reason that no one should care about me or treat me well. I didn’t feel like I should treat myself well. I let other people’s opinions of me define me, and few of those people understood what depression looked like.

So after years of scoffing at trite expressions that get reprinted on antiqued wooden planks to hang on your wall, I found one that I needed. “Put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.”  Within a short period of time, our lives took a dramatic turn. Suddenly, the idea that I needed to sacrifice everything for the sake of motherhood seemed dangerous and stupid. It was not the path to salvation and goodness that I assumed it would be.

Putting on my oxygen mask meant radically changing the way I ate, throwing out conventional wisdom that is not based in good science. After a few months my husband and I had successfully eliminated foods from our diet that were making us sick. The sense of accomplishment I felt carried over very quickly into other areas of my life. 

I completely removed my kids from the school system that caused much unneeded stress for our family. The personal power that I regained by guiding my kids’ education through homeschooling was enormous. The time we gained together was ultimately the most healing thing we could have done for our family. 
To me, my kids were already the smart, fun-loving planetary bodies around which I orbited. After we started to homeschool we were able to see each other at our best and worst, not just during the morning or evening rush. We had time to learn and play and rest and fight and forgive together every day.

Don’t get me wrong. Family, friends, and neighbors were armed and ready with any number of concerns about our eating habits and our choice to homeschool. The part I liked the best about these radical changes was feeling like I didn’t need to justify these decisions to anyone. When something is that good for your family you don’t question it. How sweet it is when you are so sure of your happiness that other people’s opinions cannot sway you. Reclaiming my family’s life from being on autopilot was exhilarating. I was much more grateful for every interaction with my kids because it was on our terms.

The next step to living more authentically came when I realized that living in the Southwest wasn’t right for us anymore. We knew that we really belonged back in the Midwest within driving distance of our families. We put our house up for sale, found a new one not far from where my husband grew up and drove across the country with our Chihuahua and three kids to our new home within two months. 

Finally, I began writing again for pleasure. Positive change is truly contagious. I’ve learned very recently, or remembered rather, that I’m worthy of love no matter what mistakes I’ve made. I’ve decided that I’m going to continue doing the best job I can as a mother and put my own happiness much more in the forefront than ever before. I discovered that we are not on Earth to live out the story of struggle and survival. We are not meant to simply toil and suffer and reproduce and die, as is sometimes implied by our history and our genetics. 

We are meant to write our own, individual stories. We are here to come to know the meaning of loving others, even when they poop their pants for the third time in a day just before their sister’s gymnastics lesson. We are here to love people who disappoint us and leave us hanging, perhaps not understanding why, but accepting it with compassion. We are especially here to love ourselves, even in our fat pants, unemployed, lonely, and imperfect. 

When I struggle now, I take stock of the qualities that make me the hero of my own story:
-I always look for new ways to add value to my life and our family.
-I give myself time to be cranky when necessary and then reset and move on.
-I forgive myself for the times I haven’t.
-I shrug off criticism from others that is not constructive.
-I listen to criticism that is constructive with an open heart, knowing that a person who shares it has the courage to love me even when it’s hard.
-I think before I speak.
-I face things even when they are incredibly uncomfortable, knowing that letting negative feelings fester will make me sick.
-I celebrate my progress.
-I treat my body like a temple most days and a playground on others.
-I remember that we have value just because we are born and that my purpose is to share that truth with others.
-And because I’m awesome. That’s why.