Wednesday, October 10, 2012


October 10, 2012
 
Flying for the Curve
 
 
                                                Vase: Albert R. Valentien, c 1883
 
Just when I think the Bipolar pendulum has settled into a resting position, the weight of depression starts swinging it again.  It came out of nowhere—well, I shouldn’t say nowhere since the sharp teeth of “things as they are in stasis” continues to nip at me.  One fang for the Eating Disorder, another for self-harm urges, another for my perceived (an ongoing) failures, another for my feelings of purposeless.  But these are all manageable because they are expected—they don’t send me back into bed, covers pulled over my head, wishing I would never wake up again.
But that’s what happened this time.  Even in my decades-old bout with depression, I have never been one to take to my bed in the soup of lethargy and self-pity and crushing abnegation.  I’m the one to grin and bear it (okay, while bearing, too, the cuts on my arms).  Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve read too many 18th century novels where the female characters are bedridden due to the humours of melancholia—depression as a form of soul-crushing consumption.  I’ve never taken to bed when the fangs sink through my skin, but taken up arms?  Yes, I’m a well-trained sniper.  Knives and razors, vodka and wine, starving and purging.  It all seems like an active way of contending with depression.  But crawl into my hidey-hole, stop doing, stop pretending to be okay?  Maybe it has to do with my mom’s urgings when I was a kid to, “Get up!  Get moving!  Get outside!  You’ll feel better!”  After all, that’s what she did when she was feeling depressed or angry: weeded the garden, played tennis, ran errands, had friends for coffee, graded papers, prepared for classes, wrote a dissertation, cleaned the house—all of the things that keep a life moving.  Despite the collapse of a few floors, the electricity wonky, the foundation cracked, the structure still stands. 

This moving in spite of might seem like utter denial, a refusal to examine what is giving way.  And yet, while this has become a problem for me—always wearing the “everything is just dandy” mask—my mother’s movement away from yielding to depression has also provided me with a temporary uncoupling from depression's mucky mire.  How else would I have lived through high school and college and graduate school if I caved in?  How else would I have written my first book and believed that it was worth writing?  How else would I have been courageous enough to yield to my husband’s love?  How else would I have dared to have my children?  Moving in spite of.  
Yet, all the above paragraphs should read like an act of hubris.  I caved.  When depression moved in this time, I threw up my hands in surrender.  What is the point to try again?  It just keeps coming and coming and coming.  Why get out of bed when there’s nothing to do?  Nobody to be?  And so, I sent my husband and kids off to school and went back to bed, desiring only the complete white-out of sleep.  In exile from myself.  An exhausted relief.  For days, I slept as long as possible—until a meeting or doctor’s appointment or end-of-school day rolled around.  Heavy, soggy, dreamless sleep.  When I finally woke, the first thought I had was, “No.”  No, I do not want to move into the world.  No, I do not want to talk or listen, not even to my kids, not even when they show me their art projects and tests and Halloween costume ideas.  No, I do not want to walk the dogs, even though I know Athena will be electrified with joy and Daphne will be relieved to move her arthritic body.

When I finally did something (called my psychiatrist), we agreed that my current anti-depressants seemed to have pooped out.  That’s been my history with anti-depressants: they work for six months, a year, and then are rendered ineffective.  There’s not a lot left to try on the market, but I started up on the newest—which lasted a week.  The side effects were horrible, and it seems to have triggered a switch over into agitated depression (i.e., depression with symptoms of mania).  So yes, I’ve gotten out of bed, but now I don’t sleep (well, not much anyway).  Which is to say, if ever there was a time to give up, this would be it, right?  Or if not give up, then just give in.  This must be as good as it will get.  A few months of stability—that’s all I can rely on from now until end time.  Isn’t it better to drop false expectations?  Wouldn’t it be better to release those ambitions I still have for my life that can’t be fulfilled if I’m consigned to the rollercoaster? 

This predatory circling of thoughts is, I know, irrational—but completely rational to the agitatedly depressed mind.  But these thoughts lead to others with far more troublesome consequences: there’s always meds to take by the fistful or highway curves to take too fast or (and here’s where the manic craziness kicks in) if a certain political party wins the election and screws with Social Security Disability benefits and I lose mine then really, what worth do I have to my family?  I’m just a burden and I bring nothing “in,” so time to make myself less burdensome.  Yes, insane thinking.
Just when I’m about to let myself become consumed by the black dog, I’m given a sign, a way out, a way to keep moving in spite of.  Yesterday, my husband and I drove down to Pittsburgh to go to the Carnegie Museum of Art—we needed a Whitman moment, as described by the poet in “Song of Myself”: he goes to the woods to feel, “My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs…”  We go to the museum to be reminded of who we are and strive to be, to be reminded that our respiration and inspiration are entwined in our art.  Not to mention on the way home, a stop at Penn Mac on the Strip to pick up a few pounds of fetid, dank-basement French cheese, fresh Mozzarella, and locally cured hot Soppressata.
Christopher and I wandered apart in the museum’s 19th century wing and I found myself drawn to a small painting of flowers in a simple gold frame.  I find most antique frames lurid—all the gilt, the swirled popcorn carvings, the way the eyes are drawn out and away from the painting.  At least my eyes, anyway.  There was an old man standing in front of the painting as well: scruffy white beard, wool cap, black glasses, a small banded notebook in hand.  I smiled and he nodded, then said, “You like this painting?”  A heavy accent—French?  Eastern European?

“Yes,” I said. 

He turned towards me, away from the painting, “But why?  Why do you like it?  Help me understand.”
Believe me.  It’s been a long time since I took Art 101.  I like what I like when it comes to visual art and often have a hard time articulating it without sounding like I’m grasping at straws.  “Well,” I said, “I like how the flowers are at the very bottom of the painting and not at the center.  All the space above draws the eye down into the flowers, their color.”

He shook his head.  Maybe I wasn’t clear?  Maybe he couldn’t understand me?  Really, I had no business trying to explain a painting to a tourist.
“No, no,” he said.  “Not the painting, the frame.”

Strange, we were both contemplating the frame.
“It’s simple,” I said.  “Not overdone.  It allows you to look at the painting.”

He smiled, shook his head again, and said, “Yes, but more.  Don’t you see?  It extends the painting.  The canvas doesn’t stop but moves beyond the frame.  Come.”  He moved to an Arts and Crafts era vase on a pedestal and opened his notebook.  The placard read: Albert R. Valentien, c1883.  The vase was at least three feet tall, mostly a creamy yellow, but threaded across its curve, the limbs of a tree, big green leaves, and several brown swallows in coasting in flight.
“It’s about the extension of space,” he continued, “making the form move, not cutting it off.  You see, I am a painter and I have been struggling with this.  How to paint Canada Geese into a painting so that they are not arrested in flight.”  He took out a pen and sketched a square around small black birds he’d drawn over and over on the page.

I looked at the geese in the notebook and then at the swallows on the vase.

“Look,” he said, “here in this square they are trapped, dead.  But here on the vase,” he reached out his hand towards the swallows flying across the vase’s curves, “here there is no end to their flight.  Despite the form being closed—it is a vase, after all, and not the sky—it is still endless movement.”  He tipped his cap and said, “And that is your mini-lesson for the day.  Thank you for listening to me.”

Fate intervenes not just with metaphorical example, but with an actual “lesson.”  I have met an unexpected teacher and have been taught about the necessity to see beyond the frame—the form that encloses the creative force within.  All movement--flight of birds, progress forward and upward and outward from my old self into this new recovering one--requires an imaginative, creative curve to guides the eye and mind into what can lie beyond the known.  Give in because this is a good as it gets.  This is a sentence that puts the end stops to respiration and inspiration, a sentence beginning from the left and ending in a straight line at the right.  But flying for the curve and its promise that there is still a beyond?  Moving in spite of.