Thankful in the quiet.

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I have a soul that tends toward comparison and self pity. Leaning and slanting into a puddle of ugly measuring. I know how to battle it now, because there is no better remedy for self pity than the open eyes of thankfulness.

Here are some heart brightening things. Things I love. Things that steer me back to gratitude.

  • a quiet morning
  • poetry
  • the beauty parlor I love, with all the older Thai ladies
  • the Thai language
  • language of any kind
  • rice
  • Solomon’s heart
  • Isaac’s laugh
  • Kenya’s hugs
  • Kai’s care
  • Leafy’s mind
  • Chinua’s voice, arms, songs
  • flowering trees
  • Isaac’s square little feet
  • friends
  • boiled peanuts
  • spicy food with Leaf
  • nail polish
  • God with me, even when I’m a wretch
  • real change
  • good talks with the teenagers
  • long days
  • yarn
  • the fact that the world is in color
  • birdsong in the morning
  • a cup of green tea in the afternoon
  • Christy living here
  • the fact that shopkeepers in my town know my name (so they don’t just call me the foreigner anymore)
  • our big station wagon
  • hot-springs
  • the gift of aging
  • a faithful husband
  • bracelets
  • Winnie’s crab dance
  • light at every different time of day and year
  • my little dog
  • kimchi fried rice for breakfast
  • yellow noodle yunanese salad
  • Lou, my house helper
  • books: reading them, writing them, and reading them to my kids
  • Isaac in the morning
  • fried eggs
  • hummus
  • my blender
  • coconut trees
  • the river (I have found myself there several times this week, watching the streetlights on its black night surface)
  • my kitchen
  • my new friend who greets me all around the town, whenever he catches sight of me, even at my sink when I am washing dishes
  • my mandolin
  • possibility
  • pens, books, paper, paints, pencils
  • backwards dancing in the kitchen at night
  • talking on the phone with my parents
  • sunsets
  • my banana seed necklace
  • hand embroidered textiles
  • my pillow
  • frankincense
  • hanging out with kids 
  • mountains
  • picking moringa for my salad from the weedy lot next door
  • podcasts
  • our piano
  • God everywhere, loving me.

***

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How I live with anxiety: A follow-up to my last post.

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I am okay again. Yesterday was bright and beautiful. I spent three days in the fog, and everything looked terrifying, but I rested, and I climbed out and came back.

I used the words mental illness because they were being tossed around in the wake of last week's tragedy. I find it hard when those words are used without much thought or distinction. But an anxiety disorder is a mental illness, and I'm not afraid to own it. It still is hard to write about my anxiety disorder and what it does to me. My second blog post ever was about the woods of depression and anxiety and how they plague me. That was over twelve years ago, when I was twenty-five years old and hadtwo kids and one on the way. I have learned many things since then. I have explored neurological reasons for anxiety and found some help there. I have learned a lot about myself. I am much, much better. 

But I have these things I call meltdowns, and they are terrible, like a pit that I fall into. Any interaction is terrifying. The Internet is terrifying. People are scary. Life seems horrible. And I can't escape. There is no way to get out of my own head, so the nearly physical presence of my anxiety nearly undoes me. They take days to get over. And as you know, I have people in my life, lots of them, who count on me. 

Because it had been so long since I had a bad meltdown, I thought perhaps they were gone. Shame and disappointment overwhelmed me when I went through another one. I want to be free of them. I want to go through life without fearing that my brain will turn against me without warning. The qualities I admire are strength, joy, consistency, safety and grace. And sometimes I am the opposite. Ugh.

But today I can see that this is cause for rejoicing. Because it had been so long since I fell apart like that— it took me by surprise. And I came out of the pit quickly. I am learning. 

Here are the things I do to keep my mind well and not fall into the pit:

-Take medication
-Take herbs (rhodiola rosea- I highly recommend 350 mg a day, but as always, I am not a professional, talk to a doctor if you are not sure)
-Eat well and make sure I get tons of iron and vitamins
-Go on long walks in jungle and forest
-Keep religious about sleep
-Drink lots of water
-Limit caffeine
-Journal
-Pray and meditate
-Get up very early for time alone to write books
-Write blog posts and gratitude journals and poems. Keep lists and bullet journals to keep from getting overwhelmed.

All of these things help me, and yet none of them can guarantee that I will not fall apart from time to time. There is no guarantee.

A friend once gave me wise advice. She said that we often expect ourselves to focus or remember all the good things about love and God and our belovedness and our faith when we are in the midst of a crash. But those are the hardest times of all to remember. She said she stopped putting pressure on herself to think it through when she is down. Instead she surrounds herself with every comforting thing: books, movies, good food (for me, comedy) and when she is well, and her mind is clear, that is when she fills her mind and heart with things that will carry her through: meditation, exercise, reading good books and scripture, journaling. I do this now, and it helps. I have two people, nearly. One who can handle it all and learn and run with things, and one who just needs to hide away. 

I write about this here because it is hard to find writers (let alone Christian writers, and thankfully there are many more people these day) who are honest about these things, and people tell me it helps them when they find me. I know many, many people struggle with similar burdens, and I have had parents of kids who experience anxiety tell me it helps them too. We all need a little insight into the mind of those who struggle. Some people struggle just to be. 

Over the weekend, I struggled with why. Why does God not say yes to our most well-meant requests? I don't know. It doesn't seem helpful for me to be this way, and a long life with this thorn stretches out ahead of me sometimes… it is daunting. And there are still people who deny the neurological and chemical nature of depression and anxiety. 

There is a beautiful man here in this town. He is a gentle soul without a home, who finds places to busk with his bamboo flute. I often see him in the market or on the street. He is a friend of mine, though we don't say much more than hi and how are you? Sometimes he stands motionless for a long time, flute to his mouth, with no sound coming out. None at all, for minutes and hours. And oh, I understand this. How hard it can be sometimes, even to stand at all, let alone play the flute that you have to your mouth. I love that he tries, and that sometimes he can play. He is a brother to me. This is something I feel often. When I see someone on the street in San Francisco, shouting or crying, I feel that I am one bad week away from that person's reality. Take away sleep or comfort, and that is me. My hold on my mind is fragile and I guard it carefully.

And maybe some of us need to understand the struggle, to write about it and have eyes of understanding. To say, "I know how fragile we all are, how easy it is to fall." Or maybe there is no reason, it just is. I know, in good moments, which are more plentiful these days, that I am loved I am loved I am loved. And that I am never alone. God is with me and this is enough. It will always be enough.

The storm.

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When the storm breaks, it brings relief. It has been building all day, a heavy drapery of air, something you can’t shrug off your shoulders. Heavy in the lungs. 

And then, I drive with Isaac to pick some things up at the garden. We drive the chariot and race the storm, but the sky cracks open as we’re driving and within minutes we are soaked to the skin, water running down our faces, my wool hat sodden and floppy. I give him a plastic bag to put on top of his head and pull my hat down tighter, and we drive slowly, encouraging ourselves. Nearly there, nearly there. And we laugh, because the storm has cut through the pressure like a knife.

I love storms in real life. Back at home Isaac gets into the bucket that we call “the bath” and I take a shower. We get warm and dry. We drink some tea.

I don’t love storms in the world of the mind. I didn’t want to end up in the weeds again, ever again. I didn’t want to end up on the curb; a spot on someone’s shoe. I thought I was healed. I should have known better. This storm doesn’t bring relief. It brings self hatred, a swollen face from crying, a flock of angry impulses banging against my rib cage. I was so sure I was healed, that this wouldn’t happen anymore. 

People who know me say healing is a process, that I am improving, that they see change. But I want healing like a lightning strike, a cleaving from one life to the next. I’m tired of fighting my brain. I had hoped that I was different now. Changed forever. I want a chrysalis, I want new life after the fire. I didn’t want to be in the weeds, ever again. I want more than God is giving me, and I’m angry.

It’s heavy in the lungs.

Back to square one, I think, back to the beginning. I have been watching the news too much. (Sorrow, sorrow. Wild winds. Mental illness, they say, and I feel plastered with someone else’s crimes. I have a mental illness. What am I capable of? What is anyone capable of? Triggers everywhere.) I haven’t been careful of eating, my blood sugar is all over the place. Maybe this set me off, maybe that. I’m too needy, I was following a line of stress, dropped like bread crumbs, not careful enough about trails I shouldn’t go down. I didn’t get enough sleep, waking in the wee hours with constriction in my lungs. 

Equilibrium. How I want it. 

A scented candle. Chopin’s Nocturnes. My clumsy handwritten notes to myself. A hug from Isaac. 

Coffee in the morning. Bricks outside my window. A flash of green. Vegetable broth. Sourdough starter. 

Does He want me to be this way? Does He want me to be here, in the weeds? If He does, and I am his servant, monk and mystic, utterly devoted, how can I beat at Him with my tiny fists? Can I make a world here? Did He make me this way? Why?

Knitting. A round stone. A perfect word at the right moment. The tiny freckles on my daughter’s face. 

I’m sick. I’m sorry, I can’t make it today.

A feather. A tree that is a friend. A good pen. 

Is He in the weeds? Can I find Him here? It doesn’t seem like a great place to hang out, to be perfectly honest. I can think of better. 

Don’t leave me here.

A glass of water. A poem. Frankincense. A little dog who loves me. Kai offering to lend me his favorite book. Journals and all their possibilities. Maybe some sun, maybe a rainbow. Maybe a day that will be soft on my face. Peppermint soap. A morning of writing. 

Gathering again. Back in a place I didn’t want to be. I will wait for healing. I can wait a little longer.

What we can see.

We are in British Columbia. Beloved place, mountain covered, more trees than can be counted. A few days ago, Chinua played a small concert. It had been smoky for weeks, with wildfires raging across hectares of land. I have been a bit disappointed, because we haven’t been able to see what is around us and the sun has been a red ball in the sky. Beautiful in an eerie way, but still, looking out, I knew the lake was there, and the mountains, but we couldn’t see them. 

But as we were setting up for Chinua’s concert, winds began to blow. The trees whipped back and forth, and clouds rolled in. It was delightful, but, thinking of the equipment, we set up inside rather than outside like we planned. The music was beautiful. Our friend Andrew Smith opened, and it was an intimate living room concert, including a couple Duke Ellington songs where Chinua joined Andrew, jazz soloing on the mandolin. (He’s creative, my Superstar husband.)

And then I could smell rain coming in through the windows. A long, smoky few months had dried out the ground, and the drops of water reacted like magic. That compressed-dust-meets-rain smell is one of my oldest memories. In the morning, there were puddles on the ground. Rain like this in a time of fire is no small thing. The skies cleared. We can see for miles. We can see all the layers of hills, one behind the other, ringing out. The dry bluffs with scatterings of trees. The orchards. A sliver of lake in the distance.

I keep coming out of jungles and looking around, happy to be in a spacious place, but then finding another jungle to press into. The heat under these trees can be oppressive. I think, “Now I’ve got this family thing down. I know how to mother these people,” but then someone ages a year, or goes through grief, or shifts in a way that changes the air in our family. We have ripples and currents, and these things aren’t things I can control.

Out of control. Perhaps my whole life has been one long exercise in giving up control. When you are a mother of small children, you can’t control their emotions, or whether the jam jar will slip out of their hands and smash in a wondrous pile of glass and goo on the floor. But you can decide on a fun thing, you can smooth over feelings and change the tone. 

I’m finding it harder to do that with teenagers. What wondrous things they are. A full spectrum of mind and emotion, teetering between hope and fear, full of energy and chaos. This is a more challenging tone to change. To bring peace in these storms is no easy feat. 

I love my oldest more than he can ever know. And in a few short years I will help him walk away from me. Giving up control. It turns out that I don’t hold the world together. I can’t answer all his questions or sweep everything from his path to make sure it is clear for him. I can’t even always get along with him. How we are humbled by our children.

 

Things I love: 

Mornings.

Fast-moving clouds.

Eyes filled with love.

Every kind of tree and bird.

Grass.

Mountain textures. 

Notebooks and pens.

Books.

Days that stretch in front of me, ready for ideas, play, love.

 

Is love the strongest thing? Is the love of God enough? Yes and yes. My dear friend recently traveled to be near to someone close to her, someone who had suffered violence against herself. My friend carried love of God with her and it couldn’t answer every question, it couldn’t alleviate every fear, but it came into the room and curled up beside them and brought the goodness back. 

That is what I want. The goodness back. Not the hate or offense. Not the complications, the misunderstandings, the resistance. The goodness, thrown like a sheet over a soft bed, ready for you to sink in. Love that swirls around, filling the hurt places. To wake up and be ready to be surprised.

 

The other day we sat out on the patio, and as night fell, the crickets started chirping. Well, one cricket, and something else that might have been a cricket or might have been a frog. As we discussed whether it was a cricket or a frog at length(simple pleasures, at heart I live in a village), Isaac piped up.

“No, it’s a star.”

Quiet. 

“Did you say it’s a star?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the way the stars sound. The night sounds.” 

“Oh, back in Pai? When you hear these sounds? That’s the way the stars sound?”

“Yes. And the way the night sounds,” he said. 

And that, my friends, is when I realized that Isaac has grown up hearing crickets and frogs, and assumed that is is the sound of the stars or the night sky. 

 

Star sounds.

 

We can’t know, really, what’s going on. For now we see in a mirror dimly. We may see a sky full of smoke, and just beyond is the view of mountains, city, lake in the distance. Unless the smoke is washed away, we might never know the mountains are there. 

I often see through the haze of my anxiety. Every once in a while it blows away and I look around, astounded by how bright everything is. But the smoke settles again, the way the smoke has settled here again, a few days after the rain. I’ve been hoping for years that the smoke would clear permanently, but I’m starting to believe that I will always be looking for glimpses. Times when the whole thing emerges, the whole huge picture of love and goodness, what it can all be, and I nearly fall down from the beauty of it.

 

And then we may hear crickets rubbing their legs together and think the sky is singing. So on days when the sky is hidden by smoke, and it seems that there are no stars, we know we can still hear them. They are still there. 

Close.

(I wrote this post a few days ago. It's a bit hard to get wifi on the road!)

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Today is gorgeous. Sunshine and blue sky. Hay fever. Trees everywhere, rosemary, sage growing where I can pluck it and smell it. There are birds we have never seen before. Family and all its messy spilling over of love, misunderstanding and stretching, growing. When we are traveling like this we don’t have the normal rhythms of separating and coming back together. It puts pressure on us and builds lasting memories in us.

Since the family arrived, we have been traveling from place to place. We started at Christy’s house in Santa Cruz, as they recovered from jet lag and adjusted to the chilly weather with groans and expressions of disbelief. “This is summer?” Kenya kept asking. “Are you sure?” Christy took us to Wilder Ranch, a beautiful spot where the kids climbed an enormous, sprawling spruce tree and ran through the root systems of gigantic aloe plants.

Then we drove to Nevada City, where we spent an intense and very cold three days at a campground for a gathering of communities like ours (Christ-centered, created for travelers). Chinua has helped to focalize these gatherings for the last few years along with our friends Heather and Gabe, but this is the first I was able to attend.

I loved it. Every minute. We set up our tents for the first time on this trip, and huddled by the fire. There was another family that we’ve known for a long time but haven’t seen in forever, with kids who are the same ages as ours, and my kids were in bliss. Board games, movies, drawing time, even a wildly mismatched game of Red Rover… the big kids watched the little ones and I was able to attend nearly all the seminars.

Then we went to Claire’s house, Innerchange Outer Circle in San Francisco, one of the most love-soaked houses I’ve ever been in. I’m often effected by the feel of a place, and that place was heavenly to me. Outer Circle in an order that reaches out to homeless and disenfranchised people in San Francisco, so it is mercy-soaked, and also familiar, as we spent years in San Francisco doing the same.

And then we spent time in Mill Valley, spending time with Cate and our other friends, hiking along Muir Beach Overlook, and driving out to see the elephant seals in Point Reyes, as well as the carcass of a beached blue whale. (Very large, very amazing, very stinky.)

And now we are in Yosemite, living in our tents, cooking oatmeal on a little camping stove in the forest. It feels like the land, except for the tents part. We drew close to the park on the first night, but stopped at a place called Moccasin for the night, as it was getting dark. We set up our tents right next to Don Pedro lake, and the kids swam while I cooked dinner. Later that night, after everyone was in bed and the dishes were done, the food in the bear locker, the valuable stuff locked away, I swam. I waded into the water in the sight of thousands of stars, and the only thing I could see, other than the stars, was a cross on the hill, outlined in white twinkle lights. The water rippled out from me, black and silky and quiet. Bats winged over the surface.

It has not been easy, in some ways, to re enter my life. My beliefs on the sanctity of motherhood are challenged as I move from morning till night, taking care of the needs of many other people. They are the most beautiful, joyous creatures, leggy and hilarious. They make me laugh more than I have ever laughed, I forgot how much I laugh when I’m with them. 

But it is a road trip with five kids in a van, ages four to fourteen, you can fill in the blanks. I am floating in a pool of people and it is sometimes hard to remember the closeness I felt to God on my pilgrimage. My life lesson is to bring my solitude-starved self to God at the end of the day, allow him to smooth the creases, correct the false identities, soothe the indignity I feel at being a servant, and bring me back to the center. I am his and he is mine and look at this beautiful life. I swim and I swim, the night is all around me. The stars are everywhere. The cross on the hill reminds me that this is a suffering kind of joy and that is right, that is good. I’m in the right place.