A love letter to the mentally ill.

Possibly it's obvious to those of you who have been reading for a while. I've had a tricky time with the anxiety gremlin lately. The cat has been sitting on my chest. I have trouble breathing at the strangest of times. 

And then there has been suicide in the news, and the two have me thinking about shame and stigma and what it feels like to have a mind you can't trust. How hard it is to understand. I have been ashamed of my mind, how it exposes me, how I break down in public places. So I wrote a poem and then I read it, and here it is. 

And I want to take a moment thank my friend Leaf, who has been speaking truth to me lately, and my family and community, who are kind and understanding. Let's be there for each other. 

The things that help us remain.

 The punniest ones.

The punniest ones.

Well, May has taken me by surprise. I forgot how busy I always am, and how much emotional space is taken up by my life in my family and community. It leaves me breathless. I am sinking in, settling and staying and remaining in it all. 

This morning the world feels full of possibility. It rained all last night, which had me wakeful because of the tin awning next to my window, where I could hear the drops amplified like large beasts dancing around in our eaves. But gray is a color that the sky can be, and sometimes large beasts spend the night trampling around and you flow in and out of sleep, waiting for oblivion.

I have found a spot for quiet moments- a large boulder where I can sit and see the whole valley beneath me, a place away from people. I love my house in town, but I can’t see very far from it; only into the friendly eyes of my neighbors. Sometimes I need a farther view. The other day I drove out to my spot after a long day of talking, and found sweet breezes in the hills as I went. The day had been hot and humid, in between rains, but the breeze on the bike cooled my hot eyes. 

The spot I love is in the midst of a litchi orchard, and since the litchis are ripe right now, there were bikes that belonged to the farmers who own the orchard. They were harvesting and also, I noticed, pruning the trees, probably preparing for next year’s harvest. Litchi season is so short. So the trees were barer and shorter than when I had last seen them, and large branches were piled at their bases. 

I wondered what the farmers would think of me sitting there, but I went and sat. I hoped they would know I wasn’t trying to steal litchis. I read a few lines from Anne of Green Gables, but was too keyed up to go very far, so I lay back on my rock and watched the light change and the trees move in the wind. 

There is truly no way to order your life to escape hard things. Sometimes you have to settle into them. But what is the reward? What is the thing that helps us remain? I guess there are many. Cloudy mornings like today. Poems. Quirky kids. 

Quirky kids: all of our teenagers (my own and others in their group of friends) are currently obsessed with puns, which is killing me. I try to discourage them by telling them I’m not impressed, but they see behind my words to the amusement and love beneath. They know I think they are amazing, so they keep pulling out their shiny puns, offering them to me grinning, and no matter how mean I am in response, they know I secretly love it. 

Yesterday Leafy was missing when we went to do read alouds, and we called for him until it was apparent that he wasn’t in the house, or around the house anywhere. It was very unlike him to be gone during a part of school that he loves, so eventually I got worried enough (kidnapping! I would kidnap Leafy, he’s a prize!) that I called his friend Taran. 

“Is Leafy with you?”

“No, but my mom saw him out running.”

“Out running. Hmm. Good to know.”

He came back shortly, dripping with sweat. Apparently he’s in a fitness contest. He lifts weights that he made out of milk jugs with water in them and pvc pipe. And he had finished most of his school and gone out for a run. 

And I had five extra boys over for a while yesterday. One of them kept walking around wearing our Power Rangers costume. I’m so glad to be in a life where I get to see people wearing Power Rangers costumes out of the corner of my eye while I’m baking bread in the kitchen. 

So yes. Quirky kids. Also, color and bread dough in your hands. Rising like a mad thing.

Deep conversations during Bible circle. Deeply smart women making incredible discoveries about the words of God. Salad. Music. Possible future travels.

And behind it all, layered behind all the layers, sheets and swathes and reams of God’s love for you. He loves you and loves you and loves you. You walk around in a spotlight of love. He thinks you are adorable. He loves your laugh and your quirky ways. So that’s a thing that helps us remain.

I watched the sky from my rock and then a farmer spotted me as he turned his motorbike around, ready to head home. He smiled and called out, gesturing for me to come, and then he piled as many litchis into my hands as I could hold. I went back to my rock and sat with my lap full of litchis, and it felt like a lapful of light. 

 

***

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A list of sorts: (Or stopping to tie your shoe.)

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* This is what the kids want to listen to in the car (when we take turns choosing).

Kai- Daftpunk

Kenya-Arcade Fire

Leafy- Fleetwood Mac

Solo- Coldplay

Isaac- Imagine Dragons

* We have hot humid days, and then storms that break the heat. It is lovely and unpredictable. The landscape is becoming green again, and sometimes the sky is spectacular and blue, clouds flung everywhere.

* Our house is filled with tiny biting ants. They get in our clothes and in our beds. We’ve never had so many of this variety before. Under the earth, there are migrations of ants moving back and forth without checking with us at all. There are much fewer of us. Many more of them. 

* Leafy has begun weaving. He made a loom and wove a very nice piece of cloth. It took him a whole day and he didn’t seem to get tired of it. He did have a headache by the end of the day though. He has recently built a boat out of old milk jugs, and he is waiting for me to edit his first book. He is also one of the kindest people I have ever met. There are no words to describe the tenderness I feel toward this kid of mine. 

* Speaking of tenderness, I feel it toward people for the strangest reasons. The other day I was riding my motorbike to the afternoon market and at a red light, the woman on the back of the bike in front of me caught my attention. She was small and looked very young from behind, but after I saw what she was wearing and noticed the loose skin on her arms, I realized she was older. She was wearing a gauzy shirt, and through it I could see that only one of the clasps of her bra was done up, and she clung tightly to the bike, not quite comfortable on it, and I was overwhelmed with softness in my heart toward her. This is why the world is overwhelming to me at times. All of these people, they all have their own stories, and hands and feet and sometimes they can’t quite get their bras done up and they go around all day without knowing it, and it kills me. 

* People trip, or make mistakes, or choke on their water, or slip on the stairs. They say stupid things, and they are unsure of themselves, and they lose their keys or use the wrong words. Or maybe they don’t know what avocados are, and no matter how many times I try to explain, they look at me blankly. (This happened in the market today.)

* Sometimes Solo can’t sleep because he starts thinking about what he was before he was here and what he will be eventually and the concept is so huge that he cries and can’t stop his mind from spiraling outward, farther and farther, into things he can’t understand. I do it too, I think, but more often when I see someone stop to tie their shoelace, or walk into a post. 

* The anxiety beast has been dogging my steps for a while, and I’m pulling out every trick in the book to try to make it back off. The morning pages I’ve been writing! Julia Cameron would be so proud. But today started out a bit rough, and by the middle I was in tears. So I came home and cried for a while longer, then I had a nap, then got up and drank a couple of tiny cups of green tea and made myself carrot juice and began listening to the Best of Ludovico Einaudi on Spotify while I sorted out the Homeschool charts. And that is not the behavior of someone who hates herself, so I feel proud of myself today, despite the fact that my emotions are not within my control. (If I had to list off the number of times someone has stared at me because I am crying in public, the list would go on forever.)

* I am in love with boiled peanuts. I eat them as often as seems decent.

* I love light, wind, colors. I love clean things. I love fruit. I love people. I love my community.

* I started to go for a drive today but it was so hot that the heat came rushing at me from the pavement and I knew it was time to go home and get out of the sun.

* In our house when we start off talking about the coming school year, we inevitably end up in discussions about whether optimism and enthusiasm is dangerous and self-deceptive, or whether optimism helps with getting things done. I have kids on the pro and against sides of this debate. I have to laugh because it is our fault (mine and Chinua’s) that every conversation goes so, so deep, because they are our kids and came out like us, but with their frontal lobes still undeveloped until they reach the age of 22. (As my brother reminds me.) Parenting teens is lovely and I am exhausted by it. Both things can be true. In January I will have three teenagers, which boggles the mind a little.

* Isaac does math problems for fun and they grow increasingly complex. Yesterday he told me he loves plain numbers the best. 30, 10,000, 100, 1 million. Numbers like that. Plain numbers. Before he knew the words for even and odd, he called them numbers without middles and numbers with middles. You know, if you separate four fingers there is no finger in the middle, but if you separate five fingers, there is a number in the middle. I don’t think any of our kids has loved numbers as much as he does.

* He also beatboxes nearly constantly, especially when he is happy, and when he is mad he says, “I hate this day!” The other day I heard him say, “I love this day!” and I was so, so happy to hear it. I told him that he didn’t need to be shy about beatboxing in front of friends, and he told me, “Shy is part of life.”

* I noticed a friend talking to a man in our town who is mentally ill. He is outside all the time, and he collects food and trash and carries it around with him, all day long. My friend gave him something for his collection and then told him, “Drink water, drink lots and lots of water.” It was a tender moment and it made me love her more. 

* I was weeding out the old zinnias the other day. They are the easiest flowers to grow because they self seed, so you just pull out the old ones when they are brown and dying, and babies are already there to grow up afterward. Anyway, when I am working with the zinnias I always think of this poem that is in one of our school poetry books. (All the small poems and fourteen more, by Valerie Worth.) Such a simple poem, but it resonates with me:

Zinnias

Zinnias, stout and stiff,
Stand no nonsense: their colors
Stare, their leaves
Grow straight out, their petals
Jut like clipped cardboard,
Round, in neat flat rings.

Even cut and bunched,
Arranged to please us
In the house, in water, they
Will hardly wilt—I know
Someone like zinnias; I wish
I were like zinnias.

         ***

I think that is the problem with anxiety. I know what I should be. I know what I should be able to handle, and sometimes I can, but then there are times when the fear response comes and the drums of doom start up and I can’t stop crying, even in the airport, even in the noodle shop, even on the train. I messed it up, I think. They’re coming for me. 

It’s what I live with, even though God always loves me, and I won’t hate myself anymore. But how, oh how I wish I was like zinnias. 

My Becca

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The coconut man is in one of the trees next door, throwing ripe coconuts down to the ground, and I am on the porch with three of the kids, watching. The shadows of trees are playing in the sunlight on the ground. The whole world is quiet and holding its breath. I am ready to start the day.

First, putting laundry in the bucket to soak. Then chopping vegetables for today’s community lunch. I walked on the beach and dictated two chapters this morning. I need to get the kids organized with cleaning the house. After I make lunch, we’ll eat it on the rooftop with whoever comes to eat with us. I’m not sure what to do about a train ticket yet. 

My Becca leaves tomorrow. It has been amazing to have my sister with us for so long, and I’m sad that she is leaving. I’m so glad she decided to stay and travel with us to India. She and I went to the Mapusa market the other day. We ate samosas and drank sweet lime juice at the corner snack shop. We bought incense from the tiny handmade incense shop, and walked through the flower market. A seller from Rajasthan attached herself to us and made conversation. Becca didn’t realize that her friendliness was all part of her sales pitch to get us to come to the stall, but I have been down that road many times before. This woman was sweet. She complimented us on our eyes and hair, and told us we look like “Indian Barbie.” (What?) Then, while we walked through the flower market, she bought two purple flowers and stuck them over our ears. Then she asked if we wanted to see her shop. We declined. 

We took photos of one another and then went to eat dosa and drink sweet lassi. Then a long drive home in the dark, through the cold jungle air, back home.

Becca is an amazing friend and traveling companion. She is kind and fun, always dancing and being silly. She’s interested in everything and kind to everyone. She plays cards with the kids in airports and goes running on the beach in the morning. I will miss her more than I can say.

I’ve been blocked, creatively lately, but I think I’m coming out of it. Just get the words out, that’s all I have to do. Just show up at the same time every day. I think part of it is probably switching up my routine by starting dictation. I’m messing with my habits and my inner artist is confused. But I know it’s necessary. I need to walk more and sit less, for health and going easy on my neck and eyes. So I work through the block and deal with the fact that people stare at me as I’m dictating. It’s okay, there are many weird things on the beach here.

And I danced, the other day. I had been having a hard time (due to a new herb I was taking, trying to deal with hormone imbalance… it had a negative effect on me and I stopped taking it) and I stopped and listened to music and then slowly, slowly, started to dance until I was whirling in circles, ignoring everyone around me, enjoying the way the wind played with my skirt and the way my heart grew lighter. I called to God and he listened and loved me. And then I came home to my family. 

Always here.

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Kenya is watching the birds and I am watching Kenya. She sits on the porch railing with a cup of tea, watching the sun rise, and she is lovelier and more colorful to me than any bird, though I love watching them too. Her eyes follow a tumble of feathers as two birds quarrel and peck, flying through leaves and under branches. I know she is trying to identify them, as I did a moment ago.

“Do you like seeing birds you have already found?” I asked Chinua yesterday. He carries his bird book from country to country, checking apps and pulling out his binoculars at every chance. 

“It depends if I like the bird,” he said. There is a collector’s obsession to birding, and then there is the joy of calls and feathers.

I know I have seen a million bee eaters here in Arambol. They fly over and around me as I walk through the coconut grove, and I will never grow tired of them. Each one is perfect. There are weaver birds, magpie robins, parrots, tailor birds and crows. And more. The grove is alive with flying things. 

We arrived in Goa a few days ago, after a couple days in Chennai, walking through traffic, eating South Indian food and marveling at how the smells and sounds make us feel at home. Kenya cried tears of joy when we left the Chennai airport and came upon a row of taxi men, a stretch of auto rickshaws, and smoky, cluttered air, filled with a thousand different fragrances. To understand her joyful tears, you have to understand India, how it gets in your blood, how Kenya was raised in this land that seethes with life and every smell carries a memory. 

I am more complicated than my daughter. I am joyful in this place, and then also conflicted, feeling how my loyalty and longing for my home in Thailand ripples inside of me. I notice the constant change in my village and mourn the way the giant hotel crashes into our view of the hill I have always rested my eyes on. I love the sea and throw myself into it, and I stop to talk to an old friend who tells me her husband died recently. I enjoy my old house here, and feel penned in by the three story houses that have continued to grow around it. Life in India is change, constant and out of my control. 

The coconut trees are still here- the same ones Leafy hugged when we returned after our time in the mountains of North India. They were small here, and memories of their tiny bodies and chirpy voices are around each corner. And now my leggy daughter sits on the railing (the same marble porch where Leafy cut his head and turned into Optimus Prime) and her eyes seek the birds. Isaac throws himself into the waves. The coconut grove seems small now that no children cry as we walk through it. Rather, their long legs eat it up and we are home in moments. The morning is everything here, the orange sun lighting the trees with golden light. The birds are here with us. They are always here.