Monthly Archives: December 2015

To Our Dying Mother: A Letter to the Planet

Reader’s Note: While walking on a winter hike in the woods at Brown County State Park in Indiana with my husband, I had the clear feeling that the woods represented an ancient woman whose glorious beauty was casting it’s shadow upon us as we made our way through the woods. In the context of climate crisis, this is my letter to her, Mother Earth.

Dear Mother Earth,
What a precious gift to spend these past few days with you. I cherish those moments we had together when I sat still by your side and listened to you tell me your stories about what your life has been like. Time with you clears my mind of worries and uplifts my spirit. Troubles seem far away when I am with you. Now that I’m back home in the city, I’m missing you and not sure when I will be back to see you again.

One thing I will always have with me are the moments we shared when nobody else was around. It was in those quiet mornings together that I most clearly saw your beauty. Even now in the winter of your life, with fragile bones exposed and with the bright colors of past seasons faded, your radiance warms my heart. I am in awe of how gracefully you embrace change, even now near the end.

Of course we don’t know when your life will end. Not even the experts know for certain. But we all are worried about your well-being, noticing frightening signs of your steady decline. Most of your children are deeply concerned, not just me. We don’t know what we will do when you stop breathing. What will life be like with you no longer with us?

That’s why I wanted to write to you now, while it’s on my mind. I wanted to be sure I told you thank you. Thank you for embracing me through all the years of my life. From the Pacific seashore of my childhood, to the Ozark lakes of my adolescence, to the Grand Canyon and Scottish Highlands of my young adulthood, to the Atlantic Ocean and Intercoastal Waterways of my early adulthood and to the state parks of my mothering years…thank you Mother for not keeping your love from me. From you I have learned what it is like to truly live, to feel free and strong. Thank you for the wild turkeys, the wooded trails, the bright stars in the night sky and all of this in just 24 hours together.

As you enter into your twilight years, I promise to bring my little boy to come visit you. I know you will want to show him all the things you have shown me. Time is running out. Other things can wait. He needs to know about his connection to you. He needs to experience it for himself. Right now he’s very curious about Mt. Everest. I think we’ll start with the basics, however. 

Like I said when I first sat down to write to you, Mother, it was so good for my soul to be with you. You are beautiful and I love you. We are not very good at taking care of the dying. I am sorry. Perhaps there will be no need to prepare for the end. That is our greatest hope. Many people are working hard to prevent your death.  We are just not sure if we can reverse the damage that has already destroyed so much of your body. There may come a time when we stop fighting your death, but that time has not yet come.

Today we stretch for hope. We look into your deep, rich brown eyes and we hope. Like a newborn whose fresh wet eyes focus on her mother’s face for the first time, we look with eyes of utter dependence, thirsting for connection to the source of our life force. Thank you Mother for nurturing us even when we turned away from you. Your faithfulness endures and will be remembered for generations. 



A Rocking Chair, A Broken Chair 

The day before Thanksgiving my 94 year old grandmother had cancer surgery. With my smart phone I took pictures of her face immediately following the surgery and texted them to my physician siblings, typing, “See what they did to G-ma.” The surgery was proclaimed successful by the surgeon, despite the fact they had accidentally switched patient files during pre-op. We brought G-ma home within two hours of the operation. 

We delayed the Thanksgiving feast one day to allow G-ma a quiet day in-between to rest and recover. I’ll never forget standing next to her on Thanksgiving day in the bathroom as she looked into the mirror for the first time. Her light blue eyes watered. Her lips tightened. Her eyebrows lifted. And she let out a little, “humph.” The scar ran from her lower ear lobe all the way across her cheek up to underneath her eye. The zig zagging pattern was like the tributaries of the mighty Mississippi. 

Sitting in her rocking chair, we laid a warm blanket over her lap and another softer blanket on the floor near her feet. That second blanket was for the baby. My brother Stuart’s  baby girl was just five months old and she loved laying on the floor of G-ma’s family room and staring up at the ceiling fan. G-ma loved it, too. There was something healing about the baby and she was the most beautiful distraction to the cancer. 

Our father couldn’t enjoy his youngest son’s baby like we could. He was dead; been dead for years. He never knew my baby either. Unlike G-ma, quietly rocking her chair by the baby, when our father visited my brother Steve’s new baby, Dad was super manic. He excitedly and rapidly went on and on about something critically important to him while sitting at the dining room table. The baby was cradled safely in my brother Steve’s arms. 

The combination of Dad’s weight and his energetic storytelling combined to cause the wooden dining room chair to crumple beneath him. Not to let anything interfere with the truth he so desperately desired to impart, truth he sincerely believed could save the world, he continued blabbering on from his seat on the floor, legs of the chair sharply broken. The now crying baby was quickly tucked away into the nursery.

Unlike the cancer on my Grandmother’s face, the mental illness in my father’s brain wasn’t treated. Dad remained stubbornly and fiercely resistant to treatment for his chronic and severe mental illnesses his entire adult life, despite our years of pleading. We all suffered for it, like victims of a devastating natural disaster. 

I never could accept his untreated mental illness. I came to accept him, but not his choice to allow the disease to take over his life. I will never know if it was actually the disease itself that made him incapable of consenting to treatment. The severe and chronic mental illness always seemed like a cancer, a cruel disease needing to be treated and cut out from our family. 

In the glow of the twinkling Christmas tree lights, I think of Thanksgiving and G-ma’s rocking chair. I am grateful for the addition of this memory to accompany the image of my Dad’s broken dining room chair. The image of my father pressing his weight onto a broken chair while in a manic episode haunts me, while the image of my grandmother’s quiet and courageous recovery soothes me. And I wonder what it means to have both in the same family: wisdom that waits a day after surgery to look into a mirror (and even then only once) and a broken mind that seems to peer down a narrow and endless hallway of broken mirrors. 

For the grandchildren born after my Dad’s death, there will only be the gentle and steady rhythm of the rocking chair. Yet the broken chair, a symbol of a brilliant mind broken by a severe and untreated mental illness, remains a shadow of possibility for all of us as a hereditary disease. 

As my G-ma’s Thanksgiving together taught us, treatment threatens to leave a temporary scar and recovery can look unsightly. Yet, the slow healing that comes from fighting disease, rather than letting it consume you, makes a secure place for babies to lay, studying at the feet of enduring love. 

Dedicated to the deep beauty of my maternal grandmother and how her long life teaches us how to live ours better.

Charlie Brown’s Psychiatric Help

In the classic 1965 film A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown seeks psychiatric help from Lucy for a five cent session. Charlie Brown has the Christmas blues. He’s feeling unpopular and wondering why he’s not in the Christmas spirit. Jonathan Rottenberg is a research psychologist at the University of South Florida who studies mood science. In my view Charlie Brown is a candidate for a low depressive mood. 

In Rottenberg’s fascinating book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, he makes the case that there are evolutionary purposes for our low moods. He says, “Low moods have existed in some form across human cultures for many thousands of years.” What’s the point of feeling blue in the midst of so much holiday cheer? 

People in low mood blame themselves, repeatedly turn over in their heads situations that went wrong, and are pessimistic about the future.

Sounds like Charlie Brown to me. The book argues that the good news about low moods, and why they can actually be good for us, is that a low mood slows us down enough to review the past. Rottenberg says, “A keen awareness of what has already gone wrong and what can go wrong helps a person avoid similar stressors in the future.” Feel like staying in bed and ruminating? It may not be a waste of time, says Rottenberg. 

There are Charlie Browns in every family. The thing to watch out for is that this low mood, what Rottenberg calls “shallow depression” doesn’t turn into “deep depression.” The difference being that a deep depression is a major depressive episode with multiple symptoms (change in appetite, low energy, sleep disturbance, inability to concentrate, loss of interest or pleasure) and lasts for at least two weeks. Deep depressions are serious and require additional treatments for recovery (talk therapy significantly helps).

I wonder if Charlie Brown sometimes slips from low into the deep depression category. There is a rising number of us that do. More than 30 million adults in the United States suffer from depression. Despite the epidemic nature of depression, very little is known about the brain or the science of our mood systems. 

New ways of thinking about mental illness are emerging. From the perspective of mood science, shallow or deep depression results from our mood system and are not viewed from a disease model. Periods of depression can be followed by periods of thriving. Charlie Brown’s own story seems to echo this pattern of mood changes. If we think of shallow depression as an invitation to contemplation,  that leads to insight, then perhaps it is not such an awful thing to be like Charlie Brown at Christmas.

And it is an even better thing if we can find, in the midst of holiday blues, friends to cheer us, friends to help decorate the tree and to remind us of the real Christmas story. Psychiatric help is also an option. But for five cents, you get what you pay for Charlie Brown. 

Perhaps the genius of Charles Schulz is that he didn’t shy away from exploring Charlie Brown’s low moods, and in giving a little boy a downcast spirit at Christmas, he was able to lift our own. 

Merry Christmas everyone.