Writing Challenge: Nature Part 2

Part 1 and an explanation are here.

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Our driveway was dirt, with the attendant divots. When it rained, the divots turned into puddles and if one of the cars had gone out or come back, there would be tracks in the mud to make dams and rivers from. When the puddles froze overnight, air bubbles would get frozen into them so when I stomped on them while waiting for the bus, the iced puddle would crack and a hole would open. Sometimes, there were layers of air trapped, and so there were layers of ice to stomp through. It was more satisfying than popping bubble wrap and a great way to anticipate the frustrations of the school day.

Note: I found out after writing this, by chance and serendipity thanks to twitter, that this kind of ice is called cat-ice.

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One morning I was running late. The bus had already turned the corner at the top of the hill before my house when I checked out the window, as I always did. I flew through the living room into the kitchen, grabbing my coat and my school bag, and ran out the door. I ran down the steps and the path to the driveway and realized too late that I was running on ice with a thin layer of water on it. I slipped and went down on my right side, the cold water soaking through my clothes, right in front of an entire bus full of other kids, most of them older. I did get up though, and because I didn’t want to bother my mom to drive me 20 minutes in to school, I slowly and carefully walked across the rest of the driveway, onto the road, crossed to the other side, and boarded the bus, where I curtsied and took the remaining free seat.

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The year of the big ice storm, we lost one of the two maple trees in our front yard. The weight of the ice on one substantial branch brought it down, grazing the corner of our porch. It was the branch I always wanted to climb to and sit on, but was never tall enough to reach – not even my father could reach it. It was night when it happened, and there was a very loud crash. We were all in different parts of the house – my mother and brother and I all in our bedrooms, my father in the living room – and all gathered to make sure everyone was okay. We went on the porch and saw how lucky we were, the ice could have easily brought a whole maple down on the house, and also how unlucky we were, losing one of those maples. In the spring, my father cut the rest of it down and the house was never the same again.

Writing Challenge: Nature, Part 1

One of my goals for January and the new year is to write creatively more often. Nadia of Cottage Notebook is hosting a month-long writing challenge, with themes and increasing word counts through the month. I’m using it to get back into the habit of writing without having to decide on a theme or a subject. So far, I am writing creatively but only about things I’ve experienced, mainly my childhood and growing up in Vermont – the theme this week is nature, and so it’s an obvious fit for me to write about that. Anyway, here are my first four 100ish word pieces that are sort of connected.

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The air has been so cold and dry the last few days, the snow squeaks underfoot. It’s a familiar sound to me – I grew up in the mountains of Vermont. My brother and I spent hour playing in the snow, building sledding tracks, sledding, and building forts in the snow banks. We went out in all kinds of weather, not like it is here in Virginia. The only thing that would keep us inside is a frostbite warning (-19 degrees and below), so there were plenty of times we went out into snow that squeaked as we walked through it.

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The best snow, however, was snowman snow. It came down in big fluffy flakes and stuck together so well that we could roll the base of a snowman across the front yard. When the plow came to clear our driveway, it packed banks of dense snow for us to burrow in and make into forts. They always took shape from the random peaks and round bottoms the plow made. The best I ever made was one large enough for two people, with two entrances. I took a mug of hot chocolate and a book out and spent a quiet hour insulated from the wind reading.

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In the summer, newts would gather on the damp stones that formed the steps of our walk-out root cellar. The floor of the cellar was packed dirt, the foundation – like those stairs and the walls around the well – was stone probably dug from the Vermont property the house was built on. We used to catch the newts and play with them. You could count on them being in the cool dampness of the stone walkup, even on bright sunny days at certain times of the year. It was until I was an adult that I knew the newts were juvenile salamanders, the algae colored salamanders that inhabited the pond.

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One year, my brother and I were out sledding in the woods above the pond. We built a twisting sled path downhill through the trees, with a banked turn up against a big maple. We tamped down the snow as tight as we could for a smooth, fast track. When he took the first run down the path, his sled jumped the banked turn and he hit the old maple, knocking the wind out of his lungs. That was the first time I realized we’re all at nature’s mercy and how a distance can change in an instant, from being not far enough away from home for adventure to being not close enough to home for safety. After that, we made out sled tracks on the hill behind the house, where we could see my mother in the window, at her sewing machine.

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Out of curiosity, do they make you want to read more? They make me want to write more, to explain more, and also embellish a little bit to smooth the rough edges over. I could combine the three winter pieces into a larger story, I suppose. Anyway, I’d love your feedback if you have any!


Edited to add the link to Part 2 for easy reading.

TBT: My Mother’s Darning Eggs

Darning Eggs

My mother is a retired seamstress (in that she no longer takes customers, but will still help me with projects) and was often offered sewing-related items by her customers. She’s also the only daughter of a seamstress, who is the daughter of a seamstress, who is … well, you get the idea, and all the old tools and fabric stash end up with her. She also loves to sift through a good antique shop now and then. This is her collection of darning eggs, which she passed on to me a few years ago. Two of the eggs, the lighter ones, are of a more recent vintage; I think a customer gave them to her. The two painted ones are my favorites.

Darning Egg 1

This one is my second favorite darning egg. The worn painted design lends itself to the imagination in trying to reconstruct what it once looked like. The design somehow looks Dutch to me, or perhaps like something from the Arts & Crafts period. I also love that this one is shaped differently, a little more like a foot than a traditional darning egg.
Darning Egg 1
The back of it certainly shows some wear and use – yes, those look like darning needle marks to me, where the needle slipped along and scraped up the paint.

Darning Egg 2
This one is my favorite; it’s the one I remember my Mom having when I was a kid. Perhaps it was my great grandmother’s? In any case, I love it because it shows the most wear and is obviously a well-used and (if one believes such an object can be imbued with love) the most loved object. The paint is worn away in layers down to the wood both on the egg and on the handle, and the wood itself is even worn down to only the strongest fibers in place. I can’t help but think of all the socks this one darning egg saved, the nights someone spent at their last chore of the day, darning socks. It harkens back to a time when even socks were valued, saved, and worn as much as possible instead of discarded at the first sign of a hole – it’s such a contrast with our current consumer culture and sped up fashion cycle, it’s the original slow fashion.

I have these darning eggs, but I have to admit that I’m terrible at darning socks. I asked my mother for one of her darning eggs when my first pair of hand knit socks developed a hole in the heel end of the sole. It’s something I expected to be good at right away because I’ve imagined myself in the place of that person darning socks at night (while listening to a program on the radio?) after all the other chores were done. I mean, how hard could it be? I really just need more practice at it; what I would really love is an afternoon with my great grandmother Ada to have a patient and steady presence help me learn.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and after much deliberation, I thought I’d share some ramblings. I have a mental illness that is currently stable thanks to medication, therapy, and lots of great support from my family and friends. Three years ago I would have told you without hesitation that I had depression, officially diagnosed at least 5 times, including twice with postpartum depression. But in 2015 I had an alcohol-induced breakdown, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized (both in a regular hospital and in a mental hospital to stabilize on new medication). And I had a new, much less socially acceptable, more stigmatized diagnosis: Bipolar 2 Disorder.

It took me more than a year to learn more about accept this diagnosis; I only heard the Bipolar part of the diagnosis and my immediate thoughts went to the mother of one of my best friends in high school who was diagnosed as manic depressive (aka Bipolar Disorder). She tried to kill herself, not for the first time, following what must have been a manic phase – I vividly remember my friend telling me she had started to wash the living room ceiling but didn’t finish; the mania ended and she attempted suicide before finishing, the two-toned ceiling told the story. Also, one of my grandfathers, who was somewhat distant with us grandkids (or perhaps my exposure was just limited) was diagnosed as manic depressive. My mother suspects that it was caused by the brain tumor that would kill him, but I have my doubts. And then I had heard stories, both fiction and non, about Bipolar Disorder – the soaring highs that made people think they could do and be anything that sometimes entered the realm of psychosis, the spending sprees, and then the opposite – people unable to get out of bed or even take a shower.

I wasn’t like that at all. Life wasn’t a mood roller coaster for me; I spent most of my time feeling depressed and anxious and just … other. (I still feel “other” but am, I guess, more comfortable with that and know that lots of people feel that way also.) I was never so down that I didn’t get out of bed or shower, but there was that period just after college when I was jobless and couldn’t leave the house and, one day in an attempt to feel safe and secure, spent an afternoon in a closet (with the door open). And the period that preceded it, when it felt like everyone was looking at me.

When I wasn’t feeling depressed and anxious, I sometimes had periods of great productivity. I vividly remember spending most of a day in the university coffee shop writing what I thought was the best essay of my life (and it was good), feeling like the words were flowing through me onto the page with no effort; I was in the zone, but it was more than that – it felt like I could do anything that day. One night years later, after having two kids and recovering from post-partum depression a second time, I started cleaning the kitchen and foyer floor on my hands and knees at 9pm after the kids had gone to bed. I didn’t finish (or exhause my energy) until 3am. One time I polished my stainless steel flatware (um, it’s called stainless steel for a reason, but I could still see flaws and an imperfect shine). There were so many other similar times – I polished a friend’s heavily aged copper kettle, I organized all my books following a system of favorites and size – that I had thought were just how normal people felt when they were functional or at worst, what people did when they needed to work through something. But I had no out of control spending sprees, no over-inflated ego trips, no psychotic episodes.

After denying the diagnosis for more than a year, I finally started to research Bipolar 2. Unlike Bipolar 1, people with Bipolar 2 spend most of their time being depressed (check), with periods of normalcy and periods of hypomania – hypo meaning beneath or below, so a mild mania (check). In Bipolar 1, the mania is much more pronounced, the mood swings more severe and a little more even. I joined a bipolar forum on http://www.psychforums.com/ and other people’s problems, symptoms, stories, and medications really resonated with me and the more I read, the more I accepted that this disorder best describes what’s wrong with my moods.

I have always been open with my children about my mental health and my experiences, just as my parents were with me, warning me about a pre-disposition to addiction and never depression, exactly, but just to be on the look out for something, just in case. I have been telling my boys the same thing: be wary of being dependent on any substance and if you’re overwhelmed or need help with anything, ask. I realize now that relying on a depressed person to ask for help is silly; the last thing I want to or can do when I’m depressed is ask anyone for anything, I just hunker down and hope it passes.

I missed the signs in one of my boys and wish that I had followed my hunches and forced him to get help earlier than I did, but I hope I’ll do better next time and with my friends and extended family. It’s hard to notice when someone has withdrawn, not because I don’t miss them, but because there can be so many reasons (new job, problems at a job or at home, obligations, etc.) for not seeing or talking to someone as often as I used to – I know it’s the same for lots of other people, but it’s important to reach out to the people you care about to make sure they’re doing okay. If something seems off, reach out – the worst that can happen is an awkward conversation and the best is that you’ll help a friend who really needs it.

After the breakdown that led to the Bipolar 2 diagnosis, a lot of people told me that they wished I had called them or told them something was going on instead of trying to solve a temporary problem with a permanent solution on my own. The truth is I had been reaching out in subtle ways but I didn’t know that I needed help or, if I did, what type of help I needed. Ultimately, I don’t think I would’ve gotten the help I needed without things happening the way they did. I’d still have the more inaccurate diagnosis of Major Depression, I probably wouldn’t have gone into the hospital, and I don’t think I would feel as good as I do now. I guess the point I’m really trying to drive home is to reach out and keep reaching out until you know that someone is in a better place mentally.

I have much more to say about mental illness, particularly the stigma around it and the biases people have against those of us with it. But I guess I’ll just end by saying that I think of Bipolar 2 as being kind of in remission, that I’m more functional than I have been in years, and that I’m very grateful for the support of my family, friends, and those complete strangers who are brave enough to speak/write about mental illness: this is for you.

 

Wednesday


This isn’t my usual Wordless Wednesday; I need to mark the occasion with more than just a picture. This is my oldest son, Brandon. He graduated from high school last night. He’s always climbed as high as he could; he received a plastic Tyco tricylcle for his first birthday, one with 2 wheels in front & one in the back. One night when I was making dinner, I left B alone with his bike in the living room for a few minutes and when I returned, found him standing balanced on the handlebars, a feat he would repeat until he grew out of the bike much to the shock  and dismay of his grandparents; I had tried to stop him, but he was persistant and insistant and never fell off.

When he was 3, Brandon went out to the car ahead of us by a few minutes and was climbing  unsupervised on the back of our Jeep Grand Cherokee with the hatch closed. He slipped, fell on his elbow, and broke his ulna almost in the elbow joint. Side note: the ortho we saw had the biggest hands I’ve ever seen, and not just because of the contrast between small boy and man hands: this doc needed extra large latex gloves. We explained to him how risky that was and chided him for not waiting for the rest of us. The cast on his arm slowed him down temporarily, but ultimately didn’t make him any more cautious or less confident in his abilities.

When he was 7 or 8, much to the horror of my neighbor, he climbed on top of the playsets in our backyard, not just on top of the swings, but up onto the roof of the treehouse that the slide is attached to and would jump off, down to the ground, after declaring himself king of the mountain. None of the other kids could follow him and believe me, they tried. 

Because of his climbing abilities, my husband started taking him and my 2nd son Ethan rock climbing at an indoor climbing gym near his work, really the only one in our area. B was a raging success, climbing up their 50 foot wall in record time, ringing the bell at the top, and belaying back down. Ethan, on the other hand, could only go up about 20 feet before he froze in fear. They joined the kids climbing team and my husband began climbing also, joining the adult teeam. They all ended up focusing on bouldering and we’d occasionally all go climbing, except for my youngest, Henry, who was too small at the time; he ended up just playing on the climbing mats & running around. Brandon got so good, he became the captain of the kids climbing team. I have video of him climbing one of the bouldering walls 3 years ago with just his arms.

So really, this picture of him on the field goal last night has been a long time coming. He had to do it twice, even – we had camera problems the first time around. As he was jumping down a second time, another set of parents walked by and the wife said sort of quietly to the husband, “That’s a good way to get suspended!” I guess she didn’t register the cap, gown, and diploma. We wouldn’t have been able to stop him anyway and I stopped trying way back when he’d climb up on the handlebars of that bike. Some things are just a fundamental part of your kid and you’ve got to just go with it because fighting against it would be futile & soul crushing. I look forward to seeing him figure this out too, not necessarily with climbing, but with other parts of his personality/being; I look forward to seeing what he metaphorically climbs next.

TBT: Vietnam 1966

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My Dad enlisted in the US Marines right out of high school in 1962 and was in Vietnam July 1965-July 1966. These are probably the most scenic pictures he took that I scanned; he probably took more or better scenic pics but I need to have his slides scanned to find out (and remember) for sure. He wrote “Danang Harbor” on the back of the last picture; I’m not sure if the first two are of Danang Harbor or of some other coastal feature.