Originally published: 25.05.15
A wave of depression drenched me and left me to melt. Not quickly or entirely like the Wicked Witch of the West. I envy her. With her 30-second transformation, she gave everyone happy relief and permanent freedom.
I can’t tell if I’m melting really slowly, or if I will continue shrinking indefinitely, never quite reaching zero, like Zeno’s paradox. I want to believe the people who say things like “It’s only temporary,” or “Surely, it can’t last,” but I’ve been holding on for years now. When my clothes begin pooling around my teeny, tiny feet, will people still tell me to wait patiently?
I don’t feel soaked through every minute of every day. Sometimes, when I walk along the path near my house, I can feel the sun warming my cheeks, and I can see the light shining on the new growth of spring green fields. But when I try to grab hold of the brightness, to carry it with me beyond that moment, it almost always vanishes. Within seconds of looking at that fluorescent glow of spring, I begin to think of the pasty green face of that wicked witch and of all the similarities between us. I don’t believe I am malicious like she was, but I do feel like an obvious outsider coated in abnormal, sallow skin, unable to blend in and function the way good people can. With my cold heart, I too am unsatisfied with the powers that I possess, unable to truly appreciate any of the wonders over or under the rainbow, and, worst of all, always bringing others down.
I wish I could believe that loss is an opportunity that you should approach with a smile, the way Nikki Giovanni does. Or better yet, I would love to experience the world like Mary Oliver—”nourished by the mystery,” my “imagination alighting everywhere.” Oliver’s uncanny ability to genuinely marvel at almost anything— “the clear pebbles of rain“, the “pale forearms” of a grasshopper, or “the brash turnip-hearted skunk cabbage“—astounds and intimidates me. I realize I will always fall short if I compare myself to a person who can listen to insects, birds, and the ocean and somehow hear “small kingdoms breathing,” the call of wild geese, and the sea’s polite request to get back to work. But when I think about Thoreau’s observation that, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see,” I can’t stop blaming myself for my ineptitude.
I’m not asking to be a famous poet. I would be happy to be like Betsy MacWhinney. MacWhinney tried to save her ill daughter and herself with poetry. Although she felt like her daughter had been kidnapped, she knew she couldn’t save her. So, MacWhinney searched for poems to show her daughter that people have “been in pain before,” and “struggled to find hope.” She wanted to say, “look what they have done with [pain].” She spent hours cutting out words from magazines and pasting them together to form poems disguised as ransom notes. Then every morning, she folded up these collaged poems and slipped them into her daughter’s shoes—begging the world to give back her daughter.
Except, I don’t feel like MacWhinney, Thoreau, Oliver, or Giovanni. Instead, I feel frozen and isolated in a heavy wave of sadness. Most days, stacks of circular regret clog my throat, and the echo of self-loathing in my head silences my dreams. I understand that depression is a lonely sickness of slow waiting, but biding time without promise often seems pointless. If I could become enlightened and empowered by immersing myself in a deep appreciation of my environment or by carrying poetry collages in my pockets or by simply choosing to see the world differently, I have to believe I would. When I try to access those approaches, though, I not only fail; I end up discovering one more way to feel like a green-skinned, cold-hearted witch.
Still, I haven’t given up on poetry, yet. Recently, I went back to look for the first poem of Oliver’s that I ever read. In The Swimming Lesson she writes:
Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.
Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim
Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace—
How to survive in any place.
When I showed the poem to my husband, he asked if I felt tossed in like Oliver. He’s right that depression feels like a long lonely fall. But, I think part of the reason I love this poem so much is it helps me see some of the real differences between living with depression and the threat of drowning.
If endless waves of water reach around you, you feel afraid because you can’t breathe and you think you might drown. However, you also know that if you can reach the surface and break through, you will be alright. When a wave of depression engulfs you, though, nobody has a clue where the surface might be, or even if it exists. Pointing yourself in a plausibly helpful direction while kicking your feet and paddling your arms as hard as you can might prove fruitful, but no one can promise that any of that will affect your fate. And, no matter how much anyone wants to save you, they can’t jump in and pull you out. But the biggest difference between the two experiences of falling is that—unlike a new swimmer—a seriously depressed person’s worst fear isn’t that she will drown; it’s that she won’t.
Oliver had a miserable, “insufficient childhood,” but she believes she “got saved by poetry. And…the beauty of the world.” And as MacWhinney points out, people have clearly created beauty as a result of struggling to save themselves. So, when Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I admit that all I can think to do is apologize. I want to say, “I’m sorry for my fear and chronic flailing. I wish I could better appreciate all that I have. I’m not proud of my witch-like qualities, and I don’t want to hurt anyone with my desire to melt more quickly.” Perhaps, Oliver would turn away in disdain if I said those things. Then again, her poem Landscape gives me hope. She writes:
Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?
Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.
Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky—as though
all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.
When Oliver says that, if the doors of her heart ever close, she is as good as dead, I read that as her acknowledging that sometimes people cannot survive in any place. Sometimes, when our bodies attempt to block out a flood of darkening waves, doors shut without our permission. I want to believe that if Oliver peered down and saw my clothes pooling, she would not assume that I allowed myself to evaporate. And if she looked inside me, and witnessed the waves crashing against my heart, she would see that the doors needed to close. She might even understand why they have begun to melt together. Other people might interpret Landscape as an unconditional directive to always control our emotions. But I see it and, somehow, I feel forgiven.
The Not Me In school, my art work was about the construction of gender, conflicting female identities, fairy tales, and cognitive dissonance (images at francescamilliken.com).