Tuesday, May 31, 2011

North To Alaska

 When my friend Susan and her family moved back to America I thought I would never see her again, or that if I did, it would be that she would visit new Zealand again. As a stay-at-home, zero income mother for decades, I could only dream of a Lotto-funded trip to America. In December Susan's husband, Steve, emailed Mac with the suggestion that we visit. When Mac showed me the email, I felt sick and wished he hadn't shown me the invitation: it seemed a cruel joke. Then Mac said, "why not?" And out the window went our plans to buy an emergency generator (no emergencies permitted from now on), a 'new' car (this one will have to hold itself together a bit longer), and several other things that we had planned on buying with the last of Mac's inheritance.

I remembered Susan writing to me when they moved to Alaska, and telling me about Steve's trip up the western coast north of Seattle on a ferry and suggested it to Mac. He wasn't that keen until talking to his brother's neighbour (an Alaskan who only does summer - he has a home in Anchorage and another in Raglan) and borrowing a video from him. So the plans began. I didn't really believe it though, couldn't take it seriously until we booked our tickets in January. Then up onto the wall went the map of Alaska.

 Then Susan sent me this not-to-scale but wonderful map of Fairbanks, the city where they live, and my excitement grew.

A while back Susan, who works in the children's section of the library in Fairbanks, sent me this bag. Currently it is in use collecting bits and pieces for our trip to Alaska: itineraries, little presents for our friends, compression stockings, tourist information, all that kind of traveller's paraphernalia.

When we return home, I expect that bag to be full of used tickets, pamphlets and brochures and maps and mementos and small presents for my family.

Our plans are still vague in parts, but the skeleton is ready.

On Thursday 9 June we arrive in Seattle at 7.51pm, an hour and a half before we leave Auckland. (Which sounds rather like Monty Python's 'we really had it tough' old men sketch!) We stay the night there and the next day our friends' daughter, Robin, will pick us up and show us a little of Seattle before taking us to Bellingham catch our ferry, the MV Columbia.

We have three nights on the ferry, travelling up the west coast of Canada to the capital of Alaska, Juneau, with brief stops at Ketchican, Wrangell and Petersburg. Hopefully, this interlude will give us time to recover from jet-lag before we meet up with our friends, Susan and Steve in Anchorage, Alaska's biggest city. From there it is off to their home in inland Fairbanks, where the sun does not go down in mid-summer, and there is no ozone hole in the sky, and where I can celebrate summer solstice instead of suffering the Dark of the shortest day in New Zealand.

It's not all dark here though - we remembered to feed fed our citrus this year for once and one poor little tree is so covered in 'sunlight' it is now lying down on the job - if only we could pick the lemons and take them with us - I'm pretty certain lemons don't grow in Alaska!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Winter is drawing in. Although it is still not cold, the days are getting shorter and are frequently grey, wet, windy and dismal. There are few flowers from which the bees can gather nectar and pollen, and they are slowing down into their winter ways. But just as the last few straggling flowers on the pineapple sage are fading, the tagasaste bursts into life, and, along with the gorse, offers a winter feast for my bees.

Today, even though it was drizzling and the outside world was grey, I watched as bumblebees, fantails and a bellbird flittered in the tagasaste outside the sitting room.

How can grey, winter days be drear when the creamy white tagasaste and yellow gorse blossoms shine in the rain to the accompaniment of the bellbird's song?

Monday, May 23, 2011

  A very young child doesn't focus on the 'big picture' - he (all my children were boys, so that's how I think of children, sorry) is not yet familiar with the 'familiar'. The small fascinates. He will squat down on the path and spend a long time examining an ant as it tries to carry a piece of food larger than itself, while the parent tries to point out the elephant in the enclosure next to the path. The elephant is too smelly, too scary, and way too big to be comprehensible to the toddler.

He learns quickly though. Humans are smart, especially the little ones. He learns that his parents are not interested in ants. He learns that elephants are important. And that when he expresses interest in the elephant instead of the ant, mum and dad will express pleasure and praise his efforts. Thus the small stuff is gradually forgotten.


For those parents who are lucky enough to spend a lot of time with their young children, there is a chance to rediscover the tiny joys the world has to offer. I spent 27 years at home with my children, not only in the preschool years, but also, because I homeschooled them, right up until the last one went to university. I was so lucky to rediscover the small wonders.

My third son, in particular, helped me rediscover how to observe the world. For a number of years I thought Simon might grow up to study birds, insects, or botany, such was his interest, but as he grew older his observational skills were directed into his art. His gift to me was to point out the detail of the world: he helped me notice the different shades and shapes of green in the countryside; the way different types of birds flew differently, and so are distinguishable from the way they move in the air; he taught me to look at the detail of the world, instead of just the wider view.


Although it is nice to sit down outside on a sunny day and relax with a beer or a cup of tea while looking out at the wide sweep of our beautiful country view, I now find that quite quickly I become distracted by the bumblebee on the scarlet pineapple sage flower, or the sharp point of a spring bulb poking way too early through the soil. And so with other aspects of life: I have found that in all aspects of my life I am finding the detailed, close view more interesting and more manageable than the broad view.

The housework and gardening is easier to manage if I stop looking at the big mess and just attack one small area at a time. When I look at my Apiculture course work, I get overwhelmed by how much there is, but if I do it unit by unit, reading by reading, test by test, it becomes easier - and more interesting.

When I look at my psychological state, I find it too scary to think about long term. I do plan a little, (such as planning to buy a 'happy light' before next winter) but mostly I have discovered that for me the trick is to focus on the present. At the worst of times last year it helped to just ask myself, "Am I safe at this tiny moment an time, this exact moment? I got through the last moment so this moment too will pass." It was too scary to consider more than that.

This morning, having been reminded by a John Kirwan television advertisement last night, I got up and walked for 30 minutes on the treadmill. I've found that again I have to focus on the moment to get through it - if I think about the fact that I still have x minutes to go, I find it nearly impossible to get up and do it again the next day! But it is a fact that exercise is very important in fighting depression, so I need to do it.

After I'd done that, put the washing on, fed the cats, the dog and the chooks, and having got very wet legs walking down to the chook run, I decided to scythe the pathway. Scything is my favourite physical activity. It is energetic, peacefully quiet, involves my whole body, and requires attention to detail. It puts me into an active meditative state. Then at the end, I look back and am rewarded to see a useful task completed. Despite being absorbed in the task, I was also observing the detail around me. I'm a bit phobic about spiders, and hate dusty old cobwebs in sheds, but oh, how very beautiful are dew covered spider webs in the morning sun.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Life is Good

 Last May with the days getting shorter, I could feel the darkness inside me but thought that by keeping busy with new directions in my life I would make it through winter without descending into depression. Instead, all it took was one phone call, my first ever panic attack, a complete bitch of a doctor, and I was so low I actually couldn't talk and walk at the same time. In fact I struggled to do either for a while. I have worked so hard over the last year and I know I am heaps better than ever before, but still I can feel twinges of the Dark as the days once again get shorter.
But now, the minute I feel it, I pull myself up again. After decades of introspection about the whys and wherefores of my misery, I've pretty much given it up. I reached a point where I could see pretty much why I am like I am, but in spite of all that enlightenment, there I was again, still hitting bottom just like so many times before. For years I believed that if I could just work out why I was like this, the truth would set me free. After last year's episode, I spent some time with a clinical psychologist, which helped a little, and some time working through the advice given on the site set up by John Kirwan. What has happened is that I finally accepted that which I knew intellectually but had never truly believed: there is no magic bullet, there is no one who can fix me, no fairy godmother with a wand, no instructional flow chart that would lead me to mental health.
For each of us who suffer, there is a different path. For me, the beginning was to accept that the introspective way just wasn't doing it for me. If I wanted my external life to be different, I would change things: if I didn't like my hair long, I could cut it. When I didn't like my job, I resigned and did something different. I now understand that if I want my internal life to be different, I have to take responsibility and change that too. I could ask for help, but I now understood that 'help' is just that - assistance, not a take-over deal. If someone asked me to help them do the dishes and then, once I started washing, walked out and left me to do the whole thing on my own, I'd be pretty pissed off. Yet that is what I had expected when it came to 'fixing' my mental health: I expected someone, whether in person, or through a book, whatever, someone to hear my plea for help and then 'fix' me. But it is just as unfair and foolish to ask that of someone as it would be to ask them to 'help' with the dishes. I needed to take responsibility even if I did need help with it.

The things that are helping me are so simple and yet so hard. The hardest of all is to remember that I have decided to do them!

The first thing that helped me was to learn to feel loved. I constantly heard / read that I had to love myself. Well, no. I cannot just suddenly love myself any more than I can make myself have faith in some god. I thought about it and chose a slightly different path. I thought for a long time until I could find a specific memory of a time when I actually felt loved. I went over that memory time and again until I could actually feel the love, then gradually learned to separate the feeling from the memory, so that in time I could just recreate the feeling at any time without it being attached to anything but me. So when I started feeling bad, I would just relax into the feeling of loving and being loved.

I made myself a book to use both as my record of my progress, and as a reference manual for future bad times (I'm not pretending the bad times will never return.) I compiled a list of things that I enjoyed doing, or that made me feel good when I was well. It's really important for me to have that written down, because when I go down I can't think clearly at all. I have a long list of things that I can refer to.

I learned the habit of looking at the world and making myself really see the beauty in the world. I find the big stuff in the world too hard to be real with, so I look at the small stuff: the beauty of the bright red flowers of the pineapple sage on a grey winter's day. The shining leaves of the flax in the rain. The soft warmth of the cat's fur as it sleeps on my lap. I try to immerse myself in these observations to offer myself a little relief from the world. I remind myself that I am choosing to focus on these things, rather than on the miseries that are there waiting to drag me down. The miseries are still there, but although I acknowledge their presence, I'm chosing not to focus on them.

There are many things that are known to help with depression: drugs, nutrition, exercise,  - oh, a million things. None of them work by themselves, none of them work for everyone. For each of us there will be a cocktail of things that help, and I know that the cocktail that suits me will not work for everyone else - maybe not for anyone else. I do know that I can look at myself in the mirror now without being filled with repulsion, and it's been a long, long time since I could do that. I do know that I am enjoying life a million times more now than I have done for...... well, for as long as I can remember. I can say, "life is good" - and mean it.

Feel free to remind me of all this if you see me fallen down.