I’ve inadvertently fallen for my local squirrel community. This is a pretty common thing to do, I know.
On the west side of my house, I keep two huge, squirrel-proof feeders. The deck in summer is reserved for hummingbird feeders, so I can watch and photograph them from my kitchen window. In winter, I put up a seed feeder. It’s not squirrel proof. Which is how we got this scene in early January:
Matters progressed from there.
Being in a generally dark mood this winter, I couldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth and remove the feeder. So instead I opted to become a kind of Jane Goodall of squirrels, justifying my continued feeding of these rodents in the name of citizen science. I would learn about and report on the secret lives of urban squirrelry.
I don’t keep the feeder constantly full, because I’m mindful of my friends needing to find better suited food on the regular, and there are population issues to be considered. And also I just don’t want to have armies of squirrels on my deck at any given time. Conditions edged there one Saturday after a cold snap:
The outcome of this project has been that I’m now acquainted with individual squirrels and their temperaments, and in the larger community dynamics. My son and I have identified and named two of them, Slim and Stretch. Most of the squirrels that come to the feeder are female. (Another thing I’ve learned is that, when you see a male, it’s, uh, really obvious.) The ladies don’t tolerate much from the dudes. The last time I saw a male on the deck, Stretch casually shoved him into the birdbath.
The daily schedule works well for all parties. Chickadees, which lose up to 15% of their body weight on a winter night and need to get to the buffet pronto in the morning, arrive before dawn. House finches and juncos show up next. Squirrels mostly sleep in till well after dawn, spend the hours of 9 to 1 plying the feeder, then leave. The birds come back after that.
Squirrel gestation season, I’ve learned, is right now. Young squirrels stay in the nest till they are ready to follow their mothers around and learn the drill. The timing here works well, because the seed feeder will make way for the hummingbird feeder in about eight weeks, so the young-uns won’t get a false education.
They can learn how to handle the seed feeder next winter on their own, like their mothers did. Walking seven miles through snow, barefoot and uphill. Literally.
The other day it occurred to me that if celebrity chef Rachael Ray ever had occasion to address that mental state characterized by ingrained melancholy, she’d invent a chirpy name for it, like depresh. Ray has her own language, as many of you know, replete with made-up terms: EVOO, sammies, and Yum-O. Then there’s her pet food, Nutrish.
Depresh: mental illness, now with extra whimsy.
In that vein, today is Charles Darwin’s 210th birthday, and I read on Twitter that he once sent the following in a letter:
“I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders. I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind, I am
Darwin, it is commonly known, suffered from depresh. Various theories concerning the source of his mental illness include everything from chronic lactose intolerance to parasitic tropical diseases. (I’m inclined to favor the lactose intolerance theory, though, since he once wrote to a doctor about his uncontrollable nightly farting.)
But causes be damned, I love that paragraph. It sounds almost like something you’d read on Twitter today, if you just swapped out Victorian words like “poorly” and “farewell.” There’s even the obligatory punctuation-deprived sentence that tries to cram in a description of his misery and then completely disown it: “I am going to write a little Book for Murray on orchids & today I hate them worse than everything so farewell & in a sweet frame of mind I am ever yours, Darwin.”
I love that paragraph because I get where it’s coming from on a gut level. You want desperately to convey your own frustration with your mental state, but then you don’t really want people freaking out too much, and you’re really not comfortable being attended to and hovered over, so you tack on “farewell and in a sweet frame of mind.” And you don’t use punctuation, because that gives the reader too much time to escape complete confusion.
I get it. I’m a chronic lighten-upper myself, and would probably joke with my own murderer just to lift the mood a little. But glaring from that paragraph like a diamond is the ages-old shame at one’s depressed mental state. No one really wants to embrace depresh.
I’ve come to suspect that much of what makes depression feel so terrible is not just that it actually feels terrible — though it absolutely does — but that feeling bad about feeling bad just makes things worse. In Darwin’s day, weakness and misery was a character issue, and today, it’s barely changed. Our culture seems to impose a moral imperative to be constantly chipper. Women particularly are admonished, usually via memes on Facebook, to eschew “negativity” and are warned that they alone are responsible for their emotional state, and that they’d always better be prepared to choose joy. (To avoid having to explain this later, because someone will inevitably take me to task for it – no, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “choosing joy.” But it ought not to be an obligation, and it ought not to be assumed that it’s within everyone’s power to do so.)
No one likes a constant sad sack, but I have a lingering suspicion that there is some daylight between being a constant Debbie Downer, and yet casting a jaundiced eye at all the lectures about how “we choose how we feel.” Do we, really? Has anyone met their brain? I mean really, people, those things have minds of their own.
And anyway, what if depression is adaptable? What if depression is normal in certain circumstances? What if, goddamn it, depression is called for? And what if trying to climb the slippery walls of the depression well just makes you even more tired, and gets you nowhere?
As you can imagine, these questions about depression were particularly piercing for Charles Darwin. Having formulated the concept of survival of the fittest, he was then obliged to ask himself whether he was among those fit to survive. But maybe his depression served a purpose. There’s reason to think it did.
Above all, depression is about mental cud-chewing. Some brain geeks think depression is connected with an over-achieving default mode network, that portion of the brain that kicks in when our minds are at rest, when we are daydreaming, or otherwise mind-wandering. (It’s also called the task-negative network.) The default mode network is also active when one is thinking about themselves, or others, or the past. To my uneducated eye, the default mode network seems to house an awful lot of our selves. There is some suggestion that during depression, the DMN is just very, very busy, going round and round and round again. And this neural cud-chewing, while sometimes pointless, harmful, and chronic, can sometimes bring things front and center that need to be processed – problems that need to be solved, or feelings that need to be resolved. Or in Darwin’s case, uncontrollable gas and the theory of evolution.
In my case, two years of people I love dying, a career transition and all the terror that went with it, and making close acquaintance with my own mortality.
Depression may indeed be called for, sometimes. And that’s why I wish we had more tolerance for it when it is. In my ideal world, there would be room for the default mode network to light up like a Christmas tree, and have the space to work. Situational depression wouldn’t be something that threatened to derail a life, but rather a sacred task designed to advance it. No one likes being in pain. But to have the space to do it, for awhile, to let the gears turn and not have one’s pain exacerbated by shame or the consequences of the inevitable inertia, would be a better way to do things.
No, I have no idea how that would work. But maybe someday the anthropologists of my dream society would write dissertations on the rituals of depresh.
From my old blog from out west. The principle holds in Indiana in December, 2018.
Snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year. It reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. This morning we saw rabbit tracks interspersed with bobcat tracks, a drama written in the snow, but with no discernible ending. Did the bobcat get dinner? Or did the rabbit live another day?
Snow tells part of the tale, but doesn’t promise more than that.
I’m not a poet. I don’t think in verse and I don’t typically write in verse, and I’m okay with that. I’m not a singer either, except in my car. (I’m a rock star there.) Or a painter, except on my walls.
However, a couple of years ago when I lost a good friend to a terrible illness, I began to write this out, as if someone else were occupying my head. (I’m just now remembering that the friend I lost WAS a poet. Oh goodness, more ghosts.)
Then I spent nearly two years changing words around, subtracting out and substituting, and I never completed it because I am not a poet, and poetry does not submit itself to my editing. But I’m in a new part of Grief Land now, so I dug this thing up and decided to surrender to it, along with so many other things.
After you died
I began to look for your spirit in dragonflies
And once or twice in a red-winged blackbird.
If I’d seen a fox, I would have looked there too,
but the foxes are as scarce as you.
“Is it him?” I’d wonder
when the crepe paper wings you loved
lit on my canoe,
or an okalee song pierced a quiet afternoon.
But neither bird nor fly answered,
And still I felt empty.
Then one day
After a long time of enlisting your favorite animals
to host your missing spirit,
I grudgingly admitted that the dragonfly’s soul
is her own.
And again I felt empty.
But wait a minute, I thought to myself,
maybe this is not about reincarnation.
What if the dragonfly owed you a favor,
for that one time you offered some help,
a long-ago rescue from dire circumstance,
Maybe a botched landing in water
Or entrapment in a screen?
And remembering your kindness
(bear with me here)
the dragonfly agreed to convey your hello,
Just a small poke or a whisper
to one you left here
in a canoe.
Well if that’s how you feel about it.
Preface: I’ve been writing about my mother for a few months now, both before her death and after. Part of me has resisted continuing. I think that’s because I absorbed, without thinking about it, a kind of cultural discomfort with a “protracted” grief experience. No one wants to have an extended dance with pain, but I wish we didn’t so often ask ourselves, as if there were something wrong with us, why we aren’t “over it yet” or why we feel the need to keep talking about it. So I’m going to write my field notes here, because that’s where I am. And then I’ll stop when I’m not there anymore. And if I’m lucky, maybe it’ll make sense to some of you still there too.
I’m a board-certified agnostic about a lot of things, chief among them the afterlife. I have no idea what, if anything, happens after we die, and it always seems odd to me when people are certain about it one way or another, having never been dead themselves. While I always appreciate a good spirituality with robust metaphor and abundant goodwill and love, I’ve always considered religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists to be two sides of the same coin.
So I can’t say I believe in anything particularly, because I don’t really have a basis to do so. But if I’m honest, I lean away from a conception of an afterlife that looks anything like the framework of this world. And yet, as I make my way through my practical reality, I tend to see through that prism anyway. Put another way, my intellectual orientation doesn’t always match my emotional orientation — a perennial issue for me.
In his memoir about dealing with his mother’s death, Sherman Alexie writes that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he sees them all the time. I understand.
If you think about an afterlife as involving some part of a person’s spirit sticking around to communicate with their still-Earthbound loved ones, I would’ve expected my mother’s soul to move along quickly. She’d been described by others since her birth as fiercely independent, and to be sure, she never really seemed to need the presence of her children, or anyone, really. Tempted by the possibilities that are supposedly present in such a conception of an afterlife, surely she would’ve dropped her Earthly connections like a hot rock and zipped off post haste: Smell ya later, losers. I’m outta here.
This is how it was when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away three years ago. I was really close to my grandmother, but I never felt her around, never dreamed about her, never saw those little telltale signs, nothing. This bummed me out at the time, because I desperately wanted one more connection with her. I didn’t believe in her ghost, but I very much wanted to see it anyway.
When my mother died, I didn’t believe in her ghost and I didn’t expect to see it, because – well, I don’t know why. But it probably had something to do with the fact that she was deeply averse to vulnerability, to needing anyone or even, sometimes, wanting anyone. She was often unwilling to do things for others if those things made her feel exposed or insecure, and she could be uncomfortably blunt about letting you know it. Given a choice between doing afterlife-y things and sticking around to help us feel better, I expected to be on my own for self-care. I expected her death to be, I suppose, an immediate and wholesale break – almost, to my old lizard brain at least, an abandonment, even. And yet, it hasn’t been.
There are subtle things, but not so subtle ones as well: How my dog kept opening, with his nose, the books I brought from her house, even days after they’d been sitting on the hearth, as if there was a treat in the pages he couldn’t find. There are vivid dreams, the tapping on my back when there is no one around to tap me on the back. It’s how when my husband got up to go to the bathroom one night, he grabbed my foot and tickled it – except he didn’t. (But my mother would’ve relished framing him for it.) It’s the fact that I still just feel her around.
I get that there are explanations for these things that comport with the laws of physics and science. The books had my mother’s scent on them, which my dog had come to associate with getting treats after years of her bringing him goodies. Hypnogogia, the transitional state between wake and sleep, is fertile ground for hallucinations and lucid dreams. And feelings of her presence are, well, feelings. Our mind reaches for the things it wants to see.
But the insistence on providing “rational” explanations misses the point. It doesn’t really matter why I’m seeing the ghosts. I don’t really care why I’m experiencing these things. If they are the product of my mind, then they are still the product of my experiences with her. And what a wonder, all by itself, that our minds produce this kind of salve to help ease us down the road of loss. It’s a connection; I’m not picky about the exact nature of it.
And if it is “her” in some sense involving her continued agency, then what? I surely don’t know any more now than I did before. Either way, it’s her. The ghosts are what they are, and I don’t need to know the details. I’ll just appreciate them, here in the comfortable space between knowing and not knowing.
I wrote this while listening to an instrumental Christmas music playlist. Two seconds after I wrote the last sentence, Clair de Lune came on. (I wrote a piece about my grandmother’s and my love for Clair de Lune that my aunt had me read at her funeral.) Was it serendipity or a nudge from my grandmother after complaining about never having experienced one from her? It doesn’t matter. She was here for a moment, with me again.
I wish I could tell you I’m one of those people who goes with the flow, who intuitively understands how to let go and ride the river, but I’m not. Too often I still find myself in a fight with the universe over the remote control of my life, and every time I lose.
As summer wanes, I grouse about winter. As winter melts into spring, I feel like I’m not quite ready to leave hibernation. What I can say is that the older I get, the more I learn, and the better I get at handing over the remote.
Winter is coming in forcefully this year. We’ve already had an early ice storm and, today, an early season snow. This morning I walked out in it, entered the stillness and the silence, and let the flakes land on my nose. I walked through brown cornfields in the community garden, trying not to trip over the fallen stalks. I paid my respects to a deceased sunflower, its graceful curve still intact, snow gathering on the back of the long-gone blossom.
And then I went back to where it’s warm, having completed my small act of hospitality to the inevitable. Getting better all the time.
While sitting with my mother a few hours before her death, I had one thought: this is what the mirror image of birth looks like. Both are ordeals, pieces of transitional work. She was exerting herself – to breathe, to get somewhere, to do something – even if that something or somewhere wasn’t quite identifiable. Then, when she became too agitated, the hospice nurse added medication, and things calmed down. The process became quieter and more internal, but it continued. It was inexorable.
Over and over, I have heard people who have witnessed it describe death as “beautiful.” I know more than one person whose experience of bearing witness to death reinforced to near certainty their belief of an afterlife. As usual, I’m an outlier.
I didn’t find my mother’s death beautiful, exactly. It wasn’t horrifying, either. It was authentic, gritty, and matter of fact – but on reflection, my mother was all of those things, too. So it makes a kind of internal sense. We are who we are as we die, as much as while we live.
More than anything, though, it reinforced my understanding of life and death as a collection of reliable, trustworthy processes that, with a few variations, mostly follow similar patterns. It’s this way from the beginning. Birth has its own logic, and its own unique script: there are stages of labor, all designed to gradually open the cervix. Pain escalates with each stage. The baby is out, then the placenta. We meet our mothers for the first time.
From there, we grow. Childhood development follows its own rhythm, and after that, adolescence marches along. Everything is a process: digestion, respiration, immune response, love, grief, menopause, aging, and then death. There is something reliable and therefore deeply comforting about this.
These processes exist throughout nature, both on an individual and systemic basis. When I was last hiking in the Pacific Northwest, I took particular notice of a phenomenon that had always interested me: nurse logs. When an evergreen tree dies and falls – or falls and dies, as the case may be – in the rain forest, a process begins. Bacteria and fungi begin to break down the dead tree’s lignin – the biopolymer that gives wood its structure and strength – making the formerly hard bark spongy and soft, and creating holes and niches in which small things begin to grow. Mosses and tiny mushrooms appear on the tree. Chipmunks and squirrels perch on it, dropping food and poo. A layer of soil begins to take shape, and eventually, seedlings sprout there, aided by the sliver of light created when the tree fell in an otherwise dense and dark forest. Some of those sprouts succeed and become full-fledged trees, rooted in the body of their forebear.
This entire process contains within it a kind of magical irony: A dead, fallen tree contains about five times more living matter than it did when it was alive. Death is painful and cataclysmic –like a massive tree crashing into a forest – and then, slowly, it becomes part of the material we use to grow our lives, whether we like it or not. When a giant in your world comes crashing down, there is pain, but after awhile, there are other things, like questions, epiphanies, understandings, growth, and realizations of our own strength. It doesn’t make it somehow “worth it;” it’s just how it is.
I don’t really understand why these processes happen, or where they come from, but they give me comfort all the same. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote of a letter she received from her friend, Martha Beck, who officiated Gilbert’s commitment ceremony with her partner, Rayya, who died half a year later. In that letter, Beck wrote, in part: “Death is every bit as common as life, and both utterly baffle me.”
I nearly cheered as I read that. Finally, someone else has thrown up their hands and admitted they have no idea what is going on here. I was delighted – thrilled, even. Because I, too, have no idea what’s going on here. I do not have the certainty others do; I would feel deeply uncomfortable with it. The stubborn ambiguity of why, which is often so hard to swallow, doesn’t sting as much when I think of the reliable, inevitable, inexorable processes that appear in every corner of life and death.
Who fucking knows? Not me. So while I’m here, I’ll do my best to live well, take growth from pain and loss, and try to do some good. That’s all I understand.
The rest is a mystery and therefore the source of all wonder. And I like wonder.