Today I googled, “How do you know when you’re depressed?” Pathetic, I know, but how do you know? For me, it’s more than just sadness. I get irritable, short tempered. I rage. I don’t always see it right away. The people around me do. The people I love do…because they’re the ones who targeted. (Sorry, babe!)
What’s been whirling in my head:
I should be happy. I have an awesome kid who is shining super bright (her report card was ridiculously stellar). I have a partner who is supportive and loving. I moved to a sun-filled apartment in a great neighborhood where I’m surrounded by trees and nature. I have a writing room in my new place and a deck! I have students who work hard and teach me something new and necessary all the time.
I was accepted to Tin House and crowdfunded so I could attend. I raised the money plus an extra $1300 in under 48 hours so most of my AWP trip is covered too. I should be happy but…
I’ve also been overwhelmed by the state of the world. There’s so much going on. So. Much. And I’m not just talking about the election. I’m talking about the Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter and the rash of hate crimes across the country and Syria and…and…and…
Last week, I wrote a love letter to my Writing Our Lives students. They submitted their final project essays on time last week, and as I’ve been reading, I’ve felt so proud and emotional. I’ve laughed and I’ve cried and I’ve felt this swell in my chest that I can’t really describe other than to say that it felt both hopeful and sad… In the letter, I wrote:
I’m writing to congratulate you for sacrificing so much of your time and putting so much effort into your stories and this class. Most people don’t want to give up their Saturdays to take a class with a teacher who doesn’t hold any punches. As I always tell you, this isn’t easy work, but you’ve showed up (mostly :)), pushed yourself to write and dig into those spaces that you don’t really want to dig into but know that’s where healing and release lies. You’ve pushed even when you want to throw things at me and yell. You’ve done the work, and I want to remind you of that. I want to tell you that no matter what anyone says, this is the time that your stories are even more important than ever.
I confess that today I’m feeling a little disillusioned. I am listening to jazz (Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” is currently playing) and I’m thinking about how the news these days gives us no reason to hope. There are days like today when my faith wanes that I wonder about the work I do. Then something comes across my timeline or someone sends me a note or I remember a book I read or talk I saw, and I am reminded of the truth… As Jedi Master Chris Abani puts it in his TED Talk “On Humanity”, “…what I’ve come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa, they have a phrase called Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. But if you’re like me, my humanity is more like a window. I don’t really see it, I don’t pay attention to it until there’s, you know, like a bug that’s dead on the window. Then suddenly I see it, and usually, it’s never good. It’s usually when I’m cussing in traffic at someone who is trying to drive their car and drink coffee and send emails and make notes. So what Ubuntu really says is that there is no way for us to be human without other people. It’s really very simple, but really very complicated.”
Thank you for shining my humanity back at me.
I think of you and the work you’ve done and the faith you’ve put in me and this road you’re walking in your writing and artist life, and I thought: shit, they are reason to hope. I look at you and wonder if you know how much you do for me. How I get up excited on Saturdays to share with you and hear you and work with you. How you’ve inspired me to keep pushing and think of new ways to teach the work and show up.
This morning, I was lying in bed, looking up at the sky and the trees outside my window, the way the branches bend and shake in the wind but hold fast and refuse to fall… I was feeling hopeless and worried, wondering: what is it I can do? I am, after all, only one person. I went on my FB and the first thing that showed up with this video of VONA alumna Piper Anderson “Can Stories Create Justice?” She’s a great speaker, is engaging and makes you think, and she reminded me that stories can indeed be an instrument of justice.
So, today, this is my love letter to you, my gorgeous Writing Our Lives students. Thank you for believing in me and sharing your journey and letting me help you. I’m so looking forward to reading your essays and sharing love on the 3rd. Have a wonderful turkey day. Stay beautiful. Y’all don’t have to try. You already are.
All my love,
When you feel like it’s all too much. There is so much horror in the world. People protesting peacefully getting pelted by water in below freezing temperatures. A president elect putting together a team of white supremacists and problematic pendejos like him to help him in his administration. Hate crimes left and right. Fools telling you to just get over it. And there’s so much more… It’s a lot to take in. A lot to try to do something about. What can one person do to effect change, right? I am reminded that the world is not changed by grand messianic acts but, rather, by the on the ground work you do every single day. So, today you went to a protest or posted a rant on FB. Great. That has a purpose too but what else are you doing? Like every day, what are you doing? Because, folks, it’s right there that longstanding change really happens. Remember that.
I’ve been told: so, you write? How does that do anything to change the world? I’m meditating on that today, as a writer and a writing teacher. I quit my job six and a half years ago to do this work, to write and to teach. Since that orange pendejo was elected, I’ve been wondering about what it is I can do to effect change. Am I doing enough? Are stories really that important? Can writing really effect change? I think about my Writing Our Lives students and what they’ve sacrificed to take this class and write these stories. I think about my own writing journey. And I think about how books and stories and letters and writing writing writing have influenced my life. Where would I be without my books? Where would we be without MLK’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail or his I have a Dream speech? Where would the world be without all the religious texts that have stood the test of time: the Koran, the Torah, the Bible, the Vedas, the Tripitaka (Pali Canon), Mahayana Sutras and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the so many more? What would we be without the written word? What and where would we be without stories? I am thinking so hard, really wondering how is it we artists can effect change in these times when it’s so easy for hope to wane… I don’t want my hope to wane. It’s my superpower, but, shit, these times are so fuckin’ hard.
In an interview, Nina Simone said: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians… I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. At this crucial time in our lives, when everything is so desperate, when every day is a matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved… We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.”
Last week, headlines reported that VP elect Pence (yes, the one who believes in conversion therapy for LGBTQ folks) was “harassed” by the cast of Hamilton when he went to see the show. Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who portrays Aaron Burr, delivered the speech at the end of the night’s performance. In it he implored Pence, as the newly elected VP, to work on behalf of Americans.
While Trump was foaming at the mouth mad, basically denying the cast’s first amendment rights when he insisted “This should not happen” and demanding an apology, Dixon told Broadway.com: “These are the opportunities that you die for. If you have differences, say something! What better place than on this stage telling this story with these people? I hope he thinks of us every time he has to deal with an issue or talk about a bill or present anything.”
Here’s the transcript of the speech:
Thank you so much for joining us tonight. You know, we had a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you’re walking out but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here, we’re all here sharing a story of love.
We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post because this message needs to be spread far and wide, OK?
Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show. This wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men [and] women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.
Last night, lying in bed, as I listened to my partner’s steady breathing, I wrote: “I’m feeling helpless.” It hit me like a bag of cement to the chest. But I can’t lie, that’s the sentence that’s been whirling around my head for weeks now.
What’s making me pay attention to it now? I’m not sure. The election? The news that feels straight out of a horror film? What’s happening in North Dakota? Trump’s cabinet being a long list of white supremacists and bigots? My own questioning as I watched my timeline blow up after Fidel’s death?
I’m wondering: Am I doing enough? Is writing enough? Can story really change the world or effect change?
I’ve been known to say that statistics do little or nothing to sway people, story does… But does it? It’s terrifying to think that it can’t when I’ve invested so much in it.
I think of these lines in the essay “To A Truth That Yet Could Be” by Ryka Aoki in The James Franco Review:
But what is the role in such community of the artist? I’m no healer. I’m no facilitator. I write stuff. And my truth?
Nothing I write can make a white, womyn-born-womyn accept a trans lesbian of color, nor force a bigoted family to offer a decent Christmas to their queer child. Nothing I write will stop the rage of a bully who thinks trans women like me should die. Nothing I write will block the bullets flying in an Orlando nightclub. My best writing can’t even stop a Texas school from keeping a child out of the bathroom.
At this point, I am so tempted to protest, “until it does.”
Of course, I believe it’s possible for a poem to change the world—but then again, I also believe in the benevolence of the Buddha. And justifying or measuring the value of art in terms of timely substantial change is much like burning incense so you can win jackpots in Las Vegas or be cured of whatever is ailing you.
It’s just not going to work that way.
Instead, what preserves my sanity rests so much upon understanding the limitations of what I can do. There is a difference between curing and creating, between correcting an unjust culture and presenting alternative storylines that offer, if not justice, at least some vitality, connection, inspiration, or even hope.
Of course, the truth does not set you free. But through poetry, through art, one can envision ways to process the truth, to show that it is possible to resist to the truth—to create alternative narratives and show that “the truth” is an invariably an emperor without clothes.
I’m no more and no less self-involved as the next person. I keep going back to that Abani TED Talk: “the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion…” But shit, there have been days when my faith has waned.
I’ve been accused of being an idealist. Told I need to come back to earth. I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend RD. He was such a pessimist. He insisted he was a realist. I told him he had to give people, the world a chance. He believed people were out for themselves, that no one really cared about anyone else. He wondered why a woman like me could be single: “You’re beautiful. Any man would give anything to have you.” He blamed my being single for ten years on me. When I told him I wanted to love and be loved, he waved me off. “Love doesn’t exist,” he said. “That’s the bullshit story they sold you.”
RD killed himself this summer. It wasn’t his first attempt. This time he threw himself in front of a 4 train. He was committed to dying.
I think about the kind of helplessness that takes you there…
I haven’t been writing much. I’ve been brooding. Mulling shit in my head. Listening to those voices that have become shouts. They’re all over the place, but what they come down to is this: What are you doing, Vanessa, and is it enough?… Are you enough?
I remember that darkness I went into when my brother died. And I remember the day that I decided I wanted to be well.
I was reading voraciously about grief and depression. Books like Unholy Ghost—Writers on Depression; I read essays and articles and studies. Then something shifted one day in April while I was on my way to therapy. I was on the B train crossing the Manhattan Bridge. The day was that kind of sunny and crisp that only happens in early spring when the earth hasn’t yet exploded with green but is about to, and you can’t help but smile at the tiny green shoots pushing up through the brown. You smile because you know what’s coming—life.
I was reading yet another essay on depression. The author wrote about how bad it got for her, how deep she sunk that she thought about offing herself to make it stop. Suddenly, I thought (I may have even said it out loud), “I don’t wanna kill myself!” and I slammed the book shut. I finally really understood those lines in Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.”
I did want to be well. I wanted it more than anything. ~Do You Want to Be Well: Lessons From Grief
I still want to be well. I still want it more than anything…
And as is the way of the universe, she leans in to remind me that I’ve been here before. That I will get out of it. That I will be well…
Earlier today I reached out to a friend on FB who writes about her struggles with depression and anxiety. I wrote:
When I’m depressed, I’m an asshole. I’m irritable and short-tempered and mean…
She wrote: Yes, because you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to see outside yourself. You snap and rage because you are tired and in pain.
That’s when I first saw it…the root of this irritability that’s made me lash out and in turn get quiet–sadness and grief.
She reminded me: DEPRESSION LIES!
She reminded me to do something. “You feel like you can’t move–but you can.” So I moved. I sat in front of my computer in my writing room, where I have pictures of my brother and my Millie to my left and a copy of my first novel to my right. And I started writing.
She said: It’s okay to be scared and it’s even okay to be sad. One thing to remember is that this will pass. And forget all the reasons you’re supposed to be happy–telling yourself that makes you feel guilty for not being happy and that’s not cool.
She reminded me: A whole new environment can shake you–even if it’s for the better because it’s unknown.
She wrote: Sometimes depression is just something that amplifies fear and sadness and ugliness. It robs you of your ability to see through. Being empathic makes that shit worse because we are all scared. And you soaking all of that up. And what does a fighter do with fear? She fights. Becomes aggressive. But there’s no real fight actually happening. So pent up aggression and anger and frustration–like a caged wolf pacing.
That visual struck me–the caged wolf pacing. That’s so me right now. It’s been me for weeks now.
I confessed: One of the things that has been whirling in my head is just that: am I doing enough? Are stories really that important? Look at the state of the fuckin world…why does writing matter? Some days I know how to answer that. It’s scary when I can’t.
She reminded me: You write for yourself. The stories are not meant to be earthquakes but small waves. Those waves echo and reverberate a lot longer. I know and even that–the change happens slowly. Remember all those people at Capicu telling you that it is your teaching that got them through?
Remember that not being “enough” is a lie depression tells you because of fear. It’s okay to be afraid of not doing enough but you have to remember–you are a human being filled with emotions and life and responsibility. You do what you can do–that is more than enough. More than enough.
I didn’t know I needed I that, her, but I did. Because here I am. I am writing. And as I write, I’ve been looking back on the writing I’ve done over this year and I came upon this from Week 17 of the Relentless Files:
Shortly after posting my last Relentless essay this past Monday, someone posted a meme on FB that resonated so profoundly, I mentioned it to my therapist today after telling him about the serious bouts of anxiety I had all week and how shame kept coming up for me. I took out my phone so I could read it to him (I’d saved it in my pictures to remind myself when I needed reminding):
My therapist got that thoughtful look on his face where he swallows his lips and creases his brow. He asked, “So how does that make you feel?” I leaned back and said, “Like I’m not alone. Like I can take it easier on myself now that I know that it’s a result of past traumas.”
Ken nodded. “Is that all?”
“That I should be patient with myself.”
He nodded again and said, “You are dealing with trauma and shame you’ve been carrying for a long time. You’ve stored it in different places in your body. And now you’ve decided to deal with it. I’d say that’s very brave, Vanessa.”
I don’t feel particularly brave today. I know that I almost didn’t write this essay. I almost didn’t try. I almost let myself be sucked into the whirl. Instead, I sat down and I reached out and I tried…and I’m glad I did.