Living With My Demons

IMG_0952“Silence arrests flight, so that in its refuge, the need to flee the chaos of noise dimishes.  We let the world creep closer, we drop to our knees, as if to let the heart, like a small animal, get its legs on the ground.”

– Barbara Hurd, “On Silence”

 Well over forty years ago, just after my son was born, I slipped into a nasty period of postpartum depression.  I had trouble going to sleep and when I did, awoke way before dawn with my mind in a tangle of troubled thoughts. I cried most of the time, found it hard to get in the shower, and to get dressed. I sought out a therapist. He told me that I was suffering from the changes that were occurring in my life and also in my body. He gave me an antidepressant and asked me to come back in a week.

It took a while for the meds to work but I kept going back to see him for a few more weeks. He seemed to think that there was more to my dismal state of mind than just being a new mother.  He asked me several times, “What are you so afraid of?”  I was totally confused by the question and answered, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’m afraid of anything.” Thanks to the pills my mood improved. Six or so months later I gradually stopped taking them and went on with my life, adjusting to motherhood and all that it entailed.

But his question stayed with me.  Over the years I’ve asked myself that same question, knowing in some way that it was an important question for me to think about. But no answers appeared. I was locked up tight, and ignored the sound I heard somewhere in the distance of someone pounding on a door wanting to be let in. I ignored it and just wanted whoever it was to go a way and quit making a racket.

As my life went on and more than a few years passed, I slowly got closer to opening the door. It happened over the span of life lessons that we all go through as we maneuver our way through earth school.  Once I opened that old beaten down door, I began to find many answers to the therapists question. It was scary to discover all the things that terrified me and there were more than a few. I was afraid of being alone.  I was afraid of my parents. I was afraid of the pain I was feeling and I was afraid of what tomorrow might bring. I lived in dread, making up stories of what cataclysm was about to happen next and how I would get myself through it. Plan A was always at the ready, backed up by plans B, C, and D.

One day I woke up and decided that I was not living the life I wanted. It had to go. Who would want to live in fear 24/7?  Who would want to hurt that much?

I started seeking help and over the years have learned how to cope with my demons. I began inviting them in one at a time. I listened to what they had to say.  As I got to know them,I realized that what made them so terrifying was slowly ebbing away. We got to be friends. We all live together now, helping one another as new life situations arise.  The part of me that is noise sensitive knows that when the clatter gets too loud I need to seek the solace of quiet places. When I feel sadness or overwhelm approaching, I’m able to converse with them and find myself feeling lighter and happy to move on.

I still get scared. Sometimes I’m afraid of the dark, of leaving this wonderful life, of what aging has in store for me.  But I’m able to let them go. They’re just thoughts that come along like rain clouds.  They are here and then they’re gone. It’s in not letting them build up to become powerful storms that allows the sun to come out and dry up the occasional rain.

Book Review: Of Human Clay

The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests; just as the charm of music dwells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts.
~ John Greenleaf Whittier

IMG_0801It was with great excitement that I recently received newly published memoirs written by two of my friends.  The first to be delivered to my doorstep was, Of Human Clay, the making and breaking of a nun, by Aimee Wise, a lovely woman I met in 2010 at Jennifer Louden’s writing retreat in Taos, New Mexico.

It is a glorious read. I had a difficult time putting it down when I finished reading the final pages. I wanted more. It was like a delicious meal that you don’t want to end. The first words that came to mind when I finally let it go were beautiful, stunning, and heartbreaking. It’s a remarkable love story, not only between a man and woman, but also between a woman, her God, and the people she loved and served for seventeen months as a medical missionary in Malawi, one of the poorest nations in Africa.

Aimee’s story  begins with her Irish Catholic upbringing and her search for a meaningful life as she enters the convent to become a nun. She spends years preparing herself to become a medical missionary. Later, finding herself in a small, forgotten nation, living among people who have been virtually ignored by a patronizing  church, Aimee finds herself facing a patriarchal governing body regulated by Rome and its often hypocritical views of what caring for others is really all about. When she shares her thoughts with a young priest whose feelings are similar to her own, they fall in love, lost in a world of diminishing returns as they each, singularly, try to maintain their balance, vows, and the passion they feel for each other and their work.

Filled with important questions about life, love, and caring for others, Aimee’s story led me back to my own experiences as a child in the Catholic church and my families dismissal when priests in our parish discovered that my parents had been married by a justice of peace in Maryland, on Valentine’s Day in 1942. The next day my father went to war and eventually became a hero in our country’s fight to bring peace to a world at war.  Told that they were living in sin and that my brothers and I were bastards, my parents left the church never entering the doors of any religious organization again. Even as a child of eight, I felt the stigma and inaccessibility to those who wanted to teach me what and how to believe in a spiritual deity.

I highly recommend this book to anyone immersed in their own spiritual journey. It touches the essence and hearts of all of us whether we follow a traditional faith or have invented our own way of believing or disbelieving.


I will  tell you about my friend, Shirley Hershey Showalter, and her new memoir, Blush, A Mennonite Girl meets A glittering World,” as soon I’ve finished reading it. Stay Tuned.

The Velocity of Autumn

IMG_0776This past weekend we took another one day trip up to the Arena Stage in Washington, DC to see The Velocity of Autumn, a ninety-minute, one act play, by award winning playwright, Eric Coble.  And oh, what a fantastic show.  This two person play, starring Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, (Bonnie and Clyde) and two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella, (Angels in America) had me rolling in the aisles with laughter and teary eyed with sadness all at the same time.

Artistic Director at the Arena, Molly Smith, says in her program notes, “We find ourselves in the middle of some of the most powerful questions we face as human beings.  When does one step in to help a parent and when does one stay out?  What happens when family members are unequally engaged? Whose responsibility is it anyway? What happens when authorities step in? Police, social services, doctors: What is this thing we call control and how long do we get to hold onto it?  How much are we like our parents – what is nature and what is nurture?”

The play is about seventy-nine year old artist, Alexandra, and her war with her children who want to put her in a nursing home. She’s surrounded herself with explosives in bottles and jars wicked with rags, while in her hand she holds an old Zippo lighter that once belonged to her husband. Her front door is barricaded with furniture. She’s determined to be left alone, and is ready to blow herself, the building, and the whole block up if her daughter and one of her sons, send in the police to drag her away.

As the play opens Alexandra is asleep in her easy chair with classical music playing in the background. Her youngest son Chris, also an artist, climbs up the magnificently autumn colored tree just outside her large bay window. He opens the sash from the outside, climbs into the room, scaring his mother who is ready to light the fuse on one of the bottles.

Chris and his mother have not seen or talked to each other for years since he ran off to explore the world and discover who he was becoming.  Chris, commandeered by his sister and brother to help bring their mother to her senses, is greeted with Alexandra’s rage. Mother and son connect as Chris listens to her wishes to be left alone, to watch her tree grow outside her window, living in her own home of some forty years. Through shared  memories of past visits to New York’s finest art museums when Chris was small and a budding artist himself, they of begin to find balance, coming to terms with what lies ahead.

As we walked out of the theatre after the show, I told Bill, “I understand much better what my mother was going through during the last years of her life.”  About to turn seventy-one in November, this poignant discussion about aging, independence, and family, helped me to understand how quickly the autumn of our lives comes upon us and the difficulties we face when we insist upon being by ourselves as our coping skills become less than what they were.

I found myself suffering along with Alexandra, needing to be in control and left to her own devices. But as the child and caretaker of a now deceased mother, I also understood Chris and his siblings’ need to protect their parent and the community around her. Chris unlike his absent siblings, brings sensitivity to the conversation and the war comes to a close.

I remember how terrible I felt when I told my mother that it was time for her to turn over her car keys to me. She’d been visiting the body shop almost monthly to repair the dents and dings her car accumulated while she was out and about being independent. Afraid the problem might one day grow into harming another person, I asked her to give up her car. I watched her spirit shrink as she lost her independence. I’ve spent hours wondering how I will feel if and when I find myself in the same position.

Despite future possibilities, I’m enjoying my elder-hood. It is a joyous time. I have more freedom than I’ve ever had in my life. I am not an old lady who sits on her porch in her rocking as the world goes by. I’ve been around and learned some amazing things about life and survival. And I keep moving on. Should I ever face what Alexandra faced, I hope I’ll not surround myself with explosives. I’d prefer to take joy in what I have and can do to live each day as a reward for sticking it out through the bad times.

This show is on its way to Broadway.  With all the Baby Boomers coming of age, I think it will be a hit.  Don’t miss it!

They Call Me Batty



There’s a gentle sweetness to this term for crazy: it conjures up an elderly woman pottering harmlessly about the garden, hair coming undone every which way, talking to herself (or the plants or the birds), oblivious to creatures of the human persuasion. It is closer to eccentric, or deeply peculiar, than to the harsher nuts, wacko, bonkers, or bats. It is not clear why bats (or nuts) are synonyms for crazy —considering that bats have radar, their flight is anything but. Still, before people knew about the radar, bat flight must have looked, well, nuts. Batty may derive from the phrase bats in the belfry, or from the name of the prominent English physician, William Battie (sometimes Batty), who wrote a Treatise on Madness in 1758, and advocated therapeutic asylums rather than prisons for the insane. –JS


A while back, as I was doing some writing, using Scrivener, I used the word “batty” and while looking for another word to use in its place, the above Word Note flashed up on the screen. I like that about Scrivener and only wish I could master the rest of the program. I’m not terribly computer savvy. I can’t even figure it out with “Scrivener For Dummies,” parked in front of me. So later this month I’ll be taking a class with a real human being so that I’ll be able to use the program for my further writing.

But back to where I was going with this wonderful note about the word “batty.”  My grand kids call me Batty, instead of Grandma, Nana, Ma maw, Granny, Gram, or any of the other names that are assigned to most grandmothers.

Zoe, almost thirteen now, started calling me Batty as soon as she started talking and then Noah, who will be ten next week, picked it up as well. I am now known to the entire family as Batty. Even my little nieces, Anya and Julia, call me Aunt Batty.

I don’t know what made Zoe pick that name for me, but I remember that when I found out that Lisa was pregnant, I was extremely happy. Besides asking for a healthy grand baby, there was one more wish I put out into the Universe: “I just don’t want to be called ‘Grandma.’ I’m way too young for that.” I guess the Universe heard me.

Zoe and me before my hair turned grey.

Zoe and me before my hair turned grey.

I was not in the room when Zoe was born, but  waiting out in the hallway, pacing back and forth, anxious because it had been a long and arduous labor, resulting in a C-section. Later I got the chance to hold eight pound plus, baby  Zoe.  She wasn’t one of those sleepy eyed newborns that just want to be fed and go back to sleep. She was wide-awake, seemingly noticing everything around her.  When she looked up into my eyes, I thought I heard her gasp, “I know you, but can’t remember from where.” Later on I began to think she recognized something very different about me and though we’d never met before, we were members of the same clan. When she christened me, Batty, I was sure of it. I think she is the only person who truly gets me.

And about that word note up above? Yes, I do potter about the garden, talking to the plants and the birds. I am getting elderly, but I’ve still got a whole lot of living to do. My dear neighbor, Harmon, is called “Gaga,” by her grandchildren. I often suggest we write a book entitled, “The Adventures of Batty and Gaga.” I think it would be a great kid’s book about grandmothers and how magical they can be. I would love to have purple hair in the book. And Harmon’s hair has to be fuchsia with yellow highlights! 🙂

June, 2013

June, 2013

P.S.  I just had the pleasure of spending the past week with both Zoe and Noah here in my home without their parents. It was a great time. We swam, saw movies, laughed, giggled, and even disagreed once or twice. I could relate to Noah being homesick. I clearly remember the painful days when I was a kid and was sent to spend time with my grandparents. I so wished I could make his pain go away.  On our last day together, while Noah went to see “Super Man,” with Uncle Mark and Granddaddy, Zoe and I went to lunch, had pedicures, and did some shopping.  When we got back into the car she said, “I’m soooo happy.  Thank you so much.”

It is to Zoe and Noah that I owe my thanks for stepping into my “Batty” world for a week and allowing me to observe life through their eyes. When Bill helped with a few extra dollars so that Noah could buy a book he wanted badly, he asked Bill to call me, so that Zoe and I might have the same deal.  He deeply believes in being fair, and doesn’t want his sister to lose out. I just love it!

P.P.S. Some may say I‘m a bit peculiar and a bit eccentric, but I’m far from crazy. Zoe is not yet “batty,” but one day, when she grows into the wild woman she’s destined to be, I’m sure she will be as batty as I am. But never crazy.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

P.P.P.S. After reading this Lisa reminded me that Zoe weighed in over ten pounds.  It was my son, Mark, who was 8+ pounds and his birth was also by C-section.  Must run in the family.



Picking And Choosing


Acrylic on Paper, Untitled, © Joan Z. Rough

Heaven and hell are not some places I’m going to go to later on.  Heaven and hell are here, right now, and I create them for myself with my choices.

Hae Doh Gary Schwocho
Beneath Belief

Driving in Ireland is quite frightening for me. It’s one of those places where you drive on the left rather than on the right side of the road as we do here in America. It can also be very difficult to figure out where I’m going. I’m not always good at reading maps. When I reach a crossroads there are usually road signs pointing to the nearest village, but more often than not, the signs may have been spun around by the wind and I can easily be lead astray. Many an hour has been taken up in my travels on that magical Emerald Isle, backtracking … trying to find my way to where I’m supposed to be. Fortunately it’s always a beautiful drive along the way.

And so it is with life. Crossroads are always in front of me and road signs are rare, if they exist at all. One minute I’m in a state of bliss. The next moment can take me on the most terrifying journey I’ve ever imagined. Taking one road over another can sometimes make a big difference. It’s always a hit or miss situation. Though I may get to my destination in the end, one way may be full of boulders and potholes, while the other way may be a straight shot on a newly paved surface.

I try to follow my intuition most of the time. But I’m not perfect at it in any sense of the word. Moving to Virginia from Vermont was one of the best choices I ever made. Up north I felt at the end of my rope. I felt I had seen every horizon that existed. I didn’t enjoy the part every winter when the snow was deep, the winds would howl, and I’d get very depressed. I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder, a problem brought on by lack of enough hours of natural daylight during the shortest days of the year.

Here, in Virginia, the road has indeed been tough at times.  Though it was especially hard to move, my world suddenly opened up to new possibilities.

And talk about making choices … we’re close to Washington, DC, where things change or not, depending on how the Senate or the House are feeling on any given day. But right here in Charlottesville there are more educational possibilities at my fingertips and a much more diverse community than I found up north, close to the Canadian border.

The weather here is most agreeable until summer comes along and cooks me with its heat and humidity. I’ve been here for 35 years, and I’m finally getting a bit used to it. Gone are the days of my winter depressions. The only weather bit that sometimes gets to me are summer heat waves when going outside is torture. But summer here is much shorter than winter in Vermont, so less suffering.

Pick and Choose

Which to choose?

But it’s somehow the day-to-day choices that don’t seem to have a great impact on my life that get me in trouble … placing me on the hot seat within spitting distance of hell. Simple choices, like what to eat when I’m feeling I need a bit of energy. Will it be protein or sugar?  Usually it’s sugar. Should I do my hour of exercise in the morning when I have more energy? Or can I make myself do it at four PM when when I have some free time?  If it’s not done by noon, it won’t happen at all.

And so it goes. There are always questions to be answered and choices to make.  Should I hang out with Louise, even though she sucks all of my energy away? And exactly why don’t I tell Steve that I don’t want to see him any more?

When I do nothing about the things that really bother me and just let them be, no matter how much they hurt, I am making a choice. Most often doing nothing leads to the stress and anxiety I’ve already been suffering from. And because I’m afraid of what might happen if I don’t call Louise and invite her to lunch, or tell Steve, that I don’t love him, nothing changes. That is the kind of the choice that will most likely lead me to hell right here and now. The deed not done, is done.

But if I let go and decide not to invite Louise to fill me with her doom and gloom over a healthy salad, or tell Steve the truth about how I feel, there are also consequences. Those two people will be gone from my life and maybe I will miss them. Maybe I won’t be able to find another guy that is attractive to me, and I to him. Maybe there won’t be another Louise to whom I can tell my deepest, darkest secrets. But then, just maybe, I’ll be happier and feel free to go about my life the way I choose to.

Making choices always has consequences. Some are good. And some might be bad … at least for a while. Making choices means making changes in what fits in my life and what doesn’t. Maybe I’ll be lonely for a little while until I find just the right guy. But if I keep hanging on to someone who doesn’t naturally make me want to sing and dance with him, I won’t be happy ever.

When decision times come along, I always try to ask myself what the consequences will be. If I remain where I am, will I be happier or does the alternative have more promise?  Yes, it’s hard, but without change where would I be?

How about you? Are choices hard for you to make? How do you handle those monumental crossroads? What helps to move you along and out of the reaches of hell?