Wednesday, 19 November 2014


I was sorting through a box of childhood mementos that had been stored in my parents' attic for 15 years and found the dinosaur I referenced in my post about coincidences.

I also found a piece of nostalgia which reminded me of another story about taking something that didn't belong to me.  My sister and I took a nature day camp one summer.  Our camp counselor was named Randy Weiss and we both had schoolgirl crushes on him.  He seemed much older than us at the time but now I realize he was probably not even 20.  He took us all on a walk through the woods near the nature center, pointing out this and that in the forest.  At one point I bent over and picked up this interesting looking pinecone.  Randy commented that the pinecone looked like Tom Thumb.  I kept it in my hand for the rest of the walk.

Near the end of the trail Randy said, "Remember to put back Tom Thumb.  We always want to leave nature just how we found it."  But my pinecone had been anthropomorphized.  I couldn't leave Tom Thumb alone in the woods in the impending dark night, now.  I put him in my pocket and brought him back to his new home in the suburbs, feeling at once guilty that I had betrayed nature, and pleased that I had rescued a friend.

I suppose 15 years in an alternately frigid and sweltering attic may not have been preferable to him over being slowly churned back into the soil from which he sprang.

Thursday, 23 October 2014


Except that, despite all I said earlier, still one day each week I feel respite.  Thursday.  For four hours I was happy.  I love my people, I love my place, I love everything about being there from preparing and joking around in the hours before, to serving our patrons, to eating dinner with friends new and older, to cleaning the dirty tables and counters we've all created after everything is over.

Half an hour after coming home I was crying again but for four hours I was happy and that's not nothing.

Some of the flower vases that my dear friend Jane put together today from the church garden, as she does every week, to brighten our dining tables.

On Lost Joy

My life has gotten circumstantially better this year.  I've solidified friendships, found a beautiful community and place to serve.  I've enjoyed vastly improved health.  A year or two ago I needed a wheelchair for a grocery store trip but that chair has been folded away and collecting dust for most of the year.  In 2012 and much of 2013 I needed nursing student assistants to drive me to appointments and help with errands; for perhaps six months I didn't drive a car myself once. This year I drive every day. By all accounts I should be happy.

And yet, if I could identify a time in which it began, sometime around August of 2013, I lost joy. For 32 years I considered myself, and described myself as, someone who found deep and unbridled joy in simple things. My tiny, bedroom-sized back yard has been an endless source of pleasure for me for the five years I've been here. I spent hundreds of hours just sitting, watching my cats, watching my little garden grow, watching the tiny insect world that we usually ignore in the soil beneath our feet.  This year I threw some seeds into the ground and most of the results are withering on their stalks.  I don't care.  I didn't spend a single night outside this summer lying on my back and staring at both the stars and at the technological feat of our manmade satellites with the utter astonishment and wonder that gazing into the depths of our deep, dark universe had never failed to elicit in me.

For 6 years I described metalsmithing as one of the top three passions of my life. The forming of beauty from cold hard metal in my hands was intoxicating and satisfying and meaningful and a gleaming bright spot amidst a hard life. In December of this year after a failed art show at a local gallery I lost interest. I have found little pleasure in it since, have struggled to work at all, have let dozens of requests for custom pieces in my shop go unanswered and ignored, and take days to force myself into my studio to fill the orders I do allow my shop to get. A request for a replenished inventory from a gallery nearby would once have driven me to work for hours, but that was months ago now and I haven't made a single piece.

I haven't had a truly severe panic attack in over a year and anxiety, not depression, had always been my psychological struggle. For decades, for my whole life, I was capable of and frequently experienced a level of terror that I have never been able to find words to capture. Panic and fear so complete and saturating that everything that made me Ellen became temporarily but totally replaced by primal terror. I haven't felt that at all this year, even in reaponse to the few episodes of severe physical symptoms that I have had.  My health has always been the most potent trigger of anxiety that exists.  I should be thrilled.

Last week I felt some relief. I worked hard for the first time in months. I felt replenished by friends. As I drove on the open road for a time I felt happy. I thought to myself, "this is the first time I have felt joy this year."  But it faded quickly.

I have always felt deep loneliness, fear, and sadness circumstantially, yes.  But this apathy, this unrelenting despair, this hopelessness, the hysterical crying, this loss of joy, this ache of sadness that is physically uncomfortable, they are new and they do not feel like me. I have told therapists for 15 years that depression has never been my problem. What HAPPENED to me?  I search and search.

 Is it circumstantial? Did 32 years of loneliness and illness and failures and a decade with a partner who himself found joy elusive finally become too exhausting and cause a collapse into malaise? Did I just lose energy to fight after fighting for so long?

 Is it a medication I'm taking?  Benzodiazepines are well known for causing depression and suicidal ideation with daily use and I have been taking a modest dose of one since my health crisis in 2012. My psychiatrist seems unconcerned because of the low dose but I wonder if it has ironically numbed my panic only to leave me frequently dwelling on the relief of death.

 Was it a hormonal or physiological shift that came as I entered my 30s?

Was the realization that even at a relative level of good health I will still be distracted every day by some degree of illness what filled me with defeat?  For so many years I hoped that I would soon find a treatment that gave me my life back but last year as my health improved I realized that I will never, ever, in all my life, be totally free of my broken DNA and its insistence on having a say in my plans.

In have left my life in shambles around me partly due to this apathy and partly in a desperate attempt to identify and eliminate a cause. I don't know what has happened or what to do or where to turn for an answer nor do I even know if I have the strength to truly search.

Saturday, 11 October 2014


We live in a time and place in which nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce.  Divorce is essentially commonplace; certainly I know and am related to many people who have experienced the ends of their partnerships.  Yet, despite how much divorce surrounds us, I think there is still a sense of shame or embarrassment that keeps it from being talked about with true openness.

I knew that divorce would be hard, and I knew that it wasn't what I had hoped for in my life or for my marriage, but I was completely unprepared for how intensely awful it would be. 

As I've written before, I have been taken by my health on several occasions to the precipice of what I could physically endure.  Nothing has topped the combined physical and psychological suffering of those times, but from a purely emotional perspective this is far and away the most painful thing I have ever experienced.  I have never felt more of a sense of grief.  I feel as if I blew my life into a million pieces and now have to find the energy to reassemble them into a semblance of a new life as someone with a chronic illness and in the midst of grieving all I lost when I made the decision to leave my marriage.

I know that the depth of my sadness sometimes seems confusing to the people who care about me, because I chose this fate for myself and I chose it for considered reasons.  But nobody hopes for their marriage to end.  Divorce is a loss of a shared history and dreams of a future.  Divorce is a loss of inside jokes and companionship.  Divorce is a total restructuring of a life.  Divorce is the loss of a commitment.  It's the loss of the person one hoped to either hold or be held by at the moment of death.  Divorce is coming home to a house in which the only sound is the ticking of the clock.  Divorce for me is needing to find out how to financially support myself for the first time in 10 years, as a person with a chronic illness.  It is accepting a new loneliness into one's life.  Divorce is losing a vision of a structured future and being left feeling adrift and uncertain.  Divorce feels like the failure of deep and focused effort to save something that was precious.

During the first few weeks I was almost unable to leave bed and I cried often and hysterically.  I am gradually gaining some footing but waves of grief still find me every day.  A sudden vision of the long and hard work I will have to find the energy to do to sustain independence.  The realization that randomly hits me as I stand in my kitchen that my ex and I watched every episode of Mad Men together but we will watch the ending separately.  Terrible loneliness in the evenings when I am alone in my home.

This is not to say that my life is free of good, or that nothing of value has resulted from my separation.  Ahead of me is the chance to discover autonomy and independence if I can take it.  I have the opportunity to build a future that aligns with my visions.  More friends have reached out to me than I ever, ever expected would in a crisis and I appreciate and value this unbelievably.  There is love in my life, and support.

But now, as I want other people who are facing separation to know, the sense of being adrift, frightened and lost still frequently outweighs a feeling of certainty in my independence, and is only very slowly ebbing to make way for the strong person I hope that I someday will be.

Sunday, 24 August 2014


It's hard for me to convey how much having a chronic illness saturates one's life; or mine, anyway.  And I know other ill people lament the same, because I've commiserated with them about it.  Every single hour of every single day of every year after year after year, I am constantly aware of some level of discomfort and illness.  Always.  I never escape it completely.  How do I explain that?  I am always distracted to some degree by my body.  When a caring person asks me how I'm doing and I say, "ok" or "not bad" it's a
relative.  I'm never good or great, physically.  The constant mental vigilance required and active maintenance my body needs every day is tiring.  Sometimes I just want a break from it.  I want relief.  But I can't have one.

That realization itself is exhausting.  For many years there was a mostly subconscious feeling that I'd just have to endure feeling bad long enough to reach wellness - a lot like how many of us spend much of our lives looking forward to and waiting for that unrealizable time when things are perfect and we can finally relax and enjoy living - but eventually there is the awareness that this is it, forever.  I will always inhabit this body.  As children we are told that we can have anything if we try hard enough to achieve it, but in fact we can't.  It's startling to realize that truth.

I carry on, I know things could be worse, and a person adapts to a degree, but I have moments, like this one, in which I just want a break, just want relief, just want one day in which I don't have to think about it, feel unwell at all.

Monday, 4 August 2014


These are the three biggest coincidences I've experienced in my life thus far.  Names have been changed to protect the innocent, except of course mine, because I was not innocent in two of the incidences.  They all took place during my youth and I recall them through that lens.

1. As a child, my family and I were vacationing on a very tiny island in Maine.  We needed directions to somewhere, a beach perhaps or a restaurant.  My father spotted a bicyclist on the side of the road, towing a child in a seat in the back.  We slowed to a stop and my dad opened his window and indicated to the man that he had a question.  The man stopped.  My father asked him for directions and received them, and then he said, "I see you're wearing a University of Michigan shirt.  What is your connection?" My father had attended graduate school there.

"I have a graduate degree in anthropology from Michigan."

"No kidding," said my dad.  "I'm head of anthropology at Penn State.  One of our professors whom I hired got a graduate degree at Michigan.  John Doe.  Do you know him?"

"I was students with him!" said the man.  "Hey there's a park down the street.  Let's pull into there and talk some more."

We did.  The adults talked.  My sister and I played with John's daughter, a bit younger than my sister.  After a time John invited us to have dinner at his home.  We accepted and followed him there, to the gorgeous summer house they owned above a rocky Maine beach.  His wife was out somewhere and would be back soon.  Until that time we walked down to the beach and picked through the rocks and tide pools for mussels, which we would later steam and eat for dinner.

After some time had passed, his wife came home home with their other daughter, my age.  They came to join us by the waves.

"Nice to meet you.  I'm Beth Deer," she said, using her maiden name to introduce herself to my parents.

"Beth Deer?"  My father said.  "You grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland on 123 Maple Lane.  Your mother had breast cancer as did mine, and your brother had heart open heart surgery."

We, all of us, even us kids, stood and stared agape at the two of them.

"Yes," Beth said.  "How did you know that?"

"I'm Ken Weiss.  We lived next door to each other until I was 6."

Their eldest daughter and I became pen pals for years, they visited us on a few occasions, and our family has stayed in touch with theirs at least occasionally, for all the years since.

2. I was playing with my neighbors (all boys, and all a part of nearly every day of a the first decade or more of my life).  We were in the basement toyroom in one of their homes.  For reasons that I can't remember, I put an appealing tiny plastic dinosaur from his toy collection into my pocket.  I am not sure why I fell in love with this little dinosaur.  He felt like some little friend I suppose. I believe it was a brontosaurus, green.  Small.

One summer afternoon my sister and I, as we usually were then, were entertaining ourselves in my mother's office at work for the afternoon while she did lab work on another floor of the building.  We had run through our usual list of activities, which I realized only later must've been incredibly annoying for everyone else working on the floor; pushing each other up and down the hall in our mom's office chair, playing teacher using the blackboard, etc.

Eventually I pulled a piece of blank white paper out of my mother's printer and used my colored pencils to start an oft-repeated game I'd play with myself.  I drew a birds-eye landscape on which my little dinosaur would exist.  I'd color in some blue ocean on the edge, stipple some sand on a beach, draw foliage for him to eat.  I would narrate his activities and the circumstances of his life in my head, writing a story about him.  On this day I drew a bush and on the bush drew red fruits.  To myself I said, the dinosaur lives out here on this island.  He eats those berries which provide perfect nutrition for him.  Nobody can come and get them from him because they rot very quickly if they're taken off of the tree.  They taste like bananas and they only grow here.  I moved him around his little paper island, making him swim in the sea and feast on his fruits.

My mother brought us home in the afternoon and after dinner I went to my room to play or create.  I was sitting at my desk (the same one I now use to make jewelry) and and NPR was on the radio in the background as it was every evening.

A segment began on pawpaws, the fruit.  As the commentator spoke, I sat in increasingly stunned silence and felt chills.  He explained that the pawpaw is almost nutritionally perfect for humans.  It has a banana-like taste and cannot be sold easily in markets because it rots quickly after being picked making it hard to transport.  It is rare and grows only in a few select geographical locations.

I wish I could re-find an archive of this piece because I could occasionally wonder if this one of all the coincidences was a dream.  Except that it wasn't.  I sat in almost afraid silence as he perfectly repeated the characteristics of the fruit I had invented, and the little dinosaur still lives in a box of old toys in my parents' attic.

3. I did not make a habit of theft nor do I now, but I realized while writing these that two involve childhood theft. I guess it is another coincidence that coincidences occurred involving the only two incidents of theft I can recall of my youth.

I was playing Barbies with my best friend in her basement as we often did. She had an extensive collection of accessories for them and one of them was a set of small plastic Coke bottles. As a child I was captivated by the realistically miniaturized. I did not like toys that were chunky, brightly colored, caricaturized versions of adult items. I wanted them to be perfectly realistic smaller versions. I wanted my babydoll stroller to look like a child sized version of the same thing.  I wanted my play food not to be chunky wooden representations, but detailed and realistic replications.  These Coke bottles looked like the real thing, transparent syrupy brown and the size of a child's little finger.

Soda was rare in our house and I found the little bottles to be tantalizingly irresistible, and reminders; I could imagine tasting the cola inside them. I slipped one into my pocket.

That evening my parents brought me to a dinner party at the home of some work colleagues. I was sent downstairs to spend time with their daughter whom I didn't know at the time because she was a few years older than me (though she now lives a few doors away from me and I adore her).  We went to her room and hanging from her wall above her bed was a corner set of shelves, each little compartment holding a miniature.  I of course went to examine what she had.  I can't remember what else was on the shelf; I should ask her.  But what I do remember is that in one of the bottom shelves was a tiny six pack of Coca-Cola in a little cardboard box, just like those that real six packs came in then.  Except that one of the bottles was missing. She'd lost it, she said. And the bottles were identical to those my other friend had.  And the one I'd stolen was still in my pocket.  I took it out, and put it into the six pack, completing the collection, and some circle of coincidental absolution.

A Girl Adrift

I'm a girl adrift, a girl at sea.  I always have been and one day I want to make peace, learn to float on the tides of my soul, the energy of the world, stop searching so frantically for anchors and firm ground when all such things are temporary in any case.  Drifting is life, through time and space and thought.  Or it is at least for me, this girl at sea.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

I feel guilty when I photograph flowers.

I feel guilty when I photograph flowers.

I don't object to it universally, but this era is one in which originality in arts of all kinds is sought and revered above all else; far above aesthetics or simple beauty, both of which are often completely irrelevant now, perhaps even detracting from the perceived talent of the artist.  Unaccompanied beauty often won't be noticed.

The world doesn't need more pictures of flowers.  What has been more photographed?

(Other than selves, in blurry bathroom mirrors.)

The pressure, in my own craft as a silversmith, and in my hobby as a photographer, to create what is unique, original, not done before, feels so intense that I feel guilt and a sense of failure, for not having adequately met it.

I wonder if I can somehow shake the guilt I feel in finding happiness in capturing, creating, and revelling in nothing more than what is beautiful.  It's alright to do so, isn't it?

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Seeking Community

This afternoon I went to St. Andrew's Episcopal Church to act as a volunteer for their Thursday evening Community Cafe which serves a free dinner for anyone who needs it. The food is donated each week by Wegmans and Trader Joe's.

I had already made a connection with a long time member of the church a few weeks ago, a 60ish woman who immediately adopted me and has done everything she can to welcome me to whatever activities at St. Andrews interest me.

Tonight was meaningful for me for many reasons, and one of them is that it was new for me to participate in a community activity at all and to do so was so good.  The people I worked with were spectacularly friendly, and they came from everywhere; Episcopalians, Catholics, a sullen high schooler fulfilling community service hours, whatever I am, two young Mormon missionaries who come every Thursday to help and who were probably the most immediately kind people I have ever met.  The amazing meal that was created was presided over this week by an Italian chef and a professional caterer.

It was beautiful because it was communal.  There was no real hierarchy; everyone worked together with upbeat focus to prepare a gorgeous meal.  People who needed a meal were fed food that truthfully rivaled the best one could find in this town and it was a real illustration that there are ways to be a person who doesn't just believe in adding dignity to the world, but to act like one.  I personally don't want to be someone who only ideologically believes in compassion.

And the handmade lemon custard cream puffs that I helped assemble were to die for.  One of the volunteers proposed immediate marriage to the chef upon tasting them. ;)

If it sounds like I'm patting myself on the back a little, I am.  It is typical for me to feel lonely, and to espouse my values of compassion, and atypical for me to be brave enough to leave my home and involve myself. I am pleased that I did so, and that in one night I learned so much about how a person can direct their life differently than I have, if they want to.

 I will go back as many Thursdays as I can.  When I am well, I will help cook and bus tables and when I am not, I will sit quietly with the Mormon Sisters and cut fruit and vegetables for salad and learn about their lives.

I crave community and connection and I felt so completely welcomed tonight and I hope everyone who ate with us felt the same.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

On Balancing Hope

I don't know if all societies are as obsessed with "hope" as we are, and I don't know if the obsession with hope is modern or ages old.  In my mind, our blanket encouragement to "never give up hope," to think of hope as ever and always virtuous, a sign of strength and courage, neglects to recognize a complicated dance.  Hope can be sustaining, hope can be the very last wisp of worth left for a person to grasp to in their life.  Hope too can cause pain.  It can be a way to deny and turn away from grief and pain, in others or in oneself, and thereby prevent acknowledgment of real or inevitable loss and the preparations - practical, emotional, interpersonal, spiritual - that come with it.  Sometimes, in my opinion, hope should be released to make way for an embracing of reality; or perhaps what I mean is that hope for one thing must be replaced with hope for another: That of finding peace with what is or what will be.

I do not know if it has been borne from life in a western world in which premature death and suffering is now rare and thus we are unaccustomed to grief and pain, or if it is ages old, but I see our obsession with hope, with "staying positive," to be a way of letting our discomfort with pain and grief shape our reactions to it, leaving those who suffer sometimes feeling muted, disallowed from expressing the reality of their life experience in both its beauty and misery.

I wish that we could reexamine our feelings about unobservant positivity, and acknowledge the complexities of hope and the entire scope of living as human.  I think that facing and exploring pain is a part of becoming a fully whole and grown human, and I think that sometimes reaching for (hoping for?) that peace instead, that understanding and growth, is healthier than clinging to hope for the improbable or impossible.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

On Retirement

I wrote this for and read this at my parents' retirement party in December.  I believe that those we love should be acknowledged in life, not just at funerals.

When I was a child, I sometimes resented my father.  He has always been deeply absorbed by his work and for much of my childhood he was magnetically drawn to his computer, always working on something that had great importance to him, but to my sister and me was just something else that kept him from playing with us.

But after adolescence, as I grew into an adult myself, and stopped needing a parent who wanted to play Barbies with me, I began to be able to see him as a separate and whole human being.  Over the years since leaving childhood, my father has become the person whose mind and intellect and ethics I admire more than anyone else in this world, and I hope that he knows this.  My father is a man who, whether you share his positions or not, has always dedicated himself to trying to view every situation as rationally and fairly as possible.  My father is a man who gives the people around him the benefit of the doubt.  He is a man who has never strayed from his mission to view science as rationally, thoughtfully and deeply as he can, even when that means questioning his own previously ascribed to paradigms.  He is a man who has never lost his childlike curiosity, his interest in learning more, soaking in more, whose book list is always miles long.  For that reason, especially, talking to my father has never been boring.

And so although he may never have known exactly how to dress a Barbie doll, his eager delight to fold me, my sister and my mother into the cerebral part of himself through conversation over the years has shown me that his family is indeed fiercely important to him.

My mother Anne will be retiring in practice as well.  As children, my mother was our primary caretaker and worked part time, always home to receive us when we arrived after school.  This is how I knew her for most of my childhood, as the person who worried and nurtured and listened and soothed me and my sister more times and in more ways than we could possibly count.  I have a chronic illness that has deeply affected my life, as many of you know, and her mothering has thus had to continue in ways that I am grateful for though wish were not needed; she should have left interrupted nights behind when her kids finished being newborns but instead she has woken to help me through sickness hundreds of times since.  She has kept me company in the emergency room, made me one meal after another when I was so sick that finding anything to tempt my appetite was almost impossible; she has advocated for my medical needs.

But a mother isn't all she is.  After my sister and I left home, she began to come into her own as a scientist in her own right.  As she and my father began to work more closely together on books and papers, their blog, and other endeavors of scientific research and thought, I saw an intellectual blossoming and growing passion in her. I have been so pleased that this post-mothering phase of her journey was able to turn into a time in which she was able to nurture other aspects of her life that are stimulating to her and that honor her deeply held set of values and ethics; one of which has also been the commitment that she shares with my father to keeping an open and thoughtfully critical eye on science.  I look forward to seeing where this new part of her path takes her.

My parents' work has never been just work. It is part of their intellectual life, their passion, and part of the spark that has kept them vibrant all these years, and you all have been a part of that.  So, let us celebrate these two people who have contributed to many lives in many ways, who are unusually and uniquely thoughtful; who have always dedicated themselves to trying to practice science as science should be practiced.  I hope that I have inherited their same endless curiosity and drive to continue reevaluating life, the universe, and everything, for I believe it keeps this journey we are on constantly fresh and constantly fascinating.  I love you both.