A soft breeze has the jasmine leaves fluttering; two small butterflies hop and dart: this flower, no this one. Sunbeams keep swirling around on the quiet greenery—there’s all this distracting sparkling going on, and working at my desk seems a tragically leaden, light-deprived activity for such an ethereally lovely day. I would liken the feeling to the dread I face when having to do something quotidian and unavoidable: if milk and eggs and laundry soap are in short supply, for example, it means Off I go to the dull old supermarket; add to this that on days like today, doing so requires me to stare straight ahead and march past a jewelry store window full of emerald bracelets.
“I want to say, To Hell with it, let’s go to the beach,” I grumble into the phone.
“Yeah, it would be nice…” my husband says, distracted too. He’s not really listening to me, and I know this because he never normally uses neutral words like nice, okay, or fine. Never. Not unless he’s concurrently reading an email, sautéing tomatoes, or stretching out a tight hamstring. Right now, I would not be surprised if he were doing all three, in addition to talking to me.
“Where are you?” I ask.
“Just over here, making some lunch.” (Aha.)
I say goodbye and think about my own lunch for a moment. You know, I do need to eat something. I could easily take a little outdoor break, head for the patio with a cup of tea and a tomato sandwich. Yes! That’s what I’ll do. Perhaps I’ll put on a swimsuit top and get a little sun on my shoulders. I’ll need my straw hat, too, and the sunblock and big old glasses. Might as well read a page or two while I’m out there. And take my iPod, which needs charging, so I’ll do that while I make my sandwich and tea.
My desk, which also serves as my office and meditation room, is in the corner of our little living room and is hardly an austere environment: its surface is festooned with the boys’ art projects as well as several unstable stacks of mail, magazines, and paperwork, any one of which my boy Marley could send southward with the flick of a mischievous paw. And as I walk to the kitchen, feeling guilty once again, I turn and look at my dark little desk in its shady little spot, feigning, for no-one’s benefit but my own, a soupcon of concern for that which I am about to abandon for a while. I ought to feel the way a grownup is supposed to feel, which is to say, obligated. But I don’t want to. Not really. Not today.
In my house, now as always, the urge to flee for the open air kicks in around the same time every year. The breeze is still quite cool, but its bite is offset by the sun hitting a certain level in the sky with no clouds obscuring it. This results in a delicious contrast, something like having warm strawberry tart with a mound of cold whipped cream alongside it, or stretching out in a freshly-changed bed, feeling the pleasant snowflake-chill of sheets landing on your skin as a purring heat-bomb of a cat wedges himself against your ribcage. Take this intoxicating mix of sensual treats, throw in some visual lures like skittering sunbeams and fluttering leaves, garnish with a general sense of frustration with the here and now embodied in the growing To Do lists stacked up in my head like so many planes circling in the skies above Miami International, and here you go: one full-blown serving of Spring Fever, coming up.
When suffering a fit of pique, umbrage, or ennui—or, as author Ursula LeGuin called them, the French diseases of the soul—I usually like to lace up my trainers and run away from it all. I started doing this about a year ago, when the depression I’ve suffered on and off since my teenage years had taken especially fierce hold one evening. It had been a typical day of ups and downs with the boys, and if anyone were to ask me what was making me so sad right then, I doubt I could have answered him. To put it in general terms, I felt a non-specific, pervasive sense of doom. More pointedly, I wanted nothing more than to find a dark corner of the garage in which to curl up, and then I’d weep and wail until every foul, beastly demon, every terrifying image of rope or rooftop or fistful of pills, was purged once and for all.
So that is what I did. I got the children bathed and kissed them goodnight, and I went into the garage, more accurately known as the overflow storage room. I crawled behind a tower of Rubbermaid boxes and cried so hard, I thought my heart might explode. I didn’t feel better, so I kept on; I became a perpetual emotion machine of wailing and guttural sobs that gave way to raspiness and croaking as I lost my voice against the soaked knees of my jeans.
“Have you lost your mind?” my husband was demanding from the doorway. “What is wrong? What on earth is the matter?”
And I thought, I can’t begin to tell you. I can’t even begin. I said nothing and kept crying.
Because I couldn’t point to anything in particular that was wrong. It was as if each sad thought, each bittersweet memory, regretted moment, rued relationship, and heartbreaking loss residing in my mind suddenly joined hands and started inviting all the other bits of my brain to come to the wake. The sorrow was overwhelming, like a vicious flash flood, and I was completely caught up in its currents.
And this was not the first or even the fortieth time, alas.
“Listen. You need help. Either get a doctor, or get a lawyer.”
Tough love and tough words, neither of which I have ever responded to very well in my semi-long life. I stayed put, and eventually, I hauled my exhausted self back through the door and into the kitchen, where the light was still on, along with the dishwasher. At least there was that: a clean kitchen. And a sleeping family. I sat on the sofa and waited for my own slumber, but it never came.
The boys’ doctor had been telling me to exercise. “There’s nothing wrong with anti-depressants, Deborah; with the modern ones, you can even take them for a while just to get through this difficult phase,” he said. Difficult phase. To my mind, the whole thing, the entire “phase” known as Life in These Times struck me as difficult, to use a woefully weak adjective. “There aren’t as many negative side effects to them, and I think you ought to talk to your doctor about giving them a go.” He’s assuming I ever find time to make appointments for myself, much less keep them. “But try doing this,” he continued, “Go outdoors tomorrow and run for a little while. Or take a long walk. Do it four or five times a week.”
The day after the garage-crying incident, I pulled out a pair of running shoes I’d bought months earlier and to date had only worn when traveling (they don’t set off the metal detectors). I dug through one of my husband’s drawers and found a pair of long, voluminous nylon basketball shorts—there was no way I’d be seen dead in short-shorts, not while actually moving—and an old Rolling Stones t-shirt. I hid my house keys under some shrubbery and off I went. Two blocks later (and by block I mean four houses, tops), I folded over like a human paperclip and threw up in my neighbor’s front garden. This is supposed to make you feel better? I thought.
The next day, I gave it another try. I made it to the previous day’s Vomit Point, glanced around to see if there were any horrified faces peering through windows, any small children running in the opposite direction having been warned about the Scary Throw-up Girl in the baggy hip-hop outfit, and managed to run for two more blocks before the stabbing pain in my side grew unbearable. I walked to the half-mile point I’d ambitiously predetermined using my car’s odometer, and walked back. I had just traveled an entire mile by foot—four blocks of which I’d actually run—and there had been no vomiting whatsoever.
Nothing exceeds like excess.
“How’d you do today?” asked my husband.
“I made it past Holli’s old house and walked all the way to the bridge and back,” I said proudly. In order to have an idea of the sort of accomplishment this was (in my estimation anyway), please know this: I have never, ever been any good at any sport or physical activity whatsoever.
Ballet, modern dance, jazz…those are the things that have always moved me, so to speak. That’s what I loved, that’s all I loved: dancing and tree-climbing, both of which are nothing short of deliriously enjoyable; neither of which are doable when you live surrounded by palm trees and a non-dancing husband. If it requires running, swinging a bat, or ball-throwing, count me out, or do as my classmates always did: choose me last.
Eventually, I ran a whole mile. Then I ran up a monstrous cell-phone bill calling everyone I knew to brag about it. A few weeks after that, I ordered myself a little iPod and a neoprene armband. Then I learned how to download songs onto it, nice thumpy songs with rhythm that helped me keep moving. Songs that let my mind drift ever further from the dark weight I’d been clinging to like a boulder because even as I fell off the cliff and plummeted, holding on to something felt better, or at least, more familiar to me, than letting go and floating.
So instead of lying in the sun today, I run. Run first, then you can blow off everything else and not feel quite as guilty, I lie to myself, knowing I’ll never make it to the swimsuit drawer, much less the sunny patio; there aren’t enough hours in a day.
I set my iPod to a random mix, Serve me what symphonies you will, O Tiny Electronic Goddess, and I will run to them. I run past the bayou, breathing through my mouth because when the tide is low, it gets a bit smelly there. Guns-n-Roses welcomes me to the jungle as pelicans hover over the water; Public Enemy cheers me over the bridge; David Bowie whispers in my ear as other runners wave at me, pretending to care as I pretend to care in return (I mean, get back to me later, everyone—David Bowie is whispering in my ear!).
I imagine myself as the cleverest copywriter ever. In fact, I’ll email the running shoe company the minute I get home:
Here is your new slogan: New Balance, for Your New Balance.
I love the random associations afforded by this selfish sliver of aloneness and indulgence, this interlude of actual running away from it all that has, I believe, saved my life.
What's best, though, is the joy—extraordinary in its ordinariness—that I feel when I'm outside in the light, in the world; I am moving my limbs, breathing the crisp air, and appreciating the gift of being alive. Later today, I won’t be quite as irritable when someone plasters peanut butter all over the countertop or throws a magazine at his brother or fumes about missing a favorite show because he has a project due tomorrow. When I return to my house after three or four miles, I’ll be better equipped to mount some sort of attack against the dragons and dustbunnies therein. And I’ll sit at my desk and draw new inspiration from the bouncing butterflies of distraction that meant no harm in the first place.