Tag Archives: Depression

A View of the Ball

In keeping with the theme of Childhood in America, here’s a piece about a boy struggling with vision loss in Depression-era Chicago. (A slightly fictionalized account of how my father got his first pair of glasses).

Drawing by George Ford from "Walk On" by Mel Williamson (my father)By the time Melvin was five the world had begun to fade.   It happened bit by bit in subtle ways. Lines of things once solid grew feathers; faces once withered and angled grew soft and smooth.  A golden lump in the middle of the rug stirred from a nap and became his dog.   Melvin had no language to describe to his mother and sister what was happening to him, no inkling it didn’t happen to everyone.  In 1928, routine vision checks were not performed in the public schools, not in Melvin’s public school.

Then came a day in 1931, when he was eight.  It was a beautiful day which for Melvin meant warm and light, the same day other people saw only through a scrim, a thin film of cotton.   Had it not been Sunday, it would have been a perfect day to meet the boys for a game—Melvin could run fast, even if he couldn’t see or hit the ball.  But there was no playing for Melvin on Sundays.  After church they all came home to feed the poor.   While his mother fried and baked and boiled and sautéed, Melvin and his sister would lay the banquet out on the front porch for the neighborhood children and families who had nothing—no money, no food, no father like Melvin’s father who worked six days a week (Tuesday through Sunday) as a porter on the Georgia Pacific, putting food on the table Depression or no Depression.    The poor neighbors would gather hungrily, collective gaze cast down in shame and gratitude.  Melvin was glad then, for whatever kept the world’s sharpness from his view.   He never wanted to meet the eyes of classmates who turned up.

Downstairs he heard his mother and sister chatting as they dressed, choosing hats.  His sister’s would be modest and yellow to match her dress, maybe a bit of lace and a small satin flower.  His mother’s on the other hand would be white with pink and lavender rosettes—brim half a mile wide so as not to be outdone by the other church ladies.  On the stairs now, Melvin heard the curtains swish aside, the window hinges creak, his mother inhaling deeply of the spring air.   Her assessment of the weather:

“Yes Lord; here’s a day made for praising Jesus!”

followed by his sister’s amen, which Melvin echoed entering the room.   Though he’d secretly espoused his own brand of atheism a few years earlier—(how to believe in a God who sets rich against poor, white against black, Gentile against Jew?  A God who cast a ball-playing boy’s world in fog?)—he wasn’t above feigning devotion to make his mother happy.  Her smile—especially up close, when she held his face and told him how good he was, how smart, how handsome—was one of the few things Melvin was sure his eyes still had right.

Melvin’s mother was in high spirits after church, feeling magnanimous enough to let Melvin go play ball instead of helping with the porch spread.   Down the church steps he raced, around the corner, past the library across from the empty lot.   He lunged into the street without checking for cars—there were so few in the neighborhood that looking both ways before crossing wasn’t a habit for most children.  In any case, had Melvin taken the trouble to check, what would he have seen?  In all likelihood he’d still have been hit by the 1928 Ford as it lumbered up South Parkway.   His mother would say it was a miracle he wasn’t killed, that his injuries weren’t even serious.   And no one could argue with her that He does work in mysterious ways.  In the hospital, Melvin was put through a series of tests to which he’d never have been subjected otherwise.   Including an eye exam.  A week after the accident, he was up and running as fast as ever before, only now he could hit the ball, thanks to his new eye-glasses that lifted the scrim revealing a world more detailed than Melvin could have imagined.

What are you Waiting For? Limbo vs. the Meantime.

“I’m waiting to hear.”

“I’m waiting to find out.”

“We were hoping to close before the end of the month but the buyers are stalling.”

“The doctor thinks it’s benign but we won’t have the results for another day or two.”

“My son applied to sixteen colleges.  We won’t hear until February.”

What are you waiting for?  In my case, there’s the writing-related waiting: for my teenage beta readers to finish with my YA novel so I can fix it and submit it; to hear from the couple of agents I’ve sent query letters to.  Then, there’s the family waiting:  to learn what my husband’s next job will be, to find out my daughter’s schedule, my son’s teacher—so I can get on with the back to school shopping already.  And of course, as it is for so many free-lance moms, though we’re loathe to admit it (sometimes), I’m waiting for school to start so I can get something done.  (Of course, back in June, I was waiting for summer to start so we could all relax a little!)

For review: I can’t shop until I know their schedules.  I can’t revise until I’ve gotten feedback.  Hear that message?   I can’t do X until another person does Y.   I’m in Limbo.  You’ve probably saidthat to someone recently.  If not, I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Webster’s defines Limbo (the secular definition) as “… an intermediate or transitional place or state of uncertainty.”

Limbo is a hard place to be.  Your life has been hijacked; everything is on hold, your eyes fixed on the uncertain future.  You’re a prisoner to the whims of others.  Checking your voicemail, the mailbox, the email, again, and again.  It can be a recipe for anxiety, irritability, and depression.  But guess what?  Limbo doesn’t own you.  You can choose to be free.

I know a woman who has survived cancer, bravely enduring the diagnosis and the painful, sickening rigors of treatment.  Then more treatment to make sure the first treatment really worked.    Then more tests and continued monitoring.  The waiting is never over for her, but somehow she refuses to see it that way.   “I can’t live my life in fear of the future.”  She has children who need her now; she has a husband, and a job, now.   She takes pleasure in her family and her garden, in beautiful weather and in rain, in cooking and in reading.  She gets scared sometimes, sad sometimes, and frustrated with people who try to make her dwell on illness when she’s focused on health.  But mostly she lives now, surrounded by people who love her, who appreciate her joie de vivre and who join her in the seizing of each day.  She’s grown strong on the love of life, exchanging hats for headbands, losing the headbands as hair grows back in.   Maybe one day it will be gone again, but now is what matters, her children and husband and friends.  The little things, like a phone call or an email that hasn’t come yet, some editor’s elusive approval—these wouldn’t faze her.  She may yet have all the time in the world, but she won’t waste a minute of it in Limbo.

I try my best to learn from this and I’m getting better.   When I start to get anxious and hyper-focused on the future—on the parts I have no control over (whether an agent will fall in love with my protagonist, whether I can make a feuding couple hear one another, whether my daughter will make friends in middle school)—I do a few things:

  • I sing.  In the shower, in the car, with my kids:   show tunes, the Beatles, Queen, Journey, Katie Perry, Taylor Swift, The Little Mermaid … anything.  Just sing.  It feels good, and I actually read a      study once that found singing enhances your mood.
  • I treat myself as if I were my own client.  I nurture myself, reality check, point out my own strengths or the strengths of my kids if it’s their uncertain futures I’m worrying about.
  • I breathe—like a yogi.  Full disclosure: I don’t do yoga, (the only reason being the time; if I have it to spare I’ll dance, which I never get to do enough).  However, a yogi friend of my husband’s taught him a series of deep breathing exercises, which he taught me.       And though this is third hand stuff, the deep breathing really does      help get me out of future-panic mode and back into the moment, the      present.
  • I read.
  • I connect with people I love and miss.  You know—the ones you’re too busy and angst-ridden to see?  Hearing about their lives takes you out of your own.   Cheer them on, console them if they need it, share yourself, laugh together.  Be in the moment together.
  • I think  about my mom, how she worries about me and my family just because we’re her children—how silly I think she is for doing it.  Everything is going to be fine, Mom, it really is.  And saying it to      her, I believe it.
  • I play with my kids.  Because they are the moment.
  • I hang out with my husband (oh yeah—him!)

These things are the opposite of Limbo:  they are how I make the most of the meantime.

When my father was dying, when my mother and I knew it would be soon, we were in a very trying kind of limbo.

“It’ll be any day now,” said the visiting nurse.  Any day now seemed like a pretty big margin of error.   In any case, we were in a holding pattern, as my mother described it.  We didn’t want to go too far or commit to anything.  We were determined to be with Dad when he passed.  The waiting went on for two whole weeks.

Then, the night before he died, my mother and I watched a movie together on the small TV set in the living room.  Though it wasn’t a comedy, the relief of doing something besides wait got the better of us and soon, we were both in stitches, enjoying each other, enjoying this small piece of life, though my father was leaving us gradually in the other room.*

We hadn’t abandoned him; he was in the care of a nurse who’d get us as soon as we were needed.  But during those two hours, we were free from Limbo, making the most of something beautiful in the meantime … life.

What about you?  When you find yourself in a holding pattern, what do you do to celebrate “the meantime?”

Why am I sad? Anxiety in Disguise

I’d been encouraging my normally chipper eleven year old daughter to consider getting a new dresser, a bigger one where we wouldn’t have to annex pajamas to a shelf in her closet.  I’d shown her some in catalogues—which she normally loves poring over.  But she declined, with a defiant no that seemed disproportionate.

“Okay,” I said.  “No big deal.”  Just a dresser, just a suggestion.  Then I took a risk and asked why she’d snapped at me, if something was wrong.  She might have snapped again; she might have denied that she’d raised her voice (it’s what I might have done at her age) but she didn’t.  Instead she confessed to being grumpy lately.

“And I don’t know why,” she said.

My first thought was: uh-oh, here they come: the new moods of early adolescence.  But maybe it was something more fundamental than that.  Maybe it had to do with some Really Big Changes coming up in our family.

First, after nearly a three year sabbatical, during which I wrote two novels, choreographed three children’s musical productions and began blogging, I am resuming my psychotherapy practice which will mean a shift in everyone’s schedule as well as some form of childcare.  My kids are used to me being there all of the time; now they’ll have to adjust to most of the time.  Second, my husband is in the middle of a job transition, which means some extra stress and uncertainty.  On a lesser and more predictable note, my son is turning nine, which to me feels like a bigger deal than eight (“eight” sounds little still; “nine” not so much).

But the biggest change of all, the one we’re talking about the most anyway, is that my daughter is starting middle school, which, in our town, begins in sixth grade.  It’s not just that she’s going to a new school, bigger and further away than her old one, where she’ll have to take the bus instead of walking or being driven by me.  It’s not just that she’s saying goodbye to many old friends who are going to different schools or “hello” to a whole new crop of kids she doesn’t know (and whose parents I don’t know).   It’s all of these things and more: the unknown.  For most people, anxiety—identified or not—is a big part of venturing into unfamiliar turf.  And, as I know from personal and professional experience: anxiety can feel just like depression.  Especially if you throw a little sleep deprivation into the mix.  (My daughter is still recovering from a week of sleep-away camp.)

For me the change is significant too.  Becoming the parent of a middle schooler is the start of some new and really big words.  Adolescence.  Independence.  Inevitably Increased Screen Presence.  On some level, I believe myself to be prepared.  As a family therapist, I specialize in adolescence; for the six years I worked at the former Montclair Counseling Center, about fifty percent of my clients were teenagers; about twenty-five percent were families and couples who’d come into therapy to talk about issues related to their kids and teens.  I felt confident translating between teens and their parents.  I gave talks on the teenager-parent power struggle.

I’ve had countless kids tell me they felt a certain way or were acting a certain way—and didn’t know why.  Actually, my favorite part about being a therapist is tracking feelings.  I don’t know why I’m angry; I don’t know what’s making me sad.  Even in the case where moods are truly biological or chemical in origin, there are always triggers: losses, moves or other life events that contribute (which is why therapy is always recommended along with medication!).  It’s so normal, so common to be grumpy, grouchy, sad or however you manifest stress when things are in flux.  Day to day snapping at people, nightly bouts of tears, feelings of emptiness and I-don’t-know-why listlessness—when you trace them back, it’s not surprising to find something concrete that you didn’t think bothered you all that much.

I remember when I was nineteen, on a leave from college, about to move to the Midwest for the first time to join a mid-sized ballet company.  I was excited about living in an apartment of my own for the first time, not a dorm, paying my own rent, my own utilities, groceries, such as they’d be.  The best part was that dancing with a real ballet company had been my dream for as long as I could remember; now it was coming true.  I’d have my own pointe shoe order, an amazing repertoire to learn, not to mention a paycheck—a real pay check.  But why was I feeling down?  Why these unexpected crying jags at night?  The therapist I saw at the time made her usual quizzical-sympathetic face (a face I swore never to make once I became a therapist, right up there with the phrase how did that make you feel?) as she wondered aloud whether I was having some feelings about leaving home for the first time?

“Absolutely not,” I said.  “I can’t wait to leave.  Besides, it’s not the first time; I’ve been in college (one hour’s drive away) for over a year.”    And then I began to cry anew.

Well how about that?  Maybe I did have some feelings about leaving, about dancing full-time, about living in Ohio … about all the wild and crazy new-ness, the fear that maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it all.

Most people I know, clients as well as friends and family, suppress fears and worries to a degree, just to get through the day.  But it builds.  It can makes you sad or angry if you don’t explore what’s going on and sort it out.  You take it out on others, if not yourself.

When it comes to transitions, most people have plenty of fears and worries, even if the transition is something they’re thrilled about on some level.  A move to a new house, a new job, a new baby, a new school.  All can be hugely exciting; all can increase anxiety, bring on or exacerbate depression.   In a few weeks, my daughter will have a new school, new classes, a new bus, and new peers.  A Hogwarts-like house system, a specialized arts program, an audition for the school play the second week of school.  Going from a tiny school where every teacher knows and loves her, to an enormous school where no one knows her.  Going from being the oldest in the school to the youngest.  Lots and lots of changes.  Possibly enough to make anyone grumpy.   My therapist training had given me the skills to talk about this with kids.  But those were other people’s kids.  They were in my professional realm, not my personal one.  This was my own daughter.  Since I’m her mother, I am—by status, by role, and by virtue of the fact that I make her do things like make her bed and write thank-you notes—really annoying, which cuts down on the credibility I might have had with a tween client her age.   I had to choose my words and tread more carefully, wanting to be supportive, hoping to get her talking but not wanting to sound too therapist-y.

“Summer is ending,” I said, trying to sound neutral.  A cricket outside chortled its agreement.  “Think you might be feeling a little sad about that?”

“Maybe,” she said.

“And …” a deep breath, “middle school is coming up soon.  Any feelings about starting middle school?”

She assured me it wasn’t that.  “I can’t wait for middle school to start.”

But we talked a little more.  There were some details, she admitted, a few small ones, she might be wondering about.  Like the bus, like being in a House with the friends she’s got from elementary school.  Like some other stuff she hadn’t realized were on her mind.  We talked about the worries that she said weren’t really worries until her excitement about going to this big new place really took over.  Soon she was gushing about the cool things she’d heard from friends with older siblings who went there.  I’ve found this with clients too: when you’ve got mixed feelings about a transition: both thrills and doubts, you can only really enjoy the thrills once you’ve unpacked the doubts.   My daughter had moved on to the thrills, happily speculating about the future.  But I felt like I had to get in my therapeutic mama moment:

“It’s so normal,” I said.  “To worry about things even when you’re happy about them.  And sometimes, worries you don’t talk about can make you sad without knowing why.”  I was saying it after the fact; it might have been moot anyway at this point, but I said it.

“Hmm.”  She said, pretending to think it over, though really I think she was patronizing me.  She rolled over and went to sleep.  But I know she heard me.  And maybe next time the “grumpies” set in, we’ll have a good place to start.

Other Side of the Lake

My Dad and me at another lake at an earlier time. I think I'm two.

The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place.  It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to.  People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day.  No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included.  (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker.  My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)

Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate.  There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard.  These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools.  In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas.  Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.

My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas.  They were loud and wild and splashed a lot.  Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed.   The boys always greeted my dad with respect.  They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family.  The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them.  She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand.   They certainly didn’t know what to make of me.  Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me.  They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves.  As in:  “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”

The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.

“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)

“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me.  “This lake is fresh water.  Sharks only live in salt water.”

They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.

The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys.   He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.”  His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression.  So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none.  Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.

It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University.  My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously.  But it was more than that.  By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert.  In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.

Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood.  They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did.  Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach.  If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved.  That meant trouble.   As Dad would ultimately write:

‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black.  There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.”  But rigid segregation prevailed.  And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us.  It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same.  Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …

If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets.  If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’[1]

Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went.   He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them.  What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.

I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed.  I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids.  I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear.  Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher.   Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman.  We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade.  No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.

Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.


[1] From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.