I sink into the ’68 Cadillac’s plush back seat and gaze out the window as peach orchards, fields and farmhouses whiz by at sixty miles an hour. Our builder accompanies my young husband and me to a building lot where we hope to build our first home. We drive due east so long it seems we might end up in the Atlantic Ocean, but after thirty miles or so, the car takes a hard left onto a country road that fringes the New Jersey Pinelands, and we pass nothing but woods until we arrive at the land where our future home will be built. A beautiful setting, though pretty damned desolate I think to myself.
We move in October. I am twenty-three years old.
Ask anyone who lives in the woods or at the base of a mountain - the subtleties of light just aren’t the same in these places. Hills obscure a sunrise. A ceiling of trees can blot out the bluest sky.
photo by Charles Brunetto
Stunted, spindly oak trees glut the forest surrounding the house, their scrawny condition a result of their own overshadowing, as if the setting contradicts its own natural beauty. On a sunny day when the trees are full, the filtered light dapples the air in clarity and calm, light and shadow; but for much of the year the trees stand as dismal sentinels amidst a wetland forest. Pin oaks are late to bloom and early to shed and any leaves that remain are worn as interminable auburn tresses. Even the minimal amounts of Jersey snowfall clings to them, which sends out seasonal mixed messages.
After a few weeks in our new home, I learn that I am expecting my first child. At three months, I nearly miscarry and ultimately leave my job. When our daughter is born the following spring I am relieved that all is well, and happily take on my new role.
Days go by when I don’t interact with another human being aside from my husband and daughter. Our life in the woods is enough distance away from family and friends that a forty- minute drive on an ordinary weekday seems unsuitable and frivolous.
While the baby sleeps, I call a friend or read a book, but mostly I watch too much television. Bless that boob tube and its distraction. I immerse in the odd comfort of soap opera characters’ lives. I gasp at Erica’s latest hi-jinx, and admire Rachel’s wealthy lifestyle.
My husband, baby and I occasionally bundle ourselves up to visit my in-laws. We play guinea pigs to my mother-in-law’s adventurous meals prepared from recipes found in Woman’s Day or Family Circle magazines. My father-in-law fusses over the baby.
I bask in the fact I am out of the house for a few hours.
Some days I drive to my own parents’ house so that I can lunch with my mom on her mid-day break or hang out with my younger sister. Sometimes we browse the local shopping mall together on days my sister gets out of school early.
Maternal responsibilities don’t worry me the way it has some of my friends, who can’t seem to make it through the day without calling their mothers or the pediatrician as they fret over every little rash or diaper surprise.
I don’t miss the legal secretary job I left behind, not even for one single day. And although I am married, my husband is gone in twelve-hour clips as he provides for the three of us while building his career. Plus he has his side “guy” hobbies - hunting, fishing, and bowling.
The onset of my malaise occurs in autumn of that second year, but I trace its origin back to the previous May, when my father-in-law died suddenly at the age of forty-seven. We had visited him only the evening before, and I had noticed how quiet he seemed, not his usual self. The next morning, he pulled his Chevy utility van out of the driveway and made it halfway down the street, when he must have sensed what was happening in time to put the van in park, then slump forward onto the steering wheel. It was the first time anyone close to me had died.
Empathetic and polite, I consoled my husband, mother-in-law and rest of the family, but I now pinpoint my father-in-law’s death as the trigger to a depression that has risen in me. The minimal initial reaction has morphed into thoughts about death all the time. Not my father-in-law’s, but my own.
A bit sluggish on the uptake when it comes to processing shock or tragedy, I’ve observed how I often defer my reaction to uncomfortable situations, and I believe this is a common phenomenon. The death occurs, we go into rescue or survival mode, and when we’re expected to be officially done mourning - when our loved one is buried or has been cremated and everyone assumes you’re back to normal, that’s when the real journey begins. Healing runs on its own timetable.
In September, my husband and I plan a Vermont getaway. He then does his best to weasel out it by luring me with “stuff” – new clothes, something for the house - anything to replace the vacation I have longed for since our honeymoon fell through four years earlier, but I am adamant that we will go. We leave the baby with my parents. What I bring home with me is the memory of unspoiled mountain views, lush green fields, and natural paths, inviting me to meander and linger a bit longer.
Upon returning to New Jersey, hints of autumn appear. Evening falls earlier each day, and I become acutely aware of the diminishing light and feel an inexplicable restlessness. My name is a Gaelic derivative of the word, “light,” and it seems I require a steady measure of it in my life.
I read the copy of Vermont Life I purchased at a country store in Brattleboro. One photo features a village green, gazebo, and school bus set amidst a stand of vibrant maples. Another includes a rosy-cheeked little girl named Emily dressed in plaid flannel jacket and brightly-colored knitted cap as she plays in a pile of leaves. I can almost smell the scent of dried leaves and burning wood stoves, which stirs old memories or a longing for things that might be again some day. The little girl’s mother is credited with the photo. The little girl looks very much like my little girl. I obsess over these idyllic scenes until the corners of my magazine tatter with wear and I realize the images elicit my desire for a life other than the one I am in.
I experience more frequently a sense of dread that something awful might happen with no reasonable basis for feeling this way. Insidious aches and pains make themselves known, or I feel light-headed. One evening my arm hurts, enough so that I call my mother-in-law for advice, since she encounters bouts of bursitis. She recommends I soak in a hot tub.
Or I run to my family doctor, but when I get to his office I don’t know what to say. I wonder how he might respond if I tell him I catch myself clenching my jaw or my back aches for no apparent reason. I’m convinced he’ll think I’m a nut if I talk about the pins and needles I sense at the top of my head before I fall off to sleep at night, and I’m afraid to admit that I think about dying way too much. It’s as if my childhood is finally being shut down forever, and I am forced to acknowledge a milestone I’d never previously considered. My father-in-law has died, and I notice death everywhere.
Death evokes fear, and fear has become my intimate. The possibility of how swiftly I might be taken away with no chance of weighing in on the matter has consumed me. My mind chatters with talk of cancer, car accident, and heart attack. If a person can die at age forty-seven, what’s to stop someone from dying at forty or thirty? I know of two young people who died, but I hadn’t been close to them. One guy died in a motorcycle accident. My sister’s high school friend, Sandy, died from breast cancer the year after graduation. Not close enough for me. Doesn’t affect my life.
But now it’s different. I’m not immune, and if death happens to me now, who will care for my daughter? Layer this maternal responsibility on top of mortality anxiety on top of lonesomeness; throw in a ration of seasonal affective disorder and a young marriage that isn’t thriving as it should, like those scraggly oaks in my back yard, and I easily rate “10” on the “Stressed-to-the-Max Richter Scale.”
In the meantime, regardless of my underlying worries or my marital issues that will not erupt or resolve until several years later, I know that I must learn how to cope in the now. I’ve faked my way through the early part of the winter. It hasn’t been so difficult, because beneath the anxiety there is still the same old me. I love life and despite my emotional upheaval, I’ve never felt desperate. I merely need to unlearn my fear and accept life’s impermanence.
One mid-January evening I go out alone. I first drive to Stafford Hill, where my husband and I lived before we moved to the country. I park in front of our old apartment and stare. Do I imagine I might get my old spark back by osmosis if I sit here long enough? It’s as if I am attempting to conjure up the past, or the me I used to be – innocent, unspoiled, and oblivious to pain. Eventually another tenant emerges from his apartment. He trudges across the parking lot to empty his trash into the dumpster, signal for me to move on.
I drive to the nearby mall and walk around aimlessly. A kaleidoscope of lights, sales people and merchandise surrounds me, but I recall most vividly the moment I ride down the escalator, my hand grasping the rail, the hand attached to me, yet I feel detached from my life. I can’t stand another minute. I run out to my car and drive to my doctor’s office. I stumble through the door and ask to see Dr. Sheldon.
Yes, I need to see him.
No, I don’t have an appointment.
Yes I will wait until the end of the evening if I have to.
No more vague excuses. I speak to Dr. Sheldon using the words “sad” and “anxious,” He nods, makes notes and I can tell we’re getting somewhere.
I leave his office with a one month supply of Triavil.
Over the course of several days, my anxiety begins to diminish, and I feel better. But I only have a thirty-day supply of pills. No way do I intend to revert back to my pain, yet I suspect there is no forever drug, at least for me. I cut the pills in half, then in quarters, unconcerned with chemical or medical consequences. I feel more whole, but this will be temporary if I don’t find a more natural, consistent way to work through the anxiety I now feel brave enough to face.
As my pill supply dwindles, I drive to the post office one afternoon to pick up the mail. I flip through the stack of envelopes and circulars to find a flyer that advertises adult education classes at my old high school. Registration starts in a few days. Classes will begin soon after. I read the various offerings: Basketweaving – blech, not interested. Conversational Spanish – too cerebral for my immediate liking. As I continue to scroll down the list, Beginner’s Hatha Yoga catches my eye.
I have always been drawn to yoga and often practiced while watching Lilias, Yoga and You on PBS when my daughter was an infant. While she napped, I’d grab a pillow and a super-sized towel, and follow along with Lilias. I learned how to stretch into poses, assuming various asanas that promised to build strength and balance. I loved Lilias’ serene manner and the gentle music that played in the background.
I register for hatha yoga. I arrive at class in tights and leotard, toting my pillow and mat. The yoga instructor, Jen, a petite middle-aged woman with short brown hair, greets our small class. She motions for us to settle onto our mats, and introduces us to yogic warm-up stretches. She recites the Sanskrit name for each pose. Jen encourages us to follow along as she moves into cobra, locust, and eagle, explaining how each asana supports a specific part of the body, stimulates circulation, and improves muscle tone.
During class Jen talks about body-spirit connection. She states how the body houses the spirit and that a healthy spirit requires physical balance. She discusses food choices for better health. “If you are deciding on whether to eat a piece of cake or an apple and decide on cake, then eat the apple too! An apple is alive - if you put it into the ground, it will grow.”
Jen leads the class in a guided relaxation at the end of each session when I always feel ready to rest, grateful for the hard work I have done. She asks us to assume Savasana, corpse pose, on our mats. With eyes closed, I lay flat with my legs and arms slightly outstretched. Chant music plays softly in the background. I inhale and exhale in slow, natural rhythm. Jen encourages us to relax first our toes, then the muscles in our legs, our lower back, abdomen, legs, arms and fingertips. “Erase the worry line on your forehead,” she says. “Soften your jaw and your eyelids.” All it takes is a little coaching, and I feel at ease. I visualize a tree with roots planted in the earth – its limbs and branches rising up into the sky. I allow my body to adopt this image.
The phrase, “corpse pose” suggests how one lies in death - simple repose. I focus my mind on my breath. As I do so, worrisome thoughts dissipate. With arms and legs positioned slightly away from the rest of my body I feel less resistance against life and myself. I relax and imagine sinking into the mat, suspended in a peacefulness that calms and centers me, no pills required. As I take on the shape of my mortality, I tap into a stillpoint and sense my own source of being.
For so long I have felt a disconnect from myself, but what I had been experiencing was actually a reflection of body/mind/spirit relationship. My body manifested what my spirit felt and vice versa. One influences the other. My minimal exposure to light affected my mood. My unrequited desire for communion with others outside of my home suppressed my spirit. My body craved interaction with the earth. I faced the fact that I remained motionless far too many hours in the day. My main activities had been: carrying my baby around; and lounging on a sofa eating yet another bowl of ice cream, indulging myself in dead foods rather than choosing the apple.
I continue yoga classes through that winter, and grow stronger and more confident each week. I advance to Halasana, plow pose, an evolved version of shoulder stand – difficult in its own right. I practice yoga for thirty minutes every afternoon on my living room floor. I sense accomplishment I’ve never experienced before, having been one of those kids always last chosen for the high school volleyball team.
It is now April, and the sun has begun its return to my woods.
I recently sifted through boxes of old photographs. In them, I found a photo of me taken around that time. My hair was long, straight, honey-colored, swirling across my face in the spring breeze. I wore no make-up. It’s so weird, I always thought myself ordinary looking, but as I gazed at this photo of myself I saw an evocative, wholesome, contented, fully grown woman with a look in her eye. I was coming back into the light.