Life and Chipmunks

(CW: Discussion of depression and suicide. Spoiler space included for those who wish to bail.)







I’ve never tried blogging on a genuinely bad day before. You have been warned.

Years ago, before I got pregnant, I had only a layman’s knowledge of what it would really be like. I’d heard about fatigue, joint pain, pinched nerves, and morning sickness; I’d heard devastating stories of loss and horror stories of labor. And I’d heard my own mother’s stories: hers were more reassuring (although she had me and my brother during the era of high interference, which actually gave me a pretty strong resolve to birth as naturally as was safe).

What I didn’t expect was the stark, clear-eyed revelation of mortality that pregnancy would bring.

I wasn’t young when I got pregnant. I’d just turned 39. (It didn’t take us long, btw. Statistics notwithstanding, you never know until you try.) It’s not like I hadn’t thought about aging, about the finite nature of my life, about all the choices you have to make and the opportunities that would never return.

But there was something about pregnancy–the basic, equalizing physicality of it–that made me feel, for the first time, the brevity and fragility of my own existence.

Let me tell you, it threw me for a loop.

Growing up in a life of privilege–and no, we weren’t wealthy, but I was a healthy, wanted, white child in a white suburb, a girl in a family where girls were expected to be educated just as boys were–you can develop this idea that the best way to solve problems is not to worry about them. Bang your knee? Don’t think about it; it’ll be fine in a couple of days. Lose your lunch money? Well, Dad’ll yell, but he won’t let you go hungry. Car breaks down? Someone in a passing car will find a state trooper to come help you out. (Days before cell phones, kids; I couldn’t have called myself.) When your whole life has involved walking on a firm foundation, hardship means you just keep turning corners until you discover what you need to fix the problem, because of course it’s there somewhere.

For a long time I believed I was lucky, even knowing luck–as a cosmic force, anyway–isn’t really a thing. But I’m not lucky. I’m privileged, and that gives me a silent safety net that a lot of other people lack. I can get through more garbage because I have more resources.

Pregnancy changed how I felt about all of that, and it wasn’t just the knowledge that women all over the world die in childbirth all the time. It was this other person I was trying to bring into the world. And it wasn’t her separateness, or her own mortality; none of that really hit me until after she was born.

I think, for me, it was the simple biological act of participating in the circle of life. Because on the other side of bringing small ones into the world is large ones growing old and dying. It was one thing watching my peers have children, watching my grandparents leave us, all on Joni Mitchell’s carousel of time. It was quite another thing realizing I was on the ride, for real, and there was no going back.

I am pretty sure the cruelest force in the universe is time.

One of the things that happens with depression is it turns in on itself. It uses your strengths to hurt you. I’m sitting here trying to figure out what to write, and I’m thinking “FFS, Liz, there are people in the world starving. There are children having children. There are people imprisoned, tortured, living lives of hopelessness. There are people in your own country–your own town–choosing between groceries and rent. WTF do you have to feel bad about?”

Nothing. I have nothing to feel bad about. But here we are.

This, I think, is part of what people mean when they say depression lies: it amplifies your sense of worthlessness, the absurdity that you, of all people, could dare to feel bad. But the thing is depression doesn’t lie, not really. It takes the truth and twists it, but it’s still the truth. That’s what makes it so dangerous. Why reach out, why talk to anyone, when you already know the answers?

There’s a chipmunk outside my window. We have a lot of chipmunks here, and they’ve become bolder year over year. They’re so common the cats don’t identify them as something to be hunted; the UPS guy causes a feline riot, but chipmunks don’t even rate getting off the couch. They’re a constant, chipmunks. Loud, almost-but-not-quite rhythmic, and unrelenting.

Individually, those little rodents ride the carousel with the rest of us: faster, and on a different scale, but they are finite like everything else. In aggregate? They will outlast me. And that’s comforting, in a weird way.

There have been a couple of high-profile suicides this week: Kate Spade, of whom I knew almost nothing, and Anthony Bourdain, of whom I was something of a fan. Also, hundreds of people whose names I’ll never know, but who are missed no less and loved no less. It’s not surprising that celebrity suicides are culturally notable: they’re a reminder of the carousel, of the brutality of time, of that big lie that depression so often tells: You have everything. Who are you to cry?

We’re all allowed to cry. We’re all allowed to rail against the hideous one-way trip we’re traveling. It’s all right to be sad about that, and angry about it, and to wish with everything within you that it was different.

None of which changes a damn thing.

I’m sad today, for reasons of my own. I have friends on the internet, people whose voices I’ve never heard, who are sad today as well. There is a lot to be sad about in this world, in this life, small things and large.

Despite not being religious, I’ve always liked the serenity prayer. It’s simultaneously soothing, and a call to action. On the one hand: accept the immutable. We’re all on the carousel. We can’t stop the ride. We can’t make the universe something it is not. Don’t waste your energy on that.

On the other hand? There are things we can change. Small things: I can smile and laugh with my kid when she gets home from school, that creature who first made herself known in a pink line on a pregnancy test and is now restless and reaching for the future. I can be kind and cheerful when I interact with people, on line and in the real world.

And there are large things we can change. We can vote. We can protest. We can make room for others to speak, and help them when they can’t speak for themselves. We can use our voices to let others in this world know they’re not alone, that they’re valued simply because they’re human, that they don’t have to have been born in the same place with the same privileges to be equal in every way.

We are finite. All things are finite. One small voice is, well, small.

A thousand small voices can shift the world.

And if we fail? There will always be chipmunks.

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