Life Around a Table: Part One

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“One lump of sugar or two, dear?” My nana would gently call out from the kitchen corridor to the dining room table where her eager grandchildren awaited the arrival of tea-time. The answer was always two lumps, of course.  And before those sugar cubes could dissolve within the piping hot tea, my nana would be right next to me handing out beautifully decorated tea cups on top of perfectly placed saucers.   I always thought it was a luxury to be able to use her finest tea set, because my five-year-old self had grown rather accustomed to dinnerware of the less-breakable, plastic variety.

Life around Nana’s table was always a special event. And every event needed the finest of china even if that meant the occasional accident.  My Nana would just smile, sigh and say “Dishes are for breaking, right?” I was never anxious around her. I could do no wrong.

After a never-ending road trip from California to Kansas, my family would fall out of our van into the warmth of her house knowing the moment our feet grazed the plastic carpet mats we would be treated like guests of honor.  The secret was, though, everyone was treated as a guest of honor in her house, even if she had seen you the previous day.  And every guest of honor, which meant any and everyone who walked through her door, had a seat at her table.

Every week Nana would make extravagant Sunday night dinners of pot roast and Yorkshire pudding, decadent desserts like her famous homemade apple pies, and the most exquisite cup of tea this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Till this day, the passing whiff of a baking apple pie brings me back to these days, back to sitting at my nana’s table.

While all of her extravagant food and drink was a delight to us all, that was not what made my nana’s table special.  She made it special.  We would all gather around with laughter, joy and the expected family quarrel or two and my nana would beam with excitement. Nothing mattered to her more than having people, her family, around her table.  She would sometimes tell stories to her grandchildren in her soft and rather proper British accent but most of the time she was quiet, taking in the sights and sounds that engulfed her small living room. She breathed love into the space.

For my Nana, her table was communion.  It was a time where, without even a whisper of a word, she could show the people in her life that they mattered, they were valued, they were important.  She had this warmth when her eyes met yours that could take the chill away from any winter’s day.

For my Nana, her table held the cherished moments where everyone belonged, everyone was welcome, everyone ate like royalty.  Everyone was royalty for these moments.

I was only able to come to that table for seven short years before this world lost one of its greatest women.  Since my nana’s passing, her table has sat physically empty, but always beckoning us to come together once again, reminding us that we all belong to something bigger than our own lives.  In those few years that I was able to sit, to eat, to live at her table, my nana taught me that moments of feasting, of mourning, or of celebrating bring us together and that everyone deserves to feel that they belong, that they are special, that they are cared for.

More than anything, though, I knew my life, at Nana’s table, was important.  Nana, after working a whole day on a feast, her frail body weak from hours of standing, would sit at the table without asking for any praise, thanks or acknowledgement for we were the most important part of her day. I always imagined her thinking, how lucky I am to have this family, to have this moment, to have this meal.  And then she would look at us all with humanly perfect, sacrificial love and we would know that we were loved.  We were loved with a love that will always bring us back to the table.

Shells

Shells on the beach tell the story
Not one story I suppose
but an anthology
Dating back to the dates of creation
Creation of you and me: an us
Oh, you are probably thinking
Well here comes a story of the one rare
one of a kind shell
No. Not at all
but the fragments
broken and crushed under the feet of many travelers
waiting for that one person to notice the pieces
and maybe put them back together
but if nothing else
just hold them
gently, perfectly.

Forever is Now

I don’t want you forever 
Forever is not for you.
I just want to know how it feels to be yours.
Right now.
This moment.
To be able to feel your body next to mine.
To let my hands wander through the scares and bruises
left imprinted on your flesh.
Hold you for this moment.
Until this moment ends and reality rushes
(with all the intensity reality should)
back to us with each breath
forever is now and 
forever is not for you.
I do not want you forever

Home

The unknown of you
gives an electricity to every moment
you even try to enter my busy thoughts.
The unknown of you
protects you from complete ruin.
The unknown of you
thats the part I never wish to know.
Right now you are perfect to me
and I wish for you to remain
in perfection.
In that space no other human
has the privilege of residing.
There you find your home.

Soulmate

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A touch. A glance.
Enough to stop the whole universe in motion.
One day a stranger, the next an unforgettable friend.
How does she resist the perfection of his touch?
It’s impossible.
All she can do is embrace and call him another soulmate.
No. Not one that will forever hold her hand.
Just a soul mate that can pause her heart between beats.
Make a simple sentence sound like a sonnet.
And be a forever friend in this cold lonely world.
Never to touch how they may sometimes want.
but always to understand how souls could never be
fully apart again.

Endings

They say…whoever they is
They say all good things must come to an end
An end.
Maybe only endings mark the good things.
the new things, the beginning things.
but even more those things end.
All good things end.
Your touch, your look never ends but is always ending.
If only I could grasp that last touch
that last momentary glance
Maybe then I could make it last forever
But even forever must end.
For all good things come to an end.
That first spark is just that, a spark
fleeting, intense, gone.
And what does it leave in its place?
A completely unsettling desire to avoid all endings.
but if only through endings
do we seek the new…
Maybe endings brought me to you.

A Love Letter to My Illness

Heben “Heaven” Nigatu, November 2012

My Dear Adversarial Friend,

After years of hostile companionship, I’ve finally discovered the courage and resilience to write you this letter.  Since such courage may only be fleeting because of your current absence in my life, I had to finally force myself to pen this note of honesty and pain to you, my friend.

I remember we first met in high school.  My plump, pimple-covered exterior gave you the all-too-easy road into my close circle of critical inner-friends.  Our conversations enriched your attraction to me and mine to you.  For the hurtful, pain-filled words I would utter silently to myself for years were finally heard and repeated back to me.  You will never be good enough. No one will love you. There must be something deeply wrong with you. You, my depression, my anxiety, always understood.  You knew me.

We continued our mutual relationship all throughout high school, although I never knew your name or why you chose me as a friend.  I did not want to ask those questions because at least you were with me, listened to me, and didn’t seem to ever leave me.  We continued like this for a couple more years.  You echoing these lines of self-hatred and perfectionism back to my isolated mind. For we only grew closer the more I saw myself as worthless, out of control and unwanted.  Yet I started to realize the stronger our friendship grew, the lonelier I found myself.  But I told myself, you were all I needed: my depression, my anxiety.

You followed me to college.  I heaved a large sigh of relief as I stepped into my freshman dorm and you were already waiting for me.  A friend, a familiar face.  We stayed together.  Making new friends had never been easy for me, except for with you.  So I enjoyed staying in my room that first year and so did you.  You started whispering to me new thoughts and fears. You don’t belong here.  You will never succeed in softball or class. You are different.  I believed you, but something inside me hoped to one day prove you wrong.  This moment was the beginning of the end.

I did not know that striving, endlessly to prove you wrong would mean bringing my own body, mind, soul to its very breaking point.  But I wasn’t able to stop because in those moments of silence, pause, peace you awaited me.  My college life was filled with a constant battle between trying to control you, my depression, my anxiety, and allowing you to control me.  Softball, something that once brought me pride and confidence, became the one way you could destroy any ounce of self-worth I had left.  You are alone. You must be perfect. You must numb your feelings. You must be someone you are not. You were always there to remind me of the worst parts of me.

But I started realizing you were not the friend I thought you were.  Your listening was no longer innocent but a way to gain more ammunition against me.  Your repetitions always seemed to leave out the hope in which I most desperately believed.  I began seeking ways to numb or silence you because your whispers had become deafening.

I finally needed to know your name, which led me to therapy.  She called you “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” and “Depressive Episodes.” So clinical, so sterile.  You no longer seemed like a friend.  You were simply a disorder, an episode?  But how could your companionship be simplified to only that over all these years?

I finally began to learn more about you.  To learn more about myself.  To understand you as separate from me.  This was difficult for me to believe because, without me realizing it, we had become so intertwined.  I did not know how to distinguish you from me.  I often still don’t.  Medication helps, sure, but I always know that with any unexpected life event or sudden change you will be there, extending a friendly embrace. Through therapy, I have learned that you aren’t me.  I have learned that I can not blame myself for your presence in my life.  I have learned that you can be managed but I have also learned that you will always be my companion throughout this life.

I still call you my friend because of these many years we’ve shared together.  You worked so hard for me, so hard against me and I will never be outside of your constant influence.  Even though we are no longer close, for I know your name, your face, and your patterns, you will always be a part of me, a familiar and dangerous part.

Thank you for showing me the depth of pain and isolation for only in those depths did I learn the love of community.  Thank you for tearing me down because only through that experience was I able to rely and trust others to help me move forward.  Thank you for developing in me a sensitivity for emotion, for struggle, for hurt for only through that have I been able to connect with others.  Thank you for never leaving me because only through your presence have I learned the importance of resilience.  Thank you for knowing me because only through that am I able to see you in others around me and teach them your name.

I hope for a future day that I can pass by you on the street without pausing to entertain your whispers, without being drawn to your enticingly attractive lies, without recognizing your familiar taunts, but I know that we will probably meet again, my friend.  I have changed, though, since our last encounter so maybe you won’t recognize me.

With Hesitant and Undetermined Love,

Your Distant Friend

You Are Enough

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You are enough.
Words spoken that cover the immeasurable
immensity that is human insecurity.
You are enough right now.
For one small instant you allow those words
so subtle, so pure
to free you.
To free your striving
Your perfection.
You alone are enough in every way.
Void of any conditional fragments
that one small phrase stands alone
firm
lovely
in front of all humanity.
You are enough.
But you throw off this simple phrase
struggle to grab the chains of perfection
that had finally fallen to the ground
to become your own slave master
Every minute, punishing, critical.
Every minute unworthy.
Chains of doubt and worry cling to you
painfully etching scars into your wonderfully flawed skin.
You, my love, in every single way
are not perfect because humanity’s beauty
is found in our many unworthy imperfections
But you, my darling, are in this moment
and in every way
As you sit alone, smiling but struggling beneath these heavy chains
you are completely and utterly enough.

A Field of Endless Possibility

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Chicagoans are nothing, if not hopeful.  We spend every day of at least five months out of the year (and that’s being generous) hoping that the sun hasn’t crawled into an eternal cave never to be seen again.  We hope that our snot can last the five minute walk to the bus stop without completely freezing our nasal passages solid (yes, this is a true story).  We hope that the icy-slush-puddle that we are forced to navigate through is only an inch deep and not the rabbit hole that brought Alice to Wonderland.  We hope that our car, which is buried in four feet of snow, has steadfast determination to start on command and get us to work in the morning.  But above all we hope we survive this year’s winter to make it to spring and summer.

We live in a city where most of the year we are miserable so that a few months of the year are paradise.  And we are proud of it.  Put a long-time Chicagoan in Southern California during a “rain storm” as all the bleach blonde, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing hippies run around  in terror with their hoodies, Ugg boots and scarves.  Come to Chicago, the Chicagoan would think. You wouldn’t last a day, even a day in March. But why is it that most of us voluntary choose this torture when so many great cities have vacation-like climates all year round?

I was thinking about this hope phenomenon walking home from work today on this year’s first 80 degree day.  (And, as usual, I was thinking too much and too deeply about it, because I have a tendency to do that). But I kept going back to the idea that this hope is a similar hope that we all have or wish to have about our own lives.  Most of the time, life is full of suffering, pain, disappointment, loss.  Most of the time our life is spent in the winter.  Clinging to warmth and safety but hoping that another day, a warmer day, a brighter day will come.

Depression reminds me a lot of a Chicago winter.  You feel like you are trapped, constantly inside.  The cold and unwelcoming outside makes even getting out of bed a struggle.  You don’t care to look at anyone in the eye or even give a friendly head nod in their direction when walking down the street because even a momentary glance will halt your eventual escape out of the bitter cold.  Winter is about survival.  A survival in hopes that a spring will one day appear.

And right as we all begin to lose hope, spring arrives (as much as Chicago can muster a spring) and reminds us all that the winter is only a season.  Winter is only a season.  Depression is only a season.  While we always seem to hold in the back of our heads the reminder that one day spring will turn into summer, which will turn into fall, which will turn into winter once again, we know that spring has come.  Chicago comes to life.  Those of us that struggle with depression know that a good day, week or month is something to be celebrated and enjoyed but we are always haunted by the day we wake up and the cold has engulfed us once more.  But we revel in those warm days, weeks and months, just like Chicagoans spend entire weeks outside when the temperature is a mere 40 degrees. For we know that even spring is a season.

As I walked home from work mulling over these thoughts, I came across an open field, which had once housed the many public housing projects that were scattered on the near west side of the city.  Now this field is home to knee-high grass, weeds and gleeful dogs playing endless games of fetch with their owners.  I walk past this field nearly every day but for some reason as I walked past, feeling the warmth of the sun on my conspicuously pale skin, it gave me pause.

Scattered in between the neglected blades of grass were hundreds of dandelions swaying gently in the soft spring wind.  This is why we hope.  For dandelions.  When the fuzzy white tops of these flower-like weeds float or are blown away, leaving the stem naked and vulnerable the plants look like they no longer have meaning, no longer have life.  But what I have always found mesmerizing about these weeds is that with each white seed that disappears in the wind, another dandelion is planted wherever it lands. In seeming death, new life is created.  Before me lay resilience. Before me lay a field of endless possibility.

I paused to take a picture of this beautiful image and continued on my way.  But before I reached the entrance of my apartment, I thought: this is why we hope.  This is why we Chicagoans are crazy about our city, despite our weather. This is why we can survive chronic depression even though we know it will always be our unwanted friend.  We hope for new life, for renewal, for a fresh start even in the face of cold, death, and isolation. We hope in winter that we will just survive the cold, bleak conditions so that we can thrive in spring. For, even in spring, when winter feels imminent once again and even though the warm wind can strip us naked, vulnerable, alone, we can have hope in knowing that, with that strong gust of wind, resilience is built and possibilities are endless. Image