Tuesday, November 15, 2011

a treeless day

Ask most people their favorite tree and they'll likely tell you a species, but for me and most of the people I grew up with in Peru, our favorite tree had a name: Big Root.

Big Root was a Banyan tree - a wild fig - and it was so named because it was actually a parasite that had grown from a seed dropped on a tree, most likely, by a bird, and then had choked that tree with vines until all that was left was a myriad of branch-sized, loopy root-vines, making a jungle-gym fun-house for all us kids. Big Root grew on the shore of Yarinacocha, an oxbow lake just outside of Pucallpa - a dusty jungle city in the amazon basin. The water level in the Amazon rises and falls with the seasons - sometimes as much as thirty feet. This meant that Big Root was not only the world's best climbing tree, but for half the year it was also the world's best climbing tree over water.

There are a lot of really stupid (fun) things a kid will do when his or her climbing tree is over water. Like, say, run full-tilt in a game of tree-tag along the leg-thick curve of a major branch and then leap out, fully-splayed, to grab a wrist-thick branch and swing to safety over a thicket of barely-submerged thorn bushes; or jumping from twenty-five feet up into a vast floating island of vine-choked water hyacinths, that might or might not have been hiding a submerged log or two, and were definitely home to a whole lot of spiders, stinging insects, eels, and fresh-water crabs.

I first climbed Big Root in low-water at age five, and after that initiation spent a great deal of my exuberant young life in that tree; playing tree tag, skittering like a monkey across the tiniest branches, and hanging out with friends.

Then came middle school.

Middle school was hell. Hell. H-E-double-hockey-stick-HELL. I still loved being a jungle kid, and I still loved being alive. Except, sometimes, I didn't.

I don't know if it was my asocial temperament, or because I was a runtish late-bloomer, but I began to "wander lonely as a cloud," from one glancing social encounter to the next. Oftentimes I would find myself alone, high in the branches of Big Root.

I can distinctly remember one late afternoon in dry season, sitting with my head nearly poking out the top of that tree. Silent tears ran down my face as I listened to a few of my friends hollering and splashing, about a hundred feet down the shore. I could not have told you why I was crying, but I began to wonder how they might feel if I were to slip and fall, bouncing off the larger branches below before landing, crumpled and lifeless, on the muddy ground. I wondered if they would notice. I wondered if they would care.

This was one of my first encounters with depression, and we've had an on-again, off-again relationship ever since.

There are times when it seems obviously situational - as in, say, when my nether-regions failed to sprout foliage at the appointed hour, or when my marriage was especially hellish to live in, or even more hellish to live without. At such times, I often retreated into the dubious consolation of mySelf, and it is at such times that I could understand what it is that drives some people to the ultimate act of despair.

The strange thing is, when I am not in those moments, hours, or days of despair, I absolutely cannot comprehend why anyone would ever want to check out of a life so rich, bounteous and full of joy-potential. I can rationally understand that depression is a real emotional state, and that people really do live in it day after day - but I can't really understand, on a visceral level, what that means.

Today is not one of those days. Today, I find myself back in the sort of thick, gray fog I was in when I was writing gray poems and pitying myself for my broken marriage. And that's the weird thing - I know it's self-pity that puts me here. I know that I have buckets and piles of things for which to be grateful, but somehow I can't seem to get my eyes off the ugliness. It's not a constant thing, of course, but the regular pin-prickings of despair have brought me once again back into the fog-bank, where I float: disconnected and alone. I am not alone. I feel alone, and that is an entirely different thing.

I realized this evening that for the past several weeks I have been eating not because I am hungry, but rather because I know I need to eat in order to stay alive. I had convinced myself that I my hesitance to eat has been because I've been so passionate about my writing, but that's not the case. I am depressed. Sometimes, it can be so effing hard to be a Caucasian middle class male in America with most of his teeth, all of his health, a job, talent, no debt, family, friends, and a son who loves him.

So, I ate a bowl of cereal for dinner and pitied myself for a while longer.

Again.

The year after I graduated from high school and left the place and country where I had lived since I was a year old, Big Root fell into the lake. They were closing down the jungle Bible Translation center, and most of the missionary population (a population nearly two-hundred strong in my younger years) was going away. For fifty years, Big Root had been supporting the antics of generations of missionary kids just like myself. It was as though without us, it lost the will to live and fell, as we so often had, into Yarinacocha.

Writing about Big Root has made me smile, and while I was writing, my son called to wish me good night. He was chipper and happy, and when he asked me if I was going to pick him up tomorrow and I answered in the affirmative, he replied, "That's okay for me, Dadu."

My heart swelled with the joy of life. I gloried, for a moment, in being alive. A while later, my friend Austin the Director called for some advice on a commercial he just shot for the Doritos "Crash the Superbowl" competition, and I was able to help him come up with the perfect tagline. I remembered that I have abilities and that I contribute. I smiled, again.

What will happen tomorrow? How will I feel, tonight, as I fall into bed? I don't know. But right now, I feel better. I always feel better when I make something.


7 comments:

  1. Service to others - in my book anyway - is always an antidote to depression and gloom. Choosing to accomplish an act of service, however, depends upon the willingness to abandon my depression and "up and at'tem." You are brave and wonderfully expressive.

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  2. Poor guy. . . Nothing gets the appetite going like BACON!!

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  3. I can relate to a lot of things you've said. I won't list them all. Like you, I seem to drift in and out of it and I guess that's better than being in it day after day after day (which is how I used to be). At one time, I removed the shaving razor from the bathroom because every time I'd have a shower there arrived the temptation to slit my wrists.

    I've recently begun to laugh more at myself and even laugh at depression itself. Sometimes I feel bad, thinking I should be more sensitive about it since it's a serious problem that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

    I'm still kind of reclusive. I want to spend time with people, but then when I'm with them I just want to be alone. Facebook and blog world feels like a remedy, but I don't know if that's healthy.

    Keep making stuff :)

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  4. Hmmm.... bacon! I was just talking about bacon yesterday with a colleague at work, recalling how when I was tree planting they always had a big tub of bacon and I'd eat a mountain a day - because you could never quite consume enough calories for the work you were doing. I do miss bacon.

    Leah, I don't think reclusivity is a problem - it just needs balance. Most creative pursuits require a LOT of alone time. The important thing is to be willing to reach out when you need it - which is hard. Sometimes it's easier to retreat, and make art out of pain. But hugs are important.

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  5. The self-bullying/pity cycle is something with which I'm almost constant dealing, and it's never pretty. When I'm down I forget that people go through similar cycles of self pity and complete focus on others, it's nice to be reminded.

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