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     J. C. Penney used to have a store right on the Circle in Indianapolis. The front was curved around from one corner to the next like all the buildings, a hundred windows facing the street. I counted them, but I could be wrong. Mommy wasn’t sick that day when we rode the bus downtown to the Circle. She had clothes on, clothes to go outside in, not the long gown she kept on all day. And she did not have on the old corduroy robe she wore in the kitchen. We had breakfast that day. Mommy  cooked boiled eggs and made buttermilk biscuits. The table was wiped clean that morning and the place mats had not a speck of food anywhere. The ashtrays were empty, and the vodka bottles were pushed down deep into the bottom of the trash can.

     My little sister Josie sat next to me in her own chair. The big ugly men hadn’t come in the night before to take up all the chairs, to take up all the room. There was no hurry. We had enough food to fill our stomachs-hot cocoa, not warm water in our cups. The neighbors stared at Mommy and me and Josie. Cissy was with us, but not yet born. She was in Mommy’s big stomach.

    Doors opened quickly soon as we stepped out on the porch. There were so many curtains pulled back so the old women could watch us on our way to the bus stop. The only one who said hello was Mr. Dombrowski. His wife was dead a long time ago from a disease that ate her brain. That made me feel scared every time he told me. Every morning, he’d stroll by our house and yell to me, “Tell your mother she’s pretty!”, then he’d keep on going. He never came into our house, never slammed glasses down hard on our kitchen table, or never talked so loud that I couldn’t fall asleep.  Mr. Dombrowski  didn’t play the record player loud and he never dropped cigarette ashes on me or my sister. He never burnt us accidentally when we passed him in the hallway with a lighted cigarette sticking out of his fingers. Our neighbor never drank all our orange juice or left stinky whiskey bottles out on the counter. I never had to push his drinking glasses away or the ice-cube trays just a bit so I could use the toaster. I didn’t have to spend many minutes listening to his stories as he clenched my elbow. He had not made Mommy spend all her money for those things they needed for their parties.

     I never had to search on my knees for any of those shiny black capsules dropped on the floor from Mr. Dombrowski.  He didn’t enter our home, so he couldn’t do anything stupid like that. Josie thought the pills were pretty and swallowed three of them one morning that some other man dropped on the floor.  That morning, Mr. Dombrowski held the door open for Mommy as she rushed to throw Josie in the back seat of the station wagon. He sat with me on the steps outside, brought me butter and bread with lemonade, and then a thermos of soup later on for dinner. He made a bed for me on the porch swing with a pillow and blanket until Mommy brought Josie home.

    But that other morning when Mommy took us shopping, he winked at us three girls going downtown to Monument Circle. The old women in their aprons carefully watched us. When we got to the corner, I turned around. Two of them with their tightly-permed curls whispered and pointed in our direction.

    The driver smiled because he didn’t know us. Mommy had on lipstick and I carried my little white purse from Easter. We three were quiet until the bus finally pulled up on the Circle.

    “Watch your step young ladies” the driver called out to us, then we were caught up in the middle of a crowd. They were waiting to get in to the doors of J. C. Penney’s Back to School Sale. Mommy let us choose our favorite candy. She let us eat it in the store even though we were not supposed to. The sales lady measured our chests, our waists and shoe size.

    Mommy said with authority “My daughters each need two new uniforms with slips, underwear and everything. They need new shoes also. And where is the Infants Department?”

    We had more food for lunch in the coffee shop with all the turkey and dressing we wanted. I asked for extra mashed potatoes and gravy. There was chocolate milk and butterscotch pie. The men and women in the other booths talked nice to each other. They told jokes, laughed and grinned at us in a friendly way.

    Our last stop was the sewing department. Mommy bought fabric for new living room curtains. Josie and I sat at the tables flipping through page of patterns for dresses. Josie hadn’t cried all day. I left her for a minute. Those little spools of thread caught my eye. I chose pink, my favorite color and a package of shiny gold safety pins from the display tables. I opened up my little purse and put them inside. Then I returned to Josie still sitting and looking at pattern books.

    Mommy got each of us by the hand.  The bag of fabric dangled from her elbow. At the door, she let us buy gum balls from the penny machine. We stood in the crowd waiting for our bus, the one that would carry us back to our neighborhood. Father O’Brien came up and tapped Mommy on the shoulder.

    “Fancy seeing you ladies downtown! You’re looking fine. God bless you.” He said he had business at the government building, and then he hurried away. But then he turned around, came a little closer to us and smiled.

    “Hope to see you, Mrs. O’Brien, and the family this Sunday.” And he blessed us again.

    It was nearly dark, almost supper time when we stepped off the bus at the corner. Mommy had made meatloaf in the morning. Now all she had to do was pop it into the oven. None of the neighbors saw us come home. I begged to peel the potatoes.  Josie sat at the table with her coloring book.

    “Mommy, shouldn’t you take off your hat to cook supper?”  She came over to me and gave me a great big hug.

    My mother was the best cook in the world.

  • Writing and Mental Illness

    Why I Keep Trying Even If I’m Too Sick to Go On

    “Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home beaten defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.”

    Sylvia Plath

    Should I Give Up Writing?

    That is the daily question. It never leaves. I am a writer. I’m also sick with incurable illnesses. Lately I’ve been considering giving up writing altogether so that I’ll have less stress and anxiety. Marketing my work especially causes stress along with the painful feelings of rejection. That makes my depression worse. The coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic and quarantine adds fear to my problems. My vivid writer’s imagination makes me wonder if the world is coming to an end.

    Making a list is a favorite method to clear my head, pros in one column and the cons in the other.  I’m using my list to write this blog so hopefully it makes sense. Here are a few reasons why I’m tempted to quit writing. That’s the important thing in this post. I am tempted to abandon writing. Let’s examine the negatives first. Actually, I’m the one doing the examining; I just need some sympathetic readers to hear what I have to say.

    I don’t receive much validation as a writer or appreciation of my work. I realize other writers may be in my situation. That’s a logical statement. I can understand perfectly why people want to point out someone else’s problems, but I don’t like it. If I get any feedback on my writing, it’s about what’s wrong with it. But logic is cold and impersonal. The lack of validation about my writing causes me to feel bad.

    Opening my email to find another rejection message for something I submitted to a literary journal or contest makes me feel hopeless. Getting turned down after all the energy and time I spent on writing, sending it out and most of all, waiting for a reply, is one of the worst feelings. Their replies are many times the same. I receive a short answer like this: “Sorry, but we have decided that our publication is not the right place for your work.” I spend the day after that rejection, wondering where is the right place for my work? Is there really such a place? Does it exist or am I dreaming? Should I give up and stop writing? Should I throw my writing in the trash can like I did when I was twelve? Or burn some poetry like I did at age twenty three? Maybe tear it into strips and soak them in water so nobody can laugh at my writing ever again? I did that on my fortieth birthday. Should I dump the entire mess into a box and seal it with duct tape until later? When is later?

    Anger is a powerful emotion and I get sick when I’m mad. I want to scream and sometimes I do. Those stupid editors don’t know poetry or fiction when they see it. They’re too dumb to appreciate my work. It’s good! They publish trash and garbage and silly stuff. I can’t tell anyone my opinions why the stuff that gets published is trash because I’ll lose what little friends I have. Well, they’re not really friends in the real sense, but Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, email and writer group friends. Online friends.

    Justifications are easy to find. Quitting will lessen the negative feelings and expectations. I can have more time for other activities such as reading for fun and baking. I can have time to paint and draw. I’ll stop feeling guilty for using so much time marketing my writing. I can just read what I want without having to read boring articles such as “Give Your Readers What They Want!” or “One Hundred Proven Ways to Get More Reviews!” Haha! Reviews are another problem that cause me trouble. I have a few reviews. If I say how many, that will make me feel like people will laugh at me. Obviously, people didn’t care enough about my book to write a review, and they probably didn’t even read it if they bought it. Then I remind myself that the average person doesn’t write book reviews. Authors know how important reviews are. I’ve sold a small number of books and again, if I tell you the number, that will prove how worthless my writing is. How worthless I am. Won’t it?

    I have life long mental illness. I have schizophrenia which is a very serious illness with acute symptoms. Disassociation, identity problems, lack of awareness, hallucinations, psychosis, lack of affect, paranoia. Not all of these symptoms are the same for all. I’ve had them in the past, but only a few now. They come and go. There’s always the possibility of relapse. The medicine has terrible side-effects. One is I can’t see good because it causes blurry vision at times. I can’t write or read with blurry vision. Trouble walking, tremors, oversleeping-these are terrible.

    I have epilepsy that’s manageable now. Some studies have suggested that schizophrenia and epilepsy are interrelated. The anti convulsive medicine can provoke seizures. How crazy! Having a seizure wears me out for days. I have damaged heart valves which brings on fatigue and reduced energy levels. These problems have led to other issues. Testing revealed that I have mild cognitive problems. In my case, that’s forgetfulness, or sometimes not recognizing people I know.  Occasionally, I go blank when I’m writing and don’t know what word to choose. The same thing happens when I talk. It’s not a case of trying to use the best word at the time. I mean I can’t think of the name of a certain object or action. An example is I want to make a peanut butter sandwich but I forget what to call the stuff inside the jar. If I am alone no problem. But I’ve had trouble naming the peanut butter when other people were there. I’m aware of what I’m doing and I realize I can’t think of the name of what I’m spreading on my toast. I say “stuff” or “this” and use pointing to make myself understood. When my brain pauses like that, it makes it so hard to communicate. Writing is a solitary activity but I’m still slow. It may take me a week to complete a blog post like this one, stopping and starting as needed. (It took a month to finish this one. Damn you virus!)

    Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

    Funny thing is my writing has gotten even better as time goes on. It improves with each story or poem or book. Even writing a blog post improves my writing. The act of writing gives me more practice, just as practice with a sport or hobby makes you better. As the advertisement says, Just Do It!

    My depression makes me introverted. It’s impossible to interact with people when I feel that way, so participating in writing groups and social media gets me “out of myself.”  A positive aspect of social media is the ease of communication for people like me.  Writing a sentence or two as a reply is still writing.

    My dad used to motivate me when I was confused. That’s another result of depression and mental illness-confusion. What to do now? What to do next? The future? Dad always said that I don’t have to do anything except take care of myself, be a good person and stay close to God, and that gave me some direction. ( I’m not including working for pay, or taking care of children or home in this part.) I don’t have to write that blog post or article. I don’t have to submit a story to a journal. I don’t have to enter that contest. I don’t have to answer that email if I don’t feel like it. The knowledge that I don’t have to do certain things gives me hope out of darkness. If I just want to sit and think, that’s okay. If the only strength I have is reading in bed, that’s okay. If I don’t feel strong enough to say a word that day, that’s okay. My family understands. I try to at least say good morning but sometimes I can’t handle any more than that. When people talk beyond my comfort level it feels like a bunch of sounds beating on my skull forcing themselves into my brain. On the days I feel better, I can write. If I don’t write for a month or more, that’s okay.

    I know that I’d feel worse if I give up writing. Today is a good day. I can use the logical side of my brain easily. I don’t want to make a decision that I’ll regret later. I know that I have the power to give up writing if I want to, but I don’t want to give up. But I will make a decision and that decision is not to give up. Today.



    Thanks for reading. If you’d like to receive more posts, please sign up for my email list.

    I found this photograph of Yellow Gorse, a bush with beautiful flowers that grows wild in Ireland. I still have to find out what kind of bird this one is. He or she is magnificent!  Credit: Richard Steel / naturepl.com

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