The Bird and the Bees (and the Alligator Scat)

mutant beeWalking the Everglades, camera in hand, surrounded by Spanish Needle, now full in bloom, like miniature daisies, which enjoying Florida’s daily rains and the lack of weed-whackers and obsessive suburban lawn community regulations, has proliferated all along the canal, I heard them before I saw them, the bees. Not normal, almost cuddly honey bees, like the bumble bees of my childhood which seemed quaint by comparison, but large, all in black ferocious looking things, set off against the white flowers of the weeds, ignoring me because I posed no threat, their faith in their numbers, which were many.  My return to Everglades photography has taken five months, me having given up my weekly excursions around the time that the perfect storm of convenience departed, with my oldest boys finished with the spring college classes, and the stress of Holy Week and Easter and the loss of my office administrator due to budget cuts.

One small step for me, I suppose, covered in mosquito-proof clothing sweating under the 95 degree heat and humidity that is Florida in the summer.   

In the winter and early spring the canal would be full of hundreds of birds stopping over on their journey north, their full-on breeding plumage drawing  photographers from all over the country, if not the world, as if the bank of the canal were some red carpet and they the paparazzi angling for the next money shot destined for National Geographic.  Cormorants, Majestic Snowy Egrets, Green, Blue and Tri-colored Herons, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, and the Great Blue Heron and many more crowded the canals and trees and ponds and nested and raised their young and posed for pictures, unconcerned about modeling fees and copyrights.  But by the summer, they were nearly all gone. I counted two birds in two hours.

When the birds and I last met through different ends of a a telephoto lens, the stresses of my life had been packed away in some leaky container buried in the soil of memory.  The birds were beautiful, but the leaching out of so much that I had failed to address, that I had rudely shoved aside in the name of being too busy and too much work and moving on with life, tainted the joy from my smile. Now in place of birds, there were bees, huge and dark as night and a few bumblebees, but like some experiment gone horribly wrong, their eyes were green, pea soup green, rather than black. I have the photos, trust me.  With the bees came the Lubber Grasshoppers, a sickly yellow, easily the size of your middle finger and just a thick around, fearless, staring into the lens a few inches away, wondering, perhaps, if they might want to eat that, too.   Five months has brought many changes to the canal.

For me, another week has passed. The new depression meds and doses seem an improvement, but I have felt better before only to end up disappointed. Too soon, then, to claim a victory of sorts. Lurking somewhere in the near-future is my next appointment to receive the results of the blood work and the doctor’s opinion on the possibility of an auto-immune disease.   But yesterday, for a few hours, amid the changes and fears, I could walk and take photographs of butterflies and dragonflies, and fill my nostrils with the acrid smell of alligator scat desiccating in the warm afternoon sun along the pathway. They wouldn’t dream of using the canal in which they live and swim as a toilet. At least this one thing remains unchanged and familiar.   

In Which I Fart during Yoga and Learn My First Word in Swedish

My wife has been doing yoga for years now. I tease her about it, calling it yogurt, and making up all sorts of often unprintable names for the various positions that she has been learning. Unspoken, more often than not, is the reality that she has gotten younger over the years and defied most visible signs of aging, to my eyes, anyway. Every pound that she has lost I have gained two for one (truth). Every morning I see her out there on the patio, in the silence, in the candlelight, stretching and preparing for the day.  She is a fairly upbeat person with great interior strength and a capacity for compassion that humbles me. I have no idea what role yoga plays in any of that, but it was about damn time that I should be able to touch my toes again and leaving my coping with stress merely in the hands of pharmacology seemed just plain wrong. So a few weeks ago, I agreed to join her. After all, humility, they say, is good for the soul.

Two immediate points: The folks leading the yoga class really hate air conditioning, which in South Florida in August leads to sweating, sometimes copiously so.  Secondly, all of the muscle stretching and rocking and relaxing can lead to accidently discharge of any pent up flatulence, which in the quiet almost holy and pristine atmosphere of yoga is like setting off one of those store alarms as you walk out the door because the scanner failed to clear your purchases properly.  And there is no place to hide when you are bent over in the shape of an inverted “V” with hands and feet upon the mat and your butt high in the air. The thought of saying “excuse me” never entered my mind. I think it is left over from childhood with all of that “name it and claim it” teasing we did to one another. Anyway, I bet it happens all of the time, yoga farting.  But just to be safe I switched to a new instructor and new class in a new location the next Saturday. And I live in a good-sized city.

My annual physical blood work raised a flag which only proved that my new medications and dosing appear to be working, since the news did not paralyze me into inaction or anxious behaviors.  The real test is the waiting. Waiting to take more tests. Waiting for the results. Waiting for the next appointments. Googling around the results for the blood work just for fun and walking away from the computer after I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the various permutations of diseases possible from the results.  See, it all can still mean nothing. Three blood tests, a few x-rays and two doctors appointments. It could mean absolutely nothing. I could just have weird blood that gives false positives.  And the medications that I am on could be responsible for several of the symptoms that concern the doctors. And so could the depression. This is what really sucks, because nothing is cut and dried.  This isn’t like a pregnancy test where you are or you aren’t. Auto-immune diseases are subject to checklists and screening tests and health history and the like. There is no pee on the strip and watch it turn blue (or pink or whatever). And so on I wait for the third round of blood tests to be tittered and sorted so they can begin to eliminate the possibilities, one of which is Sjögren’s syndrome, which sounds like a toast in Swedish: “SJORGEN!”  and then we would all down our glasses of aquavit. Unfortunately, it is instead this wild auto-immune disease that can destroy  the glands that produce saliva and tears, which would take care of the depression-induced crying, but in that cause the cure would be worse than the disease.  

So I wait and take note of how the depression and anxiety medication  helps me cope with this and other unexpected challenges of life and the life of a pastor and wait and see what tomorrow brings and the ones that follow on its heels and ever.  One day at a time.

The Masks We Wear, Robin Williams, and No, it is not Selfishness, but Sickness

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”


I have been struggling a bit with Robin William’s death.

As a person who struggles with depression, I know that place and have known it off and on most of my life. People talk about “fight or flight” when it comes to response to stress, but depressed people have a third option that sometimes lurks off in the background.  No one ever talks about that option. But they are talking about it now. A lot. Because of Robin Williams.

I remember in high school when I served as the Student Organization Treasurer, which meant that the school store fell under my direct purview.  It was not unusual for some of the folks who volunteered there to toss candy out to their friends, which would then show up on the end of the day inventory as theft. The faculty advisor had a habit of having me called out of class and down to his office demanding to know what had happened and what I was going to do about it. This would happen often, the stress building and building, as I found it difficult to confront students much older and larger than me. So much stress: fight or flight or dream about running and jumping out of the second floor window the next time my name was called over the loudspeaker. I had that dream often. It followed me to college, to the pressure of “plebe year” at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. I went from being a top 5 student in high school to academic probation in short order. I was screamed at, humiliated, broken and broken again. I often looked out over the walkways that connected the buildings and looked down. How far it would be to fall? How easy to jump the rail?

I got sick and was told it was likely asthma which would be a cause for me to be dis-enrolled, but my lungs were too weak to complete the test to prove it. It was only a matter of time.  Everyone back home, my family, the school teachers, the town itself, was so proud of me. I was there to please them and that burden was beyond weighing. They put me on steroids to strengthen my lungs and my depression spiraled out of control.  My obligations to my upper class, memorizing menus and upcoming events and professional knowledge, lagged, until I was warned that the next day would be the worst day of my life. I had better know it all and without hesitation.

That night I swallowed most of a bottle of prescription pills, medicine for my weak lungs and horrible cough, and went to bed and hoped that tomorrow would never come.  But it did. Sun streaming in through the window, it came. It was not enough pills or the wrong kind of pills or God had mercy on me. I have no idea. So I got up and faced the day, for what could be worse than facing death?

I told one friend from back home who made me promise never to do that again. That she was always there to talk. And she was there, my closest friend, until her tragic death from complications from asthma some two years later, a disease, as it turns out, that I did not have.  

People throw words around the topic of suicide like “selfish” or “taking the easy way out.” I have done many selfish things in my life. Swallowing a bottle of pills was not one of them. Depression is a sickness that still holds much mystery. Talk to someone who is trying to find the right combination and dose of medications to balance their depression with their ability to function otherwise. Or sleep. Or even remember. If they are willing to talk. Ask them about what it is like, the darkness, the hidden loneliness, the masks they must wear. People suffer with untreated depression mostly out of fear. Fear for their jobs. Fear for how they will be judged by others. We can all speak to their fear with words of compassion and love. With hearts filled with grace. And we should not wait to do so. Not one more minute.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

My two month appointment has come and gone. Let’s label it the “Is it working?” appointment.

Eight weeks on the medication and it was time to sit down and have a review with the psychiatrist.  Going in I had thought long and hard about how I would answer since I knew that it would be the most important question of the morning.  

 “No,” it is not.

 That was easy.  But the reality of having to switch from one medication and move on to others, less so. I am coming to appreciate the complexity of brain chemistry: One medicine for this neurochemical and one for that. It would be amazing if science could develop a test that could tell which one or ones were the culprit. Missing. Out of balance. Not playing nicely with others. Whichever the case. But not today. Not yet. For me and for others, it is trial and error.  Satisfaction and disappointment. Good days (is it working – is this “the one?”) and bad days that are noted and accumulated and reflected upon as basic trends are noted. Well, this time around we guessed wrong. It knocked me out so I could sleep, but did not leave me rested. The anxiety was untouched, if not worse. The emotional ups and downs unmitigated. Some good days to be sure. Days of hoping. Days in the sun. But there weren’t enough of them.

You know the medicine is not working when you feel as happy as you have in months having enjoyed a day walking through a botanical garden with the one you love and you begin to cry realizing that such a feeling is unsustainable. That there is darkness waiting to envelope you.  Like someone threw a switch: Laughing then somber then tears. And trust me, I know how ridiculous that sounds. I know that life is full of joys and sorrows and someone’s definition of normal that fill a vast majority of our time. Knowing how ridiculous that is does not make it any easier.

Depression sucks.

And so thank God for kittens.

And yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds, too.

Someone dumped a small kitten at our church office door the other day. With a note and an opened can of sardines and the happiest ants in the world who must have thought that had died and gone to ant heaven. The one where food comes in abundance of smell and quantity. The kitten, on the other hand, would not have mistaken that box for any version of kitty nirvana or Valhalla or pearly gates leading to copious balls of string filling catnip fields. The small ball of coppery brown and orange fur was full of hookworms; its eyes crusted over from infection; emaciated and dirty. One could easily believe that, as the note declared, it could not be cared for and was found in a car engine and needed a home.  The text from our facilities manager announcing the kitten’s discovery at the door to my office could not begin to capture the severity of the situation. So I traded sermon writing for a visit to the vet. “You have a very sick kitten,” he said as it laid there unmoving except for the occasion kitten-type mewing. Tests and medicines followed in a kind of “we’ll see what happens, but don’t get your hope up” atmosphere.

 Two weeks have passed and the kitten now named “Apollo” by one of my sons has nearly doubled his weight. The massive diarrhea is gone. His eyes no longer crust shut twice a day. He is using the litter box (a minor point in the larger scheme of things, but appreciated).  He play fights and jumps around and purrs like that is the entire point of his life (besides eating). Life for him is re-booting and presumably much better than it had been.  I think he is going to stick around for awhile. Everyone needs more companions for the journey.