I first heard the poem “Lost” by David Wagoner recited in a workshop with David Whyte as he talked about bringing your soul, your essence, into the workplace. David acknowledged that our work journeys often involve times of loss and confusion. Sometimes we stay in the job, sometimes we leave. But always there seems to be a time needed for deep reflection. I love the notion of being in the woods, being lost, and then pausing until you find your way. Good advice no matter where you find yourself! Enjoy the poem.
by David Wagoner
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
What lines speak to you? Is there a situation in your life that is calling you to pause and reflect?
Last fall I saw the play Next to Normal at Center Stage in Baltimore. All I knew about the play was that it was a rock musical about a woman with depression and the harm that the disease inflicts on both her and her family. “Great storyline,” I can hear people saying facetiously. “I think I’ll pass. “ But the storyline in Next to Normal is very much like my story.
I had no idea how closely the scenes of the play would mirror my own experiences, especially as the mother. The main character, Diana, has suffered from depression on and off for years and is currently entering another very dark place. Her husband, Dan, struggles to keep his job, help his daughter, and support his wife. The daughter, Natalie, feels alienated and confused, and the son is a mystery. I had a lump in my throat as I watched the story play out.
The playwrights, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, captured the experiences of this family and their struggles so well that the play won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony for Best Score. I was stunned and felt like I was watching my story in many ways. Especially when the Diana sang “I Miss the Mountains” where she mourns the loss of the peaks and valleys of emotion she used to feel. And of course, the character in the play was supposed to have bipolar disorder, so she had to take mood regulators, which flatten out your personality and render you “normal.” And indeed those drugs often help people to live happy and productive lives. But as someone who has experienced mood regulators, I resonate with Diana’s yearning for the mountains.
My doctor labeled me as bipolar II, mostly because he thought I was “too happy” when I took antidepressants to get out of my first depression. I describe how I felt about that exchange in the poem “The Hopkins Doctor Diagnoses Me” which is in my memoir in verse The Altar of Innocence. I disagreed with his diagnosis and fought the idea of mood regulators, but because my depression was so long and so deep, I acquiesced and tried several versions of them. (Full disclosure, I have been depression-free since 1997 and medication-free since 2002.) I remember feeling like I had a heavy, wet, Army blanket on my personality. I had word-finding problems, and I gained 50 pounds. But the doctor would not listen to me when I said that I had a higher-than-average happiness level and lots of energy to get things done. “I’ve always been like that,” I told him. But when you’re a psych patient, you are easy to dismiss as non-compliant if you don’t want to take drugs.
Thankfully, I got well and eventually got off of all the medications, and I’ve been well for a long time. I do have highs and lows, and I have the coping skills to manage them. I journal, meditate, and go to acupuncture regularly. I have a good mix of social time and alone time. But most of all, I see those rolling hills of emotion as vital to who I am. Those rolling hills are normal for me.
Here’s an audio version of the song followed by the lyrics. Enjoy! I’d love to hear your thoughts about how we define “normal” in our current paradigm of treatment. Is there room for disagreement? For nuance? Is there only one “normal”?
Mountains By Yorkey and Kitt
There was a time when I flew higher,
Was a time the wild girl running free
Would be me.
Now I see her feel the fire,
Now I know she needs me
There to share
All these blank and tranquil years
Seems they’ve dried up all my tears.
And while she runs free and fast,
Seems my wild days are past.
But I miss the mountains.
I miss the dizzy heights.
All the manic, magic days,
And the dark, depressing nights.
I miss the mountains,
I miss the highs and lows,
All the climbing, all the falling,
All the while the wild wind blows,
Stinging you with snow
And soaking you with rain
I miss the mountains,
I miss the pain.
Mountains make you crazy
Here it’s safe and sound.
My mind is somewhere hazy
My feet are on the ground.
Everything is balanced here
And on an even keel.
Everything is perfect
And I miss the mountains.
I, I miss the lonely climb.
Wand’ring through the wilderness.
And spending all my time
Where the air is clear
And cuts you like a knife
I miss the mountains…
I miss the mountains…
I miss my life.
I miss my life.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Remember when you were a child and you pretended to work in some occupation? As a girl growing up in the 50s, I often played at being a teacher, a flight attendant, or a nurse. I couldn’t wait to get my first job. When I graduated from college, I was enthusiastic and idealistic about the difference I could make in the lives of my students. And I have contributed in positive ways to my students, but often in very small ways rather than the grand happenings we see in movies like Freedom Writers. And as I’ve encountered more and more bureaucratic obstacles at work, I’ve often felt discouraged. My enthusiasm has waned.
And the loss of enthusiasm so many workers feel is no wonder, especially given the amount of time we Americans spend working. About a third of our adult life is spent at work, another third sleeping, and the last third in the routine tasks of living. Those are sobering statistics and all the more reason for us to look for ways that we can be happy and productive in our workplaces. Yet so many of us find ourselves in workplaces that feel soulless and boring. There is an increasing reliance on data to drive all of business’ decisions, and employees are treated like machines that can endlessly go faster and produce more, producing a very harsh work environment. From Amazon to school systems, people feel stressed, tired, and unappreciated. What can workers do in such an atmosphere?
Poet and leadership consultant David Whyte, writing in his book about work Crossing the Unknown Sea, Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, has this to say about our needs in the workplace: “The workplace carries so much of our desperate need for acknowledgement, for hierarchy, for reward, to be seen, and to be seen as we want to be seen, that we often overreach….The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.”
The last line really stops me in my tracks, especially when I am discouraged by institutional problems and practices. I know that I am powerless in the face of the large university system that employees me and seems to be adopting more and more of a cut-throat business mindset rather than creating a nurturing environment for inspiring students and faculty. Where is my heart? What is it that I can give myself to with abandon?
My answer is two-fold. In my classroom, I focus on three ideas. First, I am present and in the moment for my students when I teach. I do this by beginning most classes with a minute of silence to calm and center the class and by banning the use of cell phones and laptops in my classroom. Anther area I focus on is community. I learn everyone’s name in the first couple of days so that students feel welcome and respected. Additionally, I often have the students work with partners or small groups so they get to know their peers and can work in teams. Finally, I design my activities and assignments carefully, working to provide enough structure so that they know what to do and enough freedom that they can express themselves.
In my writing life, I focus on setting small goals that I know I can achieve on a regular basis. Submit to three new publications every month (still working on this one!), write every day, and when I’m feeling especially stuck, use colored pencils to create shapes and images that mirror my feelings. When I do that, I often find the colors and shapes evoke ideas so that I surprise myself with a new poem.