Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's Essential?

It's that which we take for granted. It's the things we don't notice or value until those things are taken from us. I think of this every Sunday when I make the hour-long trek to Orofino. For an hour, I have the privilege of listening to the radio station of my choice, or when the distance takes that away from me, I have the choice to listen to silence or to pop in a cassette tape (a CD is not a choice in my 1995 Toyota Corolla). I have the choice to sing along, badly. I have the choice to brood about whatever is worrying me. I have the choice to cast my worries out and away, somewhere along a bend in the road or out over the Clearwater--my worries as thin as the filament the fishermen cast from their boats or their solitary spots on the shore.
I think of what's essential when I see the railroad cars and the blackberry brambles and the crooked path the patients at State Hospital North built. I think what's essential is the ability to travel by car, rail, plane or boat when I choose to, with my only concerns being destination and for how long I'll be gone. I think what a blessing it is to be able to walk any path I choose, whether it's that rick-rack sidewalk or Warner Avenue with my dog or across America to raise awareness for a cause. Even those blackberry brambles are essential. Not a month ago, I parked my car and walked along the railroad track and picked those blackberries. They were big as the end of my thumb and sweet, and I had every right to stain my hands with their juices, to scratch my skin with their briars, and to feel their weight on my tongue. I was free to sit and eat them as naturally as the bear or the deer. I was free to gather them and take them home to bake later into a pie.
Contrast this with the tall Americano with one shot of raspberry flavoring that's sitting in my car's cup holder. That's what the patient requested. In the past, what's essential to her has been anything she can get from the outside. I've brought her these coffees before. The first time, I brought the coffee and later found out the second-degree burns on her hands were from her pouring hot coffee on herself--intentionally. I've always known that safety is essential, but I rarely think about keeping one safe from one's self, which obviously is vital too.
I've brought banana nut muffins. I've brought cheese quesadillas and bags of chocolate and more recently a box of graham crackers and a jar of vanilla frosting. Food is essential, but comfort food, moreso. It isn't about nutrients or the food pyramid. They are fattening and not the best fuel, but they are essential to the preservation of one girl and the life she used to know outside the hospital.
The State Hospital North, however, begs to differ on these items being essential. As of October 1, I can no longer bring some of these foods and drinks. They cannot be homemade. They cannot be something wrapped in foil or covered over in a plastic coffee cup lid. They must be manufactured, sealed. When I motion to the coffee I brought (not knowing the new rule) and tell her they'll be confiscating it, she says what she has said before when the take away something she finds essential: "That's bullshit." I distract her from what she's lost by asking her what she'd like next time. Nacho cheese Doritos are essential.
Generally, they place us in a room with 3 locked doors. The room contains the essentials: a table, two chairs, a phone (which the worker instructs me in front of the patient that I can use to call in case I need help), a garbage can, and a clock. The clock ticks, and the red second hand reminds me how essential it is that a person can direct her own use of time. I think that clock must be vast as the ocean for her. I feel a certain sense of guilt that I waste time doing nothing, and yet if I was in here and had nothing to do, I'd feel the difference between my own ability to do nothing with time versus not having the option to fill the time with activities.
Sanity is essential, though I've known my share of writers, artists, and musicians who would not accept sanity as a gift because insanity is a gift that keeps on giving, inspiration-wise. I've had my own bouts with trying to figure out what is real and what is not. I've crawled under the dark quilt of depression and found it simultaneously smothering and comforting. I've taken my share of antidepressants and visted my share of green-sweatered nodders, the ones who say nothing but take copious notes. But it's always been situational, explainable. My sadness could be pinned on the death of my grandmother or the loss of a job or a boyfriend who drove me hard until he wrecked me. Bad times passed, and that quilt got folded and put away. I have never, though, known the sort of darkness that doesn't go away. Keeping the darkness away is essential.
When I started the project, I was told that regular visits and the ability to do art was essential to the patient's mental health. It's something I take for granted. I can do it any time I want to. And I'm not limited on projects. Only my imagination limits what I can do. like In here, patients can paint on a shirt with puffy paint or tool a belt or sew, and if you don't enjoy those activities, well, you're out of luck. In the 3 hours we spend together, we glue, paint, and rip. We rip because I'm not allowed to bring scissors. If we paint, we need to use the cheapest paintbrushes possible, the type without a metal ring that holds the bristles in place. The metal ring is considered dangerous. And with all these restrictions on materials, I realize what is essential. I realize there's no need for fancy products or tools. In some ways, it's the ultimate "fuck you" to the long list of rules, because god damn it, we made something beautiful anyway. Making beauty out of the ordinary is essential.
During my most recent visit, I watched her write messages in the cards we made, watched as she ran her tongue across the envelope flap, sealed it, and handed it to me. She asked me to mail what she'd made, and I realized that the most essential thing is having someone to send that letter to. Mail it, blog it, say it on Facebook, say it into the phone or say it to the face closest to yours. We all need a recipient, that someone who hears what you're saying--right or wrong, crazy or sane, boring or infinitely interesting--and is so glad you're around to say it because you are essential, and the world wouldn't be the same if you weren't in it.


  1. I love this description: "I've crawled under the dark quilt of depression and found it simultaneously smothering and comforting."
    Thank you for being one of my essentials.

  2. Very interesting and enjoyable reading.

  3. Just found you through my site meter. Your writing is remarkable, as far as I can tell you don't know Emma, but I think you would like her blog very much.

    By the way ( I'll check back to find out the answer) let me know if you'd like me to mention you in a post, you may want to keep a low profile but I think some of the people who read my blog would enjoy reading yours.