Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Fairy Gardens

Recently I attended the Chicago Flower and Garden Show. It is one of my favorite annual Chicago events, because after months of staring at barren trees and gray landscapes, you get to step into a fragrant wonderland filled with flowers. I've been attending the show since 2009, which is when this specimen of adorableness was taken:

This year's show featured all the old standards: lush landscapes, colorful flowers, decks you could never afford, water features, and, my personal favorite, the tulip fields: 

Something new I noticed this year, though, was the incorporation of miniature fairy gardens into the larger landscapes. I was so taken by them that I took this blurry photo of one: 

Now, I was aware of the fairy garden phenomenon before, but it hadn't really interested me because I do not like the following: 

1. fairies
2. gardening

I mean, I'm not against fairies, it's just that I've never been one who was interested in fantasy and whimsy and hanging out at Renaissance Faires and stuff. And as for gardening, for me it's just a big experiment to see how quickly plants can die. 

But I do love miniature versions of things, and that's what attracted me to the fairy gardens. I decided I wanted to create my own. I had been looking for a craft to do, despite the fact that, to add to the list above, one more thing I do not like is: 

3. crafts

I want to like crafts. I go to Michael's and see all the pretty stuff you could buy and create with, and I want to be that buyer and creator. I like the idea that crafts could be an outlet for my mental health issues. BUT, crafts stress me out. They create additional anxiety for me because I'm always obsessing about how ugly my craft is turning out. 

I always say my only successful craft medium is words, and the trouble with words is that words have meaning. So it's not really an escape to craft with words, because they have pesky meanings that evoke, you know, emotions and stuff. Unless you want to write total fantasy, which, again, is probably better suited to fairy-loving Renaissance Faire employees. 

But I decided to take a stab at a non-verbal craft and create my own fairy garden. Work was slow for awhile (#freelancelife), and I needed something constructive to do with my days. (I don't think my previous "worrying that my career is a total failure" activity could be called constructive.)

So, I set out to create a fairy garden. My first step was to check out some library books about fairy gardens. 

The first book was clearly a legitimate resource because it had a forward written by an actual fairy. That fairy was Violet Greenpea Maydreams, Chief Scribe for the Garden Fairies at May Dreams Gardens. Violet explains that one controversy in fairy gardening is the debate over whether or not to include likenesses of fairies in the gardens. Some say little fairies enhance the garden, while others believe the garden should merely be a space that invites fairies in. Violet clearly comes down on the side of no fairies, even though the book itself has a picture with four fairies on the cover. I'm starting to think these fairies might not be the most consistent folk. 

Anyway, it didn't matter because I decided I didn't really want to emphasize fairies at all in my garden, but rather just create a miniature landscape. You know, like designing my dream home, but one I could actually afford. (Though, as it turns out, crafting is only slightly more affordable than home construction.) 

I also decided that using real plants in the garden would be a disaster. Besides my afore-mentioned talent for killing plants, we also don't have any windowsills in our house where the plants could get adequate sunlight. (And March in Chicago is not part of outdoor-growing season.) Any horizontal surface we do have would be frequented by cats, who would either eat the plants or mistake a box filled with sand for something else. 

So basically I was creating a fairy-free miniature scene with artificial plants. In other words, the sort of diorama I complained about having to make in elementary school. 

But this diorama wasn't going to feature Gabrielino Indians making acorn mush, nor would it be a miniature Mission San Juan Capistrano. It was going to be a tiny little scene of all the things I love most in the world. 

I should also note that I was able to get Nathan on board with this project pretty easily. At first I figured we would build one scene together, but when the addition of Minecraft figurines was suggested, I decided we would each create our own scene. 

So we went to Michael's. We bought approximately 95 items for our gardens. I told Bill to go wait out in the car while I checked out so he wouldn't see how much we were spending. (I always end up coming clean about these things, but I use the tactic where I start with a figure much higher so that when I get to the actual total it doesn't seem as bad. Unfortunately I'm a terrible liar and Bill was onto me.) 

Then I went home and ordered some more supplies from Amazon. 

Yesterday Nathan and I actually made the gardens. It was the kind of wonderful, screen-free, hands-on parenting activity you want to document on Facebook to make people think you do these kinds of things all the time. 

Here's Nathan's: 

Here's mine: 

Nathan was very concerned with scale. (So see, it was also a math lesson.) The dog house is in proportion to the real house, and every Minecraft animal could actually traverse that bridge. My garden, on the other hand, features a very large cat figurine (sitting at the front of the walkway) that wouldn't fit through the door of the house, suggesting a giant freak mutant cat.

Here are some other features of my garden:

The beach, where somebody is reading a book. (Not me, because I only read on Kindle now.) 

Kitty (not the freak mutant one) asleep in a flower garden. 


So those are our miniature gardens. I have no idea what we're going to do with them, but they were fun to make and they look cute. Also, due to my tendency to overbuy at Michael's, we have supplies to make at least six more fairy gardens. Of course, I don't have any more little houses or kitties. Better go order some more stuff on Amazon. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

I Am

"Life's not worth a damn 'til you can say,
Hey world, I am what I am."
–"I Am What I Am," from the musical La Cage Aux Folles 
I have been very open on this blog about my struggles with depression. It's important to me that I'm honest about my own battles, so that I can lend a sense of solidarity to other sufferers, and maybe even encourage somebody to get much-needed help for depression.

That said, there is something I have never shared about my depression:

I am incredibly ashamed of it. 

I know. WHAT?!? I'm all about Depression is a chemical problem, not a character problem. It's not your fault. End the stigma! I spew the oft-repeated analogy to diabetes, that both are physical diseases related to your body's inability to produce some chemical. And I truly believe this analogy.

But Depression doesn't believe it. See, I think of Depression as a separate entity that lives inside of me, a big fat lying liar whose main goal is self-preservation.

I'll never go away, Depression says. It's way too much energy to exercise or go out with your friends or do anything else that might weaken me, so you're better off just lying in your bed crying and hanging out with me. Everyone else is tired of hearing about your stupid problems anyway. 

And then there's Depression's greatest hit:

You are weak and pathetic. You should be ashamed of yourself for turning to pills to try to beat me. 

Now, in my stronger, healthier moments, I actually can recognize Depression's lies. I can call bullshit on them, and sometimes I can't hear them at all. I can say I am a person with a common medical condition. I am fighting it with pharmaceuticals and lifestyle changes, and I truly believe I'm fighting as hard as a possibly can. I am not weak, I am strong for getting help and managing this condition. 

But then there are the other moments. The moments when you've just been told you have to double your antidepressant dosage, and you have to blink back tears of shame in the Target pharmacy. The moments when somebody spews out some ignorant drivel about how you could beat it if you just tried harder to be happy or prayed harder or just stopped being so dramatic--and you actually find yourself believing this crap.

Maybe I am weak. Maybe it is all a drama I made up in my head. 

Why am I telling you this? If my goal is truly to encourage people to get help for their own depression, I shouldn't be telling you how shameful I feel about getting help for mine. But I guess I want you to know that if you feel ashamed, you aren't alone. And that, like me, you should get help in spite of the shame. Because the irony is, when you get help, the shame goes away.

Or, at least it lessens. I can now recognize that all that shame stems from Depression's pathetic little lies it tells in the name of self-preservation. I still hear the lies sometimes, still believe them occasionally, but I know they're lies.

So, whatever sense of shame you have to drag with you to the doctor or the therapist or even just your close friend, please still get help. Know that we've all felt ashamed, and you're not alone in your shame--but don't let that shame stop you from getting help. 

The truth is, for all the shame I've felt, I've felt an equal or greater sense of pride in knowing that I'm fighting depression. In fact, I can say without any exaggeration that beating depression is by far my proudest accomplishment in life. So even if I have to carry some shame along with me in that fight--and even if you do--the fight is still so, so worth it.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

No Soup (Labels) For You!

As soon as Nathan started kindergarten, I was bombarded with a slew of school fundraising opportunities. There were the big ones—the 5K fund run, the magazine sale, the catalog of wrapping paper and other assorted gift items.

And then there were the little, day-to-day fundraisers. If you have a child attending school, you're probably familiar with them, but let me recap what we have:

  • Box Tops for Education: General Mills cereals, Ziploc bags, Avery binders, Old El Paso food products, Green Giant pre-bagged vegetables—These and many others are among the brands that contain that coveted little Box Tops for Education rectangle that you're supposed to cut out, save, and then glue to the monthly Box Tops collection sheet that comes home with your kid, which always has a fun seasonal pun like "Box Tops Are Snow Much Fun!" Now, I immediately decided that if I didn't send my kid with this completed sheet of ten box tops, the day after it was sent home, I would be labeled Bad Mother. So I became obsessed with finding these box tops. The last time anybody was this excited about box tops was during WWII, which, if the popular camp song "Up in the Air, Junior Birdman" is to be believed, were among the random household scraps that patriotic children collected for the war effort. (How box tops helped us defeat the Axis Powers is unclear to me, but presumably there were some soldiers in an office somewhere assigned to glue them to these silly sheets and return them in exchange for $1 per sheet.) So, you become a bit of an eagle-eyed birdman yourself as you putter around in your kitchen, spotting box tops from a mile away and cutting them out. You
    get stupidly excited to find one. Until you realize that each Box Top is worth 10¢  and you're a grown adult with a college degree who theoretically has the ability to earn more than 10¢  in the time you spend cutting and gluing down these little rectangles. (Oh, and you have to cut precisely. Every extra inch of cardboard costs the school more in postage, which means your net earnings from Box Tops go down. I kid you not, most schools have somebody assigned to cut off extra layers of cardboard using a razor blade, just to cut down on mailing costs.) Now, the thing is, I think it's nice that these companies make donations to schools. I think the Box Tops are a good way for a family of any means to help raise money for their schools. Collecting box tops in your kitchen is an easy, free way to solicit donations for your school. And the program is coordinated by a school volunteer, so basically the school isn't laying out any capital to earn the money from Box Tops. It's pure profit (postage costs notwithstanding), and from what I understand, the school makes about $1,000 a year off of the program. There's a lot of good to be said about it. It's just, you realize that if you're theoretically filling one sheet per month, the school makes $1 per month off of you, which means $10 per year, and wouldn't it be easier if you could just find the Box Tops coordinator and hand her a $10 bill at the beginning of the school year? 
  • Dunkin' Donuts receipts: It's very nice of the owners of our local Dunkin' franchise to donate 10% of all sales to the school when you turn in receipts. Still, I suspect that the whole Dunkin' fundraiser is just a way for the school to secretly check up on how often you're feeding your kids donuts. Which, in my house, is a shameful amount. 
    "Donuts ... Is there anything they can't do?" —Homer Simpson
  • Campbells Labels for Education: This is the one that befuddles me. Campbell's Soup, and its associated brands like Pepperidge Farm and Dannon, have these Labels for Education on their packaging. I didn't even know we were supposed to be collecting these until Nathan was about midway through kindergarten, but as soon as I found out I developed a new obsession with finding these silly rectangles, too. From what I understand, these labels earn your school points to buy items from a catalog of useful school items. Last year the labels purchased these little stand-up plastic warning creatures, which I refer to as the Safety Turtles: 
Now I'm thinking, Wow, just by cutting out a bunch of annoying labels, I helped my school earn three safety turtles. What if those turtles saved somebody's life? How can I deny the school these life-saving plastic turtles? And were safety turtles what really helped us win WWII? So I feel compelled to cut out every stupid label I see, even though it's hard to remove a soup label while keeping it intact, or to cut through the double-layered foil innards of a Mint Milanos package. (Wow, I am not painting a very positive picture of the nutritional situation in my household.) 

Mmm! Mmm! Guilt! 
Anyway, the relevant anecdote to which I am taking a very circuitous route here goes as follows: The other day I was making a recipe that called for two cans of Campbell's soup. Naturally, once the cans were emptied, I began to attempt label removal. Compounded by other minor annoyances in my cushy suburban life, I was getting all kinds of frustrated with this process of label removal. And then I had one of those What am I doing here? moments and just ... wait for it ... threw two valuable turtle-earning labels in the trash can. No soup labels for you! 

Oh, how I love a good Seinfeld reference. 

Now, Seinfeld was all about the trivial, and certainly the choice to throw out soup labels is possibly the most trivial decision ever. But it represents something larger, and for that I have to reluctantly make a reference to another franchise, one I'm not so fond of. 


Because, the thing is, that minor choice to throw away the labels was the first step in learning to Let It Go. I'd become obsessed with doing everything right as a school parent—helping in the classroom, attending every evening event, helping with every fundraiser, checking every last problem of the homework. And God forbid I ever signed a reading log with slightly inaccurate information; I mean, those things are serious, legally-binding contracts, right? 

And not to imply that this is some sort of huge breakthrough for me, but since the Soup Label Incident, I have also taken the following "Let It Go" actions: 
  1. Throwing away the flier for Family Reading Night, because it just didn't sound like something that would be a good fit for my family. 
  2. Choosing not to participate in the Six Flags Read to Succeed program, for which you fill out a log of every book your kid reads for 180 minutes (or something) and then earn a child's Six Flags ticket in return. Every year I fill this thing out, not for the free ticket, but because I don't want to look bad as a parent. We never even use the damn ticket. 
  3. Skipping my weekly assignment as a computer lab volunteer because my paying job was just too stressful that day and I couldn't handle it all. 
  4. Letting Nathan turn in a homework assignment that was full of spelling errors. 
  5. Allowing Nathan to watch The Flash with Bill instead of completing his nightly required reading. 
The thing is, I'm starting to feel more comfortable letting things go in other areas of my life, too. It's not that I was a perfect specimen of cleanliness, productivity, and willpower in all areas of my life before. It's that I felt guilty that I wasn't. It's the guilt I need to let go of. 

Though I can't let go of the guilt I would feel if I didn't end with the following disclaimer: 

The previous comments were by no means an attempt to insult my school district and the dedicated people who work for it. I love our school district, and I love public schools in general, and I know they are severely underfunded. I know the burden of filling in the gaps in funding tends to fall on teachers, and I will do the best I can to allay these poor teachers' out-of-pocket costs. But the best I can is the relevant phrase here. Nobody can do it all. I was feeling guilty that I couldn't do it all. It's the guilt I'm letting go of, not the desire to support my local schools. 

And the soldiers of WWII and their contemporaries were The Greatest Generation. I understand that their sacrifices were nowhere near something as trivial as cutting out cardboard. Their sacrifices were unfathomable. I know, because I just saw the film Unbroken.