Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Mental Health Day

ferris and the ferrari

Ferris and the Ferarri

Remember Ferris Bueller’s Bacchanalia?

Ferris’s best class was cutting class. On the verge of graduation, he can’t resist the temptation to skip one last time. He “barfs up a lung” and calls in sick. He “borrows” a Ferarri and convinces his hypochondriac sidekick to go along for the ride. They take off through the streets of Chicago. Hilarious misadventure ensues.

Ferris hijacks a float in the city’s Van Steuben Day Parade, grabs a microphone, twirls it like a baton, and steals the show. All along the parade route, bystanders break out break dancing. Rock out, Chicago!

The Ferrari unfortunately does not fare as well as Ferris does.

The 1961 250 GT goes airborne twice to the Star Wars theme. It does not make it through the credits. Ferris and his friend run it in reverse in hopes of turning the odometer back. But there is no resurrecting the car. Driverless it takes a suicide dive off a cliff into the trees below.

“You killed the car.”

Ferris Bueller just celebrated his “30th” birthday. For thirty years the film has inspired high schoolers to take a “mental health day”. For thirty years the film has inspired really just about everyone to take one incredible and unforgettable “mental health day”.

“Mental health day” , of course, means you’re faking it. You’re lying. You’re goofing off. You’re playing hookie. You’re going AWOL. You’re sneaking around – hoping not to get caught.

Manically speaking, however — “mental health day” — I am here to tell you — is a very real thing.

I took one just the other day.

Hypo-manically flying beneath the radar, I climb, I soar, I swoop and ascend. I coast on clouds in blue, blue skies – on clouds of voluminous white.

My flight is fueled by work, by books, by friends, by family, by church, by walking, by music, by earth, by wind, by fire.

My flight is fueled by coffee and caffeine and extracurriculars.

I f*ing ace at extracurriculars.

I begin to believe that I have flown above my bipolar brain, that I’ve broken the bipolar sound barrier. I believe I’ve discovered anti-gravity.  My feet need never touch the ground again. The only direction to go is UP!

So I stay up later doing more and more. I stay up later and I get up earlier – because even in my dreams my head is racing. Racing, racing, racing and there is no finish line. There is no finish line at all.

And then hoped for things do not come true and along with that comes a rejection and a disappointment or two.

I can handle it. I can handle it. I can handle it, I tell myself. And then I can’t.

I wake up with a dull, twisted, knotted feeling in my stomach. It’s a nauseous feeling tinged with grief and loss. And this grownup woman is bereft as a child.

I curl up in the fetal position, the covers pulled over my head, and then a little voice says,

“I think it’s best, Joani, if you take a mental health day.”

A mental health day is a very real thing – just as real any day away for a virus or a broken limb. Your brain is broken and you are in fear of literally losing your mind. You feel your soul slipping from your grip. You pray not to sink beneath the waves.

Call in sick. Go back to bed.

Yes, call in sick.

But DO NOT, let me repeat, DO NOT climb back into that bed. Get up out that f*ing bed – no matter how f*ing hard it is. Make that bed up as best you can so that you can’t slip between the sheets again.

Eat something real. Wear something gorgeous and go out the f*ing door. Soak in the sun or walk in the soaking rain. Go outside no matter what the weatherman says.

Find yourself a table at a little offbeat bistro and order a gourmet meal. Walk down to the river. Read a book.

See your therapist. Visit a friend. Call your daughter.

Talk to God and rattle some beads.

Go home. Crank up the music and dance in your living room.

Take a shower, take your meds, and get a good night’s sleep.

Re-animate yourself.

Resurrect yourself.

Take a mental health day.

It’s a very real thing – a very real thing, indeed.

JoaniSign


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Silence. Quiet. Shhhh!

shhhlibrarian_jewelry_case

The Zen master of  the library –  recognize her?

 I am not by nature a quiet person.

Third child in a household of six, I had to speak up loud and clear to be heard. An extrovert par excellence, I am compelled to fill awkward silences in awkward conversations. A social butterfly — who works in a library – I am often shushed by the Head Librarian. In fact, last year at my stellar annual review discussing “room for improvement” my boss told me:

“Joani, you need to remember to use your library voice.”

Yes, my library voice.

As the noisiest person on staff  I am positioned in the perfect place – at the circulation desk. I love getting to know whoever comes through those front doors — studious students, various visitors, crazy clergy, fastidious faculty, steadfast staff.

Checking books out — I deal in public relations. Checking books in — I do a fair amount of pastoral care. We talk church politics. We talk reading assignments. We talk family. We talk churchmanship. We talk theology. We talk mental health. We talk small talk. We even talk a little bit of trash. (Shhh!)

I am a noisy and priestly librarian want-to-be. An Anglican who LOVES the OUT LOUD prayers of the Book of Common Prayer, I would make a very lousy Quaker.

A very lousy Quaker indeed.

Yet even in this loud mouth beats a somewhat contemplative heart.

I am no stranger to quiet. In fact, I love quiet. I live on my own and all alone and very rarely am I lonely.

I live in a third floor walkup. Two bedrooms and two baths — it is my sacred and solitary space. Alone in my cell, I am free to walk around in my skivvies and turn up the volume on my Spotify. I love to light my gaslight fire and curl up on my couch with a good book and a bowl of cereal.

It is my sanctuary.

I walk alone. An Olympic walker, I constantly check the stats on my Fitbit. I have taken 6,011, 861 steps  — alone. I have walked 2546 miles — alone. I have burned 1, 387, 139 calories — alone. Well mostly alone.

Walking  — my head is freed up to think about everything or nothing at all. Silently walking the streets of Capitol Hill, the Old Town waterfront, the wetlands at Huntley Meadows Park, St. Theo’s Holy Island –I think, I write,  I fantasize and pray.  While walking, I meditate, negotiate, and investigate.  I regulate, navigate, and instigate —

silently walking alone.

Stopping along the way  — I go coffee shop  hopping — alone. Silently sitting, nursing my latte, watching people come and go, I catch snatches of conversations – little bits of meaning – in all kinds of languages – haikus of wisdom. I pull out my notebook and write and write and write.

In high school,  I’d   go —  alone — to THE LIBRARY – the Library of Congress reading room. A hushed sanctuary, it smelled of wood polish and old books. I’d do my homework and write my essays on those lovely wooden desks lit by green shaded lamps. Here in this holy of holies, I first read Thomas Merton’s “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.”

 Journal-like it is not a journal. Theological, it is not the least bit systematic. Seemingly random, it is deeply reasoned. Mystical, it’s down to earth meaningful.  A monk in a Trappist monastery, Merton writes as a man of the world.

A man alone — a man who practices sacred silence — he has much to say. And what he says — he says in a few paragraphs, with a few sentences, and with a few well chosen words. (All the better for that long ago high schooler to understand.)

“Above all, these are the day-to-day impressions, the simple conjectures of a man in his own world with its own challenges. It is a monastic world, and doubtless strange to those who have no experiences of such a thing. Yet it is, I think, open to the life of experience of the greater, more troubled, and more vocal world beyond the cloister. Though I often differ strongly from the ‘world’, I think I can be said to respond to it. I do not delude myself that I am still not part of it.”

I am in no danger of entering a monastery anytime soon. But Merton does teach me that I really do have monastic moments. These monastic spaces help contain this  manic brain. These mindful and meditative places help expand this melancholy soul.

“One has to be alone, under the sky before everything falls into place and one finds one’s own place in the midst of it all…a spring morning alone in the woods…the ceremonies of the birds feeding in the wet grass.”

 Silence, quiet, shhhhh!

JoaniSign

 


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“Slow Down, You Move Too Fast”

pajamas-in-the-woods-1

In the woods and in the groove, Sabbath time.

Remember “feeling groovy?”

This aging hippie certainly does.

Groovy is that “mellow yellow” mood so celebrated in the ‘60s. Groovy could be chemically induced tripping in your friend’s, Mary Jane’s basement.

Or groovy could be musically induced,  mind melding with the vinyl grooves of your favorite LPs. (Joni Mitchell being my drug of choice!)

But the hippie dippiest way to get your groove on was by “getting back to nature”.

Not too much nature, mind you, but just enough nature to pay quick homage to Mother Earth. Planting some vegetables, growing some “herbs”, skinny-dipping in the lake.

More recently, I got back to nature again, on retreat at Shrine Mont, with the good folks of Emmanuel on High, where,  Margaret Wohler, a gifted naturalist and artist at Huntley Meadows Wildlife preserve, introduced us to the lost art of illustration.

Like  “Lost Children in the Woods” she introduced us to “The Forest Unseen”.

Drawing, she said, helps us to pay attention. It helps us to slow way down. And her “way” was drawn out with lots and lots of extra “a’s”. We each got an art kit with a sketchpad and pencils.

“All you need are five basic shapes: a circle, a dot, a line, an angle, and a curve.”, Margaret said.

“Choose a spot to sit. Jot down the location, date, time, temperature, cloud cover. Close your eyes and listen for just a minute – 60 seconds. Then open your eyes and list everything you heard: birds, honking horns, wind in the trees, screaming babies.”

“Draw the big stuff first, then the little things.”

“Stay put. Look up. Look around you. The more you stay put the more you see. The more you see, the deeper you will go. The deeper you go, the slower you will go. And the more slow you go, the more you will know — not just about what’s is front of you – -but the more you will know about what’s going on inside you.”

(At least that is what I heard Margaret say.)

And so I sat for an hour in the woods, drawing trees and rusted out, old, discarded bathtubs — meditating and feeling groovy.

Recently this Celtic Warrior Woman trained to take on the three-day Warrior Challenge in The Patriot Running Festival in Williamsburg. And seriously train I did: walking up to 37 plus miles a week for 12 weeks for the Friday 5K, Saturday 8K, and Sunday 1/2 marathon.

That Friday morning, waiting for the Amtrak train to take me south, I sat down with my sketchpad for just the second time since Shrine Mont.

Now I have sat in this Civil War era station a bazillion times, idly and obsessively checking my phone, waiting on trains that rarely arrive on time. But this time, in the most mundane of places here I was – sketchpad in lap and pencil in hand.

I looked up and noticed the enormous, glass inset doors that lead to the tracks. So gorgeous, I had never noticed just how lovely they were – with simple, geometric patterns, arches, scalloped edges, and lots of rectangles.

I can draw this!

I had an hour’s wait for my train and thought sketching the doors would be a pleasant ten-minute diversion – maybe fifteen, max. In fact, however, I got into a groove and it turned into a sixty minute, mellow, mindful meditation.

First I sketched the doors, then the windows, the lanterns, the tracks and the buildings beyond, then the trees through the glass, the travellers on their way, their rolling bags and backpacks– all framed by those lovely doors – that I had so long ignored.

On the other end, my dear, dear friend, Pam picked me up in Williamsburg. She and I have been the best of friends since our seminary days – over twenty years. Very different people, we very much enjoy each other’s company. We gossip, laugh, shop, watch chick flicks, catch up, and confess all that is going on in our divergent worlds.

And best of all, we do the latter, floating in her pool.

The weekend was pretty well planned around my three day’s walking the Patriot Running Event —  and  Pam was charioteer-ing me wherever I needed to go. (Thank you, Pam!) But between the races, the two of us planned to pack in as much playtime as we possibly could.

So before I went, I gave myself permission — that while I was indeed getting my warrior on – it was perfectly okay to opt out of any or all parts of the Warrior Challenge.

Too much “works” and not enough “grace” can make Joani – a manic, manic soul.

So all three days we floated, floated in the pool — lazy and stretched out in the sun, gazing up at blue skies, listening to the birds and the wind in the trees, listening to the murmuring of the filter motor and the rumbling of lawn mowers.

And best of all, floating with my best of friends, Pam and I talked and talked and talked. And just as lovely, we floated comfortably in silence.

So slow, so blissfully slow.

Slowing down and feeling groovy.

So I walked the 5K on Friday. Yea!!

I walked the 8K on Saturday. Yea!!

And yes, I have the medals to prove it (though one is made of plastic!).

And then on Sunday, I chose Sabbath time. Not church per se – but St Mattress in-the-Springs.

I slept in, stayed in my pajamas until 10 o’clock, drinking coffee with my friend, went to brunch at 11, came home and slipped into my swimsuit, slathered on the  SPF 100  –

And floated, floated, floated – my ½ marathon – floating in Pam’s pool.

My mania calmed.

My mood lightened.

My outlook brightened.

My spirit lifted.

My soul restored.

God, in Her Heaven, all right with my world.

Slow, slow, so slowed down.

Kicking down my cobblestones.

Feeling groovy.

Slow down, friends, don’t move too fast.  God wants you to make your morning last. And just like Her — on that seventh day —  take some sabbath time and get some rest. The world can revolve without you — at least for a little while.

Thanks be to God.

JoaniSign

 


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Labor Pains & Stretch Marks

great with child

Theotokos, God-bearer, Truth-bearer.

It was Advent of ‘83 and I was pregnant with God.

Well at least a little bit pregnant with God.

That frosty November, I was new to the Episcopal Church and flattered beyond belief to be joining the worship planning committee. You see, I grew up Roman Catholic and Sunday services were just endless reruns of Father Knows Best. We lay folks stayed glued to our pews. Fenced off from the altar by a rail, we knew our place. Only the priest was allowed to perform those magical mysteries and pronounce God’s hocus-pocus.

So miracle of miracles in Advent of ’83 at Immanuel-on-the-Hill, and pregnant with my second child, I played the Theotokos. I played the Theotokos in a very awkward and makeshift, hippy-dippy liturgical drama – Mary, Pregnant with God.

Such a brilliant narrative arc! It was a three Sunday cycle through the three trimesters. On the fourth Sunday: pant; blow; PUSH!

It was my shortest pregnancy of record – so different from the previous three.

Being the mother of three, I have spent the better part of three years pregnant. And what my brain might not recall from those twenty-seven months – my body most certainly does:

Seasickness on land; nauseated with just one whiff of coffee (Best pregnancy test ever! I love the smell of coffee.); expanding waistline; swollen feet; wobbly gate; expansive in mood; energetic in spirit; exhausted by the smallest of efforts; cranky and uncomfortable; floating on hope; anxiety ridden; excited as hell; bursting with life.

Ladies, did I leave anything out?

You know that horrible hymn? Come labor on? Well God blessed me and gifted me with wide-birthing hips. So assisted by my friend, Gravity, I did not labor long.

I delivered my firstborn, Zach in just two and a half hours. Dainty daughter, Colleen was born in just four. And Jacob, number three, was nearly spontaneously birthed on the sidewalk outside the Emergency Room.

There was no time for drugs. There was barely time to get to the hospital and push.

So with the baby born and nuzzling at my breast, naturally manic me was euphoric squared, euphoric to the 1000th power. Blissfully exhausted and wide, wide awake, every little fiber of my being was belting out the Hallelujah Chorus.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given!

Now everyone has given birth. Be ye male or female, young or old, everyone, everywhere has given birth. Made in the image of the Creator, we are all fertile souls. And even if we are not in the business of procreation, we are all in the business of co-creation.

Over the course of the last nine (well actually eight) months, I birthed my fourth amazing child. And at sixty years of age, this is more than a minor miracle!

Back in September my bipolar brain conceived her. Formed in the pit of my stomach. Nourished by my frazzled flesh and bones. She kicked my insides and stole my sleep. A labor of love, she stretched me beyond knowing. Expanding in the dark — she was born in the light.

This past Saturday on April 25th.

SpeakeasyDC was both birth coach and midwife. Unhinged is her name.

Eight amazing storytellers told eight amazing stories about living with mental illness, loving someone with mental illness, and working in the field. Three hundred people packed the house. Laughter, tears, understanding, and standing ovations.

The truth was told: my truth, their truth, our truth, God’s truth, nothing but the truth.

Labor pains and stretch marks, the truth will set you free.

So friends, ready to get a little bit pregnant?

JoaniSign


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Slaying Dragons and Sharpening My Sword

alice slaying jabberwocky

Read all about it.

 

I got clarity with Clare.

Sometimes you just have to stand your ground.

An impaired Clare, a sister whom I love but cannot fix, had power of attorney for our mom– my critically ill mom , beloved Ma Lou, who passed away in June. (http://wp.me/p4wnf7-69)

Clare is impaired from years of pain killer abuse. It clouds her thinking and her judgment. Her memory is shot. Her speech is slurred. Her behavior inappropriate. She borrows money she can never pay back. Her relationship with the truth is sketchy.

Clare is sick.

But so was my mother – deathly ill and in the ICU at Fairfax Hospital. My siblings and I practically moved into her room and camped out with her throughout.

Every day there were a hundred decisions to make — every one of them critical for critically ill mom: medication; feeding, the ventilator; comfort care. My two brothers, my sister-in-law, and myself were mostly on the same page on mostly everything. Deciding all those last things for my mother’s last days.

Including Clare.

But then impaired Clare – with medical power of attorney – would undo whatever we had done.

Blessedly the social worker and medical staff very quickly caught on. But Clare never did.

So for 21 days, in the month of June, this peace loving, middle child strapped on her armor and sharpened her sword — and she slayed a dragon.

A dragon named Clare.

Swords are heavy. I was so grateful to finally put it down.  But I still kept it sheathed and still very close by.

You never know when you’re going to have to slay a dragon.

Turns out I had to slay one in July:

A purple dragon.

Upon the tragic death of Robin Williams, by his own hand, I. like many, grieved in writing. I wrote a post: “Lost in Space – Maybe, Lost to God – Never” (http://wp.me/p4wnf7-b1). The cost of Mork’s manic brilliance was the the darkness of his devastating lows.

Something this bipolar blogger understands.

Then came the clueless and callous response of Bishop Scott Benhase of Georgia. In an E-Crozier post featured on The Living Church,  he labeled Robin’s Williams’s suicide  as “selfish.” Literally “selfish”.

The FB chatter was deafening. People were outraged at the Bishop’s pastoral insensitivity, his ignorance around mental illness, and his irresponsible response to the members of his flock.

But it seemed just FB chatter going nowhere.

I decided to chat it up directly with the Bishop.

I wrote him a letter citing all the above – a letter from an openly bipolar cleric.   I packed it with resources and recommendations: links to NAMI and DBSA; info about Mental Health First Aid;

and a link to U&U of course.

Bishop Benhase wrote me back and patted me on the head. Poor, poor dear, I am so sorry, he said. What I wrote is right and you are wrong.

And he thought he had put it to bed.

So I put on my armor and I sharpened my sword.

I posted it all on U&U, ( http://wp.me/p4wnf7-ds)   asking each of my readers to follow in stead. Write to the Bishop. Write to The Living Church. Write to the Bishop and tell him your truth.

645 followers did.

I slayed a purple dragon.

The pen is as mighty as the sword, a valuable lesson I learned along The Artist’s Way.

For those who do not know, The Artist’s Way, a book by Julia Cameron, is a 12 week process to process your soul .Twelve steps to get in touch with your truth: The kind of truth that really matters; The kind of truth that will set you free.

You keep a journal, your “morning pages”. And I was religious about keeping mine. I wrote alphabet poems, and lists of a hundred, sentence stems, and imaginary letters that I did not send. I wrote about a hundred different things: About difficult things. Puzzling things. For my eyes only.

As my fingers flew on the keyboard of my Mac, the contents of my soul became outward and visible. Page after page.

I got clarity.

It’s what got me writing U&U, telling my truth one story at a time, one week at a time, Monday mornings at 8 o’clock.

Like map making, like cartography, this writing life has helped me define my borders and draw my boundaries: To let my “yes” be “yes” and my “no” be “no”.

Recently, I had to slay the biggest dragon of all – the biggest dragon in my life. I had to slay a dragon that I love and have loved and have loved for a very long time: A dragon who lives in the heart of me.

Me.

Middle child. Peace-maker. Ever cheerful. Unfailingly supportive. Conflict avoidant. Rarely angry. Hardly raises her voice. Never says an unkind word. Ever patient. Long suffering. Good girl.

She is gone.

After three days of snow storm related, airport hell, she went ballistic (not quite) at the counter. She demanded satisfaction.

She got it.

With a complacent doctor, his indifferent receptionist, and unresponsive answering service, she went ballistic (not quite).

She fired them.

In a lopsided, long term, frustrating friendship, she went ballistic (not quite).

She ended it.

She sharpened her sword, got in touch with her anger, and slayed some dragons.

Anger can be manic. But manic anger can also be righteous and just. And it can get you just right where you are supposed to be —

if you manage it just right.

So “beware the Jabberwock” and sharpen up your sword.

The truth shall set you free.

JoaniSign


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One Pill Makes You Smaller; One Pill Makes You Tall

Smaller or taller?

Smaller or taller?

Alice could not reach the doorknob.

Shrunk down so small, Alice saw no relief in sight.

And then what should appear but a little bottle by her bed.

“Drink me.” It said.

And so she did.

And on the table was a little cake.

“Eat me.” It said.

And so she did.

She opened up like a telescope and shot up like a shooting star. Her neck stretched; her legs grew. Her head burst through the ceiling. Her arms burst through the windows. Her feet stuck out the door.

Welcome to Wonderland.

Welcome to my world.

Take a little bit of this and a little bit of that until you get your bipolar brain just right.

So before I lay me down to sleep — I wash down three little pills with a glass of water:

One little pill to — balance my brain;

One little pill to — help me sleep;

One little pill to — keep me this side of crazy;

A mood stabilizer; a soporific; and an antipsychotic.

I have got this thing down to a science. I am a walking, talking miracle of science.

But the recipe for this little cocktail is not written in stone. Every once in a while I need to have my head examined. Yes, literally have my head examined by a board certified psycho-pharmacologist. And then re-examined.

But we are not just a pile of chemicals. Being organic, every little aspect of our being has a bearing on our brains.

So like going to Jiffy Lube, my doctor peers down at his clip board and runs my brain through the 39 point checklist:

“How much shuteye have you gotten lately?”

“Well, doctor, less and less”.

“When was the last time you took a run around the block?”

“Well actually, doctor,  I’ve been doing that more and more”.

“What have you been eating for breakfast?”

“Well, doctor, I am crazy about breakfast. I eat it three times a day.”

“How about your workload?”

“It’s great, doctor, but I rarely say ‘no’.”

“How is your love life?”

“What love life?”

“How are your finances?”

“What finances?”

The measure of my moods is the balance in my checking account. And recently when it comes to money I have gotten way out of balance.

At first my spending seems most sensible.

For water aerobics, a new bathing suit – and then a new pool bag and water shoes to match. Of course, they have to match.

And then another bathing suit, just because.

For walking that next half marathon, new running shoes — and then new socks, new tights, new jacket, new hat. Of course, they have to match.

Two new dresses just because.

And just because I was traveling: new slippers, new scarf, new coat. And of course, they have to match.

And just because I love to read, a new e-book, a new real book, new bookmarks.

And because it is cold — new boots.

And because they might break — a new toilet, a new washer, a new dryer.

You get the idea!

And o by the way, walking, and swimming, and half marathon-ing this last year  —  I have lost weight equal to that of a small child or two. (And yes, I look amazing! Thank you for noticing!)

Money matters out of whack. Metabolism redefined. It’s time to get my head re-examined. And even though I know I should, this is something I am wont to do.

Feeling fabulous, I regularly drop by my therapist’s office to tell her so. But I am neglectful of my visits to the psycho-pharmacologist.

Who needs to go to the doctor — when you’ve got this down to a science?

Medication may be only a small part of being marvelous. But an important part it is. And when there is a big change in your life; you may just need a little change to your prescription cocktail.

One pill makes you smaller; one pill makes you tall. And when you are not sure —

Make an appointment with Dr. Alice. I am sure she’ll know.

JoaniSign


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Angelic, Manic and Magic

angels victorian

“Two angels sitting on my shoulder”

I  grew up believing in angels and archangels and all the choirs of heaven. Angels graced the holy cards that marked my place in my St. Joseph missal. Angels glittered on Christmas cards and sat on top of Christmas trees. Glass angels shone through the church windows and marble angels guarded the church doors. Their wings shimmered like silver. Their names sounded like spun gold – Gabriel and Raphael. Angels flew like the wind and they could dance on the head of a pin. My world was awash with angels.

At Holy Family School the angels that mattered most were of more of a humdrum kind. There was the angel who carried your prayers to heaven – if your hands were folded just right. And each of us little Catholic kids had a guardian angel  — who watched over us as we crossed the street like a crossing guard. Then there was a little nameless angel who sat on your right shoulder like Jiminy Cricket — the clear voice of a good conscience for a third grader. And the greatest grade school angel of them all was the veritable star of the Christmas Pageant –“The Angel of the Lord”.

“And behold I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto to you this day  in the City of David is born a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

These were my lines! I got the part and a star was born.

Three days a week for three weeks straight, we  rehearsed the words we would recite and the carols we would sing. I remember beaming with pride as Sister Inez Patricia blew on her pitch pipe as we burst into “Joy to the World”. But then Sister’s nose curled up like she smelled cauliflower cooking.

“Someone is flat here, let’s start again.”

Secure in the knowledge that I had  the voice of an angel — the Angel of the Lord. in fact — I sang even louder the second time. I virtually shouted in order to drown out the voice of that poor soul who could not carry a tune.

“JOY TO THE WORLD!”

This time Sister looked as if steam was coming out of her ears. “Peacock, it’s you.” she said. “You’re out.” Wings clipped, this Angel of the Lord fell from grace, a third grader in  disgrace.

A place I was not totally unfamiliar with.

I did not grow up in a fairy tale household, but a crazy and chaotic one. I had, of course, an alcoholic bipolar mom and a workaholic dad and five wild and wooly siblings. But my childhood nevertheless was still somewhat enchanted. Now at fifty-nine, I can see that the guardian angel  that actually protected me. in fact,  was a hypomanic nine year old cherub. And those hypomanic years got that little cherub through a hellacious home life and all eight grades at Holy Family School.

A little mania is a gift that can go a long way. Euphorically it lifts your spirit. It can give you angel wings and let you hear the angels sing. Miraculously you open your mouth and out comes the voice of an angel. And you believe beyond a doubt and in your heart of hearts that God wants you in his choir.

And as long as you can keep your feet on the ground, it’s okay to walk around with your head in the clouds. And so for so many school days, I did just that. All through high school, all through college. Into married life, professional life, my seminary years, I did just that. A little mania is a marvelous management tool. And even better, prolonged mania is euphoric and delightful and delicious.

But it is also dangerous.

Tripping the light fantastic, I have fantastically overspent my bank account. Flying down the highway, I have flown over guard rails and totaled my car. Staying up nights on end, I have endlessly done myself in. Fearing no evil, I have lost my moral compass more often than I care to confess.

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

So goes The Steeldrivers’ song, a bipolar twist on “Angels we have heard on high….”

“I’ve been known to gamble on a long shot
Leave my better judgment on the rocks
When it comes to takin sides or takin chances
There’s a part of me that didn’t come to talk”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

“I’ve spent a lifetime listening to the whispers
Always try to heed my second mind
Never done nobody wrong on purpose
But I’ve come mighty close a couple times”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

I can blame the mania. I can blame the darkness. But in the end — bipolar or not – I have only myself to blame for my risky behavior — for my poor judgement — for my skewed thinking. There is no guardian angel to save me from myself. I am left to work out my own salvation.

Medically, chemically, prayerfully, therapeutically, responsibly, faithfully, fitfully, anxiously,  and o so gratefully. By the grace of God, I am left alone to work out my own salvation — in the choir of angels.

And now – Sister Inez Patricia be-damned – I continue to make a joyful noise. Fifty years on I have slummed in the soprano section of church choirs for Sundays and seasons both high and low. Singing is cathartic. Singing is ecstatic. Singing is therapy. Singing is a balm for my bipolar soul.

So friends, won’t you join me in the choir of angels?

JoaniSign