Old Sitting Woman
Presented at the Berkeley Marsh on March 30, 2021
I stand shivering on the ledge at the highest part of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge looking down at the choppy water. 186 feet below. September 9, 1973, a rainy Saturday morning around 10:00. I’m 28 years old and my life is over. An ex-boyfriend killed himself the month before. I have never felt so alone. I always hoped we’d get back together. I’ve struggled with mental illness for almost ten years, and now my grief has turned to paranoia. I’m full of terror and rage.
I want to be with him in Death. I want to escape the torment I imagine I’m facing from other people. Emotional pain I cannot live with. Imaginary pain really hurts.
A car goes by and honks. That feels like a push. I step off the ledge. I go unconscious. God and my life force protect me from the terror of the fall through the air and the plunge deep into the bay. I feel none of that.
Someone screaming help wakes me in the water. It’s me screaming. I am floating spread eagle in the rough waves, my back in pain, screaming help, help. Trying not to drown. I do not want to drown. I thought all I had to do was step off the ledge to be dead.
A booming voice calls out Help is on the way. Through the rain I see a white truck in the middle of the bridge, with traffic backed up on either side. The voice seems to be coming from the truck. I hear a motorboat coming. Then there’s a boat beside me. A man throws me a rope and helps me aboard. My rescuer. Are you okay, he says. My back is killing me, I say. You’re safe now, he says. He wraps me in a blanket. I’m in and out of consciousness.
I learned I was in the bay for 45 minutes. I had fractured my spine and would be in a back brace for six months. I was the 15th to jump from that bridge and the third to live. I learned there were sharks in the bay. Had I known that, I may not have done it. My rescuer writes me a love letter saying I have animal magnetism and would I go out with him. Sadly, I never answered him. This was my second and last suicide attempt. I wasn’t any good at it. Thank goodness.
I was taken to Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute, where I spent three months before I felt better and went back to my apartment and my job as a legal transcriber. Because I was good at my work I always had a job to return to, despite prolonged absences for hospital stays.
I had stayed at the state hospital three years earlier, after my first suicide attempt at age 25. I had taken all the pills on my parents’ kitchen windowsill, mother’s estrogen and father’s dilantin. I had a period for six months, but I was relaxed!
This is Old Sitting Woman, who I sculpted in Occupational Therapy during my first stay at the state hospital 50 years ago. I have come to love her over the years. These little balls are poems she births. I’ve been a writer since I learned to read. She is open-hearted, open minded. She has become a portrait of my best self. She loves to sit, as you can see from her shape.
My life was crazy chaos for 16 years. My illness had begun in my sophomore year of college at age 19 in 1964 in Tennessee. For 12 years of those 16 years I was in and out of mental hospitals. I did no writing for about 30 years. I alienated my family, and lost the affection of my three siblings: Lynne, four years younger, Jack, six years younger, and Laurie, eleven years younger. Most of the time I felt terror and rage. All my feelings were exaggerated. The Thorazine prescribed at the hospital did not help and I’d quit taking it.
Finally in January 1980 I was prescribed Haldol. I know it does not help some people, but Haldol has saved my life every day since. That was the beginning of my healing journey. It’s a lifetime process. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right medication. Some people are not helped by medication. I am fortunate. But it was still a long time before I was able to live a reasonably sane life. I’m still working on it.
I was in therapy for many years. At age 46, in spring of 1992, I began to write again. My father had died the previous winter and I felt sadness and also relief, a new freedom. He was domineering, and I was never able to stand up to him. He never knew who I was.
My father was a seventh generation Virginian from an old Quaker family. I think he felt humiliated by my failure as a Lupton and as a human being. He never forgave me.
In May of 1995 I had my first haiku published and began my life as a published poet and writer. Here’s the haiku. Don’t try to make sense of it. It’s images, an atmosphere.
Pungent bath soap
In the farmhouse kitchen
Snow on the prairie
Since then I’ve had over 100 tanka published. Tanka is a five-line Japanese poetic form. It’s over 1400 years old. Haiku broke off from tanka as the first three lines and became its own poetic form in the 1600s in Japan. Tanka is the more feminine form, as it invites the expression of the poet’s feelings. Haiku is more objective. Here’s one of my tanka.
Honey bees wild
In yellow blossoms
I was born
For middle age
This year I’m publishing a collection of the first 25 years of my tanka, new and selected poems, with Blue Light Press in San Francisco.
Along my healing way I had a loving relationship with a wonderful woman. My heart and mind opened. Menopause was healing for me as it enabled me finally to think of something besides sex. I quit smoking and quit drinking.
The day before 9/11 I was diagnosed with the first of three breast cancers. I soon decided to return to California, and within a year I was living in the East Bay. I had been in SF for the Summer of Love, and when I left for home in December of '67 I told my friends I’d be back after Christmas. It took me 35 years to return, but at age 57, on the summer solstice of 2002, I was back. Now no longer California dreaming, but finally California living! I always felt I would be happier here. To move to California was a healing.
In autumn of 2008 I moved into Strawberry Creek Lodge, senior housing in Berkeley, at age 63, and was home at last. I live with my cat and 150 other elders. I’ve loved living here for all 13 years. This year I’m serving as president of the Tenants’ Association. It’s an honor, even though I was unopposed in the election. It’s an opportunity to build relationships and community.
I have a small studio apartment. The main room is a bedroom, living room, yoga studio, and writing studio. And I have a kitchen, a bathroom, and a balcony. From the rocker on my balcony I see lots of sky and hills and green. I love my apartment.
I spent a lot of time here last year after the COVID shelter at home began in March. 2020 was a good year for me, with lots of quiet, free time, and solitude, though I know many people are suffering financial trouble, the stress of isolation, and ill health, and over half a million people have died of COVID in the US.
Last year I lost 28 pounds on purpose. Yay! I began intermittent fasting and yoga classes on zoom. I walk most mornings in the neighborhood, enjoying the changing light, the aroma of sage in a neighbor’s garden, the rain. In 2020 I had a record 26 tanka accepted for publication. I feel better than I ever have.
One day last March I was reading The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, when I suddenly felt an intense perfect love in my heart. There was warmth, and a golden glow, and a feeling of peace and joy. To me the love was God.
I think in part it was my efforts to be healthy that made possible this experience. I began to meditate twice a day and still do. It changed my life.
On June 11, the Saturday before Father’s Day, I was reading Marianne Williamson’s The Gift of Change, and kept stopping to pray, and then weeping profusely. This happened three times. The third time I was reading about atonement. Atonement, in my understanding, is telling God your mistakes, asking for a better way to live, and trying to make it up. The book said that if you feel like making amends go ahead and do so.
I immediately thought of my baby sister Laurie, who lives in Maryland. Then I decided I would talk also with sister Lynne in Colorado and email my brother Jack in Texas.
My mental illness was diagnosed late in its progress as schizoaffective disorder, which combines the symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. My illness was devastating for my family, terrible for my parents.
During my illness, I was in and out of my parents’ home until I moved out for good at age 25. After that I would have paranoid episodes about every two years and return to my family for help. My father finally became angry. My mother would always help me get back to the hospital. When I was well, or between episodes, I would visit them every weekend and was more welcome. I lived a few minutes away.
My baby sister, Laurie, was only eight at the onset of my illness. She and I had been very close her whole life until I left for college, and a year and a half later I came home broken, unable to care about anyone, not even myself.
My sister, Lynne, seemed able to separate me from my illness over the years. To her I was still me. I think my younger brother Jack’s concern was mostly for how my parents were hurt by my illness.
The next day, I called Laurie first and, trying to hold back tears, I said, I’m deeply sorry for all the pain I caused you and the family during my illness. There was a pause. Then she said, is that all? We laughed. She said she was sorry for hurting me, and that she loved me.
Then I wrote to my brother. He had not spoken to me since our mother died 24 years before. He was angry about something. I emailed I am deeply sorry for the pain I caused you and the family during my illness. Soon he wrote back, I have forgiven you. I cried tears of joy. We talked on Christmas Day and on his birthday in January.
Then I called Lynne and said, I have something to say. Okaaay, she said. I said, I am deeply sorry for all the pain I caused you and the family during my illness. Again, trying to hold back tears. I told her I had spoken with the other siblings. She said I’m so glad you’re doing this. I said, it probably needs to be said more than once. She said, not to me. You have always been my big sister.
In those four days, Saturday through Tuesday, I cried more than I had in the past decades. It was a tremendous release. My illness had caused pain to my family, and though I did not feel guilt or shame, and I did not hurt them on purpose, I felt responsible. This was a healing from estrangement for me and for us.
Now my sisters and I meet every other week on Zoom. I feel we are connecting on a soul level. We meet on Zoom with their kids and the kids’ spouses about every month.
A few years ago I had a hand analysis done. That’s the updated version of palmistry. I was told that my life purpose is “healer in the spotlight.” I feel this story is a healing I can offer as one way forward out of darkness into more and more light. The healing continues. I’m grateful to be alive and well.
Like Old Sitting Woman, I love to sit, I am grounded, I birth poems, I am open, listening, and I do walks, yoga--I’m on the move!
I’ll leave you with a tanka:
I offer this story
For my lost and reckless years
To you and to God
And all I know of God is love
Jeannie Lupton moved to the San Francisco East Bay from Northern Virginia in 2002 and has been active in the poetry community there, and in the tanka community more generally worldwide, ever since. Her work has appeared in various journals and booklets over the years, culminating in her collection, But Then You Danced: Tanka (Raw Art Press, 2007), followed by the publication of a second collection, Love Is a Tanka (Blue Light Press, 2021). Jeannie hosted the Second Saturday Poetry and Prose Reading Series at Frank Bette Center for the Arts in Alameda, California, for over 13 years. She has also given several short solo performances at the Marsh Theater in Berkeley, as well as leading a memoir writing group for seniors on Zoom. She is a member of the Fresh Ink Poetry Collective and Bay Area Poets Coalition, and writes with Clive Matson's 2-Busy-2-Write group every Tuesday night. She lives at Strawberry Creek Lodge in Berkeley with 150 other elders and her cat, BB.