Friday, December 31, 2010

The Evolution of a Spiritual Tantrum

(written December 26-30, 2010)
I have always maintained faith in a higher power.  In my very early days, my higher powers were my parents and siblings.  It only took a few years before my higher power was found in the church hymns sung in my mother's strong, slightly vibrato voice.  The messages in the music and the sermons and catechismic indoctrination all directed me toward embracing the biblical god as He was painted and sung for me.(although the painting of jesus that hung in our living room had my dad's beard and I always suspected the artist of using him as a model.  This painting still draws my attention when i'm in my sister's living room.)  Here is where things get a bit tricky.  Not only did I believe in the white guy on a cloud, I also believed that god was in every noun (person, place or thing, animal, vegetable or mineral).
When I came out as a radical feminist separatist, my belief in the patriarchal biblical god transformed into a profound feeling of connectedness to the earth and the feminine faces of god-Isis, Gaia, Kuan Yin, Kali and, my favorite-Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess who is said to have braved the seven gates of hell, died at the hand of her sister, and came back through the seven gates after three days transformed into a wiser goddess.
Even though I still believe in a higher power, lately I have been having difficulty feeling that deep connectedness that brings the sacred alive to all six of my senses.  I have experienced so much loss this year-Ellen, Walt, Bessie, Kenny (he is important to me because of his fatherly love of my love), and now my beloved furry friend, Cindy.  I don't believe any of them would want me to be closed off from myself, the world, or my higher power due to my heartache over loosing them.  They each looked at the physical and spiritual world with very different lenses (a liberal christian, a pagan, a humanist, a conservative christian, and she who demanded worshipful adoration, mice and canned food) and none of them would want my faith bricked away by my inability to deal with my loss of them.  Most of me understands the changing nature of BEING, a a cycle of birth death and transformation.  I've even written about it here several times.  However, the super-private inner childish part of me with an iron clad no compromise sense of justice is having tantrums in protest of so much grief, loss and injustice perpetuated by this universe/higher power that I love so dearly.  If it has a conscious will, it's just mean and unfair.
I first experienced this awareness of the creator’s hypocritical injustice when I was very young.  It wasn't the story of the prodigal son or of jesus' dad sending him to earth as a human sacrifice that first fueled my indignation.  The mean injustice of god and universe occurred to me in the beautiful harmonies and whimsical brogue of the Irish Rovers singing "The Unicorn Song".  The first time that I remember hearing that song was when my faith in a loving omniscient god first wavered.  (That song was released in the same year I was born-1968, so I probably was hearing it before I understood it, but I was very young either way.)  How, I questioned in my childish brain, could a loving god wipe out the unicorn, when he could have just waited a few more minutes for them to get to the ark?  Even today, I can only listen to that song when I'm alone because it always brings tears to my eyes.  Forget me even singing it, my throat gets tight with the grief and injustice of it all.
Maybe this disquieting separation I've been going through is a replay of my inner childish anger at the injustice of it all-losing the unicorns, the pets, the friends that I love.  Like when I get mad at Deb and I childishly won't talk, or keep silent for fear something really mean or unfair will fly out of my mouth toward her.  Maybe I'm giving my god/goddess/universe the silent treatment and not the other way around.  Maybe I am not listening or communicating with Her, like a child, angry and insecure.  Not insecure of losing my higher power, but of losing myself, and in not trusting myself enough to keep from falling apart in my grief. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Language Void Bubble

(written November 9, 2010)
Yesterday I had my three year post cancer exam.  My CA 125 blood work was only 10.5, which is great.  My pelvic went well.  If I don’t hear anything about my pap in a week or two, it was normal.  Yipeeeeeee!
I have to admit that I feel a great sense of relief.  In three years, this is really the first time that I have had a niggling doubt that something might be wrong.  It is difficult to stay positive when I have been so tired lately.  I have been about as tired as I was when I was diagnosed with cancer.  (I vacuumed the house yesterday, and tried to get the mopping done, and I had to stop twice to take breaks.  A few days ago, in Costco, I leaned up against a stack of boxes and almost fell asleep standing up.  I haven’t done that since I was going through chemo and radiation.)  Although energy wise, I am getting a little better than I was a month ago.  Once I’ve been awake about three and a half hours, no matter how awake and energetic I was upon waking, my eyelids start to lower, my eyes start to blur and I have to fight to stay awake.  Each morning, I think, wow, I feel so much better today, maybe I’m normal again!  Then, a few hours later, I start pooping out. 
The tiredness isn’t even what is scaring me the most.  I am forgetting things.  Some days I’m mostly fine and only forget a word once or twice and I can come up with an alternative word within about 5-20 seconds.  But, there have been a couple of times when I’ve been in the middle of saying something and it is as if there is a bubble of silence in my brain.  It feels as if I have no ability to access language of any sort at those times.  I picture myself as a cartoon character chattering away, with a string of words coming out of my mouth when a big, impermeable air bubble blocks out all access to any more words.  A moment of panic sets in, my mouth stops running because it has no way of knowing what sounds to make.  My brain wouldn’t understand how to interpret those sounds at that moment anyway.  In my panic, I can feel myself close my eyes and take a deep breath, as if I am trying to breath the words back into my brain from the ether around me.  I feel like I am suffocating in a way.  Not suffocating for air, but for language, for ideas.  I can’t even form a coherent thought during those times.  All I can do is gasp and grasp for something that I had a moment ago but is gone.  I am totally aware at the time of what is happening, and that terrifies me.  I feel like I go somewhere else for a moment.  I don’t think that eternity of languageless panic lasts more than a few seconds at a time, but it’s hard to tell.  It’s almost as if time is suspended, set aside in that same place where my language has gone.  I guess I need to remember to ask whoever I’m talking to how long I go without talking.  It usually happens in the middle of a sentence, so it’s probably pretty noticeable.  It is definitely noticeable to me.
Friday evening, I found out that my disability insurance only approved a week and a half of payments.  I had no idea.  I called them to tell them that the nurse practitioner wants to extend my leave, and oh, by the way, I’ve got a gap in the checks coming in, do you know when the next one is due?  They said that chronic fatigue is too vague of a diagnosis and that they had sent me a letter requesting all doctor’s notes, test results, etc.  I never received the letter.  They said that they also called me, but I had privacy manager so they couldn’t get through.  I explained that all you have to do is say who is calling and the call will go through.  I told them that I am having trouble staying awake for more than about 4 hours at a time, and that is why they are keeping me off work.  She said that they need scientific verifiable proof.  Of course, now I’m freaking out because I don’t know how they determine what numbers of this or that verify that I am losing my mind and my energy.  What if the numbers aren’t bad enough?  Do I go back to work, knowing that I am impaired, since, after all, I’m not communicable or dying, I’m not unable to walk and talk and drive, I can see (even though stuff is blurry much of the time due to the exhaustion, and it makes it hard to read some times), I can hear, I am coherent most of the time.  My Epstein-Barr Virus numbers have slightly improved, I’m not anemic, I don’t have Celiac’s disease, my diabetes is not out of control (A1C is 6.2), and my basic blood work is within normal range.  But for some reason, my B vitamins have dropped even further even though I have been taking the supplements and getting jabbed with a needle to get vitamin infusions (my last scheduled one was today, as I began writing this).  I want to know why my vitamin B levels are dropping when they are mainlining the stuff into my veins.  I start B12 injections this week at home.
(the rest of this was written November 11, 2010)
Tomorrow I go for memory testing.  I am hoping that they will be able to figure out what’s going on.  It does seem worse when I’m stressed (like finding out I don’t have any more money coming in for a while) or when I’m tired (been awake more than 4 hours).  I have a real fear of this because my grandma and two aunts died of Altzheimer’s.  My Aunt Ronnie and my Grandma forgot how to do everything, including eat and eventually swallow.  My Aunt Annie forgot that she was allergic to bees.  Also, my mom had a couple of strokes in her lifetime, with the big one messing with her language center, confusing her thoughts and blocking certain words from her mind for months.  So, with language being such an important part of my identity, I am really scared that this stuff may be permanent.  Hopefully, it’s just related to the vitamin deficiency.  My fear is probably totally unwarranted.  Hopefully I will find out more tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stumbling Along the Path to Exhaustion and Trying to Find My Way Back

I love those rare, fleeting moments when my eyes can look directly into the face of the sun without being seared with light.  This morning, for about 10 seconds, the thick fog lingered between me and the sun and acted as a liaison, almost as if the sun and I were having a secret tryst, as my partner and I drove toward yet another Doctor’s appointment.
This is her third doctor’s appointment in two days.  I had my appointment with a nurse practitioner yesterday.  I’ve had a sore throat for over a month.  Never one to go to a doctor unnecessarily, this was my third time for this.  It turns out that I have Epstein-Barr Virus, which is the virus that causes mono and chronic fatigue.
I can’t remember if I blogged about my absolute bone-weary exhaustion right before I was diagnosed with cancer or not.  After my diagnosis, I just attributed that exhaustion to my body fighting off the cancer.  Now, I’m thinking it may have been EBV.  The blood work shows I’ve had it for quite a while and that it was even more active in the past than it is now.
I went on the CDC website and found out that 95% of American adults have EBV, but most of the time it lies dormant and does no harm.  But, sometimes it flares up and causes mono, or lingers in the system enough to cause chronic fatigue syndrome.  My viral load shows that I have a chronic problem with it.  And here, I’ve been telling people-including myself and my doctors- that Of course I’m tired all the time- I work midnights!  I have, a few times, told the doctors that I was more tired than usual.  This was the first time anyone checked me for mono or EBV (or vitamin B, I'll talk about that in a minute).  It has never occurred to me to go to the doctor for being tired.  I’ve just always dealt with it, I push myself until I get an hour or a day to collapse and sleep the sleep of the dead.  During those extra-tired times, on the nights that I work, I keep switching up what I do to keep me awake and reasonably alert:  read, crosswords, exercise, sudoku puzzles, draw, color, Kakuru puzzles, write in my journal, drink coffee, take vitamin B12, shake my head back and forth, etc.  The cues I look for that show me that it is time to switch activities include:  needing to read the same paragraph over and over in order to try to understand it, blurred vision, slowed breathing, illegible handwriting, forgetfulness, eyes crossing, stomach clenching, brain fogging, slurred speech...When one or more of these things happen, I switch what I do.  Lately, I have been physically tired to the point where exercise seemed impossible, reading has been impossibly frustrating, and my journal entries have started out fine, but ended in an unreadable, incomprehensible babble of scribbles.  Kakuro and coloring seem to be working best for me.  Kakuro uses some math skills and logical thinking, parts of my brain that I don’t use in everyday situations.  (Not to mention that they are really hard, and when I get my mind on finishing one, I get so stubborn that I won’t stop until it’s finished, and that stubbornness keeps me alert and wide awake.)  So, I’ve been doing those and they have worked really well.  Then, on the way home from work in the morning,  I stop at the rest area to sleep.  I tell myself that I’m only going to sleep for 15-20 minutes.  I make sure my car is locked, recline my seat, set the alarm on my cell phone and...hit the snooze and...hit the snooze and...sleep through the alarm.  Then I finally wake, stumble inside to use the bathroom- sometimes brushing my teeth and washing my face helps to get the cobwebs out of my brain enough to drive again, and sometimes, the guy that works there and I talk for a bit.  Then, I get back into the car and sometimes I make it all the way home, and sometimes I pull into the Meijer parking lot, or one of the malls, check to make sure my car is locked, recline my seat, set the alarm on my cell phone and…
So, I’m tired lately.  I’ve been missing church, not writing my blog, not remembering things, not getting housework done (except enough laundry to keep me in clean underwear), not working on training the dogs everyday as I’d committed to do.  Instead, I’ve been sleeping in rest areas, staring like a zombie at the TV because I'm too tired and have been fighting sleep too well, uncomprehending of what is being said, eating whatever Deb feeds me, forgetting words and conversations, and sleeping.  I’ve called in to work twice with this sore throat and exhaustion so bad that I was not safe to drive, let alone work.  I’ve been sanitizing any phones and other surfaces I use at work, thinking I might be contagious, not wanting my co-workers to all come down with sore throats and exhaustion.  But, since I’ve never french-kissed (or even dry kissed) a co-worker (okay, not since I was 18 or 19 working in the campus kitchen), I don’t need to worry about them getting EBV from me.
Not only is my EBV not catchy with casual contact, neither is my extreme vitamin B deficiency.  I seem to be the lowest in B that the nurse practitioner has ever seen, even though I’ve been taking a B complex at least 3 times a week to try to get some energy, and even taking extra B12 most nights that I work (it is supposed to give you extra energy, and on normal nights it does help).  None of it has helped lately with energy.  I even tried one of those disgusting tasting 5 hour energy drink things, which is a combination of caffeine and B vitamins, and it didn’t touch my exhaustion.  Well, my body is either sucking it all down like an old piece of dried wood does with water, or somehow I’m not metabolizing vitamins B for some reason.  That is part of my tiredness as well.  So, for the next 6 weeks or so- I’m supposed to sleep as much as my body wants, take B complex every day, B12 every day, sleep some more, take extra vitamin C, eat properly, sleep some more, get 2 vitamin infusions at the doctor’s office every week, and rest- not work.  (As I am writing this, Deb just gave me a quiz she found in a Diabetic magazine about B12 deficiency.  Turns out that it causes tiredness, forgetfulness, etc.  I have told all of my doctors that I am having memory problems, I have been telling them for the past 3 years, and none of them checked me for b vitamin deficiencies until now.  Turns out that the neurological problems-forgetfulness, confusion, and irritability can all be caused by B12 deficiency, not only that, but without early intervention, these can be permanent!!  I’m a bit mad about this, that no one thought to check this.)
Part of me is relieved to have permission and time to sleep.  Part of me, the bigger part, feels stupid and selfish for taking time off because I am tired.  I feel like I am cheating, and not being fair to my co-workers who will have to cover my shifts.  After all, doesn’t everyone get tired sometimes?  I feel guilty.  And tired.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In the Beginning: The Story of Zen Wintergreen

Written September 13, 2010
Sunday night, I left earlier than usual for work.  On my default radio station, NPR, was a show called “Radio Lab” and they were exploring language, the role that it plays in our communications with each other, our thought processes, and even our identity as human beings.  ( http://www.radiolab.org/2010/aug/09/ )  In a way, it reminded me of the chicken or the egg question.  They looked at language from a lot of different directions.  One direction they looked was toward researchers who studied concept words such as “blue” and “left” to see at what age people grasped intangible concepts (around age 6).  They went even further to see how adults would comprehend those words if their language skills were taken away.  I’m not going to tell you how they did this, or the result, but I will say I’m curious to try that experiment for myself.  Any volunteers?
I try to listen to that “small, still voice” inside-you know, the one that helps me know who I am in the world, the one that tells me right from wrong and now from then.  Well, one of the people they interviewed for Radio Lab, Jill Bolte Taylor, wrote a book called My Stroke of Insight.  In this book, she recalls her experience of having a stroke.  One day her small, still voice was silenced, along with her chatty voice, her voice that questions, her loud voice, the voice of her intellect, the voices of her whole world- were gone.  She couldn’t speak or understand language.  Words meant nothing, they were just sounds to experience in the ether.  She said during the interview that when there was no language for her, there was just joy.  She also said that she felt experientially connected to the world in a way that is blocked by the interference of language.  Wow.
Thinking about that concept reminds me of one moment that I had, about 9-10 years ago.  I may have told this story here before, but it bears telling in this context as well:
I was at the beach with Deb and my sister and her partner.  We were in the water at a very busy park.  There were kids laughing and splashing, parents throwing beach balls, geese flying over, college boys belching and grilling, dog tails wagging, babies squealing and teenagers trying to impress one another.  You get the picture, a lot was going on around me.  I laid back in the water, lifted my feet off the sand and just floated, with my ears below the surface and my eyes closed to the rays of the sun.  I could hear and feel the ripples of sound and movement in the water.  I could feel the sun on my face and the different water temperatures.  I could smell the smoke from the grills that the slight fish smell of the seaweed.  I could see shadows cross my eyelids as things shifted in space.  I also felt totally present in the moment and place where I was.  I felt connected to the people around me.  I felt present in my body, in the water, in the world, like I’d never felt before.  All of this happened in a moment suspended in a silence without words, without time.  It felt endless, but it was really probably no more than 2 or 3 seconds.  Then, the foreign invasion of language happened.  I found myself laughing out loud and thinking, “Zen!  This is Zen.  I am zen.”  Then I said it out loud to my sister and our partners, and “it” was gone.  The Zen was gone.
In my wold-up until the moment that the word “zen” popped into my brain, I believed that language had ALWAYS anchored me more securely in any experience, bringing life and reality to something otherwise not quite whole.  For instance:  there was the time that I saw an unfamiliar small green plant in the woods.  I pinched it and smelled it and immediately gave it the name “wintergreen”.  Suddenly my brain was inundated with all of the knowledge and experience that I associated with that word:  minty fresh strong smell, breath mints and gum, and now, surprisingly, not looking at all like anything in the mint family whose names I knew.  I catalogued those names, throwing them out of the wintergreen family one at a time for their dissimilar shape, color, texture (each named in an instant):  peppermint, spearmint, catnip, bee balm, lemon balm and maybe creeping charlie (which may or may not really be in the mint family, but it spreads like mint and has a slightly warm smell and pretty purple flowers).  “Wintergreen”, I believed that word anchored me to the experience of seeing it in the wild for the first time.  (After that exercise, I’m kind of surprised that I wanted to place it in the category with the word “mint” at all.  After all, mint and balm are not part of the verbal equation beginning with wintergreen.)
Up until my moment of zen without words, I had assumed that that word-anchoring, which widened my base of knowledge, meant also anchoring and expanding the experience itself.  But really, when the word ‘zen” was put onto the moment by me, I immediately left that place of connection and visceral experience.  I connected the experience with the word which connected me to all the other words I had read that describe the experience of zen, the theories, the koans, the philosophies that I had read in words about a concept of which I had previously had no concept.  I had, with that one thought word, erected a buffer, a wall of language around the experience.  I thought the word, the wall of language would hold that moment as one of pure unsullied existence, protected in the concreteness of solid words.  Instead, my wall of words cut off all of that connectedness which I had felt before the Word, then separated it into quantified and categorized information bits in my brain.  Just like that time of finding the wintergreen was not enhanced or expanded by all of the outside mental language that I attached to it.  That wintergreen moment was seared into my brain during that unadulterated cold/hot eye-watering sinus clearing brain fog burning experience of being in and of that smell, under a tree, by a small creek, the instant before the word “wintergreen” entered my mind.  That was the experience being seared into my being.  The thoughts of Altoids and mouthwash came in the form of words into my brain, fooling me into believing that now that I had named it, it was more real than the smell in my nostrils, when really it was all just words.  The smell, the feel, the taste of wintergreen were what was real.
Don’t get me wrong- as a writer, I love language, Words for me are a way of life, a way of defining life for myself and of defining the world around me.  I do my best to describe indescribable experiences and thoughts within the finite bounds of endless combinations of 26 letters and some spaces.  When really, it is in the silence of those spaces that authentic experiences and meanings lie.  The really important “things” in life are found in those spaces and silences, the smells and tastes, sounds and sensations in that moment before any word intrudes.
In the beginning, there was BEING.  And then came the Word and with the word came the illusion of the beginning.  And with the illusion of the beginning came the illusion of the certainty of the word.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Time Machine Hardware

(Written around midnight Thursday, June 3, 2010.)
I am no physicist, but I think I have figured out a method of time travel.
Deb and I went to Knoblocks Hardware the other day, to shop for knobs for “my mom’s” bookcases, which have been ours for years, waiting patiently for us to refinish them.  Deb took the bull by the paintbrush and made the old things beautiful.  We wanted to find knobs to add a touch of uniqueness and that my mom would have appreciated.   So, on the recommendation of Tompkins Hardware, we were off to knoblocks.
I had barely taken two steps into the place when I stopped in my tracks to inhale deeply.
At that moment, I was back at Big Joe’s hardware store, walking into the front door.  I was getting my very first lesson on how to run a business:  Me, “why do you put things on sale?”  Big Joe, “to make things cost less so people can buy them.”  Me, “so, where do you get all this stuff?”  Big Joe, “I buy it, then I sell it to other people who need it.”  Me, “so, you help people out by selling them stuff for less than you paid for it, that’s so nice of you to help people like that.”  (I was obviously totally convinced that his selfless generosity toward me spilled over to his generosity to the world.)  Big Joe, laughing, “no, I sell it for more.  I have to pay the bills.”  Me, still puzzled, but trusting in Joe’s generosity anyway, “oh.  Can I buy something?”
Then, I was back at Knoblock’s in Flint, grinning and saying to Deb, “THIS is what a hardware store is supposed to smell like!”  We lingered at the store, looking at everything:  knobs, pieces of welding steel, beautifully colored arrow fletching, beeswax,  replacement shovel handles, screws, fertilizer, wooden dowels, potato chips, shelves and shelves of ordering catalogues (behind the counter), and a sign noting that they specially make bows and arrows for hunting.  Hardware stores like Knoblocks, or my other contemporary favorite, Tompkins, bring smiles to my face and the same anticipatory alertness that I feel when I walk into a bookstore or a fabric shop.  I never know what treasures await- a new blender to replace my broken one?  A garden torch?  Canopied chairs in which to park my butt while I watch concerts at the upcoming Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival?  I get as excited as a kid in a hardware store- I mean, in a candy store.
Although Savard’s Hardware, Big Joe’s store, has long been closed, I will always associate small family owned hardware stores with love and laughter and adventure.
As summer camping season begins, it is more than fitting that Big Joe is in my heart and on my mind.  The Savard family and our family had a tradition of camping together.  I believe that I was with that gang when I first discovered tent worms.  They were such beautiful fuzzy caterpillars.  On this particular trip, I collected as many as I could find and put them on the roof and sides of our tent.  My mom couldn’t figure out why our tent was crawling with them.  When she caught me relocating them, she asked me why on Earth I was doing that.  I replied that they were supposed to be there because they ARE, after all, tent worms.  Like the whole belly button thing, mom had to explain once again a fact of life that I had misunderstood.  She explained that they are called tent worms because they make their own tents and kill trees.  For a long time, I didn’t want to believe that my beautiful tent worms would kill my beloved trees.
When our families camped together, there was always fun to be had:  eating mom’s half raw yet burned gooey mess of camp pancakes, walks in the woods, learning to squat in the woods without peeing on my feet, campfires, building a homemade sundial, singing, and stories, lots of stories.   My favorite seat at the camp fire was always on Big Joe’s lap.  (Little Joe is my brother-in-law.  We just call both of them Joe now, they know who they are.)  Big Joe assigned us all camp names.  Mom was “Queen of the Road” because she always drove a big van full of noisy kids and she often found shortcuts to our destinations, usually making the van ride about three times as long.  She would say we weren’t lost, we were having an adventure!  (I get my sense of direction from the Queen of the Road.)  My sister, Annette,  was “Princess Blue Eyes”  because she has the most beautiful blue eyes and long eyelashes that I’ve ever seen.  And, my camp name that was bestowed by Big Joe was “Princess Boney Butt,” because his leg would be sore from my butt bones digging into his thighs as I adamantly asserted that no, I wouldn’t rather sit on a log or in a chair.  Of course now, my name would probably be “Princess Wide but Boney Butt.”  And now, I would much prefer a chair- perhaps one with its own canopy.  I can’t remember anyone else’s camp names.  I’d love to hear in the comment section, what camp names people have had, whether Big Joe bestowed them, or your Girl Scout counselor or your great aunt Hilda.
Today, Knoblocks called to say that our knobs are in.  I pulled the message off of our voicemail when I came in from the rain to make wooden markers for the Anaheim and Sweet Bell peppers I was getting ready to plant.
Deb and I worked and played and laughed in the garden for five and a half hours today.  About four of those hours were in the rain.  We had mud in our hair, between our toes and in our belly buttons.  The weeds were willing to let go of their tenacious holds on the Earth with a little help from the rain and Deb’s hard work with “the garden claw”.  Then I  carted their not so little corpses to the compost.  Then, I got to do my favorite part-  I got to start putting plants in the ground, or, rather, the mud.  By the time I was done planting two and a half twelve foot long beds, I did not have one more place to wipe the caked mud from my hands.  I’d already used my pant legs, my big boney butt’s pants, the front of my shirt, the sleeves of my shirt, and, finally, I wiped my hands on my face, then impishly held out my hands as if with a bowl, and said in fake Cockney accent, “Please sir, may I have some more?”
At the point where the mud and cold and rain had us ready to turn in our tools, the rain stopped and the sun came out and the damp soil took almost no time to get warm to the touch.  Along with the emergence of the sun, came the emergence of our new neighbor kid, Steven.  He popped his head over the fence and said, “can I help?”  Of course, I wasn’t going to stop then, with free labor at stake, despite my hunger.  He happily took over my job of toting weeds to the compost pile as I finished hand sifting through my third bed, picking out tiny tendrils of old roots.  Steven was surprised when I told him I’d seen a couple different kinds of beetles in the soil and melodramatic when I told him that what is now dirt was once horse manure.  He seemed interested to learn that earthworms help plow our garden and that the soil is full of life when chemical fertilizers are avoided.    He very conscientiously dug a nice deep hole for his first roma tomato plant and laughed in delight when I told him that we just planted some spaghetti sauce.  I sent him home with a big bunch of tall, muddy green onions that he helped to pull.  He seemed proud as he headed home and the tools were put back in the shed.
As I reflect on my time with Steven, I realize that in some ways, I have become my mother.  I don’t have eleven kids of my own or a nursing career, or a husband, nor did she have a wife.  But I could almost hear her speaking through me while I reached down and pinched off a leaf of sage for Steven to smell.  I imagined how she felt while teaching me how to plant tomatoes as a kid, even if I did omit the lump of horse poop in the hole that she used to have me put in.
So, this week, I have figured out that I can travel through time using the magic of smell or the joy of getting my hands so filthy, I’m not sure if they’ll ever be clean.  Except that the rain and the soil and the kid, and the smells and the laughter and the good memories all work together to scrub my mind clean of negativity.  I wonder if I can apply for a patent for “mental exfoliating scrub,” made with stuff that once came out of a horse’s butt, available in Jasmine or hardware store scent.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Crossing Paths, Touching Lives and Dancing to the Tune of the Stars

I have tried to write this blog entry several times over the past couple of months.  I have written over and over in my journal about this, but bringing grief into the light and making it beautiful is a difficult thing to do.
One of the reasons why I have gone silent on this blog for the past few months is that most of the fall and winter, my mind was mostly on my friend, Ellen, who died in February, after living with stage 4 breast cancer for 9 ½ years, well beyond her expected lifespan. 
Ellen was one of the first people in Flint that I felt really saw me for myself, and not just as the partner of Deb.  She and I would often say the words in the other’s head during group conversations with our partners.  More than once, Ellen would laugh at something I said and say, “you and I really are so much alike”.
I wish I was more like Ellen.  When I was sick, I was impatient and whiney.  I was angry and manic from the steroids and the anxiety.  Ellen taught me to quit feeling sorry for myself and deal with life as it is, not as I wanted it to be.  Ellen knew when I needed to talk about something other than the cancer.  I tried to do the same with her.  So much of her last 10 years was spent in the hospital for chemo, radiation, surgery, bone marrow transplant, more chemo more radiation, check ups, blood draws, more chemo more chemo morechemomorechemomorechemo.  Yet still, she volunteered at her daughters’ school, met with friends for lunch, shuttled the girls to softball practice, play practice, visiting relatives in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.  Yet still, she had time and made energy enough to cook dinner for her family every day (even when she really didn’t want to eat)  She still, up until the end, helped the girls with their homework every day.  She loved her time to have them read to her.  Yet still, she had time to go on a cruise, go to Disney a couple of times, swim with the dolphins, ride an elephant and help fix an orphanage in Cambodia.  Yet still, she had time to sit and talk with me from time to time, and laugh and remind me not to take myself too seriously and remind me that one person really can change the world.  Yet still, she had time to love on a Tasmanian devil puggle puppy named Jake and a serene mutt named Serena.  Yet still, she put other people’s needs before her own.  As she got sicker and sicker, even if she could barely keep her eyes open, she didn’t turn visitors away. She said that they needed to say goodbye to her or they needed to see her.  Not that she needed to see them, but that they needed to see her.
She told me that I needed to learn to play again.  She told me that she was worried for her kids, but felt good that they were going to have us in their lives.  Then, she laughed and said that we have to put up with them through their teenage years and she doesn’t.  But, she said she also doesn’t get to see them grow up.
In the last week or so of her life, Ellen’s life partner asked me to write Ellen’s eulogy.  Of course I would write it, but I had doubts:  I have only been close to her for about 11 years, what about all those years before?  Will someone be offended that they were not chosen?  Can I get through it without completely breaking down into a blubbering mess?  Can I do her justice?  Can I write about Ellen without having it only center on my relationship with her?  Can I leave room in the eulogy for other people’s grief?  Can I make the girls and Annie know how Ellen cherished them?  Can I explain how Ellen changed the world?
All these doubts, yet I felt like it was a sacred honor to be asked to do the eulogy.  I really wanted to finish it so that Ellen could hear what I was going to say about her.  I wanted her to understand what she meant to the world and to me.  I wrote about 5 different versions of the eulogy, then finally, took the very best of them all, took a lot of myself out of it, added some changes that Annie requested, and cried a hundred times during the writing.  I was unusually crabby and quiet at work, and my coworkers came to understand why, and let me be in that space.
The reason why all of this is related to my not writing on my blog is that, all I wanted to write about or think about or pray about for months was Ellen and her partner and the girls.  I didn’t write it here because Ellen used to read my blog faithfully and I felt like I needed to be strong to support her, not the other way around as seemed to happen so often, even when she was sick.  Even when she was dying.
And then today, I said goodbye to another dear friend.  I held him and his wife, also a dear friend, in the light of love and joy and I sang him home.  And I grieve with her and laugh at our memories of him.  And I miss him fiercely already.
But, I believe that somewhere, Walt and Ellen  are dancing together, perhaps in the glow of the Northern lights, or in the sound of a cello.   

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Around the Bend

(written April 21, 2010)

I am doing a tentative happy dance this morning.  Happy because I have finally, after 24 years, finished the coursework for my BA in English!!!  Tentative because I still have to schedule and pass a French test to prove that I remember everything that I forgot from my classes over 20 years ago. 
I will walk in the May 2 graduation.  I am being coerced.  Personally, I’d like to just skip to the party and dispense with the 2 ½ hour meditation in boredom.  (Although it is tempting to go see Obama at the Ann Arbor graduation the day before.  The problem is, that would require yet another vacation day stolen from my October sisters’ trip to Arizona or from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.  Both of those are important to me this year.  I will probably miss my big family reunion though.  That is always a fun time.)
I am surprised at how much French I remember.  I am much slower than I remember being with it before.  I am still working on the specifics of verb conjugations, always the hardest thing to learn.  For some odd reasons, I remembered almost all of the prepositions.  Why is it that I can remember everywhere a rabbit can go, but not when it goes there.  I can say the basic, present tense of go, so that is something anyway.  I don’t know how to say rabbit though, so I can’t demonstrate here.
Part of me longs for my one very manic summer of twenty something years ago when I began to think in French.  That is one of my most vivid memories from those days.  Perhaps because I didn’t sleep much, it was like one long day instead of one short summer…
I was working full time on midnights at the local convenience store.  I was working part time at the MSU Voice Library (awesome place- one of the largest in the country-but that’s another story), I was taking a playwriting class which was emotionally intense, and I was taking an intensive series of French classes, three hours per day five days per week plus homework and a daily journal.  I would lunch on the lawn behind the student union, and regularly shared my raisins with a squirrel who always saw me coming.  (I quit feeding him raisins from my hand when he got pissed one day when I didn’t bring him raisins, due to being out of them.  He, lickety split, ran up my leg and grabbed my hand to look for raisins, and looked at me like I had dishonored the Queen!)  I didn’t have a whole lot of time to sleep.  So, at night before work, I’d take herbs to stay awake, and again in the morning before class.  Break for lunch with the psychotic raisin addicted squirrel go to work for a few hours at the library go home take herbs to sleep for about 2 hours before work at the store.  I took the couple of hours between lunch and work to do my homework (no computer in those days, so the green grass was my desk).  On the nights that I didn’t work at the store, I’d usually go out dancing because I couldn’t sleep an;yway because I had gotten my body into this crazy no sleep pattern and my brain wouldn’t turn offffffffff!  One day, during this manic frenzy, I was making chocolate chip cookies and listening to music really loud.  I think it was classic rock because I remember that I was delighted when I realized that I was singing along in French, not in English and I hadn’t had to do any translating.  I had begun to think in French!!!  That was pretty amazing.  I’m glad that I lived with very tolerant and patient friends that summer.  My friend Sara and I still laugh about it.  She still teases me about taking guarana and living not just a manic moment, but a whole summer of manic.  I wrote a lot that summer.  I laughed a lot that summer and I probably would have died very young had I kept up that pace.  But, I did learn to think in French.
And now, I’m nervous about taking this test because I am nowhere near being able to think in French, except to tell you: in out between before after on under until because why...That’s not very substantial.  That is very very small talk.
I am so grateful and feel so blessed to have such an amazing support system in my life.  Without the support of those around me, I would never have gotten to this point.  I would not have motivated myself to get back into the classroom and stimulate my brain that way.  I have had some fantastic teachers as well.  Those teachers have shown a dedicated passion and love of what they do, which in turn motivates me to love the subject as well.  I have a pair of angels who have believed enough in me to lay out the funds that it has taken for me to finish school, so that the money that I earn has been able to go toward my regular household stuff.  Thank you.  You know who you are.  I feel honored that you believe in me that way.
I wish my friend Ellen was still around to celebrate with me.  She did hold out long enough to see me to the beginning of this last class.  (I’ll write more about her in another post.)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A New Day's Resolution

(adapted from a journal excerpt written December 31, 2009 at 11:30pm)
I never know quite what to do with this whole New Year’s Resolution business.  Part of me says “yeah, I want to do that” and part of me says, “what’s the point, I never can seem to make those changes permanent” and part of me says, “why should this day be any different in trying to make myself a better person and this world a better world”.
To me, taking each day as a new day is something I strive for, because when I can manage that, It’s easier to make each day the best that I can.  Mostly, I’m not too successful in taking one day at a time, but on the days (or moments) that I am, anything seems possible.
Too often, I find myself carrying yesterday’s resentments and disappointments over into the new day.  But some days, I secretly want to hold on to my disappointments, anger, resentments and grudges.  They seem like my armor of knives, like porcupine quills, ready to strike anyone at a moment’s notice, that way I can strike before I am once again betrayed.  (never mind that my quills also keep out affection and love and joy, etc.)
Too often, I find myself carrying yesterdays grievances in my heart, weighing my soul down into a stagnant muck.  What my soul wants to do is to laugh and smile and fly loop-de-loops of joy and dance to the endless spiral rhythms of the whole range of present-moment emotions from excitement to grief to joy to anger to love to excitement to….
I was looking at a very young baby recently and this baby was smiling.  The baby’s smile made me smile.  I commented that people always say that newborns can’t smile, that it is only gas, but I don’t believe it.  The mom (or another adult, I can’t remember exactly) said that it’s not gas, it is smiling and that recent studies confirm that humans are born with the ability to smile.  Smiling is an instinct, an innate part of being human.  Offhandedly, I responded with what I thought was going to be a smart alack remark.  I said something along the lines of:  “maybe our natural state of being is joy, and we muck it up somewhere along the way.”  That just felt true.  Oops- I meant to say something ridiculous.  And oops- that that idea somewhere along the line of life, has come to feel absurd as a possibility.  But the truth of it still rings in my heart.
Perhaps, like a newborn each day, I need to leave past distractions aside and smile for the warmth of another being’s presence.  Smile for a belly that does not contort with hunger.  Smile for a bed and a nap.  Smile for a clean change of underwear.  Smile for the feel of the wind’s breath.  Smile for another’s beating heart.  Smile for the memory of another’s beating heart.  Smile for the sound of cats purring me awake.  Smile for the pressure of dogs pushing me to the edge of my bed as they nestle in closer and closer in dream-filled sleep as they smile dog smiles for the warmth of another being’s presence.  As they smile dog smiles for a bed and a nap…
As ambivalent as I generally am about New Year’s resolutions, maybe I will do this:  I will try to, each day, make a New Day’s resolution, to forgive the past discontents and allow myself to be in the moment (which at times is bound to contain its own discontents, but only its own) and to allow for the possibility that joy is my natural state of being.  The actual manifestation of that possibility often feels a long way off, but I know that even remote possibilities can become everyday accepted realities (ie: a black U.S. President, interracial marriages, Helen Keller becoming an honored master of communication, a lesbian mayor of Houston…).  
In order to not carry my porcupine defensive mentality around from day to day, I need to remind myself to practice what I preached a few months back about forgiveness.  I need to remind myself to forgive myself and those I love (and those I don’t love) everyday, or at least as many days as I am able.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Smart as a Box of Rocks

I have a feeling that my class this semester, my final class for my log-anticipated bachelor’s degree may crush my current use of one of my favorite insults. Only a few humans have earned my use of this insult, more likely it goes toward, say, my old cat who used to electrocute herself repeatedly on the TV antennae for as many times as I could stand to let her, and who once, we suspect, fell in the toilet while trying to investigate why the water wasn’t going round and round and round and-SPLASH. But, I love using this insult, it rolls off the tongue in a not quite, almost rhyme: “dumb as a box of rocks”.


Now that I have started reading my Environmental Geology textbook, I think that insult is actually a compliment. Rocks speak more about our Earthly home than the most loquacious human ever can. They not only speak to us, but they are also smart, they have seen the fires of creation and were born to tell about it.

Sorry I haven’t written for a while. My plate has been full and my heart has fealt as heavy as a box of rocks. Hopefully, I’ll find some more inspiration soon.

I went to the Snow Festival in Frankenmuth yesterday. The vision of these artists is inspirational, as they start with a huge block of snow, and ounce by ounce shave away the frozen crystals to bring to life a gnome or an angel, a cobra or an octopus eating a submarine. The festival runs through this weekend, I encourage you to go and enjoy the beauty.

By the way, I got my port out last week.  I'm doing the cancer free happy dance.