Posts Tagged #essay
This morning, there’s a fresh breeze, carrying pollen and dreams of what tomorrow might hold. It’s Easter, which is the day before my personal “rebirth” day.
Tomorrow is my fifth rebirth-day.
Five years ago today, I was dragging. I had woken in the night with yet another charlie horse in my right calf. I felt tired and old. I just wanted to crawl back into bed.
I was married then, and my best friend and her family lived a couple blocks away. My youngest was still at home—it was a different lifetime, and that day was the eve of my bonus lifetime. It seemed to me that my troubles had begun with the arrival five years or so before of the dreaded state called perimenopause. Reading up on my mounting list of problems, it was clear: insomnia? Perimenopause. Irritability? Perimenopause. Weight gain? Perimenopause. Marital disconnection? Sure, that was perimenopause, too, because I was freaking crazy. I was feeling discontented with our lifestyle, or rather mine—I worked all the time, and felt under tremendous pressure constantly. Life felt like an endless race to get more. But more of what? I began to question things. Yet perimenopause had robbed me of my former calm exterior, on top of everything else. I felt angry. I was a mess.
I was broken, and it was all the fault of my waning uterine cycles which had ebbed and flowed me right into the edgy throes of perimenopause. Which on reflection seems an awful lot like the modern-day equivalent of “hysteria,” the age-old catch-all diagnosis for pretty much every malady a woman might suffer from—especially maladies like being strong-willed, asserting her way, or having sexual ideas.
All the way back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, men believed that misbehaving women were being led astray by their wombs, which were wandering in their bodies. The cure was to be dominated by a man, made to submit. Later this was dubbed “Hysteria” by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC. Making women defective by design makes women less-than, makes us inferior. When you’re told something often enough, you internalize it. It’s called brainwashing.
It makes perfect sense in hindsight why, after a lifetime of being conditioned to believe that being female was a curse, a failing, the cause of any weakness or trouble, that I bought right into the notion that perimenopause was an awful trial to be endured. Not to say hormonal shifts are a cakewalk, by any means. But in adolescence, there seems more acceptance of the shift. Then, it’s a hopeful one, I suppose. Perimenopause, we are meant to believe, signals a looming expiration date, a natural transition which is to be endured with drugs and/or surgery if you are to survive it.
That Easter I did what I always had done, since childhood: I sucked it up and put a good face on. I was just tired, after all. My allergies were worse than ever (also attributable to perimenopause, of course). I was getting short of breath. And my leg was sore from the cramps in the night. But I got dressed and went to my friend’s for Easter dinner.
My friend still feels guilty for suggesting I eat more bananas. “They say leg cramps mean low potassium,” she mused. And that’s true, about potassium deficiency. I was willing to try anything, and that seemed as good an idea as any. My primary care doc had just last week prescribed an inhaler for my allergies, and it seemed to do nothing. Maybe potassium would help. I was so disconnected with the reality of my body that the alarm bells hadn’t gone off yet.
We ate lamb, I think (that day is a blur) and took a walk after dinner. The short block loomed long. I limped along, unable to do anything faster than a saunter. But it was a beautiful day, the dogwoods in bloom. I smiled and made conversation, but inside, I worried: Am I getting depressed? On top of everything else? The last time walking a block had seemed impossible was when I was depressed. Perimenopause causes increased depression, I’d seen an article on that in the doctor’s office waiting room…
For a couple years, I’d been an avid walker. Walking was the only thing that took the edge off my irritability. Three months earlier, at my routine gynecologist visit, I mentioned my surprising surges of anger to my doctor. “I thought PMS was a myth!” I said. “But now I wonder…and I have insomnia still. I’m trying to kick the Ambien now, but I barely sleep without it.”
“Very common in perimenopause,” the doctor said. “Insomnia. PMS. It could get worse before it gets better. You have a while yet…have the hot flashes started?”
Panic surged. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Two choices,” she said. “Anti-depressants or low-dose birth control. Most of my patients your age are on one or both.”
Fearing the effects of anti-depressants when I was not depressed, I opted for the low-dose birth control pills. I did ask though: “Aren’t I kind of old for birth control pills? Isn’t being over 40 a risk factor?”
“Well, not for you,” she said. “You don’t smoke, and you walk —what—4 or 5 miles a day? You’ll be fine! It’ll just take the edge off. You need help getting through this time,” she consoled, writing out the prescription.
Easter night, I went to bed exhausted, and feeling very low. But I drifted off to sleep, desperate to escape the prison of worries over my failing body. After all, everything that was happening to me—the distance in my relationship with my husband, the years of chronic insomnia, my new sluggishness and shortness of breath, the five pounds I could not lose despite dieting, my scattered focus—it was all perimenopause. It was all me, falling apart. Hippocrates would have called me hysterical.
Alone in my bed, I was sleeping with the enemy.
The future narrowed like a closing aperture or the point of a funnel. I’d arrived at the stage of life any woman past child-bearing age knows will be a trial. Full of aches and anger. Full of complaints, and losses—loss of vibrant sexuality, loss of love, loss of joy, loss of adventure—such riches, it seemed, were for younger women, and if I hadn’t had my fill, I was out of luck and out of time.
Considering I nearly died twelve hours later, I almost was out of time.
(tomorrow: my rebirth-day)
I’ve been drunk-binging on nature lately, pulled from my grind-screen work and what I ‘should’ be doing to spend hours just gazing at the wonders of the fall. I end up working way too late to compensate, but you can only see the foliage in the daylight.
Such transformation is amazing. It gives me hope. As in, “I am living in a miracle world, pure, uncut amazing! Anything might happen!”
Well. It’s not all Indian summer breezes, after all. Nope. It’s a world awash in constant pain. Turn on the news or read the stream or listen to the couple behind you in line for a burrito sniping at each other–pain, pain, pain; see the face of the worn-looking woman waiting for the bus, see how a knotted thread of anxiety is pulling her features toward the center of her face, into a pinch of ache. She’s in pain, emotional, physical, spiritual–it doesn’t matter what kind of pain, does it? She’s a human, and she’s hurting.
This week I read a story in the New York Times about an Italian marathon-runner, and not an experienced or well-trained one, who came to New York to run. He was with a loosely-organized group of Italians. He spoke no English. Somewhere along the route of the marathon, he dropped his small amount of cash, along with his hotel key-card and his subway map.
He went missing for around 48 hours, wandering New York in his running clothes, disheveled, hungry, alone. Unable to communicate. After running a whole marathon, so he must’ve been flat-out depleted. He made his way, somehow, to the airport, knowing his group would be flying out the next day. Security kicked him out, because they thought he was homeless.
A policeman noticed him on the subway the next day, and realized he was the missing foreigner.
According to Office Yam, “He kept turning and looking to the map. He seemed like he was under duress, like he happened to be lost or not knowing where he was going.” Thanks to the officer’s alertness, the hapless marathoner was saved. Happiness! Truly, it was a joyful ending to what must have been a terrifying experience for him.
Still, no mention in the news article of all the actual homeless people who are disheveled, hungry, alone and unable to communicate, who also do not know where they are going, and who are moved along and cursed at and rarely rescued. They have no group to join, it seems. Imagine the marathoner, wandering weak and scared for two whole days. Now imagine wandering—indefinitely. In the cold, in the rain. In the days that come after this golden time ends.
Sometimes I just want to not want to help, to care, to crave, to feel at all. Because I don’t know how to fix it. I can barely manage myself.
But then: the trees.
The trees are divine spirits. They won’t let me fade into numb oblivion. They remind me that no matter what else is going on, no matter what hurts or what is messed up—that beauty is there, not caring if I eat it up or ignore it, but there all the same. Doesn’t that mean something? I take a picture. I feel pleased, and then sort of shallow at the rush of pleasure all this beauty brings. My inner scold chides me. A picture of an amazing blazing autumn afternoon won’t heal the world.
A little voice says it might heal some tiny corner of it.
It might remind someone— someone who gets lost fighting things she cannot change—to remember to appreciate the gift of being in this world, on this day. To breathe this autumn air, and feel gratitude.
And maybe that is a tiny little start?
It’s not nearly enough, but you have to begin where you are, and work up from there.
“Hope without power is no match for fear with power.” –Caroline Myss
Maybe if we empower our hopes, there will be a little less fear in the world?
I met her in the showers, at the University Recreation Center on the Friday night of welcome week. She was me. But at first, I thought she was someone else, just a random stranger.
Soaking wet, she popped out from one of the two dozen curtained shower stalls. Her skin was pale, her cheeks pink, blooming with life. Wrapped up in a crimson towel, long dark hair dripping, she looked as if I’d startled her, rather than the other way around.
“Excuse me,” she said, over-loud, nearly a shout. I stopped. A flicker of embarrassment crossed her face. She went on, more quietly, “Um, do you know what kind of soap is in those dispensers?” She waved a hand back toward the shower she’d just exited. She was trying to sound nonchalant, but she looked lost.
“Crappy hand soap,” I said. “Need to borrow some shampoo?” I held out my shampoo, and my conditioner for good measure, and she took me up on it.
The locker room at the Rec center is huge, built to accommodate seventy-five women. It was just her—and me. After showering, it turned out we’d chosen lockers in the same row.
Silence hung between us as we clicked open our combination locks.
“You’re a freshman?” I asked.
She didn’t seem to hear. But of course she was a freshman. Alone on the first Friday night on a big campus, anxious—maybe her roommates ditched her? Maybe it was too lonely to sit in the dorm, maybe a swim would help? I felt sure she had only asked me about the soap to ground herself, to feel a little less weird, less alone.
I toweled dry, hooked my bra, slipped on underwear. Her back to me, she squirmed into a pair of compression shorts, the sort runners wear.
“So—what’s your major?”
She looked around, as if to be sure I was talking to her. She pulled her t-shirt on and turned. “It’s called Graphic Communication Design,” she answered, saying the words very carefully, as if they were foreign and she wasn’t quite sure of her pronunciation. “It’s like, you know, advertising, and book design, and stuff.”
I laughed out loud. Her dark brows knotted. I felt her anxiety rise, palpable.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I know exactly what that is, I majored in the same thing here, a thousand years ago.”
She relaxed and met my gaze straight on. “You know,” she said, “I really wanted to study fine arts.” She said it as if confiding a terrible secret, as if it were a little shameful. For a split second, I saw her longing, her passion, for something she didn’t think she deserved.
And that’s when it hit me.
She was me. The me of thirty-some years ago.
I think it’s called projection. Of course, she wasn’t me. But I was reeling back in time, just the same.
She was there to show me how tender and unsure I’d been at her age. How full of promise, buried under suffocating layers of self-doubt.
I recognized her, because I’d seen her expression in my own mirror. And I remembered how cruel I’d been to that girl in the mirror—meaner than I’d ever be to any other human—and the impossible standards I held her to.
Fully dressed, the girl next to me combed her wet hair into a sleek knot.
Just the way I’d combed my hair, at sixteen, the day I’d gone out with a much-older man, feeling cool and empowered behind my own thin mask. How he didn’t take me to a restaurant, as promised, but instead took me to his home. How I didn’t fight him, and how I’d never forgiven myself for my submission, even though his icy eyes had promised worse things if I didn’t pretend to want what he was going to take from me, one way or another.
“There’s nobody home next door,” he’d said with a dead-eyed smile.
The girl slammed her locker shut, bringing me back to the present.
“Goodbye,” she said, picking up her backpack.
I wanted suddenly to run after her, to tell her everything she needed to know about the coming years, how there would be so much joy and so much pain and how nothing, absolutely nothing, would really quite work inside her soul until she could look back and see just how young she was in this moment, and how whatever she would mess up—or think she messed up—she was doing a good job, considering. She needed to know that.
But I didn’t run after her. That would be crazy. Some things you have to figure out for yourself, even if it takes thirty-odd years to do it.
This week brought the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death. The morning of the anniversary, I woke gently. I felt so peaceful, as if I had been rocked in my sleep. It reminded me of how I slept on the day she died.
I was a new mother then, my firstborn just five weeks old. Day and night had blurred into a fuzzy netherworld, especially given that I’d spent the past two weeks strapping my (often screaming) baby into the car, and driving back and forth between my home and my mother’s home, an hour away, crying along with the baby.
My mother was thin and fragile but was seeming to do okay despite her advanced-stage cancer diagnosis, right up until she wasn’t okay at all and was rushed to the hospital.
With that news, I strapped baby Avery into the car and drove north and stayed, in my childhood bedroom, alone in the house while my siblings made arrangements to come from much further away. My husband came up and stayed as long as he could, but work called him.
It was a hot July, and humid. Heat saps me in the best of times. Then there was the constant stickiness of sweat, mine and the baby’s; my breast milk leaks and her spit up and all the messiness of the start of life slammed up against the end of life, as each day I strapped Avery into a cotton sling slung across my body and went to the hospital, where my mother was threading in an out of consciousness, more out than in.
My mother’s last words to me were “pretty baby.” I think that was what she said.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
And then my mother closed her eyes and seemed to be asleep, but it was hard to know. Hard to know what to do, so I sat by her bedside when Avery slept or nursed in her sling-nest, and I paced the room and the halls when Avery woke, fussy.
Some of the nurses scolded me. “What are you thinking,” I remember one saying. “Bringing a newborn into hospital crawling with germs?”
Now I’d tell that nurse to fuck off, doesn’t she of all people know that the baby has my immune system to protect her, and is too small to touch things herself, and she’s safe as can be, and besides, don’t you see? I need to be here. I need to be with both of these people. But back then, her scolding just set off a cascade of anxiety. There’s nothing worse than wanting to split your self in two, and that’s how I felt. Divided.
Suddenly I was summoned to a cramped room by a social worker who demanded to know how I planned to care for my mother, because there was no sense operating to fix the brain bleed; they couldn’t help her any further, and a discharge was imminent. I have no memory of what came next, but hours later or perhaps the next day, I was on a tour of the local Hospice, a gleaming new facility, baby strapped on me muttering to be fed, the Hospice lady talking on and on about pet visits while my milk let down, and my tears leaked. My body and my life seemed completely beyond my control, and I was all about control then.
The Hospice lady told me it might be days or weeks before a space became available, and that there was no way to know how soon my mother might die, but they could set up home visits. I was overcome with fear, dread, feeling completely overwhelmed.
When one of my older brothers arrived, I drove back to my home. Word came that a room had indeed miraculously opened at Hospice. Avery fell asleep, or my husband took her away and rocked her—I’m not sure which, but sprawled across the futon, I fell into the deepest, best sleep of my adult life. The sleep of an exhausted toddler. A sleep such as I had again on the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death.
On the day my mother died, my sleep had been broken by my husband, gently touching my shoulder, saying, “the phone, it’s your brother…”
It took a long, long while for me to figure out that I had not betrayed my mother by leaving, by taking a break. All I knew to do was hold on, when I should have let go.
I was too scared and tired to see the truth, that she needed me to be gone in order to let go. And there’s part of me now that thinks perhaps she also needed permission to let go herself. My brother told me he read psalms to her, and told her she could go. He had a faith that I did not. She let go. She went. And now, finally, I can see it was not an end at all.
I think the sweet dreamy sleep on the day of her death was her farewell, covering me like a soft blanket. I think the wash of peace on her death anniversary was her hello, her freed energy finding me, holding me for a long moment, then letting me go to live my life.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
Broken or not?
At snack time or lunch, that was a favorite game of my daughters. One would hold up an apple slice or a Ritz cracker or shiny orange Clementine and demand of the other, “Broken or not?”
They were both pretty masterful at holding a broken cracker or piece of fruit in such a way as to camouflage its fault lines. They loved to trick each other, and trick me, too. It was so hard to tell.
Because you cannot always tell if something—or someone—is whole by merely looking, can you?
I remember in the weeks after my father died suddenly, back when I was eighteen. I’d put on lots of mascara every morning, so that I wouldn’t cry, because if I did, it would give me raccoon eyes. I didn’t want any one to know how badly I was hurting. I didn’t know what to do with it, the pain. If I started crying, I might never stop; how embarrassing that would be. No one ever taught me anything but to pretend to be okay, to deny my real feelings. It ran in the family. Schooled from birth, like Tiger Woods was with golf, I was an ace.
My dad pretended he was okay right up until he died from it. Oh, it was a heart attack that killed him, but my personal theory is that sometimes illnesses spring from—or are worsened by— the grinding stress of hiding feelings. And we are trained to hide them, for fear of being labeled ‘broken.’ Our culture demands us to be perfect parents, perfect children, perfect wives, perfect workers. To be magically ‘perfectly adjusted’ without working through grief and trauma.
I used to sometimes reflexively use the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” with my girls, mostly right about when they were supposed to do math homework or play piano or violin. They would always shoot back, “But Mom, you always say that nobody’s perfect!” And I would smile and say, of course, that’s true.
Because I’d say that, too, all the time—like when I’d drop an egg on newly mopped floor, or especially if one of them did.
Of the two old sayings, only “nobody’s perfect” rings true.
The most together-looking people can be the most broken inside. You never really know, unless you get to know someone, unless you earn their trust and confidence, and even then—they have to be open enough or broken enough to expose their hidden wounds.
Which for some people is painfully hard, or even maybe impossible without help and work.
I think the true answer to the broken or not question—as it applies to humans, not fruit or crackers— is that we’re all broken at some point, and not all breaks heal completely. Some wounds ache forever. Being gentle with each other is always a good practice. Because more of us are broken, than not.
I lie on my belly on the asphalt sidewalk. It feels cold, even through my down jacket, but the pond has frozen overnight into such beautiful swirls and filigrees of ice, and the morning sun is skimming the frosty patterns in a way I cannot resist. And so I lie down to get a good look. This is a benefit to being older. When I was younger, I was stupidly self-conscious. I’d have worried about what a passerby might have thought, how dumb I’d look. But now I’m at that wonderful age, an age I am trying (when not terrified) to appreciate. Middle age.
I don’t care anymore what people think when I’m taking my daily photos. I contort to get the right angle, I twirl to get motion effects, I regularly lie down on sidewalks if the shot requires it. Luckily, I’m not old enough yet that getting up again is hard. Though I’ll admit my knees groaned in the cold today, and hey—who am I kidding? Odds are good that I’m past the middle, maybe well past.
The clock that runs like a crazy squirrel in my head sometimes runs away with me. I count down backwards. It’s less than 10 months until I hit the age my father was when he died. Or, more hopefully, in thirteen years and eleven months, I’ll hit the age my mother was, when she succumbed. Or it could be tomorrow.
I count the other way, too, to counteract the gloomy final ball-drop thoughts.
Lying on the freezing cold sidewalk, studying the tamarack frond suspended near the icy edge of Burnet Pond, I think of how life’s edges are always so sweet, and how maybe instead of thinking of being in the middle, it’s better to live at the edge, in a place of wonder and appreciation. I’ve been to the edge. If I focus that direction, it all comes into sharp focus. Every new season, every morning’s perfect slant of light, every shared smile, every ached-for kiss — fills me with light.
Two years and eight months ago, my light nearly went out for good, and just a stone’s throw from this pond.
I rise up from the sidewalk and stretch my cold legs, remembering. As I take one last shot, my iPhone dies in my hand. Right then, the light in the treetops across the pond flashes, catches fire—the morning sun is reflecting off the top-floor windows in the tower at Good Samaritan, just over the hill. I know from memory that the light is streaming through the wall of plate glass at the end of the hallway on the Cardiac Telemetry unit, where I stood not so long ago, wired up and monitored, gazing down at the greening canopy of Burnet Woods.
The day I didn’t die, but might have. Every sunrise since has been a bonus. Even so, frozen within me are ancient worries, hard-wired worries about death. But I’m alive. I try to stay right here on the edge, feeling this sliver of now.
Now. Here, and alive.
It is the last day of Autumn, a cold, thick-oatmeal gray day, and finally: I put on my rubber boots, and I’m raking leaves. It’s the first time since mid-October that the sleeping leaves have been disturbed, and I quickly realize it’s a bigger job than I thought it would be.
I live on a beautiful street in a center-ring suburb, one of my city’s first suburbs, with century homes and century trees—both the houses and the trees are big and sturdy. Maples, oaks, sycamores, beeches, mulberries, pears—their leaves fell all fall, layering up, narrowing the front walk until suddenly it was just a forest footpath. The decaying leaves built up along the edges of the walk, damply clinging and narrowing it like plaque in an old artery.
So I rake, scrape, pile and gather leaves up on an old blue tarp. Pile, lift, carry down the drive way and across the backyard, heave-ho up over the fence, letting the leaves cascade into the ravine. The heaviest clumps of wet leaf mold settle in the folds of the tarp, reforming into a mass with heft, like a body. I know now how it feels to lift and dump a body.
Over and over, I rake and repeat, dumping body after body into the grave of the old stream that used to run through here. All the while, I play a Patty Griffin song in my head. The song is “Making Pies,” but I have reworked it to suit my task.
You could cry or die
Or just rake leaves all day.
I’m raking leaves
This song makes me smile, on this, the nearly darkest day of the year. I can’t carry a tune, but I’m singing aloud because it feels good. (And also because no one else is outdoors! The neighbors all use lawn services, and I’m sure they will be thrilled to see I’ve finally decided to reclaim my yard from the wild woodland drifts.)
It strikes me, on this shadow-less day that is soft-lit and diffused, that there have been brighter days when I’ve been unable to see the very sharp shadows right in front of me. The shadows that are part of me, and of all of us. I was afraid of my own shadows, my long, looming shadow side that I now know is there to help me understand the light.
What joy there is in sharing darkness, in holding it up instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. I tried that—‘thinking positive thoughts’— and while I’m all for gratitude journals and happiness projects, I now see that you can’t dump the shadows like bodies. You need to hold their hands and embrace them and honor their existence. And then be grateful for their lessons.
I am so grateful for every beloved fellow traveler, my dear friends, both new and old, who showed me their shadows, and gently helped me see that mine are just part of me, and nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to run from. I thought pain was something I could or should try to skirt. Your shared darkness brought such bright light.
Darkness is as beautiful in its way as light. It is a sharp thing, brittle and bitter and raw and rough and dark and painful as wet bark scraping your skin when you are running from things and you fall into arms waiting to catch you, and you feel held, and warm.
That’s when you see the light in its brightest form: when you are so cold your teeth are chattering and tears are freezing on your cheeks and you are enfolded in a hug that feels warm, like a blanket straight from the dryer, wrapped around you, and you take a breath, and know you will be okay.
Even when the arms that hold you are your own scraped-up arms, and even on the second-darkest day of the year.