Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Chill of November

This has been a bear of a month. But what kind of bear? I'm thinking polar bear with a bloody snout. Polar bears make for cute stuffed animals, but they are wild creatures who, if they stumbled upon you on a snowy tundra, would have no qualms about eating you. All the better if you are fishy.

I realize that gratitude is big these days, but I can't jump straight to it. Even when I do embrace gratitude, it is always tinged with guilt and despair. For example: it's been very cold here lately, and the other night in bed I said a silent prayer of gratitude for my warm house. Immediately after that I thought of all the people who do not have a warm house, who do not have a house or a shelter at all, and how I haven't helped them, and then I thought about the gross inequities in our culture, and it was either take two antihistamines or not sleep that night.

I have stopped writing my daily letters. I think I've not written for as many days as I did write, which is somewhere around two-and-a-half months. This week, though, I received two replies, and that gave me heart to take up the letter-writing again. Here is why I had stopped: 1) I began to feel that I was burdening people with my letters; they would tell me that they'd been carrying around my letter for a while, waiting for the chance to reply or else looking for a stamp. The world has gotten away from writing letters--really, it doesn't accommodate the practice; 2) I was getting sick of myself. When you write for days in a row, you either repeat a lot of stuff or else realize that change is so incremental or so inconsequential as to make you kind of depressed; 3) my job swept me up, as it tends to do; when I did have time to write, I couldn't focus or I didn't want to do anything involving words or meaning. Moreover, I stopped keeping track of whom I'd written to and who had written me back because about four weeks into every semester my organization goes to the bears; as a result, I have left several friends hanging, and that makes me feel bad; 4) likewise, it makes for a lonely feeling to send out letter after letter and only get a few responses. I realized that when letter-writing was a thing, people wrote back or else lost touch entirely. Funny, isn't it, how Facebook can make a person feel worse than they already do, yet it's the go-to mode of communication for so many of us.

I'd like to start up the letter-writing again. As I think I've mentioned before, it was meditative for me to go within and to write with a pen(cil) on paper for 15 or 20 minutes each day. It was also such a pleasure to receive and read the responses that people sent--and people did respond--that I want that feeling back. Here's the big thing, though, the reason that I think we all might want to write more letters: people wrote to me differently than they do when they communicate electronically and instantly. They told me things about themselves, their states of mind, their families, that they ordinarily don't. One day while I was still in the hospital with Vivian, I received something like ten letters. At least half of them expressed some question or problem or intention that meant something to the writer, and, of course, when we encounter something that is meaningful to a friend, we reflect upon it, too, and the meaning grows.

So...expect to receive a letter from me soon.

Other things that have weighed on me this month, not ranked according to consequence:

  • The Gottmans. God, what is it with those people and their constant reminders about what makes for a successful marriage? It all comes down to bids. Did Alex and I fail to respond to each other's bids? Do Bill and I? Currently I'm not speaking to Bill, so chances are good that I am unreceptive.
  • A colleague interrupted a meeting to point out a typo I'd made on an agenda. 
  • People laughed at something I said at a faculty meeting, only I didn't intend for it to be funny.
  • A colleague wrote to me in anger because I had required committee members to print a long document, which is wasteful--this when I hadn't intentionally required such a thing at all, and I happen to live with a man who is obsessed with waste and so am well aware of the consequences of mindless consumption.
  • I seem to have been utterly unable to hide from Vivian the anxiety that wreaks havoc on me every day. Will she grow up to despise this trait of mine, primarily because I've taught her how to be anxious, imposed it upon her?
  • Alex seems depressed again.
  • Bill is stretched too thin.
  • I haven't published enough, and I'm up for review in a month.
  • My face is both familiar and unfamiliar to me, as it has always been. How can this be, given that my face used to look quite a bit different? Mainly I don't care about the effects of aging, and I've taken to wearing very little makeup--liberating--but sometimes I realize that I will be an older woman whom people might refer to as "handsome," and that falls a bit short of what I had wanted. You do not have to talk me out of this. 
  • There are six doctor's appointments I have to make--three for Vivian and three for me--and I can't manage to make them.
  • I have two pairs of shoes and one shirt to return, only I keep forgetting to print out the return labels. 
  • Football.
  • At some point I will get a call from the hospital telling me when Vivian's next surgery will be. I worry that she will be very scared. I know I will be.
  • The scars on Vivian's back. Eventually there will be many of them, thin lines running parallel. Will they hurt? What beautiful thing will they look like: the trace of a rake upon soil? tributaries of a meandering river? My hope: one day someone she loves and who loves her will run his or her hand along those lines.
So that's me on this Saturday in mid-November. How are you? I hear that my comments work only for some people, and I have no idea why. Before I post this, I will remove the restrictions from the comments in case that works, because I like to hear from you.

I don't want to end on a blue note, so I will add that I completed a cross-stitch project this week and am close to finishing another. I will post pictures when I'm done with the "finishing" part, which involves sewing and framing. 

Also: it's sunny and cold here in the Pacific Northwest. I will walk Milo later to clear my head, and I will talk to Bill.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

A Haunting

Beyond the golden years of trick-or-treating, Halloween morphs into a high-pressure holiday, like New Year’s Eve or the 4th of July, when you feel like you must have plans or else endure a long night of loneliness and self-loathing, a night pierced by the cackling laughter of fun-havers outside your window, a night most unhallowed. If you happen to have plans, your suffering is of another sort: weeks in advance of the party, you have to figure out what you’re going to “be.” And then you must buy and assemble components of a costume, and then you have to wear it all.

Having a child relieved me of that burden: the moment I dressed my infant as a pea pod the focus shifted to her, and because of my ever-advancing age, thank god, I will never attract such attention again unless some darkly or too brightly humored person one day dresses me as a pea pod, and by then I will be too far gone to know or care.

I suspect that people who like Halloween are drawn to the lure of the carnivalesque. They want to be someone else for a night, to flout the rules of society and self without reprisal. There’s chaos to that behavior; there’s chance and misrule. No wonder I don’t like it. I’ve had enough trouble without borrowing more.

Even so, I have tried. I have been game. In college, I convinced my roommate to don a blue blazer and black fedora and to pencil in a thin mustache so that she could be pimp to my prostitute. (Our friend, whose feminism surpassed our own at that time, dressed in black and held a sign condemning our costumes. She stayed by our sides all night.) A year after, having taken a Women’s Studies class and watched a few hours of CSPAN, I borrowed from my mother a satiny Coke can costume and affixed to the top of it a black squiggle of yarn: it was a pubic hair, condemning Clarence Thomas and supporting Anita Hill.  And then there were the years of the blond wig. I wore it with prison duds and carried a muffin pan: Martha Stewart. I paired it with press-on nails and tight jeans: Carmela Soprano. For its swan song, the blond wig transformed me into Britney Spears. She and I, pregnant at the same time, were a page out of US Weekly, “Who Wore It Best?”: sunglasses, pink sweats, shirts that bared midriffs 6-months-swelled, and, in our hands, packs of Kools, venti coffees, and babies not wholly attended to—mine a doll, hers, her son Sean.

Three months after that last Halloween, Britney shaved her head, apparently in the midst of a crackup or maybe to hide traces of drugs in her hair so she wouldn’t lose her boys. I was in a hospital room with my infant daughter. She had been born with something wrong, a defect, you could say, although I do not use that word. We had learned about her problem, her father and I, on Halloween, two days after the costume party. “There is no stomach,” the ultrasound technician had said. “Maybe she hasn’t eaten recently. You can’t see the stomach unless there’s something in it. Or maybe it’s still small.” In time we were to learn that our daughter’s esophagus was divided in two. She would be born in Seattle so that we’d have easy access to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, and then she’d be moved to Children’s Hospital, where we would live, she and I, until the ends of her esophagus grew close enough together for the surgeons to finish the work that nature had abandoned. This stay would extend for months and then, after a surgical complication that nearly ended her life, months more, a great lonely and frightening swath of time that would cauterize the split between my past self and who I am now.

Who needs Halloween? Every day—I do not exaggerate—I live with fear; I give some thought to my child’s life, to her being alive. In the mornings, Thank God she has woken up; when I drop her off at school, Please let her survive this day, let no madman enter this place and kill her; when I put her to bed at night, Is her window locked? Is my door open so that I can hear her call out? I know why this is. It’s because once, I left her in a hospital room while I went to have a shower, and while I was gone she almost died. A nurse was there; my mother was there; but even so, an intravenous line had burst my child’s superior vena cava and filled her chest cavity and scarred her lungs with poison. Her lower organs had shut down because her blood could not reach them. Her head had swelled because where could the blood go? She lay there, only three months old, dying.

In a way, I saved her. When I saw how she looked—her head too large, a line running across her chest, above it dark red, below it yellow—I ran from the room, searching for the head of the NICU. I found him amidst a bunch of physicians, leading morning rounds, and I interrupted to say, “Dr. Brogan, something is wrong.” Why should he have listened to me? I am an English professor, not a doctor. He is a doctor, and was busy. And already a nurse and a surgical resident had downplayed my concern. But during my week in Intensive Care, he and I had gotten to know each other, had bonded over literature, in fact. (Before med school Dr. Brogan had been an English major: never let it be said that ours is a useless degree.) So he had reason to trust me, and he dropped what he was doing and followed me. They all did. He told me later that the expression on my face had been enough to convince him to come. I looked like I had seen a ghost.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted – One need not be a House.” “The Brain has Corridors” more suitable to ghosts; “Ourself behind ourself, concealed – Should startle most.”  I am haunted by the events of that morning. I wish they would let me be. In that moment, I was awake, definitive, intent. I acted. Doctors and nurses and technicians acted. My child lived. But it left me with the knowledge that such things can happen: a mother can go to have a shower and, because she hasn’t done so all week, take a few extra minutes to apply her makeup, and when she returns, her child might be changed, her child might even be gone. That mother—myself behind myself, concealed—lives in my brain. She doesn’t startle me much anymore; I’m used to her rattling around, and I’m learning to limit her circuit. But there she is, and there she’ll stay, watching my daughter and waiting, waiting, waking me from my sleep, ever watchful and waiting still.