Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago I began working out, starting with short bursts of pedaling a stationary bike (the only activity I could do for 10 minutes), then progressing to intervals on the Stairmaster and runs along Victory Memorial Parkway in Minneapolis where I lived.  Within three or four months, I was hooked, committed to a regular schedule of sweating. I bought sports bras and a fine pair of Reebok cross-trainers.  I increased my stamina and muscle tone; my sister remarked that my legs had “definition,” high praise from someone who got on the workout train a lot sooner than I did, who rode it a lot harder.  But I went from 15 – 20 minutes of endurance to 40 or more, a fact about which I was gleefully proud.

I am still doing it, the grind, though now earnest is more the key word than work out—not as regularly, nor as intensively, but still dedicated to the proposition that the benefits extend beyond the body.  I think and work better if I push myself physically; I am less tired; I feel strong and groove on the feeling. Strength, perhaps, was always the point, something I earned that no one could take away.

I have needed that strength to get through the ups and downs of the intervening twenty years. At the time, newly separated and soon to be divorced, I relished feeling capable of steering the bus of single motherhood, careening down a road that drove me through graduate school and the many hairpin turns of the adolescent years of my three sons. Strength was what I needed when someone got caught stealing from Cub foods, someone else was suspended from the bus for fighting or caught at school with marijuana.  I had to plow through sleepless nights worrying about this one’s failing grades and that one’s accident that totaled my beloved Accord, another’s depression or ADHD or the cigarette smoking two of them took up suddenly.  Fortified and confident and slow to excite—my resting pulse was very low—I could muster patience I didn’t normally possess when my youngest said he wanted to quit high school, when the middle one did quit after leaving home on his 18th birthday, when they were all ferociously angry with me for dating the man I eventually married.

Oh, strength. Ah, power.  What a nail point on which to hang twenty years of my adult life.

I never meant to become obsessed with it. Perhaps obsessed isn’t the right word.  Dependent, maybe.  Believing it would save me, keep me afloat. The physical feeling of pushing off the back leg going uphill was accompanied by an almost transcendent sense of pride and the ability to breathe deep in the face of calamity, keep the bus on the road at all costs.

I never meant to use my workouts as a substitute, a way to avoid the awful fragility of expressing emotions. I never meant to polish my surface bright as tempered glass, slick and impenetrable. I never meant to trample feelings downward, hide them as if at the bottom of a silo, a gas-like form of them escaping, not their substance.

Recently, my ex-husband called me, 20 years after our marriage crumbled, to apologize for his behavior, for limiting me and us, for being a controlling force, for not working hard enough to love me.  For, ultimately, not being committed.

It was not a conversation I was prepared to have; we spoke slowly, sorting words, speaking carefully (each of us has remarried).  Twenty years is long enough to feel guilty, he said, I want to finally put it behind me.  Nodding, I held the phone delicately, tenderly, the way I would touch the hair of one of our newborn sons. I meant to say I forgive you  but what I did say was truer and more difficult: Sometimes I think, even now, it would have been better if we had stayed together. Better for the kids. I’m not unhappy with my current life, but that’s the truth.

Writing those words down may constitute a betrayal.  They seem more private than a secret, than dreams can seem. I did draw for my husband the general contours of the conversation, but I have not painted a full picture because I have not shared those details.

Capturing emotions is like trying to fish barehanded. You can see them undulating and sense a fleeting presence as they skim across your skin.  But hold one up and say A pike or a bluegill?  Almost impossible.

My great strength does not help in this regard. Since the phone call, I have not been able to—not wanted to—figure it out. Sort out my emotions, we so glibly say, forgetting that emotions are not like fabric samples, distinct and varied, but more like the rag rugs my grandma made—all of a piece.

I am 50 years old and my legs are tired.  My arms and back are tired.  Since the phone call, there's been a persistent tug of sadness and even, almost, regret.  No, not regret. Helplessness. 

No strength can beat it back. The past is the past, it could not have unspooled differently.  Except, it could have, and I am helpless before that idea, aching with emotion that is almost physical in its power.

Twenty years.  Enough time to raise children to adulthood, log hundreds of miles, forget a similar ache that crept into my body the weekend I decided the marriage was finally over.

I am not used to admitting weakness. Pride in my own strength blinded me even as it gave me what I needed; it subtly engendered self-righteousness, a stubborn conviction I could endure anything without flagging or flinching.

I will wait this out, wistful. The physical weight will pass, I'm sure.  I will not, I think, welcome any revelations or epiphanies.  Enduring will be the point. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I should have learned longing from my brother's early death--he was just shy of four years old--but I learned it instead through books.  Perhaps I was just practical:  I knew that no matter how much I missed my brother and wanted him back, promised God I would not complain about babysitting if he could just return alive, it wouldn't change things. That wasn't longing because it didn't represent possibility.  Dead was dead; that much I understood from my grandparents' farm, where chickens I'd hand fed appeared on the dinner table with regularity.  I experienced grief, but not longing.

When I first read C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, however, which I followed quickly with all the chronicles of Narnia, I knew real longing. The word would not settle in my chest until decades later, but the pangs were palpable then.  A thrill drilled through me: another world existed (could it be true?) where an ordinary girl with obvious shortcomings (like Lucy's lack of faith and occasional selfishness) could not only live but be heroic. That thrill signaled transformation:  I who didn't welcome change (hadn't my parents divorced, my brother died, all against my will?) would welcome it if it could mean transport elsewhere, where my worth would be clear.

I must've felt unworthy.  Unnoticed.  I do recall feeling misunderstood, the one red thread in the blue weave of my family.  I also felt odd; my love of school and books set me apart from my mother and my sisters who, though wonderfully tender and funny people, didn't understand how I could disappear into a book. They would call me for dinner, saying my name over and over again, a cadence for their steps as they approached me; I never heard until they were right next to me.  Sheepish and a mite guilty,  I put down the book and took my place at the table.

I dislike most science fiction and fantasy (an obvious shortcoming on my part) because it takes too much mental energy to imagine an alternate world and simultaneously keep the characters straight. In other words, I would say now after years of training in reading literature, the setting tends to overpower characterization.   What I thought then about Narnia was that it was pure--a world close enough to ours to be familiar, different enough to be tempting.  The children were like many friends I knew, and I loved that their nicknames reflected their best qualities:  Peter the Magnificent, Susan the Gentle, Edmund the Just, Lucy the Valiant.  And there was something enticing about the fact that all of the natural world had character, had personality--trees had spirits, animals could talk.  It touched a truth buried in me that would grow slowly and emerge fully when I began to garden. Mr. Tumnus, the faun, was a kind-hearted old soul who tried to do the right thing even when though he gave into temptation and agreed to trap Lucy. In the end, his kind heart won out.  And I understood that his weakness was just that:  a weakness. I wept when he was turned to stone and wept again in relief when Aslan breathed him back to life.  He was a person--I didn't think of him as a character--I would be happy to know.

The books appealed to ideals I didn't realize I had. Because of that, they represented hope. I would not have said at the time that I lacked hope, but I was only eleven when I read the first book.  Fifth grade wasn't comfortable; I was not yet physically maturing, and I cringed when the boys eyed me and jeered, "Flatsie." It would be four more years before I would mature, becoming "one of them."  I was to live on the fringes for a while.   On the fringes, one wonders if one deserves the attention one is denied.

And I did--too often to admit comfortably--wonder whether I was "worth it."  That wondering sapped my confidence.  I wanted fiercely what the books represented-- a sense of purpose, a purity of thought and action, the ability to see the significance of my life.  My life seemed fairly insignificant. Reading the books and imagining a purpose ignited me.  Perhaps what I really wanted was a god-like view, the long view: the view we get as we age and can see segments and phases unfold and assign meaning to them. Narnia gave that to me; I would like to say that I understood it was fiction, but more than once I flung open the doors to closets, hoping for an end to my paltry life as the walls dissolved and I entered another world.

Ah, meaning.  Those fairy-tale novels got under my skin and gave meaning to something I couldn't articulate.  I guess literature--all good literature--does that.  But the aspect of longing I reflect on now, in the middle years of my life (I turned 50 this year) is that it must remain unfulfilled.  That's why it's so painful and so exciting. If it becomes realized, it ceases to be longing. Wanting, in other words,  keeps us living. 

I still want my own Narnia, a country where I am queen without the associated condescension  and arrogance.  More than that, I want to keep hoping for something to help me rise above my own weakness and pettiness.  I want the eyes of the world to pay attention to my lowly life--so pedestrian, so plain--and see something noble.   Is that hope a kind of faith? Maybe. And if it's false (as faith and hope may be), I will still cling to it for it scratches where I itch.  It gives me the comfort of pressure, the knowledge that pain can give way to pleasure.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Rise Above

There is a bathroom upstairs that needs my attention; yesterday I stripped off half the wallpaper border in preparation for painting, spraying vinegar and hot water on the scored surface, peeling it away painstakingly with sticky fingers and a putty knife. I have to finish the stripping, scrub the walls with TSP, tape door frames, remove outlet covers and towels before I can paint.  There is also weeding to be done, reading and writing, strawberries to pick and jam to make, with any luck.

But there's something I want to say first.   When I was separated from my husband many years ago, I offered once to babysit another couple's children; they were also in some kind of crisis but were going to tough it out.  At the time, I probably thought they were better Christians than I was, or that I was transitioning to a more livable faith that allowed me to breathe without guilt.  Chatting with Sandy, the wife, when she came to retrieve her children, I mentioned that my part-time job was working with disabled adults. She lit up and said, "It always helps our own problems when we reach out to others."  I suppose she meant that I would eventually see how foolish I was to consider divorce, to take my known life and shatter it; she also echoed a common sentiment:  don't focus on yourself too much.  Focus on others.

This sentiment is one version of a larger idea that we are supposed to rise above our problems, to be bigger or stronger or better than whatever gets us down--in other words, not to give in or show that we are struggling or pained. It also carries the connotation of taking the moral high ground, resisting the urge for self-pity or revenge or even anger.  It suggests triumph, though it also suggests a separation and a perspective--to literally rise above is to see the life we inhabit from a revealing height, more completely than we can see it while standing in its midst. Think of a valley, whose shape and contours you can't see while walking its spine; but if you climb a hill, you can get the bigger picture, see the whole animal.

All those years ago, Sandy's comment made me wince a little; I agreed, but I WAS in pain and angry and struggling.  My work was to make money so I could live, and though I did enjoy the work, my motive wasn't that noble.  I wanted to focus on my problems so I could decide whether it was worth it to stay married.

My childhood prepared me, however, not only to accept but to spout such sentiments as Rise Above.  My father left us, my brother died, my sister became ill; but we were admonished not to cry too much, not to let these setbacks hinder us.  I made good grades, played sports and eventually the clarinet, enjoyed my many friends. We looked happy on the surface and that counted for a lot. Never mind that I started keeping a journal when I was around 14 where my darkest thoughts and questions spilled out.  Never mind that I drank and smoked pot for a couple of years, seeking escape from emotional turmoil that I kept to myself.

My decision to keep quiet about my anguish (it really felt like that) was related to another mantra of my childhood:  don't talk about myself too much;  that's bragging, and no one wants to listen to a braggart.  Acknowledging my real feelings would have broken that cardinal rule; how could I talk about what I felt without talking about myself, admitting that I felt devastated about my father's lack of involvement in my life, that I missed my brother, that I wanted something different from what I had?

Turning 50 this year has freed me in some surprising ways.  I give myself a break, sometimes, a rarity.  I care a little less about what people think of me.  When I want something, such as the Honda Accord I am currently in the market for, I allow myself to trade up; why can't I have the car I want, rather than the one I had to buy in a hurry so my son could take the other car to college? I bought a bike, too, a brand new one, and am searching for a food processor, things I deemed luxuries before.

But there is still a niggling sense that I must Rise Above other struggles and complaints.  I want to be a writer. I am a writer. I want to publish more, and the long waits for inevitable rejections carve away at my resolve. It is discouraging.  The first book is on its way, and there is another manuscript in the works, but I don't know if it will ever be accepted.  It took so long for the first one. Some days I feel cheated, unlucky. This is not Rising Above.

I want to have a wonderful marriage and to get in shape and to have another child. But I can't have these things all at once, if at all.  The easy glow of early romance doesn't last, and my aging body resists dropping pounds.  Not only that, but injuries (plantar fasciitis) and aching joints (hips) plague me.  Working out is harder than it used to be, and my resolve to exercise more often runs headlong into my aging pains and exhaustion.

And the other child? The discussions about it were one-sided, my-sided.  And now it's too late. 

The palpable sting of these disappointments is intensified by the fact that I don't want to Rise Above.  I want to yell and complain and direct my frustration outward. I want to blame.  I want to rattle the cage, make some noise. And sometimes I just want to lie down and do nothing, which is more frightening than anger, being the underside of anger, the white belly of surrender.

That bathroom will get my attention today, eventually.  And a bike ride seems likely.  Dinner will be on the table at the appropriate time.   Productivity will accompany the stirring in my mind that probes, Why me? that wants to know when and how and at what cost.  






Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Next Big Thing

I was tagged on FB by Mary-Sherman Willis, whose book Graffiti Calculus will be out in November!! 

What is the title of your book?
Growing Big

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The book traces two journeys, a literal one from marriage and children to divorce and children, and a more personal or thematic one that explores spirituality and individuality in the context of human relationships.

What genre does the book fall under?

Where did the idea for the book come from?
When I started writing in earnest when my children were little, these poems  just came pouring out, with the help of poetry classes at The Loft in Minneapolis. Whenever I had the energy, I got a can of Coke and a bag of potato chips and sat down at my diningroom table during naptime to write. In my 20s, I guess I was really testing all the ideas I'd received and finding my own philosophy. That, and the experience of having children just blew me away. It was--and is-- like nothing else in my life. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the book?
I think it took about 4 - 5 years for the first draft, which has undergone many changes since then: additions, alterations, reorderings.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Really, the ups and downs of life with children.  I was raised Catholic and had gravitated to a more Protestant religious life then, but I was also a misfit there and found most of my joy not in a sanctuary but in the park or camping with my kids.  So I started to tell some of my stories.  Also, I would be remiss not to mention Deborah Keenan, writing teacher and friend, whose steady encouragement with these early poems made me keep writing.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The publisher is North Star Press, out of St. Cloud, MN. They are a 3rd generation family-run business that publishes around 60 books a year.  They run the business out of the family farm, so I signed the contract with a cat or two on my lap, looking out the window at the fields layered with snow.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?
Not sure how to answer this question!  I do think many female poets explore family life: Deborah Keenan, for sure.  I owe much of my commitment to sound and tension to Sylvia Plath, whose poems I continue to return to because they are so hard-edged.

What actors would you choose to play the characters in your book?
I'd have Jennifer Garner play me--and I'd have my kids play themselves! 

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
Many of the poems begin with images from my life as a church-going person: characters from the bible such as Joseph and Moses' mother, ideas like heaven.  It's part of my life and I find the material rich on many levels.

Thanks for the opportunity to dilate a little about this book. In return I am tagging poets Kirsten Dierking and Kathy Weihe.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chronic Writing

I remember his name. I remember his words--"I will always be writing something. I can't live without writing."  I remember that he laughed at me once when I said I had completed a full workout in less than an hour. 

I was a grad student in English, as was he. He worked as some kind of sports booking agent, or maybe a comedy booking agent; I think he was a fiction writer, though he may have been a poet. My memory of him may be clouded by the fact that I harbored a crush--such blue eyes, such curly hair, such nice legs.  He told me once that hockey was beautiful, a kind of poem in motion, all flow and movement.

Now, many years later, I never think about his eyes or his finely muscled thighs. I only recall that I recoiled slightly when he said that about writing.  I was young then (comparatively).   I had already had several individual poems published; I thought of myself as a writer. But no one had ever told me that writing was lifeblood.

It wasn't,  for me. I enjoyed it, the challenge, the concentration of locating the right word or phrase, the success that came sometimes, and the praise from readers and teachers. Always the praise.  As early as 5th grade, a teacher had said I was a good writer, so I continued to write.

But, need to write?  Couldn't survive without writing?  Not me. I had 3 young children, a marriage that was raveling fast, a goal to finish an MA in English, a love of the written word that kept me up late into the night, reading on my side of the bed, hiding the small light with the book's cover.

Now I realize he was only repeating one of the mantras of "serious" writers.  Must do it.  Can't stop.  Defines me. Sustains me. Is me.  I have no idea whether he realized that's what he was doing. For all I know, he believed himself wholly.

From the time I was eleven, I thought of myself as a poet. I do love to write poems--well, love to finish poems. However, in the grand scheme of things, I have to place writing in its proper place. I can imagine--have lived--many days that had no room for creating.  I have wiped flour with damp paper towels from an old kitchen floor until it made paste, then thrown buckets of water on it to dilute the paste into something that could be mopped up.  I have held a feverish child on my lap, rocking, one hand on his hot forehead while he breathed into my shoulder,  mumbled in his sleep, sat up occasionally to vomit.  I have sat at my sister's bedside while she recovered from yet another surgery, spoken in low voices to my mother or sister about her recovery--would she ever recover? Would she always be at the mercy of this illness?

On days like that--and they are many--it never occurs to me to write a poem.  I can't find it in myself to place my pain, or my family's pain, or my exhaustion, in any larger context. I can't make metaphor or image out of it. I am simply trying to survive the experience, even when I am not the one in pain. Perhaps even especially then.

Once, at a fairly prestigious writing conference, I heard a famous poet say she had written 350 poems in the last year. In a notebook, which she carried with her. All hand written. I felt a palpable intake of breath--admiration from the eager audience.  Many there longed to be her, to exhibit her commitment and fortitude.  I longed to go outside and breathe the mountain air, since it suddenly felt stuffy in the room.

Though I sometimes hate to admit it to myself, I could stop writing--COULD, I said, not will, not WANT TO. I don't want to admit it because then I have to admit the possibility that I am not a "real" writer.  Because of some generally accepted vision of writers as driven and tormented.  Because of some guilty sense that if I were more "serious" and "real" about it, I would have already forced  2 books of poetry into existence.

What can I say in my own defense?  I was raised to be practical above all.  Bedrooms not dusted? Then you don't go outside to play.  Clarinet not practiced? Then you don't get to write down any time on the  practice sheet, and you certainly don't get to feel the sheer pleasure of learning how to read and make music.  Dishes not done?  Someone will have to do them later; it might as well be you.  Bills not paid?  Pay them.

Do the work that's in front of you, that's my mantra, chosen or not.  My Irish grandmother's image sometimes rises; I don't think she wanted to be canning tomatoes and meat in her eighties. I don't think she wanted to be raising grandchildren, worrying about breakfast and buses and after-school snacks and bedtime stories.  But, somehow, her children's children needed her help. So, she rose each day to help.  It became her reason for rising, just as satisfying her long-unattended desires would have become, had she had a different life.

I sometimes put off writing for other, more measureable tasks.  Unloading dishwasher. Check. Folding laundry. Check. Walking dog.  Check. Getting dinner in the oven.  Check. Preparing for my full load of classes.  Checking items off a mental list carries a certain lovely weight.

I recently--tonight, I admit--looked up the definition for "chronic."  Here's what I found:
long-lasting and recurrent, or characterized by long-suffering. By that definition, whether I write every day or on a schedule, or whether I publish a book every 5 years, I am still a chronic writer.

I embrace this condition.  My attempts at writing have been long-lasting (it's been 20 good years), and they have been recurrent.    I have suffered both for writing--weeping as I write about my dead brother or my children--and for not writing.  I win the suffering category, no question.

Perhaps I have a chronic condition after all.  But who needs a chronic condition?  I don't.  Yet, I meet it if it wants to meet me.  I am sitting here now, composing.

Chronic calls up images of death or some kind of necessity. So be it.  I will write--Lord willing, as my sinewy Granny used to say--until I die.  I can't say I would die without writing--I may die with it. But I will say that when I have finished my other work, I'll be here, trying to make a certain sense of things.



Monday, July 23, 2012

Getting in shape, Part I

When I first started running as an adult, in earnest, it was early 1994.  I was being chased by some of the worst demons of my life.   I was running away from them and toward a kind of freedom--of thought, of emotion, of soul--that I had not experienced for most of the previous decade.

Marriages fall apart. People's belief systems alter. Appearances begin to crumble,  revealing an incomplete, imperfect frame.  These things happen with such regularity that I cringe, even now, to think that I didn't accept it then.  Or, more accurately, I didn't accept it for myself: "Those things don't happen to me," I would have said.
I struggle to describe what must have been behind that stubborn insistence that I was different from the rest of the world. Vanity?  Arrogance?  Ignorance?  A kind of innocence?
The truth is, my parents had divorced. The truth is, my belief system had already shifted once, when I made a startling move from the strict Catholic faith I grew up in to an even stricter evangelical Protestant faith,  which I floundered in without acknowledging it. The truth is, the appearance of my life wasn't so perfect.  Once, in a poem about my parents, I had written, "their life unraveled only at the edges, where it looked like ornament."
But in the Fall of 1993, I entered a graduate program in English, and every hairline crack in the foundation of my marriage crept upward with force, threatening the integrity of the structure.  I loved the academic life; what I had tolerated as plain misunderstanding when my husband had made fun of my love of books I now had to reckon for what it was: disapproval and judgment.  When I needed to read and study, when I brought books along on car trips, when I had to leave for class as he was coming home from work, my husband railed that I wasn't doing my job as his wife and the mother of our children. Then, I had to face the fully-developed roar of his fear and desire for control, which had seemed a whiny child until that point.  When the first inklings of a growing literary consciousness came to bear on me, when I felt the sheer joy that exposure to ideas brought to me, when I saw the way those ideas conflicted with my conservative life, I  critiqued those ideas to my husband, so he wouldn't see and begin to mistrust me. And I felt ashamed of myself.
The past four years of our 8-year marriage had been a struggle, since the time my husband confessed that he had been involved with a co-worker.  It had never fully developed into an affair; did it matter?  At that time, I had given birth to our second child; he was nine months old.   His older brother was just two.  Shaken to the core--who was she? what had happened? why had I not been enough?--I tried to get some details and start the slow crawl toward forgiveness.  I also kept one part of my brain separate, alert:  don't act hysterical. Don't get too angry.  Remain calm so he will keep talking.
However, once he had unburdened himself, he refused to talk more. I found out who she was, a woman who had come by our house with a gift for my infant.  He would say no more.  It's over, it's in the past. There's nothing more to say.
But larvae must wriggle and struggle, underground or water where they are buried, in order to move to the next stage.  A metamorphosis is not complete until the new creature can be exposed, its ultimate identity revealed.
For the next four years, this creature, the knowledge of this dalliance (could I call it an affair? was it an affair? I didn't even know how long it had gone on) would not rest. It writhed and squirmed, made the terrestrial surface of our marriage undulate and wave; it became hard to walk the straight path I thought I was on. It grew and swelled and the undulations became hills (I agreed to have another child).  It would not die or remain buried; I did not understand what it was or that I had helped engender it (when I was seven months pregnant with my third child, I asked my husband to kill it for good:  please, just promise me it will never happen again.  He said, I can't promise you that).  It bucked and twisted and I was lost in a landscape I thought I knew.  It rested--let me rest--only when my husband traveled for work. And when he came home, it heard his voice say I don't think you even missed me, and it commenced to thrash again.
And then it was born into its final stage.  One night, at a Bible study meeting, my husband obeyed some urge to confess himself to our group of friends. Perhaps he felt the underground tension, too, perhaps it's easier to confess to relative strangers, perhaps I will never understand why that night, that setting. He gathered the group and began talking about the woman and the attraction and the details came pouring out finally, things I had only guessed at: they had lunch together, they held hands, they acted like high school kids with their arms thrown around each other.
He had asked her if she would run away with him.
There it was, complete.  In all its ugly fullness.  Not just a few days' worth of lust.  A plan had formed, been discussed, been proposed.  She had said no. That's why it ended.
I can't remember whether we talked on the way home that night or when exactly it was in relation to my first semester of grad school, to his moving out around Christmas 1993.  I do remember something kept me weirdly subdued, unsure what to do with this information. And I remember that when I said, in desperation, in an attempt to speak the truth of the nameless pain I had borne for four years, Sometimes I just want to be free of you, he responded, How can you say that to me? I'm your husband.  And I knew then that freedom was what I needed.
I wouldn't have said freedom from the marriage. That came  over a year later, and very sadly.  I wanted time to mend the bones of my fractured identity.  When he moved out, though, the demons came rushing in:  no one from church called, or if they did, it was only to warn me not to do anything stupid.  No pastors called me.  I had few friends outside church; I was alone. Even my sister scolded me that the Bible says not to divorce.  I was on the verge of breaking down.
So, I took up running, to keep a few steps ahead of the powerful negative messages that were trying to keep me locked in a set of beliefs I could no longer openly assent to.  I took up running because of its rhythm, something I could count on and feel, that steadied me when I began to think of divorce and panic because I was not supposed to be a divorced person. And, I took up running because my life as an athlete had ended when my husband insisted I couldn't play sports because it took me away from my family.  I took up running to feel the powerful, automatic contraction and expansion of muscles, the miracle of the body stretching itself to its limits. I took up running so I could breathe even through exhaustion and so I could conquer fear at night and sleep.
I was driven to running, impelled by a need to survive, propelled by the release of constraints that had made me a strained, and strange, version of myself.
But when I was out there, I wasn't pursued. I was pursuing health and strength, stamina and flexibility.  I left behind my doubts for the concentration required by pacing, footfall, breath.  I relaxed into a routine and a route.  And when I was done with each run, I reminded myself of the beauty of the body and the body's capabilities by laying my hand on my hip to feel the muscle that pulsed there. I offered my gratitude to the universe.  And I knew the joy that comes when something belongs to you that no one can take away.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Family Psych 4

I am a lifelong Democrat--perhaps even a borderline Socialist, though I am more comfortable with the term Social Democrat. One of my earliest memories of this leaning came when, outraged at the expense of color televisions and disappointed that we couldn't afford one, I vowed solemnly to my family that when I grew up, I was going to open a store and sell TVs for $50, so that everyone could afford one.  My family guffawed at me; It doesn't work that way, they insisted.   Their resistance to my scheme only made me dig in my heels. 

Of course, in a way they were right; capitalism sets wide profit margins that forces merchants to collude.  I understand now how it works; but I still don't like it.  Just last night, watching TV with my husband, we caught a commercial for a local men's clothing store running a sale; all blazers and sport coats are half price. In addition, if a customer buys one, another one comes free for the asking: two jackets for the cost of half a regular-priced one.  I turned, indignant, to my husband and snorted, "The only reason they can manage a sale like this is that their prices are so inflated to begin with."

My lens on the world, then, hasn't changed much since I was a kid.  I am aware, though, of one inconsistency in my worldview.  Happy to extend my sympathy to consumers, the unemployed, the poor, the working poor, single parents, pro-choice proponents, juvenile delinquents, addicts--all the usual suspects in Democratic purview--I struggle to find sympathy for illness.  My dedicated convictions have not been able to penetrate the subtle undercurrent of family history.

It took a long time for my younger sister to finally get a diagnosis for the first of her two serious illnesses, diabetes insipidus.  She had developed a ravenous, round-the-clock thirst, had to run to the bathroom all the time. When water was refused, she seemed to shrink and dry up.  She literally couldn't wait for a drink or a bathroom break.  The symptoms seemed real, yet doctors were running out of ideas.  They couldn't find anything wrong with her. When they hit upon the possible condition to explain her symptoms, the test to confirm the diagnosis required my sister  go without water overnight.  By the time the test was performed the next morning, her lips were dry and literally cracked.

It is a serious thing to suspect someone is faking an illness for attention.  Worse, to blame that person, to say it out loud.  Such an accusation could have lifelong reverberations.

My sister told me, when we were both adults, that while visiting my grandmother as a child, a summer routine we all practiced, my grandmother would put her medication on top of the refrigerator, out of reach. She would tell my sister she didn't need it; she should stop pretending to be sick.  She would try to withhold water from my sister. My cousin Kim, who often stayed there at the same time, would get up at night with my sister, sneak past my uncle Maurice in his drunken slumber in a bed near the head of the stairs, quietly move a chair over to the fridge, and help her get her medication.

Doubt begins as a niggling impulse.  Who could doubt that my sister was really ill?  And yet, it had taken so long to figure out what was wrong with her. And yet, she began to require other medications that transformed her into someone always in need of attention: prednisone made her balloon in front of our eyes. And yet, she has remained ill all her life, acquiring several other conditions, a domino chain of breakdown:  histiocytosis, rheumatoid arthritis, migraines.

And yet, the summer before my sister became ill, my brother died. He was three. The two of them had shared a room, two twin beds, two sides of one coin, the younger two of four children, half a family now suddenly less than half.  One bed emptied suddenly.  One companion gone. How long did it remain in that room, a siren wail, a visible reminder that she was now singled out, alone?

When I was only thirty-eight, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my neck.  For six months, I walked around stiff as a dry sponge, unable to turn my head from side to side.  Among the most frustrating aspects of this condition was the fact that doctors were unable to tell me what had caused it.  I was a runner, a volleyball player, a softball player. I gardened, I landscaped, I hiked.  I hadn't injured myself. There wasn't supposed to be any opening in my life for an injury like this.

Once, venting about the unexplained onset to a friend, I recoiled in recognition when she said, "Think about what is causing you a pain in the neck in your life."

Ten years later, I am symptom-free, a bona fide miracle.  I don't even have the residual pain under my left shoulder blade that dogged me after the majority of the neck pain subsided.  I am also blessedly free of the man I was with then, whose neuroses and passive-aggressive tendencies nearly broke me.  He was paranoid, depressed, unhealthy in a legion of ways; prime among them was his refusal to get consistent treatment.  He hated dogs and I think my children and I think, eventually, me. My life with him was a constant struggle I eventually shrugged out from under. 

My relationship with him is the one thing for which I harbor guilt.   It unfurls endlessly, fabric off a bolt, whenever I think of him.  If only I would have avoided it, I think, and then I chastise myself for not avoiding it.  There is nothing positive--not a thing--I took from our 6 years together. Nothing I am grateful for or miss.  In addition, I believe I brought on the irritation in my neck from the stress I invited into my life through him.  It is my fault; in a way, I made myself sick.

There. I said it.  I do believe that there is a mind/body connection, perhaps psychosomatic.  Sometimes, people's illnesses do reflect in a metaphorical way their condition in life, their needs or neuroses or quirks or unacknowledged fears.

But I do not believe my sister made herself ill.  But I do believe my brother's death shook her to the core, more than I can ever know.  But I do wonder:  does illness shape lives or do lives shape illnesses?  But I do know:  we can become, literally, our worst fears.

I was terrified of my herniated disc, of redefining myself as an inactive person, a person whose condition forced changes:  I couldn't carry the laundry basket up the stairs, I had to take muscle relaxants to sleep,  I had to have a special neck roll for my pillow, I had to work out with a neck weight each day, I had to stretch my neck 3 times a day, I couldn't run or bike or play volleyball.  My life was not my own during that six months; I wriggled under the discomfort a shifting identity brought me. I wanted control back; I wanted to preserve my well-developed sense of agency and control.

If that makes me neurotic, I will have to live with it.

The other thing for which I harbor guilt is a subtle, gut reaction of skepticism whenever I hear about an illness, especially a prolonged or chronic one.  I despise the part of me that despises weakness and analyzes other people's lives, looking for clues to their vulnerabilities.  A person who looks at others that way, it seems, must feel superior, above the pale.  I don't want to be that person, riding on a wave of arrogance that is bound to crash into sand pounded hard by its own settling.