Day Eighteen: Near Miss

Fallen treeIf troubles come in threes, then hopefully, we’re done.

It was nearly 60 degrees yesterday, another hide and seek Boston winter day, climate-change style. John has a Pavlovian response to such weather: the faintest scent of spring inexorably draws him, work-gloved, to the yard. So he headed outside among the little mounds of not-quite melted snow and not-yet picked-up dog poop that cover the squishy lawn, determined to clear up some of the fallen limbs littering our property after the snow. The most recent snowstorm followed a week of unseasonably mild weather, and the boughs were pliable under the heavy, wet snow. Branches as solid as ten inches in diameter came cracking down from the white pines and sugar maples that ring our house.

I assumed he planned to drag the fallen limbs over to the brush pile we have accumulated in the woods just beyond the landscaped edge of our yard. I did not know he intended to take on a topped-off Norway maple. The thirty footer had cracked at the trunk about two thirds of the way up, and the broken section nose-dived, top-first, down to the ground, where what had been upwards arching branches now impaled the soil. I promise you, if I had known he was going to attempt to cut this down, I would have done my utmost to dissuade him: “this is too big a job for one man, even you.” It is not likely I’d have succeeded. John is literally (and conveniently, at times) deaf in one ear. He is also more stubborn than a berry stain.

Spoiler alert: this story is going to the emergency room. Meta-spoiler alert: A compressed fracture of the T12 vertebrae. It could be better. But it sure could have been worse. No head injury, miraculously. The upended trunk – about 8” in diameter and 12 feet long, fell on his left shoulder but somehow completely missed his skull. We went out there and looked at it today, trying to figure out how such a large object could have fallen onto him from such a height and missed his head. We decided it must have collapsed at an oblique angle to his shoulder when he cut away one of the branches. It looks as though an offshoot, rather than the trunk itself, is probably what hit him, although he still bore the full weight, trunk and all. He seems to be feeling okay today, getting around fine, just a bit stiff, a little swollen around his shoulder blade.

I don’t want to dwell on the drama: EMTs rolling the gurney across the grass (John says he was thinking, “Fuck, they are going to leave ruts in the lawn.”), neighbors striding up from the road in concern when they saw the ambulance, or John staring daggers at me because I insisted he needed to go to the hospital to get checked out – by a DOCTOR. (“I’m fine,” he growled, “Look I can walk fine.” He said this while seated, looking pale, sweaty, pained.) I do want to dwell on the blessing. The whole time we were at the ER, I felt a stunned sense of gratitude that we were simply feeling irritated with the long wait time, rather than pouring over CAT scans showing bleeds and trauma.

For the car ride home, John had to wear the clothes he’d had on that afternoon when he’d fallen. They were clammy from melted snow, and he shivered loudly, teeth rattling while I blasted the heat as high as it would go. Shock.
Life can change in an instant.

There’s a song by Ingrid Michelson that our girls used to listen to a lot. It’s been playing silently in my head today:

We are so fragile,
And our cracking bones make noise,
And we are just,
Breakable, breakable, breakable, girls and boys.

And yet, we are so strong.

Day Seventeen: Playdate

I also teach a modality called “Ageless Grace,” a brain and body fitness class that’s great for neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself through movement, in a nutshell.) Yesterday, two sixty-something year- old public school drama teachers who are buddies showed up at class for the first time. These gals were all in: without hesitation, they mimed playing baseball, violin, conducting traffic, swan-diving and synchronized swimming. They made scary faces and blew kisses, pretended to have temper tantrums and to dance the mambo. They were having a ball. Their enjoyment was infectious for most of the other students.

One woman, also 60-ish, was far more reserved. She joined in every exercise, but often with a disdainful expression, as if she was thinking “this is so stupid.” I’ve learned not to let my ego go on a tear whenever a student in one of my classes is clearly not into it. The classes are outside the mainstream for many people, beacause they are about presence and play, with no other endgame. We don’t keep score, no one wins or loses, there are no metrics to determine if we are improving or not. There’s only this: how do we feel? Are we having fun? Are we doing our best? This is unfamiliar terrain for some people.

At the end of class, Two-Drama-Gals asked me to tell them a bit about how Ageless Grace developed, and I gave them the spiel about the founder, how she is from Raccoon Valley, Tennessee, that she became interested in gerontology because of her own aging parents, how her background as a movement teacher led her to study neuroscience, then she piloted the program for seven years with a Duke University-affiliated hospital. What neuroscience research is increasingly discovering, I explained, is that the best thing you can do for longevity and brain health is exercise that simultaneously works the body and the brain in spontaneous ways. This is true whether you are a middle-aged-to-old fart trying to stave off your increasing sense of stupitude — forgotten names (like, your brother’s), lost keys, whole conversations completely unremembered, the sum of two plus four; or a little kid learning a new skill.

“Oh,” said Drama-Gal-Number-One matter-of-factly, “so you mean, you have to play.”

So much for all my jargon.

“It’s such a shame,” she further commented. “Kids I teach now, it’s much harder to get them to play then it used to be. They have trouble accessing their own imaginations, with all this technology.”

Now that’s sad. People without confidence in their own imagination can be easily influenced, for one thing. I look back on my childhood and it seems all I did was play. I was alone a lot, but I was constantly acting out stories or building vast imaginary worlds in my head. My three kids, too, did a lot of playing. They were big into dress-up, elaborately staged Beanie Baby plays, forts, and bizarro games they simply made up. Like “Baker Heads,” in which Nate and Lucy wore Mia’s Pampers “Pull-ups” on their heads, their faces framed in the leg opening (this made them look like 18th century toothache patients), and talked in funny high-pitched voices. They found this hysterically funny.

Afterwards, the woman who had seemed uncomfortable in class hung around while I did some paperwork and prepared to close the studio. She has a tall, lanky frame and diffident manner. Together, these give her the air of a watchful stork. I would have thought she would be the first one out the door, but she was the last.

“I want you to know,” she confided. “I very much enjoyed myself.”

Not what I expected to hear.

“I’m so glad,” I said.

She hesitated, and then continued: “I have a very difficult time playing. I always have, even when I was a child.”

“Well, you did great just now,” I told her. “And good for you, you did something difficult today, taking this class. That was brave.”

She did her best. We all do what we can.

Now run along and play.

Day Sixteen: Ground Control

I was heading out the door to teach my 8:30 a.m. class this morning when Mia called. The instant I saw her number at that hour, I knew: fender bender. A minor dust-up in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot involving a blind spot in our CR-V, morning sun glare, and senior spring (friends, academics, theater, no downtime, lack of sleep, college uncertainty all swirled into a frothy blend of anxiety-latte). In a panicky voice, she told me she was this close to a meltdown. In her case, once the train gets up a head of steam for meltdown station, you just have to buckle up and wait for the ride to end. Telling her to calm down (she would if she could) or trying to reassure her verbally is unhelpful to her. She purses her facial muscles and presses the heels of her hands against her brow, as if she is literally trying to hold herself together. Her breathing shallows; everything makes her angry, mostly with herself for being unable to control her rising sense of panic. If she could only breathe more deeply, release her muscles instead of trying so hard to contain herself. But she is too caught in her head.

By the time I had pulled into the parking lot at the club where I teach Nia, a text confirmed she was safely at school and presumably, feeling better. I was now the one who was rattled. I was running late. I hadn’t had time to prepare, check my playlist, craft a focus for this morning’s class, or plug in to my own sensations. Even though I hadn’t had any coffee this morning, I felt over-caffeinated and jittery.

In Nia, you have permission to teach the class you need to take. Chances are, if it’s what you need, everyone else does, too. It never fails to amaze me how true this is – Jung’s web of associations. The second I stepped out of the car and my foot met the pavement, it came to me, almost in a jolt: I need to get grounded. My energy is staticky and all over the place – who knows who I might inadvertently shock if I don’t close the circuit and ground myself?

Grabbing the mic and heading into the studio, I was stopped by a lovely, high-energy “regular” who always dances with delight and is especially light on her feet. She wanted to apologize that she might not participate with her usual verve this morning. She tucked aside her blonde bangs to reveal a nasty gash in her eyebrow. Ouch! On Monday, she’d walked smack into the corner of a kitchen cabinet at her house. “I guess I just wasn’t being mindful,” she said thoughtfully. I laughed with her: I think perhaps you weren’t being body-full. It’s the same thing for Mia when her anxiety mounts: she loses a sense of being tethered to her body, anchored and safe. Her mind, if anything, is too full. As was mine, when I was sitting in the parking lot, feeling rattled and unfocused, chasing a nestful of rabbit-thoughts down their little holes: should I call Mia? Should I text one of her friends to make sure she settled down? Should I call our insurance agent? How much was this going to cost us? Could I focus for class? Were my students going to have a lousy class because my mind was so jumpy? Did I remember to put Westley back inside before I left home? Oh, crap, did I forget my Ipad?

In class, we focused on feeling the hardwood boards under our bare feet, on sensing our leg and buttock muscles and their connection to the floor. We scooped up armfuls of air and brought our palms together to close the circuit. We squatted down and placed our fingertips on the floor, grounding hands and feet, feeling the solidity of the earth underneath us. We stomped our feet and shimmied our shoulders and played with the contrasting sensations of being supported and solid from below, and freaking out into the space around our heads, hands swatting imaginary bees from around our ears. We stood still and listened to the music, grounding in sounds and melody. We dug in our heels, as if the floor was wet sand. We danced, bodies-full.

Day Fifteen: Braggadocio

Decorative-fontsI got bogged down today writing about “The Body Politic”, a topic that so incenses and ennervates me, I had to take a power nap at 4:30 this afternoon, leaving me still postless at 6:30 p.m.. This is the effect our discourse has on me physically: depression, restlessness, frustration. I know I’m not alone in this — our body politic is sick. We all feel it, red or blue, liberal or conservative. It’s the slow drip of impotence, of continually being stoked into fear, rage, or both. The worst symptom of our disease is a desperate, ginned-up sense that we are each other’s enemies, that we hate our very selves, simply because we have (admittedly big) differences of opinion. But we also have a lot of common interests, ones that our national body is too flu-ridden to breach. With polls taking our god-damned temperature every five minutes, our feverishness is continually reaffirmed; there is no cool cloth on the forehead in sight. It got to me today, but I hope to rally tomorrow.

Now, for something lighter, since I don’t want to fall behind my posting goal by yet another day. Instead of a rant, here’s a little ditty about the fun side of making words appear on the screen. That’s a kind of embodiment, right? I wrote it awhile ago, so it’s a bit of a cheat. But it reminds me that although our politics make life feel surreal and so-very serious these days, there is still fun to be had, pleasure to be taken in inconsequential things.

Fontastic!

The blank page is white.
I can fill it, though,
With little dots and scrawls of black
In a Myriad of fonts:
Calibri, Mistral, Ayuthaya, Chancery.
Evoking world travels at the click of a dropdown.
Will one of the Gothics take me to the moors—
Bell, perhaps, with its mournful toll?
Bodoni wears a crumpled hat in the Tuscan sun,
Head nodding after the midday meal, yet oddly delicate:
He’s gay.
(His friend Petrucci, the musical one? Also gay.)
Britannic bold has a bosom as deep as a library shelf,
Leading pallid schoolchildren through the British war museum,
The walls shake.
Adobe Hebrew? Clearly reformed.
What of Blackmoor LET, traipsing about the medieval fair,
With his trained falcon, Charlemagne, and multi-pierced lady-fair,
Lucida Blackletter?
And those lush-sounding girls:
Euphemia, Georgia, Gabriola, Mona Lisa (she’s solid), Constantia, Candara,
And their slightly hipper sisters, Onyx and Tahoma,
Sitting in the window, languid, heavy-lidded, waiting to be chosen
As that square-assed bitch Helvetica gets the job again and again.
Her or Arial (who at least is clean)
Not a single curve on them; go figure.
I told my students, when briefly I had them,
A font-change does NOT count as a revision.
Yet I, too, can feel the pull of sunnier climes: Lithos and Arno
Beckon away from the work at hand, a novel, screenplay,
Or high school essay on how Iago seduces, or Hamlet fails.
Cracked is how I’ll feel writing at two a.m. after
Drinking too much Chicory, when the world sleeps
And all is
Braggadocio.

Day Fourteen: Look!

print-eye-flickr-kevindooley

I am appreciating my eyes lately. They are funky, but they do the trick. I am farsighted, with an astigmatism in one eye (I forget which, which is probably fodder for a post about the state of my memory), and something called “deep cups” in my retinas which give me a higher than average risk for glaucoma. Over the last year, I also developed “narrow angles,” which essentially means there is less space in my eyes as I age. As a result, the drainage angles that keep pressure from building up on the optic nerve could suddenly close off. That would be really, really bad.

When my ophthalmologist gave me this latest diagnosis, he was pretty low-key.

“We have a new little problem,” he said.

So my first question for him was “how suddenly” can these drainage routes close off. Like, today, tomorrow, next week? I feel fine. I have no sense of building pressure, that at any minute, I’m gonna blow, spewing eyeball-stuff all over the place, B-rated horror movie style. (Of course, that’s not at all what happens.) My vision is kind of wonky, but I’m in my mid-fifties. They say the eyes are the first thing to go, right?

No clear answer. This is why glaucoma is so tricky. You don’t know the disease is progressing until you notice vision loss, and at that point, the damage is irreversible.

The treatment for my narrow angles is something called an iridotomy. The surgeon burns a tiny hole in your iris with a laser. The hole acts like the valve on a pressure cooker, letting off steam as necessary so that the whole thing doesn’t just explode. They give you some numbing drops (of dubious effectiveness), sit you in the exam chair, place a lens on your eye to help aim the laser, and then zap your iris about ten times to make the hole.

“Don’t flinch,” said my ophthalmologist.

It’s rare to have any side-effects from an iridotomy. My guy has done over a thousand of them, and “maybe twice” had patients who developed a minor issue with glare after the procedure.

Meet lucky number three. After undergoing the iridotomy in my left eye, I noticed a hazy halo arcing up from the bottom of my field of vision, but only in certain lighting conditions. Snow, night driving, sunset. Basically, when the light hits my eye from a low plane, I get this little glare-flare. It’s not the end of the world. At some point, my brain will apparently figure out how to work around it and I won’t notice it any more. I don’t have cancer or a degenerative nerve disease, my joints are in great shape, I sleep pretty well, and aside from gray hair and progressive lenses, I feel like I’ve always felt. Timeless, pretty much.

Yet I find myself looking at things more closely, particularly when I am out walking the dog on the trails: a Milky Way spray of bubbles trapped beneath the skin of ice formed on the surface of a stream; brown hemlock needles caught in a frosty spider’s web; an orphaned ski glove wedged in the upright fork of a spindly tree, as if waving. I practice noticing. Can I see the individual leaves on a tree? The numbers on the speedometer? The faint freckles on my daughter’s nose and cheekbones?

Day Thirteen: Let It All Hang Out

Here’s a thing about women’s bodies after 50: the muffin-top. You know it, that little extra sumpin’ that rolls out over the waistband of your jeans or yoga pants. It’s not fat, necessarily, just slippage. The muffin-top has a corollary, bra-bulge: those rolls that bubble up from under your bra straps, giving your back that nice topographical look you’ve never wanted.

It’s new to me, this feeling that my own flesh is on the loose, literally. I sit down and it sort of squirts out between my bra line and waistband, giving me the overstuffed sensation you might get after Thanksgiving dinner. It makes me feel matriarchal, but in a good way, uninhibited. I guess I am on my way to being one of those unfiltered late-50 something gals who just puts it right out there. “Wow, your new haircut is a shot in the dark!”; “That dress must really have been on sale!”; “I see why your son doesn’t have a girlfriend.” This must be the definition of “let it all hang out,” when your own flesh is just going for it and the rest of you can’t help but follow suit.

Which brings me to Spanx. Hollywood starlets who couldn’t pinch an inch of flesh if their lives depended on it are wearing girdles. When asked “Who are you wearing tonight” on the red carpet at a recent awards show, one little slip of a thing answered brightly: “Isaac Mizrahi and Spanx!” These are young, fit women, who just happen to have, um, skin. God forbid our attention should be drawn to the fact that there’s as much of it under their clothing as they expose.

In the girl-cop buddy movie, “The Heat”, there’s a scene where actresses Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy are changing in a restroom. Bullock, uptight and whippet-thin, is scooching into her Spanx. McCarthy, larger than life in body and in character, watches on skeptically.

giphy-1

McCarthy: “Jesus, what are those?”

Bullock: “They’re my Spanx. They hold everything together.”

McCarthy (incredulous): “Why? What’s gonna come popping out?”

So I have worn a Spanx or two in my time. I know what Ms. Bullock means about being held together by a nice compression foundation garment. It can be oddly comforting. But ultimately it brings me no joy. Heck, the brand name is a little masochistic: Punish me; I have a stomach. Even “control top” nylons evoke the sense that something terrible could happen without them. I may lose control and just dissolve into—what? Tears? Unpleasantness? Or dare I say it, be a bitch? My inner feminist rages. Men just let that big ‘ol beer gut loll over their belt buckle almost proudly, sloshing around as they walk. They don’t care that the sight of all that flesh going off-leash might offend. Is there such a thing as Spanx for men–some steel-reinforced spandex product that compacts their unsightly bulge into a more manageable package? If so, I doubt its sales rival those of Spanx. I resent feeling that I need to be shmushed into place. At my age, all Spanx really do anyway is relocate the spillover to another quadrant. They make me sweat. They cannot be great for my circulation, and they do nothing for my ego. It’s a love/self-hate thing. I have to own that I am complicit in my self-constraint.

Maybe we should all stage a coup and burn our Spanx, 70’s-style.

Day Twelve: Body Language

Today is Feb. 15, and this is my twelfth post. I’m thinking “one post a day” describes the final tally and not daily output. So sue me.

Mia has an English paper due tomorrow. The topic she’s come up with for the essay is body language in the novel “Native Speaker” by Chang Rae-Lee. I’ve not read it . From what she has told me, I know it deals with the experience of Korean-American immigrants and the role of language in defining their identity. I love this idea that our native language might not be the one we grow up speaking, but in fact, our body language. I’m really proud of Mia for her insight in picking up on its importance to the characters in this book.

It’s got me thinking.

Now this is maybe a cop-out for the fact that I have not managed to sit down and write daily, but I have been doing a lot of teaching over the last few weeks. My teaching of Nia is every bit as immersed in language as a long session at the keyboard. The act of speaking with my body throughout the class unlocks words and images in a steady stream. When I am seated at the keyboard, the words come more haltingly. For example, I just finished a sentence and my mental energy flagged. I picked up some nearby nail-clippers and worked away on my cuticles, girding for the next round of composing. This small physical act relieves the constant, quiet tension that is a ghost looking over my shoulder as I write; I feign disinterest so that perhaps he’ll be distracted and wander off to haunt someone else.

But my mini-manicure also grounds me in the here and now, in something physical and ordinary. That’s helpful. Staying connected to my sensations as I teach, waiting for language to arrive that enhances the movement (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that language flowers out of the movement–metaphors are the actual fruit of my dance), the words flow. On the best of days at the keyboard, I achieve this same sense of becoming a conduit for language and ideas: I’m just providing the vessel here, but the words themselves come from a divine source. In dance, I have this feeling ALL THE TIME. The words move through me, they are unique to me, yet they are not mine at all.