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.

Day Eleven: I Lied

FullSizeRenderI lied in my prior post. To quote: “I typically have great eating habits.” It’s true that I am well informed about good nutrition. My favorite food group is vegetables. I don’t drink soda or ever eat fried or fast food. If faced with a choice between a plate of sautéed kale and a cheesesteak grinder or a slice of pizza I will choose the kale every time, on one condition: it’s ready NOW.

Otherwise, all bets are off. Habits-schmabits.

If I had a personal chef, I’d be leaner than a greyhound. You know that game kids sometimes play: if you could only have three foods with you on a desert island, what would they be? Mine would be arugula, summer-ripe cherry tomatoes and a good, strong-bodied hard cheese, like a nice parmagiano reggiano. It about kills me to have to eliminate olive oil from this list, but I’m hoping I can create a reasonable substitute on my island – maybe it’s an undiscovered desert island somewhere in the Mediterranean that just happens to have a grove of wild olive trees? I figure I can forage for nuts, berries and other greens, I can make salt from the salt water, and since it’s an island, there should be plenty of fish, so I’m good there. In other words, I am not bringing a lifetime supply of Pringles, or Skippy peanut butter, or even sirloin steak. My instincts are good.

Here’s the reason why I lied when I wrote that I have great habits: When under stress, I am a pantry junkie – usually when I am rushed for time, but also when I’ve let it go too long since I last ate, or when I am anxious. (As an aside, I rarely get hissy-fit level anxious anymore—thanks, menopause! But anxiety is the ambient soundscape of my psyche, rarely rising to a level above the gentle sussuration of an ever-present breeze. Which can be annoying.) Say I am coming in the door from a meeting that ran overtime – the traffic was bad and now it’s 5:30 and dark and I still have to walk my dog but I am ravenous and there really isn’t time to make a nice green salad with cherry tomatoes, olive oil, a few strips of parmagiano reggiano and a slice of lightly sea-salted grilled fish. I am resentful, because I would really prefer this. But there’s shit I gotta do. So I open the pantry door. It starts off reasonably well: a few nuts. I mentioned I am ravenous, right? So, oh look: Mary’s Gone Crackers. Gluten free, loaded with seeds and nuts, with a satisfyingly molar-engaging crunch. Still not too bad, right? But my impatience and irritation with the fact that I don’t have time to make myself a nice little meal right now so often lead me further down the pantry shelves to: chips. Tortilla, potato (we don’t often have those, but when we do, I’m a goner), pita. And you need cheese or salsa to go with those, right? Before you know it, I’ve spent as long standing in front of the pantry mindlessly munching as it would have taken to make the desert island meal of my dreams.

It’s a habit I’d like to break.

P.S.  That’s my pantry above.  It looks so innocent…

 

Day Ten: Feeling Blocked

Words just aren’t coming to me today. I have no sense of purpose. What good is a blog when you have nothing in particular to say? (I’ll bet you’re really eager to read on now. Go ahead, spend another five minutes of your life reading a useless post by a flailing author.) This is what it’s like inside a writer’s mind. This is how we think. Well, I’ll speak for myself: shiftless, meandering, lazy, uninteresting, wooden, who cares, vanilla – just a sampling of the adjectives that seize at my gut like bacteria, making it damned challenging to digest ideas, to stomach my own words. I am a harsh critic of my little baby ideas. I cannot imagine being nearly so impatient with anyone else, standing behind them tapping my foot dismissively as they struggle for words. Never in a million years would I abuse a young child attempting an uncharted challenge. But I can rip my infant essay in to shreds with bearlike tenacity, leaving claw marks on my psyche and little clumps of fur on the keyboard.

So here’s what writer’s block feels like in my body. 1. Restlessness is the first symptom. I don’t like my chair. I think I’ll clean off my computer screen. Okay, I’ll open up the document and maybe re-read something I wrote a while ago. Oh, hey, that’s not awful. It’s pretty good. Did I write that? Huh, so I’m not lower than shit in a 50 year old cesspool, I guess I’ll just start writing now. But this feels terrible. I have nothing to say. I can’t get the metaphor quite right so I type “metaphor here later”. Oh my god, I have to get up. I don’t care what Anne Lamott or Steven King say about keeping your butt in the chair because I cannot tolerate one more second at this keyboard. I have GOT to get up and…what? It doesn’t matter. Maybe I need to empty the dishwasher. I don’t like how that pile of mail looks so sloppy and asymmetrical; I’ll just align the edges of the envelopes—oh, look at this mailer; Premium Pro Paint company is having a winter special, two rooms for the price of one. The family room could definitely use a fresh coat. Do we have another room that needs painting? I should walk around the house right now and check. I think I hear the damn dog at the back door again — didn’t I just let him out 10 minutes ago?

Restlessness is inevitably followed by a secondary symptom:

2. Imaginary hunger. I am hardly ever physically hungry. The appetite that surfaces with writer’s block is a kind of emotional emptiness that has my chin covered in potato chip crumbs before it’s actually registered in my brain that I have crossed the kitchen, opened the pantry doors and pulled out the bag. Typically, I have great eating habits. Except when I’m anxious. And a session of writing rarely, if ever, begins without anxiety. Ergo, chips. Or nuts. Or crackers. Or CHEESE. Love cheese. I’m a morning writer, but if my sessions were in the afternoon, I’d be reaching for the cookies no question. And on the few occasions when I’ve left my writing until after dinner, the the wild Chardonnay stalks me. (I completely get why so many writers are drunks, addicts, or otherwise neurotic. I do not understand the ones who are well-balanced, productive, and high-functioning.) For me, indulging any of the above appetites leads to:

3. Indigestion, self-criticism, and a deep sense of ennervation. None of these lends itself to flowing prose.

4. Repeat sensations 1-3 as necessary.

5. Here’s the magic: who knows how or why, but if I can manage to tolerate these physical twitches and emotional discomforts and stay at the keyboard, some alchemy takes over and I lose myself. I am neither embodied nor disembodied, just quiet and focused. Hours can go by and I have no sense of time or bodily need of any kind. It’s heavenly.

Day Nine: Hold, Please

I have that mom-thing that when I am taking care of someone else, I unconsciously put myself on hold. It’s been that way a bit since Nate’s knee surgery on Thursday. I can ignore hunger pangs and even push through the need to pee for hours at a time if I’m focused on someone else. A friend who is a high level bank executive recently told me that she arrives at work daily at 6 a.m. with a 20 ounce coffee and works steadily at her desk until around 10, even though she can feel her back and shoulders locking up and her bladder crying out for attention. She is a brilliant woman whose intelligence I’ve always admired; I knew her in high school and was downright intimidated by how cool and together she always seemed, long-limbed and blonde, edgy and smart. And yet, she, like me, often refuses to pee because she has too many other things on her plate. Who knew?

It seems to be a particularly human trait to ignore signals that come from the body, as if somehow these are suspect. My dog certainly doesn’t ignore his biological processes, if he’s gotta go, he’s gonna. Likewise, little children don’t/simply can’t “hold it in” in the same way that adults do. This willful body ignorance applies well beyond our processes of elimination. How often have you supressed your awareness of a symptom in the hopes that it would simply vanish? I’m not getting a headache now because I have a big report due tomorrow. I have too many meetings scheduled this week for this to be the flu. It’s just a cold. I’ll push through it. (On the other hand, we tend to obsess about other body signals: the nagging abdominal pain that we are pretty sure might be cancer, ignoring the possibility that it’s related to our 5-latte-a-day Starbucks habit.)

When an animal is sick, it rests. Years ago we had this badass cat named Huckle. Every summer, he used to go “on walkabout”, disappearing for weeks on end into the coyote-ridden woods that surround our yard. His longest stint al fresco was about three months. We had given up looking for him, figuring that if he met his maker on the losing side of a life-and-death-battle in the wild, that’s how he would have wanted it. Then one morning, we heard a yowl at the back door, and lo and behold, Huckle half-dragged himself into the house as if he’d never left, although he’d clearly seen some action out there: He had a tear in one ear, a couple of chipped teeth, and a broken pelvis, according to our vet. Huckle knew it was time to come home and rest – no more duking it out in the wilderness. He found a quiet corner in our basement and curled up, sleeping for about a week before emerging up the stairs with a bound as if he’d never felt better. He didn’t have to google “sharp pain when I breathe?” to know that something was seriously wrong with him, nor did he need Web M.D. to prescribe rest.

With our screens and LED beeps and blips providing an eerie glow into the night, with emails and texts tinging and pinging at all hours, with unfettered access to medical information in just a few key strokes, we live in a time when it is increasingly easy to become distanced from our body’s natural rhythms and wisdoms. It’s hard to make time to listen to the body, rather than just tell it to fall in line until our next meal, CrossFit training or bowel movement. When the body calls, I am so often too preoccupied with my ego’s agenda to pick up. Kind of like when caller ID announces robotically “Call from…Mom” when I’m busy. I’ll think: “Oh, it’s just my body. I’ll call her back later.” As if she’ll always be there for me. No matter what.

Day Seven: A Pain in the Knee

IMG_0298The last few days have been all about my 23 year old son Nate and his initial recovery from ACL reconstruction and meniscus repair surgery. He’s young and strong, with an athlete’s temperament and a hunger for challenge. If there is an easy way and a gnarly way to climb a mountain, Nate will choose gnarly every time. He rowed competitively in high school and college, so he is no stranger to pain or hard work. It’s been amazing to watch him since last Thursday, focusing all his energy on staying calm in the face of immobility, brain fog, pain, uncertainty. He’s a case study in determined healing.

Here’s what they tell you when you are about to be discharged from ACL surgery:

The surgeon: “You feel okay now because of the nerve block, but when that wears off tomorrow, you are going to hate me. You are going to be in a LOT of pain.”

The anesthesia nurse: “Make sure you take the Oxycodone every two hours to get ahead of the pain. You don’t want to get behind on that.”

The surgeon, again: “Take one baby aspirin a day for a month, because you don’t want to get a blood clot.”

The recovery nurse: “Be sure to take the stool softener every day because the oxy kind of plugs you up. “

And: “You can alternate Tylenol and Advil in case the oxy isn’t enough.”

And: “The oxy is probably going to make you feel nauseous, so they’re giving you an anti-nausea medication for that.”

…“No showers until your one week post-op check up. “
…“You can work on weight bearing or range of motion but not both.”
…“Get to physical therapy tomorrow, not matter how much it hurts.”

Perhaps most awful, for someone like him, so intensely active and vital, is hearing these words: “Six weeks in that brace and you are not so much as getting up in the middle of the night to relieve yourself without putting it on.” Six weeks without rowing, running, rock-climbing. Six weeks without even a casual round of golf or a light cycle at the gym. Six weeks without endorphins, the air that he breathes, the chemistry that quiets his intensity.

….Did we mention this is going to hurt?

Day Six: Why A “Body Story”?

That old saw: “write what you know.” I am still coming to know my body and our relationship has surely had interesting narrative turns. But as a Nia teacher, and now adding work with movement-challenged populations as an Ageless Grace educator, I am fascinated by my students’ relationships to their body stories–how they move, why they wince, the moments when they transcend themselves and I can literally see their souls moving underneath their flesh.

My students constantly surprise me. They are mostly women, typically between their late-forties and seventy years in age. They come to class for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they like the music and they love to dance. I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my life, but never one like this, where it daily feels like a privilege to be among them, to bear witness as they learn new steps or try new skills, often moving through pain or limitation. And whether by nature they are creaky and off-tempo or limber and rhythmic just doesn’t matter. I can see something of their struggle in life in how they move, in which movements or songs call them out of themselves and unlock their younger selves – transforming achy or self-conscious idiosyncracies into sudden bursts of playfulness, freedom or sensuality. Each of their bodies tells a story: I had colon cancer when I was in my fifties; here I am, dancing. Take that! I had breast cancer ages ago but that was child’s play compared to Parkinson’s; I’m just glad to be alive. I was a competitive ice dancer; now spinning makes me dizzy. I’ve always been a klutz, but I don’t care; look at me shakin’ it! I played three sets of tennis yesterday morning and another two last night; bring it on. I’ve been trying to lose these 10/20/30/40 pounds for the last 1/5/10/15 years; I feel beautiful when I dance. I haven’t slept well for the last year; this stretch feels so good.

Life in the physical body can be a pretty tough business. For some people, it’s a shit-storm of pain and frustration; for others, it’s the slow drip of diminishing returns. The luckiest among us may live pain and disease free, may even glory in good health, but we still find plenty to complain about. And yet, for all of us, there is joy to be had. That’s a body story.

Day Five: Dance Wherever You May Be

Four years ago, I discovered an exercise class called Nia, which combines dance, martial arts and healing arts in a class choreographed to music. The class was taught in the studio where I practiced yoga. You couldn’t help but notice the freedom and pleasure on people’s faces as they left Nia class, animated and chatty. They were a community, not just a class. I thought it was all a little weird.

Who knows why I walked into that first class. The focus that day was “sensing joy.” “Be present to your sensations,” the teacher prompted as we danced. “What does joy feel like in your body?”

Joy has a lot of physical sensations, I have since realized: Breath that fills the lungs all the way down to the small of your back, power, speed, air on skin, music vibrations washing over me. I have learned it is impossible to skip in a circle or exchange smiles and not embody joy. Perhaps spirit has to be incarnate in part to experience these physical sensations of joy and community.

They cut me down but I leapt up high
I am the life that will never never die
I’ll live in you if you live in me
I am the Lord of the dance said He

Dance dance wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance said He
And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be
And I’ll lead you all in the dance said He.

—Sydney Carter

The “He” above, in the poet’s mind, I always thought, is God, or maybe Jesus. I’m not really familiar with the author, Sydney Carter, so I googled him. I was thinking he was some kind of pious, tight-assed Episcopal choir master (with apologies to all the sweet, open-hearted choir masters I’ve ever known), one of those guys who’s all letter and no spirit. But it turns out, Sydney Carter was an English folk musician who wrote the words above in the trippy 1970’s. He wrote musicals and revues, and a song cycle entitled “Songs of Doubt and Faith.” (This is my kind of guy — how can you have one without the other?) He was a committed pacifist, a conscientious objector in World War II. He had a minor hit in 1962 with the song “Last Cigarette,” about trying to give up smoking and failing. You just never know where your next dance will take you.