A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer #23: One must know when to stop.

Summer #23 Two questions have compelled me throughout my life, and they are questions I have often often framed for my students: "Who am I?" and "What is my dream?" I remember that the essay question on Davidson College's application the year I applied was, "Who are you and why?" My response began confidently, "I am a child of the seventies...." A truer response, I think, was to the first assignment in my high school sophomore English class: "Create a symbol of yourself." My symbol, wisely I think now, was collage of photos formed into a large question mark. I thought then as I think now, "I contain multitudes." That question mark hung on the teacher's wall, forgotten by everyone but me I suppose, all year, and challenged me daily: Who am I and why is this question so impossible for me to answer?

I like Sandra Cisneros's metaphor of Esperanza's self as a series of wooden dolls that fit inside one another, each ourselves at one age, and each age still a part of who we are.

When I lived in Dallas, my friend George, who was a medical student then and I hear is a psychiatrist now, gave me a couple of riddles, of tests, designed to help a person know who they are. I don't remember them exactly, but they went something like this: Riddle #1 consisted of three questions to which a person needed to write an extended response. Each of the three questions was, "If you were an animal, what animal would you be?" As I remember, your first response is how you see yourself, the second how others see you and the third how you really are. Riddle #2 also comprised three questions: #1: If you were an animal, what animal would you be? #2: Descibe your favorite body of water and #3: Imagine that you are naked, in a white room. There is light in the room, but no clear source of that light. There are no windows and no doors, only four white walls, a white floor and a white ceiling. It is silent. Describe how you feel.

Try it and see what you discover.

If I were an animal, I would be a cat. Really, I am a cat. I like to nap in the sun and run around when I feel like it. Sometimes, I will allow you to pay attention to me, but only when I feel like it. Otherwise, I am preoccupied chasing butterflies and such. I, however, do not carry dead rodents in my mouth. And I do not pee in a litter box.

My favorite body of water is the ocean. It is deep, mysterious, and complex. The life that teems beneath the surface cannot be guessed at from a distance. It is strong and steady. Waves reach perpetually for the shore. At times it is playful, and at other times it is beautifully chaotic.

In this white room,  I breathe deeply. I rest. I feel at peace.

As I remember, the animal reveals how you see yourself. The water reveals how you feel about sex. Your feelings about the white room reveal how you feel about death. I don't know if any of this is true, but I find it interesting to think about: who am I, really?

Some of my favorite people are those who see in me what I want to be true about myself. On her sixieth birthday, my friend Rita wrote a kind of a "Who's who?" for the people at her party. About me, she said, "Mary lives her beliefs." I want that to be true of me.

My recent student Yessicaa wrote a note to me when she graduated: "You're very kind, helpful, caring and motivating. Thanks to your caring heart I realized that there are people out there who care for me and discovered how special teachers can be in a student's life." This I want to be true of me as well, and I am graced that someone has seen that in me and shown me to myself in such a kind mirror.

I think about whether these tumors have changed who I am. They have certainly changed my life. Who am I? I am a survivor, the disabled woman down the road, Ann's partner, my parents' child, a sister, an aunt, a cousin. I am a teacher, a writer, a friend, an adventurer, a child of grace.

Thanks for staying with me as I've shared myself in this blog. In the sharing, I am discovering, and in that discovering you have been a support, an ear (or an eye), a kind friend. As Lao Tsu wrote centuries ago, "One must know when to stop," and I think it's time to stop this blog now, but the questions and the life and the grace persist. With love. Mary

Monday, August 9, 2010

Summer #22: Seafair Grinch

Summer #22: Last week, Seattle celebrated all things fast and loud that cause traffic jams at the annual Seafair festival. The first weekend, there was a downtown run and a "torch-light" parade featuring clown-like pirates. This weekend, the more offensive weekend, boats raced in Lake Washington, and the Blue Angels, the navy's performance jets, danced and roared overhead. The pilots practiced Thursday and Friday and performed Saturday and Sunday. The planes come very close to our home. One pilot with dark hair and a mustache was picking his nose. Really.

Since we live in the area, these practice flights make us feel like we're like living in a war zone. The house shakes, and the roar as the planes pass stops any conversation. I wonder what this might feel like for those refugees and veterans who have lived in war. I know the dogs don't like it. For a few years, we followed the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," philosophy and watched the planes in their intricate formations from a nearby park. Impressive, but too much a reminder of how many of our resources we commit to war instead of to social services and education.

I am a Seafair curmudgeon. A Seafair Scrooge. A Seafair Grinch.

Ann and I went to Paradise on Mount Rainier to escape the onslaught and to see the stunning displays of pink and white heather, snow-white avalanche lillies, majenta Indian paintbrush, and purple Lupine gracing the mountainsides that lead to the towering Mount Rainier. Thursday and Friday were beautifully sunny, but then the weather gods must have thought my siblings were there, so the rain and mist moved in on Saturday. No hail, though, as there was the summer my sister visited.

The trails at Paradise are paved and mostly free of snow by now, so I can hike there with Ann's help. She took a morning walk for about an hour Friday morning, and then we did basically the same walk together. Our walk together took four hours. I'm not fast, but I did walk four hours, so that's progress. I remember the days before brain surgery when I eschewed these trails because they were too easy and too crowded. No longer. Now I embrace them.

There's both a local and an international crowd on that mountain. We met people along the way from our neighborhood, Alabama, China, and West Africa. I took a picture for three guys hiking together, one from China and the other two from West Africa. I summoned my college French and counted, "Un, deux, trois...." One of the guys said to another, "Was she speaking French?" and then to me, "Merci." I summoned the last of my French, "De rien." I doubt I would have had such a deep international conversation at Seafair. In all of our accents, those of us on the trail said to one another, "Isn't this beautiful!"

Driving home, Ann and I listened to the Indigo Girls' album Indians, Nomads, Saints. When they sang, "Everywhere I turn all the beauty just keeps shaking me," I knew exactly what they meant.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Summer #21: Down to the River

Summer #21: Last Saturday, Ann and I went on my longest bike ride since radiation with our friends Renee and Alex. We took the Cedar River trail from Renton and rode about ten miles to a place by the river where Latino families were picknicking in the shade and playing with kids in the shallow water, and teenagers with innertubes disembarked from their ride down the river, generally towing a cooler behind. It was a hot summer day for this area, in the high 80s, but we've just returned from North Carolina's high 90s, so to us it felt beautiful. We had our own picnic in the shade: local cherries, ham from PCC and bread from a local bakery as we watched the families play in the water. I said the scene reminded me of the swimming hole (tanke)  I frequented the summer I lived in Michoacan, Mexico. Alex said it reminded her of Mexico, too. Renee said it reminded her of Pennsylvania. Maybe there's a universal river scene that makes us all nostalgic.

The summer I lived in Michoacan, I lived in a small town with three other Americans volunteering with a program called Amigos de las Americas. On hot weekend days, it seemed that everyone in the town went to the tanke to picnic in the shade and rest or play in the water. In the shade, families built smoky fires and snacked their treats. We were more interested in the water. We watched the scene for a while and then slipped, unobtrusively, we thought, into the water. The sixty or so people in the water, unaccustomed to white people in their tanke, moved immediately to the edge, sat on the rocks and, silently, watched us. Fortunately, Juan, whose parents were originally from Mexico, had foreseen this possibility and had brought a football and a frisbee, and finally the kids slipped back into the water, coaxed by the fun of play.

As a teenager, I spent my summers first as a camper and then as a counselor at a sailing and waterskiing camp on the Neuse River, near North Carolina's coast. I love being outside, getting such fun exercise in the sun and heat. Many campers' best loved "jeep rides" where campers would pile into trailers at the back of jeeps and go off-roading, generally getting wet and muddy in the process and in the end eating an ice-cream treat. Despite the temptation to ice-cream, I loved this time best because much of the camp would empty and I could sail or waterski or shoot at the shooting range without waiting in line. From a cabin in the river's bank, I watched the most beautiful lightening storm I have ever witnessed. the lighting fell onto the water as counselors, sillouettes against the night sky,  pulled their sailboats to safety. I wondered about their safety, especially when lightening struck the nearby boathouse when such a loud bang that, after checking to see that the sillouettes were still there, I abandoned the dance of light and storm and went back in to my own caccoon.

One tradition in our church's delegations to a sister community in Chaletenango, El Salvador, is a trip with our hosts to the Rio Sumpul. Though the scene of a massacre during their "civil war" in the 1980s and 1990s, it's now a beautiful spot again, and our hosts pack up tortillas and chicken and such and we spend the day celebraing in the river together. On one trip, an American teenager named Graham and his Salvadoran friend Mario swam to a large rock, climbed onto the rock, and talked in the sun for hours. At the time, Graham didn't speak Spanish and Mario didn't speak English, but somehow they managed quite an extensive conversation.

So, as Allison Kraus sings, "Let's go down to the river to pray," which might look a lot like play. Mary

Summer #20: Cries like a Girl

Summer #20: I don't cry as much as I should. A therapist told me that if I'm not crying at least once a week, I need to do something that will make me cry, like watch a sad movie or a life insurance commercial (that one with the eight year-old boy waving to his father out the back window of the school bus). Apparently, crying make it less likely that a person will get depressed, and depression is a common side-effect of brain surgery.

I have cried at times after surgery. As I lay in my hospital bed after brain surgery, in order to try to get me to talk more, I guess, my second speech therapist asked me to describe the ways my life had changed after my surgery: I had been an athlete and was now unable to walk; I couldn't flush the toilet or shower on my own; I saw double and in some cases had blind spots. I didn't say any of this. I cried. That was the end of that session and the last time I saw a speech therapist.

I'm seeing a chiropractor now to help me regain some flexibility in my neck. I like him a lot. At the end of each session,  he has me visualize how my body moved and felt before surgery and imagine what it would take to move that way again. I cry each time.

I also tear up when the announcer introduces the WNBA Storm players before each game. I have no desire to be one of those players, but I feel incredible relief and joy that women can make that choice as long as they can make that team.

I prefer these tears of joy. I'll have to find that therapist and ask her if those count. Mary

Summer #18: The Cat out of the Hat

Summer #18: Sunday morning I had to get up at the crack of mid-morning to take Ann to the airport for a trip to Boston with her math colleagues. To ease out of normalcy, I did yoga and ate some fruit before going back to bed, but then my inner cat in the hat ermerged. For lunch, instead of the chicken breast and brocolli slaw she left, I ate a banana and mayonaise sandwich with potato chips. Then, I didn't put my dishes in the dishwasher. I just piled them on the counter beside the sink. I closed all the windows to the cold summer afternoon--no real need for fresh air--and turned on the gas fire place to toast the place up.

For dinner my friend Rose must have sensed that I was planning maple walnut ice-cream, so she brought over Middle-Eastern milk pudding with pastachios, not exactly health food for dinner, but she did point out that it had protein and vitamin D. So does maple walnut ice-cream. For the coup de grace, I dropped my dirty clothes on the floor by her side of the bed and went to sleep before the sun set. I slept diagonally that night.

I love living with Ann, it's the most fulfilling part of my life, but sometimes for a moment or two I like to be alone with my soul and my mess.

Tonight, Ann returns home, so today I've cleaned the kitchen by putting the dishes in the dishwasher and cleaning by hand the ones that don't go. I wiped off the countertops, even. I opened her mail with a letter-opener (I'm trying to teach her through example not to just rip into envelopes) and I have stacked the mail neatly at her place. I've sorted through the stack that's been at my place since our last trip. The potato chips areout of the living room and back in the kitchen cupboard. I've eaten all the brocolli slaw. Sheets are clean, and the bed is made. My mess is back in the place reserved for my mess.

When Ann comes home, she'll comment on how tidy the place looks, and I'll shrug as if it was no bother, that's the way I've kept things while she's gone. But really, I love the joy she takes out of tidyness.

Maybe I'll even clean up the computer table. No, that would be over the top. She would suspect. Mary

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Summer #19: You're okay.

Summer #19: I saw the chiropractor today. He had looked at my MRIs and said that there's "chaos" in the architecture of my neck muscles. He also said that there has been a lot of atrophy (I seem to have fat in the back of my neck. Will the horrors never cease?) and in order to maintain current function, I should have regular massage--that without it, I'll lose function. The loss of function in my neck is disappointing. The prospect of further massages is not.

On the number 3 bus on the way home, I didn't notice a man in a wheelchair coming off and didn't move my feet out of the aisle to make way, so he bumped my arms and legs. He apologized profusely (something the person who ran over my toes never did), and I said, "You're okay," meaning he didn't hurt me and could go forward. Though his speech was quite gutteral and garbled, I clearly heard, "No. I am not okay." I acknowledged his clairty: "No. Me neither." We smiled at one another, and he rolled off the bus.

Mostly, I am okay. I am healing enough to enjoy the outdoors again and to get around on the bus. I can read on my kindle and bike on my trike. I get to write my blog. My partner supports me, and we play together. My family loves me but does not take any guff off me. I am about to be working again. (End of summer has a very different meaning for teachers than for parents.) I experience joy and notice grace in my life every day. My primary emotional state is gratitude.

Sometimes, though, I remember how much I have changed, and I grieve for what I've left behind. Brain surgery isn't the only time I've experienced loss, of course, and each time I feel loss I also remember how much life can follow loss.

So, yeah. I'm okay. Mary

Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer #17: Agressive Kindness

Summer #17: Public transportation like airplanes and busses are the most notable places for folks who are aggressively kind. In Dallas last week, I acquiesced to a ride in a wheelchair down the ramp. The airline attendant asked me if I'd like her to arrange wheelchairs at my next stops. "No, thank you. I'll be fine." She nodded. In St. Louis and again in Seattle, a person with a wheelchair met me at the gate. So much for No, thank you. In Seattle, I asked the woman with the wheelchair just to take me to the end of the jetway. "Oh, no. It's too far," she insisted. When I tried to get out, she would have none of it and pushed me back into the chair. Ann tried to argue, but I've been through this before, so I sat back and enjoyed the ride and said thank you at the end.

On another flight a couple of years ago, the attendants insisted they call for one of those cars that beeps at everyone in order to take me to the exit. Again, after some arguing I acquiesced, but Ann refused and walked ahead with our luggage. I started to wonder how I was going to find her. Now, she rides with me.

My favorite time was when the attendants really wanted to call a second wheelchair for Ann, who has white hair and was holding my cane for me while I put on a sweatshirt. Now Ann makes me hold my own cane.

As I was getting off the bus last week, an older woman asked me if I needed help. "No, thank you." She decided to help me anyway. She tried to help me get up and move down the aisle anyway, but she wasn't so steady herself and nearly knocked me down.

If you've been following this blog since the beginning, you already know about the two homeless guys who helped me across the crosswalk when I didn't want to cross the street.

When, as a teenager, I was taking CPR, I remember learning to ask someone who seemed in trouble, "Are you okay?" I found the idea of performing mouth-to-mouth on someone who was just sunbathing funny. Now I know how important that question is, and how important it is to listen to the answer.

If you are aggressively kind, I appreciate your spirit, but really, no thanks unless I say yes please. Mary