A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Friday, March 29, 2013

Where's There?

On my way to yoga most mornings, I pass a man whose name I don't know. I call him "There," as in "Hey There."

He's been on the same corner almost every morning. When I hear, "There's my girlfriend!" I look up to see him by the fire hydrant in front of the brick apartment housing. When I look up I smile my lop-sided smile and greet him, too: "Hey There!" 

He's There rain or shine.  I suppose he's there because someone inside doesn't want him to smoke.

When I look up, he's generally standing in his raincoat under his blue and white umbrella. He's African-American, maybe in his eighties, with white sideburns and white whiskers. He has large yellow teeth, and a gap where he's missing several teeth on the right. He's always smoking.

Once, when we set our intention for our yoga class, our teacher Victoria suggested that we dedicate the class to someone we don't know: maybe a stranger we'd seen on the bus, the person who'd bagged our groceries, or the one behind the counter at the gas station mini-mart.

I dedicated my practice to There. 

Lately, however, There hasn't been there. His absence has me worrying if he's okay, and it has me thinking about the people who are in my life for a blip and then disappear. How are they all?

When the news of my brain tumors hit the Facebook highway of my first Washington State high school students, I heard from many whom I hadn't seen since 1996. It was great to remember each of them and to know that they remembered me. 

One student, Alan, even quoted a ridiculous line from Shakespearean sonnet 30, a sonnet we'd discussed together: 

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.

Today my friend Val, a woman I met in a graduate school class in 1992, joined me for yoga and lunch. I haven't seen Val in years, so when we talked we caught up on a few of the stories in one another's lives. 

The conversation was easy and affectionate, as if we were in one another's daily lives. Dad says this is the mark of a deep friendship, one where the years melt when we see one another again. 

Though I generally try to argue with Dad, in this I think he's right. And I gave thanks for the friends who are here everyday, for the connections that stand the test of time, and for the friendly strangers who cheer my days though we know such small slices of another's lives. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


When my 25th high school reunion was approaching, my high school friend Theresa emailed to ask if I were going to attend. (I have lost touch with Theresa over the years.)

“I’m healing from brain tumors and have disabilities, and I need to travel with my partner who is working that week, so I won’t be able to go,” I emailed.

“Wow!” Theresa responded. “Brain tumors and a partner all in one sentence!”

Theresa was such a good friend in high school. Every Easter since high school, I remember the Easter basket she made for me one Easter when we were celebrating our spring break at the beach with lots of other teenagers. There were colorful eggs and yellow and pink Peeps, a chocolate bunny and a bright bow in a brightly woven basket. On top was a note that I still have: “This is the day that the Lord hath made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! Psalm 118:24”

Theresa’s email made me think about how far we live from each other and how little we know now, and perhaps we knew even then, of one another’s lives.

Recently, I have been back in touch with another high school friend, Becky, who was sweet and a bit gullible as I remember and so I called her “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” after a novel. I’m not sure how Becky and I got in touch again—maybe Facebook. I learned on Facebook that she has written a memoir called French by Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France. (I’m pretty sure her title’s a mix of French and English: Franglish—a little known cousin to Spanglish.)

I love hearing Becky’s voice again as I read her story. I also love learning about her life now (or then): she and her husband Todd had three kids, a girl and two boys. (I only knew about their daughter Sarah, the oldest. The last time I saw Becky was when Sarah was a newborn and we took a walk around their suburban block. The last time we talked was about my coming out as a lesbian.)  

As I read Becky's memoir, I learn from asides here and there of some details of her high school inner life, details I didn’t know at the time. For instance, she loved her piano (I didn’t even know she played!), and she loved her French teacher, who made her a Francophile. (I didn’t even know she took French!)

These musings make me wonder how well my high school friends knew me, too, and then I wonder if my current friends know me—and I know them—as well as I think we do. Maybe we are all mysteries to one another. Which makes sense because I have learned that I am more often than I would think a mystery to myself.

This summer I will travel to NC for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and if I am lucky Becky will come to NC while I am there. If this happens, I wonder if we will recognize the friend that we knew in one another so long ago. Though we didn't know the details of one another's lives, was there some elemental connection that will survive the course of time?

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Yoga Community

I frequent a yoga studio called “The Samarya Center.” I started going to The Samarya Center when I learned from my physical therapist that the teachers there do “yoga therapy” with people who have experienced brain trauma. I finally stopped thinking about going and actually went when my office mate, Kim Jones, pointed out that my name is embedded in the center’s name (Samarya), so the match felt destined.

Now I know that in Sanskrit, “samarya” means “community”. The center’s founder, Molly Lannon Kenny, is dedicated to working with diverse populations, many of whom—like veterans and people with disabilities—do not frequent yoga studios.

Before my brain tumors, I attended classes with Denise Benitez at Yoga Arts for a decade, and the practice that I learned there helped me recover physically and spiritually from surgery, radiation, and resultant disabilities.  (Sometimes “recover” means to learn to live with a new self rather than to get back to the old self.)

I have done yoga on my own almost every day since surgery, including what I called “hospital bed yoga” for the month that I was in the hospital and couldn’t really get out of bed.

For two years at Samarya, I worked one-on-one with a yoga therapist once a week. Then last spring, my yoga teacher Anna suggested that I try the center’s gentle classes and use the variations that she’d taught me for managing with my disabilities when I needed to.

I’m not always big on classes. (Ironically, for someone who worked in high school education for 26 years, I prefer on-line classes to in-person classes for academics). Nonetheless, I have loved returning to yoga in community.

Though I take gentle classes, they’re challenging for me. Just getting to the studio is challenging, as I walk several blocks over sometimes uneven sidewalks to catch the bus. Once in the studio, I go to my mat at the back wall, a mat which my teacher for the day—Dawn or Victoria—has generously placed there so that I can use the wall for support when I need to.

I go through most series with the class, often doing a variation of poses that require balance. For example, when everyone else faces the altar, stretching into Warrior I, I face the back wall so that I can use a hand on the wall to steady me. Dancer’s pose: same thing. Half-moon pose: that too (though I need a lot of extra help with that one.)

I do not think I am bothered by the variations. In fact, because yoga is not a competitive sport, my limitations remind me that the practice is my own.

Today, however, Victoria had much of the class at the wall, doing poses the others usually do in the middle of the room, this time with the wall and a block to support them in the way that I usually do yoga. This time, I did almost the whole class in the way that others did. Or they did yoga in the way that I did.

I was surprised by how much joy that brought me.

Victoria had opened class by emphasizing  the gratitude she felt that each of us were there. Her greeting was not sappy but was heartfelt.

At the end of class, I said to her, “Awesome, Victoria! Thanks.”

With open heart and much gratitude. Thanks.  

Thursday, March 14, 2013

An Attitude of Gratitude

Yesterday I celebrated my 49th birthday. (Yes, I am now officially into my 50th year.) As I enter the second half of my century, I am so grateful to have so much joy in my life.

My partner Ann loves me in a way that I never imagined I’d be loved. My family of birth and my nephews and nieces love me and amuse me. Friends visit and help me travel across the city and across the borders. Neighbors cheer me and inspire me. Classmates and teachers help me learn together with them. Yoga teachers help me learn new ways to be and breathe. Allopathic doctors discovered my tumors and healed me. Naturopathic doctors heal me from food allergies and help me manage fatigue.

The list goes on. Crocuses bloom in the grey season. A gas fire stays in the fireplace where it belongs to warm me and cheer me. Whipped cream exists, and so does ice-cream.

I am so grateful that I can get downright sappy.

This gratitude characterizes each person whom I’ve interviewed about their experiences with life-changing health conditions. We are a grateful group. Maybe we’re so grateful because like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, we have seen the eternal Footman hold our coats, and though—unlike Prufrock—we are not afraid, we are delighted to be living this life.

Saturday, my friend Ellen took me to a couple of presentations at Seattle University’s Bookfest. We started the morning at a talk by Mary Oak, who wrote Heart’s Oratoria: One Woman’s Journey through Love, Death, and Modern Medicine. Mary Oak survived a cardiac arrest and writes about her survival, in spirit as well as breath, in mythical terms. She said, “Shiva [a great Hindu god who is both pure and destructive] dances in the human heart.”

Mary Oak sees grace in her condition and in her survival like I do. She named one chapter “Wounding’s Grace” and wrote, “We move forward in the wonder of each breath.” She is a spiritual peep.

Another writer and survivor, this time of an aneurism, Judith Marcus introduced herself to me at the end of the presentation. Another spiritual peep.

Both Mary and Judith volunteered to be interviewed for my book of interviews with people with life-changing health conditions, and I look forward to connecting with them again.

Ellen and my other Jewish friends sing Dayenu at Passover: It would have been enough. The song expresses gratitude to God for so many gifts. Just one of these gifts, the song says, would have been enough. Just the Torah. Just Shabbat. Just being taken out of slavery. The song’s sense is of gratitude for such abundance.

For me, if it had just been my life. If it had just been loving Ann. If I had just survived my brain tumors. If the crocuses just bloomed in Seattle’s grey: Dayenu. It would have been enough.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Hippo Birdie Two Me

Hippo birdie two ewes. Or I guess it’s really hippo birdie two me. I loved those Boynton cards (was that nineties or the eighties?) with cartoon characters of animals celebrating a birthday or a holiday. Those images were clever, childlike and cheerful. Now I love the grumpy old lady who has lots of old lady problems. She’s amusing, but she’s not Boynton.

I had a little wildlife kingdom, urban style not Boynton style, to start my birthday today. As I was doing my home yoga practice in front of our gas fireplace, a large urban animal—maybe a raccoon or a wild boar—seemed to be trying to break in through the back of the fireplace. I would hear banging and would come down from my downward facing dog to clap my hands. There would be twenty seconds of silence and then the banging would resume.

I finally dealt with the wild boar in the same way that I deal with all discomfort: I left the room and closed the door behind me. In the kitchen, as I put away the dishes, I noticed a still and giant bee on the counter top. It looked dead, but you never know. (Sure enough, when I returned to the kitchen for lunch, it had gone away. And the dreaded question: where did it go?)

After breakfast, I read through my assortment of well-wishes on Facebook: notes from students who are now older than I was when I taught them 25 years ago, the NBA (really the WNBA—it’s all about the W), relatives and long-time friends. I even got a birthday note from my best friend in seventh grade, Kathryn Yorke. She wrote, “Happy birthday, old friend.” I think the “old” was literal.

To celebrate my morning, I went to a yoga class with Victoria. This afternoon, I’ll take a celebratory nap. Then I’ll go to an appointment with my eye surgeon for a regular follow-up. She’ll make me look to the left again and again (even though I can’t do that anymore: me trying to look left is a lot like you trying to stand there and levitate. Go ahead: try it.) She’ll also dilate my eyes. Happy birthday to me!

What do I want for my birthday? A new rubber end for my cane and batteries for my hearing aid that don’t turn off intermittently. And a tasty salmon dinner with chocolate angel pie for dessert. (I’m pretty sure I’m getting that: there’s a pecan meringue crust cooling on the counter downstairs, a pint of heavy whipping cream in the refrigerator, and a bar of dark Baker’s chocolate in the breadbox—some people keep bread in their breadbox, but that’s where we keep our chocolate.)

On this day, as on every day, I remember how lucky I feel to be alive: to watch the crocuses shielding their blooms from the rain, to stretch and breathe into my body, to hear from so many fine people who have been in my life.

Hippo birdie two me.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Today, I was tardy for Silver Sneakers, the YMCA's exercise program for seniors and for me. Those of us in the class struggle with balance, so we exercise in chairs.

I'm younger than the rest, but I've had brain tumors, and they can see that I work with disabilities, so they're welcoming.

I love the coordination exercises, the humor, and the camaraderie. It's a popular program, though, and you have to be early to get in.

A few weeks ago there was a fight between my friend Jack, an older man in his early nineties, and a younger older man, in his seventies. They argued  over a chair. I don't think they came to fisticuffs, but they inspired lots of chatter, like in high schools when a fight breaks out.

Now we have new rules for checking in and getting a chair, and it seems like we need to arrive earlier and earlier. When Annabella, my 93-years-old-in-April neighbor, joins Joanie (another neighbor who volunteers and doesn't need a chair) and me, Joanie picks us up at 9 am, but on days when Annabella's not going, Joanie picks me up at 9:10. Today I wasn't ready until 9:15, and I didn't get a Silver Sneakers chair.

When I don't get a spot in Silver Sneakers, I work out in the little weight room, a room with gentle exercise equipment (like circuit weights instead of free weights) that is used by both men and women but is more frequently women's choice.

As I took my seat on the recumbent bike and started pedaling, others who hadn't gotten into Silver Sneakers came in. They were chatty, and when a woman who looks to be in her early nineties joined us, the older woman Robin introduced herself, and new woman introduced herself as Marie.

Marie wore a red beret that matched her bold red t-shirt with a thickly screened "tribes" inscribed in black across her chest. She was thin and looked strong.

After introducing herself, Marie sang Irving Berlin's song, "Marie." Her voice cracked a little but she sang heartily on:

Marie, the dawn is breaking,
Marie, you'll soon be waking
to find, your heart is breaking,
and tears, will fall, as you recall
the moon, in all its splendor,
the kiss, so very tender,
the words "will you surrender"
to me, my Marie.

She laughed as she finished, and Robin, inspired by Marie's song, stepped away from her weights and into the center of the room to sing a song I didn't recognize about, you guessed it, Robin. I understand it was a Doris Day song from the 1930s.

When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along, along
There'll be no more sobbin' when he starts throbbin' his old sweet song.
Wake up, wake up you sleepy head!
Get up, get out of your bed!
Cheer up, cheer up the sun is red!
Live, love, laugh and be happy.
What if I were blue, now I'm walking through, walking through the fields of flowers.
Rain may glisten but still I listen for hours and hours.
I'm just a kid again doing what I did again, singing a song
When the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbin' along.

Marie joined in, and they were both especially enthusiastic when they sang, "Wake up....Get up....Cheer up...!).  They sang until they got to lyrics that neither of them knew, and they stopped as they had started. At this point, Marie stepped away from her weights, too, and Robin asked if she were finished for the day.

Marie recognized that Robin thought she had just done this one weight machine, and she said, "I didn't come all this way just to do one machine. I've been in the Big Man's Gym doing weights. This is my Hour of Power. I come here for my hour of power every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but I couldn't come yesterday, so I decided to see what it's like on Tuesdays."

Marie went to another machine to stretch. "I've got arthritis, so I've got to keep moving," she announced. When she finished her stretches, we all overheard a"Woooh" from the Silver Sneakers room, and she echoed, "Woooh!"

Then she said, "I love Chad [the leader]. I used to take that class! I'm going to go step into the room and yell, 'Woooh!"

Marie left, and the rest of us focused on our weights, though Robin continued chatting with the woman next to her. They both studied a machine that you stand on, bend your knees low, and raise your body, back straight. They discuss the right way to use this machine, and the second woman says, "I saw a young woman leaning over and lifting like that." She demonstrated by leaning into a forward bend and shooting upward.

A younger older man on another machine overhears them and goes to assist. "You keep your back straight and bend in your knees," he says, "like you're sitting on the toilet."

I have never heard this particular instruction before, and I look to see if they're all laughing, but they're all nodding, seriously.

Silver Sneakers is great even when I don't get in!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Gimme that Hat

My partner Ann is mostly cheerful, but on our recent honeymoon to Puerta Escondida, Oaxaca, Mexico, she was cranky about my hat.

On this first international trip since brain surgery almost six years ago, I took  a sombrero that I bought before my brain tumors, when we traveled internationally once or twice a year.

I love this hat because it’s an adult sombrero, but it fits my child-sized head. (Now with my brain tumors gone, my head must be even smaller than it used to be.)
My sombrero also shades my upper body in the bright Mexican sun, something especially important to me because I had a lifetime of radiation to zap my second tumor, and I really can’t get more sun, even though I love its heat. (I love it when my skin is as warm as a rock warmed in the sun.)

My sombrero isn’t like one of those huge, pointed, red, green and white monstrosities worn by tourists who also wear t-shirts with frogs who love beer.

It’s a classy straw, woven in hatches, with a rounded and only slightly dimpled dome for my head. It’s brim is wide enough to shade me but not so wide that I'm a danger to anyone walking by. A cheerfully feminine half-inch blue and white band fancifies the rim. I love this hat.

My Granddaddy Matthews loved his hats, too.

I remember a photo of my grandfather (in his hat) and my grandmother before they were married and had kids and mortgages and grew obese and habitually cranky with one another.

Granddaddy’s standing a little askew, his hands in his pockets and his skinny body swaying easily towards my Grandmom, also thin. Both look at the camera and both seem to flirt with one another and the camera. Granddaddy’s head tilts affectionately towards Grandmom, and atop Granddaddy’s head is a hat perched jauntily to the side, like Humphrey Bogart’s hats were. Granddaddy’s big ears stick out from under that hat, big ears that he would eventually grown into but had not yet.

Granddaddy almost always wore a hat. My mother tells the story of the time when she was a child, and the family was going on vacation. Granddaddy and Grandmom were in the front seat with their five kids in the back. Granddaddy, who was driving, kept turning around to say, "Where's my hat?" or, "Don't sit on my hat." As they approached a bridge, my exasperated grandmother finally said, "Gimme that hat," and she threw it out the window.

I have to admit that my hat was unnecessary and a little troublesome to keep up with.

When we entered the lovely Casa Loma's front door, we faced an orange wall of twelve straw sombreros. Ann looked at me and down at the sombrero in my hand and rolled her eyes.

Though wearing the sombrero in the sun was a must, wearing it in the taxi on the way to the beach made getting out of the cab even more of a challenge than usual. I would slide to the end of the car seat when the cabbie opened my door, and turn my feet in the exiting direction. Then I would pull my heavy backpack on, arms through the straps, and clasp the bright orange chest strap. Then, sombrero on head, I would squirm upwards, knocking first my sombrero and then my backpack against the car’s hood while my cane flailed forward, and I squirmed up and out.

The sombrero was also a pain when I didn’t need it, like in the art museum or through the airport. Because it inhibited my stride when I carried it in my hand, I often tied it to my belt loop or to my suitcase, but it got in the way there, too, so Ann often ended up carrying it. She grimaced a little each time.

Though the sombrero was sometimes a pain, I was glad to have it with me as my talisman because, though I was never nervous about travel before my tumors, I had been nervous about traveling this time. I wondered if I could do it.

The hat helped me remember that though my body is significantly different than it was before brain surgery, I am still in my core an adventurer. It reminded me of travels in my pre-brain tumor days, so I liked having it around—sort of like Linus and his blanket or Sister Jen (when she was small) and her pacifier.

I suspect the sense of security, the sense of myself as a person who travels, was really more important than the shade the sombrero provided.

Once Ann spotted a guy in the airport wearing his giant red, green and white sombrero, she rediscovered her sense of humor and started to laugh saying, “I guess it could be worse.”

I think Ann’s softening toward my sombrero, but next time I’ll leave it behind, just in case she should channel my grandmother: “Gimme that hat,” and then throw my past out the window. (She wouldn't really do that.)

I would watch this symbol of my bygone era float gracefully to the river and drift for a moment on the surface. I would wave sadly as that part of my life sank slowly, quietly into the darkness.

For the most part, I have surrendered the things of my past, as the poet Max Ehrmann instructs me to do in “Desiderata.”

Sometimes, however, I yearn for my earlier opportunities: I ache to travel the back roads where lands and languages are unknown to me. I want so much to hike narrow mountain paths, leading to flower-strewn vistas. I miss the possibility of the moment of astonishing quiet as I skied cross-country through heavy snows and deep woods, a red fox running along beside me like my spirit guide.
But for the beaches I still visit, for the Mexicans who make an effort to understand my halting Spanish, for Ann and my amigos who help me travel, I am grateful.
Bueno. Gracias.  


Saturday, March 2, 2013

With a Little Help from Our Amigos

Ann and I went to Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Mexico, with six friends last week. This was our first international travel since my neurosurgery six years ago. It was also a honeymoon after our state-sanctioned wedding two weeks ago.

I was excited but nervous about the trip. I have loved traveling in non-touristy towns in technologically developing countries since my first trip to Michoacan, Mexico, 25 years ago, and I have mourned that with my disabilities, such travel was over for this life.
Fortunately, our good friends John and Jerry (who also participated in the mass wedding ceremony and thus were also on a honeymoon) invited us to go along with longtime friends Susan and Rod and new friends Megan (who is fluent in Spanish) and Kevin (who is fluent in English).
We stayed in our friends’ Chuck and Mary’s “Casa Loma,” a five bedroom/five bathroom home, a great place with several covered outdoor areas with lots of hammocks and a lovely warm breeze.
Mornings I often slept late, did yoga, and ate at my breakfast at Casa Loma while Ann took an early morning walk with Susan and Megan and some number of them met up for a tasty Mexican breakfast.
Days were hot, in the low 80s, and most days Ann and I took a taxi to a beach and sat in a lounge chair under a large umbrella, drinking beer or pina-coladas, eating guacamole with chips, and reading our books until time for dinner.
The eight of us went to a local restaurant each night for dinner, at one restaurant sitting on the beach as the sun sank over the ocean, at another listening to a local singer who was quite good and at another eating tasty Mexican food like Chile Relleno (that’s what I had). At every restaurant, we had margaritas. Tasty.
It was difficult for me to manage the often steep and uneven surfaces, as I had feared, but Ann and our friends were so supportive that I was always able to manage potential obstacles, and the only time that I was locked in the house was the time that our front gate was locked from the outside while all of us were on the inside. So I was locked in with the others.
I even got to practice my Spanish again, talking with taxi-drivers and restaurant owners. The woman who met us at the home even told me that my Spanish was "sufficente." Quite the compliment, don't you think?
Ann and I learned on this trip that we can travel internationally again, and we don’t have to go to resorts or other touristy places, so long as we go with our amigos.