April 2018

Friday, January 2, 2015

Happy New Year!

Ann and I started New Year's Eve in Edmonds where I experienced the second day of a neuropsychological exam. For the exam, I did things like repeat back a series of numbers: first directly, then backwards, then in numerical order. This was the second day of random, meaningless tasks meant to exhaust me mentally. It did. I was also physically exhausted. When I got home on both Monday and Wednesday, I went straight to bed. Because I was exhausted, I had trouble with my balance and walked into walls a couple of times. (You'll be glad to know that I don't usually do this.)

I took these tests because my insurance company, Cigna, is denying me continuing long term disability benefits. Cigna does not really believe that I can work for 80% of my previous pay. Cigna doesn't know, but it's worth their time and money (none) to deny me benefits and require me to hire a lawyer and take a lot of meaningless tests. They must be thinking that perhaps I don't have the physical, mental or financial capacity to challenge them, and so they won't have to pay me benefits until 2031. And then the company can sell more cheap insurance to public school systems so that more teachers who have to leave work for health reasons will be hassled and won't receive the benefits that they are due.

And so I'm hiring lawyers who will take 29% of all benefits I receive in the future, and I'm spending my days and $10,000 taking tests that will show what's obvious: I can't work that much. The system's a racket. It really pisses me off. Not just because my resources are being spent but also because others with fewer resources won't have the money or support to challenge this company. And so the people who need it most won't get it. This is wrong.

(I don't like to be angry, and usually I don't even notice my anger until I explode, but this insurance company makes me feel like the mild-mannered Dr. David Bruce Banner in the 1970s T.V. show The Incredible Hulk before he got angry and turned green and beefy, ripping his t-shirt with his big muscles: "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.")

The rest of New Year's Eve was more fun. After my nap, Ann and I had dinner with our dear friends Pea and Ally. They made tamales using chilis from Pea's home town in New Mexico. After dinner I took another nap and then we caught up on one another's lives, toasted one another with champagne, and went to bed: they graciously allowed Ann and me the bed on the floor with a bathroom.

So we woke up to begin the new year just right: four friends with bedheads waking late (my favorite way to wake) and having breakfast sandwiches together before Ann and I headed home.

At the beginning of this new year, I'm thinking about the Roman god Janus, for whom I (and many) thought January was named (but Wikipedia says it ain't so). Janus was the god of beginnings, endings and transitions, of gates and doorways and passageways. He is two-faced, with one face looking back and a second looking forward. So he has always seemed to me the right god for the new year.

This fall, however, I took a class in meditation, in present moment awareness. And it occurs to me that Janus looks backward and forward but does not just rest in the moment. It's the Buddha, facing forward, who does that. (I especially like the laughing Buddha, who seems wisest to me in his lightness.)

As I think of it, all of the Roman and Greek gods, the gods of our cultural ancestors, were always busy. Zeus was turning some  young woman into a swan so that he could have his way with her; his wife Juno was punishing the young women that Zeus chased; Poseidon was making waves; Cupid was shooting innocent folks with his troublesome love arrows. Even Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was the goddess of wisdom in war. She was always strategizing about how to kill off some folks. No god that I can think of just sat and laughed and loved the moment.

The heroes didn't either: Odysseus wandered around the world for ten years slaying monsters and being seduced by a tricky lady goddess (I never felt too sorry for him for that part.) In Tennyson's poem about Ulysses (Odysseus's other name), Odysseus doesn't even just settle down when he finally gets home and wins back his wife. He needs to move on to other adventures. He still needs "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Our popular art reveals this restlessness, too. Last night, Ann and I saw the movie, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed's lyrical and reflective memoir of the same title. The movie got the action right: the grief and drugs and promiscuity; the months hiking through the California desert on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the blisters, the creepy boy and the rattling snake. 

What the movie missed, however, was the book's lyricism and reflection. You may say this is impossible in a Hollywood movie, but I'd say it's not. Think of A River Runs Through It (also what I call our basement) or On Golden Pond. It's possible to be lyrical and reflective in film: it's just not prevalent. 

This predilection for action is part of our national psychosis. It's time to sit and be, time to breathe, time to listen, time to stretch, time to read poetry. 

Because I'm a twenty-first century American, I have an action plan for this cultural shift. Ann and I are slowing down. Each afternoon, I take a nap. Each night just before turning out the light, Ann reads a  poem aloud. At the bottom of our stairs is my winged words box, a painted (thanks, Karen K) mailbox stuffed with poems and quotations to share with the neighbors. Sometimes they share, too.

Last night, Ann read the poem "Lost" from David Wagoner's Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems:

Stand still.  The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost.   Wherever you are in called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes.  Listen.  It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost.  Stand still.  The forest knows
Where you are.  You must let it find you.

My brain tumors have taught me to slow down, to stand still and listen, but perhaps you won't need such stern teachers. I am writing a memoir about this learning. When I had written the first half, Recalculating, I thought I had finished. This half was about the ways I have taken a new path since my brain tumors, the way I was headed down a freeway but am now taking a road less traveled by. 

I thought I was finished with this memoir, but when I read Cheryl Strayed's Wild, I realized that there is a second half: Revisioning. This is the half where I learn to sit in the path, look around, notice the angle of the light, and smell the morning dew. This is the half where I learn to be still. (I have not written this half yet because I am just beginning to learn.)

Join the movement: join the stillness.

Let this be your resolution: I will take a nap every day. I will stretch. I will pay attention to the other bus riders. Each night, I will read a poem. 


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  2. Loved this, Mary. Taking things slow must be in the air. I have been reading essays by Barbara Holland. I'm reading her collection titled, "Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences." Blending this blog with her essays...I've got some slowing down to do!


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