A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Thursday, June 28, 2018

I Sleep to Wake

Our puppy Dosey got me up at 6:30 yesterday morning and took me for a walk at 7 (a.m.!) I’ve never been a morning person, and this was the first time since brain surgery I’d seen the early side of the morning. It was lovely.

The sun had that soft morning glow, slanting over the horizon. The world smelled like dew. More bicyclists than cars went down the road. We walked for an hour but only passed three homes. This neighborhood wakes to sleep and takes its waking slow, like the poet Theodore Roethke and I do . 

I haven’t seen such a morning—or any morning—in such a long time. In the years before my first brain tumor, I set my alarm for 4 a.m. so I could be at the gym by 5:30, swim or lift weights, do a rushed yoga (not really the idea of yoga), and take a shower before heading to the high school where the first class I taught began at 7:25. I had to be there by 7 a.m. I drove fast. I never noticed the morning glow.

I sometimes experienced the morning after an all-nighter in college. I would write all night in Chambers, Davidson's central building, at a large table across from some guy with a day’s stubble drinking a giant Mountain Dew (I never needed any stimulant beyond my home-brewed anxiety). I generally finished my writing by dawn and walked across the small and lovely  campus as the morning’s pinks turned golden and birds sang from the trees, invisible to me but sweet in their serenades.

Except for these quiet mornings, from birth to brain tumors I was always busy, always moving fast. I remember saying there would be plenty of time for sleep after I died. In high school, one of they first poems I wrote in Ms. Smisson’s Creative Writing class was, “Too much to do and too little time: the complaint of a day, a year, a life.” 

As a teacher, I was always running around campus with papers to grade and class materials to Xerox. Sometimes, especially in the months before my first tumor was diagnosed, I would fall, snatching the papers, falling like leaves in the rain, and running on. 

In this post-brain tumor life, I have slowed down. Though my losses from these tumors have been hard, this slowing down has been one of the gifts. On yesterday's walk, Dosey and I would move forward a few steps as she sniffed the ground. Sometimes, a neighbor stopped to adore her (never me, mind you), and they’d continue quickly down the sidewalk. 

Dosey would sit in the sun, watching them go, checking out a big dog across the street or a bicyclist moving by, or wiggling her nose in the passing breeze. She would sit and I would stand with her for ten minutes at a stop before moving a few yards on. 

Never before my brain tumors would I have moved so slowly, not only because I was too busy but also because such slowing down is a different way of living altogether. Before these tumors, in some ways I would always wake to sleep. I still wake to sleep (After yesterday's walk, Ann took Dosey to the dog park, and I took a nap), but I also sleep to wake.

 It’s lovely waking to sleep and taking my waking slow. It’s also lovely to sleep to wake, still taking my waking slow. Slow:that's the key.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Sunny Skies and the Shadow

Wednesday night, my partner Ann and I went to James Taylor’s sold-out concert at Seattle’s Key Arena. The first concert I ever went to was a James Taylor concert in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 35 years ago. A lot has changed since then, and some is the same. 
Wed. night, JT opened with his hit, “Carolina in my Mind,” the same song he sang to close that first concert. I remember the University of North Carolina crowd going bonkers for that song. I was a teenager, and many in the audience were college students at “Carolina.” 
Least week, the concert’s crowd was older than that first one, so it went bonkers in its more subdued fashion: bald heads and grey hairs clapping and whistling ‘til we needed to refill our oxygen tanks (just an expression—I’m not using an oxygen tank).
Time’s passage seemed to be on JT’s mind, too. When he sang the song, “Down on Copper Line,” a nostalgic song about the changes to a childhood area, the image of a rusted railroad bridge was projected on the screen behind him. As the song progressed, images of ivy gradually crept over the bridge.
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt was supposed to have opened the show, but she cancelled due to surgery for an “undisclosed illness.” A few songs into his second set, JT held up his phone and conducted us in a communal shout: “We love you, Bonnie!”
This aging crowd, many of us within a generation of JT (he’s 15 years and one day older than I am), understand illness and surgery and cancelling commitments we don’t want to cancel.
         I remember a Saturday Night Live skit where they took really happy songs
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunny_Skies_(song), like James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and sang them in JT’s style. Everything sounded sad.
         The producer (or whoever makes such decisions) didn’t try to make some of the sad songs, like “Fire and Rain” happy. However, while he sang "Sunny Skies,"  another song he wrote when he was being treated for drug addiction and severe depression, the producer made the song seem happy by showing images of JT with his puppy. The video implied “Sunny Skies” was a very cute pug. This happiness is so off the song's story that it's weird.
         Though the music is upbeat, the lyrics are not. I believe the music is intended to be ironic, perhaps the voice of a musician who isn’t acknowledging the darkness in his life. The happy tune just makes the song sadder. 
         Last night as Ann and I left the stadium talking about the concert, I said, “My biggest surprise is that Sunny Skies is a dog.” 
Ann reminded me that just because they’d used images of a dog doesn’t mean Sunny Skies was a dog. “Remember James Taylor saying ‘That’s entertainment for you, Seattle.”
I thought about it more, and though I could make a lot of lines match the dog presentation, I couldn’t make sense of the line, “Sunny Skies hasn’t a friend.” After all, dogs make human and dog friends. That’s dogness. And in the video, JT clearly loved this pug. I therefore did what any curious researcher would do: I googled it,
Wikipedia confirmed my understanding of the poem’s darkness.  So now the question is, why did the producer decide to make such a sad song seem so happy? I don’t think the producer misunderstood the song. Maybe he was trying to “take a sad song and make it better.” Maybe that producer is too much a part of this culture, too afraid to face the darkness.
I’ve been reading Francis Weller and Michael Lerner’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow and yesterday focused on “the second gate of grief.” This section includes the assertion, “It is important to look into the shadows of our lives and to see who lives there, tattered, withered, hungry, and alone.” This assertion runs counter to the puppy video.
In The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss sadness and concur about its importance in our lives. The Archbishop Says, “I cry easily…. I suppose I love easily, too…. Shout out your sadness and your pain. This can bring you back to normal. It’s locking them up and pretending that they are not there that causes them to fester and become a wound." 
I have been thinking about sadness and my losses from brain tumors lately. I’m writing a memoir, and in the past month, my writing group has read the first two chapters. In those opening chapters, I receive my diagnosis and am surprised I don’t sink into depression. Instead, I feel especially grateful for the many gifts in my life. 
Group members who have responded are clear that, as one has said several times, “The lady doth protest too much.” One of their group members died from a brain tumor not long ago, before I joined them. Most of them are older than I am. Each of them must have experienced the shadow. Essentially, they tell me not to deny the shadow, but to look at it and write about it.
Perhaps they are right and I need to look at this darkness. Or perhaps in hearing the possibility of my own death, I also hear more distinctly my life’s gifts. 
I don’t know. The famous cartoon fish Nemo just had to “Keep swimmin’." Perhaps I just need to keep writin’ in order to discover what I think and feel, what I thought and felt.