Splinter

I got a splinter in my foot in December. I couldn’t get it out. The interwebs assured me that Ichthammol ointment would draw it out.

I suspect that people who declare on the internet that Ichthammol pulled out their splinter by the next morning just parroted what they heard on the internet and never used Ichthammol at all. Ichthammol does not draw out splinters like some kind of magical, sticky tar ointment. I can attest to that. It does, however, soften the skin, and stain it black.

I lived with the splinter for a month. Sometimes I forgot about it. Sometimes I’d limp so severely that people wondered if I pulled a muscle. Still, that splinter was not coming out.

Then, one day I walked across the floor and tripped on something. I tripped on the splinter! coming! out! of! my! foot! I hobbled quickly to a chair and ripped off my sock before it went back in. There, hanging out of the sole of my foot, was a decent-sized shard of wood, 1/4 or 1/2″. With one tug, it fell out, and that was that. 

I knew all along that the body would push it out, but it took so long that I started to doubt my body’s processes. Don’t doubt the body’s processes, I’ve learned. I learned that in childbirth. I learned it in grief. I needed to relearn it with this danged splinter. The body will out the baby, the pain, or the intruder, and it will restore itself. The body knows how to heal.

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Not your sainted mother

I watched Downton Abbey by myself, while working at home. I did this because it was a petty thing to do.

Daughter was in a bad mood when I dropped her off and gave me a surly goodbye. Sure, that happens. But it happened after a weekend when I didn’t stop doing things for the kids and for this household. I am parenting these kids with the intensity that I did in their infancy. They needed it when they were helpless newborns, and they need it now, living as they are in crisis. The sacrifices are my choice, and I’d give more if I could. I don’t expect awards or even gratitude. This is my duty. I’m not a narcissist, but I am a little tired.

I don’t schedule in any time for myself. In the fall, I had a standing coffee date and walk date and the occasional breakfast or lunch. These meetings with friends restored me, and they provided a sense of normalcy. Now there’s just no space for that. I’m working or I’m taking care of them. That’s it. Even yoga is a necessity. It is keeping me healthy and keeping the kids from becoming orphans if my blood pressure spikes, or wards of the state if I descend into a madhouse.

I spend so much time with them that I almost cease to be parental and become more like a roommate. “I’m making tea. Want a cup?” a kid will announce. “I’m running out to the store. Can I get you anything?” I offer, as I put on my coat. “Downton Abbey is available on pbs.org! Bring your tea upstairs!” calls my daughter, ready for a pajama party. We are like roommates who spend all our time together, and with that comes familiarity, and we all know what that breeds. 

So when she was surly after I spent hours this weekend shoveling the driveway, shuttling her around, hanging out at the barn, cooking for the week, cleaning, missing a party so her brother could host a friend at our house on Saturday night, after doing all that out of duty and love, when she slammed the door with a surly growl, I didn’t respond like a patient parent. She slammed the door, I put the car into drive, and I thought to myself, “Well, I’ll just watch Downton Abbey while you’re at school.” And I did.

There’s no need for her to know. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, I just needed to feel like I could claim something for myself. It was so petty, but it made me feel better, and it made me act like a better parent by the time I picked her up. We greeted one another, but she did so cautiously. She settled in her seat and asked casually:

“Was I mean to you this morning?”

“You may have been,” I replied.

She didn’t respond.

“Wanna go buy some cat food?” I offered.

“Yeah!”

And tonight we’ll watch Downton Abbey together.

Into the Wild

This week I found myself in the cd store, looking for this album. I didn’t bother asking the clerks if they had it. They never have anything I ask for. I feel like I’m not cool enough or young enough for the cd store….even though a woman my age is the vestigial buyer of cd’s, and my survivor status should galvanize me to be a kick-ass woman, and an unintimidated customer, no less. No bother, they didn’t have it, so I bought a used Dar Williams cd. I downloaded Spotify and have since been listening to the Into the Wild soundtrack, over and over.

Last spring, I taught an evening course that had a very small enrollment. Because of the small size and the late hour and the personal subject matter and the fact that we often moved our class meeting to a large table on the back porch of the building, the class got pretty intimate. I learned more about my students’ personal lives than I usually do. One bright student suffered from mental health issues. One had a friend who committed suicide that term. His eyes welled up with tears when he told me why he missed class. I shepherded these young people as best I could.

Toward the end of the term, we watched the film, Into the Wild, together. It’s the story of an idealistic young adult who starves to death while trying to camp out alone and unprepared, in the Alaskan wilderness. The masculine-identified adolescents found the main character to be a hero. The rest politely shared their discomfort with his rejection of society and community. Me, I found it to be a cautionary tale. I was so moved by a not very macho male student who was ticked at the protagonist because he broke Hal Holbrooks’ heart. Holbrook’s character bonded with the young man, who similarly connected but nevertheless moved on. He was young, idealistic, following an inner demon. In rejecting society and middle class conventions, he broke people’s hearts.

I loved this class, I adored these students. After that class meeting (or maybe the class after; the mind plays tricks) Pseudonymous Friend–who also taught an evening class–and I got together at the pub after teaching, a welcome new ritual we’d just made up. She gave me a ride home. I told her I couldn’t meet the next week because it was my son’s birthday, as well as his 8th grade graduation. We shared a heartfelt goodbye. I remember that because it’s about the last normal thing I remember about my old life. I got out of her car, looking forward to getting home, seeing the family after a long day, wrapping up the term, collapsing into the new bed that had been delivered that day. My husband had texted me a picture of the freshly-delivered bed that afternoon and we shared a funny exchange about our relief at having something really nice.

Two days later, my husband hung himself in the basement.

I can’t stop thinking about that week as I listen to this soundtrack, over and over. I’ve gleaned two things.

First, I crave new music. I’m in the car a lot, doing errands, shuttling kids. Listening to music helps, but I can’t listen to the music that husband and I shared. The new normal may well start with a new soundtrack of our lives.

Second, I don’t think I’ll ever teach that class again. I don’t think I could bear it.

Anything Could Happen

There was blockage in the toilet, but I took a second look, because I thought it might be a rat. Yes, I sat there peering at someone else’s giant poop in the toilet, doubting that’s what it was, figuring it for a rat, just not knowing if it was a drowned rat or not. That’s disgusting. That’s crazy.

Last week, I stood in the AT&T store, turning my phone over in my hand, doubting that it was actually a phone.

Ha, ha, aren’t I nutty.

The week before, I walked into a room and wouldn’t have been surprised if I found someone dead there.

I have basis for finding someone unexpectedly dying in a room, for finding a rat perched on the dogs’ water bowl. Why wouldn’t I think a phone is not a phone? Why not a rat in a toilet? Why not carry a pile of laundry into a room and find your world shattered? Anything could happen, really. This world is unpredictable and, I am learning, unsafe. 

I’m pretty sure this is still the trauma.

I do what I can to gird myself against the unpredictability. I hold up the grocery line, carefully placing my bills into place in my wallet. I clip my keys to my purse as soon as I stop the car. I fold my yoga blankets like some sort of meditation, lining them up neatly. My office desk is clear, with my course files stacked regimentally–uniform and ready for the job. I am trying to make order in this world, which can be horrible, so suddenly, and in the most mundane places. 

An Afternoon at the Opera

Daughter and I attended the live streaming event of Maria Stuarda today. She wanted to see what an opera was like, and we were only going to stay for a little while, but we were riveted. We stayed for the entire 3 1/2 hours. There was an audacious insult throwdown between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth that had us delightfully appalled. Daughter loved that Elizabeth sang in a sweet, beautiful voice, “If you betray me, I will kill you!” When the mezzo-soprano Mary Stuart sang, daughter was moved to tears, just like the NPR reviewer.

This event streams operas live to movie theaters across the country, which is great for us folks in fly-over states. Before the show, we saw the extras mingling on stage. At intermission, they interviewed the singers, still breathless from the stage. They showed the crews backstage hammering the sets together. And they lingered on the audience and seats in the Metropolitan Opera theater for the remaining minutes of the intermission.

A flood of memories came back. I told daughter about the time I dated Daddy in college and I hoped he would invite me to the New Year’s Eve rehearsal of Der Feldermaus, and he did! And we saw it there, in that very theater. I told her about the time after college that a co-worker passed along her tickets to a concert at Lincoln Center, and we sat in those balcony seats on the right.* It was a special event for Kurt Masur and the entire orchestra company assembled to play Ravel’s Bolero. It was so overwhelming that the guy next to us leapt to his feet and nearly hurled himself over the banister, shouting, “Bravo!” And he was right, it was that good! I told her we saw Madame Butterfly in grad school (in a different theater in a different city), but we left at intermission because we’d just adopted a stray dog, and we were so worried that he’d be worried being left all alone. That dog became known as Otis, beloved Otis who died, loyal to the end, a few years ago.

I’ve lost a lot of memory in the trauma of these past eight months, and the last years of my husband’s life were not always admirable, due to his illness. How gratifying it was to sit with my daughter and tell her about the man I fell in love with, to let her know that we had good times, and to be able to recollect it again. I had a good life with him.

*It later occurred to me that there is a Met Opera theater and a Lincoln Center theater, and I conflated the two in my story. No matter. The balcony seats are similar, and what’s a family oral history (with Irish-American roots, no less) without a wee bit of embellishment?

Feelings

In the yoga meditation class, the teacher occasionally instructs us to dwell on our “heart’s deepest longing.” The first few times I had to hold back sobs. I long for Steve, of course, my beautiful, gentle Steve.

Last week, though, upon her instruction, I didn’t allow myself to go there. It occurred to me that the heart’s deepest longing isn’t for anything (or anyone) that we can have. It would seem ridiculous, for example, to wish for wealth as the heart’s deepest longing. We shouldn’t be longing for material possessions, whether that’s cash or vacations, or people, for that matter. It is more likely that we long for a posture, or maybe a feeling. At this point, it’s probably peace with my situation in life, or maybe it’s ease. In various visualization prompts, I repeatedly imagine me comfortable in my body, remembering the feel of my muscles when I was in better shape. I imagine myself at ease in my body, at ease with the people I pass on the street. I think I long for ease, in this body, on this street, in this small community, in this strange life I’ve ended up with.

And this got me thinking about my M.B.A. friend. My best friend from childhood is, coincidentally, wealthy. She’s done well for herself and worked hard for it. I’m genuinely happy for her for going after what she really wanted. During a visit when both our kids were little, she told me about an account she managed, in which she marketed an orange “drink” to poor neighborhoods. MIddle-class moms, she explained, serve their kids orange juice, but poor moms can’t afford it, so they give their kids this sugar-filled, artificially-constructed, Vitamin C-enriched drink, and it makes them feel like good moms. “It’s all about how you feel,” she concluded, including both the middle- and lower-class mothers as following their feelings.

I nodded politely (albeit silently horrified by the social justice issues), but the middle-class mother in me wanted to retort that when I serve my kids local, organic foods and bovine growth hormone-free milk, it’s got nothing to do with how I feel. The actual food I serve my kids matters to their bodies and to the earth. Materiality matters; I’m not guided by my feelings, I wanted to say.

But now that I look back on it, maybe I was guided by my feelings. Maybe being a crunchy mother did give me an identity and made me feel like I’m resisting the inevitable progress of capitalism and contributing to reform.

Both the meditation class and the MBA invited me to distinguish materiality from feelings, and both suggest feelings as our driver. The MBA, of course, redirects our feelings back to material goods, but what about the meditation? It’s not teaching me to reject the material. Certainly good relations and people that we love are appropriate things in our life. It’s not telling me to reject these things, but it is teaching me not to attach my deepest longing to them.

That’s about as far as I’ve gotten with this. I hope to get to a place where I can be at peace with any situation, to appreciate the joy but not count on it, and not let my well-being rest on it. This is detachment, right? It seems coarse and empty to my rational mind, but I’m starting to get that what’s important is not what I have, not what I work for, but how I sit with it.

How to Use a Power Screw Driver

All those years of watching husband and brothers didn’t actually teach me how to operate one of these things. And I was scared to use one. What kind of child of the Free To Be You and Me Generation am I?

It took three trips to big box hardware store and this video and many practice screws on a 2 x 4 that I like to call the Board of Failure. Then I did it. For my first job, I fixed the porch step.

The problem is not a problem but, yes, there’s a problem

My phone worked this morning, and then it didn’t. This meant that I couldn’t listen to music on the walk from the car to the office. I charged it at my desk, and when I got back from teaching, it still wouldn’t turn on. This now meant that I wasn’t receiving calls if the kids needed me, if any coming-home-from-school plans changed. Although I had hours left to do research, I packed up my bag and walked out the door without a moment’s hesitation. I needed to get that phone working. Once outside, I realized I didn’t have a coat on, but I had the nice alpaca scarf (Xmas 2011 gift from husband) in my bag. I flung it around my neck and made my way to the car. I drove to the AT&T store. Only I didn’t. I pulled into a parking lot to find myself in front of the Radio Shack. No, right, AT&T was down the road. I was so distracted. I turned around, made it to the correct store, and stood in line just to get myself on the queue. While waiting, I peeked at the phone, and I gave it a second look. Is this the phone? Did I put an old phone in my purse by mistake? I turned it around in my hand, making sure it was a phone, the right phone, doubting reality, pretty sure I’m going crazy. Or maybe it’s the world that’s crazy. Things just don’t seem to be working like they’re supposed to.

I overheard customers explain they needed their ipad fixed so they could take it on vacation. And that’s when I started to crumble. If my phone’s off, my kids can’t reach me. Can I jump this queue? I felt the need to sit down. I wanted to cry. I tried to meditate standing up. I felt like I was atop a house of cards, and I’m so dependent on this stupid phone to keep in touch with the kids that if you take it away from me…

The guy-who-queues-us-up got to me before I made a scene.  I was very quiet in sharing my problem and pressed the phone into his hand. He pressed the start and home button, and the magic Apple lit up. It just needed to be reset. He explained, “Maybe your kids or husband were playing with the phone….” and I checked out. I guess, what with the smartphone and alpaca scarf and cashmere sweater, I look like the standard soccer mom. But I’m not. I’m Grey Gardens, shabby-academic edition, what with the second-guessing whether the phone in my bag is a phone and all.

I didn’t know where to go from there, now that my phone worked and no child had an emergency. I wasn’t up for the afternoon of scheduled research. I went to the Chinese restaurant, having forgotten to eat lunch, what with the teaching and driving around to fix the not-broken phone and all. I brought a research book to read, and I found it so fascinating. A year ago, I could have done so much with this book. Today, I felt like a child pressing her nose into the windows of Lord & Taylor, knowing there are pretty things inside, but not being able to buy them.

I ordered something different for a change–a vegetable sushi roll–but it didn’t seem substantial enough, so I offered a tofu dish, too. With tip, it came to $18. What a waste of money. I was just aimless, not knowing where I belonged. I drove to the edge of town to the store that sells nutritional yeast, which son likes to put on his bean and cheese quesadillas. I went to big box hardware store to get some help with operating my new cordless screwdriver to fix the broken board on our front stairs. I was willing to go anywhere, just so long as I didn’t drive home and collapse on my bed to cry or sleep. I’m tired of doing that, but I don’t know what to do if I don’t do that.

Not so chatty or catty

Back to work means back to meetings, too. My colleague (and friend) led one of them. The meeting was about someone else, but over the course of the hour my colleague shared so much about herself. She revealed her personality traits, a project she’s involved with, her own approach to the matter. I think I counted 5 unsolicited facts I learned about my colleague. Who was this meeting about, anyway? It was so funny. I was tempted to start a running tally.

This is the sort of thing I would have tucked away then let go good-naturedly with my husband when I got home. “Egads! Self-absorbed much?” we’d say as I recounted the meeting as we got ready for dinner. We’d laugh, commiserate, and move on.

Now there’s no one to share it with. It would just be plain old gossip to share it with other colleagues, and pretty mean-spirited, as well. When I shared with my husband, it was never mean, it was just me letting go of thoughts I’d stored up, telling stories about the characters I’d meet over the course of my day, revisiting minor aggravations that revealed themselves to be petty once I said them out loud. He was a neutral third party. I don’t have that now.  That’s probably for the best, really. It’s not nice to talk about other people.

Now, I see someone’s self-absorbed oversharing. It doesn’t affect me, so I don’t let it get under my skin, hence it doesn’t leave the room with me (except for making it into this blog post, natch). I note it. I let it go. This is probably a better way to live.

That’ll Do

I’m back to work. My Google calendar is filled from pre-dawn to post-dusk. It’s color-coded, with colors for me, son, daughter, and meal planning, respectively. I start prepping dinner at 6am. By the time I get the kids to school and arrive at the office, I’ve done hours of parenting and housework (and cooking). After my allotted hours of work, I shuttle kids around town, fit in a yoga practice now and then, throw together the dinner that was prepped before the sun rose, and drive around for any evening activities. Vacuuming, mopping, walking the dogs, endlessly loading and unloading the dishwasher, lugging garbage and recycling bins up and down the long driveway get done in the spaces between Google calendar tasks.

We’re doing it.

The Google calendar helps so much. I do the task that pops up on my calendar alert. I don’t think about the other tasks. If they need to get done, they’re somewhere else on the calendar, so it does no good to fret about them.  For example, why anguish over the article revisions I owe my co-author if I’m driving someone to her fiddle lesson? What good would it do to think about a scholarly literature review when I need to navigate this four-way stop sign? I look at the task ahead of me. I do it. I don’t agonize over the things I’m not doing. How could I? I’m not even thinking. I’m just doing, doing what I’m told. I’m surprisingly calm.

When I’m optimistic, I acknowledge that I’m living in the moment. But when I’m less Pollyannish, I concede that this system works because I’ve surrendered. I’ve stopped thinking of time as something that belongs to me. I’ve given over my time to my job, to my children, to the dogs, to this house, and to the periodic, debilitating bouts of grieving. They all deserve my time. They all demand it.  I just move through the day, fulfilling my obligations, keeping people and canines satisfied, poised to comfort the occasional crumbling child (they grieve, too), savoring the glimpse of goodness or kindness or happiness I see along the way. (And there is goodness and kindness and happiness. I do see that.) I have a scholarly job, but I lack the creative spark, the time, and the space to be a scholar. I don’t feel joy. I don’t aspire to much beyond this, right now. I trudge through, and trudging is good enough, for now.