Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 3

I have always been a crier. At 21 after some particularly wracking sobs caused by no more than a cotton commercial where a mother gets ready for a night out while her eight-year-old daughter lies on her stomach on the bed, her chin resting on her hands, her knees bent, kicking her pink-socked feet through the air, watching her caretaker, her favorite person, the woman she will emulate for better or worse, put the back on an earring, the mother tilts her head so slightly, their eyes connect in the mirror, both smiling with a fierce tenderness—after weeping about this commercial I became convinced I had tear ducts at least twice the size of the average person.
I climbed down from my bed and walked over to the mirror, eyes bloodshot, skin blotchy, and began prodding the inner tip of my almond eye, watching the raw, wet sphere of flesh I believed to be my tear duct slide its way closer to the pupil and back with each encouragement from my finger.  "Is it swollen?" I wondered aloud. "Why is it so big?" I asked this question having never paid attention to the corner of anyone else’s eyes. After checking back the next morning, having given my possibly swollen cry canals the chance to reduce and finding them the exact same size, I came to the clearly logical conclusion that I had enlarged tear ducts, a just discovered medical condition which would explain my weeping at not only cotton commercials, but at particularly beautiful skylines or warm, clean-smelling sheets or any scene in any movie where a child experiences even a hint of loneliness.
I met a friend for dinner that night and explained to her my discovery. She raised her eyebrows. "Really?" I leaned my chest into the table to get my planetoid ducts as close to her gaze as possible. "See?!" She leaned close. "I think they look pretty normal." I frowned, "Really?" I looked at her eyes now so close to my own. "Oh." "Also, are you sure those are your tear ducts?" I didn't know. And since this conversation was had in the time before smart phones, we moved on to something else.
I don’t always mind weeping. Sometimes the feeling of collapsing into your bed wailing, shaking with sobs until you exhaust yourself, can feel like some sort of re-birth, a wash of pain that spawns new beginnings or at least more restful sleep. But sometimes I want to be capable of holding it together at church, or in staff meetings, or while shopping. Sometimes, I’d like my makeup to stay perfect, would like to be the person who doesn’t trip over sidewalks, or spill nail polish remover on her laptop, or fall up escalators (cause who even knew that was possible). There are nights when I lay in bed, my heart pounding, pushing back the tears, “I do not need to cry to sleep. I can will it. I will not cry. I will be a different woman.”  
I have always had a bit of a fondness for diagnoses: an explanation which allows your mind to wrap around deep hurts which were, until they were named, inconceivable; these heavy yearning mysteries taking up residence inside your body, the bell curved shape of a question mark pushing its way through your veins with excruciating slowness. Give me the name, the concrete answer, the black and white solution, no matter its severity, and I can function.
There is a theme running through this memoir, a theory circling its way around the periphery of my consciousness and, of course, my writing that if I just want it hard enough I can be less human. And I am sick of trying. I’m so tired.
Whenever my mom, my own caretaker, my favorite person, the woman I continue to emulate for better or worse, is about to cry, I never wish she was anyone else. She squints her eyes shut, brings her hand to her forehead, and purses her lips, letting out a small hum of resistance, before she begins to speak in cracked earnest about this or the other overwhelming emotion. And in that moment, she’s everything I’ve ever wanted to be.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 2

I think I have forgotten how to fall asleep. I get into bed. I turn off the light. I listen to the darkness. An hour earlier I was exhausted, could hardly keep my eyes open, can hardly even as I write this. But as soon as I wash my face, put on my pajamas, and crawl expectantly into bed, my body no longer remembers rest.

This is not a new development. I have been afraid of the dark since I was a little girl, afraid of the scaly things living under my bed, of the danger that exists where you can’t see, of empty space. When I was 4 my parents would kiss me goodnight, tuck the blankets around my child’s body, turn on the nightlight, and cover me with a refrigerator box. I did not sleep without the box until Mom and Dad bought me a canopy bed when I was 6; I did not sleep in total darkness for an entire night until I was 18. But it is not the darkness that keeps me awake now.

I experienced my first bout of lower back pain when I was 13 years old, waking up one morning with a pinched nerve in my groin area and sacrum so pronounced it was difficult to walk, to sit down, to stand up (using the toilet was excruciating). After a few weeks and many trips to the Chiropractor, it would right itself. But over the next 18 years the pain lying dormant in my spine would erupt over and over again, flowering not always in my lower back, but in my shoulders, my neck, my knees, the tops of my feet. Doctors would prescribe pain meds (which were ineffective), but the Chiropractor, a couple yoga classes, and a few extra walks were enough to keep the pain at bay, momentarily at least.

Then, in April of 2010 I found myself waiting for the subway in Jamaica Plain on my way to a yoga class and at the peak of the best shape I would ever be in my life. I had spent a year consciously strengthening my body willing it to participate in any and all physical activities, ready at any moment to fling itself running, dancing and twisting into a host of strange locations (including the beds of quite a few gentlemen). I was standing on the platform waiting for my best friend, Penny, the pockets of my hot pink sweatshirt laden with keys, a phone, gifts for Penny, and a water bottle. When she called because she had forgotten her T pass I stepped onto the escalator to meet her at the turnstiles on the upper level. Two steps up, my boot caught and I careened forward, slamming my right shoulder into a metal step, subsequently experiencing the worst pain I’d ever felt in my entire life. The escalator carried me wailing the rest of the way up, depositing me along with the now scattered contents of my pockets at the top of escalator. I rolled from my stomach to my back and felt my shoulder click into place.

The next yoga class I attended would be spent laying on my mat crying. I tried to keep going to class, no more down dog, no more inversions and ended up on my back crying over and over again. After 6 months of trying (read: crying) I stopped going altogether. My shoulder pain wormed it’s way through my whole body. I couldn’t run. I stopped dancing. And then I stopped doing anything. And my muscles tightened, my joints weakened, and then, about a year ago, the Pain permanently settled itself not-so-comfortably into my sacroiliac joint.  

Pain is a constant. Every moment I am still it makes itself known; every time I take a step, it asserts itself. It is my first waking sensation, it aches as I fall asleep. It defines me: I am a person in pain. I know my friends are sick of hearing about it. I wonder if they think it is my fault. I wonder if they are right.

I should not be surprised. I feel like I’ve been hurting my whole life--my back, yes, but also this dull ache behind my sternum that says, “This Pain is deserved, and it is forever.” That is what I think about when I cannot sleep: my back, my shoulder, my heart, all hurting. I cannot go to work in the morning, I cannot see another person, I cannot smile, it hurts too badly. I am just so sad. How do I find myself in this? Where is my refrigerator box?

Now not just doctors have failed to relieve my Pain, but Chiropractors, and Physical Therapists. There is nothing left to do except the hardest thing, which is strengthen my busted body so my suffering, weak, little SI joint, doesn’t have to work so hard. I just started seeing a personal trainer who specializes in clients with SI pain. I see a massage therapist twice a month, and though that sounds relaxing, it is also incredibly painful. I often hurt worse before I hurt less, which is, she assures me, how it works. But yoga has been the most difficult return, yielding, as it tends to, some incredibly relevant rewards.

In a one on one session with my yoga teacher and dear friend Anna, I step my left foot back into a low lunge. “You’ll put less pressure on your knee if you move your front foot forward.” I move into a deeper lunge, my hips spreading like cold butter on dry toast. “I can’t hold myself up!” I shout. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t hold myself up.” I am surprised by my own fear. In this moment, my body is my whole world, and I cannot hold it. “Relax your right hip,” Anna says, “Keep your knee over the front foot.” I am trembling, I am weeping, but I am not on my back. “One more breath.” I take it. “Bring your hands to the floor.”

My entire life my mom has been talking about her body saying, “Yes.” When she eats a salad, when she practices constructive rest, when she drinks her morning smoothies made of kale. I always thought this was, to quote my dear friend Leah, “hipster nonsense.” Until, driving hope in my little zipcar, my nerves tingling, my muscles stretched, my hips open, I realized this is the feeling of Yes.” It was like my body was thanking me; it was gratitude.

That night I still could not sleep. My back still hurting, the space behind my sternum still holding this aching emptiness. “Relax your hip.”

Close your eyes.
Steady your breath.
Unclench your fists.
Slowly, so slowly unravel.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

This is a Memoir: Week 1

Every morning, I ride the bus to work, and every evening, I ride it home. And because I am a bus commuter, I frequently experience a phenomena known as, “T Rage.” It begins on a morning like any other. I, and many other commuters, stand waiting for the bus during “peak” hours. I check the tracker on my phone; the next bus will not come for 10 minutes. I tell myself, “It’s all right, the next bus will come.” When it finally arrives at my stop, bodies are pressed against the doors and packed in the aisles like a commuter museum, the text beneath them reading, “These are the unhappy few, who must stand while the bus driver careens down Belmont Street, which hasn’t been repaved in a millenium.” Five minutes later the next bus comes and goes. And the next. And the next.

The caption beneath my own exhibit would read, “Watch as this woman waits for the bus. Notice her reddening face. Notice her shortened breath. Notice her quickened pacing, as she gesticulates madly. This is a woman experiencing ‘T Rage.’”

If I had any real choice in the matter, I would not ride the bus to work during rush hour. I grew up in the suburbs, and for the majority of my conscious youth lived in San Diego, where a car was a necessity, and public transportation was non-existent. Just about to graduate from college and considering grad school in Boston, I visited the city for the first time for 3 days. After witnessing what, in my naivete, I thought was a highly functioning bus and subway system, I sold the car my parents had bought me for my high school graduation to pay off a small portion of my college debt, thus making myself beholden to the whims and wiles of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

There are moments, while waiting for the bus, moments when I am not uncontrollably angry, when I wonder what it would be like to have a car in this city, to be able to get as many groceries as you want, go apple picking on a whim, or drive your friends home late at night because they are the ones without cars (as they’ve been doing for you for the past 10 years). And I think back with surprising longing on the old blue van that was my first four-wheeled love.

When I was 3 years old my parents bought a 1985 powder blue dodge caravan. I have very few early memories, but that van is one of them. In 1991 we drove it across the country when my family moved from Virginia to California, me sitting in the very back with my mom memorizing my new address and phone number. It did not feel like driving home, and it wasn’t. I was 9 years old, being driven toward a new state, a new school, speeding into adolescence, unsure of my body, of the pitch of my voice, of my own likeability. Oddly enough, my skirt on the first day at my new school was also powder blue. I remember standing on the blacktop alone during recess, staring down at it, occasionally eyeing the groups of my peers playing four square, bouncing nonchalant acceptance back and forth to each other over the white lines along with that red plastic ball.

We took that van on about a thousand camping trips. My mom had a National Parks Passport and was hell bent on getting every stamp in that book. To be honest, I didn’t even know what an actual passport looked like until I was 15. We would take road trips to parks around the country, my parents gently ushering my brother and I into the van at 3am so we could sleep for the bulk of the long drives. I remember waking up one morning on the way to Sequoia National Park with the car so full of food and tents and sleeping bags, I couldn’t even dangle my feet. My brother and I sat in the way back, our legs thrown over the seats in front of us, peacefully adjacent for a few long moments as we watched the Southern California skyline pass by at 70 miles per hour.

My brother eventually inherited the caravan. Then he went away to college and the van was finally mine. By this time the air conditioning had gone out and the ceiling fabric was collapsing, ballooning down to touch the heads of my taller passengers. My friend’s mom helped me recover the ceiling in yellow, blue, and red tie dyed fabric using spray adhesive, and I was convinced that van could not be any cooler. We lived in San Diego where the weather was always good and so the windows were always down and the music was always loud and I was young, truly, and every care in the world was eclipsed by a tie dyed ceiling and the possibility for adventure.

Or at least that’s how I like to remember it.

When I was young I was convinced I would never look back on my youth with any nostalgia. I was perpetually looking forward, waiting to be 30, waiting for the time when I too would know how to recover car ceilings and dominate at four square. And now the opposite is true. I find comfort in remembering myself at 16, unaware that driving home from youth group on a warm summer night, the smell of the ocean singing its way into my nostrils, confident that my life was a passenger in that car, moving forward with me on a trajectory towards everything-I'd-ever-wanted-being-mine-- unaware that was the most free I would ever be.

So I stand there waiting at the bus stop, waiting and waiting for something that may or may not come, that may or may not pick me. “You should’ve left earlier," I tell myself, "You are never going to be at work on time; they all hate you there; they hate you because you are always late; because you are a failure, because you fail at all things.” I am out of control, and so I lose all of it. The bus that won’t come becomes everything: the husband I don’t have, the motherhood I might never experience, the body, the money, the safety, the comfort, driving by me, full. “There is not enough room for you,” it calls, “You will never fit.”

This is the frustrating reality of bus riding: sometimes you just have to wait. And sometimes the bus doesn’t come. And sometimes you feel like everyone is getting on, moving forward, arriving on time, while you rage helpless and immobile on some random patch of sidewalk.

But here’s the other thing about the bus: after work, I walk through Harvard Yard, I wait in the Station, and the bus comes quickly as it tends to when I have nowhere to be. It is always crowded, I always feel too big and off balance, dreading the time when I must push through the throngs of bodies to the door, dragging my belongings with me, stepping on toes and inadvertently elbowing old ladies.

But once I am on it, I am, most definitely, on my way home.