Sex and the Throw Pillows: A Good Soul Story

Part I: Sometimes Elegant, Other Times Not

In the moment before any story there is an image and then the translation of that thought into words, directing the actions of our lives. Of course, this is not always a good thing nor even a bad thing but it is how we roll.

In her iconic essay, “Why I Write” (NYT December 1976), Joan Didion says “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.”  The essay title, Didion acknowledges right away, is borrowed from James Orwell, and that’s how it is with all words—borrowed—from a common culture to communicate, sometimes elegantly and other times, not so much.

I cannot say I had Joan Didion in mind when I received Celeste’s text about throw pillows. Rather, sex was on my mind as I was trying to write a scene about a health and sexuality podcast in a small town buried by time (think Girl Boner Radio meets Brigadoon).

“You really need some color on your loveseat and throw pillows look great. Which ones do you like?” 😊

“I’m not big on throw pillows. I don’t like them.” I believe this will suffice but like sex in a small town, the story becomes much more than any actual act.

I then receive three images of throw pillows in different shapes: a green and white check square, a green and orange circle, an oblong red and green Scottish plaid. I don’t like throw pillows; have never owned any. I don’t think I ever had a thought about a throw pillow until I met Celeste, truly a good soul.

My use of the term, “good soul,” is not complimentary but refers to people who are “just trying to help,” meaning they help their way and only their way, as if they were born with a vision better than the rest of us mere mortals. Dorothy Parker, elegant as ever, described good souls this way:

“There is simply no keeping them down–back they come, with their little gifts, and their little words of advice, and their little endeavors to be of service, always anxious for more.”

All of this is to say that I would soon find myself in H-E double toothpicks yet again.

Part II: The Curmudgeon and the Good Soul

Celeste is determined to make me like other people, believing that deep in my soul it is what I desperately seek. In other words, mine is the façade of a curmudgeon desiring to fit finely into another fold. Thankfully, every time I’ve attempted to be like everyone else, I found myself instead.

She and I would never have met if it were not for my recent relocation to an efficiency apartment of 17 ½’ x 12 ½’ with half galley kitchen (including a granite countertop just big enough for a small microwave) and bathroom. These measurements are important, dear reader, and not extraneous text.

Celeste is the daughter-in-law of a former neighbor, my dear Sibyl. As is befitting her name, Sibyl is wise and has seen almost all of the 20th century during her 93 years. Sibyl loves Celeste deeply but she also knows her as the kind of person who loves a cause and one who “will take over if you let her.”

And so it was that Celeste was looking for household items—”just about anything, really”—for some migrant families who moved into our area of the Florida Panhandle. After asking me, Sibyl sent her along. In truth, I was delighted!

It was less than 36 hours before I would move, and I still had more “stuff” than I knew what to do with and although I would not admit it, I was increasingly hampered by both spinal cord and autoimmune disease. I don’t know why I thought I could be anything more than the person who wrote the check for the move.

So, it wasn’t as if I could just box up/bag up items and take them to Goodwill or any other donation center. Literally, I did not have the physical wherewithal. Also, I don’t believe that Goodwill or any agency taking donations are dumping grounds for anything that isn’t dust.

In hindsight, I cannot imagine a poorer plan for moving household but hindsight is like that, a pair of eyes I rarely seek, perhaps at my own peril. What might have been is not the best view of the past so meh, I say.

Enter my good soul, Celeste, surveying my mismatched wares in size and color: plates and glassware, flatware, and utensils; towels, a yellow fitted sheet, a green sheet, a brown mustard colored pillowcase; knickknacks of absolutely no worth (or meaning to me) stored in bins for eleven years. Yet, Celeste seemed to find good in all but very little and that we shoved into black plastic bags for flinging into the dumpster. It was a hard day’s work.

Without Celeste at this juncture in the move, both my wallet and my body would be even worse for wear. I was and remain grateful, although that may not always be evident.

When there was less than 12 hours left, I had overworked my body into such an inflammatory state that my tissues were leaking freely and every joint was supersized while my moisture glands were as dry as the Sahara. Chronic illness is nothing if not contradictory.

I had been eating nitrate and nitrite free turkey hotdogs stuffed into quinoa tortillas with vegan cheese and a bit of spinach for the last 10 days. I will die a comfort food eater always with one eye to the healthy. Oh, and apples, always lots of apples and blueberries.

And that is how Celeste found me that final day, sitting in the middle of my living room floor facing a wall of filled boxes, shoving food fast. We had discussed my new efficiency apartment and she had mentioned a degree in design. Yes, I encouraged her and once again, I was ever grateful.

Patiently, she explained the floor plan of my new efficiency apartment was not what it seemed so she drew, to scale, a floor plan five feet shorter in length, which meant my loveseat would not fit.

With most of my food swallowed, I reply, “I guess I didn’t mention that I was actually in an apartment similar to the one I’ll be renting. We measured it and my 12-foot tape measure ran out with about five feet to go.” But such is not the mind of a good soul who knows all.

She is unmoved and only has eyes for her floor plan. “You really can’t tell about these floor plans,” she says and shakes her head. “See this closet? More than likely they are including it in the 17 feet.”

“But I was there. In the room. With my tape measure. With five feet to the closet door.”

More head shaking on her part and then she looks directly into my eyes and says what I have been thinking but have been unable to consider, “You won’t have room for the loveseat.”

I am not in love with the loveseat and originally considered selling it but I am now down to less than 10 hours before the movers arrive and bereft of bandwidth for Facebook Marketplace, as lucrative as it proved to be. Even Celeste’s church will not help.

For reasons I will never understand, I waste another two hours trying to convince Celeste she is wrong but methodically and calmly, she continues to explain that closets are hidden in floor plans. And the longer we go on, she becomes convinced the bathroom may also be included. “I will be shocked,” she says, “if that room is longer than 12 feet.”

Moving day proves me (and my floor plan) right and her wrong.  I’m so angry about the added stress, the lost sleep and the unflappability that is Celeste so I wait a day before I text her: “It’s 17 1/2′.”

We go text silent for a week.

(Paulie Jenkins Photo)

Part III Only Her Kind of Love to Give

And now, dear reader, we return to the throw pillow texts or from whence this post began.

“To be clear, I don’t want throw pillows.” I think about adding 🙏 but I think better of it.

“OK. Sibyl and I would like to gift you these pillows. It’s really uncomfortable sitting on your loveseat and throw pillows would help.” 😊

I am reminded of a saying about people having only their kind of love to give. In Celeste’s case, it includes using my friendship with Sibyl. There really is no keeping a good soul down.

“Well, buy them, then! I certainly can’t have that!!? 🙄 By now, I have stopped writing the sex-in-a-small town podcast scene. Sexuality cannot hold a candle to a throw pillow in the hands of a good soul. I wish it were not so. But before Celeste can respond, I text:

“When you are not here, I’ll throw them in the closet. I don’t like throw pillows and I won’t make myself look at them.”  In a room of 17′, EVERYTHING is in view, including a fleck from a taco shell. And yes, I’m being a bit childish. 😬

“But you have so little space!”

“Exactly.”

We go text silent for the day but I wake up to:

“Good morning! I’m wondering how you feel about the throw pillows today.” 😊

“Same as yesterday! But you already bought them so????” 😣 Ah, perhaps she did not purchase the pillows. I am reminded of Leonard Cohen’s “there is a crack in everything; it’s how the light gets in.”

“Who doesn’t like throw pillows?” 🤔

“I don’t. I told you I don’t. I’m not like other people.”

“But this means Sibyl and I will have to bring our own throw pillows when we come to visit.” 😕

As much as I love Sibyl I’m not living with throw pillows, which I suspect the prophetess has known all along. I offer her good soul daughter-in-law an out:

“It seems to me that most of our visits will take place in Sibyl’s apartment.” 😊

“That’s a good point.” 😊

There is some silence before Celeste texts:

“Sibyl would be really upset, I mean really upset, if she knew about this exchange.” 😳

“I have no intention of telling her.” I know I won’t have to because Celeste will, and Sibyl knows (and loves) both of us, who we are and as we are.

There have been no visits to either apartment but Sibyl and I converse on the phone regularly, as we have done for all the years of our friendship—we’re phone friends—she in her rocker with her throw pillow and I on my loveseat in restorative recline.

 

A Beagle, a Scale, and the Weight of the World

I no longer mark my weight as a number. It’s no longer a measure of who I am. So, I have gone “scale-less,” and it is not easy for me to give up my scale. For these past ten years, my weight as a number, whether it went up or down, was a constant in my life—my scale all but a friend yet not all relationships last a lifetime.

In 2010, I was physically, emotionally and fiscally bankrupt, living with a diabetic and visually impaired beagle named Gumby. I had no idea what I was going to do other than face the world as who I was with what I had. No big pronouncement about a healthy lifestyle, no new writing schedule or exercise plan that would last as long as a New Year’s resolution.

Mine was a new life lens, a broader perspective, come with may. Oh, and three-to-five-mile daily walks that Gumby led. Putting one foot in front of the other is so much harder than anyone ever says and scarier, too. Looking through a new life lens is basic but demanding.

When I looked back to how I once lived, I didn’t turn into a pillar of salt like Lot’s wife but I lost so much ground. And I fell hard, really hard. I will always be grateful for Gumby taking the lead as I finally found my feet, and somewhere in the process, I learned Zen.

My other constant was my scale. I did not set a weight goal. I wanted to see what my body found sustainable, and I became curious about food because I wanted to like what I ate—all of the time—it seemed to me if I learned what is a starch and a fat and a carbohydrate and how I might mix all of these up with some protein, I could enjoy my food.

I experimented with every facet of my life with spectacular failure and more than one dark night of the soul but it is the joy that sustains. The thing about exploring different viewpoints—new lenses—is finding possibility in the least likely places and giving it a try, no matter what. It didn’t take long to broaden my perspective beyond total weight loss.

One day in February 2012 I weighed myself and was shocked that I was now in the 150’s after being over 220 pounds. I wrote a blog post about it, of course, and for the next nine years, maintained a weight loss between 60 and 70 pounds, except when I was quite ill and the weight loss reached 75+ pounds for a short period of time.

Did I give up some things? Absolutely. Inflammation is the biggest issue with my autoimmune disease, and I have reduced it considerably. Does that mean no processed sugar? Yes. Was it hard? One of the hardest things I’ve ever done but I fell in love with apples and blueberries and vegetables, so many vegetables.

Of course, it’s easier to look back on these years than it was to live them, and it was challenging to eat gluten-free but unless I wanted my face to break out in blisters and live with gluten belly all my life, my scale and I had to find another way. Ten years ago, gluten-free eating was a lot more expensive with fewer options and most of them tasted like cardboard. Now, not so much.

During my early childhood, between four and six years, one of my dearest friends was my cousin Larry, who was “skinny as a rail,” and I was a chunky kid called “fatso” by a favorite uncle. I can still hear his laughter and see his huge smile. He was just joking and jokes about fat people, women in particular, were pretty commonplace during the 1950s.

But context is everything. Was the nickname kind? No. But my uncle was a good and kind man, exceptionally thoughtful. If I had ever shown that it hurt me, he would’ve never said it again. He liked to tease, maybe because he spent most of his life as “sonny boy.” But that’s another story I will never really know.

We are not that far removed from fat jokes. We have evolved in our language, if not necessarily in our thoughts or actions. We’re not quite so quick with those fat labels but they are not without their euphemisms. So, we have not moved the needle that far from appearance is everything.

Fast forward 70 years later and nobody calls me fatso but my BMI tells me I’m overweight, if it had a voice with my physicians and so far, it does not. My scale and I have maintained a 55-60 pound weight loss but in the last five years, I have added three prescription medications known for weight gain—prednisone, methotrexate, and gabapentin—also, as age increases so does the waistline spread.

Not surprisingly, the idea of going scale-less provides purpose and a new lens, a way of living I’ve not tried, and the older I get, the more I enjoy the view through a new lens, perhaps the quality of “staying young” as I see in my own father, ever appreciating a new perspective with the gusto of wanting to know what comes next.

There are many ways to measure my weight such as the fit of my clothes, especially those that are form fitting and a bit tight, the shape of my face when it is more round than oval, and as I have been doing for the last ten years, being aware of the inflammation of my joints. In any moment, I know when I am carrying extra pounds without the weight of the scale. I do not lack for lenses.

Weight is a number and numbers are not nothing but neither they nor weight are the total measure of a human being, and sometimes that’s the biggest load to lose.

“We don’t eat to live; because we are alive, we eat. We usually think it’s the other way around, that we eat and breathe so we’ll be or remain alive. But no, because we’re alive, we breathe, we eat, we do.”

(Bernie Glassman, Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen, pages 9-10)

When Zero Was Not a Number

In the woods outside my window, it seems like nothing will stop this growing of green and the flurry of flashy red cardinals as they prepare their nests with their olive brown mates, who blend beautifully with the firebush, sparkleberry, and mesh of the passionflower vine. 

In spring, every day is endless.

I am not immune to all this wonder of squirrels munching on the tender leaves of a wax myrtle, a treat seemingly worth the trek from the hole in the leaning Live Oak across the longleaf pine and down the passionflower vine.

Frankly, it makes the human world pale in comparison but then, nature usually does. 

Here at the Apartments in the Woods, we have replaced watching the murderer among us with having to deal with mandatory online rent payment. Checks are no longer accepted. Not amazingly, emotions run high as if life itself, again, was threatened. 

Quite the welcome for a new manager who had been assured the online payment system for our 55+ community of 144 apartments was in effect, one of many untruths she will discover for truth is not always what it appears.

I don’t know the percentage of people who pay rent online but I imagine the majority of residents use the convenience, which was not true just a few years ago when the majority cohort was more like 75+ but no one lives forever. Nonetheless, their numbers are still sizable, including my 93-year-old neighbor, Sybil, who somehow still maintains her flip phone, despite threats from everywhere and everyone that it can’t be done. 

Although we have been neighbors (sharing a common wall) for 11 years, and true friends for the last five, I often forget Sybil is Sicilian and have to be reminded, which she does with pride. Round faced with a slight rosacea on her high cheekbones, Sybil is a clear-eyed beauty with flowing white hair, agile yet fragile as her petite body begins to fail her. 

Sybil is prone to one point of view on any subject (until she’s done with it), no matter the cost. She traces this to the island existence of her Sicilian ancestors who were faced with one invasion after another. Hers is a kind of reticence, which some have called stoicism, and with this visage, she faces all weathers.

Something like 30 or 40 years ago, Sybil decided the Internet was a passing phase and only last month did she admit that had “probably been a mistake.” 

To their credit, Sybil’s family is proceeding at her pace, in their completion of the online payment process, relying on the information Sybil provides, such as the documentation sent out by Apartments in the Woods Enterprises (AWE) for the online payment portal. 

AWE is to be commended for a streamlined and simple process. Residents who had never made any kind of online payment completed the process in about a quarter of an hour. It feels rather worldy, this being on the web, writing electronic checks for rent. 

Sybil is not so sure, although some days she sees its truth, yet when it comes time for her son, Paul, to complete the process, Sybil lies awake at night worrying about hackers, for she is well read and has an amazingly accurate understanding of the World Wide Web for someone who has only looked upon but never browsed or received an email. 

“It seems that there is still a problem with the rent,” Sybil tells me. “Paul is exhausted by all this.”

“There is no problem with the system, Sybil.” The words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself, clipped and cold. I’m tired of the conversation before it begins yet again, but I do better with “what’s the problem Paul is having.” 

“There is no place to put the routing or account number,” Sybil pronounces this as fact. “I don’t want Apartments in the Woods to have access to my checking account.” 

We have been having this conversation two or three times a day for the last two weeks, and I know where it’s going, but I also know Sybil vets her ideas with me before she shares them with her family, for reasons understood only by Sybil, but there is a lot of fear, too, always a tough subject, which is to say that I, too, sometimes get the wrong end of the stick. 

“Sybil,” I say, wincing at my tone of voice, not quite terse but close. “If Paul enters your routing and account numbers into the AWE system—

“The WHAT?” Sybil begins to talk over me, thankful for the tangent. “I don’t even know—

“Sybil, stop. Just. Stop. Talking. Over. Me.” And finally, she does. “When you write a check for your rent, isn’t the routing number and the account number on the check? Yes or no.” 

“Yes.” 

“So, Paul is going to enter that same information into the online system. It’s an electronic check rather than a paper one. That’s it. Nothing more.” 

“Okay. I’m fine with that. But we’re going to use a credit card.” 

“You do you, Sybil, but know there will be at least a 3% charge for using your card. That’s about $30.” 

“Paul says five or 10 dollars,” Sybil fires back.

“He’s wrong, just wrong.” 

We are both so over this conversation, but we both know it’s not yet resolved. Sybil is upset at herself, not for the first time, for refusing to have any kind of online presence over all those years. So many missed moments, those, but I’ve made that kind of mistake, too. It hurts.

At 93, both Sybil and her family are doing everything they can to maintain her independence. Increasingly, that means more to do for them and less for her. They love her deeply and do not mind, and Sybil is grateful, but with each task, there is one more thing out of her control. It’s such an uneasy balance for all of them.

Somewhat similarly, my body is far older than my almost 69 years, and I am ever adapting to maintain my independence. So, Sybil and I are each at an age where decisions close a door and not always does another window open.  

My heart is a bit sad that my tone of voice has been firm with Sybil—well, terse at times, if I am honest—Sybil, too, is a bit sad that she can’t write a check to pay her rent as she has always done for the last 17 years. For her generation, loyalty and consistency were just about everything in life. I get it.

As usual, I turn to Pema Chödrön to see if I can find something in her words for my frustration. I don’t want to repress it or reject it. I want to go to its core to see what I can learn from it and maybe help Sybil look at hers. In other times, Sybil has done it for me, in her own way, which is not mine.

Turns out Pema has a friend who talks about this very thing.

“As a way of working with our aggressive tendencies, Dzigar Kongtrül teaches the nonviolent practice of simmering. He says that rather than ‘boil in our aggression like a piece of meat cooking in a soup we simmer in it.’” 
Pema Chödrön

Not exactly the imagery I was seeking but I get the metaphor.

“We allow ourselves to wait, to sit patiently with the urge to act or speak in our usual ways and feel the full force of that urge without turning away or giving in.” 
Pema Chödrön

I am aware of the energy in “edginess,” or what Pema Chödrön refers to as “groundlessness,” and I find it attractive, that unknown. How to manage when I don’t have my feet on the ground, when what I know is not of worth to someone else or is not what they can yet receive, and I must be patient and listen in acceptance. 

“Neither repressing nor rejecting, we stay in the middle, between the two extremes, in the middle between yes and no, right and wrong, true and false.”  
Pema Chödrön

Most of my life I was a “fixer,” offering the obvious solution only to have it rejected because the choice was not mine to make. Not everyone comes to change the same way or at the same pace. Patience in every moment—to sit and simmer—although easier with age, it is no guarantee.

There is only one solution for Sybil no matter how many times we talk through what must happen. What is not an issue for me is a game changer for her but we offer what we have to one another, although it doesn’t feel like it’s what we need. I don’t hear anything about online rent payment until the fifth of the month, the last day before rent is late.

“I was going to have to pay almost $28 if I used my credit card!” Sybil has never been a stranger to umbrage. 

“So, Paul found where to enter the routing and account numbers?” I just have to know, which feels a bit unfair but somehow, it feels important. “He received a receipt by email, correct?”

“Well, if you can call it a receipt. It says, ‘Dear Sybil’ and then gives only my apartment number without which building. There are at least four different apartments with the same last three numbers.”

We talk about unique transaction numbers for a while, which is what is important for a transaction to take place between the two systems.

“But that’s just it. It hasn’t cleared my bank. There is no transaction.”

“Sybil, we just went through the receipt, line by line. You have a transaction number. The receipt says it was sent. That specific transaction was sent.”

“The bank has not received it. I’m going to be late on my rent.” 

“You are not going to be late on your rent because you have a receipt saying you paid it on the 29th.”

“But there is no transaction is what the bank is saying,” Sybil says, with a calm that is surprising.

That is a problem but there also seems to be a solution or maybe she’s been winding me up. I can’t say I might not do the same.

“Paul is working with the AWE manager.” Sybil pauses, pleased with her use of the acronym, and I find myself smiling. She goes on, “The account number was wrong.” 

“Did Paul enter it incorrectly?” 

“No!” Sybil snaps. Her son does not make mistakes. “I didn’t give him the zero.” 

“The what??!!” And for a moment I am as lost, if not moreso, than Sybil was when all this started.

“The zero in front of my account number on my check. I never use it. When I was in school, we were always told that zero isn’t a number. It’s nothing.”

“Let me put it this way, Sybil. Data is made up of nothing but ones and zeros.” I pause before adding, “that’s just probably adding to the confusion.”

“No, it’s not! I understand that. I’m saying that when I was in school zero wasn’t a number.”

“Zero is a number and it has value, Sybil. It may look empty but it’s anything but nothing.” We wait for a moment before I ask, “Didn’t you give Paul a voided check so he could enter the numbers?”

“Yes, but he said he didn’t need it because I read the numbers to him.”

“So, Paul had a check but he entered the numbers you read to him.

“Correct.”

“But he has now entered the correct account number into the system????” 

“I don’t know.”

This time I don’t go there. I look at the woods outside my window and tell Sybil I watched a goldfinch singing this very morning, sitting atop a still bare branch of the fire bush, yet another add to my birding life list. 

And Sybil who has taught me so much about the flora and fauna that is the woods outside my window begins to tell me yet another story about spring in some year before the Internet, when you could believe zero was not a number and not be bothered at all.

*Pema Chodron excerpts from Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, page 49.

Life Turns On a Left Ankle

Change doesn’t care how it occurs. It just arrives. Any fall will do at any speed, at any time, anywhere. Sometimes, life turns on an ankle. For me, it was the left one this past July.

My fall was slow-motion, body meeting cement, but the landing was hard and decisive, buttocks pounding the pavement like a hammer hitting a nail. My head lay stuck in nearby shrubs, my legs perfectly perpendicular to the sidewalk.

I’m broken. I feel it in my core…

I try to turn my left leg, and I almost faint from the sensation. I won’t walk away from this, not on my own. I call 911 and for a moment or two, the operator and I have a conversation about buttocks and location. Why not?

Both of my hips are titanium, which I mention because titanium doesn’t react the way bone does. Like the bubble in a carpenter’s level, titanium hips are ever in search of balance—for themselves—if not for the rest of the body.

The EMTs help me stand, a glimmer of hope that fades quickly.

They are so-o-o-patient with me as I keep saying “but my apartment is just around the corner,” and they are amenable but my body’s core will not give up one step. Hours later in a hospital bed I will learn I have fractured the left ring of my pelvis, top and bottom, but in the arms of the EMTs, I think it’s my titanium hips, which are in perfect balance, and I am not.

If I sound ungrateful for my titanium hips, I’m not. They have kept me pain-free and mobile for years but they are not of the body, only an imitation. As well, I don’t have full feeling in the bottoms of my feet or in my legs for that matter. I’m a house of cards that collapsed.

Being in hospital in the time of COVID was as bad as I had read. Maybe worse—controlled chaos—the beginning is the end. Staff do their jobs and don’t complain—that’s a luxury they don’t have—their faces aged in angst over people refusing masks as they beg for life.

Mine was the day to day healthcare experience of arriving by ambulance and when it was time for me to go to rehab, another ambulance with compassionate EMTs. Trump may have COVID, but he has no idea of the dreams it has taken from healthcare workers or all the years they won’t live.

I hoped to avoid rehab but even with a walker I could not manage to reach my hospital room door until the fourth day. I could not take up a hospital bed any longer. Probably overstayed my welcome the way it was. I had hoped to go home but I could not yet care for myself so it was rehab.

Using a walker was not the usual slow stroll, shopping cart experience. Anything but. It was almost a hop except hopping was not allowed. Any tortoise would have zipped passed me.

Gingerly, I would step forward with my left foot, keeping no more than 50% of my weight on it (and less was better) as my right foot brought the rest of me, with the aid of both of my arms pushing down on the sides of the walker. Ideally, I’d keep all my weight off my left foot but my spinal cord damaged arms could not do the lifting. Literally, they just didn’t get the message; theirs is a pins and needles world, full of white noise, the static of nerve damage.

Every physical therapist had a variation on this hop-but-don’t-hop technique, and each was skeptical about me even attempting it. I hadn’t been given an alternative. When I wasn’t in physical therapy, I worked through the physics of the weight and the walker, how I might shift my body.

“You’re going to need to bring about 100 pounds with you on every step,” one physical therapist told me, midway between my bed and hospital door.

I looked up at her. “You and I both know that’s not going to happen.”

“Don’t hop,” she said, turning away so I could.

Even when I got the weight distribution right, the pain in my arms and neck brought tears to my eyes. All of my autoimmune meds had been stopped in order for the pelvic bone to heal so I was in a full flare of Sjogren’s/ inflammatory arthritis for 10 weeks.

And pain meds never came on time, sometimes not at all. I never asked why. In rehab it was better, and we found a “cocktail” of meds that worked for my daily physical and occupational therapy sessions. We met three times a day and I welcomed those sessions so I could learn to sit, stand, and not hop. My main physical therapist had at least heard of degenerative cervical myelopathy. Occupational therapy, no matter which therapist, was always interesting.

Mostly, I was patient. Mostly….

The occupational therapist pulled out the bottom drawer of a wooden chest of drawers and told me to pick up three items of clothing (socks or underwear) with a reacher or grabber.

“This is ridiculous. Why would I keep my socks or anything I regularly wear in the bottom drawer? Why would I do that to myself?”

“You don’t keep clothing in a bottom drawer,” he said, not believing me.

“No, I don’t. That would be stupid.

 “I don’t have the fine motor skills to use a grabber, which you know. I arrange everything in my apartment where it is easiest for me. Everything. I don’t have that kind of energy to waste.”

We would not meet again, to the relief of both of us, I suspect.

At every day’s end and every morning, I listened to Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, a book I am never without. At some point, a sentence or section centers me and I am able to look through the new life lens I have, which is not to say the darkness does not stay or the light does not blind. I’m just able to open myself to them, regardless.

When I left rehab, my mobility was 50% weight-bearing, but a wheelchair would be my legs for a while because my right leg was weakening. I wanted out of rehab but when I thought of home, I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know what that life there looked like now. What I feared most had happened, and I didn’t know if the fear would ever go away.

I “hopped” about the apartment trying to figure out what to do about anything but nothing seemed the obvious choice. Finally, I found specific placements for the wheelchair and the walker, for there was no mobility without one or the other. This wasn’t my first rodeo with either walking aid—I had lost the angst and vanity about using them years ago—I wondered whether I lost my enthusiasm for walking as well. That first night home was one of the few times in my life I felt alone so I sat with it, stripping back the layers of pain to see what was at its core.

Sometime during those early morning hours, I discovered Netflix’s In The Dark. The irreverence of character Murphy Mason is magnificent. She’s blind and sometimes uses her disability to get people out of her way because she has a life to live. Besides, she’s usually doing what most people are too afraid to try, much less actually do.

Later that same day, I met the physical therapist who would treat me twice a week for the next six weeks. Like Murphy Mason, she had no time for soft words, just kind actions, even if they didn’t seem that way at first.

“We’re going to stop all this hopping. That’s ridiculous.” She spoke with the force of a woman who knows her mind. “You’ve got a broken bone and it takes three months for a bone to heal. For the first two weeks bedrest and the wheelchair.”

“The two Murphys” set the tone and pace of my therapy. We did more work in two days than I did in 10 days in rehab, building up my strength by working with spinal cord disease rather than against it. We were irreverent in our approach but serious in designing how I would live in my apartment and in the world. We worked with what we had and made a life whole again, different but vibrant, nonetheless.

Change will come. As always, it is just a matter of who determines what that change will be.

Winona LaDuke
Sunbeams, May 2020

So Much Life, So Many Lenses

Extrapolate. It’s what’s possible when truth is present, which it is not in these days of COVID-19, not completely.

As always, there are exceptions such as New York Governor Cuomo’s daily press conferences. New York is a state and a city whose Adirondack mountains and Met opera I know only virtually, now the predominate means of viewing all life. So, I extrapolate to get a view of the state of my Florida, which I once traveled up and down and back-and-forth, as I did my own city of Tallahassee. No more.

No doubt my view of the news is skewed but I have a sense of comfort, an overall understanding, and that’s enough. What happens in New York City is not the scene in Tallahassee, we don’t have the numbers, but Miami creeps closer every day, and they must extrapolate, too, because they don’t have enough tests for their own numbers. Unlike the rest of the country, New York does have tests.

It is a virus unlike any other, one that literally takes the breath away as it gobbles up the way we once lived. Now we know the meaning of what can happen when a virus jumps from another species to ours. The only way to sustain life is to stay away from each other.

Even the word quarantine has a hard sound to it, as if social distancing were a punishment, which it is not. It’s a different life lens. It’s the view we have when life changes from what it was.

I really do know something about this as I’ve been social distancing for 10 years. It happened gradually, for one health reason or another, distancing myself from large gatherings, shopping the early morning weekday hours, giving up long distance travel. My immune system is compromised as is my spinal cord. It is best for me to keep my distance, less chance of falling or getting the flu.

Acceptance arrived but it took its time, as it is wont to do. Ask anyone you know who lives a differently abled life and they will tell you that binging anything–movies, TV shows, podcasts, gaming, reading, audiobooks–is not a way of life. Each is a welcome distraction from the discomfort of being disabled but not a one is life itself.

In Randall Jarrell’s poem, “The Sick Child,” a young boy confined to bed and beyond boredom cries out, “all that I’ve never thought of, think of me!” I first came across the poem when I was teaching college English in Wyoming, a lifetime away from the moment that all I never thought of, think of me would become my mantra. Then, I was in my mid 30s believing remission was forever, as if anything ever is. Yet, there was so little I didn’t know. Mostly, I had an answer for everything because magical thinking works like that.

Now I know nothing but opening myself to the reality of each day, whatever it maybe. I cannot possibly know what I need until the day dawns, as if it were that easy. My mind will not still the scenes of who I was or where I once walked. It insists on showing.

Sometimes, it’s the crushingly cold mountain streams of Wyoming where wind will steal the breath away. None of its bouldered paths will I walk again, gasping for breath above timberline, cursing at the caught tip of my flyrod in the ponderosa pine on my way to a lake that was once snow. No less in my mind are the woodlands of live oak and longleaf pine, sandy soft roads of shell and sandstone, sabal palm, and the shores of Saint George Island.

Florida and Wyoming, so physically distant and forever together virtually, sometimes so much so it hurts and then angers. With a ferocity of focus I cry out, “all I never thought of think of me!” It’s the words on the air that make the fury fade, as the energy of emotion reorganizes, evens itself out.

Something I never thought of does comes to me, not so much life changing but a broader perspective like  Pema Chodron’s we are always in relationship, even with the insect in the room. So, a change in perspective. Tunnel vision does tend to skew. None of life is perfect. There are cracks everywhere–they’re how we cope–these streaks of hope in a time of novel coronavirus.

It’s closing the window of what cannot be and opening the door of what is, meeting reality with equanimity, no longer blind by wishing and wanting. That is viewing life through a new lens. It is the past that takes us to the door of the present but it knows its place. Here, we live. There, we remember.

So much life, so many lenses.

KMHuberImage; St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge; Florida; Gulf of Mexico

The Sour Joy of Being Alive

Not all lemons are for lemonade.

Some are made of sterner stuff–tart flesh and rind for grind–a bit of zest. Acquired taste? Maybe or a mere matter of equanimity, appreciating the lemon as is, without making it into something else.

I find the lemon fine, a new lens, a wake-up call.

Recently, I purchased a digital camera (with 42X optical zoom) and received binoculars (12×50) as a birthday gift. Why would I want either? My index fingers and thumbs are compromised as are my legs. Any outing is quite the risk so lemons abound, and no amount of lemonade will change that. And I am tired of making lemonade.

The thing is, when a lemon is around there is a chance for zest, a singular moment unlike any other; as well, there is the sour that can sap any day, maybe even change life’s course. The lens of the lemon has much to offer.

In the last few months I’ve increased my visits to local parks and to St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, where the wild ones still run but are wary of me and mine, as they should be.

Binoculars and a zoom lens bring me to them from afar. Each look is framed in forever–in my mind’s eye or a single snapshot.

There is a bite to these moments, and I don’t ignore it or make it something it is not. I don’t want to miss what the outing offers, the sour joy of being alive.

Will this be my last trip? 

I bite deeper into the lemon to capture the moment for all the days of no trips.

My first binocular view was from my bedroom window, the top of a dying but still substantial trunk of a Loblolly Pine and a pileated woodpecker so very present in its work and completely unaware of me. There is joy in not being seen, not interrupting.

That memory of the woodpecker enlarges itself every time I call it round. What was initially a day of being confined is now a memory of being in the world bitter but the lemon rind surprised with a not so sour zest.

There is a freshness to the flesh of the lemon, and I am never more present than in its presence.

The bite of the moment is just one sensation in watching a tricolor heron sitting a branch of a now dead oak in the saltwater marsh at low tide, all the while a Cooper’s hawk sits atop. As I write, the moment grows in its magnificence. Memory does that.

It was a fine lemon moment. My insect spray did little to nothing in keeping the flies from biting my legs; my arms were weak so the camera swayed as did my legs. Keeping my balance was a constant shift as shot after shot blurred or the zoom lens was inappropriate for the distance but still the snowy Egret fished the sun-drenched marsh grass.

I have come to the lemon lens late in life, grateful I did not miss it. Like the dying trunk of the Loblolly pine, there are years of life left but being is ever changing. No excuses, no explanations, no adding of sweet to bitter, just freshness with a bite, zesty. Indeed, equanimity.

The Cable Guy Meets Old

It might not have happened if the recycle dumpster had not been overflowing is what I initially told myself. But that day with the cable guy had nothing to do with the dumpster. No proverbial straw stuff. No stacking of excuses.

There are thunderheads darkening the patch of sky over my apartment complex. Everywhere and with just about everyone there is talk of moving, wanting to leave but where to go?

At 67 that’s a completely different decision than it was at 57, when I came to this wooded area of loblolly pine, live oak draped in Spanish moss, the fragrant magnolia among lilacs and dewberries. For my neighbors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, moving is wishful thinking if they are honest and if not, well, magical then. We moved here to stay.

Two years ago, on-site management changed in this 55+ community of four apartment buildings. It’s affordable housing, allowing the corporation a tax credit, so HUD housing but not section 8. There are more differences than you would think and how it matters to some.

This is a first-time manager job for the director and her leasing agent. It’s been tough on them. They are in the prime of their personal and business lives but the residents are not business as usual. They want more than that.

The only way to know old is to be it. This is not a warning just a fact. There is no way to plan for it, which is true of any time in life, really. The fortunate get to know old, the last act, in which awareness abounds and that can be a harsh light.

Change never ages for life is impermanent, always requiring more of us, it seems, but change does not come empty handed. It offers us a different life lens, leaving the adjustment to us. These thunderheads dissipate in their own time.

Many residents have lived here since the complex opened some 15 years ago when the Internet was not quite the lifeline it is now. For many the Internet is an unwanted complexity making their flip phones obsolete. Now, it’s invaded their TV as well–management dropped the package it offered for $45 a month.

The director made the announcement without offering any information about choices residents might have, including programming or who to contact at the cable company. With unwitting transparency, the managers posted a public notice, admitting they didn’t know anything.

Then, residents were informed the cable company needed access to each apartment, whether or not residents wanted the service. New cable was strung for each apartment. It doesn’t sound like such a big deal but many of these apartments are ceiling to floor furniture, wall-to-wall.

My neighbor’s furniture is oak bookcases, bedroom dresser and chest of drawers with full mirror, two rolldown desks, and a magnificent painting of an eastern European forest in winter, stark, the length and breadth of the wall. These six and nine hundred square foot apartments hold what is left of a lifetime. That is not without its weight.

At the only meet, greet, and subscribe meeting with the cable company, residents were assured that if they signed up that day, they could avoid a $70-dollar technician fee. Maybe it was true or was a good intention gone awry, but the previous cable installation had not gone well (it was all but impossible to tell which cable belonged to each apartment), and a technician was required. It was that or no TV.

I am not a cable subscriber so it’s not my circus but it is my neighbors’. Still, I had my moment with the cable guy (I could tell that story here and almost did) but like the dumpster, it’s not the issue. Both the cable guy and I have had better moments. This time I was correct but the next time, it’ll be the cable guy. It’s not about correctness. It’s how we make each other feel, and it wasn’t good.

He started to mansplain, and I stopped him in his tracks. He was surprised, and I was not gracious. He tried to laugh when I described the furniture but I could see he was beginning to understand that people here did not move “every 2 to 3 years” as he had begun to explain. The sign outside our complex reads that we all “live happily ever after.” We don’t, of course, but we are no longer in search of that, either.

Two days later, I saw the cable guy outside my window, exhausted, sweat running down both sides of his face. His counterpart was in my apartment with a walkie-talkie, trying to figure out which cable to label. In frustration, they guessed. I am not a subscriber but by the time I leave, who knows what the technology will be.

Certain springs, owls come to mate and then leave, occasionally red-tailed hawks spend spring, too, but year-round there are the cardinals, resplendent red males and brown velvet females who let them pretend.

This year, more kits became rabbits, it seems, or they just feel better about staying around. The fireflies are fewer (I have to watch for them) as are the swallowtail butterflies but they still come. All this I watch from the window of my six hundred square foot, one-bedroom apartment.

There are many reasons to move but mine offers a window with a view and there are so few places left that do.

 

The View from Down the Hall

A lesbian lives down the hall from Connie, not that she cares.

It’s a label she has avoided all her adult life and now, at 88, a neurologist asks if she and Babs “are a couple of queers.” It isn’t the first time she has heard that question (in so many different words) for she and Babs lived together for over 40 years but now they live apart with separate lives.

Babs promised to stay but finally, she found a relationship with her daughter, who lived 300 miles away. And then there was the volunteer job as a docent at a local museum. Connie was invited to move, even offered a house, but Connie liked being the one with the money and doing the offering.

It would be five years before she moved to be with Babs in the same town but in an apartment. All their years simmer, a pot constantly stirred, frequently boiling over, their differences the only constant they have ever known.

In her remaining years, Babs is immersed in what it means to be in the workforce at 86. She kept the house, washed the pots, and cared for Connie’s every need for decades. She doesn’t miss the life but she misses the Connie “who could sell ice to an Eskimo.” Business after business, Connie was a success.

Now, her mind is a jumble. Intersecting thoughts, their edges jagged, her past seeping into her present, a rapier seeking its mark. She doesn’t know daydream from daylight.

“If this is me, I don’t want it anymore,” Connie says, turning her snow-white head from side to side, blue eyes red rimmed, but her thin face younger than her years. Babs took good care of her, it seems. Still, Connie’s snake-like spine increasingly betrays her with pain and immobility, but that’s nothing like the longing she has for Babs.

Connie never had to care for herself so she never learned how. She always had enough money to hire everything and everyone. “I just can’t do any of that,” she has told me time and again, and I have come to believe what Babs told me, “I waited on her hand and foot.”

Their bond was that they never tried to change each other. Their differences keep them plotting, stirring the pot, making sure the pilot light never goes out. They live as if life–this one right here–is eternity and they have all the time in the world to mold life as they need it to be, at times demand it be.

I admire that, I really do. Of course, I cannot  know their lives, only what I watch through my life lens (with my own boundaries and biases) but it seems a badge of love, this life, for Connie and Babs.

That’s the view, anyway, from the lesbian who lives down the hall.

The Undertow of Thought

When I started meditating, nothingness was my goal. I wanted to sit in the peace of living, determined to eliminate my every thought for at least one hour every morning. Upside down and inside out thinking, of course, and utterly impossible.

Big thoughts announce themselves by snatching up space as if it only exists for them. They don’t stay long, for they require too much attention. It’s the undertow of thought, subtle and inviting, that is a constant thief. *

And what it steals in meditation, it steals in life. I miss my life when I wander with the thief, creating scenarios for existence elsewhere. In other words, nowhere.

Meditation does not jail the thief for like the undertow, it will not be defeated by brute stubbornness. Awareness is sufficient. It does not take more than that, which is not to say that mindfulness is not without effort. It’s just that it’s worth it. It’s the real deal, not a scenario.

Authenticity does not abide thieves selling snake oil, the positive thinking of nary a cloud in the sky no matter the storm raging. Mindfulness delivers life as it is and stays the would-be thieves of rose-colored glasses.

There is nothing quite like that first clear-eyed view of acceptance. Nothing. Equanimity seems not the stretch it once was. Regard for the undertow reveals more of life not less.

And nowhere in my life has that been truer than in adjusting to the various levels of chronic illness. Disease is a robber only if viewed through a lens of loss. There is no shortage of lenses in life; there is one for every moment.

It’s a matter of looking at what I have rather than what I don’t. It is how I stand in my truth, my power.

This does not happen without a bit of mental wandering with the undertow but there is a magnet to mindfulness, a groove of practice. The less that I am physically, the more I am mentally. Less function equals mindfulness magnified, more prowess with the would-be thief.

Mine is the life that many fear is inevitable in aging. Nothing is inevitable. It’s about choices. I haven’t always lived mindfully. It only matters that I do now, swimming with rather than against the undertow.

An hour’s meditation alerts me to my body’s strongest signals, setting the agenda for the day. A body in stillness is my way of stripping the drama from pain and listening to its signal, going to its core. So often, I would rather steal away but going nowhere is always a disappointment.

Both physically and mentally, I have places to be–the kitchen, the shopping, and the writing, which is increasingly tedious. My fingers cannot seem to select the correct key the first time but readily (and constantly) my hand palm finds the space bar or even caps lock.

No matter the type of voice recognition software, my word structure exasperates, especially if I consider the poetic or commit the greater sin of passive voice. There is constant correction on my screen of words trying to become sentences.

Some days, I persist just because I can but my mind tires of the stop-and-go writing and finally forgets what it was trying to say. My hands stay asleep, tingling.

I’ve had to recognize and actually appreciate that it takes me two to three times longer to write an initial draft, some days more than that. It’s a lot of additional hours.

Clear-eyed acceptance is not an easy lens but it offers options. Real ones. Should I struggle with the undertow, I am only out to sea, aimless. Best to be in the life I have, as it is, exhausted and frustrated, but not so far from equanimity.

Every Time He Shakes His Tail

I was in my late 30s, finishing my Master of Arts thesis, when I finally understood writing as a process.

Admittedly, it sounds silly but in 1986, the “how-to” of writing was threatening an academic tradition once thought unassailable, at least in the English department at a small university in the Rocky Mountains.

It was the invincibility of that tradition that drew me to academia and it would usher me out. We would both find out of what we were made. Different stuff.

For the first time in my life I was consumed by my work, in complete awe of writing. It was alive, no longer an academic exercise in research. And for that matter, neither was I.

My thesis advisor, Jeanne, was having none of “my new process” and rejected the initial draft of my thesis after reading the first two pages. No matter what I said, she would not read more.

Jeanne was a friend, ever patient with my enthusiasm, but her life was the academic tradition. She railed against the canon of “white male fact” and was integral in establishing a women’s studies program but she knew her parameters.

So, stalemate.

In response, I drank my way to sobriety and an eventual decision. It seemed I was fine with not graduating. Writing was what mattered and that has never changed.

But no story ends without a twist or two, if we are true in the telling. We cannot be part of a tradition and simply pull away without consequence for others or ourselves.

So it was that my hands were in dishwater when the telephone call came.

“It’s Jeanne,” my then partner said, stretching her arm toward me, cordless white phone in hand.

“No.”

“She just wants to talk to you.”

I shook my head and looked down at my hands in the dishwater, a master’s graduation ring on my fourth finger, left-hand, gold in suds. My mom had it sent to me. She was coming for graduation. I would not cheat her out of this degree ceremony as I had for my bachelor’s.

Other than my partner, few outside my academic life knew about the thesis stalemate or a tangential twist, my formal charge of sexism and breach of protocol against a tenured professor.

It began with a question, as these things often do. The graduate level course was American literature, 1930s-40s, and I asked why there were no women writers included. The professor told me there were no major women writers. His words reverberated throughout the department.

His breach of protocol was reading the student evaluations before submitting his final grades. The professor all but grabbed them out of the office secretary’s hand, saying he knew “they would be good.”

I was the only graduate student to challenge him in class and in my written evaluation of his course. Accordingly, I was the only one to receive a B, everyone else an A. It is the only B on my graduate school transcript.

Confident in his tenure, the professor never denied any of the charges and a committee of his peers ruled against me, which proved to be the catalyst for a department showdown.

A number of professors threatened to bring my complaint before the entire department for a vote:  to overturn my grade (copies of my coursework were made available); to end the exclusion of women writers from all courses;  to censure the professor for breaching University protocol regarding student evaluations.

The vote never happened.

The head of the department removed that course from the professor’s teaching roster. He never taught in his area of emphasis again. The student evaluation procedure was completely revamped and finally, there was a review of department courses, something many members had been fighting for, including Jeanne.

My grade remained a B.

“You can appeal this decision, of course,” the department chair told me. Very carefully, he explained the process.

I nodded, hoping my tears would not spill over. Some part of me knew my grade was no longer the point, although it had been the initial pain.

“What you need to remember is that whenever he shakes his tail, this issue will make itself known for years to come.”

And it did for the rest of the professor’s life or so I am told.

Jeanne was not among the professors who outwardly supported me but for all of us there is more than one bridge too far in life. At least that has been true for me.

Of course, those were not my thoughts as I stood at the sink with my hands immersed in what was left of the soapsuds. Mostly, I thought about the many differences between my mother and me, specifically that 1986 MA class ring.

I took the phone call from Jeanne.

I did not really “defend” my thesis but ours was a lively discussion regarding writing and women. Some 25 years later, a thesis committee member told me there was some concern about my not defending the thesis.

KMHuberImage; oneness; St. Mark's Refuge FL

Jeanne knew I would travel a road not hers but she sent me with love (and a degree) nonetheless. As firmly, she stood in her truth, too, a world of the Venerable Bede, tawny port, and women finding their own way.

In the year of Jeanne’s death, she asked me to teach a session of her graduate-level women’s studies course, the one that gave me the idea for my thesis. It remains one of the greatest honors of my life.

The last time I sat with Jeanne was in the dark hours of a Wyoming winter morning, selecting the music for her funeral, her singing “this little light of mine.” She thought it a good choice.

Me, too.

I have now lived longer than the lifespan that was Jeanne’s. I cannot imagine her in the time of Trump. She thought the 80s impossible, “the me generation.”

Not surprisingly, that last year of graduate school was on my mind as I listened to Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony. Like so many other women I knew how it would end but I also kept hearing, “every time he shakes his tail.”

That, I know to be true.