The Flipside View of Life’s Turning Dime

I am in the throes of physical therapy for my lower back, specifically a right side L4-L5 disc herniation. This is not my first rodeo (but my fourth) that the disc between these two vertebrae has spilled onto the nerve root. So, yeah, we have history.

In 2010, this same disc spilled over on the left side and sent me screaming to the Emergency Room (ER). A dear friend was good enough to drive me and let me lie down in the backseat of her car, leg straight up, foot planted on the car ceiling (I’m short).

Upon arrival, the ER attendant said, “Why didn’t you call us?”

Money is the short answer but more importantly, I had no clue about pain, going to its core and stripping away all the drama to reveal the root cause. I didn’t know life turns on a dime and voila! A new life lens whose view is nothing like the flip side.

That night I was remembering what had happened in the emergency room in 2003 when the disc squirted a bit more of itself onto the nerve root. I was given a hefty pain medication injection and sent home with enough pain pills to get me to the orthopedic surgeon who did the same surgery as he had done in 2000.

The 2010 flipside view proved a new life lens is just that, new. For reasons not clear to me or to my friend, the ER attending physician decided I didn’t have a disc herniation so I had no pain. After a while, I think he offered me a tramadol, something I scoffed at because I had tried that at home.

To be fair, I don’t think there’s any medication that stops nerve pain at its source, and the physician may have said something to that effect but I was in full fight/fear mode, and we were there for hours while my fear raged. I have since discovered that heat and a hefty dose of prednisone helps most but a nerve on fire, pinched in a disc spill over, will have its day.

At some point it was decided I would have an x-ray. I wasn’t about to let any ER personnel help me onto the x-ray table but, of course, I couldn’t do it. To this day, I remain grateful to the radiology techs who were quick to help. I would lie on that table for quite some time after the x-ray was taken.

In the radiology tech booth there was a lot of repetitive discussion.

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Yes, she does.”

And then more of the same medical jargon before the attending physician shouted, “What do you mean there’s a (medical jargon with swears)! There can’t be!”

And the radiologist explained the X-ray results again to the attending physician who responded, “She can’t have!”

“Yeah, she does,” the radiologist said.

After I had been returned to my ER cubicle, the attending physician stuck his head around the curtain and said, “So, you’re Huber?” Neither my friend nor I could have anticipated that question; one or both of us agreed that I was.

Immediately, it was apparent that the attending physician thought I was someone else. It would be another emergency room physician who would explain about the herniation and provide me with a prescription.

Before we left, the initial attending physician made a bad situation even worse by kissing my hand and offering a groveling apology. I’m still amazed that I did not go off on him but my friend and I were tired and hungry, and my pain was better—maybe because I was vindicated, maybe because my fear subsided, maybe because….

Within a few days, I would have my third surgery, and the pain would be gone. I do remember the neurosurgeon saying “no wonder, no wonder” regarding my pain, and he cleaned up the mess the orthopedic surgeon had left in 2000 and 2003.

In 2022, the jelly has spilled out of the disc doughnut yet again. I am needing the same surgery by the same neurosurgeon, a 40-minute procedure. However, he’s also offered that “about 87% of these” (herniations) resolve themselves.

The pain did not send me screaming to the ER—just a lot of stay-at-home F-bombs—so impossible to ignore, and in the beginning so severe, I had to use my wheelchair any time I cooked or did the dishes. Standing was almost impossible so getting into my tub/shower was out of the question. It was bathroom sponge baths and washing my hair at the kitchen sink, while sitting in my wheelchair for about two weeks.

Still, I am reluctant to pursue a fourth laminectomy so I am playing the neurosurgeon’s percentages but without Sue, my favorite physical therapist who has seen me through two hip replacements and a fractured pelvis. However, she did do the initial physical therapy (PT) intake.

Ours was a long conversation, and the flipside view of this turn of the dime was once again not what I expected.

Sue all but said I should have the surgery followed by physical therapy (PT) rather than PT and then surgery.

“I have history with laminectomies, remember?” I start to tell her the 2010 ER story and she waves me off.

“This pain once sent you screaming to the emergency room, and with you, that’s saying something,” she says, and then checks off boxes on her tablet.

“But then, I did not understand the nature of pain,” I start to explain and stop. Zen is… otherworldly to her, so I say, “I have a neurosurgeon who is suggesting physical therapy and a physical therapist who is suggesting surgery.”

Sue doesn’t disagree before she explains, “We don’t really know how to fix backs—not medicine, chiropractors, physical therapy, or acupuncture.”

I nod. I have tried them all, even naturopathy but I keep that to myself.

“We treat symptoms with a 50-50 chance for success. In comparison, the success rate for knee or hip replacement is 96%.” Sue throws up her hands as if to say, get it?

She knows I have wrapped my head around that 87% figure of this herniation resolving itself with physical therapy and the few yoga poses I can do. As in 2010, I’m not seeing that the dime has turned but Sue has.

In what appears apropos of nothing she says, “You know with myelopathy all bets are off.”

I nod. My spinal cord is short circuited— it has dead spots in places—a daily mystery as to what nerves will fire when or if at all.

“At some time, whether it’s today or years from now, you have got to get a power wheelchair,” Sue says. And I know she says this with 30+ years of experience as a physical therapist who truly loves her profession.

Using the manual wheelchair is exhausting and not a good fit with the nerve damage in my hands and arms. And it’s heavy for my friends and Lyft drivers to maneuver. A lightweight, foldable power chair would take me to my apartment building lobby to get my mail, allow me to take my recycle items to the bins, keep me out and about without the constant concern of falling.

My gut tells me Sue’s right but her words land with a thud. I didn’t think I was “there” yet and why does that bother me so much? It feels ableist because it is. It is eerily reminiscent of the ER attending physician only this time, I’m the one with the attitude.

“Maintaining my independence is based upon my not falling,” I say, as I look at Sue who clearly has nothing more to say.

A power wheelchair will mitigate the risk of falling just as my three-wheeled walker still does but myelopathy is progressive so it…progresses. A disc herniation is a distraction, a weakness with no spinal cord involvement, but nonetheless a signal of the flipside view of life’s turning dime.

Life as a Pirate: A Love Like No Other

Note: Regular readers may recognize the picture of these four young pirates or remember a bit of the previous post but writing, like memory, is a collage of images—the who, what, when, or why—jostling for time and space. Each revisiting reveals another perspective. 

It is Dad who turns me into a pirate for Halloween. Particularly impressive is the way he ties that scarf around my head, perhaps the last time I ever wear it. I was not a girly girl. I don’t remember what we used for my pirate sash but it was impressively blood red and ran to my calf. I doubt I told Dad how impressed I was or whether I even thanked him for this moment that was so good for both of us. And my mustache has a bit of a French flair to it, doesn’t it? I looked good!

Yup, that’s me on the far right.

My mom uses pinking shears to create my black eyepatch. She knew her way around any piece of cloth. I wonder if I thanked her. Probably not. If nothing else, I was consistent in my thoughtless pre-teenage angst.

It is a financial stretch for my parents to buy black, corduroy slacks (as my pants were called) but they read the Halloween invitation dress requirements carefully. This is my first slumber party, and my parents like these girls—a lot. Maybe what they like most is who I am when I am with them. Sometimes, I bring the glow of their friendship home with me.

All four of us are 12 in 1964. We have been in junior high for two months.

Maurya is the witch with the fading pirate mustache. She had always been a witch for trick-or-treating but for us, the mustache. She was so good at making a witch and a pirate work together, as if they always had. She did that kind of thing all her life.

And the witch-pirate is the reason this is not a Halloween post anymore.

Maurya exuded equanimity, and I suppose in our own way we knew that; I would not have known the word but the other three, probably. It’s just that she seemed to know everything without ever seeming to know everything. Who would not want to stand in the light of that witch-pirate?

Nancy is the pirate next to Maurya. Then Jeré, the party host, next to me.

For reasons understood only by junior high girls, we will not remain friends with the party host. Even Maurya was not too enthusiastic about the way Jeré popped the bands of the braces on her teeth—food on the fly. It probably was uncomfortable for Jeré, as she said, but it made Nancy gag, and the gag reflex won the day. And I think there was some issue about Nancy’s boyfriend living too close to Jeré. First romances are drama like no other, also for reasons understood only by junior high girls.

Jeré was the only child of much older parents who did their best to give her the world as she had come to expect but what teenage girl didn’t believe the world was hers? She moved away within that school year (I think), and I hope she found what I did with Maurya and Nancy.

The three pirates go on for 52 years—together with separate lives and never disconnected—no distance too great to come a runnin’. In 2014, the witch-pirate sails into the sunset for the last time. Nancy and I are adrift for a while but love eventually puts the wind in our sails. Today, Maurya would’ve been 70.

I no longer think about calling her but it is the rare day that I don’t think of her at all. The love is greater than the loss, the gratitude for over 50 years of friendship immense, enough for the years I live without her. Or so I tell myself every moment I reach for our friendship, the light in my stars, sunlight on pond waters, moonlight waxing or waning.

The witch-pirate did not suffer fools nor was she unkind, ever. She understood people have only their kind of love to give; she knew that often our shortcomings and our strengths are one and the same. And on this birthday and every day I think of her, the image of two lines, in her handwriting, comes into view:

Never cast aside your friends if by any possibility you can retain them. It is easy to lose a friend but a new one will not come for the calling nor make up for the old one. And when it is death that comes calling, the loss is no less.

But what of the two adventurous pirates still sailing the sea of unconditional friendship, 58 years and counting. They are now virtually connected every month in what is eerily similar to the 3 ½-4-hour phone calls they knew as teenagers. Nancy and I might be more different than alike, and we have set sail for opposing seas from time-to-time but our friendship always closed the distance.

We do not see eye-to-eye on politics or religion, if we were to list our points for argument but that’s not how we roll. We talk about what we know to be true and that puts every subject on the table without labels. We were fortunate to find love during years when we needed it most and it has withstood the events and years of our lives. Might as well cut off an arm rather than lose this testament of friendship.

Nancy is much better at setting the table at our monthly virtual meetings than I am, and it is so hard to leave her each time. There may be a day we just stay permanently connected—virtually—we already take food, drink, and bathroom breaks so maybe naps are next.

On December 19 Nancy is 70. Happy birthday, me hearties!

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.

 

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.

Moments That Change Everything

Perhaps on no other day is the nature of fear and fearlessness more apparent than on the winter solstice, the celebration of dark during a season given to light. Tonight, the quarter moon reveals the yin and yang of life, its phase equally light and dark.

A rather somber opening for a solstice celebration but these days are darkened by a pandemic that kills thousands—incredibly, thousands—every day. No sentence is darker than that. Yet, there is the promise of a vaccine; like the solstice it is the promise of lighter days. The science of stuff gives a glimmer of hope, and the rest is up to us.

Too given to fear, we often stay in the dark much longer than we need, not only at a high cost to ourselves but to the planet. We too soon forget that fearlessness is not being without fear but facing what scares us the most, the light of day, revealing who and what we are. Transformation. The winter solstice marks its beginning.

For over 30 years now, the winter solstice is inextricably intertwined with a quarter moon night, both black and bright, in a southwestern Wyoming town that has become known to me as Fossil. No such place really exists but the land of the fossil fishes does. There, life is in layers with occasional interruptions in the laminae—the moments that change everything—it’s a place I lived and then later it became its own story, and every December, I return to begin anew. Sometimes, I actually do.

Jillian drives west on Interstate 80, searching the brittle, white Wyoming landscape for highway marker 189. Unending waves of prairie snow-crust keep her from locating the lone highway marker, but the broad, green-and-white exit sign that reads “Fossil” is not to be missed. She turns onto a narrow, two-lane highway that looks and drives like a one-way street. This is the high plains desert, 6,900 feet, covered in glistening snow crust that will not melt until June is the last thought she allows herself before arriving at the house on Ruby Street, on the night of the winter solstice quarter moon.

In the clear cold of midnight, Jillian looks at an Independent Realty photograph that had been taken the previous May when burnt orange poppies surrounded the once white clapboard Ruby Street house now covered in a false, red brick front that sags. Nubs of native grasses dotted the wind worn grounds; seven aging cottonwoods bordered the back and sides of the corner lot. Sweeping, broad limbs of a lone blue spruce provided perpetual shade for the front porch. And facing the eastern scallops of Oyster Ridge, with its fumaroles from long abandoned coal mines, was a cherry tree heavy with blossom, magnificent in its breadth.

But this is the winter solstice and there are no blossoms, poppies, or grasses, nubs or no; just the fumarole gas plumes in the moonlight, somewhat like Yellowstone’s geysers, as they start to signal their burst. But this is not the fantasy of Yellowstone. It is life at timberline, a harsh cold beauty for the very few. The fumarole plumes will fade with the night but the gas is ever present if not always seen.

In the -2° crystalline landscape, the snow beneath Jillian’s boot all but shatters with her every step. Everything looks and feels cold enough to break at the touch of her glove so she is careful as she turns the key in the front door of the first house built in Fossil at the turn of the 20th century, the Madam’s home. Standing on its threshold, there seems a sliver of possibility Jillian has found her way home. Maybe it is the magic of the solstice with its yin and yang moon, yet in the stillness of the dark, the light swirls as she lets a life lived end and a life she has not, begin.

“Transformation always involves the falling away of things we have relied on, and we are left with the feeling that the world as we know it is coming to an end because it is” (Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening).

An Ounce of Compassion

Truth, like light, blinds. Falsehood, on the contrary, is a beautiful twilight that enhances every object (Albert Camus).

Mount Rainier Len Huber Photo

I. An ounce of compassion is all I need.

While Trump was in the hospital those first 24 hours, compassion dominated social media (in word and meme). If we could feel for him, there might be a way through this time of Trump but that would’ve been too easy.

Before the election, I had a brief exchange on Twitter with a young woman who was wondering whether Donald Trump would gain her eternal soul. As a disabled, newly unemployed, young black woman, she had lost pretty much everything so it was to her soul she clung.

The very fact that she was asking, I offered, showed she could still feel for another being, regardless of circumstances. Compassion doesn’t require much. An ounce will do. She had this I assured her.

Compassion does not live at the surface of our emotions but at their core, an inward journey, fraught with detours and maybe requiring a dark night of the soul—or two—for truth, like light, blinds….

In almost unfathomable numbers, Americans are dying as Trump ignores COVID, desperately seeking his next gig for the money he needs almost as much as the power he craves. Republicans stay complicit in their silence. They fear life with him as much as they fear him gone. They do not seem to fear for their souls, however.

Vulnerability is what wakes us at four in the morning.

It’s what causes our hearts to race and panic to rise in our throats.

It’s where our skin wears thin, where our armor and our self-contained walls cannot withstand the truth of what’s happening.

And because of this, it is the exact place we can recognize our interdependence with all things.

This is how we become free, and it is where deep hope is to be found (Diane Eshin Rizzetto)*

Len Huber Photo

II. So, now I have a Eureka robot vacuum. I have been saving for it, initially because I truly loathe household chores of any kind but in particular, vacuuming and sweeping.

Both have become if not impossible, very risky chores to do while using a three-wheeled walker. So, I saved for “Euri,” as I have come to call him, and although I was certain I must supervise, it turns out I’m not needed. In fact, it’s best if I’m not in the room at all. Like the recliner, I am an obstacle.

It is true if you live long enough, some chores will become obsolete. Who knew there was that kind of joy.

Euri favors what I can only describe as a horizontal pattern of cleaning, not exactly a zigzag but always on alert for the most efficient cleaning angle. Sometimes his pattern is an isosceles triangle, while other times an obtuse one but always the angles are acute. There is little to none of the mundane up-one-row and down another. The corners and edges I avoided he favors.

Euri’s sensors are exact and his patience everlasting. No matter how many times he bumps into obstacles, he adjusts and adapts. And when he reaches 20% of his battery power, he returns to his docking station and recharges. He beeps to let me know he’s “home.”

The other day, Euri discovered the area under my bed. I had hoped that would not happen but he is not to be denied when he’s in the room. It wasn’t too long before Euri stopped, the signal for me to empty his dust cup and clean his roller, which I did and then returned him to duty. But he’d had enough and returned to his docking station. After all, it is dark under my bed, the dust is deep, and sometimes, monsters be there.

The intelligence may be artificial but its application feels human. Our interdependence with all things…is how we become free, and it is where deep hope is to be found.

Perhaps I will yet find that ounce of compassion.

Kristin MacDonald Photo

 

* Excerpt from Deep Hope: Zen Guidance for Staying Steadfast When the World Seems Hopeless by Diane Eshin Rizzetto, pages 13–14.

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

A World Away

Some days I live as a hologram of pure light, weightless life walking white sand trails of ancient, longleaf pine forests to sit at the river’s mouth where pirate ships once anchored.

That is my current hologram moment. I have as many as my mind’s eye can conjure but most days my meditative state is anything but light, without the weight of life and its constant questions, and that is how it should be, full of potential and exhausting. Sometimes, I just need to be a world away.

Nearing the end of my sixth decade I “no longer wander lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth “when the world is too much with me” but rather, I look to video games and holograms. Never would I have imagined my 19th century romanticism–with all its possibilities–giving way to 2020, the year that may never end, but here I am.

Maybe the future is holograms. It has been said before. And it is attractive in a time of pandemic that is revealing every one of us for what we are not, beings of light. We are not burdened by compassion but by its lack. In the United States we are raw by our history of white people taking from people of color, century after century.

Will we finally own our history and tell it all by including everyone who was there so we can learn who we really are? There is no future if we do not own who we have been. The history of humanity is proof of that. History is not about statues being pulled down (or put up), renaming streets/bridges–most symbols have a use by date–slapping on new labels will not bring back the dead or undo the deed. Statues and streets are not history. They mark moments, mostly inaccurately, it seems.

How we live with each other is our history. It is what we pass on to the future, and it has been a heavy load for each generation. There is no reason to pass on a burden. Never has been. Every once in a while, we realize that and decide to do something about it. Once again, we have an opportunity to lighten the load for the future by embracing equality as what defines the social order. There is no justice without it.

I am of that 60s generation that changed so much and failed to do so much more. All I know is it takes generations to change who we are, and it’s worth it to stay the course.

Some days I live like a hologram, light and unfettered, as if I were the outlier branch of a bush, catching the first bit of a breeze–life as it arrives, a current breaking stillness–before it makes its way through every other branch and leaf.

You’d think we make time for such moments, but we are too busy living in the past or the future, ignoring what is possible in the moment we have. We lack the solidarity to wear a mask to keep each other safe. It is not compassion that is the American burden but our exceptional individualism, and it is proving to be a killer.

On Twitter, a woman told me that 28 minutes of sunshine would kill COVID-19. Months long quarantines are the worst thing for the body, she said, so she would be spending her time on the beach, building up her immunity naturally while the rest of us live or die.

I don’t mind wearing a mask and didn’t before I was introduced to the “buff” by my friends at Musa Musala. When I’m not using it as a mask, I wear it as a neck scarf, and in the winter I may wear one as a beanie. On days that I am a hologram sitting by the river, it is my pirate head scarf.

Change offers us a lot to explore when the landscape we knew is no more. We’re given a new life lens for new lands. Life is not as it was. This has been happening to humanity for tens of thousands of years but the world is smaller than ever now and the planet nearly exhausted by life.

I wear a mask because I hope for humanity–still. I may be even more determined than I was in the 60s, not to be in the forefront but to support those who are. This is the time for their ideas for it is their world. I know some of what they feel and why they fight. For me, most of the letting go of life has happened but its image remains, “super realistic” like the hologram, life through light.

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.

Ours to Lose

Robert Browning maintained that art is the “one way possible of speaking truth.” After all, each of us experiences the world through our life lens and no one else’s. It’s how we know what we know. It’s what we believe.

There is no universal truth, only its experience. And for revealing that we have art, a tapestry of truth that reveals each individual experience into one. We all have words but few make art and even fewer avoid artifice.

If you watched any of the impeachment hearings, you heard both art and artifice. Not difficult to distinguish between the two but it’s important that we do. That there is yet life in this ragged republic no thanks to Congress or to the executive branch but to career service diplomats, people like you and me.

Against a backdrop of obstruction, these patriots spoke truth to power with an eloquence that comes only with conviction and courage. As long as there is one patriot, the hope of our republic lives. But hope is not a savior nor has it ever been. It lights the way. You know, the obstacle is the path or the path or is the obstacle. Regardless, our way is through.

As a candidate, the current president bragged that he could shoot someone on fifth Avenue in New York City in broad daylight and “not lose any voters.” So far, he is not wrong, but saying that is not what impeachment is about. We have a president who would be king. Over 240 years ago we fought a revolution against all that is king and later we wrote a constitution spelling out that a president is not a dictator.

Is it the Constitution that hasn’t aged well or is it that we just cannot live up to its possibility? The light of day, the reveal of any art, is the truth of its time, no matter the dust of artifice. Art is the work of mere mortals but truth ever evolves; light reveals the what and who of existence without a moral cast–truth’s tapestry.

Ironically, there is one canvas “both sides” claim–November 8, 2016. The country lost that night, no matter who became president. It was our election to lose and we did; we gave in to divisiveness. Diplomat Fiona Hill made that point during the impeachment hearings: the politics of party over country is the death knell of democracy. Without the diversity of diplomacy, there is no liberty.

It’s the history of humanity that truth never lasts long. It wouldn’t for it is not stagnant. Within each one of us are two wolves, one light and one dark, our “both sides.” It is ours to heed the howl of both; at our peril we deny one over the other.

It is no less true for our country. The hour is ours to hear the wolves, to separate art from artifice, to live up to the possibility of republic. It really is ours to lose.