I’ve got a piece up on Vandaleer about the recent West Virginia Writers’ Conference.
Writing about writers, knowing writers will be reading what I writered about them – geez. No pressure, man.
I’ve got a piece up on Vandaleer about the recent West Virginia Writers’ Conference.
Writing about writers, knowing writers will be reading what I writered about them – geez. No pressure, man.
The first nature column is up on Weelunk.
Have a dead tree in your yard? Don’t be too hasty about taking it down.
I endured a rough patch in April and May. As the weather refused to warm, I engaged in regular self-abuse and derision at my perceived lack of success. I received many a rejection letter for my book. Autoimmune brain fog hampered every effort to write something new (as evidenced by the silence on this site). Spring was a real shit show in writer-land. I was ready to give up and go to law school.
But with the West Virginia Writers’ Conference and the boost of self-confidence I gained in winning that competition, I feel now that I’m still on the right path, and that forward momentum is key to staying out of that mental pit.
Weelunk, Wheeling’s alternative news and blogging platform, has given me a golden opportunity. Every alum of Chatham University’s nature writing program dreams of an opportunity to reach out with their words, to affect positive ecological change. I’ve been given this chance.
My regular Weelunk column, Valley Views & Varmints, will soon be debuting on Weelunk and appearing with regularity!
Yesterday, a picture of me looking sweaty and bedraggled appeared in an introductory post.
Thanks, summer, for your bounty.
I’m pleased to write about another fantastic trip down to Ripley where I and two of my fellow Ohio Valley Writers attended the 40th West Virginia Writers’ Conference at Cedar Lakes. I won three awards: honorable mention and first place for two essays in the non-fiction category, in which I competed against 56 other brilliant writers, and second place in the Pearl S. Buck Award for Writing for Social Change category.
What makes the West Virginia Writers’ Conference special, I think, is West Virginia itself. I’ve been to other writing conferences. I went to AWP in Washington, D.C. in February, and it was very businesslike, very efficient. AWP is a monster machine, with hundreds of panels, hundreds of publishers, and thousands of people. I learned a lot at AWP. I also wore myself out to the point of exhaustion. And while I did do some networking, the crowds made it difficult to really forge any new connections from scratch. It’s hard to remember faces in such a literary cacophony, and the faces who did invite me to submit my manuscript said no thank-you several months later. In a perfectly nice way, mind you.
West Virginia Writers is like camp. We’re a small state and a ferociously proud one. And while the news will never tell you that we’re full of word artists, they come out of the hollers for this event, and they’re a most enjoyable crowd. They’re friendlier than church-folk, even. West Virginia writers are like puppies: they wag their tails when you show up and welcome you with excitement.
Plus, there’s moonshine. Apple pie flavored. Meta bonus points because I was drinking moonshine while bathing in the Strawberry Moon’s shine.
I learned things, but more importantly, I connected with the other writers in a way I did not do at AWP or any other conference I’ve attended. These are folks with whom you can sit down at any meal in the dining hall – quite literally just plop yourself down with strangers – and become friendly and feel supported. There are no jerks. There are no douchebags. We are bonded by our West Virginian-ness.
And in our state, that’s not a bond to underestimate. Our love of our home, despite all of the negativity it endures from both the inside and the outside, emerges in conversation. It spills out in workshop when the leader asks who returned to West Virginia after living elsewhere and twenty hands shoot up. We are not only proud to be from West Virginia; we are all in love with West Virginia. And no matter how many times we land in the 49th spot on an unenviable list, we resist that label. We’re more than an opioid addiction. We’re more than an incest joke or a color on a political map. This place is our home, our bloodline. And that blood runs through the veins of this conference, too. Our state is our spectacular main character; it creates our narrative tension and our blessed resolution.
Does this kinship flow at other conferences? I cannot fathom a Manhattan writers’ convention. I can’t imagine passing a group of New York writers sitting beside a bonfire and being invited to join them. In what other world can I approach an esteemed author and come away with a hug or an invitation to call them up for a chat? Who else might toss me a cold beer and exchange a few bad-cat stories or an hour of bluegrass music?
At every writers’ conference, I come away with something of value: a new technique, a business card, a signed book. When I leave Cedar Lakes, I’m also coming home with a renewed sense of community, of deep and enduring pride to be a West Virginian. From the hollers and panhandles of our state the writers come forth for this annual pilgrimage, and though it’s writing that brings us together, it’s our love of our land that we truly share.
This year we took an oath. We swore to support one another in literature and friendship, to remember the great authors who wrote before us:
And we remain a pack, as the pledge suggests. For forty years the West Virginia Writers have kept the torch burning in support of one another, of the story tradition. It’s one I’m so proud to be a part of.
There’s nothing like a weekend away at Piedmont Lake to really clear the head and calm the soul.
I got the weekend away, but it wasn’t so much clearing and calming as it was chaos and calamity. I don’t know why minor accidents follow my family around everywhere, but in three days Ben spilled six drinks, Nugget broke a glass and tore a screen, Maya pooped on four different neighbors’ lawns, and Shawn popped Ben’s favorite raft with a nail.
Still, it’s good to be out there. A few hours feels like a few days when the sound of traffic and sirens and television are quelled.
Ah, the glorious silence of nature.
In addition, I finally got to play with my birthday gift: the paddle board I’ve been wanting for years but have always been too cheap to buy. We’ve enjoyed our kayaks for years, but stand-up-paddling is an entirely different kind of fun. The kind that promises both exercise and humiliation.
It’s been a chilly May. Consequently, the water temperature hovered somewhere around 75. Great if you’re a bass; not so much if you’re a swimmer. It didn’t bother Andy at all. The boy is impervious to cold. Ben, however, spent most of his weekend wet and blue-lipped, shivering yet refusing to get out of the water until I forced him into a hot shower.
Everybody got a chance to paddleboard, though.
I’m proud to say I’m the only one who didn’t fall off. And while that may have more to do with the new prescription sunglasses I was wearing, I like to think it’s just because I’ve got the balance of a Flying Wallenda.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much skill to go around.
A few weeks ago I had a series of interactions with jerks. A rude man on the phone, an argumentative dental insurance company operator, and a neighbor who gave her handyman permission to drive his truck on our lawn, leaving wet, muddy ruts. Jerks come in threes, I think, like disasters.
On such days, the world feels overstimulating and abrasive, like a cheese grater on my arm. People present their worst selves in clusters, and I want to respond by being a jerk back. A bigger, snappier, more clever jerk, but a jerk nonetheless. An eye for an eye.
But my parents raised me to rise above. Don’t be petty. Don’t be petulant. Do the right thing. Be kind. These are the values we all try to impart upon our children and for good reason. We can’t all be jerks, and we cannot exist as a society if we only exist for ourselves. We need to make an effort to get along, to extend the olive branch often, for the betterment of everyone’s lives. Sometimes, that means swallowing what a jerk dishes out for the sake of moving past the moment.
It’s easy to take that high road to an unhealthy extreme, though.
I always take the high road. Always. You can count on me never to start a fight. To play it safe and calm and cool. And I don’t think that’s necessarily something to brag about. My regular refusal to engage in any sort of confrontation really means I lack spirit. I don’t stand up for myself. I’m not up here trotting along the high road on my moral high horse. No way. I’m here because I’m suffering from elevated levels of door-matitude.
Unfortunately, door-matitude is tricky to overcome because I’ve allowed it to persist for so long. It’s easy to tell myself that I’m doing the mature thing by turning away from a jerk and refusing to engage them. What I’m often doing is letting them off the hook because it’s hard to step up. To further complicate the matter, there’s a distinct difference between solidly standing up for myself and acting like a petty little weasel. Everyone should practice the former, whereas weasels just make trouble. (They steal your keys and hide them under the couch every chance they get.) But as healthy as it would be to practice assertiveness, it would also feel really good to let my petulant inner punk out of the bag.
My friend Thomas once claimed I wasn’t the kind of person who started the fight; I was just the person who ran in at the end and kicked the loser when he or she was on the ground. But he was wrong. I’m nowhere near the fight. I’m the person sitting on the fence, watching, where nobody can accuse me of taking a side or throwing a punch or being anything less than totally neutral.
Talk about a weasel. That’s not even neutrality. That’s just wishy-washy.
I don’t know where I got my wishy-washiness, but I have plenty of examples in my family of people who not only stand up for themselves, but also allow themselves the pleasure of a little pettiness, now and again. No one could ever accuse Shawn of being wishy-washy. Recently, we received a notice from our neighbors about our trees. Our yard is bordered by a row of townhouses. The back porches look right into our yards, and the owners routinely tell maintenance workers to their drive big trucks on our lawn without so much as asking our permission. (And that’s the thing: we’d totally say yes if they did.) One worker borrowed a wheelbarrow, trashed it, and drove off without a word. Another broke off a tree branch.
When a cantankerous letter arrived demanding that we remove our pine trees from their view, we declined to do so. We did, however, trim the branches that had grown into their airspace and cleaned up some of the overgrowth. At this point, I’d have been content to let the whole affair fizzle and diffuse. Not Shawn. He wasn’t done, and went out and bought two more baby pine trees, specimens which will grow rapidly to heights of 40 feet and will block the neighbors’ view of our yard. And the sunset. And the sky. He enjoyed every minute of it, and he tends to those trees as he would his children.
How I envy both his carefree ability to say to the jerks, “Screw you guys,” and the smile on his face very time we talk about the baby trees. They hold the sweet promise of years of completely legal neighborly annoyance. I’d have let the neighbors push me around, but Shawn just plants more trees.
Hopefully, Shawn will impart upon our kids the desire to take less crap than their mother does. I want my children to feel confident when they take a position. I want them to know they’re on the side that aligns with their moral compass. Wishy-washiness and door-matitude will never serve them. Not only does fence-sitting show weak moral character, but you also spend a lot of time bent over in the bathroom plucking splinters out of your ass.
Benjamin has never displayed the attributes of a fence-sitter. He always knows where he stands, and that’s right there in the thick of the fray, brawling for all he’s worth. Andy, on the other hand, takes after his mother. He’s anxious, he’s slow to act, and he’s always worried about doing the right thing.
Recently, Andy’s fourth-grade class spent several weeks participating in the World Peace Games. They divided up into various countries and tribes, and together they worked through crises and learned how a global society functions, for better or for worse. Andy was assigned membership in a small tribe with few members.
He was also secretly given the role of the game saboteur.
I wondered how this would affect him. The saboteur’s job is to ruin things at just the right moment, e.g. poisoning the cattle, introducing disease, and dropping atomic bombs. Timing is everything, and if Andy was found out and convicted in World Peace court, his part of the game would be over. Plenty rode on his ability to be sneaky and snarky and devious, and I wondered if he would find the intestinal fortitude to take it on. Yet he had an enviable job, I’d say. Specifically given permission and instructed to throw a monkey wrench into everything.
I’d love to go back to eighth grade and drop an atomic bomb on the girl who told me my ideas were stupid, and to shut my fat mouth before she smacked it.
For the first week Andy seemed a little hesitant. He made it out like he was waiting for the right moment, but I thought maybe the idea of souring everything felt wrong to him. He had friends in various countries and tribes. He’s a sweet soul who feels uncomfortable when the people he cares about are uncomfortable. In the car after school my desire to live vicariously as a person who not only eschews the fence but blows it up entirely grew stronger each time he told me he was waiting for the right moment to strike.
Waiting for the right moment. I’ve said that many times as a way to justify inaction. When I don’t want to take a side or take a stand, I pull the I’m waiting card. And I worried that Andy might do the same.
And then one Tuesday he got into the car with a fat-cat smile.
“How was school?” I asked him.
“Oh, it was great,” he said. And continued to grin.
“Well,” he said. “The members of my tribe were real jerks today.”
“Oh buddy,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah. They were so mean. They told me I was going to ruin everything.” He smirked. “So I just decided I would.”
I held my breath for a second. “And?” I asked.
“I poisoned my own tribe’s water.” The smirk turned into a toothy grin as he leaned back against the seat and added, “Some of them burst into tears.”
Apparently, I won’t be plucking splinters out of Andy’s bum after all.
Give it a read!
Our next door neighbors are moving out. They’re not just moving across town; we won’t be able to “meet in the middle” somewhere and have lunch. Meeting in the middle would require me to make reservations in Kansas City, and that’s a long way to go unless I’m really craving ribs. They’re going to Phoenix, to live near their family and be with their grandkids.
And I hate it.
My family owns three houses together, in a row on National Road, built by my ancestors one-hundred years ago. My parents live in House #1, I live in House #2, and House #3 is a rental property. We’ve rented it to businesses and we’ve rented it to families. I honestly think I prefer renting it as an office space. Workers show up at 9am and depart at 5. They’re not there on Saturday mornings when I’m feeding my fish in my Hello Kitty fleece pants. They’re not there staring out the window on a Sunday afternoon watching me read a book and scratch my butt. And most importantly, they’re not there to talk to me and be my friend. Because in a rental home, friendships always end in heartbreak.
Some lovely tenants have rented these homes. When I was growing up, a family with five children moved in next door. That day, heaven opened its doors and sent to me, a lonely six-year-old with a boring baby brother, an endless supply of playmates. Our dads built a two-story clubhouse for us. We put on circuses in the backyard and watched Inspector Gadget and He-Man every afternoon. We rode Big Wheels on the driveway and played kickball on summer evenings. And then they had to move out and my heart broke. They moved only a mile down the street, but we went our separate ways as children tend to do when they’re out of sight of one another.
Other memorable and kind families lived in these houses, but just as memorable were the losers. The family to whom my mom, then pregnant with me, gave a puppy she found on the roadside. They tied it up out back and threw water on it when it barked. (She took the dog back.) The people who moved out and left three-quarters of everything they owned for my father and uncle to sort through for four months; the people who moved out and left all of the dirty diapers. And let’s not forget the dude who ran a travel agency scam out of the house. As the FBI was breaking down the door in the front, he was bolting out the back . (We inherited his couch, though I suspect it was tainted with bad vacation mojo given that, for several years in a row, we were plagued with ill-timed weather and a disturbing recurrence of the same awful episode of Suzanne Somers’ 90’s sitcom Step by Step).
Some jerk hammered nails into the beautiful mantles, to hang Christmas lights or stockings or homemade venison sausage. A group of Mormons moved in and somehow released a dwarf hamster named Gray Cloud, only to find it a few weeks later flattened on the road out front. Their kid put holes in our hose with a set of darts.
The jerks are easy to hate, but they’re also so easy to say goodbye to. Though they may leave chaos when they move out, they also take with them a dark cloud of irritation. Boy are we glad those idiots are gone, we say, and then we turn our hopes to the future because the next tenants might be freaking awesome. That’s a grand feeling. It’s like opening a wedding gift to find a tasseled silk throw pillow with your faces on it. It’s appalling, but there’s no way that the next gift won’t be an improvement.
The next gift, the next tenants, were freaking awesome. Sue and Ernie were our friends. They fit in here, and that’s never an easy feat to accomplish because it takes a special family to live in these old Victorian homes. They’re hard to heat, hard to cool. Stairs creak. Ceilings crack. Sometimes water drips down. Once in a while a bat swoops in. While you’re waiting for the shower to heat up you can knit a cowl or write a sonnet; none of the plugs fit the outlets. You need an adaptor. You need a fan. You need pliars. You need a repair guy. There’s a door that won’t shut; a window that won’t open. The kitchen floor slopes to the northwest. The porch kinda sags. There’s a squirrel in the attic. Wrens live in the mailbox.
I once calculated how many times I ascend and descend stairs in my house, on an average day. The number was 64. So in addition to deep pockets for the utility bills and patience with critters in your personal space, you’ll also need healthy knee joints. Because don’t think for a second that the laundry machines are going to be anywhere near the bedroom. That’s right, buddy. The washer is two floors below you, and somebody plastered over the old laundry chute. Start hauling.
Notice: House for rent! Charming old Victorian rich with history. Good bones. High ceilings. Lots of character. Stately entryway with dark wood stairs.
When you find a tenant who sees beyond the quirks and annoyances in your old house, you’ve found a kindred spirit. I’m not here for ease of living or an unburdened bank account. I live here because this is my ancestral home. A tenant, however, shouldn’t be expected to understand or appreciate these things. It’s just a rental, after all. They move in for a few years, and then they move out and move on.
My friends, Sue and Ernie, did appreciate these things. Maybe not the 64 trips up and down the stairs. Maybe not the bats in August. But they knew they’d been woven into the tapestry of a family’s legacy. And in so doing, they became part of our family. When neighbors choose to cross the property line, boundaries blur. When I look at photos of my kids playing outside, I see Sue and Ernie’s house in the background. When I look at Sue’s photos of her yard, her visiting grandchildren, I see my house in the background. We became part of each other’s landscapes.
When I told Ben and Andy that Sue and Ernie were moving back to Phoenix to be with their grandkids, Benjamin said, “But I thought we were their grandkids.” I understand his sentiment. These days, I have many wonderful acquaintances who drift in and out of my day. I know a lot of kind, friendly people. But I have very few dear friends. And as I pause to get up from my desk and realize they’ve just driven away for the last time, I know I now have even fewer.
Next time, I’m not falling for this love-thy-neighbor stuff. I’m sticking to my side of the fence. I’m going to wave and go about my business and never get attached again. No more drinks on the porch. No more happy holiday barbecues and birthday parties. No more hugs, no more chit chat and laughter.
Come on, crappy tenants. Come take a look at the house. Meet your new neighbors. We promise to be gruff and rude and blare music and never share a margarita on the deck. We promise to keep our shades drawn and leave our dogs out to bark. You can rent the house, but don’t fall in love with us.
Because we can’t let ourselves fall in love with you.
Autoimmune problems start slowly. Sneakily. Autoimmune is a ninja. By the time you realize you don’t feel well, it’s been hiding in the bushes for years, getting to know you and your body. If you woke up one day, as we do with the flu or a norovirus, and felt awful, you’d know you were sick. You’d know something was wrong, that your body was under attack. But when the symptoms come on so slowly that you don’t even notice them, it becomes a psychological game rather than a physiological one. Perhaps in September, you take a few extra naps. In February, you get your third bad sinus infection and bronchitis. In June, your bones hurt. In October, you spend an extra hour in a recliner. In January, you find yourself declining invitations from friends. The change happens so slowly that you’re not even aware you’re deteriorating. But after two years, you’ve gone from an active, happy person to an exhausted couch potato, and you can’t quite remember how or when it happened, but you don’t think you used to be this way, and you’re pretty sure you once had more energy, and some vague feeling tells you this shouldn’t be normal.
But the doctor’s tests say you’re normal. You went several times and returned home with assurances that your body isn’t sick. There’s no infection, no evidence of cancer. You’ve been tested for Lyme Disease and mono. Your thyroid is working and you’re not anemic. You have, however, been asked if you’re under a lot of stress and if your spouse is supportive and if you would like to try something to stabilize your mood. In the absence of any other diagnosis, you’ve probably said yes to the antidepressant, even though it nauseates you in the evenings.
My autoimmune ninja crept into my life in just this way. Quietly. I don’t even remember which symptom came first. Was it the neck pain or the heartburn? Was it the fatigue or the anxiety? The dry eyes or the stomach problems? Was it the sensitive teeth? The receding gums? Was it the bone-breaking pain of phantom influenza that came and went at random? Was it the foggy sensation that crept into my brain and made me forget a face I knew well, recall the title of a book I loved (mortifying in an MFA program), call Andy by his brother’s name, or follow simple directions?
I don’t know. But a year or two after Benjamin was born, I told my family doctor something was wrong. He felt knots in my upper back and neck and gave me injections of cortisone in these trigger points. He told me to take vitamins. He gave me an anti-depressant to help with pain and sadness. He adjusted my neck and prescribed a muscle relaxer.
I saw him many times over the next three years. Stomach problems. Migraines. Flu aches. Urinary tract infections. Back pain. Neck pain. Anxiety. Each time, I left his office with a prescription in my hand for a new pill. Each time, I left his office hopeful that I’d start to feel better and quietly certain I would not.
Eventually, my doctor began to mumble the word fibromyalgia when I’d see him, though he did so quietly. And he refused to write the word in my chart. He said that once the word was in my chart it would be there forever, on every computer and in every doctor’s mind when they treated me. Future doctors would be more likely to prescribe pain pills, or perhaps they’d be more likely to stick to the old theory that it was psychosomatic. I wondered if his reluctance held me back from treatment. Ultimately though, it didn’t matter because a year later his PA would unknowingly write it in my chart. That’s when I understood why he hesitated to commit the diagnosis to digital eternity. That day, I became not just Laura, but Laura Who Has Fibromyalgia.
I understood, once it was written down, that we become our medical conditions. On my own, I was still Laura. To my kids, I was Mommy. To the cat, I was still that clumsy idiot who puts food in the bowl way too slowly. To anyone with a stethoscope around their neck, however, I was “Patient presents signs of fibromyalgia.” That was me. Female, mid-thirties, family history of skin cancer, allergic to sulfa and Cipro, fibromyalgia.
The name of whatever disease you contract carries with it a new blueprint for your future medical endeavors. It’s fun with Greek and Latin. Once you have your very own algia or osis or itis in your chart, they send you to an ologist.
The gastroenterologist looked in my stomach no fewer than four times, took samples of my stomach tissue, and stretched my esophagus to help food go down. (Given that a hearty belch can still propel a Honeycrisp chunk out of my throat and 18 inches across the kitchen table, I’d call his endeavor a failure). He told me to take Prilosec, a proton-pump inhibitor, for my acid issues, which of course could lead to a decrease in bone density and early osteoporosis as well as a heightened risk for a C. difficile, but it was okay because there were pills for those things, too. I also needed to consider Zantac and Prevacid. And everything seemed “fine” to him, overall. No evidence of disease.
Back at my family doctor, I told the PA that my eyes were really dry. And when your eyes are drying out and feeling for all the world like they’re full of silica and charcoal, when you cry and press your sclera (the whites) into the cool mist of a humidifier for the entire length of January, they send you to another ologist. An ophthalmologist. He prescribed drops. He told me to use gel. He told me to use ointment so thick that I walked into a ficus one night. He told me to sleep with a humidifier, to turn off fans and block drafts. He pushed punctal plugs down into my tear ducts to keep the moisture from draining away. He gave me a prescription for Restasis. You know that eyedrop commercial with the pretty ophthalmologist who happens to look like a model? That stuff.
“Be warned,” he said. “It’s very expensive. And you won’t know if it’s working for at least 6-9 months.” I paid $120 for a one-month supply. Later I found out clinical trials had shown Restasis doesn’t even work for people with punctal plugs. When I asked him about it and the $1,080 I’d spent without results, he shrugged.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Come back in four months.”
My mouth dried out, my gums receded and exposed nerves. The fatigue worsened, the aches deepened into my bones. I asked my GP for a Lyme Disease test. And I asked to be tested for Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune disease characterized by dry eyes and dry mouth as well as fatigue and digestive problems. When the blood test detected antibodies for Sjogren’s–another official diagnosis–he wrote it in my chart. And so I became not just Laura with fibromyalgia, but Laura with fibromyalgia and Sjogren’s Syndrome. I became Laura, with autoimmune diseases. There it was, written in my chart. Plural.
There were other ologists: neuro (who insisted I had carpal tunnel and ignored my headaches), gyno (who told me I probably had a cyst and rushed out the door to deliver a baby), and uro (who laid me down on a metal grounding plate and cauterized the inside of my bladder without anesthesia). But the most important ologist for a person with autoimmune problems is the rheumatologist. They are supposed to be the hub of your autoimmune wheel, the doctor who takes over your care, who has spent a lifetime training and learning and trial-ing and error-ing.
I waited for six months to see my new ologist. When I arrived at his office, I had to wait for two hours. He came into the exam room, he reviewed my digital file in silence, and he produced a lab order for bloodwork.
He said, “Seems like Sjogren’s and fibromyalgia. We’ll see what the blood tests say. Come back in six months.” And then he was gone.
There’s a moment when I’m referred to a specialist, to an ologist, in which I’m flooded with hope. I hear my family doctor say, I don’t know how to help you, but here’s someone who can. Here’s someone with an answer for you, who’s spent his or her medical career devoted to people just like you.
But my ologist isn’t devoted to people like me at all. He’s devoted to diseases like mine. He’s devoted to the Latin words in my chart. I just happen to be the living host, the box that contains the puzzle in pieces. I’m far more interesting in my disassembled state.
Find the corner pieces first. Lay them out. Then search for the side pieces. Lay out your framework. Drink tea. Go for a walk. Come back to the puzzle in the future. Take all the time in the world because working a puzzle is a lazy affair, an exercise for a rainy Saturday afternoon when the world moves slowly and life’s urgencies have evaporated.
One piece every six months.
If he ever put the puzzle together, would it be me? Or would it be a Vitruvian Man, his muscles and joints glowing green to indicate a successful treatment of symptoms? Would it be a list of the pills he prescribed me? Would it be a featureless body and a littany of complaints checked off one by one, now addressed and nullified? Neck pain: Tramadol. Stomach issues: Prilosec. Insomnia: Ambien.
Patient’s quality of life: Perfectly acceptable.
Writers consider their words carefully. Endlessly. To the point of madness. When we write, we think. When we revise, we obsess. We delete and replace and delete again. The words must be exact. They must flow. They must be premeditated and thoughtful and absolutely perfect.
That’s writing. When I speak, however, the process isn’t quite so deliberate. Sometimes the things that pop out of my mouth in conversation are really asinine. Like when I plan to respond with either “neat” or “cool” but end up busting out a hearty, “Nool!” Or when a relative stranger asks where my kids are and I reply that they’re duct taped in a closet at home. Not everyone appreciates that sort of comment, I’ve discovered. But just as often, the things that pop out of my mouth are a surprise to me because they’re not just Laura-chatter; they’re statements that reflect my true feelings.
Twice this week I’ve heard myself telling someone that I’d rather be in the woods than around people. The first time, I was sitting with a friend who was asking me if I would be attending a social event this weekend. I grumbled a bit, said yes, and then quipped, “I never go to social events. I’d rather be in the woods.”
Two days later, I had a similar conversation with a different friend. “I don’t like to come out of the woods,” I said, in reference to socializing. “I prefer trees to people.”
On a side note, this week I finally earned my Kooky Hermit Badge from the Girl Scouts of America. It’s one of the hardest badges to earn because it requires an intense effort to be both antisocial and muddy at all times. Nailed it!
It’s true. I’d rather be in the woods than celebrating or drinking or visiting or eating. Now, it’s also true that when I eat lunch with friends, I enjoy it very much. And I suppose I would rather go to Punta Cana with my husband than a tulip poplar. (Well, actually that really depends on if he’s going to do that thing where he packs three minutes before we leave for the airport and then forgets pants. I wrote about it once.)
But generally, I stand by my statements. I do prefer the trees, the mountains. And it’s not that I don’t love and care for the friends I see at a formal social event. It’s just too overwhelming, too overstimulating, and there are never any squirrels or moss or caterpillars in attendance. (Have you ever talked to moss? It is so polite. Never interrupts.) I have to wear high heels rather than hiking shoes and carry a purse rather than a fishing pole or walking stick. I have to check my quippiness at the door, and I can’t utter things like, “Hey, this looks like coyote poop,” or “I’m going to go take a leak in that ravine.” That’s what I’d say out in nature. At a formal event, it sounds a little suspect.
Of course, I always survive encounters of the social variety, and it’s never as stuffy as I imagine it will be, especially if I confine my bladder evacuations to the ladies’ room. Still, I’ll take any chance to disappear into the forest.
Yesterday, I had to take our new car back to the dealership in Morgantown for a repair. The prospect of a day in the repair shop infuriated me until I remembered Mo-town’s proximity to Coopers Rock State Park. I got downright giddy at the thought of sneaking up to the mountains in a rental car, and I did just that. Although the main road to the famous overlook was closed for the winter, I found a separate trail that led down into the canyon along a mountain stream through an eastern hardwood forest, past patches of hemlock and enormous boulders dripping with moss and icicles. I was the only person on the trail – the only person in the woods, even – and it was fricking glorious. And yes, I did pee in a ravine.
I found myself so full of joy, grinning like an idiot. The forest is where I go when I’m in need of spiritual comfort. That’s where I connect with spirit, where I find the divine. It’s the only place I connect with the divine, in fact. But on a more basic level, I’m just a happy nut in those mountains. I didn’t even say much to myself as I hiked, except when I approached boulders that looked like they might house a bear and her cubs, and then I made sure to recite loud, dirty limericks and have heated political discussions with Pete, my walking stick. You don’t want to surprise a bear (and it’s also important to remember that tragic man from Nantucket).
My emotions ran so purely joyful for those three hours that I conducted an experiment. Out loud, I said things to myself that normally embed in my brain and make me miserable. I said, “You’re a hack,” and, “Nobody is ever going to publish that book.” I said, “Your writerly income is pitiful, chicken arms.”
Nada. Nothing. Didn’t bother me in the slightest. The insults bounced right off. At home, I’d have felt awful hearing those things. Out there, I laughed at my chicken arms. Not a drop of negativity could penetrate. That’s the power of nature, of the forest.
And let’s be honest: as a species, trees are way better than people. Aside from their intrinsic usefulness and value to the environment, trees are just plain decent folk. Has a red spruce ever criticized your parenting skills? Has a quaking aspen ever raised an eyebrow and asked why you weren’t in church on Sunday? Has a sugar maple ever called you a slut?
Has the forest ever done anything other than listen patiently to your troubles, block the view of your drunken neighbor in his underwear, provide branches to burn on a campfire and a lovely whistling sound on a windy day? Okay, maybe that one sycamore branch that fell on your tool shed was a bit of a douchebag. But I’m telling you, trees are better than people. I’d rather be with the trees. A tree is the ultimate introvert. Even in a group, they stand sort of awkwardly, straight up, exactly like me at a party before I have a cocktail. Sometimes, like me after a cocktail, they swing their arms a little too wide and whack somebody in the face.
(The palm tree’s an extrovert, though. Look how it stands all saucy and angled, leaning to the left or to the right, they way women pose sometimes. Hi, I’m a palm tree! Check out my coconuts! I’m just going to grow here at an angle with my besties in a cluster and wave my fronds all around and make clacking noises.)
Yesterday, I eventually had to come out of the woods. After a solid, 6-mile solo hike, I was damn tired. (See What’s Wrong With You?–Part One, a tale of fatigue.) But I felt fortified against the world for another day or two. I hate coming down out of the mountains into a world of shopping plazas and office parks. Thankfully, the high lasts for a while, long enough to remind me that the world of humans isn’t always as bad as I imagine.
And I’m going to try to work on the blurting thing.