I picked up some bad fiction the other day. By that, I don’t mean I purchased it. I mean I actually picked it up, read a few paragraphs, and put it back down. The author began their chapter with a bit about some character’s eyes. Green-gray pools of mystery. Black doorways that held a hint of deception. Seductive golden jewels belying a quiet sadness. That was enough for me.
We can do better than this, people. I know it’s fiction, but nobody spends that much time staring at their own reflection in the town sheriff’s steely gray gaze or sitting in the coffee shop cogitating the corneas of the hipster college kid drinking a chai latte. I know, I know–window to the soul and all. Nevertheless, it’s cliché and overdone.
The nose has smelt just as much as the eye has seen. The femur probably has some good stories (soccer balls and coffee table corners and such). Imagine the ingrown tales a toe would tell. Why eyes?
If it were any other body part, we’d realize how goofy the obsession with eyes can be.
Lona sneaked a glance a Ronald. His smile broadened, but there was something in his ears that gave her pause. Maybe it was the holes, the way the dark recesses of his ear canals pulled her into their waxy depths. She wondered what it would feel like to get lost in those ears, to lie beside him in the moonlight, wanting so desperately to find a Q-tip. His ears told the story of his life: unattached earlobes, fleshy and pink–a cherubic child. A piercing on the left–he’d been a rebel, once. Cauliflowered cartilage on the right side revealed he’d most likely stuck his head in a laundry chute or a coal scuttle. The salt and pepper bristles peeking out–no loving woman to care for him, to buy him a personal grooming appliance or shame him into finding a pair of scissors. Those ears haunted her dreams.
We tidied up our house yesterday. It was in desperate need. I used to have a friend who cleaned for me, but the house is so exhausting that she had to break the job into two separate days. It’s not that it’s a huge house or anything. It’s just that, in 1908, people liked each room to have about 12 corners, and each window has 8 separate surfaces to clean, and they had to have two staircases instead of just one. And then modern Roberts came along and filled said house with creatures that drop hair in a daily mammalian monsoon and added two kids with more toys than anyone needs. It’s a bit much for one person, and that’s why I’m now without a cleaning person. Plus, I decided that money would serve me better in a jar for Ben’s future legal fees.
During yesterday’s miserable exercise–one replete with whining and bickering and arguments about who was absolutely not going to pick up that shoe or hang up that coat–I noticed something.
We’re pilers. We pile things.
Now, maybe this is human nature. I haven’t been in many of your homes, but I can’t be alone in this. Isn’t it natural to seek out a flat space and cover it with your crap? As I write this, my butt is on the couch and my feet are on the coffee table. Also on the coffee table are two notebooks, a day planner, two bills, three remotes, a phone, a glass of water, a dog collar, a pen, a hair clip, another dog collar, a candle, and two lacrosse balls (which I use to work on the knots in my shoulders, and yes, it hurts like a mofo). And this is after we cleaned it all up. This is what’s left.
For me, for us, that’s not bad at all. I could walk around the house and photograph myriad flat surfaces that have far more stuff on them than this coffee table. The problem with having a flat surface in your house is that a flat surface was made for exactly one purpose: putting stuff on it. That’s it. That’s why we have furniture with flat tops. The table is for dishes and food. Counter tops are for appliances and cat feet at 2AM. The desk–always the worst of the offenders–is like a wide valley where creatures such as first drafts, water bills, paper clips, photographs, and lip balm come to graze and play and roam about on the expansive, composite-wood savannah. The desk is a place for piles if ever there were one. And when the desk’s real estate is maxed out, I move on to the top of the printer, and the top of the filing cabinet, and the top of the fireplace (which is always a fantastic place to put paper products).
These flat surfaces enslave us. At the end of my bed, I have a lovely wicker trunk that was a wedding gift. In it, I store out of season blankets and other sets of sheets. (As I write this I find myself asking why I really need more than one extra set of sheets. After all, I’ve got one set on the bed and a second set for when a kid comes in at 3am and barfs all over everything. Two should be enough. But, no, I’ve got to overdo it. I’ve got my flannel sheets with the doggy paw prints and my flannel sheets that are white so I can bleach them, and I’ve got my two sets of t-shirt sheets and my three sets of cotton sheets–one is pilly but I’m not ready to give up on it–and I’ve got my microfiber sheets that I always think I’m going to love until I put them on the bed and realize the fitted sheet has too much material, and it bunches up under my back and butt at night and reminds me of sleeping on the beach, which is truly a terrible place to sleep, if you’ve ever tried it, and there are sand fleas, too. But this isn’t a post about excess or sand fleas; it’s a post about flat surfaces. )
The wicker trunk has a magnetic hold on me. It’s one of my favorite pieces of furniture. It’s well-crafted, it’s summery, it smells nice on the inside, and it’s useful. And it’s so bad for me. If 365 days make up a year, only on 10 of those days does the top of that trunk see the daylight. Sometimes it’s laundry baskets, but mostly it’s just clean clothing I haven’t put away yet, random socks, and, if the picture to the left is any indication, a copy of The Catcher In the Rye.* When I clear it off, I’m always so certain that I’ll change my ways and keep it clear and zen. I’m suddenly quite sure that the bedroom should be a peaceful place, a feng shui masterpiece, if possible, and I vow to keep it thusly. And then, the next day, the wicker surface is lost again under a fresh load of Scooby Doo underwear and a turquoise pair of deer leggings.
You know what’s worse than flat surfaces? Catch-all pieces of furniture. Usually, these are chairs. I’ve observed that there is a certain radius around an entryway and if a piece of furniture is placed within that radius, it will become a catch-all. Now, my radius may be wider or more narrow than yours, but there is still a radius, and if there’s a chair within that area, we’re screwed. There’s a recliner about ten feet from our lower back door. You’d think that would be far enough away, but nope. The Roberts radius clearly exceeds ten feet because we hadn’t seen the cushion of that chair for three months. When we finally decided to deal with the evil pit, we found two seasons of coats in there, a pile of Ben’s homework, my belt, a dog leash, a set of sheets, and my long-lost bathmats. (In this case, the recliner is also within the radius of the laundry machines, but that’s a problem I’m not ready to admit I have, yet.) By the time I found the bottom of the recliner, I knew that it had to go. Anywhere. Upstairs to the living room, perhaps, beyond the radius of either the front or the upper back door. Because that’s the danger zone. And the front door already has its own chair, currently piled with the contents of a future attic run: a decorative ghost, a grinning, styrofoam pumpkin head, and a gardening trowel. Well, that last one goes to the tool shed when I decide to take out the deflated inner tubes.
You know what’s worse than a chair? A papasan chair. They are the devil incarnate. Whoever invented the papasan chair should be gibbeted. It’s literally a giant bowl that sits in your house like a Venus Fly Trap and waits for a flannel shirt or a hand towel to buzz into its gaping maw. The papasan chair doesn’t care what it eats; it will consume literally anything. It’s a black hole, a tiger shark. Pick your metaphor. Headphones, backpacks, drowsy felines…it doesn’t give a crap. It just wants your stuff. It’s the Pied Piper of Papasan. It plays a mystical flute that we can’t hear, but the stuff can hear it, and the stuff comes right out of the closets and dances merrily into the gullet of that tipsy rattan demon. That’s how the stuff gets there.
Plus, it’s bewitched us: we throw something in it every time we walk by. An offering on the Altar of the Unkempt. Thank god we’re finally waking up and realizing we’re cult members in this Papasan Slob Society. The chair must go to the attic. Formerly, it was a demon foyer-bowl. Before that, it was a demon basement-bowl. Now it’s a demon living room-bowl, and I have to exorcise it, no matter how much pea soup it spews on my shirt. I’m going to need an old priest and a young priest.
I’m not an organized person. Moreover, there are a million better things to do in this world than sort socks and papers and the works of reclusive American novelists. That’s the thing, here. I’m not writing myself into some great revelation about newfound tidiness. I know I won’t change, ever. We all have to sort socks, sometimes, but I’ll trade that in a heartbeat for 20 minutes of sunshine, or fresh air, or even a productive writing hour. Take a solid nap. Sing to the dog. To put it in the simplest, most adolescent terms, I just don’t want to sort my damn socks. So the piles accrue around me.
I know you tidy people are out there. You’re probably reading this on your wide open desk, next to your bare end table, shaking your head because you just can’t understand what’s so hard about taking 10 seconds to hang up your Gap jeans rather than tossing them on the ficus tree, and how can there be one ankle boot in the second-floor bathroom and one in the basement boot box because who does that? All I can say is that you must be a powerful Jedi to resist the siren song of the stuff-pile. I’d ask you to teach me your ways, but I’m pretty sure the Dark Side claimed me long ago.
*That’s the thing about trunks. They’re goddamn useful. Old Ben likes to use it as a diving board for the bed. Boy, I sure do need to work on my cleaning habits. I really do.
We went trick-or-treating yesterday. As usual, it was freezing, even colder than usual. My kids didn’t give a hoot about the temperature. They’re extra bitchy about coats; Andy is a human furnace and Ben refuses to have his costume marred by the likes of anything out of character. He went as Freddy Faz Bear from Five Nights at Freddy’s, which is a horrible little video game that forces the player to creep around a Chuck E. Cheese kind of pizza place and make sure the animatronics don’t come to homicidal life. Of course, the animatronics do come to life and creep closer and closer in the dark. You either stop them with your flashlight and defeat them, or they reach you and jump-scare the shit out of you.
Jump scares are a big thing in my family. It’s become part of the Roberts culture. It started a few years ago with a kid lurking behind a door, giggling loudly as he waited for Shawn to come up the stairs and pretend to be scared. Then, it got a little more sophisticated. They learned to turn off the lights. Ben learned to bide his time and remain in his hiding place without giggling. Once, he waited outside the bathroom door for a full twenty minutes as I showered and applied hair goo and face goo and brushed my teeth. When I emerged, quite naked and relaxed, he came flying out of the shadows and shouted, “Aaaa!!!!!” He earned that scream. And I hated it.
Shawn actually started this jump-scare tradition. He began torturing the boys when they were too little, in my opinion, to endure such fright. He’s very good at what he does. He’s hidden under Andy’s bed and reached out to grab Andy’s ankles. He’s lurked in a dark room and made creaking noises; the boys know he’s in there waiting to scare them and push each other towards the doorway. When he finally does jump out, it’s loud, pants-shitting terror. Each morning when he comes up the stairs to greet the three of us at the breakfast table, he does it with a jump-scare. Usually, he targets the boys, but if I have my back to him while I make my smoothie, he’ll do it to me.
“What the f— is wrong with you!?” I always scream at him. And he laughs hysterically. Recently, he jumped out at Ben with such vigor that Ben burst into tears. It was simply too much for his little nervous system to handle. He should have felt guilty, but I think his primary emotion might have been more accurately described as “pride.”
I hate jump-scares. But I’m in the minority, here. At the Spirit Halloween pop-up stores, they sell jump-scare decorations. You step on a pad and a hairy spider lunges at you or an arm comes flying from behind a gravestone to grab your leg. Ben and Andy run through the store to find each and every display before they can focus on buying a costume. Personally, I’d be content to never be startled again as long as I live. I feel no desire to step on that pad and have a 2-foot arachnid lurch in my direction.
This is a golden time for Shawn. His boys are old enough to participate in his beloved tradition and young enough to think it’s hilarious and cool. Halloween is his favorite holiday. He hangs tacky lights all over the mantles and woodwork in the house. He keeps scary masks in his desk–not just for Halloween use but for general jump-scare merriment. Last evening, he decided he was going to dress up for trick-or-treat, too. But instead of wearing something ghoulish, he found Andy’s old lady mask from last year, an expensive piece of latex that transforms the wearer into a crone. That would have been disturbing enough, but then he decided to pair it with my unicorn onesie. And my hiking stick.
I’m not sure what the theme was, other than “disturbing.” He said the onesie kept him warm in the 30-something degree temperatures. And he remained in character for an hour, cackling at little children and repeatedly poking me in the ass with his cane. I cringed when we came upon houses with elderly residents handing out candy. Then again, Andy wore the mask last year on a parade through Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital, so I suppose the tradition of walking the line between humor and offense continues.
On a related note, this was the first year I brought hooch in my coat.
As a female humor writer, there’s really no greater role model than Erma Bombeck. She set the bar impossibly high, which is a good thing. Something about knowing I’ll never quite reach her level keeps me on my toes. I keep trying. And sometimes it pays off, like when the Erma Bombeck humor site publishes one of my pieces on their blog. It’s a pretty big deal.
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.
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.
A blog series about my struggle with autoimmune disease.
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.
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.