Sunday, February 22, 2004

My brother and his little family moved to Vashon yesterday. As I think I've mentioned, my brother is dear to me. His wife has become a dear friend as well. She's grounded, sane, involved with the world, and the most compassionate veterinarian I know without being sappy. And my nephew? Well, he's really the love of my life. I've always loved my brother, from the moment he was born. So seeing his son, at first, just reminded me of my brother. But now, Elliott is just himself. And it's a profound experience, loving him. Because he doesn't have to do anything for me to love him. When he cries or pulls my hair (and this rare, because he's an even-tempered baby), I still love him. He doesn't have to smile or do cute tricks for me to love being with him. Instead, he just is. And when I'm with him, I just am as well. So this week, Andy and Dana spent their time outside of work packing up their house. Obviously, this is hard to do with a small baby, so they called on me. I was over at their Seattle house every day this week, almost. And I held the boy, and walked him around the yard, showing him how to pat tree bark and listen to birds and watch cars go by. He grows so excited with everything that it re-animates me to how beautiful the world is. And when a car comes rumbling up the hill, I quiver too, because I know I can point it out to him soon.

On Wednesday, after I had the miserable morning of trying to write evaluations, I went over to be with him. And he said my name for the first time. He says "DAT!" to everything, which means "What is that?" Early in the afternoon, he pushed his hands against my chest, and said, "Dat?" and I said, "Shauna." Then he put his head on my chest and nuzzled in. Later, he pushed on my chest again, but this time, said, "Na-na. Na-na." Then put his head on my chest for a hug. Well, that quickly blew away any problems I thought I had.

So yesterday, Dana and I went over to Vashon on an early morning boat, settled Elliott in their new house, and then she left for work. He was slightly anxious, but it was easy to distract him with my blue necklace or a copy of Rolie Polie Olie or walking outside to look at the pasture outside their door. I was there for several hours with him alone, the sun parting through the clouds and throwing sun spangles on their new wooden floor. Later, my parents showed up, and we all played. And then I drove around the island visiting friends.

When I first became a teacher, I taught at the high school on Vashon. I love that place. It's one of my sacred spaces in the world. The five years I spent there were deeply connected with people and nature, and me starting to learn who I was in the world. That island was my shelter. Later, I outgrew it, for a time, then moved to NYC. (One island to another, about the same size, one 9000 people and the other countless millions.) But I've always known I'll move back to Vashon someday. In some ways, I wasn't ready for it then. But whenever I go back, I feel connected again. Former students bag my groceries. I see my former principal in the grocery store, buying soup, and we catch up in a few moments. And one drive down the main highway, the green trees blurring past my vision, the entire sky open, and I feel like I'm home.

So having Andy and Dana move there makes me happy. Beyond happy. They were ten minutes from me in Seattle, and I'll hate having them away. But it's just another excuse to visit the island.

My sister-in-law had to work all day yesterday, so my brother organized the move by himself. Every night for weeks, he'd been coming home from a long day at school, playing with their baby for awhile (usually singing to him or telling him the words for the myriads of objects surrounding him), sitting down to dinner, then packing boxes. She'd work alongside him. They traded off who made dinner. They joked every night.

Yesterday, he and three friends moved most of their house. Normally, I would have been heaving boxes with them, because I'm like that, you know? If it's the people I love, I'll do anything to make life easier. But, I've been hampered by a car accident and I can't lift boxes. So I babysat the nephew all day long instead. (Oh, there's a tough job.) My brother drove the big truck, lifted the couch, and maintained his sense of humor and good grace through it all.

In the late afternoon, he took a nap with the baby on his chest.

Later, he woke up and started unpacking boxes. I looked up from playing with Elliott and said, "Sit down. You deserve a rest."

"Nope," he said, unpacking silverware. "I want to impress my chick." (note the ironic word choice)

I laughed. "I think you've already done that, amply."

"I can never do that enough," he said, still working.

This moved me deeply. I hope I'm lucky enough someday to be married to someone like my brother, but someone who's not my brother.

But it turns out that taking care of an 11-month-old all day (lifting, kissing, carrying, spinning, dancing, and slinging him on my hip) wasn't the best idea for my back, neck and shoulders. I came home with a terrible, pounding migraine last night. Took two Vicodin and crawled into bed at 8:30. And this morning, I felt woozy and discouraged until about noon. This is a long road, still.

Luckily, there will be healing, eventually. There already has been. The doctor says that I should be free of pain in two months. My physical therapist says that my patience is astounding. She also says that my neck muscles are starting to soften. I'm going to try intensive massage, acupuncture, walking in the pool. Anything I can to make this dissipate.

This afternoon, I was at Macrina, talking to Jesse, who runs the place. She asked me how I was doing, noting the purple splint on my left wrist (for the tendonitis that has flared up and still makes typing this difficult). I told her that it seems to be about four days of doing better, then two days of going backward. And she said, "A friend of mine has chronic fatigue syndrome, and she says, 'I can do everything I want, but I just can't do it too many days in a row.'" That sounds about right to me.

So that's why I haven't written before this. I just returned home from more time with Elliott, looking at daffodils in the dusky light and playing peek-a-boo with paper plates. School starts again tomorrow. I can't say I'm thrilled, but it will kick in during the middle of the day. I do love that place. I just want to sleep in. That's why I have to go to bed early tonight, to make sure I'm ready.

But it doesn't take much to be ready. Just being here is enough.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Yesterday morning, I was miserable. Slumped against a bank of lockers, the heating pad warming my back, I felt near tears. Evaluations were due. All around me, faculty members sorted piles of paper fanned out at their feet. Everyone babbled happily, even while complaining about the arduous process, the rigors of teaching that meant we never have a full break. They were done. Finished. Finally on vacation. But me? I just bent forward slowly to grab another one of my advisees' thick white forms, and grimaced.

I hadn't finished on time.

Now of course, this isn't the world's biggest problem. And even in my small world, this was about 32 on the list of bummers of the last month. Everyone I know has commented on my good nature, my optimism, my endless wells of smiles in the midst of lousy pain. Of course. This is me. I'm hard-wired to see the best in situations. Not that it's a duty or a facade. I truly am happy in the midst of this pain. Most of the time. But not yesterday.

Once again, my hobbled back and addled head prevented me from feeling fully part of it all. Writing evaluations is hard under the best of circumstances. There are all those papers to read--"The Stranger is the story of a taciturn young man..."--all those Cold War tests to grade--"While the USSR did do some bad acts, the US was not justified in the Cold War because of McCarthyism and deposing leaders."--all those student short stories to read. Well, you see the picture. Normally, I love those students and their well-meaning scribbles. But when it hurts my head to read for longer than twenty minutes (and that's reading the best literature in the world, or at least silly magazines), you can imagine why I staved off reading for as long as I could. And then, all weekend, there's the little nagging, "Yes, but you should be grading."

Finally, I did grade. And then I was exhausted. Because then, I was faced with all those little paragraphs. Five times a year, it's my job to judge my students, to come up with concise capsule reviews of what they have done, and what they might want to do next. Given that it's me, this also means a brief psychological insight, searing and true. Oh, just thinking about it exhausts me again. Can't I just put a grade in a box and send it home?

So all day Monday, I struggled with it. But normally, the writing is the fastest part for me. I'm a writer. Right? Except that I'm still, every moment, hampered by the accident. If I look at the computer screen for longer than fifteen minutes, my headache flares to the top of my head, surges around my ears, and pulses along every point. Along with this, the tendonitis in my left wrist, which was reawakened after the accident, bulges and clicks and flings itself into electric pain with the typing. After ten or fifteen minutes, it literally siezes up, and I have to ice it, and coax it, into moving again.

And some of my friends wonder why I haven't been working on my novel?

You try writing evaluations under this circumstance. You try remaining cheerful.

So I showed up to school with only a third of them done, a sad heart that I would be spending the rest of my vacation bulging and siezing and writing these buggers instead of my own work, and a whopping headache. Luckily, everyone understood. No one yelled at me. I have today to finish them.

So of course, I'm writing this instead, right now.

It occurred to me, a couple of days ago, that reading this blog, you might think I'm a saint. In the face of a near-death experience and continuous searing pain, I remain above it all. Firmly grounded in it, yet above it. Well you know what? I'm not. Right now, this just sucks.

I want my life back. I want to want work on my novel, and not just scribble in my idea book or plan it in my sore head. I want a clear head without a headache taking it hostage. For five minutes. That's all I ask. Five minutes. I want to be able to take a yoga class or walk down Queen Anne Avenue. I want a day without sitting on a heating pad. I want to jump in puddles. I want a full night's sleep. I want someone else to be able to understand this, and not just say, "Oh, you're still in that much pain? I didn't know." Or, "My god, your optimism in this always inspires me."

I want to not feel so alone in this.

And I really want my evaluations done.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

"It's what we all want in the end
to be held, merely to be held,
to be kissed (not necessarily with the lips)
for every touching is a kind of kiss."

--Alden Nowlan

Thank you for holding me, these past two months. It was two months ago today I was in that horrible car accident, and finally, after much hard work, I'm starting to feel healing spread throughout my body. I'm able to teach, to connect with those wonderful human beings who congregate in my office in all moments of the day. I don't necessarily fall onto the heating pad and ice pack the moment I come home from school anymorel. I'm driving again--just this week--and a stick shift, no less, so my leg has enough strength to work the clutch. And I'm going on walks around the neighborhood in the late-afternoon light, the sky open, the mountains placid.

The other day, I was walking down the old boulevard in Queen Anne, the sky an endless stretch of blue. And I was listening to a song that always lifts me, soaring, with its elegiac piano, its softness. At the moment I passed the last dark tree for a stretch, the song exploded in my headphones, and I opened into the sky. The Sound was a broad swath of golden water, shimmering into the distance. And I was home.

I wrote this excerpt from a Seamus Heaney poem in the front of my new journal, a full month before the accident. And now I know it's true: "...as big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open."

Open, grateful, joyful love to you all. I'll happily be your Valentine any time.

All my love,

Monday, February 09, 2004

This weekend, I:

--went out to eat for the first time in five weeks. And then I did it three more times the next day.

--attended two concerts (my dear friend Jackie was in town with her musical group Anonymous 4 to play Town Hall, which was the source of much of my acivities, and much of my joy).

--bought ripe-to-the-moment fruit at Sosio's, my favorite fruit and veg. stand in the Market, where i hadn't been in more than two months.

--lifted up Elliott without any pain in my back.

--spent much more time out of the bed than in.

--drove for the first time in eight weeks, the first time since the accident, just now, when I drove once-Andy's, now-my Honda Accord home to Queen Anne and parked it in front of my house. I have a car again. I have the leg strength to work the clutch. I'm not pinned to the bus or relying on my parents to drive me around.

This weekend, I feel like I gained my life back again. The worst of it is over. I'm still in pain--I have had an eight-week-long headache, for example. And I was knackered today, after all that unexpected activity. But I'm farther along the road of recovery. And there's a bounce in my step that I haven't felt in months.

Much love,

Saturday, February 07, 2004

I'm slowly recovering. It is a long road, but at least I'm not crawling it anymore. A month ago was the worst pain of my life. It's close enough, with the echoes of it in my body, to remind me to be grateful. I'm able to walk upright, teach a full day at school (with the aid of the heating pad and lots of rest), play with my nephew, and stay up until past 8 pm! I'm still in pain, but the blinding headaches have quieted. Tomorrow, it will be eight weeks since the accident, but this is the first week that my physical therapist has been able to massage my neck muscles. Before, they were so badly damaged that touching them would inflame the pain. So that's a bonus.

Honestly, it's hard to describe what this time has been, however. In the midst of feeling loved by the people in my life, grateful to be here, and slowly recovering every day, I've felt very much alone these past two months. There's something ineffably powerful that I haven't been able to communicate, some deeper place than I've ever been. And no one has been able to go there with me.

And the water in my hands when I wash my face looks extrarodinary.

There have been so many gifts in this. I'm alive to life in a way I have never been before (and my friends tease me when I say this, because I was pretty alive to life before). I feel like I have been living life to the point of tears these days. (Thanks to Camus for that sentence.) Everything moves me.

A powerful story on NPR about a woman in Arizona who works seven days a week, caring for the sick in their homes, who earns $9 an hour. This country has all its priorities backwards, and I'm moved to tears in righteous indignation all the time. But I was also moved by how that woman has the better life than the man who earns millions of dollars a year.

A wonderful conversation in class with the juniors, about Holden Caulfield, and how perceptive he is, how deeply he sees life, and how wounded he is. And yet, how much righteous indignation he has, and how right he is.

A connection with Monica, who comes into my office nearly every day, in some form of crisis or exultation. Today was crisis, since it is quint three of the senior year. Remember those doldrums? I listened closely, then joked her out of her bad mood, offered her kleenex with a dry eye. But as soon as she left, I teared up, at the way people let me into their lives, and how lucky I am for these connections.

Later, Jake came around the corner of my office door, a gorilla mask on his face. Pearson and I laughed, not knowing who it was. And then Jake sat down on the couch, to talk in his quiet voice, the talking filled with pauses, the silences soft among the three of us. Later, Alex joined us, leaning his body against the wall with the Ernie poster, and we all talked, about how all the girls in the senior class seem to be having emotional breakdowns, and the boys remain strong. And there we all were, sharing the space. And I realized anew that they will all be leaving soon, that all of my students leave eventually, and yet I keep having these connections.

A dozen quick-paced conversations, with Vanessa and Melody and Daniel and Matthew, who comes into my office at least twice a day, usually to have lunch with me and talk about life. He wrote me a note the other day, on notebook paper, part of which read, "I am much obliged to you for your endless days sitting and bitching in your 10-square-foot office of well-being. For this, I am forever grateful. It is a great fortune, as well as a blessing, to find a soul as understanding and insightful as yours." And teachers complain they aren't paid enough?

A slow walk from school, the clouds parting into blue sky for a few moments.

Music softly humming in my ears.

Stepping off the bus, across the street from home, I felt a spring in my step I haven't felt in weeks. Somehow, I wasn't shattered with exhaustion, even after such a day. I'm healing. I can feel it.

Try to remember the last time you were sick, your body laid low by the pain and enervation. Now, feel your body, and do a little dance. Enjoy the cold.


from the middle of January...

There's something scouring about the pain I was in, something beautiful. Since the accident, the physical reality of death has been sitting in my chest. And it has left me in a little isolation, because I feel like I have an understanding of the preciousness of this life that I never had, that most people don't have. I don't feel like I'll lose it, not after all this pain. I know that I will see this all as a beautiful gift when I am through with it. I know that this has changed my life.

Everything feels simple right now. I feel an enormous euphoria at the start of pain diminishing. I have hurt, constantly, since December 14th. And since December 20th, this sciatica pain has grown worse every day. Yesterday was the first time it hurt a little less. And today, a little less too. And now, I know, that every action I take will be to heal my body. Standing in the kitchen and doing my dishes is actually therapy for my back. The mundane feels miraculous, for so many reasons. And so, I'm going to dive into physical therapy, massages, acupuncture. Eating right--if I lose some weight, it will help the pain disappear as well. Every mouthful feels like a chance to take care of myself or add more pain. Easy choice. When I can, I'm going to return joyfully to yoga, and every time I take a pose, I'll remember when I was scrunched into the bed in a fetal position, trying to find a place without pain. The world is so enormously beautiful.

Of course, it's more beautiful when I'm just on the other edge of it. This morning, I woke up after an almost-full night's sleep. I slept from 11 to 4:30, without waking up. I took my Vicodin, waited a half hour for it to kick in, then slept until 9. This is the most sleep I've had since the accident on December 14th. Sleep is an enormous gift. When I woke up, I could feel another lifting, the steroids working to clear out the inflammation, and thus the pain retracted, just a bit. I have an image of a wave that has crashed onto the shore, enormously, and then starts the sure drift back to the ocean.

Today was the first day I could stand up straight while walking. How many times have you done that today? It felt like a victory in my body. I took a long shower, feeling the water on my back. I dried my hair, lifting my arms to do that for the first time in weeks. I smiled when the weak sunlight broke through the clouds to enter my bathroom window. I heard a loud whistling outside, and I walked slowly to see the sound. All the traffic on Queen Anne was stopped on McGraw by a policeman on a big motorcycle. He held up his hand to stop them all so a procession of cars could leave the cemetery two blocks from here in a continuous stream. I did a quick bow to those people suffering with grief, then turned back to my bedroom. Put on my blue Merrell walking shoes. Grabbed my keys. And walked to Macrina, half a block away, to buy a cup of coffee.

It was the first time I had left the house for a week, other than to crawl into a car to go to doctor's appointments. The air felt damp on my cheek, and I started to cry at the joy of it. The sky, the chipped paint on the crosswalk, the feeling of my feet walking evenly on the pavement. I walked into Macrina and closed my eyes to smell everything. The people who work there know me by name, since I used to come in nearly every day: the guy with tattoos and black, horn-rimmed glasses and sweet face; Jennifer, who bustles behind the counter and greets everyone with a big smile; Claire with a Victorian face, brown hair draped around her soft eyes. They all asked me where I had been the last two weeks, and I told them about the pain, the scouring pain, and the glory of the lifting of it. I told them how wonderful it was to be there. They poured my drip coffee in a to go cup, and I felt the warmth of it in my hands. It felt good.

I pulled out a twenty to pay for the coffee, and spontaneously, I made a decision. "Claire, keep the change. And whoever comes in next, let the change pay for their coffees. Buy people coffees until the money runs out." She stared at me. "What?" When she finally understood, she smiled. I hobbled out slowly, smiling. The woman behind me in line had been grumpy when she walked in. I could tell. But as I was leaving, I heard Claire say, "She paid for your coffee." The woman turned to me, and I could see her face lifting, her grumpiness leaving.
"Thank you," she said, in this wondering voice.
And I said, "I so enjoyed getting this cup of coffee this morning. I wanted everyone else to enjoy it as much as me. Have a good day." And I walked home, slowly.

Later in the day, Vanessa, one of my favorite students, came over to see me. So alive. So loving. She had missed me, and she wondered if she could sit with me. I've been sending my writing class exercises by email, even on the nights when I was in the most pain, because I wanted to give them the experience of writing fiction. Someone from the class has been printing the sheet off, then copying it for everyone. And they've been conducting class, every day, without a sub in the room. Eighteen seniors sitting in a room, having class, even without a teacher. Vanessa told me today, "If you had just been gone, we would have blown it off. But we knew that you were writing us from our sick bed, and that you were working for us. We had to stay." So apparently, yesterday, they had a fabulous, spirited discussion about what kinds of fiction they like, about when to use first and third person, and they all were involved. That made my day, to hear that.

About an hour into her visit, I was an hour into my pain pill, when the pain is the most contained. So I said to Vanessa, " I need to walk around the block. Would you go with me?" And so, I went outside again. And we walked slowly, in the warm air, so slowly, talking all the time. Mindful walking, all the time. It took forty minutes to walk around the block, because that's all I could do. But halfway through the walk, the pain, which had flared up when I started walking, settled down. And since this is exactly what the doctor told me what would happen, that walking and moving are my best therapy, I felt another lifting. It's going to work. I am going to heal.

At the end of our walk, we walked by Macrina. So I went inside again, to buy Vanessa a coffee. The same people were still working there, and they greeted me with huge smiles. "You!" they all said. "You are so kind, to buy coffee for everyone." I just smiled, knowing that the joy had bounced back to me. But Claire turned to me, after starting to make Vanessa's latte, and said, "People commented on it all day. Everyone said that you had made their day." I left there with tears in my eyes again.

It's so easy to love people. We just put up all these barriers, and think that we have to focus our energies on loving certain people. All wrong. I can see that more clearly than ever after this accident, this scouring pain. I feel cleared out. I want to heal my body, so that I can be as well and energetic and free of pain as I can be, so I can love other people.

That's it.


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