Saturday, June 26, 2004

Here I am, at my favorite place in the world: teaching writing at the fine arts camp in Sitka. It would take me hours to write some of the images that make this glorious camp. And of course, part of the experience is that I never have those hours to write. But here are just a few for you, to convey how much this place means to me, and how much I would like to share it with you:

--19 students in my fiction class, all of us gathered around three round tables placed together in the upstairs of the library. Every one of them participates. They are all telling stories, listening to each other, laughing, and writing. They're filled with enthusiasms, snorting when they laugh, funny as hell, and the most generous kids I've ever taught. Here it is, summer vacation, and they're all writing, every day.

--Finn, my curly-haired, sweet-as-honey, favorite student (except for Maya, who is in her own category), who writes like a dream, produces his own radio show in Sitka, listens to everyone around him, gives hugs liberally, and laughs with his entire body? Finn's in my fiction class. On the first day of classes, I asked everyone to talk about why they write. Do you know what Finn said? "I write because it reminds me. Even though there is violence and sadness in the world, nine times out of ten I think that the beauty of the world is more potent." He's 15. Everyone else in the class nodded around him.

--I have two more classes--Advanced Writing Workshop and The Beauty of Inflections--just like that one.

--I adore the other members of the faculty. They are some of my dearest, deepest friends in the world, and I only see most of them these two weeks out of the year. So these weeks are like a connection extravaganza--every conversation goofy and meaningful, loving and alive. We eat bad cafeteria food together, and complain about the lack of vegetables, mildly. This year, we're staying on the top floor of Sitka's nursing home. Don't ask. It's weird. There are beeping alarms and old women in wheelchairs with blue bows in their hair and heart monitors attached to the wall alongside our beds. But we have the entire third floor, and every time I open my door, I see someone with whom I want to talk, someone whom I hug. I'm giving and receiving about forty-five hugs a day. That's about right for me. Every evening, we gather at the ArtShare, in which someone, or several someones, present his or her art. It's astonishing. And it always makes me want to work.

--The first night at ArtShare, I read a piece I had been working on, about the car accident, and its effects afterwards. It was scary to read. I felt like I was standing naked on that stage, baring my most vulnerable parts. (I can send it to you, if you want to read it.) But I felt safely held in that space, 200 kids, faculty members, Sitka citizens, all waiting with their faces turned toward me in the darkness beyond the stage. It released something in me, to read this piece. They all responded beautifully--watchful quiet in a large room. I managed not to cry. When I walked offstage, the room burst into applause. When I reached the dressing room, I burst into tears. I felt this release, all this sadness about just how hard these past six months have been, something leaving me, and me mourning at the passing. My friend Beverly, who was just about to go onstage to do her mask work, hugged me close, and said, "This is life. This right now." My friend Reber, who was photographing the show, came walking toward me, opened his large arms, and held me for five minutes as I cried. It was good. I felt like I had come home.

--Two nights ago, my back went out again. It hasn't done this since February, so it scared the hell out of me. There were lots of little signs along the way. We never sleep here. I'd had maybe five or six hours a night since I arrived. There are always activities and conversations and preparations for class and after-ArtShare-beers at the Sitka hotel. My left foot had been going pins and needles all day, and I kept messing up my words, so I knew something was up. We were at the bar, smushed into a table, and I had just ordered my beer. I shifted my hip to escape the cramped space, and immediately my left foot went numb. And the sciatica pain, which I hadn't felt since early February, raged down my leg like fire. I stood up immediately, a darting look on my face, and said: "I need to get out. I need to walk." I did, but it didn't help.
Limping back into the bar, I approached Roblin and said, "I have to go home. Can you carry my bag?" He went into action mode. Everyone else looked up and saw my sweaty, contorted face. Reber leapt up to help me. Those two men walked with me, slowly, since I had become an eighty-year-old in two minutes. Reber held me up as Roblin ran for a wheelchair. There I was, back in a wheelchair, and hating it. Afraid. At first, I said I wouldn't climb back in--too many resonations. But then both said, "Shut up. Swallow your pride. You can't walk." They took me upstairs in the elevator, and found pillows for beneath my legs, wet a washcloth for my forehead. Beverly came in and helped me change into my nightgown as the men averted their eyes. They found me the Percoset I had stashed for emergencies. And they helped me move, gingerly and wincing from the spasms, onto the bed, then propped up on pillows and the heating pad. Jara and Christi came in and said they'd check on me all night. Reber kept trying to make me laugh, but it hurt. You know how my laugh comes from the belly? Well, in back spasm mode, that laugh clamps down in pain, so I was reduced to humorlessness. Except that Reber and I always tease each other, and I couldn't help but laugh. So I'd start to laugh, then stuff a fist in my mouth, then wince and buck on the bed from the spasm of pain.
So there I was, completely vulnerable again, in my low-cut nightgown, my face perpetually covered in sweat, in my glasses, unable to speak or laugh, in terrible pain. And totally loved. At one point, there were ten or twelve people in my room, all concerned and taking care of me.
And it was another release, because at the height of the worst pain, in January, I had some people taking care of me, but only sporadically. For the most part, I have been through this pain alone. And it felt terribly lonely. And I've been worried about recurrences, and here it was. But here, I felt swarmed with love. Reber almost insisted on carrying me across the street. Jara checked on me three times during the night. Beverly simply breathed with me. And I felt at home and loved.
How could I ask for anything more?

So I had to miss one day of classes. Spent the day in bed. The cousin of the wife of the director of the camp happened to be in from Portland for two days, and so he came to my room yesterday to do some accupressure and meridian work. Who knows what it is? But it worked. I feel half better already. And I'm at campus right now, having taught one class, two more before me. Feeling tender and a little wary. But here. And writing this to you.

So that's camp.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The sunlight coming through the living room window right now is honey golden, rich and porous. It looks like summer. It is summer.

Not yet.

One more week. This time next week, I'll be thrilled and dazed at the prospect of not having to go to school the next morning. Almost done. One more week, and I'm on summer vacation.

This has been the hardest school year of my life. The car accident bissected everything, seeped into everything, reduced me to melancholy zombie headache woman for more than three months, and still haunts me today. It's hard to drive without imagining someone darting in front of me unexpectedly. And there I am, my life ruined. Except, it wasn't ruined. I'm still here. And I've been saying, for months, that there's something beautiful about all this. There is. I just haven't been able to hold it all in my arms yet.

I'm tired. We all are, at school. Everyone has dark circles under her eyes. Everyone walks in talking of too-little sleep. We walk through these honey-colored days with our eyes stuck shut. My body had been improving, steadily, for days and weeks. But these past two weeks, I've gone downhill again. A little. I feel like I'm sliding on my butt.

Yesterday, I had to come home early from school, because I could feel the migraine starting to dart up the back of my neck. Luckily, the seniors had left on their final school trip--and oh, how I will miss them; and oh, how they need to go--so I had no one to teach in the afternoon. I simply slipped out of school and walked slowly to the car, the thumping in my head increasing as I reached Broadway and the gravel parking lot I park in every morning. Driving home, I was nearly blinded by the cramping along my ears, down the neck, the sweat beading up on my forehead. At 2 pm, I crawled into bed, the heating pad on. I never really left. My body insisted--it's time for a day in bed. In a way, it was a welcome relief. After months of dutifully returning home, every day after school, and cutting myself off from the world to recuperate in my bed, alone, I've been bounding around the world. I've been on dates practically every night for weeks. (this another entry, later, when I have the energy.) I've been attending parties and reading on ferrries to visit the island and staying up later than I should. Once again, I have to find the golden mean.

So there I lay in bed, watching the dvds from Netflix that had been languishing on top of my television. Retreating into my silence again, trying to find a respite from the pain. The old headaches, after a liftetime of rarely having them. Now, when the stress creeps up my neck, so does the pain. I have a feeling that I will be haunted by this pain, intermittently, for many years to come.

This morning, I rose, late, feeling better. The ghosts of the migraine darted around my head, but never landed. Putting on my shoes, I felt the creak in my back, still. And with a pang of real sadness, I realized that I have been feeling increasingly better over these past six months, but I haven't felt good yet. I haven't felt good in over six months.

It takes its toll.

And so, the light is fading in this room. My eyes are closing as I write. It's time to sleep and lay everything down upon the floor. I won't carry it into the bed with me. Tonight, I sleep alone.

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