Friday, October 24, 2014

Pema Chodron

I've been ambivalent about finding a Teacher. Possibly this is because my experience of being a student has sucked.  I was a real dum-dum.  I had potential they said, but I didn't get the memo, I stared out of windows at the birds wondering what it would be like to saddle one up with an acorn cap and fly to a land where there were dragons.

I was halfway into my usual sustained and plodding mediocrity in my sophomore year of college when I took a marine bio class and, as Gru says in Despicable Me,  LIGHTBULB.   This school thing involved hip waders and algae samples!?! And microscopes? Lord!

I knocked myself out to collect and correctly identify intertidal snails like a person who has just learned learning is exhilarating. I was outlandishly good.

I rode that high into my 30s; I had plans in my imagination to do something big-time at oh, say, maybe, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution or -- why not  -- Scripps.  I had t-shirts from every major marine biological lab. And then...

Nosedive. Crash landing. Chronic illness. All the plans poof.

For the last few years, I have been sitting like a castaway in the salty remnants of my clothes on this crusty island called What The Fuck? Like Job, picking my scabs, in complete bewilderment, mirror-signaling to the rescue planes to no avail and nightly leaping in a dance of frustration around a giant bonfire on the beach.

So yesterday I figured -- screw you rescue planes -- I'll listen to a podcast of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron's. This little wizened white woman, telling me there is nothing to rely on, to "abandon hope." She was funny about it, too. LIGHTBULB.

For the first time in 20 years I have a teacher. I'm putting myself under the microscope. My thinking that is; my body has already been under X-rays and in MRI tubes enough for a lifetime. What I'm in the process of examining is my thinking that everything must be a certain way, that I must be healthy and my vertebrae undeformed, and my face unlined, and my house uncluttered, and my pain completely dissolved for me to be happy and to learn anything new.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Soften The Edges

Green Tara is a goddess of compassion. Rock on, green Tara, even though you are the color of an artichoke. Same thing for you blue Krishna. It is so bananas that you're blue.

Green. Blue. It's like damn, how come none of my gods had twelve hands? Kali, with a necklace of skulls.  Jesus, Mary, God the father, the dove for the Holy Spirit, it's such a small nuclear family. Anemic. Plus they're all one. Or something. I was that kid at church camp who was like, "Is any of this making any sense to anyone?"

It was like this: Two and a half hours on a Sunday. Blah blah blah. Some guy died for you. Oh, yeah, and here's this tiny, sidekick altar for his mother who was super important. And there's this mean greybeard in the sky, saying Be Good, You Awful People. Wait. Nevermind. Y'All Are Okay. Have A Rainbow.

I know its way more than that. More metaphorical. But the images: the human features, the desert, the flowing robes. The scenes took me to that higher place. I like looking at Green Tara in the same way way I was drawn to the stained glass medieval, metrosexual-looking, ruby-winged angels whose expressions were so hard to determine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What It Feels Like

I've been reading "illness narratives." I love a good illness narrative. It makes me feel less alone.  Less girl-in-bubble.

This piece in The New Yorker by Meghan O'Rourke sums up the experience of having a "but you don't look sick," "invisible" illness. It bites. It bites like Cleopatras's asp, but it doesn't kill you. All I have to say to that old saw, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" is I will kick you in the pants.

If you have a chronic illness, you're fatiguing to those around you. They just want you to Get Well Soon. If you don't, you're being problematic; you're breaking the rules of greeting card etiquette.

There are no cards that say, "It's So Totally Not All In Your Head And There Are New fMRIs That Prove It." Or, "Love The Moonscape Of Your Gnarled Vertebrae, Hon." Or, "You're Managing The Symptoms of Your Body Gone Kaplooey, Keep It Up." Or, "Have You Laughed At Yourself Today? Look In The Mirror, The Muscle Spasms Have Caused You To Grimace." Perhaps I should design a letterpress line of them? Please tell me I should. In my family we call my disease, "The Overlord."

On my Best Days I am 80% a Real Girl. I walk the dog.  I don't want to gouge out my eyes. I don't want to wander like a Desert Father, or sit like a Yogi on a pole in the Ganges, I want to volunteer at my kids' school library.  I want to make mini-muffins.

I know that it won't be for long. Autoimmune illness is --  as they say of biological systems --  punctuated equilibrium. There is always another flare. Always. Like Persephone, I guess, I have the ill luck of having to spend some time in the underworld.

So that's why I am working on not just a letterpress line of chronic illness cards (thank you for convincing me to do it) but also -- Willy Wonka-esque -- on developing a snack food called Chronic Illness Bites.

I'm thinking chocolatey, I'm thinking salty. I'm thinking the kind of bon bons that won't make too much of a mess if you eat them in bed under the covers while weeping and trying to keep it together by watching funny things on your iPad, like Charlie Chaplin do his dance with the dinner rolls, or Gene Kelly Singin' In The Rain. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Gnomes, Fairies, Elves, and Sprites, Oh My

I found the ceramic gnome my mother gave me years ago that had had its kneecap sheared off in one of my many moves: Pittsburgh, New London, Northampton, Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Jerusalem, Caracas, Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, Watertown, Easton, finally landing in Owings Mills.

fixed it with glitter-glue, and placed it under a mushroom cap in the front yard that after the recent rain is suddenly with filled with mushrooms; I identified four different species with my Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. I'm telling you I'm a Big Nerd if you didn't already know it...

The point is, when did I become the kind of person who places gnomes under mushrooms?

I used laugh at people like that.

I used to judge them as impossibly twee, the middle-aged women who had fairy gardens, and "This Way for Elves" signs glued to their doorways, and stationery with Flower Fairies on them. But look at me now.  I have stationery with Flower Fairies on them. And I in fact really wish there were acorn fairies wearing acorn caps as little hats in the oak trees.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Why do I like mushrooms? It started when I had kids. I like to walk in nature, Henry David Thoreau of Walden fame is my spirit animal. He wrote a marvelous essay "On Walking."

I had imagined this, the scene when all the animals approach Snow White, but when I would walk in the forest with the kids when they were toddlers everything that could run from us would run from us.  Even when we were trying to be silent and cat-footed, we were scary-loud. We jangled with sippy cups. "Mommy is that a fwox!?" my daughter would yell, lisping. "Or is that a wrock?!"

Mushrooms were the only thing that didn't run, because they couldn't. So I got in to mushrooms.
I said to the kids, "This is a bolete." And we would poke the orange-yellow flesh with a stick and watch it bruise. If it bruised purple, it aided us in identification. We made spore prints on construction paper that were surprisingly beautiful. I encouraged the kids in their mycological pursuits by telling them about fairy circles.

They're older now and have falling out of love with their foraging baskets and don't believe my umbrellas for gnomes stories, but I haven't fallen out of love with mushrooms. A whole troupe (yes, troupe like actors is the collective noun for a group mushrooms) of yellow-capped sp. amanita appeared on the lawn out of the blue yesterday, like magic.

Maybe this is why I feel a kinship with them. They're not there, then they're there. Then they're gone.

But not gone, gone underground, in their hyphae, those mats of tender-strong threads that spread through the soil helping trees grow, and our crops grow, enabling oxygen for us to breathe and food for us to eat. Though they are unseeable by the naked eye, they are the world's largest organism.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Like a crow I am Super-Fan Number One of sparkly things. I will swivel my head and follow it with my eyes if it glitters. It's one of my failings.

Husb. will be talking to me about rubrics or some other pedagogical term and at the corner of the window will be fluttering a metallic candy wrapper and I'm twirling, "Oooh! Shiny! Wait. Sorry. So know how I am. What were you droning on about, my love, my all?"

 My grandmother had a sewing room (it was in this room with ballet-slipper-colored tulle and a great deal of determination that she sewed my prom dress) and in it she had glass canning jars of fixings, findings, buttons, ribbons and curiosities. I could spread the contents of the button jar out on the shag carpet and spend hours, dreaming. All the sequins had my face in them reflected back at me like Fun House mirrors, like the possibilities of who I would become. Would I be pretty? Would I be rich?  

In honor of her, my long-dead grandmother whom I loved, who smelled like anise, I've put sequins on the ofrenda. And not just a few.  Go big or go home, is what I say in general and especially as advice in making your altar for Day of The Dead. More is more. You're celebrating life, after all. Put the icing on the cake. Put a fancy hat on your skull.

So I shook out an entire bag of sequins on the altar and was so pleased; my grandmother would have said, "You really gilded the lily." But the dog got in to them and now they're all over the house, the place glitters with them, the dark corners are shined up with small silver stars. I think of Frida Kahlo. My raven-haired, dark-eyed grandmother looked a little like her.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Give Me A Break, Break Me Off A Piece Of That Kit-Kat Bar

"'Tis the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," said John Keats in Ode to Autumn, to which can be added, "and the season of cut-rate candy made with wax and artificial flavor and partially hydrogenated palm oil or other weird oil sold in bulk bags at Costco of which I purchased several to pass out to little children."

Well, not all of the candy. I reserved the Kit Kats. I have, like, a relationship with Kit Kats. Facebook status: It's totally uncomplicated. They're so chocolatey and crispy. I know all the words to their song.

In other countries, countries with more interesting palates than our own, they're offered in flavors like Melon, Black Bean, and French Cheese.  If I had the computer skills, I would do this with them. O, so kicky, those double Ks.

Yes, I realize sugar is bad for me. A poison. Robert Lustig. All that. And yet... and yet... here I am sniffing the bag, inhaling the scent of cheap milk chocolate which follows my olfactory nerve all the way to my brain and takes me back to better times, easier times, younger times before anybody knew anything, when Tang was a breakfast beverage for space-age go-getters that we couldn't afford, and my family shopped in the Generic section of the grocery store with its black and white no-marketing packaging, and Kit Kats were a colorful treat that had snap and verve, and ignorance was bliss.