Monday, August 9, 2010

Certified: Inflexible Me: Part Two

(I want to emphasize again and again that I am writing about my visceral feelings at the time of these experiences. My feelings change even hours later, but I want to capture the initial intensity, which we often forget. And none of this account should in any way reflect badly on the school—which I am careful not to name—or any of the students. I think it's a great school, and I think the students are amazing. I so admire them. They are all actively engaged in their communities, trying to make a difference. That is absolutely a hera's journey.)

I read a little before I went to sleep. Joan Didion's book The Year of Magical Thinking was on the shelf. I flipped through it. I knew it was about when her husband died suddenly. My heart was in my throat as I read paragraphs here and there.

How does one handle such tragedies?

I didn't want to think about anything happening to my husband. He was my closest friend. The only one on the planet who loved me truly. I would be absolutely bereft.

My father was married to my mother for fifty-two years and then she got sick. And six hours later she was dead.


Life was so difficult sometimes.

I don't remember what I dreamed.

I had wanted to get up early and return to the Medicinal Herb Garden. I woke up on time, but the thought of trying to find it and a place to park seemed monumental. I called Mario and he told me I'd gotten an email. My youngest sister's mother-in-law had gotten suddenly ill and was in the hospital with pneumonia and septic shock.

That's what had happened to my mother. Six hours later and she was dead.

But this woman was just a few years older than I was. She would be all right.

I'd call my sisters later. I sat on the bed and did some Reiki for my sister's mother-in-law.

Then I got dressed and drove to school.

Once we were all gathered, we did a check in. I complained about the traffic. I was sure this was getting tiresome. I told them about getting lost twice the day before and getting left behind. How I had wanted to quit, but I decided to come here today. I said I was so glad we were not leaving the classroom. The teacher said they'd all wait on me today, bring me whatever I wanted.

Then we talked about how the month had gone. Some people complained about long posts on our online system. About how they felt overwhelmed when they went to a thread and they saw "like 500 words" and they didn't know what to do. Others nodded in agreement.

My jaw fell to the floor. I'm sure of it. I picked it up and closed my mouth.

Five hundred words was too much for them to comprehend?

I was a freaking novelist! And these people couldn't read five hundred words? What did that say about my particular skill, my particular passion?

Had the world of tweets and twits and whatever changed our brains or our habits so that we couldn't read any more than a few sentences without getting bored or losing comprehension?

I could barely breathe thinking about the consequences of this.

But I switched back to student mode. I couldn't think about publishing houses crashing and burning because people couldn't read any more. I couldn't think about all the stories that wouldn't be written because writers couldn't make livings.

A big part of our learning for these courses is our online dialogues. I had not been impressed with the dialogues thus far. We had been admonished not to write too much or two little. Now people were complaining about people writing too much.

I was the only one who wrote more than a paragraph or two.

They were talking about me.

One woman who was in my group went on and on about people writing too much.

We had five people in our group. Three of them hadn't posted anything in a week.

She was talking about me.

So I said, "How can you have a meaningful conversation one line at a time? I don't know how to say anything of import in one or two sentences."

I don't roll that way, peeps.

I felt a wee bit attacked.

I'm not saying I was being attacked. I just felt that way.

And I felt out of step. But I didn't feel like I was wrong either.

I spent twenty years in illness. Twenty years that should have been my juiciest, when I was out in the world making my way, my name, my living.

All gone.

And now I was here trying to do this. Twenty years too late.

They didn't want a novelist. They wanted a twit. ter.

We broke up into our new online groups. I felt myself detaching. I just didn't belong to these people.

And yet I'd paid this money. I'd borrowed money. I owed money. I'd paid my time. The stress on my body. I had to try harder.

I needed to engage.

So I listened to them. Talked with them. They were all young enough to be my children.

They saw me as an old woman.

With nothing to say or contribute.

Bullshit. I didn't know what they thought. They didn't know what I thought.

We had a panel discussion next. The teacher had gathered five community leaders to talk about how they had accomplished change. Everything took time, they said. They had to persevere. They had to navigate through bureaucracies that did not want to change. They had to find allies in these bureaucracies.

I thought about my own environmental and social justice battles (and they all felt like battles). It had always taken so much time. It had been difficult to persevere.

Perhaps we were losing the ability to be resilient, to keep trying even when people kept turning us away.

It took a particular kind of person to do that, and yet, we needed to do it.

They talked about how most people want the same thing: They want to live in communities that are safe and where their families can be happy and healthy. It's important to find the leverage point. (Students at this university talk a lot about leverage. I think it's from their whole systems design course. Leverage, as I understand it, is finding that place or point in a system where you can push for change or for an effect so that it will have the greatest impact.)

I listened with fascination. And I watched the group. The same student kept asking questions so that most people didn't get a chance to ask anything. All of them had created organizations or environmental projects within the city of Seattle. I wondered if it was easier working on environmental change in a city. I wished someone on the panel had done some work in rural areas. But I enjoyed it very much.

When we broke for lunch, I walked to Whole Foods, just a couple blocks away, with someone in the class. She was about my age and lived on a reservation not from Seattle. We walked in the rain. She mentioned that this panel was the best she had seen since she'd come to the university.

I had never been to this Whole Foods. It was huge. While my friend walked around, I went outside to check my phone messages. I had one, from my sister who has been dealing with her husband's brain bleed (stroke) and her own illnesses. My youngest sister's mother in law had died.

She was barely sixty years old. Dead. Out of the blue.

Just like my mother. Only this woman was twenty-years younger than my mother.

I stood in the rain feeling paralyzed. How does shit like this keep happening?

This year has just been one mindless awful thing after another.

Last time I'd been in Seattle my sister's partner had a brain bleed and they thought he was going to die. Now my sister's mother in law dies. I knew there was no correlation. I knew it.

But our family has had a rough year. My father's heart problems, hospitalization, near death on the operating table, and recovery. My sister's illness and three month stay at a recovery facility. My sister's partners brain bleed last month. And now this.

Compared with all the horrible things so many families suffer all around the world I supposed this wasn't such a terrible litany.

I called the sister who'd left the message. Stood in the rain trying to comprehend this awful thing. Stood in the rain shivering. If this happened to her, it could happen to me.

I called my youngest sister. Left a message of condolence.

I started walking back with my friend from the rez and another woman from class. I told them what happened.

I said, "It's so awful for them. And then part of me thinks, this could happen to me."

The other woman said, "Don't draw that to yourself."

I said, "I don't believe in that New Age bullshit."

How to win friends and influence people.

She looked at me and said very firmly, "That's what my people believe."

Oh shit. I'd forgotten she was Oneida.

"The grandfather tells the story of the two wolves," she said. Quickly, almost angrily. (What an ass I am, I thought.) I nodded. I knew this story. "The boy wants to know which wolf will win. The grandfather says, 'whichever one you feed.'"

We cross the street and walk between buildings as the cloud sweat falls on us.

"Yes, yes," I said. "I see that."

"You're so dynamic and charismatic," she said. "You have such presence. But--"

Ah yes. As long as I could remember, people have felt like they could tell me what was wrong with me. Truly. Sometimes strangers. Sometimes friends. "You'd be pretty if only you did this that or the other." "People would get along with you better if you did this that or the other." "You are so this that or the other, but--."

She didn't finish her sentence. Or if she did it was lost in the sound of traffic.

I would be so great...if I wasn't like how I was.

I knew what she meant. I so easily got caught in what was going wrong. Like a fish who kept struggling on the hook and making it just go in deeper.

We got back to school. They went inside. I went around the building and called Mario and told him the news. Then I leaned against the building, facing the turning pink elephant, and I wept.

Then I went back inside.

For the second half of the day, we broke up into our groups again and gave presentations to each other. Someone in our group showed a video about how mushrooms can save the world. It was fascinating, amazing, inspiring. Fungi are the oldest species on the planet, and we're more closely related to fungi, according to Paul Stamets, mycologist extraordinaire. (You can watch the video here.)

Fungi has so many amazing properties. They can be used for bioremediation, as natural pesticides and antibiotics. According to Stamets, they could save the world.

Other people talked about green roofing, energy use, and city tree canopies. I talked about the jaguar and the deleterious effect the problems at the border may be having on its comeback in the Southwestern United States. The jaguar is considered an apex and a keystone predator. It is at the top of its food chain without any real predators. These types of predators activate what conservation biologists call a trophic cascade. Their predation of other predators causes other species to thrive.

Here's an example. When the gray wolf was released into Yellowstone, they killed elk. Less elk along the riverbanks allowed the riparian species to come back. These trees and bushes cooled the water which allowed fish species to return.

Isn't that something?

I enjoyed these presentations very much.

They broke into groups after this but I left early. It had been a great day and an awful day.

I found my way easily onto I-5 in the rain. I started home.

I don't remember what I thought about. I ate another box of Pamela's cookies.

Gotta stop doing that.

I understood completely why people did drugs. Why they drank. I ate. Must learn better ways to cope.

At Olympia, I stopped at the co-op and bought more cookies. I sat in the car and ate quinoa and vegetables. Then I spoiled it all by eating cookies.

I never used to eat sweets.

Got on the road again. Thought about the weekend. Thought about my life. I still didn't understand how and why this was so difficult for me.

Why couldn't I be easy going.

Maybe it was all too late. This was who I was. Celebrate it and move on.

So many people had suffered so many horrific things and they bounced back. They made successes of their lives.

I was ill for a couple of decades of my life. I am still ill. Still struggle. And I am still angry about it. Still don't understand it. Still don't know why I am not completely well.


I kept using that word.

Maybe I need to keep still for a while.

Or build a still.

One of my great grandfather's had been a bootlegger, after all.

By the time I got to the gorge, it was almost dark. The trees on either side of the road that went along the river looked different. Preternatural. As though I had turned into some other world.

Maybe I was altered from the sugar. From the stress. Exhaustion. Grief.

I didn't know. I felt like I was floating. And the trees were there, a part of it all, a part of me. Silver and green as twilight fell.

I kept driving as dark descended. Usually at this time of night, I don't like to drive. I can't see very well. Impending doom waits to fall. I look for deer around every corner.

But something changed.

I felt as though I was in a cocoon.

Nothing was going to happen to me. And even if it did, oh well.

I rested my elbow against the door and window and leaned my head against my hand as I drove.

I knew this wasn't a good idea. I might fall to sleep.

But I knew I wouldn't.

Perhaps the faeries were guiding me home.

Or the Troll.

Maybe my car was possessed.

I can't describe it. It just felt very odd and peaceful.

Nearly transformative.

I followed the curves of my beloved River and Gorge until I reached my human beloved.

He ran out of the house and down the stairs to greet me. He wrapped his arms around me.

Home, home, home.

I need nothing else.

At least not now.

The next day, Mario took the car in for an oil change. They found a bat on our grill. They'd never seen anything like it. I asked Mario, "Was it beautiful? Was it sad? Was it disgusting?"

"It was all of those things."

Kind of like me.

Something about this discovery sent chills through me. As though this was an explanation for something.

I remembered bats symbolized birth, death, and rebirth. Especially a shamanic death. (Of course, the bat was a living being that was now dead. Nothing symbolic about that.)

Had the spirit of that bat carried me safely home?

I went outside and looked at the car. A spot of maroon colored blood stained the grill.

I said a little prayer to the bat. Thanked it for its sacrifice.

Now what?

I'd figure out a way to honor it, and all those souls that have gone before me.

One way or another.


Will Shetterly said...

Since people feel entitled to give you advice, I'll take a shot: You're working on something hard, but necessary. I haven't got a clue what your answer is. But it did strike me that you didn't hear what your fellow student offered. Ask her about it. The worst that'll happen is it won't be useful for you.

Ramona Daniel Gault said...

Kim, I'm grateful to you for writing more than 500 words! But then I'm a novelist too. And people still do buy novels and read them. In one of my novels, a character surprised me by saying, "Everything sacrifices itself to something else." I haven't completely figured this out yet, but your story about the bat on your grill gives me another breadcrumb on the trail. Be well.

Anonymous said...

It can be hell being a sensitive, and there is great value and truth and meaning in your willingness to engage when you want to retreat and withdraw.

Blessings on your journey...


Anonymous said...

"You're so dynamic and charismatic," she said. "You have such presence. But--"

I also don't believe in all that New Wave crap:), but it's easier to apply the Oneida message from afar. Seems like you heard this comment and then fed the wrong wolf. Look at the beautiful things she saw in you. Let the "But" wither and die in your powerful presence,Wavetalker.


All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.