Big London Trip Day  One: Leaving the States

 

Here I am on a giant two-decker plane, squashed at the end of a bank of four seats with my daughter asleep on my shoulder, my husband reading next to her, and my son watching Boss Baby at the other end of the row. I arrived at the plane with an assortment of travel pillows and accoutrements attached to my backpack, giving me the look of a Sharper Image-thieving hobo. Said pillows were for my aching lower back. Why the aching lower back? So glad you asked!

My lower back started aching the day I arrived home from my Adirondacks writing retreat on July 2. There, I was finishing the latest draft of my novel The Big Idea, something I have been working on for the past 5 months (previous drafts being written since 2005…) Trying to take a day off this endeavor on not be a manic workaholic (who, me?) on July 4, I accompanied my family to Chesterfield Gorge, where I was embarrassingly lethargic and miserable. “My left leg feels as though it’s climbed a gigantic mountain,” I told Tom. “And my lower back feels like I’ve pulled out my S-I joint.”

Five days later, at the New Bedford Folk Festival, I seemed to develop poison ivy. Strange to get it so long after exposure, but I was pretty sure I saw some in Chesterfield, though I’d tried valiantly to avoid it, of course.

On the Monday after the festival, I plunged into another week-long writing retreat, this one at my house. I stuck to a boot-camp-like schedule: rising at 5:30 to meditate, going for a run at 6, getting the house clean, the lunch prepped and the kids off to camp by the time my retreat started every day at 9am. I worked and wrote all day, then spent the hours between the end of retreat and dinnertime going to a variety of body workers to try to re-align my S-I joint, all the while slathering the PI in calamine lotions. Neither situation got any better, and my checking account grew as cranky as my back. What was particularly weird and annoying was that the location of the PI was in the same spots that ached. This, I reasoned, was because I must have rubbed Hudson, my puppy, right after he rolled in some backyard PI and then massaged my back and left thigh because they hurt.

Yes, I also scratched the poison ivy.

Finally, it was Sunday, and I got worried that my PI needed steroids. I wanted to get a script before I left for Europe on Monday, so I called my PCP. He said it was protocol to examine all rashes in person. Thank God. Because when I went in on Sunday afternoon, my doc practically laughed me out of the office.

“That is a textbook case of shingles, my dear,” he said, pointing to the line of what I’d thought was poison ivy along the very spot on my lower back that hurt the most. “And that is where it starts: the spine. From there, it spreads only to one side of the body. in your case, down your left leg.”

In a way, it is a relief to know that I haven’t destroyed my back. When I thought this was a pulled S-I joint, each bodyworker had some advice for me, usually about posture and exercise. I went around sucking in my gut, re-aligning my shoulders, making sure not to sleep on my stomach, etc. I felt guilty for pretty much everything I did; mostly of course for the fact that I am writing a novel, which is the major source of all maternal guilt for me at the moment. Now I feel like I have a reprieve from the governor on this. When you have a communicable disease, mostly no one blames you, including yourself. Of course, I did see on WebMD that the reason most adults get shingles (a reappearance of the dormant chicken pox virus) is that their immune system is straining under unusually stressful circumstances. But for now, I can accept that I won’t be sleeping tonight. Who sleeps on a red-eye anyway?

To be continued…

The Perfect Dog

Oh, friends, I am driving myself crazy. And everyone else around me too. All because of a dog.

For Christmas, we told our kids we were getting a puppy. I have been in touch with a wonderful breeder of mini goldendoodles, and over the course of the fall, sent him a deposit for a pup who will be born any day now. Said pup is what’s known as an F1 mini doodle, meaning its mama is a golden retriever and its daddy a poodle. But the whole reason we got interested in the first place was because we’d puppy-sat our friends’ adorable mini goldendoodle, whom I will call Perfect, and we’d fallen in love with her last September. Even Tom said, “Yes, let’s get a dog like Perfect. It’s time. We’ll keep it a secret and surprise the kids at Christmas.” (As readers of this blog know, we once had a dog named George Harrison, a personality-impaired chocolate lab who ate everything including our bananas and his own poop. Then we had Stella, who was fantastic in every way except for biting kids on their eyeballs. Both dogs left us for much better forever homes. Two strikes, right? But one day, we promised the kids, we’ll try again. Three’s the charm, after all. And everyone knows that you should get a puppy if you want to make sure to have an untraumatized dog. Assuming, that is, that our household will be free from trauma, which is a big assumption.)

So I acted on my best counsel, (my own) and proceeded, without completely researching every aspect of this project. To wit: I asked my friend T where she got her goldendoodle, whom I had met once as a puppy. She told me, and I went with that breeder, INSTEAD of going with the breeder of Perfect.  But now, by pure coincidence, Perfect has come to stay with us for a week, between Dec. 23 and 30 while her humans are on vacation. I have been snuggling this sweet puppy, running my fingers through her curls, washing her in the sink, carrying her around the house, going for runs with her, even sleeping with her at night. I am smitten. We all are.

I saw T right before Christmas and casually asked how much her dog weighed, as I haven’t seen her since she was a tiny pup. “30 lbs,” she said. Thirty pounds? Even Stella was 20, and she wasn’t exactly a lap dog. I came home and got on the scale, then picked up Perfect and got back on. My weight with Perfect, minus my weight was…13 lbs. I couldn’t believe it. I was getting a dog twice as big as Perfect. Not perfect!

We surprised our kids with a letter from Santa, cut in two so they had to hold the two sides together to read it. They were out of their minds with joy. But instead of just letting us all have our joy at the dog we would get in the future, as well as the joy of the present moment (Perfect now), I immediately went into full-blown compulsive mode and commenced to ransack the internet with every key word I could think of for “13 lb golden doodle.” (Micro goldendoodle. Teddy bear goldendoodle. Petite goldendoodle. Size of a breadbox goldendoodle.)  I composed a pitch (why we are the perfect family, etc.) and lobbied my husband to agree to flying to AZ if necessary. (He said no. For the price they are charging for this kind of dog, he said, they should fly it to us, AND take us out for steak and champagne.) (NOTE: Please do not leave me comments about how we should rescue a dog, or how elitist we are to be buying a microbrewed puppy, or designer dog. I am about to turn 50. My beloved candidate–who people also criticized me for supporting– just lost the election, and perhaps our nation has lost its democracy. I know what I want: a curly-haired dog who will sit on my lap for hours. I am too old to pretend to do something my heart isn’t in, and it’s no longer in me to rescue a dog from the pound. I have done that four times, plus adopted a retired therapy dog who was labotomized. I am getting the dog I have always wanted. Please leave your opinions at the door.)

But then I discovered that I could not live with myself. I am a bad neighborhood, right now, snapping at the kids who are somehow not eternally grateful for their gifts, furious at the fallen pine leaves from the dying Christmas tree that are littering my carpet, yearning to play music but perversely unwilling to step over to the piano or pick up the guitar. I have internet-itis. Everyone is misbehaving. I keep bursting into tears. Most of it is because of the election, and the news, etc. but somehow it’s all pilling onto the frustration with myself that I didn’t put a deposit down on the right sized dog last September.

I dreamed last night that I met with our new president-elect. To my surprise, he was quite different in person. In fact, he was a teen-aged girl, who spoke like a teenaged girl, specifically Hailey on Modern Family. I began speaking to the president-elect as I would to a girl 35 years younger than me but also to the office to which she’d been elected, which is to say carefully and slowly and with respect but not endorsement. “I have some concerns about how you will handle the economy,” I started, thinking that was more neutral than going straight to the Muslim registry. “It seems that you have some goals that are at odds with each other. Like hiring a budget director who wants big spending cuts while you are advocating a huge jobs bill.”

“Yeah,” said our president-elect. “That is a bit weird.” She pulled her wad of gum out of her mouth and examined it.

“Also,” I continued, emboldened by her reasonableness. “We’re all a little afraid of tyranny.”

“No need,” she assured me. And somehow, I believed her and woke up feeling a little better.

Anyway, as the day was unusually warm,  I went for a second walk in the dog park with my beloved Perfect. And while I was there, I saw the most amazing thing: a motley grayish standard poodle, and for the first time, I took in the beauty and grace that breed possesses. His owners let him off the leash, and he ran like a deer. I exhaled. There is beauty indeed in large dogs. What do I know? I am capable of loving anything.

It will be ok. The 30 lb dog will be fine. I have fallen in love with Perfect, the way you fall in love with a person, or a city, or a career, or a wedding ring. What seemed slightly strange and off initially becomes the beloved after one has spent time, real time, with her. I can’t imagine loving another dog now that I have fallen for Perfect, but the truth is I will love my puppy, no matter how big s/he gets. And do you know what? Perfect was sitting next to me the whole time I was writing this. Now I am going to post it and put away my computer and just hold her for a few minutes. For right now, I have the perfect dog. Maybe I can trust that will always be true.

 

The Week After

 

 

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Somehow, this week seems harder than last week. Last Wednesday, my bright blue friends in the bright blue town in our bright blue state felt unified. Everywhere I went, people were crying and embracing. My Facebook feed was covered with all my like-minded peeps writing like-minded grief-ridden things, or posting hopeful, inspiring thoughts. We held an impromptu free concert and sing along at Lander Grinspoon Academy last Saturday, and it felt like a wonderful funeral. We cried, hugged, and attempted to lift each other from despair. We all sobbed the next morning when Kate McKinnon did Hillary doing Leonard Cohen–a perfect performance of satire, mastery, sympathy and poignency. Last week, we all floated a bit in that first stage of grief: denial. Maybe the Big Orange Tarp wasn’t that bad. Maybe he would stymie the Republicans. Surely he was just an actor, saying a bunch of fake lines to get elected.

What is the next stage? Anger. Then Bargaining. Then Depression. Eventually acceptance, but I have a ways to go on that. Depression seems more the mood of today, complete with a gentle but persistent rain, thick clouds to cover the supermoon.

It’s the not knowing that is so hard. We don’t know what will happen with a Trump presidency. We can guess, and all of us who were alive in the last century have some PTSD over the post Gore/Bush election, and how 9 months into GWB’s administration we got 9/11, and then the wars. This time around, instead of a laughable clown with bad grammar and a scary right wing cranky Cheney at his side, we have a hateful narcissistic bigot and xenophobe with Bannon in as his chief advisor. What could go right????

We don’t know. We don’t know. This is the mantra I keep muttering as I try to cope with my despair. Here is what I do:

-I fix the broken water filter in the fridge

-I change the batteries in my tuner

-I field emails about my Local Chorus and plan our show for next Sunday

-I practice “One Hundred Names” for my piano recital

-I change my strings for our show on Saturday morning at Flywheel, a benefit for Hilltown Families.

-I send emails to Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Jim McGovern, just to tell them I love them and to fight the good fight in the months to come

-I get on my knees and thank God for the Obamas

-I call my friends and family and plan some music for Thanksgiving

-I wear a safety pin, even though I know it’s an imperfect white-privilegy thing to do

-I write my 16th poem for 30 Poems in November to help new immigrants to Western MA.

-I watch Modern Family with my kids and laugh and laugh

-I send money to Foster Campbell from Louisiana so we can put one more Democratic senator in congress

-Stop the fake news! Don’t post anything without fact-checking. Don’t believe anything without fact-checking.

-I plan to go to a meeting at my kids’ elementary school to talk about how to cope in the aftermath of the election

-I make lists like this, of things I can do to stay positive and connected, because it’s connection that will save us. Here are some more resources.

-I read this poem by May Sarton to my writers:

Take Anguish for Companion

If the one absolute is suffering,
And if the only absolute is doubt,
From these alone belief must be wrung
Or else the bitter poverty found out:
Take anguish for companion and set out…

But if we dare to keep anguish companion,
We feel spring in our throats a living song,
See man leap from the rocks toward the sun,
Refuse to be imprisoned for too long,
His anger storming at the walls of wrong…

For to be desperate is to discover strength.
We die of comfort and by conflict live
Who grow in this knowledge till at length
We find it good, find it belief enough
To be anguish alive, creating love.

– May Sarton

Kali 2016

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My cheeks sag down
Making me look even sadder than I feel
There are new folds in my eyelids
Pillows under my eyes
Donald Trump wants to fix this.

He will make my face young again
An aging face is a terrible thing
Terrible.
Have you seen her?

Today in my safe town
LGBTQ capital of the nation
A man sneered at my Asian friend and me
“Chicks and Spics,
I can’t wait till you’re all exterminated.”

There are swastikas at Hampshire College
There is graffiti on Mount Tom
The n word

This is not my town.
Has this always been my town?
Whose town is this?

What is a woman?
The Vedas taught that within each, we all have
The three faces of the Goddess

Saraswati Goddess of Creativity,
Lakshmi Goddess of Wealth and Beauty
And of course, Kali the Destroyer

Kali, birth and death
Kali, black-faced, with the necklace of skulls
Kali, whose lolling tongue
Laps up the demons
And ingests them
Makes them part of herself.

Hillary, Hillary
We projected whatever face we wanted onto you
Sometimes Mother Mary
Sometimes Hermione Granger
Sometimes The Devil Kali

But I
See myself. An aging
Imperfect, wrinkled
Striving, laughable
Brilliant, incompetent
Perfectionist, fighter.
Middle aged woman:
Clumsy with the internet
Trying to please everyone
Reinvention at every turn
Plans and lists
Heart broken
But not my spirit.

She gets knocked down
And she gets up again.

Hillary, I want for you
To rise to the heavens
The way you’ve lifted all of us
Shown us what is possible:
To win the presidency
(In any other democracy, your numbers would have given you the prize).
To defeat a bully and a liar
Three times on the national stage.
In your concession speech
You were gigantic
Mama Superior.

I want for you
To sit under a tree with your grandchildren
Like George Washington at the end of his life
Only for you, that would never be enough.
That is not what you want.

What lake is big enough for all the rage of all the women
Angry and aggrieved on your behalf? What
Repository can hold all our tears?

In the Vedas,
The demons multiplied
When we cut off their heads.
Each drop made a new demon
And so finally
Kali came to save us
Put down her sword
Opened her generous mouth
And swallowed them all
And they became a part of her.

We will have to swallow this.
Eventually we will.
But today we fill the lake
With our tears.

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 11, 2016

 

This poem was written as part of 30 Poems in November, a benefit to raise money for Center for New Americans, a Western MA organization that provides welcoming services and literacy for recent immigrants. For more information, or to sponsor me, go here

 

Alfred Hitchcock Plays Our Nervous Systems Like a Piano

There are many kinds of fear.

img_5641Last Friday, I went to my amazing dermatologist to see what was up with this new, ominous black mole on my lower left calf. “Probably nothing,” she said. “But you aren’t supposed to be getting new moles at your age. Let’s take it off just in case.”

Usually, I freak out over any kind of test. I’ve had my share of scares, moles I have fretted over, always to be told they were harmless, skin tags or age spots. That day, I shrugged. Hillary was ahead in the polls, and I was in the studio recording a fresh version of “Jesus Was a Refugee” with Dave and Katryna. Katryna was nailing some gorgeous Katryna-esque vocals, and Tom and I had Date Night at my favorite restaurant and the Dar Williams show at the Academy. It was a glorious day, and I was detoxing from the paralyzing fear that had gripped me for most of September when Nate Silver was putting the Democrat’s lead at only 55% and Hillary was sinking in the Ohio and Florida polls, not to mention getting pneumonia. I was, as I posted last week, convinced that we were marching towards a Trujillo-like regime where we would lose our free press, have to erase our Facebook posts, and stand helpless as our friends were deported. The fear had been exhausting and depressing. I was enjoying a respite.

Halfway through Alix Olson’s opening set, my cell phone rang, and I saw that it was our new babysitter. Anyone else I would have ignored. I walked up the aisle of the theatre and answered the phone once I was in the lobby.

“Um, so, Johnny and I were in the attic, and maybe that’s why I didn’t really know where she was, or lost track of her, or maybe she said she was going somewhere but I didn’t hear, but anyway, we’ve looked everywhere and LILA IS GONE! She’s nowhere in the house!”

I said, “I’ll be right home,” and tore down the darkened aisle. Tom was already on his feet, gathering our coats. We ran back up to the lobby, and just as soon as I told him that Lila was missing, I got a text saying, “She’s in the shower. Never mind.”

We sheepishly returned to our seats. I gripped Tom’s thigh as I tried to calm myself down and focus on the show, to laugh at appropriate intervals (Alix is a very wonderful, funny poet/comic/activist), and then to enjoy my dear amazing old friend Dar. But I couldn’t fully settle after that scare. My mind kept flitting away from the theatre. How was Johnny feeling? What was it like for him to have been with a babysitter who thought she’d lost his sister? At intermission, I called back and asked to speak to him. I said, “You probably knew she was around somewhere, right?” “No,” he said cheerfully. “I thought she’d been kidnapped or died.”

And my thoughts went to my biopsy. What if it was cancer? What if all the things I generally worried about were about to turn into a tiny pinhole in comparison to questions of MY LIFE AND DEATH????? Also, what if the polls were wrong, and/or all the sane people stayed home on election day? WHAT THEN???

And then I remembered how Alfred Hitchcock had said that he enjoyed playing his audience like a piano. Eventually he hoped to forget film-making altogether and just press levers to manipulate people’s nervous systems. Once we’re in that state of fear, we’re highly manipulable. I had thought I was calm, relaxed about my biopsy and the election, but in fact, I was just a 16-year-old neophyte babysitter’s call away from pure panic. Realizing this, I sat there in the dark Academy of Music and just noticed my nervous system in its heightened state and focused on my breathing. I began to calm down, even smile as I thought of Lila blissfully in the shower, as the sitter called and called for her.

Just as Hitchcock played our nervous systems, so is Drumpf when he talks about Mexican rapists or presidents in cahoots with ISIS. It’s even what Hillary and her gang are doing when they send us apocalyptic emails saying Drumpf’s ahead in fundraising, so YOU’D BETTER GIVE $19 IN THE NEXT FOUR HOURS! And of course it’s what the media does with every single clip and talking head and headline. We are being played. In fact, I’ve participated in this, writing that if Drumpf wins we’re headed towards a fascist dictatorship or at the least the 21st century version of McCarthyism.

So it turns out, a week later, that the mole is a melanoma in situ, which means it has not become invasive. Stage 0, 99% curable. No big deal. It was not the cancer call I spent my life being afraid of, though I didn’t exactly feel jolly afterwards. My doc gave me some clear directions about what comes next (light surgery to clear the margins, rest, no exercise for 3 weeks and avoidance of skin exposure for the rest of my life). I continued to focus on my breathing, and I called a friend who had exactly this kind of situation last year (“No more shorts for you!” she said.)

Dear ones: do regular mole checks. Have your partner or a trusted friend scan your back, or get your doctor to do this. This is not the same sun our fathers and mothers knew. But when you do face the sun, take it in with gladness. This moment is all we have, all we are promised, and in the end, it’s all there is.

And…as Dar says, “it’s the gift of what you notice more…the blessings.” The strange irony that when we get that bad news, we also get that “angel in the streetlamp that blinks on as I walk on a mile.” I felt so close to the angel after I got the news, and the fear did not feel paralyzing, as my election fears feel. A “strange and empty light,” yes. And the gift of perspective, of limits, of gratitude.