Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Reader, I Married Him

Five years ago this week, on a frigid night in Flint, I got take out shrimp from a Chinese place, ate it alone in my high-ceilinged lonely apartment, and went to bed feeling isolated and depressed. At 4 a.m. I jolted awake in a panic, my heart wildly racing, my neck burning, my arms tingling, my legs cramping, and my stomach nauseous. Desperate and afraid, I got up, walked around and around the wooden floors in my stocking feet. I was convinced I was having a heart attack. I didn't want to die alone. I forced myself to get dressed and drove myself on a snowy, icy freeway to Genesys Hospital, where I stayed for two days for tests and more tests, until they finally assured me that it was not a heart attack and sent me home, shaken but relieved.

I remembered this anniversary of sorts Sunday night when I watched the last half of the new Masterpiece Theater version of Jane Eyre. I remembered that Jane Eyre, my 2002 panic attack and my own Rochester, the man I married in 2005, are all tied together. On the way home from work tonight, a full moon glowed overhead and I could swear there was a full moon that week, too, one I could see from my hospital bed in the cardiac unit. I remembered I'd been reading Jane Eyre that winter, and I thought I remembered that I had written notes in it as I'd waited anxiously for one test after another in the hospital. At home, I rummaged from room to room. I really wanted to find the book. I wanted to reflect on that terrifying moment of my body's fragility, and what I might have noted about it. And I finally did-- find Jane Eyre, that is, pushed behind some old CDs in a downstairs shelf.

The semester had just begun and I was teaching Women's Lit for the first time, replacing a professor who was on sabbatical. I had left my husband of 15 years the previous spring, and that first long winter was rough. We were all still reeling from 9/11, of course, and on top of everything I was in the throes of a turbulent, mercurial menopause. Everything was hitting me hard. I was 52 years old and it seemed hopelessly improbable that I could begin again. There was too much history. Who did I think I was, starting over? Yet there I was, having wrenched myself from one life and thrown myself into another.

I adopted Professor Zeff's syllabus as she had always taught it, without changing a thing, and there at the top of the reading list was Jane Eyre. I'd read it in college 30 years before, but never since. So I was madly reading it again, trying to keep ahead of my students, the 50 or so women and three men staring back at me as I reported in each day from what felt like a fabulously irrational new life. I had reconnected with an old friend from Peace Corps, a man I hadn't seen for 25 years, and he'd been flying in to Flint from LA to see me about once a month. I loved him, but it seemed impossible to plunge into a new life with him so hard on the demise of my old. I was still in deep mourning for the death of the dream of my marriage. I could only think of what was lost. But when Ted came to visit, sometimes I began to forget the grief and let in a little pleasure. We connected physically, and I was startled and amazed.

When I set off for the hospital that night, gripping the wheel and expecting to be attacked by pain all the way, part of me was still planning to show up for class the next day, and so I had tucked my copy of Jane Eyre into my purse. Inside it now, there is still a folded menu from one of my hospital meals -- it says "fruit cocktail/jello/dry creamer/decaf coffee/whipped potatoes/hot beef sandwich/carrots/no salt." On it I wrote, "Hospital food really is nasty, still we eat it because we're hungry." By we, apparently I meant me and Rita, in the next bed over, whom I wrote was "impossibly frail with a mastectomy on the left side from the same year her husband died." I cried when she told me. She, too, thought that she was having a heart attack, and in her case, she was right.

I kept going back to Jane Eyre. "What good it would have done me at that time," Jane writes, returning to Thornfield after her first dramatic encounter with Mr. Rochester in the moors, "to have been tossed in the storms of an uncertain struggling life, and to have been taught by rough and bitter experience to long for the calm amidst which I now repined." I wrote on the menu, "smiley faces everywhere. Darling, honey, kiddo." There was a National Geographic with an article about the aurora borealis. I found it comforting. And a ten-year-old issue of Prevention Magazine on the windowsill.

Eventually, of course, Jane falls in love and after she first touches Rochester and he clings to her hand, she goes back to her room "tossed on a buoyant but unquiet sea," intensely sensing a "freshening gale, wakened by hope." I'm not sure how far I read in the novel those two nights at Genesys, but I know that the book gave me hope. I began to believe that whatever time was left in my life, it was good -- this passion I had, to begin again in love.

From California, crazy with worry, Ted finally found out where I was and called my hospital room. "Why didn't you tell me what was going on?" he demanded, crazily angry that I had left him out. "I want to come out there. Do you want me to come?" I wasn't sure I could ask anything of him, nor sure if I wanted to. Or dared to. But I knew I'd just terrified myself and I was afraid of being alone. "I want you to come," I finally said, and the next day, there he was, hugging me back to life in my apartment, the old radiators chugging out noisy heat. That weekend I let him take care of me. That first night when we snuggled into bed, he put his arms around me and whispered, "Were you afraid?" And when I said yes and finally gave in to tears, thoroughly and unapologetically in the moment, with its terror and joy, I knew something big was happening -- to me, and to us. Things were different between us from that moment on.

And my beloved copy of Jane Eyre, with the page predominantly earmarked where she announces, "Reader, I married him," is here in front of me now, a cherished artifact of starting over, of a sea change, of a molting that has been the biggest and most wonderful surprise of my life. Early Happy Valentine's Day to you all.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Rogues, Desperados and Cutthroats"

Participating for three hours in a mass group booksigning at Barnes and Noble Saturday somehow reminded me of the weddings arranged by Sun Myung Moon: everybody hoping for the perfect match, but knowing it would be provided by somebody else, a god figure who meant us well. (I'm an agnostic who thinks there's nothing wrong with magical thinking -- go figure.) There were 12 of us lined up at tables at the front of the store, each supplied with a Sharpie, a pile of our "product," a glass of ice water from the cafe, and, of course, our respective hungry looks and desperate hopes. I was dreading it; I'd had lunch at the mall's Ruby Tuesday with my dear friend Professor Teddy beforehand, loading up on appropriately healthy food (grilled chicken salad) and yielding at the last minute to a limey Kamikaze from the bar.

I knew a couple of the other authors -- for one, the gregariously satirical Andy Heller ("Come Heller High Water") and Tom Powers, the retired Flint Public Library research librarian who'd been the demented brain behind the rowdy Julia A. Moore Bad Poetry Contest for which my former husband and I served as judges for years. Also in the lineup was a romance novelist (selling her 11th book -- impressive -- I bought the big type edition for a mere $4.95) a vampire novelist (sexy and predictably ebony-haired), a historian, a self-help writing neurologist, two children's authors, and a manly adventure novelist whose fans lined up the whole time.

My friends materialized and I sold 10 books -- apparently not a bad result, three per hour. If I did that well on Amazon I'd be doing a hell of a lot better than this morning's depressing sales rank of 641,000 -- but then, we're not supposed to obsess about such things, are we? I was the only author there visited by TWO sets of twins, and adorable ones at that, the boys of Jake and Helen Blumner and the girls of Dave and Jen Larsen.

This is my first novel, and I'm trying to learn post-publishing etiquette. Being a poet most of my writing life, I conscientiously walked the gauntlet buying the other authors' books and requesting their autographs. I'd brought extra money just for that. It's the way I've been "brought up," so to speak -- poets are supposed to support each other. We're always talking about "the writing community" and how we have to stick together. We know nobody reads us; we're lucky if other poets read our slim volumes. Nonetheless, we make our friendly gestures; we do what we can. In poetry, of course, there isn't enough influence, power or money to go around, and there'd NEVER be a 12-poet lineup at any Barnes and Noble. Here's the thing, though: not one of those authors on Saturday bought mine. What's wrong with these people? Who's their mother? I went home feeling peevish and wounded.

That night I was depressed and keyed up, and, the temperature outside plunging to a life-threatening 9 degrees, I snuggled into bed early. But I but couldn't sleep. So I reached for Tom Powers' exuberantly colorful 2002 book "Michigan Rogues, Desperadoes, Cuthroats." I immediately felt better. He says P.K. Small, "the Ogre of Seney," became a "gastronomic adventurer" who, for the promise of a drink, would 'gulp down horse manure, either fresh and still steaming, or as a tooth-busting, dried up horse apple." And here's my favorite -- Powers describes T.C. Cunyan, "the Man Eater of Peterborough" like this: "short, squat and tough, he looked like a 170-pound piece of gristle." I still laugh every time I read this amazing sentence.
So I'm grateful to Tom Powers for saving me from middle-of-the-night novelist angst. At least I didn't have to eat horseshit, and even though I heard a major brawl broke out somewhere in the mall just an hour after all of us literati had packed up our Sharpies and left, I understand that the world I'm in is basically benign.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sado-Masochism and the Screaming Child

I spent two hours of MLK Day sitting in the dentist's chair. Well, wait, it's not really the dentist's chair because HE'S never in the chair and, for that matter, neither is my dominatrix hygienist of the day, Rose. It was sort of an accident -- my appointment wasn't until weeks later and when I called to change an 8 a.m. appointment to a more civilized hour, they tricked me into accepting a cancellation for that very afternoon -- a rare day off.

No matter what I do they always yell at me. Except for Kathy, that is, my favorite hygienist, who had bought my novel and leaned around the corner into Rose's cubicle to dish about the book. "I wish I'd had a life like that," Kathy said, while I drooled from the godawful banana-flavored numbing cream Rose had just q-tipped onto my gums. Damn that stuff is bitter. "I wish I'd had that much fun."

"Issha novel," I garbled, "made moshtovitup."

"Yeah, I'm not buying that," Kathy said. Maybe she needs to believe it really is possible to have a life like that. Maybe that's why nobody wants fiction anymore. Everybody wants to believe everything can happen. That's okay, most of my novel actually is true anyway -- or some timeworn version of "true" -- and I did have a hell of a lot of interesting adventures when I was in my twenties.

Anyway, apparently I have a small mouth, my teeth all crowded together in there, and that's why I'm always on the precipice of periodontal disease. When I get Kathy, she's kind to me, and that's why I always try to get her, but the last time, after she finished, the mean dentist came in and said I needed to come back three days later because Kathy hadn't gotten all the plaque off. I accepted the appointment but when I got home I called right away and cancelled it. They get me two hours every four or six months, and that's it. I like Kathy.

So I swear they gave me Rose on MLK Day to get even. She's funny and wry and I secretly like her -- I've been hearing about her kids and stuff for about 15 years -- but she's relentless. This time she insisted on sticking cardboard hell into my mouth for xrays, the heavy vest pushing against my heart and my throat gagging while she dashed away for each print. And then she started the cleaning with that sonic thingie that makes me feel like I'm being waterboarded.

Well, even with that I was holding my own reasonably well, concentrating on the oldies songs on CARS 108 and trying to get a peek at paltry snowflakes drizzling onto a little pine I always watch outside Rose's window. Then this kid arrived in the next cubicle over, and as soon as he got into the chair, he started shrieking. It went on through the eight needle pricks Rose administered to numb my wussy upper gums, it went on through all four of my quadrants, and it went on even through the cherry-flavored polishing.

"Wha ish it? Gwatanamo ovrthere?" I sputtered. "Hey, kid, don't give up the sheecrets!" Rose giggled and told me to suction. She said my gums were bleeding even though I floss every night and I've even switched to a buzzing electric toothbrush.

The kid shrieked some more.

"Theyshoogashim," I said.

"They're trying," Rose said. "He won't breathe in." He was eight, she said, and he does that every time.

Eventually the kid got done and I got done. The mean dentist, who's really not mean, came in and felt up my neck for tumors and shit and checked my gums, declaring me cavity and plaque-free. I asked him why he was running Abu Ghraib in Flushing, Michigan and he didn't laugh. I thought I was quite hilarious. Neil Diamond was warbling "Sweet Caroline" when I finally clambered out of the chair and got my free toothbrush and dental floss. When I went out to pay my bill the kid was playing with Legos in the waiting room, his hair askew but his face almost disturbingly calm. He wasn't making a sound. His brother was next in the chair, and Rose told me he never fights in the slightest.

Poetry Church

Spent a Friday night at a little bookstore in Flint listening to and watching Traci Currie, a UM - Flint instructor and poet, deliver her goods. It was sweet. Such soothing pleasure. Just a circle of about 15 people in comfortable chairs, and the bumpy, polished wooden floors, and the Art Deco arched windows, and dark falling out on Second Street, and a little table with snacks and wine waiting for us, and a few people walking by outside, and Traci passionately speaking. After a frenetic first week of the semester, Traci's human voice was brave and refreshing.

Part of the comfort for me was the purity and simplicity of the situation: no cell phones, no TV, no email, no pixels. Just a circle of people listening, and Traci there giving us her all. The power of a single human voice, singing out.

I spent a lot of my childhood in circles like that: in Bible studies and prayer meetings in places like Calvary EUB church on Gibbs Avenue in Canton, Ohio, and later, memorably, in Blissfield and Nellie, Ohio, plucky, struggling little churches in Coshocton County. My mind and heart learned to receive and respond in those evenings of scripture and talk. Even when I was a child, the people in those gatherings welcomed me in and let me speak if I wanted to. I remember those people as kind and gentle. I loved their stories. It was never only about the words, but about the meanings of the words, and what we all thought about them. I have the poetry and rhythms of the flawed but addictively lovely King James Bible in my bones, and a fondness for the dear folk who sat around those circles. after hard days in not always happy lives, struggling to find grace and insight in The Word. That hope, centered in language, is still deeply embedded in who I am. The hope that language might be able to save us. Or at least, profoundly please us.

Now, I usually eschew traditional church. But I find the same comfort in Poetry Church, in rooms where remarkable regular people offer up their words, and where language still sometimes delivers startling grandeur and grace.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Writing into an Unknown Silence

This is a peculiar feeling: writing into a large electronic balloon, where my words are like molecules circulating and bumping up against billions of other molecules. Since I'm not getting any comments, I wonder if I could write virtually anything and virtually no one would notice. An interesting take on audience: there could be somebody out there, or maybe no one. Sort of like God.

I'm thinking about how I used to write. I have the gift of one specific moment when something became clear to me. I was about 14 and we were living in a rickety parsonage in Blissfield, Ohio. I was often alone in that time of my life, and it was a condition which did not upset me -- I liked the possibilities within my solitude. Anyway, I was sitting at a little desk on the second floor of the house, and I remember a milky daylight filtering in a window to my left. I was writing in a notebook. I never called it a diary -- diaries were for more trivial pursuits, I suppose I thought. Anyway, a moment surged up in which I said to myself, "I want to write. I want to be a writer." I was so sure that was what I wanted to do that a brief, euphoric ecstasy washed over me.

I've never made it "big" and my life has taken many twists and turns: I have not had the intense focus required, probably, to make this my only life's work. I'm not the best there is and even now, as I feel my age nick away at my energies, I feel unrealized and in need of more practice. But by far it is the clearest and most consistent professional moment of my life, and it was exhilarating.