I was lying in bed one night in mid-December before the solstice, when the day’s supply of light was still miserably shrinking. It was cold. I’d turned the furnace down to 62, resolved to be an ecological grownup, and the heap of comforters on top of me was so heavy that I got an isometric workout every time I tried to turn over.
This was before the snow, the world outside the clamped-down window dark, impenetrable and forbidding. Those kinds of nights, silence and dark are the enemy: one’s thoughts turn dangerously to end games and angst.
I found myself mumbling, it’s like an iron lung in here. I’m trapped in an iron lung. Until when -- April? Claustrophobia and dread puffed up like giant anxiety airbags, avoiding the crash but threatening their own sweaty suffocation.
This is the start of my next column for East Village Magazine. It'll be out Jan. 8. Oh what the hell, here's the rest of it.
I slid one hand out and reached for the radio. It’s designed with a little bump on the “sleep” button so you can find it in the dark. Hmm, 1:17 a.m. BBC as usual, all night every night. I wanted hypnotizing cricket scores, but this night it was all foreboding and fearful – a litany of bee disease, dying coral reefs, starvation, terrorism in the usual failing states.
Damn, I muttered, don’t they know we’re trying to fall asleep out here? Cussing, I rolled the old-fashioned dial to the MSU classical station. I landed just in time for a lullaby – an actual lullaby – by George Gershwin, who I’m sure had a few sleepless nights of his own. (I’m listening to it now – a nine-minute version by pianist Alicia Zizzo -- it’s lovely and I’m thankful.)
Then there was a nice long piece by Georg Telemann, who, the mellow-voiced announcer murmured, was more popular than his contemporary Mozart in their time. Hm, how about that, I thought. I relaxed, and before the 60 minutes of “sleep” radio ran out, my fretful brain surrendered to the music, and I slept.
The next day, I Googled “iron lung.”
With a tendency toward claustrophobia, I’ve always been horrified and fascinated by the iron lung. People my age well remember the tubular, wheezing contraption from the Fifties when polio paralyzed the bodies, including, cruelly, the breathing muscles, of thousands of kids.
Some of them were saved by the iron lung. According to Wikipedia, at the height of the polio outbreaks, “entire hospital wards were filled with rows of iron lungs,” the polio victims’ poor heads protruding from one end, sad little pillows under their necks, their hair splayed out and a system of disconsolate mirrors overhead. When you went to the movies, they’d show films of those awful wards, and then they’d pass around a can for donations to the March of Dimes.
Things you might not know: the machine was invented by Phillip Drinker and Louis Shaw (thus its earlier name, the Drinker Respirator) originally for treatment of coal gas poisoning. The first one was used in 1928 on a child in Boston.
Most of those polio victims died, but some lived a long, long time. The family of Barton Hebert of Covington, Louisiana donated his iron lung to the Centers for Disease Control museum after he died in 2003 after almost 50 years in it.
Martha Mason of Lattimore, North Carolina, died at 71 just last May after more than 60 years in her iron lung. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life called Breath. After she contracted polio three days after her brother died from the disease, she says in a 2005 YouTube video, doctors put her in an iron lung and decreed she’d be dead in a year.
She asserted her curiosity saved her. From that breath-sustaining prison, she managed to get a degree in English from Wake Forest University (number one in her class). She went back to Lattimore where she read and wrote voraciously, welcomed many visitors and hosted dinner parties.
In fact, about 30 people in the U.S. still are encased in iron lungs, even though lighter, less restricting ventilators are available. A New York Times obituary(Mason Obituary) said Mason could have opted for a different kind of intubation in recent decades, but she chose her familiar iron house because of the freedom it gave her – “it let her breathe without tubes in her throat, incisions or hospital stays…it took no professional training to operate, letting her remain mistress of her own house, with just two aides assisting her.”
Mason’s story knocks me out. It chastens me: January in Flint isn’t really like an iron lung, and it’s an insult to those polio survivors to suggest so.
Their amazing resilience, in fact, inspires me. (Ahh, inspires -- from the Greek “to breathe.”) I can learn from them how to make each day, even the frozen-up January ones, fly by. I have choices.
I turned to Facebook once again to ask Flint friends for January strategies. The always-endearing Michael Absher said, “I swear a lot and kiss as many pretty girls as possible.” Gary Weisserman advised, “Burger@ the Torch.” Renee West smiley-faced, “anti-depressants.” Dennis Brownfield reported he walks his Jack Russell terrier in his winter coat down Woodlawn Park Drive after dark and enjoys the beautifully lit houses.
My friend Teddy says her alleviating secret is “happiness lights.” She keeps corners of the house brightly illuminated, trying to stay ahead of Dennis, her frugal man who keeps turning them off. I rely on color – my rainbow “postage-stamp” quilt cheers me up, and I’ve got a big poster of wildflowers framed above the bed. In January you’ll find me decked out in red, yellow, lavender and green – often all at the same time. Don’t mock me – it’s what keeps me from kicking the cats.
Whatever we do to get through January, it’s a compromise between sustaining cheer and respecting the Earth that tilts us toward dark to begin with. And that same earth will tilt us right out of the dark again, come spring.
In the meantime, I’m keeping my radio dial away from the BBC. And I’m very glad that I can breathe, on my own, even in the darkest winter days.
...of being a teacher is grading, and I've just finished off the end-of-semester marathon: 14 fiction projects, 14 final personal essays, and 45 freshmen papers. The last round of the semester is especially difficult: one evaluates not just the last piece of writing, but the student's whole semester, aiming to come up with a final number for class participation as well as for the class. And of course, one evaluates onesself.
So many decisions. I feel my forehead furrow even as I write this in a moment of breathing and debriefing.
Yes, I'm aware I have to really work on my breathing while grading -- I tend to tighten up, tense up, hunch up...an old, unhealthy habit I fell into long ago when working hard. Now I'm picturing my yoga teacher admonishing me to throw back my shoulders -- sit up tall!, she says. Or as my beloved therapist said gently all last spring, "it's okay to breathe..." This matters, I've gradually come to understand. Grading is a process of hard truths: grading is the field and the farmer both -- the humus scrutinized for depth and health, the farmer taking a taste of the soil, like my dad used to do, and taking a measure of what's there. Did we seed with enough rye grass? Is it getting enough oxygen and drainage? Is it too alkali?
Funny to be thinking about my dad standing in his much-fussed over little plot down in Ohio decades ago. But I see the instinctive rightness of this analogy for me. There's a cycle to it -- a cycle of planning, high hopes, constant tending, the frenzy of planting and harvest, then the hard realities: the strawberries just didn't make it. The rabbits got into the lettuce. The beans are diseased. The tomatoes never ripened up right. But those potatoes -- what a crop! And how will we deal with all those glossy green zucchini? Did you ever taste such sweet cantaloupe? Welp, I can hear him saying, there are a few things I'll have to do differently next year.
Over the past couple of years, I've become a tougher grader. I'm on the alert about this: part of me wary of advancing codgerly despair at the lunkishness of the young. But another part of me argues it is right to demand something of the younger generation. I want to say to them (and do -- probably more often than I should) , "Pay attention, dammit. Some of this stuff matters. Wake up!"
So I anguish over individual situations that I know affect my students' performance. Was I too hard on the one who's pregnant? Was I too hard on the one I got into a kerfuffle with midway through the semester because he loudly complained about the book I'd chosen -- and then proceeded to give me some of the worst writing I've ever received in a fiction class? Was I too rough on the kid whose thinking sparkles but whose proofreading is horrible -- knowing that she grew up in foster homes? Was I too easy on the eager kid who did okay, not great, because I know his mother was in jail? Was I too easy on the one who praised me and shared my political beliefs? Did I bend over backwards for the one who quoted Glenn Beck and was watching for any sign of liberal bias? How to keep the head clear and focused on the text: the paragraph after stumbling paragraph rolling out on that screen.
We only had 14 weeks together -- not nearly enough to really learn to write. Or for me to concentrate on these individuals before me, focusing on their complications, their needs, their resistance to learning.
It is not a question of whether I am objective or subjective, but rather a question of how subjective I am and in what direction. Even within the system of criteria, rubrics and points I have devised with few illusions, the matter of how many points I dole out has at least a partly visceral dimension. With writing there is hardly a cut-and-dried system, at least not that I am ready to embrace. Some of it is intuition -- and thus the perils of teacherly misuse of power.
But then again, my job is to try to help my students be better writers, not to solve all their late-adolescent life crises. So it probably doesn't help much to give them a break if they don't deliver what I think they need to know. It doesn't help them, I say primly, and it doesn't stand as good teaching. That's what I say to myself when I make the hard calls: give 'em consequences -- build the connection between what they do and what happens to them as a result. Good old Skinnerian behaviorism. But then, but then, writing IS life. All those complications, all those complexities -- they're what feed and challenge the writer. Tra la, tra la.
So, my body achy and craving relief, I fill the bathtub with the hottest water I can stand and invite my husband in for a long chat. "The point of life is learning how to adapt so you can survive," my husband reflects, the steam puffing at our faces. Our tub is big enough for us to sink in up to our armpits with heaps of bubble bath on top of that, our knees white Pyrenees. Used this way, the two of us sharing it, facing each other, our legs intertwined, the hot water lasts far longer than a quick and thoughtless shower, and it does us both good to take our time. It's something we've learned.
Up at 6:30 a.m. in San Pedro, still on Michigan time, I'm sitting on the couch, laptop warm where it belongs -- on my lap -- reading about all the snow back east. A photo comes up of somebody cross-country skiing on the National Mall in D.C. Mother Nature taking charge: airports closed, holiday shopping and highways all tangled up.
And here I sit in my pink bathrobe on the couch, watching a red sunrise bloom up over the harbor (yes, we face east on this hillside) and yes, it's so mild that we've left the windows open. I just heard the L.A. Times plop onto the porch -- a reassuring sound -- I wonder how much longer we'll have this part of morning. I'm not complaining, not disposed to let myself sink into melancholy nostalgia before its time.
No, I'm not complaining at all. I know enough to be grateful. Because it's a quiet, serene Sunday morning and I'm reading poems in the new Driftwood Review, and the whole day is ahead of me, and my husband is still snoozing peacefully in the next room, and I'm facing the sparkling ocean and...the windows are open.
Awash in sunlight on this first day back to the coast. I am grateful as always for this bright hillside. And noting, as always, the miracle of waking up in the cold and dark of Flint early yesterday morning and walking along the ocean bluffs of San Pedro by mid-afternoon. I often think of those people who practically starved in their covered wagons struggling across mountain and desert. And here I am, having had nine-grain cereal with soy milk and a sweet cappucino at Rex's, having kissed my husband and held his hand over the breakfast table, reading him his Virgo horoscope (he will be "childlike" in the best ways, his sense of wonder blooming), having done my ritual head stand and meditation, and now moving back and forth between our front porch and our back deck, taking the sun, as they say, with the relief of a parolee.
And noting, too, how much better I feel than last winter, when I arrived in Pedro before Christmas full of angst and physical commotion. It is a great thing to be healthy. I ran up to the corner first thing this morning to greet my beloved hilly Peck Avenue, the route of my cherished long walks to the Korean Bell of last February and daily all through the summer -- a crucial element in my healing. The whole place seems full of love today.
Here's a poem I wrote last summer, in appreciation:
Walking on Peck
When I first came back to the coast after the hard Michigan winter I couldn’t take much. I felt lost, strange to myself, and easily frightened as if somebody new was living alongside me in my body. I wasn’t sure who that was or what to make of it. All I wanted to do was walk, the blues and golds shining off saltwater a relief to me, the wide open harbor like getting out of jail, and especially the air – elixir of air – every breath – I wanted one after another – a sign I was still alive. I walked up and down Peck Avenue a hundred times, its steep dips requiring lungs and legs to work together. I felt my body doing its job and I could lose my fractured self in thought or not think at all, getting to know myself, old scabs shed, me the tender pink miraculous skin underneath healed or healing, rosy. Life wanted me. And so I walked, and looked, and breathed.
I was at the optometrist's office on an ordinary Tuesday morning waiting to get an errant lens put back in my glasses, and I ran into a man I know from work who was talking about his kids and something about how they want toy guns for Christmas, but he and his wife don't like the idea. I pulled out one of my favorite old stories, going way back to my Laguna Beach years about a friend of mine and her then about two-year-old son. She and her husband decided there would be no toy guns in the house, and they would raise their kid right, to not be violent, to be loving and cooperative. Then one day Teresa walked into the kitchen and there was her kid pointing something at her. It was a gun. He'd made it out of bread. Bang, bang, mommy.
So then the doc came out and called my work friend in -- he's the doctor responsible for the eyes of about 2/3 of UM - Flint -- and I settled in to wait for my glasses. A middle-aged woman sitting at my side had heard the whole thing. She leaned over toward me and said calmly, "It's possible to raise kids to be pacifists, you know." Hmm...she certainly didn't look like a radical. Certainly didn't look like a hippie. Just a middle-aged, slightly thick, gray-haired woman who eventually said she was from Lennon. She had two sons and she thought they were growing up to be pacifists. "It's not easy, you know, but you can do it." Then she said one of the males in her family -- a nephew, I think -- was going to Afghanistan and everybody was worried about him. I said something about hoping Obama knew what he was doing. She said, "We can't just think about this as one man, one guy. It's about all of us."
I never raised any kids of my own but I've always been awed by how hard it must be. About the time the first Gulf War started, my stepson Eliot abruptly joined the Army. He'd signed up secretly at an extremely difficult time in his life, and his father and I didn't approve, thinking of ourselves as pacifists and horrified at his timing just as Bush One started the thing. But Eliot was of age and there was nothing we could do to stop him. Basic training at Ft. Sill OK, however, shocked him. One day we got a letter: he informed us he was going AWOL. The letter started out, "by the time you read this, I'll probably be gone..." Well, an amazing transformation occurred in our pacifist household: my husband and I called Ft. Sill immediately and told on him. Gratefully, he hadn't followed through, and his commanding officer called him in and made him call his father from there. To my astonishment, I heard my husband say, "Son, I didn't agree with you for signing up, but now that you're there, be a man. You made this choice, now stick to it." We were both shocked by the ferocity of our expectations. So was Eliot. I think he'd already calmed down and decided not to run, but our indignant reaction was eye-opening to us all.
Fortunately for us that first Gulf War was over before Eliot finished basic training. We flew down to Ft. Sill for his graduation and beamed with a weird sort of pride -- neither of us had ever been on a base before and the Big Guns of Ft. Sill, everywhere we turned, and Eliot's appearance, shaved and trussed and sober, startled and worried us. But he followed through on his commitment, and that mattered to us. He lucked out. He went off to Germany where he had an office job for two years. He came home safely and eventually went to graduate school and turned into an avid Marxist for awhile and got a lot of tattoos and then met a great woman, got married, finished his PhD, got a great job, and now has an adorable son of his own. Who's only one year old. And I hope never has to go to war. Raising children to be pacifists, and then making sure we don't send them off to be killed -- it's about all of us.
Anyway, I thought about Eliot's near-AWOL when I found myself sitting at the eye doctor talking to that kind woman from Lennon. I'm not used to having chats like that in Flint. There always seems to be somebody spouting reflex patriotism around here, and it never seems to be paired with pacifism -- something I can never understand. We have to cheer for military action if we love our country? Even if it means sending off thousands of our children into terror, brain damage and death?
Pretty soon my glasses were done. I thanked the woman from Lennon for the conversation and walked out of there blinking into the sun, happy to see everything clearly again.
With the massive Macy's Parade toward Facebook, and with email the REALLY old school alley, and with blogging now seemingly past its prime, creaky with the anachronism of people actually having to FIND a blog, the freedom might be back. When I first started the blog, nobody knew who I was, and nobody read what I wrote. It felt good, kind of daring -- kind of pure even if under it all, of course, pulsed the omnipresent undeniable always ambivalent hope for readers. Both shy and assertive. I've never had a lot of readers here, but lately the thing seems even more unread than ever. Sitting alone in the house on a Saturday night, I savor the dual silence of anonymity and solitude. The acreage has been cleared of its dry old corn stalks for the winter. Good time to come back to the field.
...For about three weeks now. Apparently there's nothing to be afraid of. Today, back from breakfast at the usual joint with 3/4 of the commune (the majority caucus, as "Teddy West" calls it) I meditated. On the coldest day of the winter so far, the sun through the southern exposure upstairs window warmed my forehead, that Third Eye chakra, and then I wandered downstairs and did a headstand on my new yoga mat, getting up to the wall on only the second try. Counted deliberately to 120, breathing from the diaphragm. Tried to hear my yoga teacher's voice urging the shoulders to take more of the responsibility. Couldn't remember which way is "up" for the shoulders in this pose.
Stretching, breathing, extending, bending...my body and I communing. It has been a long time coming, far from the stiff Ohio of my youth.
Later, a long Saturday walk, the sun of the morning's meditation long obscured behind thick clouds. What IS this universe, anyway? What IS it, going on and on out there forever? Sometimes I think it's the body of God, and we are tiny mitochondria in miniscule capillaries.
The photo above, ice on Cadet, on the curve to Pierce Park that feels like a little woods, a little country road in the middle of town. The essence of this time of year in the Midwest, brown, stripped down, tight, chilly. Poetry weather.