Body of Gratitude

Body of Gratitude

A year ago I was on the Alabama Gulf Coast walking on the beach with a beautiful man—a mirage of sorts– watching the dolphins play. My heart had been sewn shut around so many stones that I knew getting in the water was not an option. I’d sink to the sand and never be able to swim myself to the surface. I had believed in the mirage-man and how much I wanted him, but on Thanksgiving Day I was noticing for the first time the way my hand passed through him when I reached out to touch….

I sat for hours that weekend looking out at the sparkling waters of the Gulf.  I was so busy trying not to feel tragically sad, longing for my far away children, that I could hardly look at what I was thankful for. A year later is 365 days and twice that many lessons learned (the hard way), but as I sit in this firelit coffee house with my daughter, whiling away the afternoon with my computer, I realize something. Some people have a body of work to represent a lifetime of creation. Today, I find that I have a body of gratitude that represents a lifetime of blessings.

Head. Inside my extra large head there is a brain that works well, most of the time. I have always trusted my brain to get me through. To be smart and capable. It is a quick thinker, and I’m grateful it lets me keep up. I may not be able to remember a lot of life’s details (see last blog), but I remember enough. I remember falling in love with books, acquiring my baby sisters during the dark night of childhood, feeling happiness like bubbles that would surprise me on a Friday afternoon as I boarded the crosstown bus home from school. I remember dancing on the bar, skinny dipping at dawn, road trips at midnight with the friends of the moment. I remember the people I have loved and cleaved to for life: true friends. My head has gotten me into plenty of trouble, don’t get me wrong. I can overthink, overanalyze, the usual roadblocks of a writer and reader. But my brain has always been secure for me, and my friend. I am grateful for my head and everything that goes on in there.

Eyes. Thank you, universe, for not making me blind. I am as close to it as a person can be without actually being blind at all. My vision is appallingly bad – once estimated at 20/1800 by a surprised ophthalmologist I went to. But thanks to modern technology I am corrected to about 20/35 and have seen Swan Lake and The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. I have seen the Pacific Ocean, the Carribean and the Atlantic. I have seen a giant humpback whale staring at me from 20 feet below, as she popped up beside my boat. I have seen the faces of students look at me with disbelief, gratitude, pride, exhilaration, realization, frustration, desperation, love, joy, and the thrill of epiphany. I have read books, love letters, and the poetry of my gifted daughter. I have looked down from the top of the Eiffel Tower at the lights of Paris and have looked up at Arenal—a live volcano as it spewed truck sized globs of magma down its sides in glowing rivers. I have seen the look of love on the face of the man I married. Best of all, of course, I saw the faces of my children still smeary and blurred with the exercise of birthing. I saw them open their eyes for the first time to look at me, their mother in this beautiful lifetime. I am grateful for my eyes.

Mouth. What is life without the taste of fermented grapes, roasted coffee, or aged cheese? How can I ever describe how thankful I am for deep soft kisses?

Ears. My son is a musician. That alone gives my ears meaning. My father gave me his love by sitting me down in his study to listen to Sibelius, Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Puccini. Etc. The music of my life, from Joni to Aretha, poured through my ears and filled the spaces inside me like custard in a mold. Soon enough, the music was me. What about the sound of the surf, distant lawnmowers on a summer’s day, the swish of skis on groomed snow, the crackle of a fire, or the song of a mockingbird? Yeah, all of it.

Throat. The chakra spins. Having a voice. To speak, to be. I think with my head but I write with my body – my throat where my voice lives, and my hands that know how to get it all out. I am grateful for my throat.

Heart. There is no real explanation for why the heart works the way it does. I don’t mean why it pumps blood and oxygen to all the other parts of the body (grateful or otherwise)– scientists have that figured out. I’m talking about The Heart – the metaphorical seat of feeling. How does anyone know how to love? How can even the most damaged of souls have a heart of love inside them? I am grateful that loving has always come easy to me. Not necessarily trusting or sharing – but love, yes. My heart does not hold grudges. I loved my sisters on sight and that feeling has never waned. I love so many friends who could ask anything of me. I love my uncles, aunts, cousins galore, without reservation. I have loved a few men in my life. Not many. Enough. That love does not go away any more than any other love goes away. When someone is gone, the love just hibernates in the deep cells of the body of gratitude. I am grateful for those loves. The love a mother feels for the human beings grown in her body, fed from her body, nurtured on her body. Well, it seems obvious and effortless but I suppose it is not. Did my mother know that love? Hard to say. But I am grateful that I do.

Breasts. It took me a long time to be grateful for mine. As a young woman, I resented their asymmetry (which is remarkable and no I won’t put up a picture to prove it), their perky girlishness (was I insane?). Now I think my boobs kick all kinds of ass. They fed two very hungry babies who grew at record breaking rates. They have gained character and given me and others pleasure over the years. And at this stage in my life I am most grateful that they have retained their shape and… uh, elevation. Good job, breasts. Thank you.

Uterus. What can I say? I’m a goddess, as is every woman who contains within her the power of life. I fell in love with my body for positive sure when I grew a person inside me. And then again when I pushed it out with the power of all the love and gratitude any mere human can muster. And then I did it again.

Vagina. The magical mystery of being female. The vagina is a way out – for blood and/or life. Everyone starts life through that flowering exit. And it is the way in—to the center of a woman.  It is a mystery that everyone ponders, some fear, and some love. I am grateful for my vagina. It has given me joy, pleasure, glory, pain, and myself.

Legs. I am grateful for my legs and how pretty they have always been. How they let me dance. How they let me be tall. They ache now and then. My knees creak. But I can still boogie my ass off and hike a mountain and ride a bike and that’s awesome.

Feet. I am not always fearless. In fact fear has overcome me often in my life. (I’m afraid right now. Afraid this blog is going to be gag-worthy.) But I have guts. My feet, they walk. I do what I need to do. I go where I need to go, and work as hard as I need to work. Most of the time, my feet don’t fail me. I am grateful to my feet for carrying my body of gratitude through five decades of living. I am also grateful for pedicures.

There is not much in my life I am not grateful for, come to think of it. I even love the pain and heartbreak – how else could I be me without it? And I have food, clean water, health insurance, and a home I am not in danger of losing. I can use my head, my heart, my voice, my legs – to make a difference however small. I can go. I can come. I can say yes. I can say no. I can embrace. I can push away. I can stand tall. I can lie down. I can stay silent. But I probably won’t.

 

In Remembrance of Forgetting

Nabokov titled his memoir Speak, Memory and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past is an autobiographical “novel” in which seven volumes worth of memory flow effortlessly from a single bite of a fancy cookie. I never read it and must admit it is not on my list of “must reads.” My own relationship to memory must surely influence that fact. I do not have enough memory with which to speak. I do not have enough remembrance of things past to fill one volume, let alone seven. I’m jealous, I guess, or maybe just irked by all that ready memory that abides in the minds of so many people. I don’t ask, “Why can’t I remember?” I think I may have figured that out. But I constantly, obsessively ask, “Can I bring memory back?”

I am of sound mind, have a perfectly functional brain and no early signs of any kind of memory disorder. This memory issue is not recent, nor did it have a sudden, dramatic onset. But it is pervasive. There is not a period in my life that has been spared a sloppy wipe-down by the bar rag of my subconscious.

The metaphor is suitable. You know when the bartender runs the wet rag across the bar between drinks or customers? She often misses the corners. Or one narrow strip that does not shine wet when the rag’s been put away. That narrow dry strip, or those corners with a few crumbs left in them –that’s the stuff I remember. The rest has had a wipe down.

People have tried to reassure me about this circumstance, saying, “Memory is inaccurate anyway. What people think they remember is rarely even close to the truth.” But that’s science talking. The fact is, people who can remember what Christmas morning was like or how it felt to be infatuated with the guitarist in the house band or the trip to Lake George with two other couples in 1988—they don’t get what it’s like NOT to.

A few minutes ago I browsed the internet for some quotable brilliance on the subject of memory. I have a few things to say in response to some of these gems.

Montaigne: “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”

Clearly not true. Though I know a few people who have spectacular memories of all things awful, I am pretty sure I am not alone as one whose mind erases trauma. The mind wishes for the pain to stop. The pain of terror, abandonment, shame, or violence. The solution is simple: allow the memory of that bad thing to just fade to nothingness, or maybe some slight pencil outline of a general idea so that you don’t seem completely insane when someone refers to the awful thing and you have no shred left. This is where the crumbs in the corner come in handy. They are enough to hang onto and recite when needed so your friends and family don’t start looking for lobotomy scars under your eyebrows.

There was plenty in my childhood that, for whatever reason, my brain wanted to forget. The problem is, it got to be a habit. In short order, my brain forgot how to lay down memory efficiently, even if it wanted to.

Proust wrote: “There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory.”

Somewhat related to the Montaigne quotation, this one comments knowingly on the human desire to forget.  But if it is true for Proust, and for others, it is not for me. I would gladly remember all the worst things I’ve done and said if I could also remember the certain years, or collections of years, or key months in my life that I cannot grasp no matter how hard I try. The awful truth about myself would be a small price to pay.

Tennessee Williams: “Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.”

Well, life is evidently not all memory for me. And I have my own theory about the moment– the valued now. I believe that I, and perhaps many others out there, forgot how to be in the moment. Williams is right, that moment does go quickly. All the more reason to see it for what it is, smell it and taste it for what it is and hope that your brain’s memory neurons are tuned up enough to file that moment away for a rainy day. (As Samuel Johnson said, “The true art of memory is the art of attention.”)

But I’m not sure that always works. My son has always been one to revel joyfully in the moment. Doing so has given him a rich experience of his moments, and I think I can say in truth that he loves his life. But though he does easily what comes hard to me—be present in the moment – he, like me, has a very imprecise memory. He is only 23 and I hope he will learn to retain the moments he finds so precious. I hope I can too. (It’s not too late for me!)

Elbert Hubbard is last on my list, and this one really pisses me off. I had to look up who this man was, and when I speed-scanned a Wikipedia article about him, he sounded pretty interesting, but here is what he said: “A retentive memory may be a good thing, but the ability to forget is the true token of greatness.”

Now at this point, if you are reading this whole blog, you know I do not agree with that. Nor do I believe its opposite. It’s not as if I think a good memory equals greatness, but why on earth would forgetfulness be great? Perhaps the context, clearly missing, would clarify. If he spoke of forgetting others’ crimes and insults against you then yes, that is a great thing. It is one of the few things about having a poor memory that I do not object to. I do not hold on to the crappy details that can so preoccupy some people. Not only do I not remember what you and I fought about, I probably don’t even remember that we had a fight. It is not important enough for my mind to remember, I suppose. I’d rather remember how much I love you.

I disagree with you, Elbert Hubbard. The ability to forget is an ability. If I could wield forgetting as an ability, I’d be okay with that. Then I could choose when to pick it up and use it. Alas, instead, forgetting wields me, or rather, it wields the sloppy bar rag all over my memory….

I don’t want it to sound as if I am a walking blank slate and I can’t remember who you are when you come out of the lady’s room when we were just having drinks together a few minutes before. I am not an amnesiac and I don’t have brain damage (as far as I know). I remember plenty. I function, after all, and I tend to recall the after-effects of the wonderful things that happen to me and that others do. I don’t forget that I am grateful or who I love, and why.

But…

I can’t remember any of my teachers in kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fifth grade, and very few from sixth through twelfth. I only have a smattering of memory of grad school and the name of only one professor there.

I do not remember Thanksgivings or Christmases. I have a vague visual memory of one Christmas at my dad’s when I was about 12, and a few flickers from the time I got my cat, Venus. I was six.

As a girl, I loved to babysit. I know I loved dearly a family I lived with one summer and had full charge of the three children while the dad worked and the mom played tennis. I do not remember a single thing about that summer or the house, except that I got contacts at some point along the way. I was 16.

For years I forgot the whole day during which my mother dragged me to DC to renew her passport so she could fly overseas to marry the leader of a country in Southeast Asia who had proposed to her through mental telepathy. That is one memory that came back – I think due to the profound brilliance of a shrink I was seeing for awhile. But that’s getting off track.

I lived with a man for 3 months when I was 21. I was obsessed with him, risked much for him, and adored him. Then he hurt me. I cannot remember a single thing about the 3 months nor the heartbreak and its aftermath.

There is so much more. And how can I know what I forget if I forget it?

My honeymoon is very vague, I can’t remember much detail about Little League games, days skiing with my kids, or family gatherings in Ohio. There is a general aura of memory that lays over my life, and I can picture my children’s faces at every step and stage, and I can feel the memory in my bones of how much I loved my family and the years when we were all under one roof together. But my husband would say, “Remember that travel game in Kinderhook when….” The memory flows out with glorious specificity. I shake my head. My sister would say, “Remember that Christmas when you came and we all went to the….” She can do that for any year from 1968 to the present. I am envious and in awe. Classmates will say, “Remember in 6th grade geography class with Mrs. Southwell how we would always….” NO! Why can’t I? I want to remember.

Rita Mae Brown attested that “one of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” I do not agree. Nor do I think having a poor memory has made me unhappy. It hasn’t. But still.

I have a recurring fantasy of hiring a hypnotist and just going for it. Knowing there is no guarantee that a single recalled memory will even be accurate or close to it. And in spite of warnings that I might “retraumatize” myself if something comes up that is not so hot. But it is a favorite fantasy. Lying there in a comfy chair in the hypnotist’s office, returning in my mind to my very own life and calling it forth into memory.

memory

Flee, Fly, Flu: A Detailed Description of Succumbing

I’m having dinner with friends. A long lingering dinner party for four. Cocktails, wine, gourmet comfort food prepared by my gourmet quintessential hostess friend. Not a typical evening, and one I sure do want to relish. My date and I have planned it all out. We’re spending the night so we can stay later and not have to drive home. I’m even contemplating an after dinner drink option.

Somewhere in the middle of a conversation about how two Zinfandels from the same winery can taste completely different because of where the grapes were grown, I take a sip of said delicious wine. Suddenly it tastes different. Wrong.

And the tannin receptors on the back of my tongue freak out a little bit. I think, “Hm.”

Suddenly, I don’t want that anticipated cognac. I want bed. My bed 45 minutes away. But it’s late. I go ahead with the plan. After doing the dishes with my hosts, I find a stash of tissues in the guest room and crawl into bed. I lie there, sniffling a little with the early stage drips that could very well just mean “cold.”

By morning, the clotted cheese that is now clogging my throat is moaning “flu” in its dire, moist voice. Every breath pushes past the clotted cheese and makes an awesome rendition of “death rattle.”

My eyelids peel open past the grit of “not all is well” and I ignore the need for 6 more hours of sleep. Off to work. Because I spent the night, I have only a 15 minute commute instead of a 40 minute commute and I can’t even enjoy it. My hostess made me a double shot decaf redeye with her two kick-ass coffee machines and I can barely appreciate it. Coffee, like wine, taste wrong to me when I’m sick. Ironic. My two favorite drinks go to shit in my mouth. (When I’m pregnant too, but I knew that wasn’t what was going on.)

My man friend drops me at work and I refuse even an air kiss. I know for sure I’m toxic as hell.

The hot hot pressure that starts somewhere around my temples and spreads out in slow but inexorably expanding circles consumes my sinuses, my cheek cavities, my eye sockets, my non-existent tonsils, my lymph nodes, my ear canals, and all the little spaces between my big aching brain and my seemingly shrinking cranium. I sit at my computer noticing how its glow is vibrating sharply, like visual piranha teeth.

By the time my skull is as tight as bony spandex against my gray matter, so that I’m thinking about asking the maintenance guys if I can borrow their drill, it’s almost time for lunch. Will it be akin to germ warfare if I enter a dining hall full of young children? But I keep thinking, if she made chicken soup today, I’m sure to get all better after a giant mug of the perfect stuff.

I skulk into the dining room partway through lower school lunch after everyone is seated, and skirt the room in the direction of the two pots of homemade soup. No chicken soup. I feel a little bit doomed. The clearly emotional mindset of a rapidly sickening woman.

I grab a mug of the wrong kind of soup and take it back to my office, thinking… well who knows what I was thinking. Eyeballs smoking in my head, I kept at it, trying to write an article, vaguely returning emails, screwing up a mailing to the class of 2013 and being benevolently rescued by a colleague who could see Flu Brain setting in from a mile away. Somehow I got to the end of the day.

By six that evening I was shivering so hard I spilled my tea all over my bed and knocked the lamp off when I tried to turn it on.

My daughter called. “Mama?” she asked, when she heard my quavering voice. It dawned on me just as I said it out loud, “I don’t think this is a cold.”

“No shit,” she affirmed, lovingly.

She talked into my ear as I cowered, vibrating with chills, under two comforters and two cats, one specifically applying her feline heat to my chest. Her own frantic purring and my chill-induced vibrations made her whiskers tremble. As my daughter prattled on, distracting me from it all, I used what was left of my brain to cross things off my mental list of everything I was going to get done that weekend.

One thing and one thing only remained on my list: be sick so I could get well.

Lots of loving and nurturing from my fellow, elderberry syrup from one friend and Chinese anti-viral herbs from another, Echinacea, zinc, and approximately a gallon of water and two pots of tea a day, sick amounts of sleep and plenty of cat comfort and voila! Three days later I was pretty sure I’d one day maybe be almost myself again. And sure enough my optimism paid off.

flu