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New Neighbors

Didot and BirdAbout a month ago, our dog Didot announced the arrival of the ribbon snake by barking over its coiled body with an almost metronomic regularity. Didot’s commitment to maintaining a steady pace of barking appeared to be in conflict with his desire to attack the snake; occasionally he would break from his stubby legged stance long enough to paw at the creature, who would respond by unspooling upward high enough to provide an elegant pedestal for its own oppositional threat display; a tiny mouth stretched open to reveal a split stiletto of a tongue. The snake’s vulnerability moved me. Before I’d ever owned a dog, I’d owned a ribbon snake, a long-ago gift from my soon-to-be husband. I was well aware that ribbon snakes pose no threat to dog or man, but there was no convincing Didot. I tried coaxing the snake onto a stick, so I could move it out of the yard. The snake wouldn’t budge. I dragged the dog away.

 

That night I complained to my husband about the uselessness of barking at a snake. My husband saw Didot’s barking as perfectly useful; Didot was alerting our pack to a potential danger. I was the one out of sync.

doe

A few weeks ago, a doe started circling our fenced yard. Our dogs adore the doe. Didot’s brother Bembo is particularly fond of her. Doe and dog share the same coloring—tawny bodies, black noses—but there the resemblance ends. Bembo has comically long, floppy ears.

 

The dogs have a special bark for the doe. They throw themselves against the fence and bark for her with abject adulation. The doe appears to enjoy the fuss; she tiptoes back and forth before them along the neighbor’s side of the fence for maximal exposure.

A week ago, Didot spotted her fawn. Up until that point, the doe had been the most magnificent transcendent creature the dogs had ever seen. But something about the fawn—the white spots?—the fresh scent?—compelled those nosy, noisy dogs to admire it in reverent silence.

 

The new life keeps coming. The other day, we heard sounds of distress from a tangle of ivy. Didot, always the first to spot a newcomer, dashed over to discover a bitty bird caught in the vines. He sniffed at it and nuzzled it until finally it dropped out of the ivy and onto the pavement. The bird seemed a little uncertain of its purchase on the ground, and hopped a few times, inexpertly. As Didot approached it again, I heard warning chirps from multiple points. A scarlet cardinal was chirping from the shrubbery uphill from us, a female was chirping from the neighbor’s fence, and then two more female cardinals flew over from neighboring oaks to add to the chorus of concern. I chimed in, “Didot, leave it!” I worried the adult cardinals would want nothing to do with the baby bird if it carried dog scent. I worried the baby bird would get a romantic notion that all big stupid mammals were family. I grabbed our ambassador by his collar and starting pulling him toward the exit. I’d almost gotten him to the gate when Didot’s brother Bembo bounded over to greet the baby bird. While Didot had approached the bird with subtlety and genuine tenderness, Bembo’s approach was more rough-and-tumble. After many ignored commands, “Leave it, leave it,” and futile chirps, I finally managed to drag both brothers out of the yard and away from the baby cardinal.

 

It wasn’t until I’d gotten us all in the house that I considered the location of the true threat to the baby bird—our cat. If the cat had been out in the yard with us as the little cardinal plopped out of the ivy…he would have shred it to feathers. But as it happened, the cat had been snoozing in the corner on a dog bed throughout the whole incident.

 

I tried to coax the cat into wanting to stay inside that day. I changed his litter box. I pet him. I brushed him. I hauled cardboard boxes up from the basement, placing them at inviting angles throughout the house. I presented the cat with an old basket he used to curl up in from back in the days when he was a skinny kitty, perhaps a quarter of his current size and the name Smidge was not ironic.

cat

When it was time for me to take the garbage out, the cat raced me to the front door and sat there expectantly, eager to go outside and play, possibly kill. I hauled him upstairs and re-introduced him to wonders of the attic as a stay-cation destination, then dashed outside with the garbage bag. As I looked around the yard to see if the baby bird was still hopping around on the ground, I was aware of the presence of the adult cardinals, who remained positioned in a semi-circle all along the perimeter. I didn’t see the baby, but figured the adults still considered him in need of monitoring. As I made eye contact with these watchful birds, I felt like I owed it to them to continue to contain the cat inside the house.

 

What to do with a rescue cat? The cat had been homeless, so I gave him a home. Hungry, so I gave him food. Thwarted, so I gave him access to my yard. Oh…that’s just one version of the story. We adopted the cat because we wanted a mouse killer. He hasn’t disappointed in the mouse-killing department. But he didn’t stop killing once the mice were gone. Should we have expected otherwise? Killers will be killers.

 

I kept the cat inside all that day, and all that night. When he woke me at two am, as is his habit, I sprayed him with a squirt gun, something I should have done years ago to defend my right to a night’s sleep, but did that night to earn a few more hours of respite for the baby cardinal.

 

By the next day, we needed relative silence in the house so that my son could conduct some online tutoring; he couldn’t conduct calculus lessons punctuated by a cat meowing by the door. I checked the back yard. The cardinals were no longer on patrol. I saw no sign of the baby bird. Either the baby bird was dead already, or it had learned to fly. I let the cat out.

 

For all I know, the little cardinal is still alive. And so is the fawn. And the doe. And the ribbon snake. The dogs and I are about to make another trip out to yard. We’ll see who shows up.

new neighbor

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Bad Decision

Yesterday my friend Monica and I went kayaking on the Miami River. When you read, “kayaking,” you might get the impression we were paddling madly. We were not. We were just two women of a certain age, bobbing along on a still lake, dipping our paddles occasionally as we chatted.

Monica and I met at a yoga class for people with MS. We’ve both had MS symptoms for decades. We share the same neurologist, Dr. Z. MS gives us a lot to talk about. I told Monica how much I admired her decision to stay away from MS medications, despite Dr. Z’s recommendation to start one. I think she’s been managing her disease really well. Monica runs her own business. She can hike for miles. She can drive without hand controls. She can put on a sneaker while standing on one foot. If I could do those things, I’d consider myself pretty well cured.

Monica told me she admires me for being brave enough to try experimental medications. I assured her I haven’t been brave, only desperate.

I would be oversimplifying to present us as taking opposite tacks. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of our approaches to MS, you’d find a pretty big overlap in the center. We both do yoga. We both experiment with controlling MS through diet; me in a clinical trial, and Monica in the privacy of her own kitchen. We are both total strivers, still hoping to get healthier, not sicker, as though we weren’t aware we have a degenerative disease. What’s our secret? Delusion, we agreed, laughing. Every day, we push forward, not necessarily ignoring the bad stuff, but not letting that stuff define us either.

When I observed that we’d been under the sun for a while, we paddled over to a shady spot, being the proactive types who wouldn’t ignore the sun and overheat, thereby triggering our MS symptoms.

Monica took a picture of me in my rented kayak, wisely sheltering beneath an overhanging tree. I’d made a good decision, right? Nope. I’d made a bad decision. This morning I’d woken up itching.  Turns out, I’d been nestled in poison oak. I’m not saying I would have been better off heating up in the middle of the lake. But maybe I should have chosen to not shelter quite so deeply in the shade.

Here’s the thing about living with MS in these times: there are many treatment options to choose from, including the option to not medicate. Smart, conscientious people can labor over these options for days, or even years, yet make a choice with grim consequences. When I was a little kid, I used to think I’d eventually recognize the bad option when I saw one. Boy, did I underestimate the complications of this world.

 

Today I’m a Guest Blogger at Solstice Literary Magazine

Solstice, a magazine of diverse voices, added my voice to its choir today. This lovely venue gave my essay a sweet write-up. Follow this link to read my essay about race and disability and love.

Today I got some good news and some bad news. The good news came from my retina specialist, who regards the opinions of the last two doctors I’d spoken with as “outdated” and assures me I can continue to practice yoga and even do inversions without increasing the risk of dislodging my retinas. The bad news came when I arrived, pupils still dilated, for my writing workshop at a senior living facility. I learned that one of the writers had died while I was in Costa Rica. She had died suddenly but died well, in the midst of a bridge game with her lifelong friends. Had our departed author learned in advance the circumstances of her own ending, I think she would have been mostly pleased, but she would have wanted to have finished the novel she’d been working on. Her characters, who had seemed so alive, are  in a kind of purgatory at the moment. I’ve given my workshop the assignment of imagining fit endings for her characters. We will finish her book with our own versions, in our own minds, in her honor.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Asks the Wrong Questions

I hope Oprah’s HBO version of the Henrietta Lacks story does not discourage people of color from participating in clinical trials. Our nation’s institutional racism has certainly extended to health care. I’ve been in three clinical trials, and the one I’m in now, which studies the role of diet in MS, certainly has the least risk associated with it, and the most benefit. From what I hear, not many people of color are enrolled. I understand the context. But I think they are missing out.

Ms Lab Rat

Rebecca Skloot’s painstakingly researched, thought provoking book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is the engaging story of a young white science writer who makes it her mission to humanize the patient behind the HeLa cells, a strain of apparently immortal cancer cells with a Zelig-like existence.

The HeLa cells have made and lost researchers millions of dollars. They’ve been instrumental in countless medical triumphs, and they’ve corrupted test results the world over. They’ve been shot into outer space, and into the arms of powerless prisoners. The HeLa cells originated in a woman who was never asked if she would agree to be a tissue donor, and who would never live to see any of the spectacular consequences of that surreptitious biopsy.

Henrietta Lacks was a young mother of five who felt a painful knot in her womb, and sought free medical care in the “colored” section of Johns…

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In Celebration of My Students

About ten years ago, I met a very nice woman with my last name who said she was working on a historical fiction. At the time, I was not a big fan of  historical fiction. She mentioned her historical fiction was also a romance. I was not at all into romance. (At least, not as a literary genre.) She confessed that her historical romance was nearly 900 pages long. And unfinished. I guess I must have thought she was a very nice woman indeed, because I volunteered to read her 900 page unfinished  manuscript of romantic historical fiction. On our second meeting, she looked more than a little apologetic when she handed over a very heavy sack of papers. At this point I may have warned her that there could be a problem with this arrangement: I am not a very nice woman. If I didn’t like her book, I would tell her so.

What was I getting into? Perhaps this would be the beginning of a very short relationship. When I handed her manuscript back a few days later, Maria McKenzie scanned through and saw my semi-legible scrawl wending through just about every page. I told her she did not have a novel. She had three novels. I have been scrawling over her manuscripts on weekly basis ever since.

The three books of Maria McKenzie’s Unchained Trilogy, Escape, Masquerade and Revelation, have gone on to become bestsellers on Amazon’s African American Historical Fiction list. And today Audible released the first of the trilogy on audiobook. 

When you are done reading Maria’s trilogy, you will jump to her gripping historical fiction from a more recent era, The Governor’s Sons. If you are in the mood for comedy,  you will laugh out loud reading her foray into mystery, From Cad to Cadaver: A Black Ops Detective Story. She’s got another African American Historical Fiction in the works now, and it is shaping up to be her most ambitious and controversial yet.

When my MS has acted up, this prolific author and unwavering friend has prayed over me, has baked my family delicious pans of lasagna. I am so grateful for the many students I have had who have turned into friends. Each and every one of them has shared their complex inner lives with me, widening my scope of interest.

Here is an incomplete list of links to my students’ works. It is incomplete, in part, because many of the talented writers from The Clifton Cultural Arts Center, The Art Academy of Cincinnati, The Kenwood Senior Living Center, The University of Iowa and my long ago workshop in CT have produced works of great literary merit but have not yet published.

Phone Scams by Lee German

A Winter Break by Elaine Olund

Letter Bomb by Elaine Olund

A Double Life by Elaine Olund

Sea Change by Elaine Oland 

You Are Unique by Maria Ramos

Something Sweet by Andrea Rotterman

Introducing the Eradicator by Edith Samuels

Jigsaw by Edith Samuels

A Circle of Gratitude by Joan D. Sattler

Thoughts and Attitudes by Joan D. Sattler

Two Visitors by Win Swormstedt

Put it on the Tab, Mr. Joe by Ida Zinam2012-04-03 CCAC _4039649

The Ordinary Woman in the Airport

 

My husband and I were hanging around the welcoming area of CVG, watching for our son amid the parade of newly arrived travelers, when I recognized someone I had never seen before. I recognized her deeply, with every thwarted nerve in my MS racked body.

The woman was ordinary enough; middle age, medium build, medium brown hair cut to a medium length. But her gait…wasn’t quite ordinary.

Don’t get me wrong, the woman was moving about as fast as any of the other newly arrived travelers. But it was clear to me that she was expending about ten times as much effort to do so. Her legs clearly had their own agenda; they wanted to dangle. She was forcing every step; her legs dragged and flopped but ultimately kept flopping in the right direction. And because of that, because she could see she was closing in on the greeting place, she had a big smile on her face—not a forced one—a smile of absolute triumph, like a marathoner approaching a spangled banner.

I recognized myself in her smile; I knew the depth of her achievement. I used to walk that walk, or a version of it, every month on my way home from another clinical trial visit to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) where I would receive another dose of the MS medication now marketed as Zinbryta. This drug has kept me walking, albeit with great effort.

Consider this post my small effort to remind you, gentle reader, that NIH is there for you, finding cures to diseases you may be unaware exist…until one day that disease strikes you, or a family member. Funding for the NIH is in danger right now. And if that doesn’t seem a relevant topic to you right now, congratulations. But good health is transient. You have to work to keep it. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, it slips away.

Please do what you can to maintain your health. Do what you can to maintain the NIH.

Keep smiling; ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. Just think of that woman in the airport. Here’s the secret behind her smile: sometimes it takes ten times the effort to keep moving forward, but when the goal is in reach, there is ten times the satisfaction.

Steadier Together

As soon as I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I started practicing yoga…with people who did not have MS. Yoga is not a competitive sport, and I am not a competitive person, so I’ve never wasted any energy comparing my abilities to anyone else’s. It didn’t matter if mine was the wobbliest “Tree” pose in the yoga studio. Trees can wobble, in the right wind.

At no point did I feel a need to join a special class for people with multiple sclerosis. I was doing just fine, I thought, in the yoga classes at the Fitness Center, practicing with “beginners” ranging in age from early twenties to mid-seventies. But when I saw the flyer for MS Yoga in my neurologist’s examination room, I immediately decided to join that class, too. The MS Yoga class was free. I had nothing to lose. And besides, I liked the concept. Yoga has helped me, probably in more ways than I know. Wasn’t it nice that the neurologist was offering something positive that his MS patients could do for their bodies and minds? I saw my attendance as a yes vote to the whole idea.

I might have felt a bit apprehensive the morning of the first class…I’d met people with MS before, and most of them just brought me down. The only close friend I’d made with MS up to that point had had a sparkly, positive attitude…and the progressive form of the disease. She’d recently died, hopeful to the end.

The women I met at MS Yoga that morning were charming, charismatic, joyful, and curious. We started asking each other questions, and comparing notes, before Megan, our instructor, got a word in edgewise.

Did I like the class itself? Not at first. It didn’t seem remotely like any form of yoga I’d ever encountered; starting with the fact that Megan never even mentioned breath. To me, a yoga practise without breath is like a church service without prayer; every pose starts with breath, extends with breath, transitions with breath. If you don’t have breath, you don’t have life, and you sure don’t have yoga. But what our class did have, right away, was community; we were as fascinated by each other as if were all reunited siblings, separated at birth.

Our ending “Namaste” (“the light in me greets the light in you) would not be a goodbye. There was a lunch place two stories down from our ad hoc conference room/yoga studio. We all agreed to extend the party through lunch. We called out the high performers as we prepared to leave; “You can still balance on one foot as you put on a sneaker!” And as we went down the stairs, “You can walk without a banister!” We commiserated with the one who forgot her yoga mat and had to go back for it, “I forget things, too!” And the ones who had to rush off to the Ladies Room, “I have an MS bladder, too!” We peppered each other with questions over our salads and soups, universal ones, like, “Do you have any kids/grandkids?” As well as MS related ones, like, “Do you still work?” “Do you get social security?” “Where did you get that cane?”

After subsequent yoga classes, the lunches went on, and the confessions of various disabilities grew bolder; not every symptom was found to have a match. The confessions of memory loss were by far the loneliest; what was the self, without memories?

In the meantime, I grew frustrated with the classes themselves. What was yoga, without breath? When Megan finally told me her reason for withholding breath from the practice, her explanation shocked me. Apparently she’d been taught that handicapped people should not be “burdened” with such instructions. I said, “Everybody breathes.” The assumption that people with MS couldn’t handle breathing made for an insulting pedagogy. She took note. And stopped following it. Megan invited us to breathe in class, invited us to laugh. Classes got better, week by week.

One day, Megan introduced us to the Tree pose, that pose I found so challenging in my able-bodied yoga classes. In Tree, one must balance on one leg, and rest the foot of the opposite leg somewhere on the standing leg; perhaps on the ankle, the inner calf, or as high as the inner thigh. Megan proposed that we do Tree pose in a circle, while supporting our neighbors, palm to palm. This was a method we all could achieve. Instead of forming individual wobbly trees, we formed a steady grove.

As suddenly as the class was offered to us, the class was taken away. The department of Integrative Medicine gave no explanation. The UC neurologist who was involved with this program is seeking to reprise it, to this day.

On the last meeting of the MS Yoga Group, Megan closed with this poem by the Revered Sapphire Rose:

“She Let Go

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.  She let go of the judgments.  She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.  She let go of the committee of indecision within her.  She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go  She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go.  She let go of all of the memories that held her back.  She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.  She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.”

We have had to let go of the yoga class, but we have stayed in touch with each other. We are no longer individual w0bbly trees, but a steady grove.