On Healing

Spring is here. The Lilac we planted 13 years ago blooms tall along the fencerow that separates the back yard from the hospital parking lot. With the sliding door open, the scent blows into the house on a light breeze. The dogs are on the chair behind me, snoring piggishly instead of licking each other’s privates–a new activity they have taken to with gusto. The sky is a deep and clear blue splotched with white puffy clouds. The tornado spotted a few days ago did not barrel through our tiny town and blow the roof off of this or any house.

It’s been almost three weeks since I had resurfacing work done on the left side of my face by way of a bottle (or two) of red wine and my sister’s patio. My sister and I laugh about it. “When are you going to have the other side done?” she says and then adds, “You had macrodermabrasion instead of microdermabrasion.” She’s a real card.

I am healing. Up close, you can see three swathes of pale pink skin where two weeks ago were scabs. With my fingers, I can trace the fresh patches if I’m looking in the mirror, but I can no longer feel my way around the wounds because the perimeter is smooth. Every day, I dot a drop of oil on each patch and then cover them with sunscreen to protect the new skin from the bright sun.

I’m not glad I fell down. I don’t believe the fall was some cosmic lesson handed out by a puppeteer God with a crazy sense of humor and a bullish way of teaching lessons, and I don’t believe there was a glitch with my vision board (I don’t have one), and I certainly don’t believe that it was bad karma for some past misdeed (if it were bad karma, I would have broken bones). I just lost my balance and fell.

I am glad for a few things. People were so kind. My sister applied a wet cloth to my face and dabbed and dabbed and dabbed at the blood and my tears while cooing, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” My daughter, Isky, a mother herself, pulled my pajamas over my head to protect my face, daubed antibiotic ointment on my skin with sheets of gauze, turned the fan on, and tucked me into bed with a warm towel for my head. Later that night, when I woke up at 3AM and saw anew the damage to my face, my husband wrapped his arms around me, while I wept into his arm pit, and murmured that it would be better in a week, and he was right.

 

I hate being vulnerable, folks. I hate it so much. I do not want sympathy, empathy, or pity. I don’t want you to look at me and say, “You poor thing.” I want you and everyone else to see strong Bridgett, impervious to hurt. I like to be a healer, not the healed. But healing is fucking hard. I didn’t like it at all, but when my right eye swelled shut, and the wounds on my face wept, I couldn’t hide. I couldn’t hide from kindness.

I was sad (and vain for sure). Every time I looked into a mirror and saw reflected back, my swollen beat-up face, I was sad, too sad to hide. So when someone reached out. When someone put her hand up to my face as if to touch it, I did the weirdest and most backward thing I could think of.  I leaned in. If you asked me what happened; if you expressed empathy, I turned into Opposite Bridgett (anyone remember that episode of Seinfeld) breathed deeply, relaxed, and accepted whatever kindness was offered.

I couldn’t control how quickly I healed or how people perceived me, and I quit trying. Don’t get me wrong. It didn’t happen overnight. I considered other options–lying, staying hidden in a dark house with the blinds shut. I considered pretending to be a hothead who got into a major skirmish with a bully, but in the end, trying to control the story was too much work, so I just told the truth.

I realize that this incident, this injury isn’t on scale with the really bad shit people go through. There is so much suffering in this old world–war, poverty, severe and unremitting mental illness, cancer, a myriad of losses I cannot even imagine having to withstand–and still this is what I have this week, a story about healing from a couple of superficial but painful wounds.

Here’s the thing, I could let those comparisons shut me up. I could wallow in shame–shame that I fell down, shame that I am sad about my face when others have it so much worse. Or I could own it. I could own my story.  I could stop trying to control this and maybe I’d stop trying to control 1000 other situations. I thought I had learned the big lesson on lack of control when my daughter, Peanut, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, but it turns out there was more to learn, dammit.

Healing is hard work, and I couldn’t go it alone. I couldn’t control the process, the time line, any of it. A week after I fell, I was in the computer lab with the fifth graders at the school where I work a couple of days a week. The kids were both appropriately grossed out by the injury and interested in my recovery.  “How bad was it,” they asked when I told them it was much worse. I pulled up the pictures on my phone–my own documentation of the healing process–and was rewarded with lots of oohs and ahhs. One of my fifth grade buddies–a fellow with dark brown hair and the sweetest voice–asked me with genuine interest, “How bad did it hurt, Mrs. Jensen? Like did it feel like ten tasers were shocking you at the same time?”

I stopped and thought about it for a minute. How bad did it hurt that night and the days following? I told him that I’d never been shocked by a taser let alone ten, but that I imagined the ten tasers would have been much much worse. I asked him if he’d ever scraped all the skin from his knees, and he said yes.  I told him that my face hurt like that–like a badly scraped knee.

My friend completely understood what I was getting at. After all, he has had millions of scraped knees. And he remains interested in the healing process. When I’m at school, he never fails to stop me, take a long look at my face, his eyes wrinkling as he assesses the still visible damage at which point he makes a pronouncement about how much better I look. Just yesterday, he waved me away, “Your face is so much better, Mrs. Jensen. You can hardly see where you were hurt.” 

I want to remember that.

You see, I think the soft pink patches on my face will eventually fade away, but I hope I don’t forget that we all fall down.

Getting up is much easier when you take a hand.

 

 

 

 

Darnit! Lee Martin Is A Man!

It’s not as if I didn’t know this.

I’ve met him several times. Lee Martin hails from a small town only 15 minutes from the small town where I live in southern Illinois. We have friends in common. I’ve heard him read several times because while he doesn’t live in this area, he comes home.

His book of essays, Such a Life, is one of my favorites.  You see, in his fiction and nonfiction, Lee Martin writes about folks who live in small towns in rural areas where the landscape is field–yes, field is a landscape type. He often writes about events (many tragic) that happened in neighboring villages.

The true story Martin’s The Bright Forever, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was based on unfurled just a county over. I didn’t live here then, but my husband did. He was a teenager and remembers how when the young girl went missing people from all over went searching. I don’t know Lee Martin well, but from what I can tell, he is generous, kind, and male.

The male part poses a problem for me.

Yesterday afternoon, when UPS showed up and I unwrapped the heavier than I expected package–heavier than I expected because I thought it contained an elasticized belt for carrying phones or insulin pumps during exercise–and found the belt, yes, but also Lee Martin’s new book, Late One Night, I was both surprised and delighted. Who doesn’t like receiving a new book, especially one by a great writer/human being? (I know, I know–there are those who say the great human being part doesn’t matter, that the words on the pages between the covers should stand on their own, but they don’t, at least not for me.)

Now it’s not that books don’t regularly show up on my doorstep, dropped off by Gary of the big brown box truck, because they do. I have a book ordering problem, and one-click ordering doesn’t help. I’m a book hoarder. It is not a surprise when a book (or seven) in a box shows up on my front porch although I try to act surprised if Eric’s home. I might say, “Wow, one of my delightful and literary friends has sent me a box of new books. I’m so lucky.” Eric just rolls his eyes; he is not often fooled by such a ruse.

I knew that Lee Martin’s new book was out or was soon to be out, and I knew I would read it, but I wasn’t expecting it, and because I wasn’t expecting it, I lost my head. I turned the book in my greedy little hands, admired the dark cover and the compact heft of it. Without thinking, I carried my new treasure out the back door into the bright spring sun, and I went straight for my chair.

I blasted through the first three chapters. I love Lee Martin’s books because I know the people in them. They live down the road or around the corner. I see them in the grocery store and when I go for dog food at Rural King. I dive in and find myself strangely at home. And even though his books are often dark, plumbing the depths of evil, hope, and human resilience, there is what Richard Rohr might call a “bright sadness” to Martin’s characters.

I closed the book after the third chapter and sat with my eyes shut against the afternoon shine for a moment, and then it occurred to me–“Shit! Lee Martin’s a man!”  I promised myself that I would read books by women–only women–this year. I can’t read this book today or tomorrow or even next week or next month.

I can’t read this book until January 1st.

I’ll be honest. I’ve been reading mostly women writers for a long time, so when I made the women writers vow, I didn’t expect to rue the decision even once. Expectations are a bitch, though, and now I’m pissed. I started Late One Night, and I want to finish it. I could cheat, and I consider it. But in the end, I know I won’t.

So here’s the deal. Yes, there’s a deal.  Since I can’t read this lovely book yet, one of you can.  No, you can’t have my book. I am hanging onto it. I’m a book hoarder, after all. This one is on my night stand where it will remain unopened until January 1. But if you comment below, I will put your name in a hat or a cup or a small box or probably a little basket. On Monday, I will draw a name, and to that lucky winner, I will send a copy of Late One Night.

If you are the winner, the only thing I ask you to do is share the book with your friends, and you will want to. I know it’s a good one!

 

On Falling or Getting Up

Falling isn’t failing.

This is what I keep telling myself because I fell Friday night, hard. Tripped over the lip of concrete that surrounds the swimming pool in my sister’s backyard. Tripped and went flying, propelled forward, my feet chasing my body, trying like hell to get beneath it. I stayed parallel to the ground, but not on the ground, long enough that my brother-in-law ran to catch me.

He couldn’t catch me.

The part of my body racing my feet finally won, and I went down. Thank God for my hands. The two old pros slowed the motion so my face slid on instead of smashed into the concrete.

Concrete surrounding a pool is a much different surface than say the concrete in your garage. Concrete slabs surrounding pools are rough. They are not made for falling, but rather to help wet folks with wet feet stay upright when they have emerged from the cool waters on a hot day. There are many ways to make concrete slip resistant–broom finishes, special aggregates, even mixing clear plastic grit into the sealer. Either way, I should have veered toward the grass–a muddy face would have been preferable.

I didn’t want to get up.

That’s not entirely correct. I wouldn’t get up.

My brother-in-law leaned over me–remember, I am lying with my left cheek plastered to the slip-resistant concrete–and very gently said, “Bridge, let me help you up.”

No thanks is what I told him. No thanks, but I’m just going to lie here for a while. This may or may not have been accompanied with some light moaning. I just wasn’t ready to get up.

**

You see, it was Friday. It was early–about 8:30. There was still wine, for God’s sake.

My sister and I had happy-houred with our parents in their warm and welcoming kitchen. I like them all so much, those three. Two of them made me and the other one was made by the same folks. We drank red wine and ate cheese and crackers. When our parents left for a dinner date, my sister and I lifted the bottle which still had some wine in it and went to her house for marshmallow roasting and continued fun.

I ruined the whole night by falling down.

Yes, people fall down all the time. Even when they haven’t been drinking wine. I fall down a lot. I have a tendency to shuffle–pick up your feet dammit!  My sister and I walk most days, and she has seen me do some version of that body forward, feet trying to catch up fall many times. She once saw me take my fall to the grass where I did a rather athletic tuck and roll to avoid the concrete sidewalk. She has seen me slide onto one knee so gracefully it could have been a dance move, and she’s seen me correct a fall when I’ve already kissed the ground.

Come to think of it, I didn’t ruin the night by falling down. But getting up was going to put a damper on things. Most of the tumbles I’ve taken have been pretty invisible to others. I wasn’t going to be able to disguise this one.

**

There was a time when a scraped up face and a black eye wasn’t such a bad thing. A friend and I were talking the other day, and she remembered how when she was younger these sorts of injuries were like badges. I remember that too. When I was sixteen, my boyfriend the quarterback threw a fast ball from across the street, and it tipped off the top of my glove and slammed me in the cheek and blacked my eye. A scab that looked just like the stitching on a baseball popped up on my face. I couldn’t wait to go to school the next Monday because I looked bad-ass.

I do not look bad-ass now.

**

My brother-in-law sent my lovely sister outside, and she urged me to get up. I got up wobbling and bloody and let her clean my face with a warm wet towel. I let her call my husband who walked down (we live on the same street–I know, I know, I am so damned lucky) and retrieved me. He put his arm around me and comforted me as I cried and cried. And he, along with my daughter, Isky, cleaned my wounds again. They were so kind. Everyone was so kind. Kinder than I would have been.

The injury I have on my face is the sort of injury your damned teenager might come home with, the kind of injury that might cause a certain kind of parent to wag a finger and say things like–I told you drinking is bad, you should have been more careful, I hope you learn something from this, this is a character builder, or even I oughta kick your ass.

I wanted to kick my own ass. Falling isn’t failing, but it sure feels like it. And failing is embarrassing, right? So why is falling embarrassing? Would it be so damned embarrassing if my knee and not my face was all banged up? After all, I can’t not look at my face.

I don’t think it’s me I’m worried about. I think the bad part of this injury is that everyone else can see it. I am 100% out of my comfort zone, out in the world, vulnerable. Everyone can see me. The real me. The one who is broken and damaged and scared.

Last night I was changing the bedsheets, and I found a large notecard that had fallen between the bed and the table where I stack my nighttime reading material. Sometimes I write quotes on notecards because Anne Lamott told me to in Bird by Bird. On this notecard I’ve quoted Brené Brown twice:

What people think of you is none of your business!

and

Knowledge is only rumor until it lives in the bones.

Well, shit. When I signed up for the Brené Brown class on Daring Greatly and Rising Strong, I wasn’t aware that she was psychic.

I get the message the universe is sending, and I don’t really believe the universe sends messages.  Just like I don’t believe God gives you only as much as you can handle. Why in the hell would she do that, and what would she base her decisions on? Would a strong response to a facial injury put me on the This One Can Handle The Bumps list?

Okay, I’m getting off track, but I want to make it clear that I don’t believe lessons are handed out in any cosmic way; however, I do believe that our lives, or my life at least, does afford way too many opportunities for growth. So yeah, everyone can see that I don’t take a hit as prettily as I used to. I’m wiser now (yes older, but I’m going with wiser), and what crone-becoming doesn’t have a scar or two? It’s day four, and the bruises are fading, the scratches are scabbing, that swollen eye is open again, and I just might see a teeny tiny spark.

 

 

 

Oh Nuts!

 

A few weeks ago, two friends and I converged on a third friend and her lovely husband for a weekend of attending plays, going to museums, and eating fabulous food. While the other women in this group have access to these sorts of activities, I do not. And still I am usually the most reluctant traveler. I wasn’t reluctant, however, because I needed it. I needed the camaraderie, the late night wine drinking, the talk of books and words, that carful of tender raging hormones as we careened from one event to another, and the humor that exists between good women friends.

Oh the humor. That is what I want to write about this morning in early April.

My friend, the one with the house open enough for three deliciously loud, funny, conversation-loving women, has a husband also open enough to welcome we three into his house. He’s a great guy, smart, funny, pleasant to look at and pleasant to have around. He can converse at length on a variety of subjects because his interests and his intellect are far ranging.

He is the welcoming sort. He can make a kick-in-the-ass Sazerac as well as the best margarita I have ever had the pleasure of gulping down as if I were dying of tequila thirst. And he cooks! When we weren’t out eating pizzas topped with mounds of fried kale, this lovely man cooked for us. For breakfast, we dined on folded omelets of sautéed carrots and greens. When we returned home from the plays, he shook up each margarita with precision and served truffle almonds one night and cashews he roasted himself with curry and pepper the next.

Oh cashews. I can’t eat them. They are too rich for my stomach, so usually I pass the bowl when it’s filled with cashews. But these cashews were different. They were savory. They were peppery. They were buttery; not buttery like a cashew, but buttery like a cashew roasted in butter. They were ridiculously, stupidly delicious. Oh, how we loved our dear friend’s husband’s nuts.

And this became a refrain. Oh my, we exclaimed to our friend, your husband has the most delectable nuts, the best nuts, nuts unlike all other nuts. Our friend was so lucky to have a husband with such lovely, salty, tasty nuts. Our friend loved how much we loved her husband’s nuts; after all, the nuts were hers. She could share them, but once we left, she would again be the sole proprietor of those delicious nuts. Oh we were bawdy and generous as we complimented that nice man’s nuts.

It was funny. It was fun, after all, what man doesn’t love having the deliciousness of his nuts bandied about by four (our friend joined in also) attractive, creative, and clever women?

After a good 24 hours of nut jokes, our friend’s husband mused:

What if three of my friends were here, and my wife cooked for us all weekend, and we commented about how delightful she was and how good she looked and finally that we all wanted more of her peaches. That my wife has the best peaches, the most succulent and moist peaches of all time? Would that be any different?

 

Okay, to be honest, we had been talking about women in literature all weekend too. I had been ranting and raving about the Annie Dillard comment in Poets and Writers. The one where she admitted that she didn’t read many women writers because she didn’t like to do what she was supposed to do, so our friend’s husband wasn’t just commenting on the nut jokes, he was extending our conversation to the kitchen table.

We stopped talking and wondered, too. No, it probably wouldn’t have been okay if our friend’s husband and a group of men objectified our lovely friend all weekend. In fact, it would have been grossly misogynistic. Right? At least-cringeworthy.

The cashews did indeed make me sick. So sick that I pooped my way across three states to get home. God help the poor people in those rest areas. Cashews, even delicious ones, do not sit well on my stomach.

The question posed by my friend’s husband sits funny on my stomach still. There is certainly a difference between the objectification of women and the objectification of men, and the undeniable fact of sexual violence against women in our and in all cultures. Was our joking, then, satirical? Was it a comment on the practice enjoyed by men for centuries? Or was it less subversive? Was it a bunch of women playing like boys?

To be clear, my friend’s husband played along with our banter, but his provocative questions will not leave me alone. There is a difference when this sort of joking happens among good friends in a safe environment than when it occurs out in the world where safety and boundaries are much less distinct. Could the safe environment we created in that warm open house confer the same okay for a no-holds-barred sexual objectification of a good female friend to a group of men? I don’t think so; at least I hope not.

And this continues to interest and trouble me.