My ambivalence towards my body began sixty years ago, though I did not immediately become aware of it. I spent a long time in the hospital and home recuperating before my second birthday. At the time, the doctors told my parents that I suffered from “acute bacterial something something”. The diagnosis prompted them to drain my swollen joints and fill me with Tetracycline two years before the state-of-the-art cut-off date for the class action that would later result from the damage to children given the drug.
Just my luck. As a consequence of their wild misunderstanding of what ailed me, my teeth suffered irreversible damage along with my bones and my psyche.
For the first eighteen years, I struggled to understand my body’s limits. When I finally realized that societal acceptance ranked chief among the doors closed to me, I set about to destroy myself with alcohol, imprudent alliances, and fried foods. I came to my senses nearly too late, but pulled the brakes so that by the time I started law school in 1983, I had regained my slight stature and substituted lawful prescription painkillers for single malt scotch.
I reached my personal peak at 42. Divorced, with a six-year-old and a thriving law practice, I sashayed around Kansas City like the cat fixing to eat several canaries. Unbeknownst to me, the virus which had eluded the doctors in 1957 had plans for me, the foreshadowing of which had come a decade earlier when I collapsed in the hallway of the Jackson County Criminal Courts building. We didn’t know then what we would figure out in 2000 after struggling to make sense of inexplicable symptoms. The cursed virus had reactivated and would rule my life for eternity. It refused to sleep. It had mutated. It reigned supreme.
So it went for the next fifteen years. Struggle with pain, up the Percoset, retreat, eat, repeat. I soared from 105 to 185 between 2001 and 2007. My artificial knee locked and the doctor rolled his eyes and commanded me to lose forty pounds. I committed myself to 1200 calories a day, and threw aside my love-hate relationship with my body. I no longer cared that nobody thought I was worthy of introducing to their guy-friends or that my second husband had left me for someone presumably more fun and maybe even able-bodied. If I was to live, I had to be thin.
Eventually, I got down to 103. I felt good about myself. I let myself eat bread. Bread. Hell, I put chocolate back in my diet. I dared to wear close-fitting dresses. Then marriage number three came and everything seemed to come up roses.
Until it didn’t anymore. Suffice it to say that this one hit me even harder. As with any crisis, I responded to the decampment of my third husband by assuming that everything was my fault. I apologized to the empty air ad nauseum, and started the yo-yo craziness of feast and famine. I didn’t eat for six months and then started filling my empty hours with food. The pounds piled around my belly, thickened my arms, and pulled at my face. By this time, I had successfully conquered my prescription drug dependence so pain had once again become the lingering guest who flicks his ashes on the floor and plonks his muddy boots on the coffee table. I skirt around the unwelcome but persistent presence. My weight climbed to 125. At five-foot three-and-a-half inches, with wobbly legs and a weak torso, those extra 20 pounds sent me crashing to the floor so many times that my friends started suggesting one of those call buttons that old ladies wear.
So I put myself back on 1200 calories a day, not because I care how much I weigh but because I care if my son comes to visit someday and discovers me at the foot of the stairs with a broken neck. This actually happened to someone I know. Her husband and habitual companion died. Childless, friendless, she struggled to continue her life in a two-story house with a basement laundry. A neighbor found her unconscious on the concrete floor two or three days after her last fall. She never awakened.
I’m down to 114 now. That weight’s okay; but 110 would put me below “okay” and solidly on safe ground. I can’t say I feel much better about myself, except a certain underlying smugness that at sixty-one, disabled, and asthmatic, I’m nonetheless able to shed ten pounds with sheer determination. And 1200 calories a day. So I’m not complaining.
It’s the fifteenth day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Since sleep has once again proven too fickle of a friend, I rise early enough to think of breakfast as a late-night snack. I eat my eggs at the dining room table and take my second cup of coffee to the porch. The day has dawned fine, with a sturdy sky. The maple leaves wave to me. My flags join the fray as I take my seat and rock.
Yesterday’s indolent evening prodded me to take up a novel which I bought for a quarter last fall at a friend’s garage sale. I didn’t want it, no more than the other things I purchased. But there I stood, watching his deceased wife’s belongings drag themselves down the driveway with strangers, desperate for a lover’s touch. I could not turn my back. I shuffled through the cookbooks and the old novels, finding some which would eventually make Christmas presents, with their uncut pages and pristine covers.
The funny little novel which I began to read last night turned out to be engrossing. It took me through to midnight, and past this morning’s tepid mug of coffee, straight til the apple and hummus of my early lunch or late breakfast, as it were. I let it fall onto the metal side table and study the wind chimes.
I feel guilty about those chimes. I bought them for a pittance on Amazon, and my friend Kevin hung them. He remarked on the wooden one shaped like a temple. I like the other one better, with its opaque disks supposedly made from shells. But it’s a glitzy thing, dangling with the type of promise to which I desperately cling, like the fingernail polish that I occasionally trick myself into wearing and no less insubstantial.
Now the one that Kevin and his wife Carolyn preferred still clunks against itself letting out a low unobtrusive sound. Beside it, the one with shells has gotten tangled and hangs in a mess, silent and unrepentant. I’ve sorted it twice already. The design failed to include some type of counter-balance to keep the longer strands from wrapping around each other.
My son called to wish me a Happy Mother’s Day. I told him about the wind chimes. He said, Oh that’s too bad, and for a moment, I heard my voice through his younger ears. I realized that I’ve taken to remarking on the most inconsequential occurrences, partly because I have so little chance to talk to anyone and partly, I suppose, to keep from crying.
I’ve been taking aim for joy but I would settle for unresentful.
I leaf through social media and click the ‘like’ button on all the wishes for a happy day. I don’t dwell on any photograph of brunch, or parties, or people of the present. I look at everyone’s photographs of their mother — holding babies, sitting on benches, walking down boardwalks with their arms looped around girlfriends or new husbands. I study the picture of my mother and myself. I’m sixteen. My long hair falls forward, blocking my profile. My mother’s hair clings to rollers. She’s wearing a t-shirt and leaning against the railing of a porch.
I remember that day so well. We took one of our little jaunts, to the Bissell House in North St. Louis County. Mother pointed out the various plants along the walkway. She showed me a patch of Columbine, and I bent down to breathe its delicate fragrance. When we got to the porch, we sat for a long time without speaking.
Now the sun starts its climb towards the far side of the western sky. Dishes need to be done, and laundry, and a bit of straightening. I have to settle my personal accounts. From what I hear through the open window, the dog wants my attention. It’s going to be a tiring afternoon, but I’m not complaining.
It’s the fourteenth day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
The other day a butterfly crossed my path and I nearly fainted.
Some people revere dragonflies. Others look for crows or cardinals. Whatever your spirit creature, whatever you take as a portent of good or an omen of evil, when the creature flits by your window, you take notice.
For me, it’s butterflies. I have a checkered history with butterflies. Someone presented me with a garnet pin in the shape of a butterfly and I scrunched my face. Who wears bugs, I whined. The giver recoiled. The principle attribute which drew the giver had been the deep hue of the stones. Knowing that I had several pieces of garnet in my meager collection, he had thought the bauble would please me.
The moment passed but I felt some remorse at not showing instant gratitude for the pretty thing. Therefore I began to wear it often. I came to cherish the potential of rebirth that a butterfly signifies, and soon the brooch became my favorite piece. Now I place great value on the jewel and on butterflies in general, though I can never erase my initial callousness.
I’ve written about my evolution over the last three years. I’ve boasted that I’m changing without anything more than the mild conviction which propelled my fingers across the laptop’s keys. But now I feel an inner peace. I expect this sense of change to deepen.
Yesterday I showed my secretary-friend Miranda the initial 3-D model of the tiny house which I am having built and to which I will eventually move. She reacted with more shock than I anticipated. It’s really real! she gasped. Well, yes. The chrysalis finally starts to yield. I don’t know what will unfold but I expect to fly.
It’s the twelfth day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
My writer’s brain tells me that “rend” cannot be used as a noun. But when I sit across from a woman who tells me the story of her violent relationship with her son’s father, I see a rend in the surface of the universe that frightens me.
I tell her, I understand, and she doubts my assertion. So I give her the sanitized two-minute version of The Story of My Childhood. Her mouth relaxes. I hope that perhaps she accepts that, yes, this ridiculous curly-haired lawyer across from her in the cheap Target cotton dress and white leggings might actually comprehend.
I’m not complaining. I loved my parents though their imperfection eternally marred me. Some people rise above violence. Some people scab over and stumble forward. Some people gather the shock around them, cotton batting insulating them from reality. I took that route and damned I was for all my crazy ways. But I do not blame anyone for whatever coping mechanism gets them through their days. In point of fact, I wish I had had the fortitude or the DNA to do what some of my siblings did, which was to have a life regardless of the horrors that played out before our eyes.
I gave the woman in my office yesterday the best advice that my thirty-four years of law practice could articulate. The plan which I outlined should help her implement her desire to change, to break the cycle. If I were rich, I’d represent her for free. I’m thinking of sending her to one of the shelters which might be able to do so.
I read a book once in which a college student from the south traveled to Vermont for a summer internship. The girl found a letter from her hosts’ son to a magazine which he signed, “Jitterly yours”. She traced the outlines of the words with one finger, thinking about all the jitterly children in the world whom she hoped to save as a teacher.
I feel that way about survivors of family violence. I told this woman to get out while her five-year-old still had a chance of seeing what a decent relationship looked like. I did not say, Don’t let him be like me, damaged so much that he’ll never trust anyone. But I could have told her so much more, if ethics and common decency did not forbid it. Instead, later in the evening, I posted a passage on Facebook about my emotional reaction to her. My choirs rose to soothe me with their compassion and offers of insight. Unsurprisingly, my dear sister Jilli Nel, herself a survivor and champion of survivors, declared that she would be available to help this woman.
Look: I’m not complaining. At sixty-one (and a half), I have finally risen above the quagmire of chaos that drowned my childhood. I envy those who take far fewer decades to recover. Something about my genetic code combined with my choices inhibited my healing. But I made it through, at last. Now I ache to pull others from the muck. I yearn for a magic wand to change the perpetrators. I don’t believe in pure evil but the perpetrator of family violence comes close. I’d condemn them with a sweep of my arm if I didn’t understand that living with violence in childhood begets violence as an adult just as surely as it begets the victim’s tolerance of it.
So here, now, I’m taking this stand. A life of joy demands that the joyful spread their happiness. I find at last that it is not sufficient for me to be serene. My peace will never be complete unless it multiplies. I cannot rest as long as others suffer.
Someone asked me once what my life goals included. My prompt response surprised the person inquiring. I want to be the best possible version of myself, I proclaimed. I meant it. Moreover, fulfillment of my goal demands that I keep moving forward until every person whom I can help feels my tender touch. If I were rich, I’d help others for free. But I’m not, so I keep trying to expand whatever professional endeavors come my way to allow me to stitch closed a few of the more glaring rends that pain and suffering have left in the fabric of life.
It’s the eleventh day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
The list of people who have tried to get me to change my wicked ways would fill the phone book for a small nation. These include my son, all three of my long-suffering husbands, a few dozen friends, a couple of siblings, my parents, every boss that I’ve had except the legendary John Arens who loved me just the way I was, and most of the secretaries who worked with me at every job over the last four decades.
Needless to say, I ignored all of the advice I got and here I am, none the wiser, alone again (naturally), and wondering what the hell happened to the innocent girl who set out to change the world at fifteen.
But I finally learned one lesson, and not because of the repeated eye rolls which a number of people who strove to teach it delivered in the wake of its pronouncement.
As I sat on my porch last night, ruminating about chores undone and days to come, I realized that I’ve finally started drinking enough water.
Funny old world, isn’t it? I’ve had people accuse me of deliberately not drinking enough water just to thwart their efforts to improve my health. On the back side of that barb, I’m supposed to have ignored the advice to drink more water in a perverse attempt to denigrate the person urging me to do so. I’m not stupid, came the rebuke. I know what I’m talking about; you should drink more water. Uh, yes. I should. And yes, you’re right. And no, I’m not avoiding water just to prove I don’t respect you.
The stillness of yesterday’s evening air brought some clarity. I glanced over my shoulder at the begonias blooming in last year’s pots. Beyond the deck I could see the tops of the fuchsia peonies, slightly swaying, caressed by a bold breeze. The birds nesting in my gutter sent a sweet call as they settled. My eyes returned to the table at hand, where my water sat.
I stopped at a store in Point Reyes Station, California to buy groceries on my way to the hostel set deep within the national park during my last trip out west. The cashier gestured to an inner aisle in response to my question about water bottles. I found the display and selected one. Later that night, I filled the bottle with filtered water from the kitchen tap and sat in the great room of the hostel watching the rain come down in sheets. With no internet, no phone service, no television and no one around who had ever previously met me, I found myself ascending to a curious state of calm.
I finished the water and went back for more. Nothing had ever tasted as pure as that water consumed deep within the isolation of the mountains, gazing at the timeless grace of the surrounding forest. I swear to you, I got drunk on the stuff.
It’s the tenth day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
Never mind that I have no earthly use anymore for 1542 square feet. Forget the stairs to my bedroom; the dusty boxes on the basement shelves; the hardwood which has worn and the windows which have lost their glide. Ignore the cupboards full of unused dishes and even that bird’s nest, high in a cabinet and probably mouse-eaten, which we found one day in the backyard and couldn’t bear to discard.
This is my peace: stepping outside in the sweet morning air, coffee in hand, ignoring the radio’s blare of bad news. With the luxury of a half hour when no one knows that I have awakened, and nobody yet demands my attention, I stand on my porch reflecting on all that the universe holds. The good, the bad, the devastating, the divine. For a few moments, nothing rattles me. Tension eases from my shoulders. Everything seems bearable.
It’s the eighth day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. My #JourneyToJoy and life both continue.
From the porch I trade insults with a chattering squirrel but he wins when I scrunch my face and cough. His flickering tail chides me. I take another sip of coffee and find myself smiling. I’ve read the Times so I know the worrisome news but in the luminous sunshine only encouragement reigns.
I switch from the NYT app to social media. Someone has posted the twelve principles of karma. I study them for a few minutes, thinking that I can argue myself up or down from there. Did I love unwisely because I hate myself or do I hate myself because I loved unwisely? Am I stuck in a holding pattern because I still have lessons to learn? Or is it simply a case of putting the pieces together to justify what I already know?
I shake my head and take another sip from my crystal mug. Cold coffee. The dog barks in the side yard. A police car drives down my street, pausing for the flick of a darting animal. I glance at the Lost cat sign taped to my storm door and wonder if it has come home.
In the kitchen I start a kettle for tea and stand doing stretches while I wait. My muscles still ache from Friday’s yardwork and art fair tour. Saturday saw me nearly useless. I can clean house or practice law but not both on the same day. It’s not a complaint; it’s just how it is. Now and ever. A body with limits but a mind willing to expand its horizons. Thank God for words; I devour them, I spew them back. They take me where I can’t walk, up mountains and into the river. They let me speak to distant ears.
My mind has begun composing a request for review in a Juvenile Court case where I must pit myself against a state agency and a rabid parent aide to protect my one-year-old client. I’ll do what I must to save this child. No one else seems to have her safety as a priority. She has five siblings, four of whom, like her, live in foster homes. The mother got arrested last week and the caseworker wants to brush it under a rug. I’m the bad guy for even questioning her innocence. She was the victim! Explain then, why only she left in handcuffs. If my client goes back to that home unsupervised it will not be because I fell asleep at the wheel.
The kettle boils. I take the sweet little mug which Trudy made for me over to Joanna’s secretary. I lower myself into the straight-back chair, the one in which I always sat when visiting my in-laws. Silence surrounds me. I raise my hands, and like Van Cliburn, start to tickle the keys.
It’s the seventh day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
My gratitude list grows long today. I’ll share it with you on the condition that you comment here (or on Facebook) to add your own. This means YOU.
I’ll start with being grateful for the ability to voice my opinion in my political blog, which you can find here. That has particular significance this week. I’m trying not to complain, but events of the last twenty-four hours have given me much about which to wail on the political and legal front. I’m keen to do so and fortunate to have an outlet. I can maintain the charade of not-complaining.
As the dog barks at the shimmering air in the side yard, I feel immense thankfulness that my new neighbor has a Lab which runs to and fro joining in the morning roll call. No complaints to the city between us!
Speaking of backyards, the tangle of weeds reminds me to preemptively thank Trish Hughes and her sister Mary Ellen for this afternoon’s planned yardwork party. I’ll post before and after pictures tomorrow.
My sister and my son gave me reason to feel grateful yesterday. Each called to touch base. My son announced a planned visit and the intent to go to the bi-annual family reunion with me. Joyce joined me in trying to figure out how to be in two places at once, since a niece’s bridal shower coincides with the reunion. Both Patrick and my sister keep my number on speed dial. So thankful.
Last evening, I joined other Waldo Brookside Rotarians at the 7540 Washington Community Partnership monthly dinner. My Rotary Club has adopted an apartment building which houses young adults aging out of state custody. Each First Thursday we gather for a dinner provided by our Club’s District Grant funds. The residents allow us into their space, giving us a view of their world and a connection to them that brightens our lives. Last night one of them explained the ozone layer to me. He detailed the chemical reaction that results in its thinning, commonly described as a “hole in the atmosphere”. My mind could barely follow his complex and autodidact recitation. Whatever we do for them, they return tenfold with the joy that this partnership brings us.
I’m especially and gleefully thankful for the sight of one of our members behind a nifty, make-shift sundae bar, dishing up ice cream and toppings to everyone in attendance. You have not truly lived until you’ve seen a high-level Jackson County official with caramel sauce on her hands and a grin on her face.
I fully accept that I lapse into complaint now and again. I’ve even been known to throw up my hands in lament. I’ll spare you any platitudes, mindful of my mother’s admonishment that people who begin sentences by saying “I know I’m not perfect” usually think they are. At week’s end, I feel immense gratitude that I draw breath; that I live within four walls which protect me from the elements; that I can grind coffee and toast gluten-free bread overlaid with lactose-free cheese beside a mandarin orange. Gratitude oozes from my soul and soothes my aching muscles. For all that I lack, I have much compensation. My lens comes into focus. A ridiculous smile rises from my lips and lights my eyes.
It’s the fifth day of the forty-first month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
After the day’s bombardment of demands, I wander through the house. One distraction after another keeps me from any meaningful activity. I warm a half-cup of brown rice. I spoon the last few pickled beets into the shallow metal bowl that I’ve used since I can’t say when; my mother gave it to me, claiming that it had been my great aunt Bib’s favorite dish. The splash of color against its white enamel finish soothes me somehow.
Noises from the television fall around me. I don’t hear the phone ring and by the time I call my son back, he’s not able to talk. I put the phone down with some degree of chagrin. I’ve been watching a show about children cooking with their mothers. I think, Am I letting him down by selling the house? Aren’t I suppose to always be here for him? Wouldn’t he be better off with a normal family?
My son got stung by a bee when he was about five. He squatted on top of the climber in the back yard studying his foot as it swelled. I called to him from the porch, Are you hurt? What do you need? His voice remained steady when he answered me. I need a real Mother, he replied. Call Beth.
Beth and Randy Calstrom lived down the street. She worked part-time at their church and made supper every evening. She never drove their children through McDonald’s at seven in the evening or forgot to do laundry. She didn’t wrap their eggs in a tortilla and make a mad dash out the door with her skirt half zipped and her shoes unbuckled.
I called her, of course. She came running, the perfect remedy clutched in her hand. I haven’t a clue what it was.
I stand on the porch and listen to the birds calling from their nests in my gutters. I tell myself, You’ve got to get somebody over to clean those damn things. Right after the baby birds make their first flight, I suppose. The sun sinks behind the houses on the west side of the block, sending a spray of shadows across their manicured lawns. Overhead, stars begin to twinkle.
I choke on the lump in my throat. Silence overwhelms me. I realize that I’ve been awake since two in the morning and I’m probably just tired. I remind myself that my son has a Bachelor’s degree from DePauw University and an MFA from Northwestern. He lives in a comfortable apartment and has a sweet, talented girlfriend. He knows what he wants out of life.
I can barely stand myself some times. This night, this fragile spring night on my beloved porch in Brookside, surrounded by blooming flowers in their terra cota pots, is one of those times.
I know my strengths. I know my weaknesses. I understand my failures. I’ve never been one of those people, never had it all together or stopped on a dime. But I gave my son all that I could. It has to have been enough.
Day’s End, the second day of the forty-first month as My Year Without Complaining turns another click towards eternity. Life continues.