"And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love." William Blake.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Poison Ivy, Confession and Prayer

I'm editing and writing with a huge splinter under the nail of my left middle finger. It's bone-jarringly painful, and it won't come out. I tried the Orajel, needle, and tweezer fix, but the splinter is old moist wood. Little clumps break off with each dig. I jammed it in while gardening this morning. When it embedded when I'd grabbed a clump of plantain weeds along the raised garden bed, meaning to whack it with my garden clippers. I howled when it slipped so quickly between nail and flesh. Hours later, I have no will to dig about under the nail with a needle breaking off wood and drawing blood. I need to research a drawing solution.

Rather than stand at the bathroom sink, I took my hurt and anger out first on the poison ivy that has curled and webbed up the fence line and along the raised beds, emerging here and there at the A-frame trellises my husband built to accommodate peas, beans, tomatilloes, cucumbers and anything that will vine up. I crawled on my hands and knees under the chicken-wire trellises. I yanked and hacked. I cursed the cursed ground. Poison ivy. Insidious sneaky beast. When I was eleven, I had a case so severe it last for a year. I think I ingested it. After a year of desperately cloroxing the patches of seeping, itchy pustules, it went away. For good, I thought. Not so. Two years ago, while weeding, I hosted a new reaction on my arms and legs. I learned to wash in a poison ivy soap, slather in caladryl and cover up. I read that other people dress for hazmat when they weed it. Never burn it. Never put its remains in your compost pile. Bag it immediately after pulling it out from all its roots. 

The trouble is, I cannot get out the roots, some of which are curled cleverly around the chain link fence. Oh, how I curse that fence, which the neighbor says is ours but the property deed says is hers. Under the A-frames, hacking and yanking in anger, I grow angrier and justify more hurt. The splinter throbs. My forearms begin to itch. 

Out the front door comes my thirteen-year-old son who refuses to help with the garden and resists even indoor chores. While I produce salary and salad by the sweat of my brow, he refuses to work towards our household good.

"That's all poison ivy," he shouts, adjusting his headphones and dropping his skateboard. 

Not, "Thanks, Mom, for doing that so I don't have to." Not, "Thanks for gardens and full-time work and all you do so I can watch YouTube, skateboard, borrow your headphones and exist on only my favorite foods." 

It occurs to me as the wind pushes hair in my face, trying to soothe me, that I'm whipping up into  frenzy. Like cussing, this yanking and whacking fails to vent my frustration. It feeds it. Between jerking and snipping, I do have moments of clarity. Like, I should be asking forgiveness for stomping inside and unsettling everyone. Still I retort to my son's back as he skated off: "I'm doing this because none of you all will bother with it. It doesn't just go away if you ignore it."

I hate weeding, I mumble. I find myself wondering why  I garden. It makes me hate green things. Growing food means facing the weeds that would like to take over. Some are persistent but not nasty. I could cut those back less often, if not for poison ivy. It's the worst kind of sin. It finds an ignore space and spreads out, laying cabled vines in bundles, then popping up for a drink of the sun. I garden because, like work, I must. I weed like I do the unpleasant parts of my job. Sometimes that includes the insidious tasks of reflecting on what's not working and hacking out the worst habits. Poison ivy, the habits, the sins -- indulge me --  that hide and take over between the harmless little things. These require uprooting and it's ugly. There's no way to remove these habits and sins without exposure to the toxins. There's no willing it away. Ignore it, it gets worse.

In my spirit, I pray the Lord's Prayers, which includes the line, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Trespass. That's what makes some of the harmless plants, like broadleaf plantain, get the reputation as a weed. Actually, if I had the energy after all the angry hacking, I could bring in the broad oval leaves and make something like kale chips with them. I think about it in a calm moment. Found food. Instead, I swing back, blades of mind and hand. Poison ivy and plantain. Weeds growing up where unwelcome. I severe bald vines and roots and pong between good and bad thoughts. One minute, I think how this poison is like addiction or the worst  habits. It is like sin and confession, like the discipline of hacking out unwelcome habits. The moment, I return back to besmirching my kids and spouse and my neighbor for leaving me in the middle of the poison. Lone fighter, drawing the poison with a splinter under my nail.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, in his "55 Maxims," indicates we should pray the Lord's Prayer a couple of times a day. We should make this gesture like we should say "I love you" to our kids and spouses when they leave, like hugging them and kissing them. Why repeat a written prayer when all prayer is effectual? Because is how God taught us to speak to Him. It's love language on the other's terms.

Which means praying "Forgive us our trespasses" several times a day.

Forgive us for the day's curses against computers and cars, the stubbed toes, the splinters, the spills, the teenager who rages. Forgive as I'm still thinking with another section of my brain,  Are you kidding me, teenage boy? You're being a jerk. Who died and made you king? You ungrateful... If you only knew how I bend over backward for you... There's only one of me, kid. 

So many curmudgeonly thoughts.

Tonight, I will pray it and reflect on my sins. I should make a summation like I do with my calories and work. Did I need that last hot chocolate? Did my stomach serve me or did I serve it? Was I being fussy about the kitchen's cleanliness? Is it a sin to be disappointed that the incontinent and stubborn old pet woke up this morning too? What about the half a dozen times I saw my husband half-reach for a kiss, a touch while I rushed off to some other task? What of the friend I didn't call? These trespasses, sins if you will, are mostly harmless weeds, growing and growing. I need to take scissors to them before the poison exploits the places and hides. Despair, lust, addiction, adultery don't just pop up. Most passions cover the insidious ones which exploit the shadows. 

I went inside at the end of the hacking. I made an impossible plan to have us burn the weeds. My son loves fire so I assigned him to the task. Rightly he hackled. 

"It says everywhere on the internet not to burn that stuff." 

"I won't shove it into black bags that never degrade. That's no good for the universe," I hollered back.

"Now we're yelling," said my husband. I stomped upstairs to strip, take a cold shower with expensive Technu-soap and slather myself in the calahyst.

And, regret.

While I wrote and edited, I stopped and I said sorry. I made a new plan. Biodegradable bags don't cost that much more than regular ones on Amazon. We won't burn the weeds I pulled. We'll use the vinegar and salt to kill the leaves, mowing and heat to work on the roots. We'll ask the neighbor if we could own the care of the fence row. I said sorry again. My husband expressed his hurt. I said sorry again. How many times could I say it? As many as he needed. It's like that when weeds get out of control. Rooting them out becomes more work. 
He left for a run. He took the boy with him to the skate park. As I left the garden, we left off, with me feeling a sneaking dissatisfaction with my performance. II often walk away worried I didn't extract the poison at the roots.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Prayer, Prone Pose

Maxim II 
Pray as you can, not as you think you must. 
~Fr. Thomas Hopko, 2015 from 55 Maxims. 

Most of my morning prayers lack all piety and right-ness, or righteousness, for that matter. But, like Sunday Liturgy, if I skip them, the day goes to hell.

My mother's alarm clock in its new native habitat.
I've learned to wake before the alarm. That habit began years ago, long before I made a morning prayer rule. It started with my first alarm clock, a Lloyd's hand-me-down from my mother-- still alive and proof that old stuff was made to last. It still bleats like a lamb being stabbed. In college I got a bit superstitious about the hideous noise. I believed my day would prove unlucky if my ears heard the anguished bleating. Until I got an iPhone clock, I used it. For a couple of years it lay in the bottom of a sock drawer. Now my thirteen-year-old uses it. It proves its mettle, getting him out of bed in its noisome glory. I tell myself, that it contributed to my prayer rule, however, impious. I would try to beat it awake and so, for a long time, I woke ten or fifteen minutes before its cries and that became a perfect for prayer, prone pose.

The older I become, the earlier my body salutes the new day. In spring, I rise with the sun. As the seasons warm and brighten, I cannot burrow into the firm mattress with its eggshell top, under the quilt of Guatemalan patchwork. I cannot succumb to the drug of my neighbor's wood-burning stove. I pray. I stare out my window into the void that is white vinyl siding of my neighbor's house, a mere eight feet from me. I recite words that call me out of fog.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

If I were pious, I would lumber out of bed and kneel. I taped an icon of Christ the Savior on my window trim. I could stand before it in the dawn light. Or, at least I could bother to make the sign of the Cross. But the covers are so heavy. I am the dead, the sleeper being called to action: Awake, awake, O Sleeper. Arise from the grave.

Alas. I lay in prone pose.

Four Fractures

Toe. Right Pelvis. Right Wrist. Right foot in one tarsal. Left femur where the ball joints the pelvis. Dull aches. Spear-pain. Certainty of brokenness. Skeptical doctors. Insistence upon x-rays.

Three stress fractures. Two accident fractures.

One of them saved my life.

The week that my shin splints shuttered my return to running, I remembered what old wives say "you never forget:" how to ride a bicycle. Rather, how to check a road bike for air pressure, settle onto its sleek ax-like seat, how to stream-line your body and settle in for a twenty-five mile ride in the dawn. It took a week. On the eve of day one, I asked my husband to refresh me on unlocking the bike from its perch on our porch. He said I should know how to pressure up the front tire, which had a habit of deflating now and again for reasons he didn't understand. I listened. I practiced the bike lock. I set my alarm for five am, checked the weather, set out running clothes. I don't have one of those padded bike pant sets. I had no idea the seat would jigger its way up my pelvis, which it did not the first morning.

I never got that far. I rustled my husband out of bed at five-ten because I still couldn't unlock the bike. I set out from our house, down the empty thoroughfare, across the railroad tracks. Thump, thump, thump. At CVS, a half mile from our house, I realized the front tire was too low. I stopped to pump it up and deflated. In the darkest hour, I couldn't see to resolve the issue. I walked the bike home, drove to the community center and paid a couple of bucks to ride a stationary. By the following Monday, I'd switched from the road bike to our ten-speed. At seven am, the first day school was out, I skipped morning Matins and head out towards 32W towards Waynetown. Down the summer-empty thoroughfare, toward the tracks, thud, thud, thud. I listened for the horn of the Amtrak that comes whipping through town around seven am on Mondays. I must have missed it, I thought and peddled fast. It blew. Lights flashed. Crossing bars began their elegant descent. I saw a flashback to eleven years before, when I'd thrown my car into reverse without looking to get the hell off the eight tracks, side-by-side in Illinois. I'd been three months pregnant. I hit the car behind me that day, went to court but saved a life. In the danger red blinking, I squeezed hard on the brakes and my ten speed stopped immediately. I did not. Head over handle bars. My helmet grazed the pavement but I landed on my right wrist. I was kneeling on the sandy sidewalk. Bruised, clear of the tracks with a healthy looking bike and a wrist that look just a bit funny.

The homeless guy across the street, pulling his junk wagon -- a get-up of dog cage on wheels -- asked me if I was okay. Folks in cars leaped out with cell phones.

"I'll all 911," they all offered.

"I'm fine. I'm fine. I might have a broken arm, I'm fine."

I called my husband, though I knew he was chanting and incensing. I called my daughter, though I knew she was sleeping. I used my forearm to push the bike  home. I woke my girl and asked her to drive me to the ER, where the staff doctor told me my arm wasn't broken.

"X-ray it again," I said. He ordered a funny table shot, a low-angled zoom. Sure enough a funny little fracture, right on the joint. He splinted it. He took views of my clavicle, examined me, and my husband finished his service and replaced my daughter, letting her go back home and back to bed.

He drove me to the bone density scan I had schedule for 11am. At 1pm, arm splinted, appointment with a orthopedic surgeon in Indianapolis set, I went for a nine-mile run. I would not be stopped. Even after the surgery to plate up the wrist, I rode a stationary bike with my right arm sweating in a cotton club dressing. Sometimes, I unwrapped the bindings to give it air, to keep sweat from fermenting and rotting the stitches, or whatever gross infection I imagined.

That fracture healed fast. I could use the arm in a few weeks. It felt great, stronger than ever.

So when another orthopedic specialist told me this February that the stress fracture on my left femur was "not bad" but in a very scary spot, and that I should stay off it unless I wanted him "to put a rod in there," I wondered, would it heal as fast, feel as strong? Pain and the four recent fractures reminded me, I needed to mind my mortal coil. Fasting, praying, resting.  Learn again the art of restraint.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

First fracture.

The hip bone connects to the femur, the femur connects to the patella,
the patella connects to the tibia, the tibia connects to the tarsals
the tarsals go all meta.

My first bone broke when I was thirty-eight unless that toe bone counts. I've pondered how my broke my right pelvic bone as much as when I broke it. It was a stress-fracture. Hairline. At first, I felt a strain. The ache burned around mile two of my customary morning ten-miler. The ice on the sidewalks made me feel like an elderly woman in a shower, like Bambi when he first stood. All legs going all which-ways. I turned back at mile three because I couldn't call my husband for a rescue. He and my daughter were at winter camp. My son and a friend were asleep in my house. I walked the miles at my treadmill desk pulling and limping my way over a spinning belt.

I heard, "Have a doctor look at that toe. One break can cause other injuries." My cousin recommended after a fall in July. I'd splatted, six miles into a hot sixteen-miler, training for the Chicago Marathon. Blood streamed from my knee. For days, it oozed yellow pus because I picked myself off the concrete, ran slow miles to a gas station, rinse and ran on. I finished ten more miles in the euphoria of the run and the dulling action of nerves under duress. My scar remains, like Sauron's eye, staring out from my knee. My second biggest toe arches like a pianist's fingers playing a concerto. I splinted the toe with a popsicle stick and medical tape. I wiped ooze from under days of bandages. I ran on. 

Until I stopped running at mile three. The next day, I tried the trusses of my 1874 Victorian, jogging at 6.0 on my treadmill, the bookshelves shivering, the china cabinet threatening to spill my wine glasses to their ledges. If I ran longer, they'd have leaped to their death when I pulled open the cabinet. I ran with ibuprofen. Four every four hours.

Pretty rusty pills. When my husband came home the next day, I diagnosed myself with a groin sprain. I will walk it off, I told myself. 1. 8 miles per hour on the treadmill desk. Dreadfully slower than my 2.5 miles per hour. I moved the ibuprofen bottles to my bedside and my desk. I walked fifteen miles a day to keep up my daily goals. 

In week four, when I thought I'm crippled I called the doctor's office. 

"You. No sprain. Strain, said Dr. Hwang. No x-ray then.

I went back three weeks later, demanding an x-ray.

By this time, the pain like a steel rod, stung with heel strikes, ached in rest, made me waddle rather than walk. I waddled fifteen miles, white knuckling the sides of the desk. At night, I wore pads rather than let my stiff sore flesh rustle out of bed to relieve kidneys. Little peeps of urine and a full bladder hurt less than turning over or trying to find stability while I stood.

January was over. All the cold gear I bought for running never saw use. When the nurse at the doctor's office called with the x-ray results, she said, "You have a stress fracture." Yes I know,  I thought, but how long will this pain last. How long until I can let the cool clear outdoor air fill my lungs, how long until I can get up out of anything without grinding my teeth.

Is this because I tripped during the marathon or because I splinted my own toe and kept training? 

In February, my sister and I walked six blocks in the Harrisburg cold to eat curry. She walked next me slow. I told her I thought I needed anti-depressants. I grunted when I stepped off a curb or up. I grit my teeth. The rod I imagined in my femur jammed up into my pelvis. How long, O Lord? My sister said to call my doctor, the one who said "You no have sprain. Strained." But it was broken. All that stress. Sometime between December 19 and January 1 a small pinching had blossomed and one muscle or bone yanked on another until I could hardly stand. When did the bone just rattle and crack, not like the tiny fissures in muscle and bone which fill as they heal, making a skeleton stronger, not feeble. When should I call the doctor? When would I know if my spirit was stress fractured enough that I needed anti-depressants? I consulted friends who advised me to get ahead of the pain in my soul. I did not call then. 

It took three months to wean myself off of NSAIDs. I felt the pain still. I planned my first run for April 1st, Saint Mary of Egypt's feast day. She's my patron saint, an austere, formidable woman who battled her passions forty years alone in the desert on the far side of the Jordan. Naked. Alone. When I picked her, I thought I could learn from her personal discipline. After four months of walking, grad school, a younger sister being diagnosed with cancer, losing a job, killing a bear with a new car and other tortures, she scared me. How did she manage alone? I drank to anesthetize what the ibuprofen couldn't kill. The grain killed my writing. I nearly failed the semester. My professor scorned me with each paper: "I should fail you for one more comma error." I confessed all that happened to him once. He replied, "That's no excuse. I've had it bad too." I drank twice as much for a few weeks.

By the end of the semester, I developed a syndrome in my fingers and toes. They'd turn white, lose feeling, turn blue, then red and burn when I touched anything. A woman's nipples in the first weeks of pregnancy cannot brush silk with out searing. My fingers could not tap the keys without searing. My soul, when sober, burned.

On April 1st, I ran. Ten miles. And woke the next morning with shin splints.  On Pascha, a few weeks later, I curled in my bed, feeling touched, like Jacob in my hip. Would I ever run again? I missed my town as it looks on foot. I missed movement. I missed Paschal morning running where I whisper "Christ is Risen" to each block, to the Easter morning church goers and the a-religious mowing their lovely April lawns.

I curled in bed cursed. First fracture. 

My Spirit Animal

My grandmother bequethed me with my spirit animal, the elephant, and this itch to write. 
I dedicate this to her because it marks my first post-MFA blog project.

grey giants (cc)

Martin Fisch 
grey giants (cc) 
creative commons by marfis756

Old male elephants weep over the corpses of their male companions, I read.
Orphaned bulls go on killing rampages. One incident where a gang of orphaned bulls murdered numerous other elephants resulted after poachers slaughter most adults in a family of elephants, I read.
Poachers hack the faces off these huge animals, leaving hundreds of pounds of flesh to rot, all so the wealthy may enjoyed ivory trinkets, I read.
Elephants never forget, I heard.
Elephnanant, I said. Or I heard that I said when I was still three.
My grandmother bought me soapstone elephants, trucked out the ebony ones her mother sent from Sierra Leone, just to hear me mispronounce the word.
I said libary too, but she didn't drag me to the library, or buy me libraries of books. She read to me from her libraries. My parents read to me from our county libraries. Bushels full of books.
I never forgot the books. 
I doubted I loved the leathery, fat animals. They reminded me of my grandfather's leather hands, his fat flesh. Then I remembered how much I adored him. 
I decided to love elephants. 
Before I knew they suffered. The first time I heard they suffered, my grandmother put the white tusks into the holes of the ebony cow and calf. 
"Are those real tusks, Grandma?" She told me how people prized ivory and traded it. She never explained the gruesome murders of elephants, the waste, how coveting ivory meant creating death.
Elephants. Power. Elegance. 
Almost human, the dolphin of land. Almost moral, certainly interdependent, communal, reactionary.
Last year I saw the first picture of an elephant, one of an almost extinct species, face hacked off, carcass rotting. Splintered for that lovely external tusk, that bit of almost bone.