Mending a broken heart

(Cross-posted on Cowbird; sharing here to allow for comments.)

Last year my heart broke. Twice.

Doctors poked holes in my thighs and snaked tubes through my body and into my heart. The tubes carried a tiny camera and a miniature blowtorch to break the circuits that were misfiring, causing my heart to beat like hummingbird wings. (That’s not just pretty language; when your heart beats three hundred times in a minute it feels like a bird is fluttering in your chest, desperate to get out.) The first procedure didn’t work. The second procedure did, and also changed the rhythm of my heart, though that’s a different story.

Before they wheeled me away that first time, I cried and told a few people I loved them, just in case. The operating room was uncomfortably cold. A strong nurse moved me from gurney to table, leaving my blankets behind. As I shivered under my thin cotton hospital town, she told me it would be better in just another minute. Two long plastic cylinders inflated with hot air and pressed up against my skin, one on each side. I stopped shivering. A bear hug, she said. I laughed. Much better.

A different nurse attached metal rails to the table next to me. The doctor might need to bring me in and out of sedation, she explained. Some people try to sit when they wake up; she had “reminders” to help keep me on my back. She held up a pair of soft leather handcuffs that looked awfully risqué for a hospital. I giggled. She winked as she strapped me down.

The anesthesiologist looked through his collection of vials. Let’s start with a nice chardonnay. My head swam. Now, how about a martini? The room melted away. Mid-procedure they brought me back out from under (the reminders were the only thing that kept me from bolting upright), and everyone in the room was a mind reader, everyone knew the content of my dreams. Magic.

(It wasn’t magic; I dreamed of the things they talked about as they worked. I wish they hadn’t told me.)

Sedation doesn’t linger in your senses like general anesthesia, and I am not a patient person. I was ready to go home well before they were willing to release me. I did not want to wait until the nurse brought me a dry turkey sandwich and watched me eat it. I did not want to wait for a bedpan when I had to pee. (I did not want to use a bedpan at all.)

I did want to walk out of the hospital by myself, but I couldn’t talk my way out of the wheelchair ride from my hospital bed to my car, lest I fall and sue. In hindsight I’m glad they stood firm; they had taken more out of me than my pride would admit.

The holes in my legs had to be watched for a few days, so my veins didn’t open back up and bleed me out. They looked like fang marks, which I hoped made me look tougher than I felt. Before they scabbed over, I could see yellow fat just under the skin. My insides looked like raw chicken.

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tenses and terms

I’ve been working on a story for a different site. It takes place while I was married. As with most events during my relationship, my now-ex husband plays a role, and I would be remiss to leave him out of the story. At the same time, it doesn’t feel right to refer to him as my husband (since he isn’t anymore), nor my ex (since he wasn’t then).

Oh, semantics, I love you. Really, I do. Every word matters.

For the stories I want to tell about our shared past, I’ve decided to adopt the term “then-husband.” It doesn’t define our relationship as it was then by the way it is now; it doesn’t compromise either side of our relationship. He was my husband at the time, and in the story I want to tell, he was doing a particularly good job at it, though the story isn’t really about that.

[Something about dead horses…I have other things to write about, but I try to share those in more public venues. This is my little corner for the stuff I still don’t know how to navigate in full public view.]

I’d like to have a less contentious term than ex for the present tense. (Former husband might work for those.) (Not that the subject comes up very often.) But for those stories I want to honor from the present, separate perspective, I think then-husband is fair from both sides.

“Just how much do you want to lose this year?”

I was not expecting the question. I been waiting for this appointment with the astrologer/tarot reader for six months. When I made it, I was still living with my then-husband, seeking the kind of clarity that can only come from completely inexplicable forms of new-agey divination. When everything is spinning toward the edge of everything I know, therapy and self-help just doesn’t cut it anymore. Give me tarot cards and crystals, tell me how the stars see my future; when nothing is certain, only those things that cannot be dis/proved will keep me on the rails. I suppose that’s my version of having faith.

Anyway, the question. Between the time I made the appointment and the day I had it, I’d “lost” (the way most people would see it) a marriage, a home, my primary pastime (bike racing), and possibly a few friends in the split. So, probably a lot. And I really didn’t want to lose any more, not at that point. I’d carefully pared down to the things that really mattered to me, thank you, and I’d like to keep the rest of it as intact as possible.

The meeting was several months ago, and I hadn’t thought of it again until now. I only remember now because my best friend moves today. Not too incredibly far, but closer than the hop, skip, and jump we were up to this point. It’s a big change, another thing that fits neatly into the “loss” column on my spreadsheet, were I keeping track.

The reader’s point was that if I didn’t want to lose any more, I needed to sit back a little and let life unfold. No more white-knuckled attempts to control my path; it was time to give up and ride the current a little ways. I guess I used to think of letting go as a form of loss, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve worked on just being alive without forcing things the way I have always tried to.

Saying yes even if I’m not sure I’ll like something.

Saying no if I don’t want to do something, even if I might let someone down.

Letting the current sweep me away when something isn’t working.

I feel surprisingly powerful in not making decisions about things that don’t matter. It’s liberating to admit that I don’t care about everything, and don’t have to  know exactly what is going to happen in order to enjoy something. It’s enough to just enjoy it.

writing into the void

I’m trying to let my story out.

It isn’t easy for me. Despite being prone to baring my soul to people I’ve just met, when it comes time for me to sit down and try to turn my experiences into something for public consumption, I choke.

I think it’s because the internet is weird.

Really, it is. When I last wrote in public forums (in my own voice, not as a bike racer & women’s racing advocate as I did on my previous blog), there was no internet. I wrote in similar forums, in terms of content — high school literary magazines, local newsletters, open mic nights — but the scale was vastly different. Back then, maybe a couple hundred people would read what I had to say, and they were all familiar to me. When I tell my story to someone I’ve just met, I have the benefit of a face-to-face connection; I know who I’m speaking to, even if I don’t know them.

Now, anyone with an internet connection has access to my stories, and I have no idea who I’m dealing with. I can’t play to my audience the way I did back then. Now it’s just me, vulnerable, talking into the void. I want everybody to read what I write, and love it/me, and I want nobody to read what I write, because I feel so naked writing it.

Seriously, the internet is weird.

While I’m finding my voice and screwing up the courage to use it, this blog will be my little island of pseudo-anonymity. It wouldn’t be that hard to find, if anyone cared to look; it’s linked to the same profile that I used the last time I blogged, and my picture is on the about page. I know I’m not really invisible here, but I can pretend. Even that little bit of anonymity is hugely liberating. It allows me to ease into the idea of writing on a grand scale, which is ultimately where I want to go. I want to connect with all of the people and the only way to do that is without fear.

I do have stories to share; I’ll learn to tell them here. Maybe they’re not incredibly profound, unique, or life-changing, but they are human. You write what you know, and that is what I know: what it is to be human. What it’s like to feel.

meet the artist

For a long time I wasn’t myself, but I was happy. And that was fine, that worked. Then a series of problems with my heart – the irony of having a broken heart is not lost on me – created a need for instant and overarching change in my life. I had to stop riding my bike, which up to that point had taken up a good fifteen hours of my time each week and had been the primary activity I shared with my then-husband.

I was devastated, depressed, and angry. Before I was forced to quit, I had been at the top of my fitness, and I could almost touch the fruit of all my dedication and ambition. Then, it was done. Just like that. I had no idea what to do with myself except stew in my disappointment. Then I remembered things I used to enjoy before I found bicycles. I made art, I explored, I wrote. And wrote and wrote and wrote. So I started doing those things again. In two months I finished two journals. I wrote stories for the first time, and I liked what I wrote. My voice sounded familiar again.

As I felt more and more like I was becoming the person I am at my core, I tried to share this new life with my then-husband. I wanted to bring him into my fold the way I’d been brought into his for the past ten years. Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen, and after a while I couldn’t do it anymore.

I knew my marriage was finished; my own therapy wasn’t helping, couple’s counseling wasn’t improving anything except our ability to find things that weren’t working. I’d been trying for months. I needed to leave so I didn’t destroy myself, and I wanted to stay so I didn’t destroy anything else. Happiness and obligation are not good bedfellows, so I was doing everything I could to make my own needs irrelevant.

Then one morning, I opened my RSS feeder and found this comic:

All Over Coffee #582 by Paul Madonna

The image pinged around inside me, settled. I felt calm and clear about the direction my life was taking: I did know exactly what I had to do. With that little bit of cosmic reassurance, I believed I could really do it.

And I did.

After I moved out on my own and signed the papers that would someday make the divorce official (you can walk into a California courthouse and walk out married five minutes later, but if you want to reverse the process you have to wait at least six months for the state to catch up), I had a friend over to my apartment. I’d bought a print of the comic – the first art I’d purchased for myself – and hung it near the door so that I see it before I go out and as I come home.

She noticed the image. I told her the story, how I’d been struggling to stand up for myself and do what I knew was best for me, and this picture showed up at the very moment I needed a shove out of the nest. How it felt like a perfect little gift from the universe.

“Who’s the artist?” she asked.

“Paul Madonna.” I answered.

Her expression changed; surprise, disbelief, surrender. She knew him. In fact, he would be at a dinner party she was taking me to next week. I’d meet him, and I could tell him the story of how he made something that impacted my life in a pretty big way.

It’s rare that you get an opportunity to tell an artist that they reached down deep inside you and pulled out part of you. But in the same way that the comic arrived so perfectly, so did the opportunity to tell my story in return. Cosmic. We had a great exchange about art and connection and creative process and ways of seeing. The experience was almost profound; to have a stranger touch your life from afar and then be able to come in close and touch them right back. It was so profound because there wasn’t any doubt about what I had to do, the sequence laid itself out:

  1. see art
  2. move forward
  3. meet artist
  4. tell story
  5. pay attention.

the elephant in the room

Privacy has been on my mind lately, and discretion. The breakup of my marriage is the obvious reason for these thoughts. Getting divorced is definitely on my mind, and I have a lot to say about it, but it is a situation that doesn’t only affect me. It’s delicate territory, to write about my experience honestly and without betraying another person’s privacy.

I’ll try.

I don’t really have secrets. Sometimes I wish I were more mysterious, but most of the time I will give an honest answer to any questions presented to me. This is a good way to weed out people with whom I would clash on certain hot-button issues, and it is a great way to attract crazies. It might not always be the savviest approach (there’s something to be said for holding a few cards to your chest), but it is simple and easy. No need to remember who heard which version of events; everyone gets the same version, my version. Even the crazies…

So, all this. Eleven years of being together, and then not. Except it wasn’t sudden; it crept up and we ignored it until it was too big to fix. The worst part was having to go through it alone. Maybe I didn’t really have to do it alone, but it’s such a tricky thing. What if you tell your friends and then work it all out? You can’t take back the things you shared: the problems, the tense moments that grow worse in the telling. So instead of sharing with anyone who wasn’t my therapist or my husband, I went through it alone. I probably could have done a better job of talking it through with my husband – the time during which you are trying to save your marriage is not the time to spare feelings – but at best that would have prolonged the process. The end would have been the same. This song says it better than I can:

I’ve learned that a happily divorced person throws people off; we are threatening. I understand. It’s human nature to draw connections with other people and to understand ourselves through those connections. When you’re in a relationship, you don’t want to think about the end of it; you certainly don’t want to cast the end in a positive light. We see divorce as complete, objective failure.

That view is so wrong it makes me twitch. My relationship didn’t fail, it ended. I don’t suddenly regret the time we spent together; I won’t regret it. It’s a part of who I am, an experience that helped shape my life. The fact that we are not together anymore does not eclipse the fact that we shared eleven mostly great years. Our shared experiences are not erased by this. The love that we had does not suddenly go up in smoke. Getting a divorce does not mean that we failed, it just means that we changed.

It’s been a long time since I felt this much like myself. I’m excited for what comes next.

On planning, and not

Summertime!

It always starts with a road trip, doesn’t it?

I love getting back out into the country. Long farm roads, hot afternoons, and dirt that sticks to everything take me right back to a slow, steady, gorgeous state of mind. Everything feels vast and open and beautiful. Nothing is so important that it can’t wait. (In the city, everything is too important to wait.)

This weekend’s escape coincided with the Perseid meteor shower, and those meteors showered and showered and showered.  A couple of months back, I got a new tattoo (bear with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this). This one is small and simple, the words “stay gold” in my own handwriting set inside a little gold halo. I was inspired by the novel The Outsiders, which was in turn inspired by the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. I needed a little reminder to keep my sense of wonder no matter what, to snap up every opportunity to experience beauty, and to appreciate it; to stay gold. So I was delighted to find out that shooting stars still make me laugh from pure joy. And that the joy extended to laying outside on a hard gravel road in the warm night air, drowsing and telling myself I’d stay out for “just one more” until I woke up covered in mosquito bites.

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to fully relax and give myself over to the flow of a few days. By “a while”, I mean my whole life; I am a planner. I like to KNOW. I will take weeks of anticipation over a big surprise every time. But since my divorce (can I say that even if it’s not final yet? I think so. In my mind and my heart it’s all done and clear, the rest is just waiting for the state to catch up), I’ve been trying to let go a little more, and to not force an opinion or a plan just for the sake of having one. It doesn’t come easy to me, but it’s led to some amazing experiences.

It seems counter-intuitive, but a major part of my plan right now is to have no plan and let life take me where it will. Here, for example:

Or to taste infused vinegars before breakfast. (Pineapple balsamic vinegar, by the way, will make an excellent cocktail when I mix it with coconut milk, soda, and rum. Mark my words.) Or to sunburn my back through the water of a swimming pool, except for a little crescent under my neck where my hat jutted out. Or listening to my new favorite album with a good friend, two times in a row because it’s just that good.

I should probably say “and” instead of “or”, because none of these are hypothetical examples, they’re all things that I wouldn’t have done if I’d planned the way I am used to, because I would have had to rush back to the city to make it to get something done. I’d have missed out on all that, and I wouldn’t have had the evening free to linger at a favorite restaurant, drinking pink wine, soaking up the last light before sunset, and sharing dessert on the house.

fresh eyes

This is what Lake Merritt looks like from the side I rarely visit:

It’s lovely, right? I live between the center of the photo and the big brick building on the left side. That is the side of the lake I usually see. This photo was taken from the sculpture garden at the Oakland Museum, which is gorgeous and free to the public and completely taken for granted by me.

An old friend came into town this weekend and suddenly I had the opportunity to play tour guide and tourist in my own town. You know something? I loved it. I defend Oakland tooth and nail against anybody who calls her names, but I’d started taking her for granted. A couple days of wandering, of showing off hidden pathways and guerrilla art, and just like that I’m actively back in love.

 

 

 

trailer park chic

When I moved into my new place, my first place all to myself that I could decorate however I wanted, my mind went straight to taxidermy.

Really.

I do love a good stuffed critter.  Good is the operative word in that sentence, and unfortunately for me, good taxidermy costs a pretty penny more than my taxidermy budget. So I tucked away my fantasies of a pretty little fox sitting on a tree branch, one lazy hind leg dangling (yes, I had a specific piece in mind, why do you ask?), and switched my focus on a pair of mounted antlers. That I could paint. Turquoise.

The way my life has been going of late, many little things have fallen into place, easy as pie. When I went to Minnesota last month, I told my best friend about my antler plan. Two days later we were clawing our way through piles of antiques in a mom & pop shop, and she discovered this:

Except, um, they weren’t turquoise when I bought them. I guess I didn’t take a “before” photo. Oops.

A twenty-dollar pair of mounted antlers. Plink. Right into place.

It took me a month to find the right paint, decide on fabric, and research upholstery techniques, but last night I finally sat down and did it.

What it looked like after a lot of grunting, cursing, and one mildly-gashed shin. The mount, the antlers and their plaster-of-paris “skull”, the dusty old felt, and a hammer. Don’t ever accuse me of being delicate.

The back of the “skull” mount. Those are real brass tacks holding the felt to the board; I love them, even though they were a total bitch to remove.

 

I wrapped the “skull” in fabric, attached it with those brass tacks & some lovely old upholstery nails, and stuck that bad boy back on his mount. Ta-dah!

He lives in the kitchen now.

I think he needs a name.