From the Traveling Book Junkies.
A few weeks ago my dear friend Marcella took a nasty spill whilst walking in the forest (she is British so I have to say whilst). As she took a step forward on the muddy ground, her right foot slid, and then, in a feat of staggering anatomical gymnastics, it flipped over onto its top side. She heard the sound of bones cracking before her body even hit the ground.
In the ER, she learned that she’d suffered a bimalleolar fracture (four breaks), and was told she would need to keep the leg raised above her heart for at least two weeks, to help reduce the swelling.
At the end of two weeks, she underwent a 4-hour surgery, during which time a steel plate and eleven screws were inserted into her ankle. She spent the night in the hospital, bore the indignity of hospital garb, but greatly enjoyed the fresh and spicy Thai soup they offered her for lunch.
Once back home, Marcella settled again into her frustratingly immobile couch-bound existence. No longer could she go on long evening walks through the nearby Intervale Farms with her husband, Jack, and their dog, Jasmine. There would be no hiking or biking or camping or, any number of outings she and her family had planned for their much-deserved summer break.
Though I am overwhelmed by both the impending release of my memoir, as well as my mother’s rapid decline into dementia, I’ve tried to get over to her house as much as possible to keep her company. There’s something sort of magical about just sitting around with a friend bullshitting about this and that. We don’t do this enough, do we?
You can really get to know a person better when they’re rooted to one spot, like Marcella presently is. Before the accident, Marcella was always working. Her job is all about helping other people have better lives, so she always feels there is more to do.
Now, I don’t have to talk to her while she’s driving or doing dishes or walking beside me or meeting me for a quick 15-minute coffee. I can just look at her face and be with her. In the moment. And here’s what I’ve learned about Marcella these past weeks: she’s not angry or sad or resentful or self-pitying. She’s suffered this awful break with the sort of grace I know I would be never be able to emulate. Additionally, I was surprised to discover that she’s not lost her biting sense of humor.
Nor her generous spirit.
On one of my last visits I’d bought her a new kind of chocolate bar from the co-op—dark chocolate with ginger, lemon, and black pepper. She snapped off a square, placed it on her tongue, and grinned with the sly satisfaction of a mistress who’d just been told her lover is finally leaving his wife.
I said something about how certain flavors can do that—ginger, for instance always comforts me, whether in a stir-fry or tea or salad—it warms my spirit. This reminded me of a funny scene in my new book, Rash, where I am talking to Seni, our cook, about a character in the novel I was writing:
As she scooped what looked like a succulent mixture of tempeh, mushrooms, spices and things like galangal and lemongrass into the leaf sections, she asked me how my writing was going.
“You are telling stories about Bali?”
“No. I’m writing about a man who can’t smell.”
“Why he no smell?” she asked as she pinched in one side of the leaf square, then the other, folding over the flap and securing the two ends with bamboo toothpicks. This, in Bali, is referred to as bungkus, which more or less translates into “food in packets.”
“He was born with this genetic—this rare disease, I mean he was sick with this thing called Kallmann syndrome, and his pituitary gland—the part of his brain where his sense of smell is made—it never formed correctly. It was broken.”
Where was my Balinese dictionary when I really needed it?
“Oh,” Seni replied. She placed the packets in the bamboo steamer one by one. After she covered it she looked up at me and frowned. “If he no smell, then he no taste the food, and that make him be very very sad, ya?”
No taste? I’d been focusing so long on my protagonist not being able to smell roses or gas leaks or spoiled milk that I’d not bothered to think through anosmia’s other repercussions. “I guess that is true, ya,” I said getting off the stool. “Thanks, Seni.”
I wandered back over to my computer imagining Miles sitting in a restaurant on an awkward first date. First he has to decide what to order based on texture or look. I assumed he’d hate the look of meat, but love fruit, and maybe noodles. Jell-O, for sure, but who orders Jell-O on a first date? Or any date for that matter. Then Rosemary, his date, holds a forkful of something up under his nose and says, “Here smell this; it’s so divine,” and he has to make up a reaction because it’s no different than smelling a dead cow as far as his nose is concerned.
I typed without stopping. I wanted to tell Victor I’d written a few good pages today like I’d promised. I knew that no matter how he felt, or where he was, or how hung over he was, Jack London always wrote twenty-five pages of prose a day.
Heck, if I could slam out two excellent pages a day I’d be self-smitten.
After paraphrasing the scene, I suddenly sat up. “I just remembered something,” I said to Marcella, who, by now had consumed the entire bar of chocolate. “When I was a kid, the parents of one of my friends brought home a jar of rose jelly from Belgium, or France, or somewhere. The stuff inside the jar was this beautiful pink, like glass. I asked my friend if I could taste it and she said no, it was too expensive and too special.”
Before leaving my friend’s house I tiptoed into the kitchen, opened the lid, and dipped a spoon into the soft gel. As I brought it to my nose I was almost overcome by the smell of roses. And then I tasted it and was shocked that it tasted like it smelled. Like a rose. “It was the first time,” I said, “that I realized a smell could be translated into a taste. I’d forgotten all about it until just this second.” Marcella smiled knowingly.
“I mean it was amazing. To be able to TASTE A ROSE. It was one of the best moments of my life, now that I think about it.”
Two days later, this arrived in the mail.
I’m sorry Marcella broke her ankle. I get that this is a sucky way to spend her summer holiday. I feel sad having to watch her hobble her way to the loo on metal crutches that dig into her palms as she endeavors to hold herself up. I know she misses sleeping in her own bed upstairs, and dinners out in small restaurants where there is no room to buttress her extended leg.
But because my friend was a little clumsy, I get to spend more time with her. Quiet time. Time to reflect on what’s important. Time to share what’s going on in my life with someone who sincerely cares.
Someone who smells as good as she tastes.
I love to read good writing. I especially love to read good writing when it’s written by someone I know.
Since I’m a writer, lots of my friends and friends of friends and cousins and neighbors have asked me to take a look at something they’ve penned and provide some feedback.
“Hey, I worked really hard on this short story. Do you mind reading it and telling me what you think?”
I almost always say yes, because I want to keep my writing karma sparkling. I mean, I email my works-in-progress to friends all the time, sometimes going so far as to call them ten minutes after I hit SEND, asking them what’s taking so long.
I’m not good at waiting. Like a hungry seven-year-old awaiting the pizza delivery boy, I dance around on one leg and bounce off walls and chew on my nails until the comments arrive.
Where is he already?
My husband has more than once and fewer than a million times, come home from work and had me thrust a new chapter of my latest novel, or some parenting essay I worked on all day, into his face with the accompanying demand that he “read this now, please.”
He usually sighs, puts his computer down and says, “Can I at least wash my hands first?”
I back off and say sure, impatient as a chicken as I watch him ramble around his bag for his reading glasses and make a cup of tea and look for a good pen with which to scribble edits and opinions.
And then, while he’s reading, I dance around on one leg and bounce off walls and chew on my nails.
Getting feedback about one’s work is a little like seeing the UPS guy stop in front of your house: the beep-beep-beeping of the parked truck pinging the air; the heavy slam of the door; the quick footsteps as he makes his way up the sidewalk.
What is it? Is it for me? Is it the special cat foot we ordered for our diabetic cat, or is it the printed copy of my new book?
That moment when my husband looks up from the papers. That moment when the brown-uniformed man reaches his arms toward you.
Do I want to hear this? Do I want this package?
I do. I want it, no matter what. No matter what, I want to hear what you think of my efforts. Because I love you and because what you think matters to me.
Even if you’re totally wrong and I fight you on that stupid edit where you think what I wrote sounds trite, but it’s not: it’s funnier than shit.
Sorry, I’m straying off topic.
Truth be told: I like getting less than I like giving. I don’t like hurting people, even the tiniest bit. Constructive criticism is an art; one at which I am still learning how to be good. But when I read something by a friend and it’s good, really good, I am going to be the first in the room to raise my voice and tell them, “Congratulations. This is amazing.”
Which is what I’d like to do right now. For two people. Two writers. Two talented women who make it easy on their friends when they tell you, “Hey, I wrote this…”
Nancy Stearns Bercaw. She wrote a book called Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety, and it’s one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. She didn’t ask me to read it, but the moment it was out, I bought it. I finished it last night. Nancy is so quiet and gracious in real time that I almost expected her story about her travels, and finding sobriety while living in Abu Dhabi, would be circumspect, quiet. But no: Nancy lets loose (sometimes literally) and gives the reader the truth, the proof, the pudding, and all that went into making it. She’s funny smart and knows how to keep the action boiling along.
Before I read the book I was worried. Whenever a friend writes something, there’s always worry. I knew I was seeing her for lunch next week. What would I say if the book wasn’t good?
In this case, I need not have worried. When I see her, I will say, “Nancy. Your book is fantastic. Your story and your strength touched me. Thank you for writing this book and for letting me read it.”
Friend #2: Aimee Picchi. She’s a journalist mostly, but writes sci-fi and fantasy and assorted other genre stories when she has time. A few of her pieces have been published, but I’ve not bothered to read any until two days ago. I printed “Only Then Consume Them,” her latest, and read it in bed. The next morning I wrote a comment on her Facebook post. I told her how great the piece was and that I wished it were longer. I let her know without a moment’s hesitation that I wanted more than anything to follow Sabina—her main character—to the ends of the earth, even if it is an earth in turmoil.
Friends are a gift. Friends with gifts are a blessing.
When my husband, Victor, was offered a teaching job at a new school in Bali, I held off sharing the news with my mother for as long as humanly possible. I knew that when I told her we were moving her Jew-ish granddaughter to a predominately Muslim country, the arrow on her paranoia meter would swiftly catapult beyond the red zone. I expected her to fret and cry and do all she could to change my mind.
What I didn’t expect, though, was that she would be so wise.
I called her on a Tuesday morning. She listened silently as I recapped the events of the last few weeks: from reading about the school in a magazine, to convincing Victor to send a resume, to his Skype interview, to him flying to Bali to check it out, to him coming back to California with a signed contract.
When I finished speaking, I tensed, waiting for the emotional storm to blow through the phone line. “When will you move?” She asked so calmly I thought perhaps I’d called someone else by mistake.
“In six weeks. We have to find renters and pack up the house and deal with the cat and get a million shots and—” I got so anxious thinking about the list that I cut myself off. “Anyway, we’re really excited. It’s going to be amazing.”
“Loy is only six years old.”
Here it comes, I thought. She’s going to let loose her worries bit by bit, like an IV drip. “So what, she’s six? She’s going to love it. I mean, come on, Mom. It’s Bali!”
“And you’re not troubled by the fact that Muslims hate Jews?” she asked with barely a hint of distress in her voice.
“Mom. That’s ridiculous. Not all Muslims hate all Jews,” I said, swatting away her closed-minded assumption as if it were a gnat. “And besides, most Balinese are Hindu.” I pictured her sitting on her white couch with her hand flung dramatically across her chest like a movie star overcome by shocking news.
All she said next was, “That’s good to know.”
I was beginning to lose patience with her patience. “Okay, well, I’ve got to—”
“Why do you want to move to Bali, Lisa?”
“What are you hoping to get out of it?”
I could tell she was getting ready to pounce; to lay bare all the reasons we were making a huge mistake. “I don’t know, Mom. I mean, it’s beautiful and the people are lovely and the school is supposed to be really great so Loy and Victor—”
“Lisa, of course it’s beautiful. Why else would so many people go there for their honeymoon if it wasn’t a beautiful place?”
My suspicions gave way to bewilderment. She didn’t seem upset. She wasn’t trying to talk me out of going. Who the hell had appropriated my mother and replaced her with this unflustered woman? “Then you’re okay with us moving to Bali?” I said, flinching a little out of habit.
“You haven’t answered me, sweetheart. Why do you want to move to Bali?”
I had more important things to do than justify to my uncharacteristically unconcerned mother why I wanted to leave California and create a new life in Southeast Asia with my husband and child. There was sunscreen to buy and dresses to choose and languages to learn. There was money to transfer and people to interview and books to sort.
“Lisa? Are you still there?”
I stared out the window. Twisted my hair around my finger. What was the proper answer? For Victor, I knew moving to Bali would offer up innovative fodder for his middle-school classroom. He’d get to enlighten foreign children; not just Californians.
Loy would make friends from around the world. She’d be immersed in a new culture. Introduced to unfamiliar art, music, food, sights and sounds—a veritable treasure trove for her ever-expanding brain.
But, what about me?
Me, the hippie mother who took too many drugs in the 80s and then worked for Microsoft before getting a well-endowed two-book publishing deal, and then for the life of her couldn’t write her next book.
Me, the brooding bitch who too often wallowed away in her office looking for a distraction.
I wanted to find peace of mind. I wanted to rest assured that I’d seen what there was to see, explored the beyond, and lived to tell about it. I wanted to stop looking over my shoulder, and the shoulders of strangers, so that once and for all I could cease asking What Else Is There?
“If we move to Bali,” I finally said to my mother’s doppelganger, “I will be more mindful. I will find my higher self. I’ll learn to be a better mother and a more loving wife.”
“You can’t do all that where you are?”
“I suppose I can but I think it will be easier in paradise.”
“If you say so.”
Really? I almost shouted into the phone, “MOM! YOU’RE FREAKING ME OUT THAT YOU’RE NOT FREAKING OUT!” but instead I said, “We can talk more tomorrow,” and was about to hang up, when she uttered, “Let me tell you a story I heard once.”
“What? Victor and Loy will be home from school in five minutes. I really gotta go.”
“So this man learns that he’s going to die in a year and he wins this prize or a lottery—I don’t remember exactly—but God and Satan let him come visit heaven and hell to see which one he’ll want to go to when he’s dead.”
“He goes to heaven and oh, it’s so lovely. Lots of harps and violins. Tuna fish sandwiches being passed around on silver platters. You know, nice.” she said brightly.
“Then he goes to hell. The gates open and he walks in and sees there’s a big party. Hundreds of gorgeous women are dancing around in skimpy clothes and there’s a band playing his favorite Frankie Valli songs and there’s really expensive champagne flowing from a fountain. The man is laughing and dancing and drinking and he has a great time.”
I saw Victor’s car round the bend toward our house. “Okay, so he picks hell to go to when he dies. I get it.”
“Of course he does, and when he finally dies, he shows up and what does he see but fire shooting down from the sky and flames everywhere and people are moaning in pain and the devil is whipping and torturing everyone and it’s just awful. Horrible.”
I had no idea where she was going with this.
“‘Satan, I don’t understand,’ the man says. ‘I was here a year ago and it was all so different, so fun. There was music and dancing and—what happened?’ Before unraveling his whip, Satan smiled at the man. ‘Ah, that’s because last time you came as a tourist.’”
I remembered that little tale of hers again while writing the last chapter of RASH, my memoir about moving to—and, ultimately, running away from—Bali. I was reflecting on the how excited and hopeful I felt while flying back to the States. Not because we were finally leaving our Bali nightmare behind, but because I was going to be a tourist; once again experiencing that unfettered wonder one gets when you go on vacation:
Visiting someplace else is way different than living someplace else. Typically, when you go away on a short holiday, you unpack a few belongings, spend some moment-to-moment time tasting the new; peeking at the strange; marveling at the different. If, instead, when you get to your destination, you unpack your books, stock the fridge, hang family photos, and decide to stay awhile, the exoticness eventually evaporates and you’re left with the same issues you had back home. Life in Bali was just life somewhere else.
My mother’s nimble parable was dead on. Much to my surprise, the person I had been in California followed me to Bali, and once we moved into our hut, I no longer danced with scantily-clad women or drank ever-flowing champagne. Instead, I borrowed Satan’s whip and gave myself a good lashing. I constantly worried about Loy getting sick or hurt. I complained about the insects of all nationalities who flew in and out through our wall-less, window-less hut as if jet-setters on a whirlwind tour. I whined about the rancid smoke from smoldering trash and burning corpses that suffocated my lungs and brain. My bitchiness increased by a factor of 18. Victor and I fought so much that he suggested I go back to California. Without him.
Though it didn’t turn out to be paradise, I believe that going to Bali has made me more grounded. More accepting. My heart is softer. My eyes are wider. My spirit is lighter. I am more grateful than ever for the abundance that surrounds me. I no longer have an untamable itch to go looking for something else to make me happy.
I’m fine just where I am.
This post was originally published as a first-person essay on parent co., May 3, 2017.
Because I make my living as a writer, people might be surprised to know that I have a hard time reading. While the act of writing feels as natural to me as breathing, moving my eyes from word to word on a page sometimes feels akin to pulling a heavy cart uphill.
When I was twenty-five, I asked my eye doctor why, when I read, the white spaces between the words on a page sometimes pop out at me, and why, when I reach the end of a sentence, I often have trouble finding my way to the beginning of the next sentence. I also read slowly and—as demonstrated by my SAT and GRE scores—I suffered from poor reading comprehension.
He said I have a reading disability. “You mean, like dyslexia?” I asked. He shook his head and said there was no real term for my imperfect brain-to-eye connection, but if I wanted to focus better I should 1) move a black sheet of construction paper down the page, sentence by sentence; or 2) trace along the sentences with my finger or a pencil eraser.
I used those strategies to propel me through graduate school—a piece of black paper was always sticking out from the scholarly texts I lugged around Brown University’s campus. I also was quick to join study sessions, where I would glean from conversation all that I’d missed from my readings.
To be sure, my reading skills have improved over the years. If I’m into good book, I can jam through it without losing my place or seeing the white spaces. When I read online, I enlarge the font and allow the cursor to take the place of my finger.
But I still lose my concentration, and often end up skimming. I read first sentences and subtitles, and can usually come away with just enough relevant information to fake my way through dinner party conversations. If I know an article holds some import to my life—like if it’s about raising a teenage girl, or how to make the best French onion soup—I’ll send it to my husband and ask him to let me know what the takeaway is.
I recently mentioned this personal annoyance to my therapist, Jessica. She arched her eyebrows with a disturbingly knowing look.
“I think you have ADHD,” she said. “Not a reading disability.”
“Yup. You have all the classic signs. You’ve probably had it your whole life.”
I went home and Googled ADHD, skimming through all the verbiage and statistics. Then I took the test. If I agreed with at least 15 of the statements, it was likely that I had attention deficit disorder:
- I have difficulty getting organized.
- When given a task, I usually procrastinate rather than doing it right away.
- I work on a lot of projects, but can’t seem to complete most of them.
- I tend to make decisions and act on them impulsively – like spending money, getting sexually involved with someone, diving into new activities, and changing plans.
- I get bored easily.
- No matter how much I do or how hard I try, I just can’t seem to reach my goals.
- I often get distracted when people are talking; I just tune out or drift off.
- I get so wrapped up in some things I do that I can hardly stop to take a break or switch to doing something else.
- I tend to overdo things even when they’re not good for me – like compulsive shopping, drinking too much, overworking, and overeating.
- I get frustrated easily and I get impatient when things are going too slowly.
- My self-esteem is not as high as that of others I know.
- I need a lot of stimulation from things like action movies and video games, new purchases, being among lively friends, driving fast or engaging in extreme sports.
- I tend to say or do things without thinking, and sometimes that gets me into trouble.
- I’d rather do things my own way than follow the rules and procedures of others.
- I often find myself tapping a pencil, swinging my leg, or doing something else to work off nervous energy.
- I can feel suddenly depressed when I’m separated from people, projects or things that I like to be involved with.
- I see myself differently than others see me, and when someone gets angry with me for doing something that upset them I’m often very surprised.
- Even though I worry a lot about dangerous things that are unlikely to happen to me, I tend to be careless and accident prone.
- Even though I have a lot of fears, people would describe me as a risk taker.
- I make a lot of careless mistakes.
- I have blood relatives who suffer from ADHD, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse.
I agreed with seventeen.
I was not alone. According to ADDITUDE, an online zine devoted to all things ADHD, 4.4 percent of the adult US population has ADHD. That’s a lot of distracted insecure risk-taking pencil-tapping humans, if you ask me.
So, it turns out my optometrist had been mistaken. I didn’t have a reading disability. I just couldn’t always concentrate long enough or hard enough to allow the words from the page to travel to my parietal lobe in an orderly fashion. It’s like, sometimes, when I’m in the middle of reading, my brain suddenly holds up a YIELD TO ONCOMING THOUGHTS sign, or a photo of a cute bunny, and I have to start over again.
I am getting better, though, day by day. I am learning to tame my monkey mind through meditation, mindfulness, exercise, and radical acceptance. (I tried drugs but they made me quiver and quake and sent my blood pressure into dangerously high digits.) And Jessica has been offering me tactics to help keep me more focused on my objectives (see: #1, #2, #3, #6).
But I’m not even close to there yet. Case in point: yesterday I was having kind of a lousy day. I had a lot to accomplish and felt angry at myself for not being more productive (see #10 and #11), so I did what I’ve been programmed to do most of my life: I ignored Jessica’s advice and went looking for a distraction. I cleaned the cat box. Played a round of Toy Blast. Unwound a paper clip and wrapped it around my finger. Made another list of things to do. Checked Facebook. Looked at pictures of food on my food porn site. Read email.
I saw that I’d gotten a beautiful post from Jena Schwartz, a poet and writing coach whose blog I follow (or, really, whose blog I skim). In her “Practices for a Busy Mind and Being Here Now,” she talked about going for a quiet morning walk out in nature. She kept getting distracted—by her thoughts, her phone, tasks that needed taking care of, her children and wife, her job. After telling herself she had to BE HERE NOW, she walked for a while longer, then sat on a rock and meditated. By the time she got home she felt rushed because she didn’t think she had enough time to write her newsletter, and how crazy it was that she felt that way. She realized it was more important that she MAKE ROOM for the words, rather than anxiously try to squeeze them through a muddled mind.
All you have to do is begin.
Just as the water always flows downstream,
the rest happens by itself.
Jena’s tale—I read the whole thing; every last word—resonated with me so much so that I decided I wanted to write a blog post about Jena’s blog post, but it wasn’t on my list of THINGS TO DO TODAY, which made me castigate myself for not following my new rules and staying on track, which distracted me into fixating on my ADHD, which distracted me enough to write a blog post about that, instead.
So here it is, and now I can check WRITE BLOG POST off my To-Do list and feel gratified that I completed a task—a great accomplishment for someone who gets lost on a page as easily as a blind man does in a circus tent.
I will get by. I will get better. With practice and patience, I, too, will figure out how to make room for my words. Words to read. Words to write. Words to live by.
It would be unfair
if after flying
half way around
and a mother with an infant
your plane crashed during landing.
It would be unfair if
your lover promised
he’d wait and when
you finally found
the suitcase and
the nerve and
he changed his mind.
Way back when, I used to post recipes–highlighting some of the better meals we cooked. Then I got bored of writing about food. There are way too many great food blogs out there. I had nothing to add.
But last night we tried out a recipe that was so close to perfect, I have to share. Here’s the original recipe for Half Baked Harvest’s Chicken Shawarma and Sweet Potato Fry Bowls
Here’s what we did differently:
*Used thighs instead of breasts;
*Broccoli instead of asparagus (half the price);
*Roasted some button mushrooms; red onion slices; and a russet potato (also cut into matchsticks like the sweet potatoes) as well;
*Sauce: we omitted the mint, added a dollop of mayo and a squeeze of sriracha (BTW: until I typed that just now, I had no idea that the extra “r” existed. I’ve been pronouncing it wrong for decades);
*We made couscous because Loy would rather eat pig balls than quinoa;
*Our toppings: feta cheese/sliced-up Trader Joe’s Hot&Sweet cherry peppers/my homemade carrot pickles (ask me for the recipe)/kalamatas/sliced sun-dried tomatoes/sliced cukes that I de-seeded and salted for an hour
Five-stars. A perfect meal. It’s supposed to serve 5-6, but the three of us finished off every last bit, so double it if you want leftovers. You’re welcome.