Pieces of Silver

 

No small thing, the shine

passing from one person

to another…

 

A poem I’m working on starts this way. It’s growing out of a conversation with a New York City taxi driver in which he offered small “advices” that wound up making a big difference in a terrible family crisis.

The other night I was hurrying to hospitalize a cat and had to stop to pay a toll. Generally I’m frustrated with tollbooths in the East—why do they have them? In Colorado they scan your license plate from under a bridge; you don’t even have to hit the brakes. And don’t say it’s because of antiquated infrastructure—there used to be tollbooths in Colorado, but when something better came along, they ripped the booths right out. People in the East just put up with stuff, I was thinking.

Anyway, the toll was 75 cents and as usual I’d forgotten about the whole stupid idea because back home they just ding your checking account and also parking meters are all credit cards now, so who needs actual money in your car? All I happened to have was this half roll of old dimes I’d been meaning to see about. Maybe some of them would fit into one of the collecting books I had. Somewhere. In one of the boxes packed up in the garage after the move. So that would be back in Colorado? Ish.

I handed over eight really silvery-looking dimes. Oh, hey! said the toll guy, lighting way up. What are these, old dimes? Give them to me.

Who could resist a gap-toothed grin like that? I handed them right over. All the forbearing Easterners behind me just waited while he happily counted them out. No honking or anything.

I’ll let you make some money, he said. Here’s $3 for $2.50 in dimes. This probably means the dimes were worth more than that, but here I’d neatly postponed the moment of reckoning with the boxes back in Colorado indefinitely. And I didn’t even pay the toll.

I was in a strange location with a sick pet. The dimes found someone who understood their worth. This random little exchange of money on the “free”way seemed to light the night for both of us.

I guess that wouldn’t have happened with a scanner.

Dearly Beloved

It took 22 years to come to this.

I never knew what to do about letting Jacob’s ashes go.

But I am taking a creative writing fellowship on the East Coast this fall. My ex-husband is also moving, and our other son is in college on the West Coast. It didn’t seem right to put Jake in storage, or to drag him around the country.

It’s pretty hard for parents to design a memorial for their own child, especially when they have no religious community. When it’s a baby it can be even more difficult, because no one else knew the person or has any memories to share.

In the last few months I’ve been getting a strong sense that it’s time. And finally some ideas for how to go about it.

Return to the source, the place where he was made. Where both our boys were made.

Eldora1

Climb to an overlook on Spencer Mountain, where I used to hike, ski, or snowshoe nearly every day. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes with a friend, sometimes pregnant with one boy or the other, and sometimes with the second son on my back or at my side. (And always with a dog or several.)

Hold up the urn, a hollowed-out piece of an aspen branch, and show Jake the view he never got to see with his eyes.

SpencerView

Point out the house he would have lived in.

Houseview2

Kiss some of the ashes, taste them on my tongue, and offer them to the wind that slips out of the jet stream to help make Eldora such a place of power.

Then lead my ex-husband and my living son back down the mountain to “the rock,” a boulder jutting into the rapids in North Boulder Creek.

P6120417

When I was depressed and drained I would lie there and draw on the heat of the rock, the roar of the water, and all that melting light from the glaciers above. I did this when pregnant with one son and then the other and after Julian was born I brought him here for picnics in the summer. I took him snowshoeing here in the winter, when the hurl of the wind supplanted the thunder of the melt. “Icy ri-ber” was one of Julian’s first concepts.

As the three of us approach the rock, there are many shared ah-ha’s and remember thises and remember thats. But also some shocks as a treasured memory turns out not to be shared by the other.

For years I’ve had a hard time revisiting this valley because its beauty pains me. I hate that I don’t still live here, that I couldn’t hold on to the magic for the sake of my living son.

And that’s part of why this ritual needs to happen, and why Jacob needs to go now. He doesn’t need to be tangled up in this confusion and regret any longer. This is a farewell to a marriage, a segment of motherhood, and a childhood, as well as to a little son and a brother.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

All this source water. Jake may never have seen this place, but he certainly heard and felt it.

  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of the most challenging moments comes when the box is empty. We’ve talked about burying it nearby, but I’ve forgotten to bring a trowel. Julian dangles the box over the river, stroking it. Should we just drop it? his dad and I wonder. It feels right. But when we do, we all are shaken by the violence with which the water grabs it away. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I guess you’re never ready,” Julian says later.

No. You never are. Not for the final good-bye.

So I think of Charon and his boat on the River Styx, Moses and his basket of reeds. This valley was once a container for all of us, and now we’re all taking different paths. It wouldn’t be right to leave Jake behind, rooted.

Jake&John

Well, little boy. We’ve kept you close for so long. Travel far. Stay safe. Please, please check in. Our hearts are always open to you.

In Progress

Positive discipline, like going for a run, or studying, or writing a first draft—THAT I can do.

But negative discipline: NOT eating the chocolate, or having the second martini, or sleeping with the guy on the first date. That’s harder.

Then there’s accepting, moving on, whether it’s positive or negative. Integrating things I didn’t want to have happen and letting them change me and take me in new directions. The death of a child. A divorce. Like a lot of people, I’m not so good at that.

What I suck at most is allowing the good stuff to happen. What if it turns out I didn’t mess up my kid? He’s at college right now and apparently doing fine. He just got a National Science Foundation scholarship. He’s composing interesting techno music—a former perfectionist, he’s not afraid to put works-in-progress out there for the world. Not to brag; these are his achievements. However, it seems they might be at least partial evidence that he’s alive and well.

What if he’s all right in spite of the fact that I wasn’t the perfect parent, or the perfect wife?

I know. It’s a banal realization—there have been whole novels and movies on this topic—but there it is. I’ve been sitting stunned in my house since my son drove off to school last fall.

What if it’s okay for me to move on, too?

Broken

Walking nurtures an open mind… The sky is like an upturned plate—a big platter of openness filled with thoughts.” –Liz Caile, A Life at Treeline

 

Deep SurvivalIn Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales writes that people who are lost in the wilderness and survive often have in common that they prayed. Those who are found but only in the nick of time and only by good luck have in common that that they failed to recognize or refused to admit that they were lost.

Whether or not one believes in God or a god, exactly, it seems to me that the act of praying is, fundamentally, admitting that you’re lost. That you’re a small person in a big landscape and you don’t know what the hell you’re doing there. You don’t have to be a literal believer to recognize that.

According to Gonzales, the mere fact of acknowledging this existential reality can be the difference between life and death.

In one of her more recent posts, the eloquent blogger Andi O’Conor wrote about the woo-woo factor in her life, and how her intuition had guided her to pack her birth certificate and a couple of other key possessions before she took off on a vacation. While she was gone, her house was destroyed in a wildfire.

When you live in a place like Boulder, CO, you become familiar with stories like this, and you don’t feel that self-conscious talking about “the woo-woo.” In fact, it’s only when publishing, say, blog posts for a broader audience, that you would even refer to it by something as facetious as “the woo-woo.”

But as Andi was pushing her post live, I’d been struggling myself with a post on my own relationship to the mysterious, and have only now got around to writing it. Because it’s painful for me. I used to live fairly well immersed in the woo-woo. But for several years now, I’ve felt like my connection to it has been broken. Like I, too, have had to refer to it facetiously, because what I used to see as patterns and significance now seemed possibly random.

This winter I’ve been laid up with a broken ankle and I’ve had a lot of time to think. Also, no ability to walk. But really, over the past few years, I haven’t had a lot of time for walking and reflection in general, due to a lot of factors. And I realized for me, walking really is praying. As a child I wandered around in the woods, exploring Indian trails and roads established by American colonists. After college I found myself in Eldora, CO, hiking mining roads and Arapaho pathways, and something settled in me, a recognition. We know these ways, my body said to my soul. I’m a small person in a large landscape. As long I know how to be lost, I’ll know how to find my way.

Once, when I was housesitting for the singer-songwriters Cosy Sheridan and TR Ritchie, I hiked up on the Moab Rim Trail. It was later in the afternoon and I misjudged how quickly night would fall in the desert. It was stupid of me. I didn’t have a warm enough jacket, a headlamp, or matches. I was the last person out. Because it was a slickrock trail, it was hard to tell where the path went. As the twilight bled into night, I got lost. I picked my way across a couple of ravines to peer over the cliff to the Colorado River. There was a shelf below me and I thought that might be the trail. But if I climbed down to it, I wasn’t sure I’d get back up, if I was wrong. It was getting cold, and darker by the minute. I knew that if I tried to get back to where I’d been earlier, I might fall into one of the ravines I’d passed. I called out, but there was no one to hear.

I prayed. I am not exact about God. Assuming the term “woo-woo” is a little too loose, let’s call God the numinous, for now. I decided to try to reach a promontory outlined against the stars. Just as I attained it, a car was backing out of the trailhead parking lot below me. Its headlights illuminated my own car. I could then estimate the angle of the trail and tell that it was above me. I was able to climb to the trail and carefully make my way down.

Had I not reached the outcrop exactly when I did, the car would not have have backing out just then, and I would not have had the orientation I needed. Was it my prayer? I don’t know. I asked for help.

I was a small person in a large landscape who found a way.

I want to end this post right here. But I can’t. Because for the past few years I haven’t been able to feel this connection, to feel that there was anyone or anything paying attention, that if I prayed, or was lost, it would matter. Everything felt drained of significance. Even if I had an intuition or felt guided, it just seemed like it would add up to nothing in the end. So what if I packed a birth certificate? My house would burn down with many things I valued more inside. Last week I was talking to a trauma specialist about how it felt to watch the Highline—this special trail where I would jog and hike several times each week before the broken ankle—about how it felt to watch it burn during the Fourmile Fire. I said it felt like a psychic attack.

Perhaps, though, it occurs to me as I write, feeling attacked by nature is still a way to sense a connection. And I know fires are part of the landscape. I know they’re natural. But there will come a time when I will get lost and there will be no way out.

ButalaIn her stunning memoir, Perfection of the Morning, the otherwise stolid Sharon Butala writes of mystical experiences that occur while walking around on her ranch in Saskatchewan. In To Kill an Eagle, members of the Lakota tribe describe sacred visions as rising out of the land.

That’s what usually happens for me, with my writing. Creativity comes from being outside. From moving in landscape. This ability to easily tap into the sacred, the mysterious, is what I’ve been missing. I don’t know exactly what broke my connection to the woo-woo, but I hope some walking around brings it back.

Unpreparing

A further post on the matter of mentally preparing for death. Or un-. Not sure why I’m on this kick. But as I was in the middle of all these thoughts, a high-school English teacher of mine, David Weber, sent me the gorgeous poem below. It was written by another former teacher at Exeter, Charles W. Pratt.

The poem takes the opposite angle from my last post, where I was saying that I would want a little bit of time to meet my own death. Not enough to linger, but enough to say my goodbyes, to express gratitude, and to beg forgiveness where necessary. To get the kind of footing under me that Jane Kenyon seems to have found in her famous piece, “Let Evening Come.”

Let me be immersed in life when it happens, Pratt says in his powerful poem. I hope you’re as moved as I was.

 

Resolution, by Charles W. Pratt

 

When the tsunami draws back its fistful of waters

And crushes the city, let me for once be ready.

Let me be washing the dishes or patting the dog.

 

When the great windstorm angles across the flatlands

Hungry and howling, let me be patting the dog.

Let me kneading the bread or picking an apple.

 

When the ground shudders and splits and all walls fall,

Let me writing a letter or kneading the bread.

Let me holding my lover, watching the sunrise.

 

When the suicide bomber squeezes the trigger

And fierce the flames spurt and wild the body parts fly,

Let me be holding my lover or drinking my coffee.

 

Let us be drinking our coffee, unprepared.

 

“Resolution,” ©2010 by Charles W. Pratt. Used with permission. In From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, New and & Selected Poems, Brookline, NH: Hobblebush Books, 2010. www.hobblebush.com

 

PC250309 (2)

Julian and Tony on The Ridge at Loveland Ski Area, Christmas Day, 2010.

Massive

At the end of last year I posted about some “night terrors” after I met an older man contemplating his impending death. A high-school classmate responded by telling me of his heart attack a few years back. His comments are included at the end of the blog post; he says he felt an overwhelming sorrow at the thought that he might not be able to say goodbye to those he loved and express his gratitude for what they had done for him.

I spent some time thinking about this. Around 12 years ago, my father died. Although many people admired him for his athleticism and charisma, he was your basic deadbeat dad. A violent, manipulative drunk, abusive in every way.

I don’t hold all of it against him. He suffered from at least some combination of these, all untreated: alcoholism, narcissistic personality disorder, ADHD and/or manic depression, post-traumatic stress disorder from World War II, and multiple concussions. God bless the shrink today who would have to deal with that differential diagnosis.

His brain was sclerotic from the alcohol and maybe from bipolar’s kindling effect, and his thinking had grown rigid over the years. Nevertheless, he had the phenomenal memory that ran in his family and that was as legendary in the local bars as his physical strength. He could recite historical names and dates, or your telephone number. At 73, he was still building docks and boathouses, singlehandedly hoisting pressure-treated beams, and competing in triathlons despite his vices.

He was also hilarious, thanks to the kind of reverse empathy the sociopathic and utterly despairing can deploy.

He and I shared an abiding interest in history and a passion for Crazy Horse, psychopathic dictators, European-theater World-War II machinations, and the Revolutionary War. I owe my retention capabilities, my critical thinking skills, and my doggedness to him. If I was never successful at connecting with him, I can hardly regret where the quest has taken me.dad

We didn’t talk often, because I didn’t often have several hours in which to converse about history and politics over the phone. But one day around 12 years ago I had LASIK surgery. I was sent home and told not to open my eyes for a day or so except to go to the bathroom.

Okay, I thought. Why don’t I catch up on my phone calls?

I called up my father and talked to him for around three hours. History. Politics. But also some personal stuff. He’d been working on his issues, or so he said.

He said, “I think I’m finally able to love.” He said that he recognized that for his entire life, he’d been incapable of loving others.

He didn’t come right out and name narcissistic personality disorder, but isn’t that what not being able to love anyone is? One of the defining aspects of the disorder is that someone who has it almost never can have the insight that they have it. For all I know it was his latest con, or self-con. But I think he really hoped.

Five days later, his heart failed.

Coincidentally, this death occurred at a place that was at the center of our childhood summers. He just happened to be working there. And my brother happened be nearby and heard that someone needed help. He rushed to the scene, not knowing that it was our father.

To be sure, heart disease and strokes run in my father’s family, and given the way he abused his body, it’s probably amazing that he made it to age 73. Still, the metaphors are pretty darn glaring.

Despite the overwhelming nature of the heart attack, my father fought it hard. His coworker saw his paroxysms and ran for help, leaving him lying on one end of a very long dock. When he returned with a police officer, my father had reached the other end, climbed up a ramp, and was in the parking lot, where he was having more convulsions.

Maybe this is just what the body does when it dies, and there was nothing conscious about his struggle. Some people said, At least it was quick. But would you want it to be quick? Would you want to be overtaken by death, without a chance to say goodbye, clear things up, offer your thanks?

I think that’s part of my “night terrors” thing. I had a pulmonary embolism in 2004. For about a year afterwards I’d wake in the night grappling with the immediacy of death. Statistically it’s likely that another clot is how I’ll go. And I would think: please, no. I want to know in advance, a little. Not to linger, not to suffer. But to have a chance to make my peace, express my gratitude, say what needs to be said.

In Who Dies?, Stephen Levine suggests that we all, at the very least, try to become comfortable enough with the idea of death to ensure that our last words/thoughts are not OH SHIT.

For all the warnings and signs I’ve had, I’m not sure I’m there.

Are you?

 

Massive

 

I.

You could say he died of a full heart.

It burst with the overturned blue

of the lake beneath the tree-limned

sky. His last meal: hot dog, onions,

Pepsi, thou shalt eat ice cream and chips

in memory of Me. He munched

in the new truck above the harbor

of our childhood, those years of blue-lipped

lessons in heaving, leaf-murked water.

Somewhere there is a steamer sunk

too deep for anyone to find.

 

The waves tugged the ice-mangled dock.

He was about to fix everything,

he had the wet suit on, the muscles

in his back good and strong.

At seventy-three, the muscles

still so impossibly strong.

Ironman, Olympian, no one

rises up in a massive attack

of the heart. Though he tried.

He staggered and he crawled.

 

Is it fullness, or emptiness,

if a father says, five days before his death,

finally he is ready to love?

 

II.

You could say his heart was full

of never having been ready to love.

 

III.

You could say it was cholesterol,

alcohol.

 

IV.

There are so many ways to love a father.

Seven years old: ski black diamonds, never

letting him out of your sight; eleven:

sneak gulps of his manhattan; thirty-seven:

come upon the scene too late, the giant

purpling before your eyes.

Leave one rose floating near

the far, deep end of the tilted pier,

artery-colored in the lungless lake.

Lonely, beautiful, begging for rescue

from the tourists ever coming to this place,

this harbor of learning to swim.

 

Originally published in Vermont Literary Review Summer/Fall 2008.

Night Terrors

Just last week I met a very elderly man with a terminal illness (let’s face it, we’re all terminal) at a party. We had a frank discussion. He said he was tired of funerals and hoped when he returned to his home state he could attend a few weddings or christenings instead. He dreaded reading alumni publications, he added.

eclipse

(Solstice Total Eclipse, photo by Melinda Johnston)

I said, You know, it’s getting to be the same for me, even at my age. Nearly every year, if not every issue, there’s a death notice for someone in my class. Maybe only one, but it’s happening.

We were interrupted, but I was about to ask this man if he feared dying, because it sounded like he did. It actually felt like a comfortable question in the context of our conversation, and I suspected that his own family was steering clear of questions like this.

He had mentioned his minister, so I wondered how his thoughts about death fit into his religious system and if his beliefs affected how he felt about dying. And if he grew more or less fearful with age.

Right now, I feel afraid. No particular reason, I just do. I felt less fearful when I was younger.

When I was 23, I had a terrible horseback riding accident. There were quite a few seconds—I’m not sure how many, because there’s always time dilation in these situations, so maybe 10, maybe even 30—between when I lost control of the horse and when I hit the tree to contemplate my fate.

My mind was and is capable of handling a lot of threads at once.

I knew it wasn’t going to end well. The horse was an Arabian, going at a full gallop, and the trail through the woods was narrow. I knew I would be thrown, if not into a tree or rock, then over the horse’s head when he stopped. Aside from the horse, I was alone. Serious injury or death seemed the only likely outcomes.

So, I was lucky.

Some of the injuries took years to recover from, but I wasn’t killed or paralyzed.

When I realized I’d lost control over what might happen, I experienced a tremendous calm. I wouldn’t say my life flashed before me, exactly, but there was a kind of… reckoning. I let it go. I thought, this could be it, and there came an acceptance.

No fear at all.

I think my body was scared, but on a mental and spiritual level, the I-ness of me, there was serenity.

And then a few years later, my first child died. Afterwards, I sort of wanted to die, too. I wasn’t suicidal, exactly, though I did think I might not fight the wheel if my car started to drift toward the edge of a cliff. I was very curious about dying. Even if death meant oblivion, which I didn’t think it did, I wanted to know. I wanted to discover what Jake had experienced. I figured there would at least be an instant when you would realize that, yes, you were being obliterated. And at least it would be settled. 9780385262217

When my second son came along, I knew I was committed to living. And delighted by life again. Even so, I was certain that if I lived a very long time, eventually I would welcome death. I’d be tired of loved ones dying. Death was part of what made life, and it was the contract we all signed.

But now I’m scared of it.

Why is that? I really wanted to talk about this with the man I met at the party. The poem below poses one reason, but I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.

 

 

 

Night Terrors

 

I was around 40,

after the embolism,

waking nightly

in the track-lit bathroom.

Sitting to pee, I’d think,

I’m going to die.

Not because of the embolism

exactly, or directly.

Just death, its certainty.

 

I was surprised

by my terror.

After your death,

nothing seemed more certain

than death.

I would follow you gladly,

full of curiosity,

even eagerness.

How can a bereft

mother fear death?

 

Yet, as the chips

come closer to being down,

I do. Fear I won’t find

you there, either.

Standout Reads of 2010

Not necessarily written this year, just the ones that popped for me of those I read.

Fiction:

  • Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada (a German couple find a way to resist the Nazis) 
  • The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (the legacy of Nazi Germany tears apart a modern-day Bogota family)     
  • Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman (I blogged about this earlier)
  • The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt (not summed up well in the jacket copy; it’s about the role of fantasy in the Victorian/Edwardian era)
  • The Outlander, by Gil Adamson (a woman flees across the frontier…it could have been better, but it was startling and beautifully written)
  • Lightning, by Fred Stenson (another gorgeous, literary western with plenty of action)
  • The White Mary, by Kira Salak (Heart of Darkness in Papua New Guinea, only without the racism, with a female protagonist)
  • The Fall of a Sparrow, by Robert Hellenga (beautiful, philosophical novel, the kind we used to read in high school and didn’t think was being written anymore, only without the ponderous style)
  • Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (gripping, moving portrait of a singular woman, drawn via linked short stories)
  • The Stone Gods, by Jeannette Winterson (as it has been, so it will be…talk about the wheel of fate…thought-provoking and darkly amusing)
  • Castings Trilogy, by Pamela Freeman (not your run-of-the mill fantasy series…explores the question of how an indigenous population, much abused, might rise up and reclaim its continent after having been conquered, um, about 500 years ago)
  • The Steel Remains, by Richard K. Morgan (another in-your-face fantasy novel—totally macho Aragorn-like character who is flamingly gay… terrific pathos) 
  • Parable of the Sower, and Parable of the Talents, by Octavia Butler (re-read… visionary novels about climate change/economic collapse and what it might take to guide people to adapt; you can’t go wrong with Butler)

 

9781935554042  9781553655374  9780345493040  9780061491344

 

Nonfiction:

  • The Black Hole War, My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the Universe Safe for Quantum Mechanics, by Leonard Susskind
  • War, by Sebastian Junger
  • Acedia & Me, A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, by Kathleen Norris
  • The Killing of Crazy Horse, by Thomas Powers
  • The Bipolar Child, by Demitri Papolos M.D. and Janice Papolos
  • I’m Looking Through You, Growing Up Haunted, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
  • Trotsky, by Robert Service (sure puts the lie to Barbara Kingsolver’s simplistic and trite treatment in Lacuna)
  • The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter 
  • The Unthinkable, Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why, by Amanda Ripley
  • Journal of a Solitude, by May Sarton (re-visited after about 15 years…funny that 15 years ago I wouldn’t have hesitated to try to get a personal essay published reflecting on this work. Now, in the age of the Internet, I’d be worried about how speaking so honestly might affect my professional relationships and even some of my friendships. It’s kind of weird. Maybe it’s because back then I was more financially secure as an at-home mom and a writer, whereas now I need my day job. Perhaps in another five years I won’t care again. Let’s hope.) 

 

9780393309287  9780393049343  9780674036154

 

Poetry

  • New Collected Poems, by Eavan Boland
  • Birth is Farewell, by Dilys Bennett Laing (I admit I’d never heard of her, though she was extremely well published in her day…found this in a used bookstore in Olympia. I’m guessing Plath was trying, not too successfully, to be Laing, early-on.)
  • The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart, by Deborah Digges (though I read it years ago, I also recommend Digges’s memoir about raising a challenging son as a single mom, The Stardust Lounge)
  • “Bad Mood on Earth Day” (chapbook available from Imaginary Friend Press) by Harriet O. Leach

 

I’m probably missing a couple of great reads because I’ve loaned them out or I got them from the library, so they aren’t on my shelves, triggering my memory. Sorry about that.

PTSD—What It’s Like

Ever had stage fright? Levine

I don’t mean the good kind. Where you have some butterflies in your stomach and a bit of a metallic taste in your mouth. Maybe that’s slightly unpleasant but it can also help you focus a little better and in the end it seems to come out all right. The audience applauds, your boss loves the PowerPoint, you rock the guitar riff and even forget yourself in it.

I mean the bad kind, where you throw up.

Have you ever hyperventilated to where your fingers and toes curl up and lose circulation?

If you’ve never had this level of anxiety, take the flutter in your stomach, multiply it by a factor of at least 10, add a pulse around 160, shortness of breath, numbness in your hands and feet (even if you’re not hyperventilating, or aren’t aware that you are), and a feeling of “floodedness,” where the cortisol seems to rise out of your gut, up through your chest, and into your throat and head until you feel like you’re going to pop out of your skin like an overcooked hotdog. Jump out of that skin at every loud, or even medium, noise. Have nightmares every night, if you can sleep at all.

Put your head down between your knees and breathe. Maybe for several hours.

Be grateful you work from home. Hide all this. Become even more stressed out by the effort of hiding it. And for God’s sake, don’t write a blog post about it.

What causes these episodes? That’s the thing. Nothing.

Well, not nothing. Stuff in the past.

“In circumstances where others sense more than a mild threat or even a challenge to be faced, the traumatized person experiences threat, dread and mental/physical listlessness, a kind of paralysis of body and will.”  —Gabor Mate, MD

This isn’t always like me. There have been plenty of times when I had a fight response to challenge. Sometimes, I’ve thrived under stress—graduating double summa cum laude while working 32 hours per week, creating a career out of thin air after my divorce—but other times I’ve collapsed under what’s looked like a lesser load.

For a long time I thought it was over. Medication I was taking for another condition had so well controlled the PTSD symptoms, I practically forgot I had it. Then along came #boulderfire. And several other stressors that simultaneously attacked my baseline sense of my core survival capabilities—home, job, relationship. Whether you want to look at psychoanalytically in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs or new-age-ically in terms of the root chakra (I have lived near Boulder for 29 years), I felt pretty undermined. Even if my house didn’t burn.

When I was little, my alcoholic father, a WWII vet and likely PTSD sufferer himself, would burn through the house, tossing children headfirst into walls.* Yeah, thank you for bringing that up, wildfire.

I’ve been calming down a little, but I’m pretty sure it’s only because I haven’t had as much deadline pressure in the last month or so. My experience is that in the absence of external stress, the symptoms do subside with time. But it can be a vicious cycle: you take better care of yourself and as a result you feel better, so you take on more responsibility—most of us want to be productive—and then you have less time to take care of yourself, and wham, there you are again…

I planned this blog post wanting to talk about the difference between post-traumatic stress, which anyone can have after anything bad, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But apparently there may be more hope for all of us than I thought. There’s some new thinking, as well as some more insight coming out of Peter Levine’s ongoing work, suggesting that PTSD may be more injury than disorder, and more amenable to healing than previously believed. It’s still controversial, but as I said, there’s hope.

In the meantime, this seems to be what I’m in the middle of, so I thought I’d stick my neck out and tell you what it’s like.

 

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*(Re my father’s rage: this type of potential response to combat trauma is discussed with insight here.)

Lucky/Unlucky

I can’t complain, but sometimes I still do…”  –Joe Walsh

 

When I was a kid, I had picture book called Fortunately. As I recall, the character had, fortunately, been invited to a birthday party. Unfortunately, it was on the other side of the country. Fortunately, he had a plane. Unfortunately, it blew up. Fortunately, there was a parachute. Unfortunately, something was wrong with it. Fortunately, there was a haystack on the ground below. Unfortunately, there was a pitchfork sticking out of the haystack. Fortunately, he missed the pitchfork. Unfortunately, he missed the haystack. Fortunately, he landed in the ocean. Unfortunately, there were sharks. Fortunately, he could swim…

In the end, fortunately, the kid wound up safely at the party.

When he was 25, my husband of the time was driving home through Boulder Canyon and was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Fortunately, he was not killed. Unfortunately, he was badly injured. Unfortunately, he was driving my Fiat Spyder and was more badly hurt than he might have been had he been driving our Jeep Wagoneer. Fortunately, the other guy was driving a TR-6, and so my husband was not decapitated. Fortunately, my husband was not driving our Jeep Wagoneer, or he would have had to live with having decapitated the other guy. Unfortunately, he was not wearing his seatbelt, and so his windpipe was nearly crushed when it struck the top of his windshield. Fortunately, he was not wearing his seatbelt, and so he avoided having his legs crushed beyond repair when the engine came into the driver’s compartment. Fortunately, everyone had insurance. Unfortunately, my ex-husband is still in pain and facing surgeries to this day, at 50, from that accident.

It could have been so much worse. Was he lucky that he didn’t die, lucky that there was insurance? Or unlucky that the whole thing occurred in the first place? Lots of people go through life never having to deal with stuff like this.

Recently my house did not burn down in the Fourmile Canyon fire. You bet I thank my lucky stars. But all around me are houses that are for sale, owned by people who really need to sell. I just took mine off the market because it hasn’t sold and wouldn’t be likely to do so over the winter, especially after this fire. After being out of work since last December, my partner had to take a job far away. I’m not sure what’s next for us, all the more so in a real estate market like this.

“You’re lucky your house was safe,” someone said.

I can’t argue with that. I’m glad I don’t have to go through the hassle of replacing everything, especially the more I read about what others are dealing with. But the equity in my house, which I not long ago would have estimated at a decent chunk, isn’t safe. I worked hard for that money, and it was mostly sweat equity, not just market appreciation equity. I didn’t over-leverage my house, by the way. And because I came to the professional world late, after a divorce, it’s pretty much all I had for my retirement. The bank will get its money, when and if it ever sells, but I’m likely to lose mine. There’s no insurance to cover that.

Others I know ARE being foreclosed on. And there’s no insurance to cover that, either.

Who’s lucky in #boulderfire? One thing I’ve learned in my life, though even for me it’s hard to put in practice: try not to go around saying “at least” to others. Well, at least you didn’t die in your car accident (maybe the person had a head injury that changed her life forever). At least you were only evacuated from the fire (maybe someone was evacuated in the middle of chemotherapy treatments and the stress sent him into pneumonia). At least you’re safe (how do you know how the other person defines safe? Maybe she was abused as a child and this is the last straw for her brain wiring).

Recently I hiked with a friend to the top of the Highline in Lefthand Canyon, where I ran into someone who lost his home in the fire. Like many, he’d been away over Labor Day weekend and had been unable to rescue any of his possessions. But, he said, he was “over it now.”

“Really?” I said. “I hear it’s an up and down process for a lot of people.”

“Well, it helps to have had some life experiences to put it in perspective.”

“Where are you from?” I guessed he was East European; he had a Slavic accent, but he had introduced himself as “Pavel,” with the stress on the second syllable, so I knew he wasn’t Russian.

“Czech,” he said. “I spent some time in a refugee camp. When you’ve lost a whole country, and you know you can never go back, a house, well…”

“Still. At some point, you’d think maybe you’ve paid your dues,” I said.

“Well, yeah,” he said.

He pointed out how amazing it was that no one had died in this fire, given its violence and the speed at which it had moved. There were so many close calls. Even most of the pets were saved. “Lucky,” he said.

Yes. Lucky.

And I walked back down the mountain to my unburned, unsold house. What do I know? Perhaps all the right things still will happen for me. Maybe it all is lucky. Just the same, Joe Walsh looped around in my head.

 

fireCR83(1) (iPhone photo by Russell Greene, age 10—top of the Highline/CR 83)