August 1, 2022 § Leave a comment
Recently, I told a dear friend, “These days, I feel about God the way my kitten seems to feel about me after I give him a bath.”
I had been giving my new kitten a bath every few days because he came to us with ringworm, a potentially deadly but easily treatable diagnosis for a kitten, and regular baths with special antifungal shampoo were supposed to help.
Most of the time, the kitten can’t get enough of me. He’s either attacking my foot or sleeping on my stomach, and any time I leave the room, he trots along in my wake. My husband calls him a Momma’s Boy.
But during those first few minutes after the bath, when he looks more like a wet rat than a tiny black kitten, that little guy wants nothing to do with me. He slinks off to some dark corner of the house to lick his fur, and anytime I pass, he eyes me warily.
“I haven’t lost my faith in God,” I tell my friend. “I’ve just had enough of Him and the world He’s made to last for a while, and I kind of wish He’d leave me alone.”
Sometimes, when I say things like this, I wonder if it might be better if I kept my thoughts to myself. After all, a thought like that doesn’t exactly encourage a sense of tenderness, let alone love, towards God. If anything, it enhances a kind of confused distance between our challenging lives as creatures and our (sometimes) obtuse creator.
But then I remember the time roughly a year and a half ago when another friend invited me to use her late husband’s prayer shed. That day I was having a flare-up of my Lyme symptoms, and I was angry. I was not at all Zen or pious, like I figured one should be when preparing to use a prayer shed. Instead, I was mad at God, and fed up with a world that included a microscopic creature with the power to make my life a living Hell.
But when I stepped inside that quiet, simple prayer shed with the woven rug on the floor and the wooden icon of Jesus on the wall, I heard this faint whisper: You can be angry. In fact, I have given you an entire room to be angry in.
I am convinced God gives us plenty of space for unpleasant emotions. He wants all of us, after all, including the parts of us that don’t exactly look or feel good.
The kitten is chasing his tail around and around in violent circles, so I leave the house to sit on the front porch and pray on the phone with another friend. She is going through a hard time which has lasted far longer than we ever imagined, and it seems impossible that God could be anywhere near her life right now. Certainly, she cannot feel Him. Is He even there?
An image comes to us as we pray: my friend standing in a pitch-black room with no doors or windows. Her eyes are open, but she can’t see a thing, which means she can’t see Jesus standing just a few feet in front of her, holding out His hand.
It could be a cheesy image—Jesus is still there! In the dark!—but it isn’t. It’s exactly what my friend needs, and frankly, it’s what I need also.
It’s often tempting to want to tie up our hardships in a bow, to turn them into some kind of purposeful, triumphant event, and sometimes we do understand what it all means in the end, but more often we don’t.
More often what we have is Jesus standing with us in the dark, reaching out an invisible, scarred-over hand.
This post originally appeared in my July newsletter.
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July 12, 2022 § 2 Comments
Last month, I had a draft of my newsletter ready to go when something happened. I had a flare-up.
This flare-up wasn’t exactly unexpected. I had recently started another treatment for my ongoing Lyme disease, and my doctor had warned me that as we killed these “bad bugs,” as she calls them, I might feel worse before I felt better.
Feel worse I did, and Sunday evening found me lying on the couch trying not to move because movement exacerbates the nerve pain in my arms and legs (pain I once described to my husband as akin to the Cruciatus Curse in Harry Potter).
It sounds bad, and it is, but I’m also used to it. I have these flare-ups about every few weeks to every few months, and I’ve learned some tricks to manage them.
I cancel everything for the next few days. I schedule an appointment with my favorite osteopath. I take medicine that usually alleviates the pain within 36 hours. And in the meantime, I wait. I do my best to limit the TV (truthfully, there are only so many times I can watch even my favorite shows before I start to feel my life slip away). I perhaps write a few words using the dictation software on my tablet. I pray a little. I read.
This time around, I found myself returning to an irony that struck me early on in my experience with Lyme: as hard (read: at times, horrific) as it’s been, this battle with illness has pushed me further toward Truth with a capital T than just about any other event in my life.
Why is this ironic? Because (with some chagrin) I’ll admit that not too long ago I was convinced I should devote my entire life toward knowing the “Truth with a capital T.” This was why I got a philosophy degree. To some extent, this was why I became a writer (I would write my way toward Truth). All this even though at the time I was also convinced there was no way to be certain about anything (think, Matrix-style: could this all be a dream?).
A lot has changed since then (conversion from agnosticism to Christianity, for one; maybe I’ll write about that another time). But what is this so-called Truth that having Lyme disease revealed to me?
The truth is nothing new, not really. It’s that the world is broken. Or wrong. Or somehow off. You choose the phrasing. Whatever phrase we use will likely sound like a platitude anyway, something tossed around so many times its lost all meaning. Nonetheless, there’s something to it. There’s a reason it’s been said so many times.
When we are not going through a crisis, it’s easy to walk around like everything is basically fine, like you and I and the rest of the world are not deeply messed up (I could use another word here, but I won’t). It’s like when my flare-ups cease, and I have a hard time imagining I was ever in that much pain. Could the world really be so bad that I could hurt that much?
But having a disability or an illness, when the brokenness is your very body, you can’t escape that. You can’t free yourself from your own physical form. You’re forced to reckon with the reality that something is very wrong within the created order, you know it in an embodied way, in your very bones.
And this, in turn, reveals other truths. You see with new clarity that all along your life was tied up in the lives of others, the ones on whom you are now so clearly dependent. You see that at the end of the day you need something other than yourself to save you. You need medical intervention, to be sure. You may very well need God.
What’s neat, of course, are the moments when this brokenness is made right. When a bit of the Kingdom of God, if I may, breaks into a sick body. As in, when the meds start to work, and I can go back to yoga. Or when I have a “good day” and can cook an entire meal standing up in the kitchen. Or when I can type this letter to you without my hands hurting. All of a sudden, we have the resurrection inside our very veins. We feel the difference between the wrong way and the right way, and know how easily it could all go south, but for just this moment it doesn’t, and grace takes on a whole new meaning.
There is a lot that’s terrible about long-term illness, and I am fighting tooth and nail to get better. Though I have a lot of hope for my future health, it could still just as easily be me who’s sick for a lifetime. For now, I find these kernels of reality, of truth, a kind of consolation.
Next month, maybe I’ll share that neatly edited essay. For now, what I have is this musing hastily written on my iPhone late at night. I’ll end with yet another platitude that’s nonetheless true: I do hope you’re well, wherever this note finds you.
This post originally appeared in my June newsletter.
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May 31, 2022 § Leave a comment
Friends, it’s been a little while since I last posted on here, and a lot has happened since then! Last year I took a sabbatical from professional writing for my health, and while that sabbatical continues, I have slowly, tentatively begun to follow my urge back into writing. To that end, I’d love to invite you to join me in my latest writing endeavor!
|I suppose a better title for this newsletter might be something along the lines of, “a note from the candle-lined, Epsom salt-filled bathtub” or, “a note from the mint green couch under the third story apartment window.” Or even, “a note from the bed, where I sit propped up by a handful of linen throw pillows.” Because in truth, it’s been nearly a year since I last sat at a desk.|
I can’t sit at a desk, not really, at least not for now. I have yet to find the right chair to correctly support my back, the right way to position my hands at the keyboard, the best spot to place the screen that will allow me to sit long enough at any desk to write without my nerves flailing out of control.
I don’t share this to illicit pity. I share this simply to be honest, and because I have a great deal of hope that one day—hopefully sooner rather than later—this note can rightfully be called “a note from the desk” because I will be well enough to sit at one. Preferably the handsome wooden corner desk my husband bought for me when we were dating—the one that’s a bit scratched and scuffed, the one with the coffee mug ring in the corner. I love that desk. And I have every intention of using it in the future.
And that is why I’ve titled this newsletter “a note from the desk.” Because even though I come to you from the tub, the couch, the bed—nearly every spot in my apartment but the desk—I have hope that one day I will pen this note to you from a desk where I sit without any pain (or, really, less pain—I’m not asking for perfection).
Something I’ve learned during these years with Lyme disease: some kinds of hope are easier to have than others.
And having chronic illness, and remaining hopeful, perhaps not for the correct treatment, but at least for a life that does not circle entirely around the sad and tough components of illness—that is a very hard hope to have. That is hope that takes some real muscle. Some courage. Some inner strength. And frankly, it’s a hope that’s a whole heck of a lot easier when you don’t have to do it alone. I have found it a lot easier to hope when I’ve acknowledged just how hard it is to hope when you are sick and have been sick for a very long time.
Perhaps this is you? And maybe it’s not illness, but something else. And I won’t pretend to have the answers for how to keep going, though somehow I have kept going, and if I can do it, I think you can, too.
This newsletter is an experiment in hope. I don’t know what the next months will bring—greater health or another flare up. I have come to expect surprise rather than certainty. But I’m stepping out, nonetheless.
It probably won’t be easy. And I don’t care what they say. I would very, very much prefer easy. But that’s not the road I’m on. And God promises that even on the narrow path—the difficult one, if you will—there are still opportunities for lightness, for ease, for joy. If I’m anything, I am determined to find that light yolk Jesus speaks of. I’ll be like Jacob; I’ll wrestle it from his grasp.
One thing’s for certain: I do hope you’ll decided to join me (see above about how it’s so much better not to go it alone).
January 13, 2021 § Leave a comment
He is the radiance of the glory of God.
~ Hebrews 1:3
Recently, I have felt God speaking to me through the moon. During the hardest parts of my struggle to diagnose and overcome Lyme disease, God was to me the waxing moon, each day growing bigger and brighter, until He was the full round moon, so bright, I could not escape Him. His presence was so real, to disbelieve in Him would have been to rip the organ of reason from my mind. I saw Him everywhere. His radiance was bright upon my skin during one of the darkest nights of my life.
Then, health. How wonderful to recover this most precious of gifts! The strength to walk. The relief in my back. The easing of the sharp pain in my fingers. And just as the pain seeped away, so too did the moon of God begin to wane. “I believe He is still there,” I would tell my husband, “just like I believe the moon is still there, even when I cannot see it.”
So it goes with so many of us. We see God most certainly in the hardship. This the paradox, the mystery we hold, but who can understand? So thin did God become to me in my newfound health, He was like the new moon, His light no longer present, no longer illuminating even a single blade of grass. I would go outside, and look up at the sky, and see a great blackness.
But why be surprised? The spiritual life has its pattern, just like the natural world has its circadian rhythm, the rotation of the earth, the steady repetition of the seasons.
At the beginning of the month, my husband and I braved a plane to Antigua, an idyllic island set like a green jewel in the pristine blue waters of the Caribbean. A respite at last from what has felt like a merry-go-round of madness. While we were gone, some people stormed the capitol, but we heard about it later. For just this moment we were blissfully unaware of other people’s opinions and the movement of disease and the mad vying for power. I stood at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, and the sun shone, and the waves fell relentless. The natural world is so indifferent. Sometimes this scares me. Other times it feels like relief.
This morning, I read in Hebrews that Christ is the radiance of the glory of God. I pause. I let the words settle. Radiance. The sun’s bright rays. I cannot look directly at the sun without being blinded, but I can feel its warmth on my skin as I bathe in its downpour. I can see the water and the sand and the metal mast of my parent’s hardy sailboat reflect its luminescence. Christ like the rays of the sun: warm, illuminating, observable. I know the truth we too often gloss over: when I cannot find God, I can look to Christ to know Him.
Now, we are back home. Back to routine. Back to a new year and work and play. I miss the sun and the salt water. I even miss the manchineel tree, beautiful to look at, poisonous to the touch. But despite the low temperature out my window and the frost on my resilient broccoli plants, the sun shines here also. My skin is browned in places, red and itchy in others. A tangible reminder, at least until it fades. A physical, temporary locus of a hope which ebbs and flows, yes, but remains.
June 1, 2019 § 5 Comments
We have come to rest, he from the demands of work, I from the trauma of a waning illness which I am determined to wholly recover from, determined shall not hold me back. In the mornings, we drink coffee and eat yogurt and bread and cheese and salami and Nutella, reading and watching the perfect ocean. Is it indulgence? Or merely living life well? Leisure, really. The bliss of long night’s of sleeping without an alarm, of awakening to sunlight and birdsong, to afternoon strolls through the ancient medieval walls of a city built hundreds of years ago, a city bombed and since reconstructed, a city jam-packed with tourists from all over the world.
Then, it’s onto a ferry that whisks us across the Adriatic to an island, Mljet, legendary oasis of Odysseus, possibly a haunt of Paul’s. I am determined to make it, but here again, the splitting pain, the lying on a strange contraption called a “back jack” that miraculously eases said pain, the walking through it because I did not come all this way only to suffer.
We take a boat across a teal-blue salt lake to an island on the island — St. Mary’s, home of a Benedictine monastery. In hat, dress, and sandals, I circle the monastery walls in the sunshine, clamber over crumbling rock steps split by red poppies, white lilies, purple and pink wildflowers buzzing with giant honey bees and yellow, green, and orange butterflies. It is a fecund place, overgrown and blossoming, a tomato and zucchini garden here, a stained glass window of Mother Mary there. Along the way, an occasional weeping juniper.
The monastery is under reconstruction, but I imagine the monks’ prayers anyway, lingering in the sweet, quiet air. I join mine with them and take a photo of their seclusionary walls. Are we all praying for each other, at the heart? We find a sunlit slab and promise to return the next day, for a swim in the warm, buoyant salt water. No wonder Odysseus stayed so long, my guide book says. It is the isle of bliss, Edenic.
“I feel better,” I tell Jared. He says, “And tomorrow you will feel better. And the day after that, better. And the day after that, better.” And on and on, we live in this space of not-yet-healed, moving toward what is whole and holy.
The next day, I do surrender my body to the water, but only part ways — in reality, it’s freezing. Afterwards, we walk for seven miles around the lake, feeling better. And even better.
May 25, 2019 § 2 Comments
Is it foolishness, or acting out of a sense of hope? I say the latter, but is that merely because I am greedy for beauty, greedy for a return to that version of me who went, went, went, on planes from here to there, longing to see with my own eyes these views of glory?
I am being too poetic here.
What I mean is this: we bought two tickets to Croatia when it seemed so very likely that my health was on the upswing, and then, one week out, my back erupts in excruciating pain.
Why now, I wonder? Just last month, I spent a long weekend camping in Big Bend with no Lyme symptoms at all, and now, a slight turn of the back at my desk and suddenly, I am back on the phone with my doctor, back shelling out money for therapy I pray will alleviate the pain that is all-consuming before I must confine myself to a tiny airplane chair for eight hours.
It’s the pain that does it: I can think of nothing else. My doctor reassures me: this will pass, your system is simply vulnerable, you. Will. Be. Fine. But that part of my brain based in fear only remembers this time last year, when it was uncertain why I was in so much pain, whether the pain would ever stop, and I am doubtful, though still, there is the acting out of hope, the slow preparations, Jared’s reassurance that he will be with me, to help.
On a Tuesday, we board the airplane, I take a muscle relaxer and fall asleep with a knife in my back, a whisper of a prayer like smoke rising with me into the darkening, eastward sky.
And then, suddenly, Paris, the city that never ceases to enchant. We thread the dingy underground Metro, and emerge into the sunlight — oh, city of lights! Ten years since I walked up and down beneath the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, another five since I tromped the long lane of the Champs Élysée, eyes widened with the wonder of Paris, of Nutella crepes and cigarette smoke and flowered balconies and the ritzy, rich shops — tight black jeans, sugar-spun scarves, occasionally, a burka. We walk along the Seine, tired, red-rimmed bleary-eyed, stopping before the Louvre for a quick photo, sipping chilled Rosé, eating at a tiny round table a croqué madam, croqué monsieur, blackest espresso, deux café au lait, s’il vous plait. Once, I sat in classrooms and learned the language, but how much I can’t remember.
Oh well, the main thing is this: in the morning I wake in Paris, pain-free.
How quickly I forget pain once it passes. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” says Emily Dickinson. For me: a forgetfulness. Was the pain ever so bad? Did I ever curse God Himself in the fury of a child who’s fallen and can’t understand why she smarts so? Did I ever see Jesus, standing at my church near the altar, seated beside me in my room, floating above me in the bathtub where I soaked my poor muscles in the hope that heat would ultimately alleviate the pain? He did come with me, pressing the knife of His hand into my back where the split occurred, that invisible wound I carried and became all of me, all-encompassing strange companion of white-lit nerves.
But now: all is forgotten. I sit beside Jared on a sunny terrace overlooking orange-tiled roofs and the green-treed islands of the blue Adriatic. Birds chirp and the breeze is cool. Dubrovnik, Croatia, our city of rest. My body, slowly restored, sign of mini-resurrection.
October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
On a Thursday afternoon I drive north from Dallas, snaking my way through the tangle of concrete dividers, oversize billboards, and fast food restaurants that beleaguer both sides of the highway until I reach the flat plains of Oklahoma and, at last, the dry grasslands of southern Kansas. The grey sky intermittently spits on the windshield. To the west, pale blues and blush pinks smear the horizon. I listen to the wipers rub the glass and drink scalding coffee purchased at a McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere.
What is it about long, quiet road trips, sailing over the flat land, that allows space for thoughts, little scraps of consciousness, to drift into attention? I sip my coffee as the spare country flies past, and think about — what? God, a little. And a memory from the week before, when I awoke in a frigid Colorado campsite to see the mountains encircling the valley crowned with snow. And this time last year, of course, when I first felt the unusual intimations of what would, a few months later, blossom into a full-out illness: Lyme Disease.
I think about how happy I am to be alive, how thankful I am for my health, even as I continue to recover (compared to earlier this year, I am a new woman with only lingering discomfort in my hands, an occasional pinch of pain along my spine). I wonder about the wildness of a world where microscopic bacteria can invade my tissues and make my life a living hell, which in turn causes me to consider God’s place in this beautiful yet dangerous creation. I think about how much I love the book of Job because it acknowledges our human frailty and the ultimate absurdity of our attempts to understand God’s ways — how much more I trust Scripture because of Job’s place in it! Then, I am thinking about suffering, and how reading about Christ’s compassion toward the sick and debilitated while I myself was laid low evoked in me an unadulterated desire for Him to move in me with such healing power.
Lofty thoughts, I suppose, if they were a little more fully-formed. Really, though, they are nothing more than fleeting speculations mixed with a sense of awe at my littleness in the vast expanse of amber and chestnut land extending on all sides, the drizzling rain, the stormy grey clouds, and the God who made it, calling it not just good, but very good.
Good, but certainly not safe. Or perhaps safe in some ways — in the ways that matter (I am thinking here of the lilies of the field). I make my way forward along the dusky road (metaphysical and actual, as the sun sets and I near Wichita). I ease forward with dim understanding, my flakes of consciousness amassing to so much more.
August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
Well, here I am.
Finally, another blog post.
Last week, I turned 26, and a birthday seems as good a reason as any to sidle back to this small (and lately, neglected) corner of the Internet to set down a few of the thoughts bouncing around in my head. After all, what’s the point in having a blog if you don’t use it as an excuse to formulate some of those fleeting ideas that strike you on the drive to work, in the shower late at night, over a beer with a friend, during an overpriced yoga class when you should be focussing but, let’s face it, can’t.
So, here I am.
Last year, I wrote about turning 25. This year, instead of writing about turning 26 (really, it was uneventful in a good way), I’ll share some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately. These ideas have helped me navigate some unfamiliar territories — a new job, the usual relationship drama, my own inner neurosis that have plagued me forever and probably always will (don’t lie, you know you have them, too!).
Maybe these ideas will help you, too. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re kind of interesting. Or maybe you’d rather read something that’s definitely interesting, like that time a few months ago when I got lost in the Himalayas in the dark. Either way, here’s to another year of trying to make it through this weird, confusing, often difficult, but definitely beautiful, world.
A friend once told me that all of life is simply a series of decisions. While I suppose that’s rather reductive, I think he’s onto something. In a given day, we’re required to make a number of decisions, from slightly inconsequential decisions about where to eat lunch to more important decisions about who to date, where to work, and what to believe. Decisions are mandatory, and learning how to make a decision well is a surprisingly useful skill.
But if you’re like me, choices can be paralyzing. Not necessarily whether to eat that second piece of cheesecake (the answer is always, yes, definitely eat it), but whether to live here or there, whether to take this job or that job, whether to befriend this person or that person. What makes these decisions so challenging is not that one choice is the boring but morally correct choice and the other the exciting but morally wrong choice — that’s a different scenario. Rather, both choices offer potentially good outcomes, and choosing one over the other necessarily cuts off a potentially good thing from happening.
In other words, as another friend pointed out, we can expect an element of sorrow in every choice we make, because making a choice by necessity requires losing out on something good.
Why is knowing this helpful? By accepting disappointment and sorrow as a given in every decision we make, we’re empowered to act. We can enjoy the fruit of our decisions while simultaneously realizing that something is lost — and that’s sad. It’s not how it’s meant to be, even if it is that way on this side of heaven.
on going slow
I spent the summer working in a bookstore, and you wouldn’t believe the number of titles piling up on our shelves that are all about slowing down in an age of distraction, in an age of busyness (or maybe you would believe it; busyness is rather endemic in America, after all). All of these books offer something valuable — tips and tricks for leading a less hectic, more meaningful life. But I would like to take the idea of slowing down a bit further.
Often, we find ourselves in situations we don’t like. Maybe it’s a relational situation. Maybe it’s a difficult job. Maybe it’s being fed up with the same old miserable problems day after day. Often, our response to challenging situations like these is to violently end them by lashing out, quitting, or simply shutting down. Sometimes, of course, this needs to happen. But other times, a more prudent, slower response is better.
Lately, I’ve been reading Jesus’ parables (and an excellent book about them: Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson). Jesus’ parable of the fig tree struck me in particular. The fig tree isn’t growing or producing fruit, and it’s owner wants to cut it down in anger and despondency. Instead, however, he decides to give it one more year, puts a bit of manure on it, and waits. Adding the manure is banal. It’s a bit gross. It requires patience to see what happens. But that little bit of manure may make all the difference in a tree that’s barren and a tree that’s ripe with fat, sweet figs.
In the same way, making small adjustments to disagreeable situations and waiting with patience to see what happens is often wiser than shutting something down. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe the same problems will bother you next year. Or maybe, just maybe, that little adjustment was all you needed.
Maybe, you need to go slow.
If you got this far, maybe you’re interested in some of the other things I’ve written lately. I frequently write for The Well, a nonprofit in Oak Cliff that helps those who struggle with mental illness. Here are several of my latest pieces, including one on how pets help the mentally ill and another on the importance of community for the mentally ill.
June 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
All traveling, be it an hour drive to a nearby state park or an overnight flight across the pond, requires taking risks, and traveling to a developing world country requires an especially long list of them. At the top: the risk that you may return home with a little bit of that country hidden away in your gut, in the form of a hungry parasite, perhaps, or an angry bacteria, or a mysterious and terrifying virus that conjures images of doctors wearing hazmat suits while tending to you in a sealed hospital bed.
Less than twenty-four hours after my flight home from South Asia, the symptoms began. Stomach cramping. Bloating. Grumbling. And — ahem, I know it’s gross — some of that pesky traveler’s diarrhea.
I didn’t think too much of it at first. After all, my stomach was adjusting to Western food after two months of rice, lentils, curry, and paneer. Plus, I’d been sick in India. This bout of unpleasantness was probably the lingering remnants of the illness I’d experienced on the banks of the Ganges, dirtiest and most holy of rivers. But a week later, I was still suffering, so I did what you’re supposed to do: I went to the doctor.
I was driving through the busy streets of Dallas when my doctor called. I’d been waiting for his call. I’d undergone a number of tests and was waiting for him to tell me the results. I wasn’t worried. After all, the symptoms were mild. When I’d met with him earlier that week, we’d amicably swapped stories about South Asia while he listened to my colon with his cold, silver stethoscope. The atmosphere was light. I wasn’t feeling great, but I wasn’t feeling terrible either. This upset stomach was just something to nip in the bud. I’d never been seriously ill before; I couldn’t be that sick now.
I pulled off the side of the road and answered my phone.
When my doctor told me the name of the mean bacteria swimming around my gut, it sounded like gibberish to me, like Greek, or Latin, which, of course, it was.
“It’s a serious thing,” he said seriously. I had never heard him sound so serious before. In the span of five minutes, he used the word death more than five times.
“Whatever you do, don’t take an antidiarrheal. It can lead to your death.”
“Whatever you do, don’t drink alcohol while on these antibiotics. It can lead to your death.”
“This bacteria is life threatening.”
“This bacteria is hard to kill.”
I was reminded of those TV commercials for the latest pharmaceutical drugs, where a mysterious man with a low, soothing voice speeds through a list of side effects while a beautiful woman and her equally beautiful golden retriever walk breezily along a sandy beach: side effects may include loss of sight, uncontrollable vomiting, temporary paralysis, oh, and DEATH.
I scribbled everything down on a yellow sticky pad. I asked him the few questions that came to my mind, knowing I would have a million more as soon as I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone and started to cry. I thought: surely I didn’t travel all the way to Mount Everest and back only to die in the suburbs of Dallas. How absurd. How horrifying. How totally unfair.
This is the way of the world: one moment, you’re healthy and carefree; the next, you’re not. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind: so it goes. Joan Didion: life changes in the instant. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: all of life is a preparation for death.
“He said taking an anti-diahreal could lead to my death!” I later explained to my family and friends. “I have diarrhea! Don’t you think I’ve taken an antidiarrheal? Don’t you know I’ve already taken three antidiarrheals this week?!”
I talked about diarrhea a lot over the next month and a half. After a while, it seemed like a normal topic of conversation to me. Of course, every once in a while, a stranger would give me a sideways glance that said, “I don’t care if it could kill you. What makes you think you can talk to me about diarrhea?”
Earlier that week, I’d ordered E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with the intention of learning more about the country I’d recently visited. But when I picked it up in the reserve section of the library and brought it home that day, I found I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t even read the summary on the back of the jacket. Not that I held India responsible for the bacteria producing nasty toxins in my gut. In fact, I still loved India as much then as I did when I was jetting around the country on its fabulously exotic trains. I still planned to return someday. I knew who was responsible: the brutal nature of the natural world. I just didn’t want to be around anything that reminded me of what was happening on my insides.
I wanted to lie in bed all day and watch Woodie Allen films, which were the perfect mix of melancholy and humor. I wanted to take long walks around my neighborhood and soak up the sunshine. I wanted to observe every fat white magnolia blossom and run my hands through the faint mist of every front yard sprinkler. I didn’t want to look up my bacteria on webMD. I wanted to communicate the gravity of my situation to my family and friends, and at the same time, I wanted to remain lighthearted and optimistic. More than anything, I wanted the sharp cramps in my gut to go away. I ferociously, stubbornly wanted to be healthy again.
Now that I’m on the other side of sickness, in the tranquil forgetfulness of health, I wonder if I was being dramatic. It’s a question I can afford to ask now.
But when I woke in the morning to my stomach cramping, when, after the first round of antibiotics, my stomach was still cramping, when the fear that I would suffer from this bacteria chronically, for the rest of my life, ate away at my spirits as much as the toxins ate away at my gut, I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt reasonable when I asked for prayers for healing. I felt smart when I stepped down from various work commitments so I could focus on getting well. But now, in the glow of health, it seems odd that I ever thought I might not get better.
We forget ourselves so easily. I forget what it felt like to run up against that hard fact of life: that I am my body, and without my health, my body doesn’t exist and neither do I. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of resurrection.
When I was sick, everything in my life became urgent. This is the silver lining to every illness: what matters to you becomes razor sharp.
Don’t get me wrong, all illness is bad, being sick is awful, death is not something we were ever meant for. That said: paradoxically, we receive something even in the worst of circumstances.
I don’t want to go to my grave without doing this! Or this! Or that!
I acted out of that urgency. I wrote an old friend to explain how I really felt, a feeling I’d been afraid to voice for years. I took a good hard look at my life right now and decided it would be good, no matter what. I sent spontaneous, thoughtful text messages to friends. I walked around my neighborhood and cried for how beautiful it looks in late spring. I took long hot showers. I bought myself a brand new yoga mat. I read what I wanted to read.
Some of this left me emotionally tired, but in the best way. I suppose it’s good that we don’t experience this kind of urgency all the time, that sometimes we’re complacent and forgetful about what matters.
The weight of constant awareness is exhausting.
Six weeks later, I got the call: I was bacteria free.
I knew it was coming. I had already felt the change in my body: no more cramps in the morning, no more — ahem — diarrhea at night, no more grumbling and bloating after I ate. When friends and family members and well-meaning acquaintances asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’ve never been better!” I always took my health for granted, I said, but health is the best thing we’ve got. You feel so alive after recovering from illness.
But the ghost of that angry bacteria remained with me. One afternoon, I felt a sharp pain in my side, and my mind flashed with fear: could it be back? Could some little microscopic bit have remained, multiplied, and colonized, heaven forbid? It hadn’t, thank God, and for at least that moment, I let go of the fear.
April 27, 2017 § 4 Comments
I go to sleep in India, and in the morning I wake with my stomach roiling, the pain in my belly sharp and hot. I curl on my side, and sleep and sleep and sleep, the voices of my foreign roommates at the hostel in Varanasi close to my ear but far from my conscious. I sit up, nauseous, and curse the hostel for building its toilets three floors above on the hot roof beneath the relentless sun. I think, I’ve never been so violently ill in my entire life, and I wonder if I’ll be well enough to catch my overnight train that leaves in a few hours.
One bumpy Tuk Tuk ride later, my scarf whapping wildly against the metal roof, my backpack balanced on one knee, we are at the train station. We are late, with five minutes until our train departs, and I run after Emma, my legs weak and my chest heaving and my belly tight. In that moment, I’ll admit it: I hate India.
But then we are on the train, and I am lying down with my cheek against the hard leather bed and a crisp off-white sheet laid upon me. Eighteen hours passes fast when you’re exhausted, and the next thing I know, I awake in a pool of sun to the low call of “Chai! Chai!” from an Indian man carrying a metal thermos up and down the aisle. I order two fried potato somosas wrapped in newspaper and manage to keep one down. Then, we pull into Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Suddenly, in the glow of my restored health, India blooms.
In the cool of an early morning, Emma and I catch a Tuk Tuk to a coffee shop in old Jaipur, where a waiter in a fabulous white and green turban with a stiff fabric plume serves us black coffee and French toast and eggs. Full at last and content, we walk at will through the bazaar, and the smells are so good: incense and sweet curd and hot red curry and so so so many flowers, soft red petals stacked in thick layers and strings of yellow marigolds and bunches of purple and orange and pink blooms. Women crowd stalls filled with sparkly bangles, trying them on in layers of six and seven colorful plastic rings jangling up their arms. They ooo and ah and tell me, “look at these, they’d look good on you,” and so I give myself over to the colors of India.
I buy cheap bangles with purple and green and gold rhinestones and peacocks painted on the sides. I buy a long pink and green and silver sequined skirt. I try on a white sari that shimmers like real marble. Emma and I drink Coca Cola in cold glass bottles with an Indian vendor in the shade of his quiet rooftop shop, where we sort through painted carved elephants and bright chunky turbans and slippery silk blouses. The city is painted pink, and I’m falling in love.
On the Tuk Tuk drive back to our hostel, we stop at a red light and a boy, maybe seven or eight, wraps his arms around the metal frame, holding out one open palm and miming the taking and eating of food. His hair is sandy from white dust and his eyes are dark brown. Our Tuk Tuk driver shoos him away and the light turns green.
India is enormous, and another twelve hour overnight train ride west takes us deep into the Rajasthani desert town of Jaisalmer. We arrive at 5 in the morning, when the desert is still dark and quiet and breezy. Manu, the young man who runs the hostel, greets us at the front door and whisks us up three floors to the open air rooftop, where we watch the orange sun rise over the 12th century brown stone fort on the hill. We eat buttered toast and omelettes and drink milky brown chai.
Below us, men and women sleep on flat roofs. They are cocooned lumps in thick mattresses and ratty blankets. Manu sees me staring at them and says, “India is incredible. You can see anything in India.” We stay up there until it gets too hot — which isn’t long once the sun is up — and then we fall into our air conditioned room and sleep off the sleepless night.
We’ve come to Jaisalmer for a camel safari. Emma and I first heard about these safaris when we were in Nepal, and immediately knew we had to go on one.
In the late afternoon, we climb into the back of Manu’s rusty jeep and head further west, into the desert. The sun is a hazy circle of fire in the sky, the air hot and dry, the gravel road bumpy. Manu gives us both cold water bottles, and I press mine against my bare belly, the side of my neck, roll it between my hands. We zip past cacti the size of trees and start seeing the camels, standing about listlessly in the sun, staring at us smugly from the side of the road, plucking the leaves from desert oaks, sleeping with their long necks folded into the sand. I get a quick thrill when Manu tells us we are an hour’s drive from Pakistan. Once again, we are far from home.
Raju and Doola, our camels, are waiting for us at the camel point, a small sandstone village where camels with ropes around their front feet drink muddy water from a stone tank and chew cud with the mangy dogs running circles around their long legs. They are gangly, all knobby knees and fuzzy humps and skinny necks and floppy lips. When I climb onto Raju’s back, he lets out a primordial growl that reminds me of a dinosaur. These creatures are ugly and temperamental; they are also resilient and strong. They carry us in the triple digit heat out onto the sand dunes. The eight-year-old me who always thought camels were cute squeals with joy on the inside even though the ride is hot and uncomfortable, and soon my legs are sore.
The desert is pleasant once the sun sets. We drink chai from tin mugs off a platter on the dunes, watching the sun fall. In the distance, I hear the sound of Doola’s bell clanging as she chews her cud. Below us, a camel man and a camel boy cook curry and rice over a fire. Stray dogs lie on the sand, watching and waiting for a chance to steal our dinner.
Manu sits with Emma and me in silence as the desert grows dark and the first stars appear. There, shining bright is Jupiter. And there, so comforting because I can always see it at home, is Orion’s Belt. We sit on a coarse blanket by the fire in the dark and eat our meal as the fat black beetles scramble across the sand.
Manu and the camel man set up cots padded with thick mattresses up high on the dunes. We drink ice cold Kingfisher beers as he and the camel man serenade us with Rajasthani renditions of “Barbie Girl” and “Buffalo Soldier” and a sad song about an Indian woman who is getting married and must leave her family for good. We ask Manu questions about life in India, and he tells us there is no dating here, which is very hard. “When women don’t have power, men don’t have power,” he says. He tells us he will marry a foreign girl. He tells us he wants to travel, but Jaisalmer is as far as he’s ever been from his village of three hundred people near the Pakistani border. He wants to see the beaches of Goa, maybe, or the mountains of Nepal. Now that he’s no longer a camel man, but works for the hostel, he can save up money. He tells us all this in perfect English, which he began learning only two years ago.
That night, I count six shooting stars and send my wishes up to God. I see lightning flash along the horizon. I feel the cool breeze off the dunes and bury myself in my blanket. I fall asleep, and when I wake a few hours later, the Milky Way is a white river flowing above me. I feel so close to the sky, the dome above, it doesn’t seem real. When the sun rises, the birds chirp and an eagle soars right above us. Far out in the flat desert below the dunes, I see Raju and Doola sleeping with their heads up to the sky.