Thursday, May 24, 2018

Small Moment

I received an email this morning, a response to one I had sent, from a school colleague with whom I work closely. I had thanked this individual for another good year (school, not calendar) of collaboration and expressed my appreciation for what he brought to the table.

His email back, praising my work, brought tears to my eyes and my hand to my heart. I take pride in my job and I am thankful I made a positive impression. I am grateful beyond words that this friend spelled out the qualities he saw in my work.

I am sitting a little straighter and the day, perfectly fine already, just grew a little brighter.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Books, They Keep Coming

There is a quote I keep on my refrigerator:

A book—a real book—is one choice, taken from a pile, opened and entered as its own singular, separate world. Once chosen, you are not holding the constant opportunity to alter and improve your choice, or simply change it just for the sake of restless change. You are there, now, without the relentless pressure of the fact that you could always be, and maybe you should be, maybe you’d be happier or more productive or different, doing something else.

That beautiful line is by KJ Dell'Antonia, a writer and blogger, and as I continue to move through 2018 making my reading choices, I think of her words. (It helps that the quote is where it is, tucked between photos of Ramona, Warren, and others: I see it every single day.)

So what have I made my "one choice" lately? Here are the titles that have moved from "waiting" to "done" since last time:
87. Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown by Laura Hilgers (this nonfiction work follows a Chinese family from rural China to New York City because of political activities by the husband)
88. Works and Days by Hesiod/new translation by A. E. Stallings (I learned of this poem when I first read Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but it took me almost 50 years to read it; the translation is beautiful)
89. Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy Butcher (Amy teaches at Ohio Wesleyan, here in Delaware, and this is her account of a close college friend who committed murder, was found guilty, and incarcerated; Butcher threads her way through the friendship in college, the murder, her guilt over her life moving on post-college while his shrank to a prison cell, her realization that she blocked from her thoughts the reality that a young woman died, and coming to grips with the trauma that his violent act and the aftermath caused her)
90. High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen (what went wrong with the public housing movement in Chicago in the 1950s forward, this is a disheartening and hard look at how we (we the people, we the nation) have failed, from the outset and sometimes deliberately, to take care of the least of us in society)
 91. Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirsten Chen (set in 1950s China, this novel looks at the age old question: what happens when a parent escaping to a new land has to leave a child behind?)
92. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (I had forgotten how much I loved this novel and how carefully Walker structured it until I reread it for the first time in three decades)
93. Dreamland: The True Story of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones (Mexican black tar heroin, Oxycontin pushed by Purdue Pharma, and Portsmouth, Ohio as Ground Zero of an epidemic that we in this community deal with daily)
94. Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith (Smith is the present Poet Laureate of the United States and this book of her recent work shows why)
95. The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison (Jamison's memoir of her years as an alcoholic, her attempts at sobriety, alcoholism and drug addiction treatment, writers who were also alcoholism, and how hard sobriety is; as the ex-wife of someone who was an active alcoholic during almost all of our marriage, this book brought up lots of painful moments of recognition)
96. Circe by Madeline Miller (a novelization of the story of Circe, the Greek witch, told from her viewpoint, this had an absolutely stunning ending that I did not see coming until almost the very last paragraph)
97. Meet The Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living by Elizabeth Willard Thames (I have been following the Frugalwoods online for many months and was delighted that Elizabeth (Mrs. Frugalwoods) wrote a book about how she and her husband became the Frugalwoods; I enjoy reading books about frugality and lifestyle changes—I am always challenged to try to trim our budget and lifestyle a bit more after such a read)
98. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How To Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson (although this book has been getting a lot of hype, I found it tedious, cutesy, and preachy, perhaps because I find myself becoming more ruthless about getting rid of stuff, which is the whole point of the book)

For the first time in several weeks, I have read all the library books I have in the house (they come in waves). Fear not: I have some coming in tomorrow or Friday at the latest.

The books, they keep coming.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Staking A "Now"

It has been a long winter on the physical front and there has been a lot of time for reflection on what that means for me. Hours of face to face conversations with those close to me about my health have been revealing. Conversations-written or spokenhelp me sort out and clarify my own thoughts. Hearing or reading their responses to what I say or don't say (or refuse to say) helps me hone my feelings even more.

Writing them down and hitting "Publish" is the ultimate clarification process.

So here are some of my thoughts, starting with the short summing up of what 2018 has so far held on the medical front. 2018 held surgery to repair a torn peroneal tendon (ankle area). I'm now in a brace and in physical therapy, but it has been a long haul. 2018 held a cancer marker that last month was way out of line with the last several months, so much so that both of my oncologists called for a retest. (It returned to its previous stable level.) And 2018 held a viral infection that began on March 13 and is still lingering in me. (I know when it started because I was at an all-day conference, presenting twice, and knew when I left that I was "getting something." Boy, was that an understatement.)

Here's the reality of where I am. At some point, the problematic marker (the M-spike) is going to rise and stay up. There is still something going on inside me and while that may well be viral-driven (I'm beginning to think I will never shake this virus entirely), at some point it will spill into the cancer realm. I hold close a hard but true real statement from Atul Gawande's beautiful book Being Mortal about people with incurable cancers: "[they] can do remarkably well for a long time...They resume regular life. They don't feel sick. But the disease, while slowed, continues progressing, like a night brigade taking out perimeter defenses." This whole episode with the virus tells me there have been breaches and they are probably major ones.

Then there is the aftermath of the viral attack. Well, it is an ongoing aftermath because I am still coping with it. The worst of it has receded. But I still have a resistant sore throat in the evening and significant exhaustion. By early evening, I am "done." I just last week managed to last 24 hours at work for the first time since early February. Early February. (I am hired to work only 24 hours, so don't think I have to reach 30 or 40.) I am not 100% back to how I felt earlier this year, and certainly not to where I was last fall, and I am having to come to grips with the realization that I may never attain that level of well-being again.

All this means I have to redefine what being "well" means for me. I have to redetermine whether I will ever be "that well" (like last fall) again. I am taking more time on everything I do. I have no choice. My body is incapable of doing or giving more for now. Making the mental adjustment as to where I am physically is hard, let alone dealing with "and this may be the best it ever is" thought. I have found that doing small deliberate taskswriting a letter, peeling and slicing carrots for lunchwhen I am feeling lousy physically allows me to center myself and crawl out from under some of the oppressive weight of feeling sick. While doing those deliberate tasks does not make me well, I feel calmer and by extension better by the time I finish.

Going back to Being Mortal (that may be a reread this year), Gawande talks about the "difficult conversation" that doctors and chronically and progressively ill patients need to have. Gawande feels they need to discuss four questions. (1) What is your understanding of what is happening to you (physically, medically)? (2) What are your biggest fears and concerns about what is happening? (3) What goals are most important to you? (4) What trade-offs are you willing or not willing to make (to reach goals set in #3)?

I find the longer I live with cancer, the longer my list of trade-offs I am unwilling to make grows. I also realize the longer I go down the road towards the end, the more choices I make about burning life energy. For example, the Symphony just finished its 39th season with a spectacular concert and we held a post-concert reception late into the night. (And had friends from out of town staying with us to boot that weekend.) I was up late, running on adrenaline, burning life energy, and was wiped out for the next two daysand I did not regret one bit of it. In August, Warren and I are going west to see Ramona & Company. Do I have that trip in me even with Warren coming along? I don't know. But we will go for lots of reasons, love and family being behind every single one of them. I will pay a price physically for that trip. But I will pay it willingly. Freely. With both hands open.

As I share my thoughts and feelings with those close to me, there have been heartfelt responses. My friends are standing around me, surrounding me with love and support. My dear friend Margo showed up the Monday before the concert (and the out-of-town guests) and helped clean my house thoroughly, as cleaning had totally gone off the radar. As I said on Facebook: A good friend says "what can I do to help?" and means it. A great friend says "what can I do to help?" and means it, then shows up with the Dyson in hand. My dear friend Katrina, who has been in my life for almost 44 years, was sitting at the kitchen table when I called my oncologist to get the results of the M-spike retest. After I finished the happy phone call, I looked over and she had tears in her eyes. We held hands for a moment, grateful for the good news, grateful for the love and friendship between us. And Warren, who is always, always aware of our increasingly limited time together, listens to me with love and thoughtful responses, even when his eyes fill with tears and his voice breaks.

We are all thinking about time.

Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (another book I plan on rereading this year) wrote:"This year, I want to stick a net into time and say 'now,' as men plant flags on the ice and snow and say 'here.'" That resonates deeply with me as I contemplate how fast time is slipping through my fingers.  And then, there are these beloved words by Thoreau that I often think back to: "Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom  and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper, fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars."

As spring belatedly arrived in Ohio a few weeks ago, it was finally warm enough to venture outside and sit on the deck step. As I sat there, I was acutely aware of time, of its thin current sliding away. This may be my last spring: who is to say? Like Annie Dillard, I want to plant a stake in the flow of life and say "now." I want to plant a flag and say "here." So I sat there and admonished myself not to toss aside that achingly incredible moment: the sound of spring peepers in the air, a robin hopping stiff-legged in the grass, the sun on my face.

Now. Here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Small Moment

I am presently reading (what else is new?) Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. Ohio has been hit very hard by the opiate epidemic, not only from the trafficking coming out of Mexico but also from pill mills (Ohio was an early national leader in the creation and proliferation of those, although this state has since passed legislation regulating them), so the topic is of great interest to me.

Over breakfast this morning, Warren asked what he thought was an innocuous question: why Dreamland? (I had previously mentioned that Dreamland was a massive swimming/recreation complex in Portsmouth, Ohio, back in the old days.) How does that tie into the topic of the book?

Well, that set me off on a discursive discussion of the book: the title, the author's style, the history of opium, late nineteenth century patent medicines, Mexican ranchos, how Quinones got interested in this story, what Dreamland meant to Portsmouth, and so on.

Then I looked down at my bowl of oatmeal and said "and now my breakfast is getting cold. I better stop talking and start eating."

Warren looked at me. "I was almost ready to say 'all right, April' to get you off the book."

I smiled as I dug a spoon into oatmeal. "But I was talking about books. And books are more important than food. At least to me."

Thomas Jefferson famously said  "I cannot live without my books." I cannot either. And thank you, my dear Warren, for understanding that.

Friday, May 4, 2018

April Finances

April is over; one third (one third!) of the year is behind us. I have tallied the receipts and am ready to share our household numbers as I continue to track our 2018 spending on groceries (food and household items such as detergent) and eating out.

April contained extra expenditures that I will comment on where they fit. As I mentioned in March, there was a trip to Mayo Clinic, and that always adds additional expenses to our month. We had an end-of-Symphony-season reception at our house, another expense. My dear friend Katrina came for that weekend, insisting on buying reception items (including food) and meals out, and that had a positive impact on our bottom line. (I don't count gifts into our overall expenditures as no money comes out of our pockets.)

In April, Warren and I spent $160.94 on groceries (food) and $29.55 on household items (such as toilet paper and laundry detergent) for a total of $190.49. That figure is higher than the $175.00/month that I'm aiming for in 2018, but lower than the $200.00/month that I consider my cap. The first four months of 2018 averaged come to approximately $160.00 each month, so I think hitting $175.00 a month is well within reach. There was one grocery trip that Katrina went along and insisted on buying. It was not a huge trip, but it still kept those dollars out of our overall expenditures.

Back in March, I estimated that we could pull off the reception for $75.00. We spent $32.03 buying items (some food and a lot of paper items). Katrina arrived in Ohio and insisted on shopping at Costco en route to Delaware and I arrived home from an all-afternoon training to find the fridge full (Tuxedo cake! A veggie tray! Prosecco!), my counters full (Rolls! Napkins! Plates!) and my dear friend grinning at me. I don't know how much Katrina spent but, again, as a gift, her dollars did not roll into our estimates. (Note: I still think I could have pulled the reception off for under $75.00, especially since I would have not bought Prosecco.)

Our eating out expenses, apart from the Mayo trip, were $22.13.  Again, there were some meals out that we did not count: one on a gift card from a grateful friend for some support at a difficult time, a lunch and then a dinner courtesy of Katrina. The $22.00 is what we spent out of our pockets, excepting the Mayo trip.

I have tallied the Mayo trip separately, just to give you an idea of what it entails. The Mayo Clinic is located in Rochester, Minnesota, which is south of Minneapolis. It is 660 miles from here to there, so the round trip is 1320 miles. Because we drive older cars, we have started renting cars for the trip. The trip requires at least one night in a hotel in Rochester. And, of course, there is gasoline, as well as meals. We go to Mayo quarterly , so this is just a built-in expense for which I now plan and set aside money.

This trip was a little different because we had two hotel stays: one in Rochester and one in Beloit, Wisconsin. We almost always break up our trip by spending a night, either coming or going, in Madison, Wisconsin, with family, or sometimes a night at a family-owned condo in Oak Park, Illinois. This trip, though, because of the oppressive viral infection I was struggling with and the accompanying acute discomfort, we ate with our family in Madison and then drove on down the road.

Here is the breakout on the Mayo trip:

  • Car rental: approximately $303.00 (Warren prudently insists upon buying the collision rider, and that adds to the final figure)
  • Hotel (2 nights): $197.35 (This could have been lower had we preplanned the second night and reserved it earlier, but we put it off hoping I'd be better and we'd stay with family)
  • Gas: $111.13
  • Food (Thursday through Saturday): $49.35 (Why so low? Because on Thursday, when we drove straight through to Rochester, we ate a hasty breakfast at home before leaving at 5:00 a.m., ate a packed lunch on the road, and then ate dinner with family (our treat; we split an entree and I am counting that cost only in this figure). Breakfasts were free with hotel. We bought lunch at Friday in the Mayo cafeteria, we ate a home cooked meal with family Friday night in Madison, and bought a lunch on Saturday, being home in time for supper. Supper may have been something out of the freezer.)
  • Gifts: about $94.00: $37.79 (chocolates for Madison); $53.00 (dinner Thursday night treating family, less our shared entree, figured in above)

Total road trip cost: $758.00 more or less.

So that was April. I have reset the counter for May and I'll revisit this topic again the first few days of June.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Line 'Em Up, Knock 'Em Down

This is concert week: our Symphony closes out its season this Saturday evening. Concert weeks are packed no matter when the time; this one is extra full because of the programming, the guest artist (astronomer/visual artist), the activities planned around the guest artist, an after-concert reception, and on and on. My weekend will be extra special because my longtime close friend Katrina is flying in from Miami to spend time with me and close out the season. In fact, I just finished putting the guest bedroom (well, both of them, actually, because we have another friend/colleague staying overnight on Saturday) and feel that I can now let out a sigh and say "come on in."

And yes, I am still recovering from the viral infection that knocked me for a loop. I am almost back to work at my full schedule (24 hours a week) but I still have to measure out carefully my energy and my daily activities. I rest a lot. It has been a humbling experience, to say the least.

However, one benefit of all that downtime in my reading continues unabated. Here are the latest additions to the done list:
78. Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad by Krystal A. Sital (a memoir of three generations of women and not only the secrets they kept, but the secrets that were revealed when the patriarch, the author's grandfather, became debilitated and the stories started to flow)
79. Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, The Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich (the author of Nickel and Dimed, among other works, turns her keen eye and caustic pen on the inevitability of death, no matter what we do, in large part because of the cells that make up our bodies; Ehrenreich has a PhD in cellular biology, incidentally)
80. Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History by Yunte Huang (a breezy and insightful history of Chang and Eng, truly the original Siamese twins, and their unlikely history in this country)
81. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (this novel follows a Nigerian woman from birth to, well, I'm not sure, told by the multiple identities within her)
82. I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death by Maggie O'Farrell (these are the author's seventeen brushes with death, from being almost hit by a car as a young child to an encounter with a murderer; Plath fans will recognize the source of the title)
83. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (a novel about feminism in the 21st century, where does one's loyalties lie, when does one break from an icon who puts pragmatism before ideals, and how do we define love—Wolitzer pulls it off)
84. Political Tribes: Group Instincts and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua (my youngest brother, whose politics differ from mine, called me up after hearing Chua interviewed and asked me if I'd be interested in reading this and discussing it; for those of us on all sides of the political spectrum who shudder at the polarization of this nation, Chua offers both a warning of what could happen if we don't close the gap and some commonsense suggestions on how to begin that long, hard process)
85. The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone (I'd never heard of David Fairchild before reading this book, but his life work indeed fulfills the title of the book)
86. The House of Erzulie by Kirsten Imani Kasai (vodou, bloodlines, African-American Gothic: a novel set in our time but reaches back to Louisiana in the 1850s through letters and diaries)

I just started #87 tonight.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Small Moment

I was walking out of the drugstore when someone called out to me.


I turned and there was a young man, striding towards me, a grin on his face. He looked familiar; I could not pull up the name.

When he told me, I exclaimed loudly, "Oh my gosh, look at you!"

He blushed and grinned broadly. We'd met at Juvenile Court several years ago when he was court involved. This is the first time I'd seen him since then.

He stood there catching me up. Working. Got his driver's license. Hasn't graduated from high school but is chipping away at it. He shrugged at that one: "I let some stuff get in the way."

I asked him how old he was. He's 19 now. (Another gasp from me. How did he get to be 19?) I told him how great it was to see him. I told him he looked happy and pulled-together.

He laughed. "Yeah, I learned to let things go." He ran his hand across his large Afro. "See, when bad thoughts that get me down come my way, I just let them go by. That's why I keep my hair like this—so they can just whoosh right over me."

After a few more words and a shared laugh, he turned to go into the store and I headed to my car, marveling.

I've been at Juvenile Court for a little over seven years now. I've come into contact with a wide range of kids. Most of them I interact with briefly at best. I hear about some of them through court grapevines: which ones made it, which ones are struggling, which ones we lose. So when a young person that I have worked with crosses my path and has clearly moved forward in positive ways, I am thrilled and encouraged and uplifted, all at once.


I am still smiling.