December 30, 2008
“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”
– Walt Whitman (from my journal, April 19, 2008)
I am married to a saint. This is a blessing as you’d expect, except when it causes me to detest myself. At first it was merely wonderful, in the original sense of the word. It filled me with a joyous wonder. He always does the thing one is supposed to do! He honestly doesn’t resent anyone! He puts himself last! He suffers on behalf of others!
I, however, come from a legacy of selfishness that ran a brutal unbroken streak until I hit twenty. My boyfriend at the time, also shatteringly polite (I have a type and it’s not just angular cheekbones and spare frames), told me: “You are selfish.” He wasn’t one for wasted or flung words (or, really, words at all, in English), so this was like having an anvil or piano dropped on my psyche. It was an absolute truth. I was selfish. I was horrible. I had been a horrible child. Even now I hate to think about my childhood, not for shock of its traumas and loneliness but from how odious a wretch I was. I wasn’t murdering small animals or anything, but I was definitely taking the last cookie on the plate.
So I decided to get better. This is not a goal for a week or a season, but one of de-programming oneself entirely–years and years of work. And I am better. I pledge that to you. But I am not a saint.
Right around the first week of April I started thinking too much about this saintliness. April. That’s when the magnolia tree finally flowered, the doctor gave me an answer, we considered the oreodont, and I started hating myself just a little bit.
So, first, there’s this deciduous magnolia tree in our yard. It is not your ordinary deciduous magnolia tree, because, first, there are no ordinary deciduous magnolia trees (though certain evergreen varieties are forgettable). I can’t get beyond thinking that magnolia trees are a downright miracle–call me treacly if you will–blooming those dainty petals right there against the background of bare sticks before the tree has leafed out or the winter has even given any sort of indication that it’s okay to embark on such a delicate project. It seems very risky and bold.
Our magnolia tree was a secret. We bought our house mid-winter, when all of the trees in our small but complicated yard were in their cold states, admitting nothing. I had my hunch, my hope, when I saw its outsized buds, but I wasn’t vindicated until March of that first year. It blew up satisfyingly like popcorn and then juiced our sidewalk with banana-peel-slick leaves that the neighborhood joggers swore over as they flailed past. Its flowers were pure white.
As it turns out, it’s not just my obsession. A visiting arborist, ostensibly here to deal with our needy oak, our flagging black locust, begged us to let him groom the magnolia. It was, he said, not just any magnolia. It was the best specimen in the entire neighborhood. Everyone knows about this magnolia. He remembers our house not for its aged abundance of leaning, difficult, intrusive, scarred trees, but for this magnolia. If he was not allowed to relieve it of its overabundance of watersprouts and bring more light to its inner places, the world we be a sadder place. How could we deny this?
Last year my anticipation of the blooms started early, in December. In early January, before I knew how things were going to unfold in my life, I watched it from the second-story hallway window and felt satisfied. I fancied I could just see the earliest buds. In late January, after I knew how things were going to unfold in my life, my outlook changed a bit. By the time the magnolia bloomed, I promised myself, this would all be over–analysis, surgery, recovery. It would be an after-gift to my foreseen suffering.
But by mid-March I wasn’t settled. I was still making unplanned appearances in emergency rooms. The winter buckled down and the last week of March was the coldest ever on record. The magnolia, which had been desperately close to bursting forth, waited. Finally it dared to open up, during the same week that I had my own fate sealed.
The first day of April involved jettisoning everything inside me. This was the third time I’d endured this and it had lost some of its horror. For those uninitiated in bowel procedures, it goes something like this. Eat mostly nothing for days leading up to this day. Then liquids only. And only certain approved liquids. At noon or so on the day before whatever it is that will be done to you is to be done, you whip up a half gallon of powder-based drink that is part industrial poison, part cosmic punishment and part antifreeze. You drink this and it causes your food tubes to ditch their contents post haste. You spurt with gusto. I’ll hearken back to that antifreeze reference because it is apt. I had noticed during previous experiences that I got uncontrollable chills. So very cold. This time I took my temperature and it was 94.8F. You move so much fluid through your system so fast that you turn into a human radiator. For a few hours I was liquid cooled.
The second day of April was both the saint’s birthday and another trip to the hospital. This one was planned. Routine: change clothes, IV, drip, roll into procedure room. This time, due to recent improvements in panic level, I didn’t have to be as sedated beforehand and I remember every single thing until they flipped the sleep button and every single thing after they did whatever they do to wake me up again. Seriously, it went like this: Asleep, awake, Dr. Gravitas shows me an alarming photo of my insides and said it meant I had Crohn’s, unplugs me; I dress, then take Mr. Pencil to a birthday dinner at a Peruvian restaurant and an evening at the current installation of Cirque du Soleil. It was a rather unique day.
On the third day of April I started to take the right drugs for my confirmed condition. And suddenly I felt great. Maybe that was just the steroids, but I also think it was the glowing absence of misery.
Really, it was sudden. One day things hurt and I was exhausted, the next I remembered why it was I liked to be alive. Most of these things that make me happy were included in the superbly-timed trip Mr. Pencil and I took to Condon, Ore., the following weekend. Like someone who starved of input I started up my vacuum again. There were magical things in the north-central wheat hills of Oregon. Immense wind turbines that had a sentient feel to them. The faintest tug of spring, followed immediately by an arctic gust. Weather that kept us guessing. Ghost towns and railroad sidings, and much landscape of nowhere.
I wanted simultaneously to be an expert at dryland wheat farming, a geologist, a master of American History (I was reading a pre-release review copy of a book about the women in Franklin Roosevelt’s life and I was taking it very seriously), a commentator, a competent photographer. I spent an hour picking through small rocks at the visitor center at the John Day Fossil Beds, considering my paling memories of college course about such things. We hiked and looked for lithified, ancient leaves. I bought a book about local botany and started to try to identify everything. We probably saw wildlife–we always do on these trips. I looked out and took things in. I drew bad pictures of ponderosa pine** in my journal and sketched down proportions of minerals in the local basalt. I was very, very happy.
But at the same time, a niggle. A little distracting thing I kept trying to bury, the kind of blemish angsty rock stars sing about. Why couldn’t I behave myself? The selfishness, the obliviousness to human nuance, was coming back! I panicked! I caught myself acting boorish with sudden, alarming frequency. I kept accidentally insulting a hotel clerk or alienating an acquaintance, missing cues and interrupting. With David I was safe from these blunders but my interactions with everyone else were weird, forced. I found myself feeling uncomfortable even around close friends. Awkward silences and stutterings. And more than anything, I just kept saying the wrong goddamned things. I would hear myself talking, it was like an out-of-body experience. I’d be staring at myself at a party, watching myself spout utter idiocy at someone, waving my own metaphorical arms wildly at myself to get my attention, to shut myself up. And yet I would keep going like an unstoppable mudslide of stupid. This is an awful fate.
“Why am I so bad?” I wrote in my journal in mid-April. “Why am I so bad yet at the same time cursed enough to know that I am bad? How can I be good?” The entry trails off into a piqued mess of pen strokes.
My husband continued to behave impeccably. He was tireless when I was tired or sick, bringing soup and patience. He herded and soothed both sides of our family with a shephard’s mastery. He said gracious things to hosts of dinner parties and asked thoughtfully after vacations and home improvement projects. I did none of these things, or when I did I managed to sound insincere. To sound insincere when one is sincere is an awful fate, too.
To distract myself I kept on reading. April was Julius Caesar and studying the structure of poems, a tedious bout with Theodore Dreiser and several escapist novels. But maybe it was in the aim of spiritual self-improvement that I read, towards the end of the month, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. In any case, it didn’t work. I didn’t improve.
I’d managed to avoid awkwardness in my teen years. But it struck like a childhood disease, like chicken pox, relatively low in threat for children, but a dire situation for grownups. I was sick with it, feverish, 30 years old. And nothing seemed to help.
And the magnolia? It didn’t end like I’d envisioned. It was too cold, the winter had been too cruel. The buds had been blighted before they could even open up, damaged, sick. Within a day of their frail unfurling they bruised brown and fell off. What I had been waiting for all winter was just a pile of dead petals.
* See photo.
** Ponderosa pines (pinus Ponderosa) were so named by David Douglas (of all people) because they are heavy–ponderous, if you will. I noted this in my journal right above several stick-fishes*** and the word ANADROMOUS**** in all caps, underlined.
*** Can you describe simple drawings of fish as stick-fish?
**** Anadromous fish live in the ocean but spawn in fresh water. Think salmon.
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