Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Oh hi there

Friends. I have been unsure how to re-enter this space. It seems a little rude to drop "Got a brain tumor, see you soon!" on the webs and not check back in. The surgery went great. They got 95% percent of the thing, which was beautiful and absurd. My recovery has been somewhat uneventful. Things are *quite* good, all things considered, and I really mean that.

At the same time, the healing process in my experience is very slow and long and mysterious. A friend of mine who went through a terrible thing said people give you about six months, then they want you back to normal. I don't quite feel that way - having brain surgery is sort of a built-in Back Off! I'd like to meet the person who's like, "What's your problem? Snap out of it!" after you get a metal plate in your head. And, but, etc, etc, there is a lot on the surface of life that I have snapped out of pretty quickly, which can sometimes be difficult for everyone including me to remember what I've been through. (A week after getting out of the hospital, I went with Tim to pick up the kids at school and got horrified looks. What are you doing here?! You should be on your death bed! they seemed to say.)

There's so much to recount and I am filtering so many things through this experience, some quite banal. I still spend a lot of time resting and walking and doing whatever I want. I don't really feel like breaking down my vestibular schwannoma (my band name, like My Morning Jacket) or its medical effects in this space, but my balance is back to about 85% percent. I still regularly run into the trash can from all angles but in fairness to me, that thing pulls out of a special nook in the kitchen and Ellis also slams into it frequently. He's running in to share his fabulous and surprising announcements -"Hey, look!" ... "Did you know...?" ... etc etc - so much daily abundance and instantaneous miracles - and whack, a new little bruise.

Frankly, I am not sure how to talk about what I've been through yet (not unlike
Chris Rock after Will Smith gave him that slap. Wink!). I'm not shy about what I've been through, but I also feel like, wow, that's a lot to summarize. I have had some new ideas about how to move forward with this space. In some ways, I'd like it to be more of a reflection on the challenges of life. Then I'm like, wow, that sounds like a lot of work.

In short, I don't know what I want and I'm sitting in a lot of uncertainty. However, that's pretty much always been my cozy spot. One of the big reliefs I felt after my diagnosis was that certain life choices - which may have appeared a little crazy but always helped me feel like myself - now feel doubly blessed. If the tumor had been malignant, this whole journey would have a WAY different flavor, but I'm not sure how many regrets I'd have. Yet something like this can't help but influence how I move forward. I'm asking myself lately, what really matters? what do I really need?

One of the somewhat devastating things about having a brain tumor is how inherently unfunny the topic is. When I was diagnosed, it felt like one of my biggest defense mechanisms was whisked away. It was hard to be the barer of the news, I have a brain tumor! I'm not out of the woods yet (fun fact: no one is?) but the surgery was majorly successful. From here, as we all do, I see what happens. Does the remaining bit grow back? Does it sit tight? What do I do now? What changes, if any, do I make? 

I return again and again to how truthful religious texts I've studied throughout my life have been. (Not necessarily the religious people, lol. Human foibles are real, including my own.) Across traditions, I have welcomed teachings on impermanence and acceptance and trust in ethereal things, and I now find those teachings bedrocks of my sanity. It's not that life is or was ever easy - even without medical crises of this size - but I come back to these teachings now, in what has turned out to be not a dress rehearsal for me.

Here's one from Pema Chodron in her book When Things Fall Apart, which is a comically dramatic title that sums up not only when sh*t gets real but also how a standard Tuesday can go awry:

"We don't deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity."

This winter, I found myself saying the following to my friend: "It can be useful to think about death every day." She laughed which I appreciated because it's both true and delightful. The gift of a tumor is its holographic skeleton behind your days? Maybe. Having a brain tumor has, unfortunately, given a little gravitas to the things I've been trusting all along. Did I manifest this tumor as the ultimate practice for myself? I don't think so, but it does feel like I've been training for this moment for awhile.

And now, for funsies and the strong of heart, I am going to display before and after photos of my incision. The scar has faded even more than when these photos were taken in December. Do I feel like a Bad-A Mofo? Absolutely.

So far, my physical health is holding strong but it is fair to say I'm having several existential crises: first as a mother rediscovering the gifts of being here to care for my kids and also as an artist. How do you say the meaningful thing? When do you share and when do you study something further, listening to its secrets? Where does humor deflect and where does it illuminate? I am pondering these questions, along with the perennial one of what's for dinner. In some ways I am right where I've always been, but the rooms look a little different now.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Getting There

The other day, Ellis was ready for school an hour before we needed to leave. He sat on the couch with a tray on his belly, crayon at the ready for entertainment, and he watched the digital clock. "We're getting there!" he said confidently, a marvelous statement of fact. Yes, I agreed, we're certainly getting there.

All summer, I worked on some essays and was deep in the books. As we got out of doors and into the sun, blogging was not something I felt the need to do. Then, in September, I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. "Are we writing about brain tumors on the internet?" I asked a friend. "Yes," she wrote back. "We are."

I had had some hearing loss, so I went to an ENT, who ordered an MRI. At the end of the summer, I took the test. As they were taking me out of the tube, a technician came and put me back in. As he explained that the doctor just wanted a few more tests, I knew then that they had seen something. After a few weeks of voicemails and computer messages and hold calls, I learned from some very kind people that I had a benign tumor on my vestibular nerve. It is too big to radiate and so odd to contemplate. My feelings about it change by the week but, mostly, I just want it removed. It is close to my facial nerve, a sobering fact of which the doctors have been uber-conscious. I have surgery scheduled to remove it in December and have been told that this nerve is at the top of their concerns.

It's safe to say that my sense of security has been shaken, but I really believe that this is a good thing. Books by Buddhist teachers have been piled on my shelves, which I find helpful for life in general--and especially parenting. A diagnosis like this, I realized quickly, is difficult to joke your way through. Instead, I've tried to be with the gravity as compassionately as possible, accepting all that arrives.

I was going to write a little post but instead I think I'll just list the art I've waded through all these months that I've been absent. I bathed myself in Brideshead Revisited this spring (hello, outstanding turquoise cover). I read Julie Klam's latest and have Ann Patchett's newest book of essays on my desk. Tim and I went on a Thomas Vinterberg binge this spring after Another Round was up for an Oscar. I think he's worth watching for the dark Danish interiors alone (although you can absolutely skip his first effort). For two nights, Tim tried an Updike novel around that time, too, after reading an interesting critical piece about it. The book hit him in the face both nights. Who needs Ambien, we joked, when you have Updike?

On the suggestion of a friend I read Beyond Birds & Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality, by Bonnie J. Rough, about sex education in the Netherlands and I highly recommend. As most nonfiction books about science can be, it's a little repetitive but the takeaway for me is that Dutch children who learn about their bodies and sex from infancy become young adults who have less teen pregnancy, fewer STDs, and a way healthier attitude about intimacy in general than the fear-based curriculum in other countries.

Sometime this summer, I read an Ethan Hawke novel. Tim passed by with a load of laundry in his arms and said, "I feel a Sut Nam post coming on." I thought so, too, and then did nothing. Maybe I was gardening or going to the beach? Maybe Ethan Hawke isn't as influential as one would hope?  

I hope to update this space somewhat more frequently but I also hold space for my turtle-like tendencies. They are something I've been embracing since my diagnosis and it feels pretty good.

I hope the news in your corner is far less dramatic these days. Sending love across the webs,


Monday, April 5, 2021


But the Victorian manner is perhaps - I am not sure - a disadvantage in writing. When I read my old Literary Supplement articles, I lay the blame for . . . their politeness, their sidelong approach, to my tea-table training. I see myself, not reviewing a book, but handing plates of buns to shy young men and asking: do they take cream and sugar?                                                                 - from "A Sketch of the Past" by Virginia Woolf (in Moments of Being)

A few months ago, I was putting on my shoes and Ellis said, "Where are you going?" I started to answer, "I have to go . . . "
then drifted off, forgetting to finish my sentence. He did it for me. "To the Dollar Tree?" he said. It was such a sad, sweet glimpse into our lives, I wrote it down to memorialize the days when I did not leave the house, the weeks when my children refused to get in the car. Things are much better now that we can legitimately go outside for hours at a time, when daffodils push through the ground and Ellis takes the air after lunch while upright in our turquoise hammock, a cat balanced on the edge of sleep, a little Buddha in the sun. Tim and I have both been vaccinated and I'm dreaming now of cross-continental trips.   

A few weeks ago, Samantha said, "Our bathroom looks like a haunted house." I laughed and she said, "What's so funny?" She was not teasing me for my embrace of dust bunnies, but trying accurately to summarize the state of things. It really did look like a haunted house, dirt-filled corners and cobwebs around light bulbs. The day a spider tried to build its web in the middle of my shower, that was enough for us to finally clean.

This winter was a revelation. It was so cold some days that we could not go outside. Samantha's teachers led her through meditation exercises, and while I've always felt it was a little silly to teach a child to be more free, more awake to their "essential nature," when Samantha one day noticed me yelling, she sweetly offered this advice: "Maybe you could try some of my breathing exercises, Mama." I paused, ready to dismiss them as flimsy stand-ins, and then realized that she was right. I could not have a four-day yoga retreat, but a minute with my own thoughts was more than called for.

Around the same time, we started watching Mr. Rogers on DVD, and I doubled down by watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood with Matthew Rhys (and Tom Hanks, whose name is a bit of a dirty word in our house) by myself. I find Matthew Rhys so emotive, I could watch him sleep, and made Tim re-watch The Post just to see Rhys on screen again. This led to a re-watch of Spotlight, which I loved as much as The Post when I first saw it. From there it was on to Dark Waters, and more Mark Ruffalo, about the corporate defense attorney who went after Dupont after they covered up toxic pollution for decades.   

I re-read Gatsby, enthralled by its language, its dialogue, and its terrible plot point about Gatsby and Tom switching cars at the end. I also felt pretty bad about myself as a writer while reading and teased myself all day long: Oh yes, poor you, you aren't Fitzgerald. Tim sat through a re-watch of Redford with dewy-eyed Mia Farrow in the 1974 production, in which Bruce Dern absolutely crushes every scene he's in. Tim: "The reason he's so appealing is because he's so Bruce Dern, but he's younger and therefore mesmerizing." I disagree. There is something so handsome but rattish about Dern as Tom, I can't look away and believe I would feel the same, even if I didn't know his later work. We then lobbed the name "Bob" around the house for days, as if we were bffs with Redford. While watching, I said, "Is Redford a terrible actor?" Tim said, "Yes, but he's trying less than someone like Costner, so you don't notice it as much."

I remembered the article Tim had once mentioned, "Was Gatsby Black?", in which an academic reads as if Jay is passing as a white man, an idea I found pretty fascinating. Then I got to the end of the book and realized how much it is, in fact, about the Midwest. What seems to be about New York and east coast greed and elegance in fact leads you to this passage at the end:

"One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went further than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o'clock of a December evening. . . .When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows . . . That's my Middle West - not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns . . ."

Here's the end of that paragraph:

"I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all - Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life."

When I read those lines, I forgot all about the passing-as-white theory. While so much textual evidence is there - if not authorial intent - I found myself recasting the narrative in a caul of Midwestern literature and couldn't go back. 

Also, near the last page of Gatsby, I marveled at Fitzgerald's outrageous use of an adverb: "On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone."

Raspingly?!?!? I'm embarrassed when I use the word "quietly" to indicate the volume with which a character says something. It seems I've been missing all the fun.

I'm having trouble recalling all that I read this winter. I've been enjoying Jerald Walker's How to Make a Slave and Other Essays and was so happy to discover The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, by Anna Malaika Tubbs, as Malcom's mother was committed to the mental hospital here in town (from the book, it sounds like against her will). For a town rife with writers and liberal leanings, I frankly don't hear enough about this dark chapter.

I started Zadie Smith's pandemic-themed thoughts, Intimations, and love her description of how her art is, basically, "something to do." In an essay of the same name, she examines the internet fever of baking banana bread when the lockdown began and writes: "The something that artists have always done is more usually cordoned off from the rest of society, and by mutual agreement this space is considered a sort of charming but basically useless playpen, in which adults get to behave like children - making up stories and drawing pictures and so on - though at least they provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs."

She accuses herself of being unable to sufficiently fill time without access to her old hidey-holes, and from there goes on to other entertaining thoughts. Her summation made me laugh and also think of the derision that our capitalist structures have for the time, patience, anxiety, and spiritual deaths necessary to create art. The more time that passes since I read Eula Biss's On Having and Being Had over Thanksgiving, the more I recall and appreciate her examination of capitalism.

"Every year," Biss writes, "I'm required to fill out a form for the university that lists my contributions and accomplishments. What I want to report is that I've done absolutely nothing of value and that is my accomplishment." 

On the topic of Biss and class privilege, we watched The White Tiger, based on the book by Aravind Adiga, and loved it. I also devoured Danielle Evans's first collection of stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which I accidentally checked out on Ellis's library card and thereafter received notices that this title was ready for my three year-old. I re-read Sally Rooney's Normal People nearly a year after I read her first book, right before Michigan went into lockdown. My mother was visiting when I started Conversations with Friends, and I toggled between slices of birthday cake and Rooney's addictive pages. A few weeks later, a friend recommended Normal People after Ellis got the flu, Tim came down with a mysterious illness, and Samantha went online. I liked Normal People even more the second time around and promptly fell into a puddle of obsession with its adaptation on Hulu, in which I'm still happily splashing.

Someone dressed themselves in our house recently, saying, "Sparkles go with sparkles!" a statement made while sweeping grandly into the room and also one with which my twenty-year-old self would have definitely agreed.  Sometime during our Mr. Rogers heyday, Samantha watched an episode in which the host explored public escalators in a mall. "Mr. Rogers is so lucky he doesn't have to wear a mask," she said, 100% serious.

Here's a picture of me laughing at an attempt to take my picture next to some sea oats. The desired photo didn't turn out, but I got a great shot of my toupee. Finally, my friend Thisbe's new book is out. It's a collection of stories called How Other People Make Love and I can't wait to read it.