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I know the smell of death, the smoky death of a building, the rotting death of food gone bad and the pieces of home and hearth that have vaporized at 2000 degrees then reattaching themselves to different places in the house.
I am the first to see it, to smell it, to feel the burning in my eyes and lungs after the fire is out. The first to stand detached among the debris, the soggy water-soaked aftermath: The first to begin the plan of what to save, what to restore, and what to replace. It’s the things, the mementos, and the snippets of lives that I see with charred and melted edges. The decision of what to do next lies with me, and then I face the family.
“Sorry to meet you under such difficult circumstances”, I say. We’re going to take care of you”. I remember their faces, the grief, the shock and I know they don’t remember those first moments with me. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we cry alone.
They don’t often die, sometimes a pet, seldom a person. But I’ve seen the outline of a woman baked into her bed, seen her next nights dinner defrosted on the counter, the soot-covered list of things to do and presents to buy and calls to make and I wonder why. She did not expect to die.
I think of how she would feel, my crew, taking her furniture to the dumpster, her next of kin looking on, not wanting her belongings. “She was a packrat”, they say as they leave. “Just set aside the dining room set, we’ll pick it up when it’s cleaned”.
They drive away and I watch them go. They didn’t care about who she was; content to have her life piled into a long open dumpster. It takes us days of sorting, inventorying… we touch what her life was: collections of statues, teddy bears, linens, photographs… her Bible… her clothes, all covered with the fire. We take our mementos, the house now ours to empty and disburse of its contents. We work in respirators and Tyvek suits to protect ourselves from the poison seeping from the soggy debris. The ceiling is on the floor. Long broken pieces of sheet rock, like misshapen platters, piled with eight inches of wet pink insulation. Like a surreal strawberry sundae, the soot and smoke becomes a morbid chocolate topping.
We make our way down hallways with shovels and trash bags. We don’t know what lies beneath the madness and sometimes we don’t want to know. It seems like rape and robbery all at once. The house was dusty; she wouldn’t have wanted us to see that, I bet…I wonder if somehow she’s watching.
I walk the long black path from doorway to dumpster, shouting instructions to the crew, the insulation finding its way out the door like pink fiberglass cotton balls lining the path. The artist in me sees the contrast of colors with the black, the burn, the grass, the pink, and the white gone gray suits of the crew. We are the ghosts that carry her soul away.
Her neighbors look on. They don’t know what to do. Someone has been placing the daily newspaper by the door but she isn’t coming back.
There will be nothing familiar when we are finished. Even the walls where she hung her pictures will be gone, the kitchen cabinets, the front door with the gouges from the firemen’s ax, all beyond repair.
And days later when finally we are through, I walk through the house, now nothing but two by fours and electrical wires on the inside. Like a long dead corpse, only the bones remain and they tell no stories.
In what was once the living room I pause, bend to pick up a piece of paper, but it isn’t. It’s a photograph, it must be her and I feel like she’s looking right out at me.
“I’m sorry”, I say, “Someone’s got to do it”.
I stayed and I ask myself why
Listening for an echo to come bouncing back with an answer that never comes
So I am left wondering and incomplete
Like a cake taken from the oven too soon,
Fine on the outside but inside, a murky cesspool waiting to overflow
The voices. The flashes. A movie playing over and over.
Where I run and run and the moment I look over my shoulder,
You are standing in front of me again,
With the knife to my throat and I never stop bleeding
And now the wound is too old to heal, and too deep.
The scab torn away so many times my body simply forgot how… so I seep
Leaving a trail that everyone can see,
The stain that covers me, envelops me, controlling me
And I did
I stayed till there was nothing of me left to kill.
I have been thinking… (What a surprise) I got up a few minutes ago to start the project of using my box of pressure (binder) clips that I have had in my office for a very long time. I bought them because I often have stacks of papers that are too large for the average paper clip, and yes, I have several sizes. I believe that, like a tool shed, an office should be stocked with all the proper things. That is to say, Everything.
But I am not writing about my office, I am thinking about something else. I am thinking about lost chances. I am thinking about missing the boat….
We all miss things from time to time. It is easy to look back and say we should have curved left instead of right… but I am talking about something lifelong. An example would be; what if Mozart, as a child, sat down at a piano only once. What would his life have been? I imagine that he would have longed to feel those keys again and that he would have tasted it and chewed on it for all of his life. He would have dreamed it, and as best he could, he would have created in his mind. He would have lived it each day, stretching his fingers to tickle cool keys that would never ring at his touch.
What would the world be like? I imagine the entire world would be different, although I am not suggesting that would be the case for me. I know that I am quite average and ordinary, and no matter what road I chose… I would still be just that. It is the way of the world, and it took me a long time to realize this; a long time to accept this.
I wanted desperately to BE someone and my parents told me and taught me that I could be anything and I believed them and for a long time I aspired. I worked hard and I took chances and made mistakes. I was not driven though, in the way folks like, say, Steve Jobs or Martha Stewart or Ben and Jerry. I have looked back at my life and wondered why I lacked that drive, but I understand now… just keep reading….
But like the scenario where Mozart never sits at the piano again, I have had a longing that began when I was seven years old. I loved the drums. I drummed on pots and pans, on boxes and buckets and footstools. Anything. I used wooden spoons or pencils or sticks from the woods and I sat in front of the TV or by the radio/phonograph and played. First it was Pete Fountain, The Big Bands, and all the music from the 40s and 50s that played daily in our home. Then, I discovered The Monkees, and rock and roll…
I remember sitting on the arm of the sofa, with an inverted bucket between my legs, just pounding away to any and every song. I loved it. So I asked for a drum…. I asked to play the drum in the elementary school band… The answer was always no. Girls do NOT play drums. (This was the 60s and I suppose at the time it was a valid argument….) I continued to ask throughout my childhood but the answer was always the same. I continued to make the best of it and drummed on everything else.
When high school came, my focus was different. My creative vent leaned strongly to art and I spent much of my time drawing, painting and riding my horse. I also spent a great deal of time cutting classes with my friends Patrick and Cheri, and smoking a huge amount of good 70s weed. (Don’t judge) So, while I still drummed on everything, getting a drum or set of drums was not on my mind as much. I was also having my first crush… A girl named Shelley… but that is whole ‘nuther story….
The next part, I don’t remember so clearly and I imagine the pot has something to do with that. I went off to college, and I think I purchased a drum set then, in Lancaster PA with part of my grant money. I hoped to learn to play, finally, and I set them up carefully…. A used, but like-new five piece set of Ludwig drums with a hi-hat and a crash cymbal. I played as I was able but school took a great deal of time, as did partying and learning about life. I was a generally shy, quiet, artsy girl who was incredibly naïve and sheltered; surrounded by so many new things in a world that was nothing like the one I was raised in. I quickly realized there was no room for drumming.
The drums were in the basement at my sister’s home in Lancaster PA. She lived on Pine Street, next to Franklin and Marshall College and the homes were the classic old row homes. Long… street long rows of attached two story homes that were slender from the road but deep. They were not small, only close and since our street was a mix of students and professors, any drumming I did was largely frowned upon. Most of the noisy fraternities and sororities were on the other side of the campus, and I did not attend this University. My school was in York which was close to an hour drive away. Time was at a premium, and my desire to be an excellent student surpassed my desire to play the drums. I was still trying to please good ole Mom and Pop.
So summer came and the semester ended and I packed up my stuff to go home to Florida. My room was waiting at my parents’ house and while they were surprised and supportive for a moment when I arrived and unloaded the drums, the sentiment changed quickly and the drums… well… they had to go. So I sold them and joined the Carnival instead…. I was not terribly upset about parting with the drums because I was having a blast and had jumped into another new world…. one of travel and wildly diverse people and ideas. After all, I could always find something to drum on, and I did.
So we fast forward to now. There is no need to fill in decades with stories of how my road went this way and that, how I tried many things, learned about life and love and right and wrong and sacrifice and priorities. I always drummed and always, ALWAYS felt like I was going to have drums…. one day. I dream about them and look at photographs on the internet. I look at “for sale” ads and imagine myself going to pick up my chosen kit, bringing it home and going to weekly lessons. I practice. I practice endlessly to make up for lost time.
Along the way time seemed endless and managed. I was unhurried because there were so many possibilities, so many days and months and years to fill. Then, I blinked and was 56 years old. The yearning and desire has never left me. Drums, since the beginning of my memory, were a calling and now I am on that slippery downhill slope that we face as we age but now time moves faster every year. I feel a sense of urgency about my life and things I want to do, but drums, they are not something I want to do; learning to play MY set of drums properly is something I MUST do.
Do you feel this way about something? Have you ever had a slow fire burning inside you that never let you be? I imagine that there are unanswered yearnings in all of us. Maybe we forget. Maybe we decide that our dreams are simply childish things and we put them on the shelf and once in awhile, take them down, dust them off and tell ourselves pretty stories to make it all seem reasonable that we gave ourselves away. It wasn’t. It isn’t.
For me, this calling found me at a very early age but it doesn’t happen this way for everyone. Some people discover theirs at different stages of their lives, some by chance, some by happenstance. Some, because they simply curved right, instead of left and bumped smack into the very thing they had been searching for. It is like going to the grocery store for ingredients to bake a cake, but not knowing that what you want is a cake. As you walk the aisles picking out the ingredients, you turn one more corner and what do you see right in front of you… a freaking CAKE! All at once, you realize that it is all you will ever do for the rest of your life. Like falling in love, only the gift you give is to yourself. Your true, authentic self…. And so you bake.
Today, I have made a decision. Today, rather than look at pictures and dream, rather than watch videos of others creating rhythm and sound and beauty, I will create the path that leads to my life long destination. I will save for, research for, watch for and ultimately purchase and bring home my drums because I must honor what has been living in me for my entire life. I must find out what it feels like to complete my most compelling desire. I am driven to do this one thing before I die.
Driven. I spoke of this several paragraphs ago, and as I thought about the drums and my dreams, I believe I understand why the drive to be so many other things was not quite right. Make no mistake, I did well enough at the things I endeavored, but I am talking about on the inside, the churning feeling… the constant whisper in my ear telling me that there was something else I was supposed to do. It was drums and it passed by me like a slow moving train, leaving me feeling as though everything else was second best. I had the ticket, but I never got on the train.
So… I asked you before and I ask again. Do you have this thing inside you? Is there something that has been knocking at your little door? Have you just let it be for years? For decades? Do you think about it, wondering all the while… what if…? I urge you to make room. Make room in your life for YOU. Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself to at least try before the calendar has no more pages to turn.
For me, it is a bass, snare, two mounted toms, a floor tom, hi-hat, crash, ride, crash/ride, splash and china (though the cymbals will not all come at once most likely because they are expensive) a throne, sticks, stands, hardware, storage containers and music stand…..
So I declare, here and now…. I will answer this calling and I am going to buy, trade for, beg, borrow or negotiate my way to a drum set that I will set up and play in my home. I will take lessons and learn and practice and one day, I hope that someone says to me, Barb, you did the right thing. You are a drummer.
I wish for you… to make this declaration should you feel a calling of your own. Answer it. Answer for you because not only will it enrich your life, by becoming complete on the inside, you will be a better person, happier with yourself, and will be a better person for all those around you. Now, isn’t that a good reason to begin a new life’s journey right now? No matter how young or old, no matter your health, there is that thing, that one thing that drives you. So make a note. Make several, make a stack and secure them with a great big paper clip so you won’t lose them, and don’t lose your way. Your spirit is out there waiting, and has been the entire time.
It was 1997 when I fell from the cliff, and hit a bottom that I never saw coming. I suppose that most people when hurtling through the air, knowing that the sudden stop is coming, close their eyes not wanting to see the ground rushing closer and closer. But it happened.
Of course, this is a metaphor… I write, and because I write I take liberties with words and phrases to make you think… to make you wonder. More importantly I do it because it is simply what comes out. Something happens inside me that triggers me to stop what I am doing and begin to write and often I do not know what is coming. This, however, is not one of those moments. I write now to stop thinking. I write now to get rid of pain, to use skills, to survive. I write now because I see that cliff in the distance again and I can’t… I CAN NOT risk getting too close. I am talking about depression and suicide. They often go together, you see, but sometimes at least in my view, sometimes they don’t.
My dance with depression began before I ever even heard the word used to describe mental illness. Depression was for weak people. Depression was not for me, of me or about me. Looking back now, I see that I began to change. I see that somewhere along the line, something happened in my brain and I became a different person. I was depressed and was sinking fast, but had no idea at all….
It’s funny… the looking back part. You don’t see yourself, not at all. There is no clarity when you are actually depressed. The disease lies to you and tells you that you are tired, or not eating right or getting exercise… and you believe the voice, but… you do nothing. You sit. You think. You hurt. It gets worse. Sometimes you get your head above the water to breathe and for a while you function. For a while you keep going and make it through each day. You function. You go through the motions.
I tried therapy… and meds, but never for long because I didn’t believe in them. I refused to believe that there was truly something wrong that I could not fix myself. Ah, and that was the biggest problem because nobody can convince you any different. You don’t see yourself falling… but those that love you, well, they see it… and they know it and desperately try to make you see… For me, I was suddenly angry at stupid things. I lashed out and I cried and I raged, and then after the calm would come, and I would wonder why I felt this way… I would wonder what was happening to me… and I thought and believed that I needed changes, what changes, I did not know, but I looked for them, and I found them in places that were wrong… so wrong… but you don’t see it… you only know that for a while, you feel something besides sad….
I am back in 1997 now and it is spring. I am looking out the window of my beautiful home that I share with a beautiful woman and we have plans, so many plans and life seems perfect… I look out the window into the back yard, where the ground calls me to plant a garden… it is all exactly what I have always wanted… then why… I think to myself… why am I so unhappy?
I am spiraling now, but working at my job, which I love, with people I love and I come home to a home and hearth that I love… and then…. one fall night my world comes crashing down in an instant. I remember how it felt, like some spigot was opened up and my life spilled out of me. Suddenly I was alone and desperately trying to hold on. My job laid me off and gave me unemployment compensation, which was a blessing I can never repay. Even they saw that I was in trouble. I was. I was in a terrible emotional place and I have no words for the kind of crazy I was experiencing, but somehow, with the urging of friends and family, I signed up for counselling… and medications… and I decided to give myself over to the process. I decided that if this is what life was going to feel like as a depressed person, that I wanted to die. So I decided to see what would happen if I just laid down my sword and let myself be broken and damaged and see if it was true… if something or someone could help me get back to the place where the sun coming up mattered. I wanted to wake up in the morning and be happy about it instead of cursing the start of another terrible day. Depression had me and was dragging me and I was willing to go. I wanted to go.
Instead, I did what I was told; week after week I went to counselling individually and in groups. Three times a week I went. Days I didn’t go I had to call and check in. I took the medications, often through tears because I hated taking pills. It scared me, but I did it and in those counselling sessions, they wanted me to talk, so I talked… and I talked and I cried… and then I would listen to the stories of the others in the groups. I would read the pages in the book we used to lead us along the road to wellness. I still have it. I still refer to it now and then.
There were ups and downs; there were deep and terrible times when the counselors urged me to check in to a hospital. There were weeks when the big victory was simply going to the book store to pick up a stack of free magazines. I remember going with a friend to a concert, and she said, you really can’t be happy about anything, can you… and it was true. Nothing moved me and nothing brought me out of the dark… until one day, I realized that I was changing. It was sudden, like the click of a light switch. I began to come out of the horrible place I had been in for so long. This is when I looked back for the first time and saw the road I had travelled. I saw how sad I had been and it came as such a surprise to realize that I had been that depressed. You can’t see it when you are in it. It is a startling moment but it happens to so many of us…. And then there are so many who never make it out; so many who perish by their own hand without knowing that there is something more than that pain. I almost made it out that way and the struggle to live never stops… the tantalizing voice is never quite silent.
The struggle NEVER stops. Depression… chronic depression never goes away. It will keep talking to you, sometimes whispering to you to give up, to sit down, curl into a ball and quit. You must return to the beginning and talk to yourself and remind yourself and take the pills and Talk. To. Yourself. Life becomes work. It is now a never ending job to keep my brain from shooting the bad chemicals into my bloodstream, the chemicals that cause the pain and sorrow. Sometimes, the happy pills will do some of the work. It is like having a friend who is constantly shoveling coal into your dark and smoldering engine. It is a dirty, ugly thing. But you keep feeding it because you must.
At some point, I felt well enough to call myself a survivor. I had met the demons, my demons, face to face; each and every one of them and most of the time they are quiet and remain behind the curtain but sometimes they leap out. Sometimes they wake you up. But now, I know how to take care of them, and I do with a violent internal bloodletting. It is what I must do, have learned to do, to survive. It is a category called PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. The hard part is, people have said to me, why don’t you just get over it… and that is a fair question. I want to just get over it, but you don’t. I don’t. If I could, I swear, I would. It is out of my control.
With PTSD you must recognize that what you experienced, the terrible thing… broke you. It broke you and your mind and body are staying broken. There will always be nightmares and flashbacks. Little things will trigger a moment that drops you into that moment again… I never know what it will be… and fortunately the right cocktail of medications have reduced these things significantly. The last one I remember clearly. She touched my shoulder as I walked away…. I reared back with my fist clenched… and it was over… it was a moment… followed by days of racing thoughts and crying. PTSD… not for the faint of heart. This is why I claim SURVIVOR as part of who I am. I have been surviving for 18 years now and it will be my lifes work to simply make it to the end, whatever that is. My promise is that it won’t be by my own hand. The truth of it is that it is a promise I sometimes wish I had not made… that is how powerful the voice is that calls me, to all of us who suffer with depression.
Why did I pick today to write this down? It was a bid for survival. It was a way to keep myself from falling, to puke up all the pain, all the loss, all the negative that has been screaming my name. It is also a way to share a glimpse of what depression is and how it can change a person. It is a clue as to what is happening to someone you love and what you need to do to help them. It took years for me to find my way through the door of the counselling center and keep returning… and I did it for me. THAT is why it worked. I was doing it for me and I still do it for me, because in those moments where my mind is clear and I am looking out at the world, I am just happy to be in it, and see it all and to feel deep inside the happiness that comes so easily to most people… Think about it… how you would seek happiness if you had to work at it in your mind just to feel it. Think about that when someone you love is sad… and not all sadness equals depression… so be vigilant.
I was fortunate to have the love of friends who pushed me and supported me… a sister and niece who showed up to protect me when I truly needed protecting and didn’t realize it. I made new friends along the way who dragged me along into the light and finally, I found my way back to me, to a ME that I hadn’t seen in decades. I owe everyone along the way a debt of gratitude… even though many didn’t know how important their roles were in my life through that time. Imagine, you could be that light to someone. You could be that light to someone right now and not know. You could also remain aware and be the light for someone struggling, and guide them to help. Imagine that. We all have the power to be a positive force just by being a friend, by listening, be cheering someone forward… by reaching out your hand. A few words… a few of YOUR words could change a life… save a life… so be vigilant, even when it seems there is no reason to be… be vigilant.
Pepper was a dog of presence, of formidable presence. He was big and dark with subtle curls and whorls of color winding across his great shoulders and back. He looked like a combination of Boxer and Mastiff. If you were a friend, he was a friend.
If you were a foe, God help you.
He had massive feet and a broad head that held black intelligent eyes. He would stand like a soldier, looking at you and waiting for you to declare yourself. He was willing to let you make a mistake. He was more willing to jump up, put those big feet on both shoulders and smile at you, maybe lick you.
With his nose close to yours you could look into his eyes and see gentleness. A dog so big, looking so fierce would be enough to change the mind of anyone considering stepping onto his territory. But the eyes told a different story. He would almost wink at you, sharing the secret of the big heart hidden in that chest; the playful pup in the lumbering body. He was glorious duality on four legs.
He would walk with his master on the quiet tree lined road leading to his home and sometimes, he would walk alone. He loved the woods and everything in it and his forays would bring him back home with stories of hunts and scents, holes dug and battles won. He was a delight to his human partner, but what Pepper gave was more than realized. Where he wandered left an imprint even larger than those paws… even larger than that enormous heart.
You see, his daily constitutional brought him down the road, across our neighbor’s driveway, down the hill and onto our land. The soil there is soft and often moist, having numerous springs that are fed by generous rain, so when I began seeing his footprints, I was surprised. I imagined coyotes, and all manner of wild things, but it was only Pepper doing his rounds, and each of his walks would bring him past our front door. The exact route would vary, but most every day, he would zigzag his way through, leaving his calling cards as he went.
To ease my mind, and to be sure that I was correct about Pepper being the owner of the footprints and not some wild and dangerous creature, I got onto my ATV with my little dog Chutney harnessed willingly in front of me, and tracked his journey home. To my relief, the trail went directly to his yard and Pepper was laying peacefully under his deck in the shade. Chutney and I made our way up and over the mountain and circled back home. I was relieved.
We never saw Pepper. He came and went in the quiet hours of the day and left his prints, his scent, and his calling cards which were…. Prodigious. I would sigh and began leaving a shovel by the steps. Chutney, however, had a different take on the matter.
Chutney was a “red zone” dog. She did not like other dogs, other animals or most people. We had adopted her from a shelter at 8 months of age. She had already seen enough of the world to make her want to be alone, away from other dogs, but she took to me, and I took to her. She never had the experience of playing with other dogs. She didn’t want to, and when dogs happened onto her territory, she told them to leave, vigorously. So when Pepper began coming by, I was nervous that the hundred pound dog and the twenty pound dog would meet, and the result would be bad. They never did.
What happened instead was Chutney would look forward to going out in the morning with a new interest. She would follow the trail that Pepper left to each of his stopping places and add a couple drops to let him know that she knew he was there. She excitedly crisscrossed the yard, the driveway or sometimes the road, snorting and puffing as she raced along. I would often have to call her back when the trail began to lead back to Peppers house and she headed happily up the hill.
My independent and solitary little Chutney was taking an interest in another dog, and she was obviously happy with her findings each day. She would eagerly demand that we go out, spinning, bouncing and barking for me to hurry it up. I would slip her collar around her neck, open the door, and out she would go and I would follow and watch her as I always did. She was never outside alone. She was a twenty pound dog in a world with coyotes and bears and bigger dogs… always bigger dogs. She never raised her hackles or growled. It was so apparent that this was something she looked forward to, and something she enjoyed each day for weeks and then months. Peppers excursions became Chutneys excursions, and though they never met each other on the trail, they messaged each other in the ways dogs always do. They had a relationship. They shared knowledge. They talked.
I noticed right away when the tracks stopped appearing, and before long I heard of Peppers untimely passing. This is the way of things when you love a dog. Their lives are so short compared to ours and even when we know this it doesn’t help the pain of their passing. I remember standing over the dried, once muddy spot where Pepper left one of his last footprints, knowing that the coming storm would wash it slowly away. After a time, Chutney stopped looking, and I wonder what she thought about the change. The hardest part of loving a dog is not knowing what they truly understand.
On February 25, 2015 Chutney lost her fight with cancer. She was 15 years old, and not old enough. I was not prepared to say goodbye to her any more than I was prepared for my neighbor to stop and tell me that his beloved Pepper had passed. I sat crying this morning thinking about them both and wondered if they had finally met nose to nose in some peaceful grassy place. I imagine them recognizing one another by scent, and wagging their tails and sniffing each other to be sure, then bounding off together into some lovely stand of trees, sending the dry leaf fodder flying.
While Pepper and Chutney never met face to face, they shared with each other as only dogs do. I have to believe that Peppers visits were deliberate, and that he looked forward to finding her calling cards as much as she did his. In this time when there is so much strife in the world, it does us good to watch for and appreciate the little things, including the delight of our beloved companions, the sweet dogs we love so much.
R.I.P., Pepper and Chutney. May you always run happy and free.
I have been thinking about what it must be like to choose a career as a young adult, or even a child, go to school or apprenticeships to learn the skills required, and then earn a living in your chosen field. Some people, many people in fact, do the same job all of their lives and historically this was the way. Earning the right to retire from a profession as a skilled and dedicated employee or business owner has been a rite of passage since long before my time.
So, what happened with me? By the time I graduated from high school I was sure of only one thing. I was an artist and I loved horses, but I had no idea what I wanted to do or what job I wanted to have. My first job was short order cook, followed by silver cleaner at a department store, stable hand and then racetrack groom. Going to college was something to do but I didn’t know what I wanted to learn. I was a late bloomer, a sheltered kid to be sure and who knows how long I would have stayed in the nest, but I didn’t have long to consider it because my parents decided that because I liked to draw, that I needed to go to college to become a “real” artist.
How curious that they found an art school within driving distance of where my sister lived so I could live with her… and her two kids… and be her babysitter. This was a continuation of a pattern, but being a parent pleaser I went along. So, my first college experience was to live with my sister, 13 years my senior, (a virtual stranger) and her two young kids. I slept on a cot in her dining room. The house was never quiet, as you can imagine, and there were many people coming through the doors at every hour of the day and night. Let’s just say it wasn’t a perfect situation for an artist or any other first time college student.
After some time I made friends at the college and had an opportunity to share an apartment (my first) with a fellow student and friend. It was a beautiful building in rural Pennsylvania… an old stone and brick mill next to a river. We lived on the fourth floor and it truly was a great experience to live in the woods by a river. That stuck with me. What didn’t stick was going to school for Fine Art. I realized that I was not going to be able to make a living with art so when it was time for summer vacation, I returned to Florida with no intention of going back.
It was good to be back home with my friends and parents but now I faced another question… what was I going to do? I had no idea but when a friend asked me to join her at a local Carnival that needed a couple of people to work for the week, I jumped at the chance! This turned into several seasons of travelling the East Coast with what was at the time the second largest travelling show in the country and the only one on rails. We set up in big cities for regional and state fairs and I made more money than I had ever seen. I learned many things there, some which changed everything that I thought I knew or understood. To this day, going to a carnival is something I don’t like to do but that’s another story.
The years that followed were a blur of jobs and change and throughout that time I never really felt a calling to do anything specific for the rest of my life. I waitressed, did factory piecework, pumped gas, joined the Army, groomed dogs and worked at the Garden Spot Badge Company, making and assembling ribbons and trophies for horse shows and events. I learned every aspect of the job and enjoyed it greatly. Then, I found a job working with plants. I became an ornamental horticulturist and I loved it, and did it for seven years, rising to middle management. I felt at home doing it. I couldn’t wait to go to work every day, and then I hurt my back.
I had never thought about traction before, but I spent a week in traction and two years on workers comp. This is where the chronic pain started… in 1987. My time with plants was done. Once I was able to begin working again, I worked with toys. Everyone has seen the machines in bars and stores where for some change you get to drop a metal claw into a bin of toys to see if you can win one by lifting it out with the claw. Someone fills those machines every week or so, and I was one of those people. In a company provided van that I filled with toys every day, I drove all over south Florida, filling up and arranging these machines. It was fun. The company was owned by a connected Italian family. I am not kidding here… and no, I won’t tell you their names.
Then, it was entrepreneurship that began with simply cleaning houses and doing odd jobs, and that turned into a full-fledged business named Scrub Team. We specialized in new construction cleaning (my then partner and me) and the business grew rapidly with my partner at the helm getting the contracts and me taking care of the employees and book keeping. It was good. We made money. Then the real estate market went belly up and the contractors couldn’t pay us. We looked for another way to pay the bills.
Next was a shoe factory of sorts. Each person, and there were about 20 of us, would be given cases of plain shoes and customize them in the styles that the owners sold with lace, Swarovski crystals, paint and doodads. I was paid by the pair and it was unusual and fun and challenging. I enjoyed the job itself since it was different every day and it appealed to my competitive nature. It was also artsy and strangely satisfying.
After this, I worked at an automotive customizing shop. It was far removed from anything I had ever done or thought I wanted to do. This was the early days of vehicle customization and we did mainly Toyota 4Runner and pickup trucks, adding roll bars, wheels, tires, lights, running boards, decals and more, taking a plain, off the lot new vehicle and transforming it into a one of a kind! I didn’t do much of anything in the way of the customizing… I was mainly in the office but the sounds and activity were intriguing. I learned a lot and was very grateful to be given this job because it was a time when jobs were hard to come by. Times were hard in Florida at this time, and then, I had the chance to leave.
My sister introduced me to a man who needed a book keeper and part time caretaker for himself and his wife for their summer in Highlands North Carolina. I worked out a deal with them so that my partner and I could drive them to Highlands and in exchange for a small apartment and a wage, I would cook their dinner and keep their business books, and Sue would clean the house. It was amazing to drive to the high mountains of North Carolina and suddenly be living in the clouds on a vista in a respected golf community. It was beautiful and peaceful and exhilarating to be cool in the summer months. There was so much to see and do and the job really wasn’t hard, even though “the wife” treated me like a lowly servant. Then I met her children. This was a learning experience. It seems that the man who I was working for was a world class con artist. And there was a large article on him and his exploits in TIME magazine from where he had been caught years before. This got me to thinking. I was his book keeper… so I looked more closely and discovered that he was indeed running another scam. My paychecks bounced for two weeks. My partner had found another job at a local Inn and I soon joined her there after only collecting my pay by threatening to turn him in to the FBI.
It was called Kalmia of Highlands, and had 17 cottages and three suites on seven beautiful acres. We loved it there and lived in an A frame house on the property. There was always work to do, and people came and went at all hours but it was a special place to be. We wintered there in 1993, and made it through the blizzard of that year, warmer and safer than many others on the mountain. We thought we were doing a great job, showing increased revenue every month since taking over the management until one day, friends of the owners showed up and handed us our walking papers. They were taking over and the place was being sold. We both lost our home and job in the same day.
We moved into a refurbished tool shed. Yes, really. Our belongings were crammed into a room below where we lived. There was nothing for us to do in Highlands then but Sue cleaned a few houses, so we made the choice to move to Asheville.
Asheville brought new ideas and soon we were introduced to disaster restoration by doing occasional fire cleanup and pack outs for a local Insurance Adjuster. Soon we were both offered lead positions of a new franchise in Asheville. Paul Davis Systems and Signature Disaster Services. I loved this job. I loved the people who worked for and with me and I learned everything I could about every aspect of the business and over years, became a Master Restorer… the best on the East Coast. I had found my place, or so I thought. All the old pains came surging back, along with new pain that I fought and tried to control. After years in the business, I was facing change because I simply couldn’t do the physical part of my job any more. I had spent a year traveling between Atlanta, where I was courted to move, to Asheville, where I lived on the weekends. But things were coming apart in the upper management of the company, and physically, I was falling apart too. I chose to come home to Asheville and quickly found work as an insurance agent.
I hated every moment of selling insurance and collecting premiums. I know there is a need for life and health insurance but at that time it felt so dirty to me. Each day I was feeling worse. Each day the pain was worse, and I filed for disability. Once I did, it was a matter of waiting. Good investments kept me going until my case was completed and my benefits kicked in. As I waited one day, I checked the mail and opened a letter I did not recognize. It was from a company in Washington State, the premier company and provider of equipment for Water Damage Restoration, and they invited me, because of my record, to come and teach others to do what I had become so good at. (It is important that I say at this point, that without the amazing crew who worked so hard for me and with me, that I would have been nothing. I owe them all.)
As I read and reread the letter, I realized that all the work along the way had led to this. I was 40ish, and the doors were swinging open in a way I never expected or dreamed. This was my chance now, to put it all to use. This was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life…
It did not happen though. I was too sick and in too much pain. Standing was a trial, and then I was diagnosed with cancer, so my chance to teach came and went, and so did my life’s works. I would never work again, and here it is, 15 years later and I remain permanently disabled, and looking out the window, wondering what it would have been like to grab that brass ring. I wonder.
Don’t feel sad or sorry. I went out and enjoyed almost everything I did. I jumped in, put my feet in the shoes of others and became someone different with each new job. I did so fearlessly and with my whole being. I learned about people, how to follow and how to lead. Each new thing was a challenge that I strove to conquer and in most cases, I did. Would I change it and find my life’s work earlier in my life like so many people do? No, because the sum of its parts made me, in part, who I am today, and I am happy with that. It is my story, such as it is, and all the people whose lives I was a part of for whatever reason is more valuable to me than a job or career that I can retire from. I went out and lived. I bore witness. I saw things that most people can’t even fathom and I don’t need to wonder why any more. I am just glad it was me.
“Big Changes Coming and Nobody Gets To Mess WIth Me Any More” a rant about pain, frustration, and time lost
This blog post is not typical of what I write, but more of an accounting of time that led me to a decision of great importance. I have been on a strange journey and now, as I am looking back at it, I am suddenly aware of a new set of lessons. Let me just begin….
Some back story, in case you have not heard me blather endlessly about my current and frustrating situation… I have some health challenges, and one of those challenges is Chronic Pain to the point of disability. It touches and controls every aspect of my life, and I have become more limited and secluded over the last decade. Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Degenerative Bone Disease, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and PTSD are my diagnoses, and for this, I see a Pain Specialist Physician among others. Because of the pain and the symptoms, I have, over the years, been prescribed a large variety of medications to try to keep the symptoms at bay while allowing me to do every day things, like get up from a chair, or sleep. Some of these medications have worked better than others. In addition to the medications, I must have injections in my neck, back and knees. Without this combination of treatments I would not be able to walk at all and what I am able to do in the course of a day is simply not enough.
Over the last year I have become dissatisfied with the status quo. Anyone would be dissatisfied. I have disintegrated into a shadow, lost my career and income, and my ability to do almost everything that I enjoy, physical and otherwise. Thinking and focusing has become a challenge equal to walking or driving. I do nothing well any more, but I digress. During the monthly trips to the doctor for meds, I began voicing my desire for change, to try something different to see if I could feel even a little bit better. It was decided that I would begin the process of consideration to have a pain pump surgically implanted in my body to deliver narcotics directly into my spine at intervals that would eliminate the ups and downs of oral pain medications. I was all for it, so the process, the slow process began.
First, I was cleared by a psychologist. They want to be sure that you are a stable person, and not suicidal…. Think about that… I don’t want pills. I want an implant to eliminate pills… the things that come in large quantities… in exchange for a medication whose delivery is completely out of my hands. This should have been my first clue. It took a couple of months of waiting before I could get an appointment to see this psychologist, and I easily passed his scrutiny. I could now see the surgeon. I waited several months, patiently, to get a referral and I don’t know why it took so long and I will not speculate. When I went to my appointment in mid-November of 2013 to have my pills counted, to pee in a cup and get new prescriptions, I was told that the referral was being made, finally, and I should be hearing from the surgeons office shortly to make the first appointment to see about the pain pump… what I hoped would make my life better. The waiting was driving me crazy.
Two weeks went by, and I called my doctor’s office and was assured that I would be getting a call “any day now”. I went to my medication appointment in mid-December, and asked again, why in the word I had not heard a word about something that was so important to me. My life and my mobility were slipping away. Why didn’t it matter? I was told a call was made, and that my file was on the surgeons’ desk… the time was near. I gathered my prescription refills like I do every month, made my appointment for January, and away I went on my hour long drive home feeling discouraged and tired.
Jump forward to mid-January. The day of my appointment is nearing and I am suddenly greeted one morning by a severe pain in my left eye. It is Iritis… for the second time. Iritis is a special little problem… you see, your body decides that your eye is a foreign body and tries to get rid of it, and the only way to take care of it is by using a series of eye drops every HOUR to keep your eye from being destroyed, and going blind. It is NOT a fun thing to deal with and it takes months for it to go away. All the while the affected eye or eyes are quite blurry and uncomfortable. So, I call my pain doctor’s office to see if they can send the prescriptions through the mail this month since I am having trouble seeing, and have no ride to bring me… plus I need to see the ophthalmologist and a blizzard is coming. Well, NO they say. The doctor needs to see me, they say. I must come to Asheville, they say. So, I am thinking that maybe it is something about the surgeon. Maybe there is some compelling reason that they want me to drive an hour to their office, with my vision diminished by a considerable degree. So I go.
I arrive at the designated place at the designated time, and I wait. Finally I am called back and I sit down, my vitals are taken and I wait some more. The doctors’ assistant comes in. The doctor is way behind schedule and can’t see me. I think to myself, “I drove all the way here, with the snow starting, not being able to see, and the doctor doesn’t have TIME for me? REALLY?” I am so angry that I forget to ask about the surgeon. I take my prescriptions and head for home through the snow. I go to Candace’s office to trade my car for the truck so one of us can get all the way home, and if needed, I can come down the mountain on our ATV to bring Candace up to the house if she needs to park the car on the road below. I leave the prescriptions with her to drop off for me. Driving or just riding in a vehicle is one of the most tiring and painful things I do these days. I used to love to get in the car and go. Now, I dread it, and pay the price with days of increased pain just to go to the store, a friend’s house, or a doctor’s appointment.
Candace drops off the prescriptions for me as she does so faithfully every month. (It is one of dozens, maybe hundreds of things she does now that she shouldn’t have to do for a 54 year old woman) She tells the pharmacist she will pick them up at the end of the day. As this takes place, I am at home sitting in front of the fire, heat pack on my neck, still paying for the drive to town and fuming about the BS that I deal with every month just to stay somewhat ahead of this damnable pain. The phone rings.
I answer and it is the pharmacy calling to inform me that I am unable to pick up my prescription medications today because the doctor(or rather the charming assistant) has made a note on the prescription not to fill one until the following Monday, and the other, four days later. WHAT? WHY? She does not know. I do not know. This is something new and I feel myself flush with embarrassment. It feels dehumanizing and degrading. I feel like some sort of criminal. An addict. Someone who can’t be trusted. I hang up the phone. I feel awful. I call Candace to tell her that there is no reason to return to the pharmacy today, and then try to call my doctor’s office. Too late. They are closed for the day. It is Thursday, and they are always closed Friday and the following Monday is MLK day. My pills run out on January 19th. I can’t get them until the 20th, and there is Nobody. To. Call.
I suddenly understand something. I am controlled completely. Someone with a pen and a snotty nose controls when I come and go, and makes me jump through hoops to be able to take medication that I hate… that I only take because nothing else has worked. Suddenly, I am done. Nobody gets to fuck with me like this. I will go through the horrible withdrawal from Oxycontin. I did it when the FDA suddenly snatched the Methadone I was taking off the market. I did two weeks of hell withdrawing then and I can do it again. Death has nothing to scare me with. Pain? Yeah, I live with it every day and have lived with it most of my life, so fuck you, doc. I will take no more of your pills. I will not pee in a cup. I will not come running at your whim. I. Am. Done.
I am terrified. The change is big and I could very easily end up worse than I am right now, physically, but as I see it I have no choice but to try. Lots of pain patients have patches on their skin, or take alternative treatments and that is what I want. That is what I will have or I will find a doctor who will treat me like a person and not suddenly, after many years throw me a curveball that hurts my spirit. Go ahead and punch me in the mouth, but don’t you dare treat me like some sort of criminal, not allowing me to pick up my medication until the previous one runs out. You FUCKER. You did it, and you never said a word to me. First do no harm…. ?? Oh, and forget the pump implant as well. HAH!
So, I have reduced my daily intake of medication for pain by one third on my own, and when my appointment rolls around in February, I will march in and give them back whatever pills are left, and I will begin the trial of complete withdrawal from narcotics for the last time. I will choose the next course of treatments, and I will decide what is best for me and my illnesses from now on. I will continue to try new things until I find a way to be able to enjoy my life and do at least something that I enjoy. Right now, I observe. I exist. I suffer. It is not good enough, and from now on, the future will be in my hands and not in a bottle, or at the hand of anyone else. It is going to hurt. It is going to take time, and I may fall, but I am going to keep going and keep trying to have at least part of my life back. I am a warrior and I will never give up. Never.
Our planet hurls through time and space, tilting and spinning on its axis making certain that in some town near or far it is winter. A cold slowly descends and the days become shorter and darker. People pass the time in their homes by sealing the windows and doors against the falling temps and reaching for the thermostat. With the gentle push of a button or flip of a switch, a furnace whirs to life, sending warmth to fill the rooms like solid walled balloons. There is a comfort and ease to it and most people simply pay a bill each month for the luxury of using electricity, oil, natural gas or even coal to stay warm through the long winter months year after year. For others, it is an act of diligence.
When the chill comes down, as it does here in these Western North Carolina Mountains, there is a ritual that begins, one of necessity and one of history. Some of us bring the warmth to our homes using fire. Inside a small metal box positioned carefully in homes across the world, wood and kindling is artfully placed and lit, and it stays lit and burning, sometimes for months. There is something about a fire burning and the feeling of its heat radiating that touches me in a primal place. I feel that this is the way it is supposed to be. This is what warmth is supposed to feel like and it is different than the warmth pushed into homes by air, forced by the electric current that singes it and dries it as it races through ductwork and into each room. It is different than burning fossil fuels mined from deep within the earth, processed and cleaned and carefully contained in a cautious, managed flame.
Wood burning is part of the world, part of the balance of the planet. Forests catch fire and burn themselves out to grow again, clearing the underbrush and signaling the seeds and cones that it is time to begin again. It is death and birth and so it is with this fire that I burn with a reverence that has been inside me all my life. It is not as easy as flipping a switch and I do have a switch to flip if that is what I chose to do, but no, as long as I am able, I will tend the fire and honor the process. The process….
It begins in the forest with the trees and I live among them, so dense in some places that the sun never touches the ground while the trees are awake and the summer sun is high. When a tree begins to die, its branches weaken and drop, the leaves fall away and these are the signals. The tree is passing, its life fading slowing, so slowly, and part of respecting the forest includes using the wood, so through careful consideration and with respect, a tree is felled and it comes crashing down with a terrible thundering rumble. Sometimes, the wind will catch her brother and do the job herself, but for each and every tree, the time comes when it must fall and waiting for the right time is part of the process that has endured through all time. I do this. My neighbors do this. We watch. We wait.
The small branches, the bark, the leaves, the fodder that was the heart of the tree returns to the earth to build a new layer of rich soil that will feed the future generations of surrounding plants and animals. For the parts of the tree that are to be burned in our homes, this is only the beginning. The wood must season, laying outdoors as if in state during an extended respectful wake, sometimes for years while the water evaporates from the core. Large chain saws are used to cut the tree into carefully measured lengths that will fit each stove, and then split into manageable sections. This is done by hand using razor sharp axes or powerful machines but it must be done or the wood will rot before it is able to dry completely. Once split the pieces are stacked together and raised slightly on pallets to keep each piece clean, keep bugs away and so that air can circulate. Then, the stacks are covered and protected until the seasons change once more.
Today, on this last day of January, the sun shines brightly, melting much of the snow that has been with us for so long. It has been colder than it has ever been here, the mercury dipping far below zero and the wind pushing it further into inhumane regions. Throughout these days, tending the fire has felt urgent as every living thing hunkered down, waiting for this terrible blast of arctic air to pass. But today is different. Today is almost balmy and the thermostat on the porch confirms that it is indeed 45 degrees. I watched through the glass stove front through the morning as the flames died down and the embers faded until now, and I am able to carefully scoop the fine dust from the bottom of the stove pan. It is still hot and laced with chunks of unfinished charcoal, and as I sift each scoop into the metal bucket, the dust explodes into the air, spreading throughout the room covering everything with a thin grey veil. Part of this dust will go into each chicken coop as part of their dust bath, and the rest is spread along the berm behind the wood pile, and will slowly wash down the hill and feed the stand of rhododendron and mountain laurel that has grown there for a hundred years or more.
As I return to the house I know the circle is complete. Every part of the tree has meant something and done something. Since it was a seed it sent its roots deep into the earth to gather water and nutrients. It exhaled life giving oxygen and shaded the forest floor. Over the course of its life it provided food and shelter for thousands, maybe millions of insects, scores of birds and animals, its leaves falling to the ground each year and breaking down to form layer upon layer of soil. The twigs and branches that released from its body became nests or kindling or art, or walking sticks or dams at the end of a pond. And now, as I brush the dust from my clothes and wash the ash from my hands I have played my part in this circle of life, and I thought I was only keeping warm.
It has been an interesting year in many ways. How redundant for me to start that way. Every year is interesting and brings learning, loss, newness, hellos, epiphany and more. Death is on my mind right now because there is always so much of it. It is the only thing that is certain and we all share it, from the tiniest microorganism to the biggest forest to the longest living things… we all die.
On our farm we see it unexpectedly when a hawk comes hurling from the sky and flies away with a chicken in its claws, leaving a skewed pile of feathers as the only remains. We see it in our field, where the incessant rains have carried away our crops for the second year in a row. We see it in our lives too, with a startling phone call or a neighbor stopping by as they go by the house.
July begins with excitement. Summer is in full swing. Patriotism is winding up for the annual grand display with fireworks, grilled food, much flag waving and gratitude. Then it begins with a phone call and suddenly Candace has lost a brother and I a brother-in-law. Just a few days later and a friend I have known since I was a young teen has passed just as unexpectedly. He was part of my second family growing up and was the closest thing I could have had to a brother at that time. Even though I had not seen either of them in some time I am transported to times when we were younger, remembering times both good and bad. How did the time pass so quickly?
Time. Another phone call only days later. Our social circle is cracked to pieces as word spreads of the death of a friend. Young. Gentle. Caring. Surgery and recovery gone horribly, inexplicably wrong and a true light is snuffed out. The grief is palpable now. I can taste it and I am filled with sorrow and rage. How. Can. This. Happen.
I remember my 20s, 30s, 40s, and feeling like I had so much time. I was wrong.
Now it is September and my neighbor Bill and friend Ruth have both passed and I find myself in tears at random moments… when I am digging in the garden, or folding laundry. When the phone rings I cringe and wonder who else has passed, what more has gone wrong.
Death is not the only darkness… people disappear from out lives for many reasons and in many ways, some leaving me dumbfounded, some leaving me broken, all breaking a piece of me away to roll to a dusty corner. A loud voice tells me to flee, to hide, to keep all away, to build a wall to protect me from the pain of goodbye… from the pain of silence when the words don’t come and I am left with only questions.
Some days like today, the darkness is calling to me from my past, from moments in time that linger like flies over carrion. Today, when nothing makes sense and trust has a bitter taste that I spit out and grind into the dirt with worn wet sneakers. Where do we go when the darkness comes, when we feel that hand on our shoulder, know what it is, and not want to turn to see it. Where do we go when everything stops and all that is good and right and sure drains away like the blood drains, crimson and thick from a deep wound. When the dark comes calling, like fear, uncertainty, or a speeding train…. where do we go. Where do I go. What do I do now.
I wish I could be a stone
Washed over and worn smooth
Resting by the water’s edge
With others just like me
The sand and silt would slow
On the long commute to the sea
But I would stay
And having no edges
Nothing could hold on
I would be one among many
In an ever changing crowd
And I am nameless among
The reeds and grasses