Saturday, June 30, 2012

A ritual with jelly donuts

I've been keeping a journal since 1977 when I was fifteen. I have dusty shelves full of ragged spiral-bound notebooks. It's interesting to look up what I wrote in my readerless, analog blog.

Tomorrow, July 1, is the birthday of an old pony who (and I consciously write who instead of that as I've been taught to use for horses,because she's important to my life) I call "my oldest daughter." I thought I'd find that old journal and post what I'd written on July 1, 1984 when my mare Singer gave birth to a filly.

But I couldn't find that particular journal. And then I remembered I'd burned some of the notebooks. Not in a fit of rage. I'd chosen some carefully to light ablaze in a ritual.

It was around the time my (first) divorce became final. I'd left my farmer husband almost a year before; it was right around (possible on the day of) what would have been our tenth anniversary. I was thirty-two, living with my four-year-old. It was the same year I bewgan to cut free from Christian Science. I read books on codependence and the symbolic nature of relationships. I hadn't yet started therapy. And I itched for a ceremony to break with my marriage, that man and the manipulative and codependent farm family I was also divorcing.

I decided I'd burn some journals. Ones where I gushed my most lovesick thoughts, cried over the most embarassing moments, and tamped down my deepest wishes so that I could become more like the wife that man thought he wanted.


But I wanted something else to excise from my life, a symbol that summed up those ten years and the two or three before we were married. I came up with a box of jelly donuts.

Hold on--I have my reasons. I needed to symbolize the crucially satiating nature of sweets in our lives. The ice cream we ate every in excess single night. The chocolate chip (or peanut butter or oatmeal) cookies and chocolate cakes I baked, ditto. Not to mention my homemade brownies and cinnamon rolls.

If anything, his parents were worse, with their ice cream, cookies, pies and donuts at the ready. Mine were equally guilty. (Where do you you think I learned how to bake--or eat, for that matter?) Dessert followed two meals a day, often with chocolate sauce and cream whipped by hand on top of the Heavenly Hash. I survived high school not by stealing slugs from bottle in a liquor cabinet, but by sitting down in plain sight to polish off half of a half-gallon of coffee ice cream right out of the carton.

This was normal for fifteen years of my life. And I didn't want it to be.

I marched into Dunkin Donuts and requested a dozen jelly or creme-filled. When asked about raspberry versus chocolate-cream-filled-with-icing-and-sprinkles I said, "The sweeter the better. But it doesn't matter. I'm not going to eat them."

The kid behind the counter finished my order in a hurry.

At home I got out the kerosene. Doused a small stack of journals topped with a cardboard donut carrier, the cherry on top of the burn barrel. And tossed in a match.

It was satisfying. It felt like the earth-changing ritual I craved. It was much better than words on the document that arrived soon after. Yeah, it was a little weird. But also exactly right. I've never felt the urge to do it again. Not (sigh) during my second divorce. And sometimes, like tonight, I'm mildly annoyed with myself. I'd like to see what I really wrote on the day of the birth of my gorgeous spotted filly. But only mildly annoyed.

Hell--what do people do who keep their journals on computers??

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Such child

The New York state religious exemption:

"In any prosecution for endangering the welfare of a child
based upon an alleged failure
or refusal to provide proper medical treatment to an ill child,

it is an affirmative defense
that the defendant is a parent, guardian or other person legally charged with the care or custody of
such child;

is a member or adherent of any organized church
or religious group
the tenets of which prescribe prayer as the principle treatment for illness
and treated or caused
such ill child
to be treated in accordance with such tenets."

New York Penal Law 260.15

Rita Swan, founder of Children's Healcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. wrote:

"As for parents' rights, we believe the state's power to intervene in the family should be limited,
but also even-handed. 

No parents should be required to seek medical care for trivial, self-limiting illnesses. 
Parents should not be required to continue with medical care that does not have a good probability of saving life, preventing permanent harm, or at least relieving severe pain. 

But at the point when a Methodist, Jew, or atheist parent would have a legal duty to take a child to a doctor
(usually that point is when a reasonable parent would recognize the child was at risk of substantial harm), a Christian Science parent should have that same duty."
(emphasis mine)

Is it reasonable to ask that this religious defense be changed so that everyone is treated equally? Especially children?

Why would the Christian Science church resist such changes?

Something to think about.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Maps of worlds

My first love was the big fictional map on the wall of my third-grade classroom.

You remember. That one with every single geological formation worked into it, sea to cape, bay to coast, mountains, hills, rivers, lakes and ponds connected by dirt or paved roads. One city, one town, one rural village, one farm with cows grazing. An isolated cabin. I passed many math classes wracking my brain where I'd choose to live in that safe, imaginary place. The beach cottage by the ocean like that one on Cape Cod where we'd stayed? The cozy log house in the pines? The farm? Or the distant ranch on the mesa, near the butte?

I had a weakness for the ranch.

I ached for the wide horizon of a ranch in Montana. I wanted fences to ride, cows and horses to herd, rodeos to compete in, races and shows and wild broncs to tame. That ranch was where most of my model-horses-and-Johnny-West figures lived when I was eight, nine, ten, eleven years old. Along with a few Skippers and a G.I.Joe named Ted. Never one single Barbie. This wasn't about clothes or boyfriends; it was about sweat, the smell of horses and the wind on your face as you galloped across the prairie.

During those years I acquired a peculiar skill that I still have: the ability to survey a room and immediately assess it as landscape the way I would have at age nine.

With a Skipper or one of Johnny West's offspring astride a horse--say, Thunderbolt, the mild-mannered palomino that was the first model horse I got for Christmas just before I turned three, now battered and standing on my shelf--or Bilbo, the Breyer buckskin quarter horse with molded-on halter--I'd scrutinize the terrain. Rugs were dirt, prairie or pasture underfoot; a wooden floor or linoleum was water, maybe only a stream, maybe a deep lake. Sofas and chairs were hills, buttes, mesas. The mantel-piece was a high, dangerous ledge on a mountain cliff.

An assignment in fifth grade: draw a dream estate to scale with a detailed key. My ranch had barns and pastures for all my horses, tack rooms, hayfields and ponds to ride into bareback. My friends pointed out their impressive servant quarters; I was content with hired hands who lived in bunk houses.

My yard in the Boston suburbs was the outer pastures of the ranch. Behind was a wilderness of woods with a spring and running stream where my ranch people often camped and built shelters from My Side of the Mountain. When I was twelve the trees were bulldozed and the stream was captured in a culvert. It was exciting and terrible to see the land tamed; I thought of it as thousands of acres fenced off and sold as smaller ranches.

I didn't know that was what was happening to the real West.

In high school after my own personal disaster, I was desperate to disappear from the face of the known earth. I created water-color islands painted on brown paper, scrawled across with illegible ink runes. The maps were distressed, wrinkled and creased, wax dripped and hardened on the edges, implying late nights spent scouring it in search of a secret, a hidden meaning.

At nineteen, I spent one of the best summers of my life with a map. I taught riding at a camp in New Hampshire and took along my appaloosa mare, Singer. (Her "filly" Rindle eats hay outside my window tonight, twenty-eight years old, as I type.) My friend Joy and I one-upped the "overnight ride" by charting and organizing a "three-day ride" for a handful of older kids. That summer I swatted deer flies on the sweaty neck of my horse and rode with a folded map jammed into my back pocket, following the spidery lines of a geological survey map:logging roads, jeep trails.

These days, I ask Google maps to print driving directions for the fellow I work for. Personally, I take the all-knowing Google's wisdom with a grain of salt. More than once I plodded my horse down a remote dirt road hemmed-in by honeysuckle only to meet a shiny car creeping along. The driver always pleaded,"But it was on the directions..."

But I love to play with Google satellite maps. I can zoom into this part of the country: New York state, as far west as I ever made it. Zoom closer, recalibrate and descend even nearer. I can get an idea of the date the image was taken by the houses or ponds that have or haven't yet been built locally.

Today I wondered. If I zoom into Google's Montana, might I eventually old neighborhood? The roof of my square house? The yard with the trees, the swing, the space-trolley, the woods and stream? If I zoom close enough could I find the rugged Montana terrain of my living room?

Be careful when you download those maps. They might be dangerous. Follow them and there's no telling where you might end up.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

June Hay to an AKA

My truck is an '08 Nissan Frontier,
4-door so I can load up my daughter/s, friends, granddog.
It has a 6' box. Eighteen bales of hay isn't much of a load
but it's all I can store in my goat/pony shed.

This last load I got was fresh from the field,
right out of the hay wagon. I put my face into it and inhaled.
The deep scent pulled me into the past.
Into dozens of summers.
Hundreds of mornings riding a horse along newly mowed meadows.
Afternoons spent steering a tractor to follow the swath, 
hay rake clicking behind as it tossed the drying grass into windrows...
or balancing on the swaying deck of a hay wagon to pull each bale birthed from the baler and throw it back to be stacked.
Sore fingers that turned calloused from the twine.
Arms with the prickly "rash" of someone who knows how to handle a bale, how to place the first so that you can drop the next ones off the wagon and watch them bounce off that first to roll strategically close to the stack.
Sore muscles that rebounded for the next day's work, muscles that grew and became defined in my shoulders, my arms, my abs.
Those were perks. Along with eating as much of whatever I wished whenever I wanted.
And sleeping deeply at night.
Though more than once I woke to find myself standing next to my bed,
swinging invisible bales. 

Yesterday I wheeled a chair
through the wide hallways and conditioned air
of the respected local clinic/hospital.
The orthopedic surgeon agreed:
my x-ray was a dead ringer for the one on the laminated flip chart labeled 
The Arthritic Knee.
We set the replacement surgery date for July 24. 
I think probably the pain between now and then
will be equal to or worse than those dreaded days after the surgery.
I'll get back to you on that.

Well, bring it on. Maybe you've noticed: I love a challenge.
(It's a character flaw.)
I don't know how many thousand hay bales I handled through those summers
but the smell of drying hay is a narcotic to me.
It hypnotizes me.
It yanks me back to when I was younger and stronger,
when unloading a hundred or a thousand bales in one day was
the best thing I could imagine.
Now, June of 2012, I roll down my truck's windows when I drive
and take that deep breath
reed canary grass.

Every summer is distinct.
Maybe I'll look back to this year and think
that was when I had grace enough to accept my body's limitations
and faith enough to respect my own imagination
of a future
with an older but less painful body.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I Sing the Right Knee Electric

I wear my TENS unit as we speak. It's a delightful trippy little appliance that adorns my ( far) right knee. This joint is increasingly camouflaged under both unloading brace and now the wires & pads of a Jumper Cables play-at-home edition.

A nice little deck chair for my Titanic.

(Let me just say that my being forthright in describing this scene is an amazing departure from the terror of most of my life. Not knowing an outcome used to cause me only shame, secrecy and the agony of limbo. I hereby award myself Two Points for courage under public scrutiny.)


My physical therapist knew me from my post-amputation days there on the sunny eighth floor of the hospital. (I fell off the treadmill my first day. In his defense, he said, "I've never worked with such a high-performing above-knee amputee before!")

Yesterday he informed his PT-trainee/minion, "When most people say they have a high tolerance for pain, they're kidding themselves. When Liz says so, it's true."

He looked at my xrays and said something like, "Total deterioration of the medial something something." He directed his minion to manipulate my leg. He watched as I eventually shouted, "NO! THAT HURTS! I WILL NOT BEND IT MORE!"

He marveled at the slippage and crunching sounds as my knee moved into positions where No Knee Has Gone Before.

He told his minion, "Can you hear that? I can here that from here!"

I felt so validated I almost wept.

My life under the influence of PTSD has made me appreciate the mundane, all dull routines and comfortable boredom. Give me a schedule. Give me chores to do, horses to feed, seasons to follow. It's the antidote for that day during childhood when my world collapsed.

But I also appreciate the affirmation of someone saying, "This is bad. It's as bad as it could be." That brings tears of relief to my eyes.

I'm not crazy. This is messed up. Scott the PT told me to come back in a couple days for an adjustment, another application. I started to complain but he held up a hand.

"I know," he said. "But we have to jump through the hoops."

He's exactly right. I will have no credibility with the insurance overlords until this is documented ad nauseum. I'm grateful to count people like Scott on my side in this trip towards...towards...yeah. Say it, Liz: towards total knee replacement. Soon. This summer. Even though I only have one leg. But I'd rather be gritting my teeth to get through the pain of recovery and rehab rather than this equally painful degeneration. Right now I can barely walk.

So I learned about the sticky pads and red & black little fittings of the TENS unit. What numbers to turn it to. The 9-volt batteries it requires. It fits neatly into the thigh pocket of my cargo shorts.

The 1980's are like yesterday to me. So I think I'll call this my Walk-Ma'am.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Planting Hope

I used to have a problem planting seeds: I felt I was burying them. They'd never come up. Welcome to PTSD: no hope, no future, no sense of a world to come.

My grandmother never had this problem; she was an amazing gardener. I lived with her in my early twenties. We moved from the Boston area to upstate NY, she to retire and garden, me to escape the suburbs with my horse and goats-- and also to escape the fallout (which we never talked about) of the untreated childhood bone disease I'd survived as a Christian Scientist.
Though she was in her seventies, my grandmother grew a lush vegetable garden and canned and froze her produce, as well as picking fruit at local farms to preserve. Her flower beds featured lavender and purple irises. At twenty-one, I shook my head at her faith. How could she be sure these plants would grow from seeds stuck in the ground? From roots buried in soil?

Married, I planted tomatoes and forsythia bushes and marveled that they grew. How was this possible? In my late twenties I got pregnant, the greatest gesture of faith in the future I could imagine. I canned tomatoes that year with a friend whose mothering and homesteading knowledge went far beyond my sight. When we canned applesauce she said, "You 'll feed this to your baby next year." 

I nodded, terrified for a future I couldn't visualize, a future I was afraid I didn't deserve.

Still, my baby came along anyway. The next year I fed her applesauce. A few years later I glimpsed enough grim future to leave my husband and find a better life. My new home's lilac bushes burst into sweet-smelling lavender blooms in the spring. The bushes stood beside a crumbling foundation, an old farm site; the lilacs had been planted generations ago. What an act of hope.

That faith in the continuity of life inspired me. I planted daffodil bulbs. I was seduced by the Breck's catalog ("flower porn," I've come to call it) and fell hard for the double daffodils, the jonquils, and the Narcissus...I planted bulbed every year. Deer don't eat daffodils. The flowers bloomed, multiplied, and bloomed some more. I began to look forward to the cycle. My daughter and I grew a vegetable garden. Now planting seeds didn't feel so futile.

I married again, and the pregnancy of my second daughter was joyous. Hopeful.  
There was (is) a future. I was surprised every year. But every year I planted more. I found I could imagine a year ahead. Maybe not much more...but I could imagine a future.

When I moved across the road into yet another life, I started again planting water irises at the edge of my new pond from shoots my mother gave me. And lilacs. And double daffodils. My two girls are growing into young women. It amazes me. I'm able to say, "Next year--" when I plan, or when I fall short of this year's goals, or when I riff on a wild hope.

Hope grows. We had my grandmother's headstone etched with irises. But her impression on me cut deeper; it cut through my trauma. She taught me, "Plant. It will grow." I do: I'm putting up a deer-proof fence; this fall, I'll plant...tulips.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The world through pain-colored glasses

I didn't know I'd been wearing them until my wheelchair ride last week.

That cortisone shot? Supposed to last three months? Six months, even! "I've never seen it last less than two months," the doctor said as he stuck the needle into my knee.

Well, welcome to my world. Two days. Yeah. Two days. Long enough (since I am ever the resilient optimist; what's up with that??) for my hope to kick in. Two months of this? Terrific. A neoprene brace on my leg. Left the mechanical monstrosity at home. Not feeling perfect... but...better. Better? Better!

Sure. For a couple days.

Monday morning the ache was back. It hurt to stand after I'd been sitting a while. Then the same old crap, only worse. Aching at night. Barely able to hold my weight if I sat a while at work.

Despair. Then resolve.

Marched (read: drove) to have the x-rays my dr had ordered. Let the valets park my truck. Demanded (read: asked for) a wheelchair. Tootled off into the maze of floor tile and carpeting, the vaulted ceilings and cubicles that make up the rabbit run of the clinic (and hospital). Floor numbers and colors.2 purple, was it? I'd worn shorts, prosthesis and monstrosity ('Run-Forrest-run!") brace. I received the respect I've always known I deserve. A guy held the elevator and motioned everyone out of my way.  I managed not to kneecap anyone with the foot rests of my fine machine. I'm still fluent. It's like riding an everlovin' bicycle.

But I couldn't figure out what was different. I was the most cheerful gimp in the x-ray waiting area. Growling, snarling, shuffling around. Not me.

No pain. No pain.

The knowledge slapped my face. Pain has been the warm water in my pot that finally approaches boiling. Pain has worked from a faint hum to steady drone, infiltrating my life, hijacking my plans. It wears me down until I'm tired and grouchy, depressed and downtrodden. It makes me grim.

There's a test you can do on a horse-for-sale if you think it might be lame. (DISCLAIMER!: NEVER buy a horse that seems unsound! ALWAYS have a vet check the horse! And whatever you do, DON'T buy one with three shoes...but that's another story.) This is the test: ride the horse. Then dose it with Butazolidin (an anti-inflammatory drug). The ride it again. If the horse goes better with Bute, woila: he's lame.

My Bute was a wheelchair. And my normal condition? Lamer than hell. Braced to tackle the hikes through my day, staggering and gasping. I didn't know I was wearing those pain-shades until I took them off.

So after my knee x-rays I rolled straight to orthopedics. Got myself an appointment with the head honcho in a few weeks. Sooner, with a cancellation. Time to use this damn resilience of mine. Quit my bitching. Find an answer.

Friday, June 8, 2012

I'll Have Another won't, after all

Heard it on the radio--"--scratched from the Belmont--"  Missed the name. Braced myself for the next news update. Sure enough. I'll Have Another, the horse that really--really--looked like a Triple Crown winner had heat & swelling in his leg. He won't race again. Dammit.

I was wound up four years ago when Big Brown had a shot. He had that unbelievable overdrive, that extra gear that seemed invincible. I watched the race in a bar with a crowd of horsy friends after I'd ridden (one-legged) all day in a horsemanship clinic. But Big Brown (known for his hoof troubles) didn't look like himself that day. Never found third gear, let alone fourth or overdrive.

I was lucky enough to see both Secretariat (1973) and Affirmed (1978) win the Triple Crown on TV. In 1973 I was eleven. Life was good. My fantasy horse-story world of books and the model horses I galloped through the lush woods behind my house overlapped with a live Shetland named Dragon that was all mine to ride--assuming I could catch him, bridle him, and stay on. I knew I had to ride race horses some day. Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths and still broke the record, racing only his shadow. Even on our little black-and-white TV set that big horse's ground-eating stride gave me chills. Even the memory does. Anything seemed possible.  

Five years later in 1978 I was sixteen, fluent in maneuvering the crutches that were all the mobility I possessed after a bone disease derailed my life. Well, except for when I Flicka led beside a rock wall and traded crutches and my fragile, battle-scarred left leg for my horse's back and powerful limbs. My dreams of being a jockey were shattered. I swallowed my envy to watch eighteen-year-old Steve Cauthen--"The Kid"--ride Affirmed with grace and subtlety, nipping out Alydar at the wire. I was hypnotized, impressed. And filled with despair for myself.

I'm proud of the teenager I was, the girl with the fused leg who climbed onto her near-rank horse in a search for speed. She closed her mind to the stares at how she walked. Limp and all, she went on to be a professional rider and instructor. And she showed up uninvited at a chilly barn to ask for a shot at exercising race horses. She rode at the track for more than half a dozen years, Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, bad leg and all.

I heard Steve Cauthen (retired now and in his early fifties) liked I'll Have Another for the Triple Crown. But even as I cursed the bad news today, I thought of Frank Deford's commentary on NPR the other morning.  And I thought of Big Brown's defeat. I thought what a tragedy it would be to see a great horse break down in the race, let alone the danger to his jockey and the other riders and horses. As a kid, I watched the match race between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian, colt versus filly in those days of heady, '70's feminism. But Ruffian broke down during the race and was euthanized.

I guess I'm old enough now (and lame enough) to appreciate erring on the side of caution. I'll watch the Belmont tomorrow. I just hope I'm optimistic enough to dream about next year and another shot at speed, freedom, and breaking barriers.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Virtual, Blog-side Protest

Today is the Annual Meeting at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston--The Mother Church. Three years ago I attended a protest of this event held by the Boston Atheists.

It was organized by Seth Asser, a pediatrician devoted to protecting children from religion-based medical neglect. He and Rita Swan produced a startling study of child deaths under legal prayer that would likely have had good outcomes under medical treatment. (See ). 

I hadn't seen the dome of The Mother Church in twenty years. But I attended Sunday school there countless times when I was a kid, visiting my grandmother or on a field trip with my own Christian Science Sunday school class. My grandmother lived across the street from the center and worked as a bookkeeper for the Christian Science Publishing Society. As a kid I'd walked with my mother past the reflecting pools, the expanse of plaza and the imposing buildings that made up the Church Center.

This was before the bone disease that destroyed my left knee (and arguably chunk of my sanity) when I was thirteen. It was treated, of course, only with Christian Science. Sometimes I think of it as my time as an exchange student in hell.

At the protest I joined others who introduced themselves and distributed signs--as though I needed one.

I wore a T-shirt that said THIS WAS MY CHRISTIAN SCIENCE "HEALING". And shorts.

Immediately a security guard appeared. "You have to stay on the sidewalk. You can't sit on the benches or go on the lawn. That's church property."

When I'd requested to have my name removed from the membership a dozen years before (eight years before my above-knee amputation) I'd received such a loving letter: Of course, you're always welcome as Christian Science Reading Rooms, church services and lectures. You have our continuing love, and we wish you all the best.

That day: not so much.

We broke for lunch during the meeting, but we were waiting when the members left the church.

The light had taken on a hard slant. The thin stream of people split into two groups, some walking towards the parking garage, the rest towards us and public transportation. I stood at the line we were not allowed to cross. Where plaza met sidewalk. Where Christian Science met reality.

The people coming from the church wore fixed smiles and stared past me. I waited for someone--anyone, just one individual--to look me in the eye.

They just smiled into a horizon only they could see.

"Don't worry!" Seth yelled. "We're not really here! We're a mortal illusion. Just deny us." The way I'd desperately tried to deny the infection that ate at my leg when I was a kid. Denial, the approach still protected by law in dozens of states .

One distinguished older man couldn't stop from snarling, "Go to hell!" but even then he averted his eyes from mine. Mostly, their faces were frozen, half-grimace, half-smile. Dissociation can almost pass for polite. I still do it myself: zone out when reality is unacceptable.

It's how humans cope. Even if they call themselves Christian Scientists.

Photo credits: Al Grover

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Guess which knee got the needle? No wait, no fair: too easy. One gets an allen wrench.

Ah, cortisone, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Those cc's of time travel serum have taken me back a couple years. Not as far as I'd like, not to those first few years after my amputation when I was strong enough on my feet to work as a barista, and even at a plant nursery...but compared to last week? No contest. 

I sat down and wept in the doctor's office when I explained how I'd gotten: if I stood after sitting very long, I couldn't put weight on my right leg. Only lurch and gasp and grab for a handhold. Thinking about getting out my cane. Feeling stalked by a wheelchair. Only after a few minutes would the pain and weakness recede, mostly because of my outstanding ability to ignore them. I need a plan for the future but it's hard to advocate in this frame of mind. Pain clouds my thinking & wears me down. But I insisted: xrays & a referral to an orthopedic surgeon since I haven't seen one in several years. Rx for the TENS unit, though it feels like ordering a new deck chair for the Titanic.

But the needle was good. Today I'm trying to accept I can stand up and walk with only slight pain in the joint. It's still weak. It still grinds. But it doesn't have that fragility of glass ready to shatter. Muscle memory screams Watch out! even when it doesn't hurt. Doctor said the shot should last three to six months, two at the minimum. I heard him but I can't believe it. Disappointments, pain and disability shave away your original sharp edges of hope until you are as streamlined as a torpedo. Always prepared to barrel head down through stormy waters because expectations are a liability. I've worked so hard to learn how to hope again. Still, I recalibrate down to resignation much too easily.

Still. Today feels good. I'm going outside.