Celebrating the Two-Headed Beast: A Toast to Time

New Year’s Eve…one foot in the past, one in the future. We watch a ball drop, twine arms and sip champagne and the months of the old year wind out behind us like a scroll. January…weather alerts and bowl games. February…does he/she love me, does he  not? March…the winds blow, carrying the faint aroma of rebirth before the cold clamps down again. April, T.S. Eliot’s cruelest month…but you get the picture. Twelve months gone. Our past is written, at times in lyric poetry, often in doggerel, but it is known. Notice I don’t say knowable, for hidden within those 365 finished days are secret troves of revelation and understanding, of growth and wisdom. We just need time to discover them all.  And time is what the new year brings us.

At midnight, that most arbitrary of moments arrives. One tick of the clock and we begin a new set of days, each one linked in a chain of events as yet a mystery. The future becomes a red carpet rolled out before us. A golden doorway beckons. One glance backward and we forge ahead, at once timid and bold. Who among us knows what to expect? Nothing is guaranteed, not even the next minute. Stepping into the unknown is an act of courage. No wonder we fortify ourselves for the journey.

On my writing desk, I keep a calendar, one with large blocks in which to record the mundanities of my day to day life. At the end of each year, I catalog the trips to the dentists, the days I pay bills, flight arrangements and meetings. Then, I go back through the pages, remembering the lunch dates with friends, the theatre excursions, the books I have read, all my walks in the wild. I total those precious hours when joy, not obligation, visited my life. And in the summing up of days gone past, I set a pattern for the days to come.

The Romans had a god for this, Janus, whose two-headed likeness dwelt in both realms. Past and future were not disconnected but merged, their gift to us double- faceted. The coins of our lives bind us to past and future, to what was and what shall be. We cannot have all work or all play, all joy or all sorrow. Life, in all its complexity, demands our attention. Yet we do have choices, to be positive or negative, to strive for the mountaintop or dwell in the cellar. The past may be etched in stone, but the future is a blank canvas.

This new year, I intend to borrow an activity from a writer friend and create a poster board on which I will paste a collection of items that represent my future, a visual representation of the goals, activities and paths I wish to pursue. Then I will hang it above my work desk, a reminder of the road I wish to take. Why such a project? Because before I can reach those goals, before I can walk those paths, I must dream them.Seeing them hanging there will serve as a tangible reminder of the year to come.

In the aftermath of the New Year’s Eve mania, I will lay me down to dream the future into being, welcoming as much of life as I can, facing the storms and the rainbows to come with as much strength as I can, thankful for the opportunity to go forward one more time.

Happy New Year!

Of Carnage and Compassion and Common Sense

Tis the holiday season. Amid all the preparations, we reel from the ongoing attacks by people intent upon forcing their way of worship onto the greater mass of humanity. The awful events from around the globe – Beirut, Paris, Afghanistan, California – regale us with images that haunt our dreams and create fear in our hearts. Reacting to that fear, some among us advocate for policies that will throw us back into history, force us to retreat from our empathy and understanding into bigotry and hate. I am reminded of the story of the First Christmas, when a Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph, sought shelter, and the promise of the coming birth of their son evoked a similar response.

King Herod, fooled by the magi regarding the birth of the child long prophesied, “ordered the massacre of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and its environs, making his calculations on the basis of the date he had learned from the astrologers.” (Matt. 16, The New American Bible) And so it came to pass that slaughter of the innocents marked the flight of that family into Egypt. Our Christian history, intimately connected to that of the Jewish people, acknowledged in the ongoing history of Islam, presents us with a Christmas horror story that is echoed in the awful events we witness today. Fear, it seems, is always with us. What, then, can we do with this tendency to act upon that fear, this knee-jerk response that sees us flinging away our belief in the fundamental rights of others and espousing actions that we have vowed never to repeat: internment, religious testing, torture, war?

The three great western religions have, at their core, very similar tenets: do good works, care for others, atone for your sins, worship. Especially during this holiday season, those things which we have in common ought to be stronger than the differences that separate us. Think of the use of food as a gesture of hospitality and respect, light as a beacon in the darkness, gifts as a tangible way to show how we care for others. Compassion for others is a hallmark of God/Jehovah/Allah’s presence in our hearts and in our lives. Whatever explanation you choose to follow on your own spiritual path, the similarities are so much stronger than the differences.

As a mother and a grandmother, an educator and a writer, I long for one clear explanation for the horror of a massacre like the one in San Bernardino. There is no place in my heart to explain how a mother and father abandon their six-month old child to a grandmother’s care while they murder co-workers, friends, fellow inhabitants of this fragile earth we share. I cannot understand strapping a bomb to my chest and blowing myself up to harm innocents shopping or eating or simply living their common, solid lives. I cannot imagine stabbing a starnger on the street as a way to draw attention to my hatred. No God I seek, no prophet or messiah, would promote carnage for its own sake. Somewhere in this vast mine field of conflicting fanaticisms there must be a moment when even the most radical of warriors sees the light, when the blood already spilled becomes enough, when the spark of wonder and curiosity that informs the human soul prevails over destruction and death. This is my prayer…that the carnage stop, that compassion rule and that common sense reassert itself as we work together to bring this current crusade to an end. For it is a crusade – of light against darkness, of good against evil, of truth against deceit.

As the season unwinds, I wish for all of you peace, as I wish it for myself and my family and for the world. Can we not start now, today, to make such a wish reality?

A Hole in My Head, Part 2: Of Risks and Rewards

Sometimes I think I already have a hole in my head. That’s old-fashioned slang that refers to something that nobody needs or wants…and some days, when I must sit down and write my stories, I think I have  a hole in my head. After all, who cares? Who cares that I closet myself with my books and my computer and the hours fly by while I’m polishing paragraphs or etching essays or streamlining stories. If I journey into memoir, I risk exposing the tender flesh of memory, the raw dark corners of my soul. If I stick with fiction, I risk crafting a work no one will ever see. Rejection, you see, lurks like Dora’s foxy Swiper, behind every bush and tree. Do I need this grief?

I’m not comfortable being a gambler. Las Vegas exerts no hold on me. Casinos don’t compete for my hard-earned dollars. The most I’m willing to risk is a scratch-off in the Christmas stocking or a lottery ticket shared with friends when the jackpot reaches seductive heights. So what compels me to spend hours, days, months, years creating and crafting a piece that may or may not achieve publication? Risk there is, more than enough to carve out a queasy space in the pit of my stomach. Reward, not so much. An occasional journal will pay for my work. They might send me a few offer author copies. If an agent takes me on, I’ll be looking at an extended revision period with no promise an editor will spring for the novel at the end of that time. So, what gives? In an attempt to answer that question, I’ve made a list. Of course you have, my friends chortle. Isn’t that what you always do? Sigh. I acknowledge that, indeed, all those little pieces of paper with columns of ideas, wisps of conversation and acres of chapter changes do belong to me. Thus, the list.

Intrinsic Rewards:

#1. Joy. One of my friends who is attempting to write about her own life experiences asked me, in the midst of her struggle to stay focused, how I return day after day to the writing. I do it, I say, because the anticipation of sitting at my computer and ‘wording’ it lights a small fire inside me. I burn with the warmth of that fire, anxious to immerse myself in the words. That is not to discount the moments when the writing itself brings pain and discomfort. That, too, is a property of fire.

#2. Possibility. In the act of creation, of bringing characters and situations to life, I experience a profound belief in the possible, in the magical, in the power of words to make us fully alive. And I imagine success for my work. Which acquires, after it leaves my hands, a life journey of its own. Fly, little story, fly, fly, fly!

#3. Satisfaction. Whether the story remains in my folder of unpublished works or soars into its own orbit, I have completed the race. Each piece is polished and labeled and waiting, not for Godot, but for some lesser god to claim it as his or her own. If only one person finds pleasure in the reading, I am content.

#4. The Paradox of Pleasure/Pain. In the moment of creating, revising, editing, submitting, I am torn between the contentment of completion and the fear of failure. And in that moment I feel most keenly alive, aware of all the paths the story may take, acutely attuned to the risks I am taking.

I may not place my money on the table or slip a coin into a slot. I’m not betting the farm or losing the house. I’m gambling with the only coin I have to lose. I’m venturing my words, my stories, my self-esteem, my belief in my own ability. Risky business, this writing game. When it comes to publication, the odds are stacked against me. The house wins most of the time. But, oh those sweet rewards when acceptance rides the email and my story finds a home.

So, I plug the hole in my head where fear resides, stifle the inner censor, banish the boo bird who insists I’m a loser. I type away, betting that this story will be the big winner. That the reward is worth the risk. That pain and pleasure and satisfaction and possibility and joy make the ride worth it.

A Hole in My Head: Musing about Brain Surgery

Two and a half months from today, I will allow Dr. Raymond Sekula, world-renowned neurosurgeon, to make an incision behind my left ear, drill out a quarter-size piece of my skull, open the lining of my brain and insert a microscopic teflon sponge between a blood vessel and the nerve it impinges. Then he’ll glue, paste and tape me up. All this to cure my rather rare hemifacial spasms and release me from the trimonthly injections of botox around my eye used to control the spasms for the past thirteen years. With luck, I’ll be up and walking the same day and ready to return home the next…or I could suffer hearing loss, swallowing difficulties, a stroke or death. Surgery is NOT for sissies. Boorah!

I pause here to whisper a prayer and gather in all those that my friends and family will send my way. Courage works best when infused with a huge dose of faith.

It began with a twitch. After intense concentration, such as grading eighty essays in one night or reading for four hours, the lower lid of my left eye would tremble. Not to worry. Eye strain, I rationalized. Not a big deal. But the twitch became a tremor became a clenching so bad I couldn’t see the page in front of me. I continued to soldier on, convinced that stress and the grading overload of a high school teacher were causing my problems. But when a student in the first row felt compelled to ask, “Mrs. Irvin, do you know your eye’s twitching?” I realized that my condition had grown beyond my control. I’d been outed.

The spasms moved down my cheek to my lip, then covered the left side of my scalp. I began to avoid social situations, since the focus on faces required for such interaction caused major flareups. I made an appointment with a local neurologist and waited to see if any of the drugs he prescribed would work. They didn’t. Next step: botox.

“Botulinum toxin (BTX),” Wikipedia proclaims, “is a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.” Now, Wiki might not be the most academic of sites, but this definition is spot on.Botox is a poison, and the side effects can be brutal. As the years passed, my response to the medication became more pronounced: lid droop severe enough to close my eye,  conjunctivitis, facial weakness. The most problematic was the double vision. Imagine this. You’re driving down the highway and suddenly the headlights approaching you have doubled from two to four, one set canted above to the left, the other below to the right. Guess right and you avoid an accident. Guess wrong and you’re road kill. Yeah, not exactly an optimum way to navigate our roads. I tried driving with one eye closed, switching from right to left. The maneuver left me nauseous and slightly out of control. I do not adapt well to single vision. Several doctors recommended an eye patch. Aargh!

I decided I didn’t want to be a pirate for the rest of my life.

This far away from the procedure, I still feel comfortable and confident. The array of tests I just completed prove I do indeed have hemifacial spasms. (Apparently there are other conditions that could cause my symptoms.) The blood vessel that rubs against the nerve, causing a continual flow of impulses to the muscles in my eye, face and head, is quite clear on the MRI. A lateral spread and a hearing test provide a base line which can be evaluated during the surgery itself. I did my research. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is the leader in this particular condition and its treatment, so I’m in good hands. No, this is NOT an Allstate commercial, although my husband did work for them for thirty years.

So, here I am, on the cusp of a new adventure. The success rate of this surgical procedure is above 90%. Some people have instant relief. For others, the condition goes away in six to twelve months. I’m holding out for the immediate cure.

Don’t misunderstand me. This is not cancer or heart disease. Many people suffer from far more serious conditions. But it is a quality-of-life issue and I am most anxious to reclaim my ability to socialize and drive and read with facility. I keep hearing that song by the Dixie Chicks: “I need a boy like you like a hole in my head…” and thinking, well, I’ll have a hole in my head for a while. But the bone will grow over the plug, my hair will grow back, the fierce headache will subside and, God willing, the spasms will be gone. Sounds like a fair trade.

P.S. Don’t tell my mom. She’ll freak out. Actually, she already knows, but she’s ninety-one and doesn’t remember everything. I’ve got airline tickets to Minneapolis in late August, a canoe trip planned for the fall, a workshop to present October 3 and reservations for Magna Cum Murder in Indianapolis and I don’t plan to miss a thing!

PSS. Prayers, positive vibes and hugs are graciously and gratefully accepted!