Sunday, August 30, 2009

Death in the children's store

The bells on the door jingle. I look up to see Mr. H (for Harmless) and his new pal. Both 60-ish, a little scruffy, and markedly slow. Mr. New (his buddy) wears a cap that’s been washed a few times and won’t ever look nice again. His baseline expression is one of slight amusement, near-smiling. They both slouch. Mr. H has big lips that chew up his words as he gets them out. He looks at me only from the periphery, but he always comes in. I wonder what he’ll take out with him today. It’s usually a free brochure on businesses in Cambridge. Sometimes it’s a flyer for a babysitter or cloth diaper service.

Mr. H: Hellah-o. You’ve seen us before, right?
Jo: Yes I have.
Mr. H: Because we come in here sometimes.
Jo: Every weekend.

New: Everyone has to pass away eventually
Jo: busies herself looking in cabinets.
Mr. H
: We come in here. Me and my buddy here. What’s your name again?

: It’s Jo.
Mr. H: Jooaa… Jo?
Jo: Yes. Jo.
Mr. New: Do we all have to pass away? Why should we all have to pass away?

Mr. H
: Yoomans do pass away. We have to.
Mr. New: looking to me, although seemingly addressing Mr. H
I don’t see why we should have to.
Mr. H: plucking a business card, because he only takes things that are free.
The animals, they don’t live as long as yoomans.
Mr. New: We should live forever.
Jo: as though there’s something essential inside cabinets that must be found. looking busier...
Mr. H: If you think of a dog they only get to be about twenty before they die.

Jo: eyebrow spike...
Mr. H: Or a small dog they only make it to about twelve.
Jo: Yep.
Mr. New: But why should anything die?
Mr. H: rocking from foot to foot.What do you think about little people? I bet little people pass away earlier. I bet they don’t last as long as we do.
Jo: shrug.
Mr. H: I’m 58. That’s me, I’m 58 years old now. This year.
Mr. New: How is it we’re going to pass away?
Jo: I don’t have an answer.
Mr. New: It seems like we should have been made better to not pass away. Why do you think it is we pass away?
Jo: Um… well, we’re made out of stuff that rots.
Mr. H: Because if you think of it little people are like little dogs. They probably don’t last as long.
Mr. New: I think maybe we won’t pass away.
Mr. H: heading for the doorWe will though.
Mr. New: following
I’m not so sure about that.

The door jingles as they exit, still jabbering, talking to themselves as though they were never speaking to me. Out into the world.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ahh, memories.

I found myself saying this today and I'm still chortling:

"I thought we were dating, but it turns out he was merely French."

I guess this is proof that those "you'll look back on this and laugh" moments truly exist...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

the boulevard of broken strings

There are few events that can come up that will make me cancel plans with other people I like, but Jake Armerding playing at Club Passim is one of those events.

Apologies, person with whom I canceled plans, but the show was flippin' amazing!

I forget, over and over again, how much I love live music, only to be smacked in the face with the power of it when I'm in its presence again. Watching these men expertly, lovingly drawing music out of mandolins, saxophones, guitars, guitar cases! There's an alchemy there that I miss and feel throbbing like a phantom limb. I used to be capable of that.

More than that I miss Arahsae, who introduced me to Jake Armerding. I miss listening to my brother play his guitar/bass/whatever through the bedroom wall, even being annoyed with him for it. I miss the feeling of slipping my voice between the notes of guitar, trumpet, keyboard in that basement jazz club in Galway.

Last night Cap'n Armerding broke a string during the first song, which he solved prettily enough by switching for his mandolin. Then he asked the crowd if anyone could change a guitar string. I wanted to raise my little hand, but honestly, I'm clumsy. There was a moment when I would have done anything to hold the guitar, warm from the performers hands, be somehow a part of the machine of that music.

I hope the neighbors didn't mind me belting in the shower this morning.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Seventh grade. I carried six notebooks most days for each subject, six binders, the occasional steno pad and calculator, all in a tired backpack populated by whole villages of broken pock-marked pencils and non-functional pens. The school year waxed and waned and my notebooks became predictably tattooed with notes, doodles, stains and other batterings.
I carried one folder. Inside this folder I kept the loose leaf collection of the awkward stories I wrote and let no one see. They were halting, haunting and very likely unfleshed. At the time I thought writing could only be an organic process – an unplanned and unsupervised ride powered by some punch-drunk muse.
The stories were universally dark… about suicide pacts, deadly car accidents, people wasting away with horrible diseases. If I had known what Goth or Emo meant, I might have found a niche. Perhaps not… I was horrified by the nightmare highway my muse continually chose. I was afraid and fascinated by my own propensity for darkness. It was manageable, however, because no one else knew.
It was eighth grade. That was the year terrible things began to happen. A classmate, already socially shunned and ridiculed, found out that his mother died during the school day. He disintegrated before our eyes into a mass of howls. That same year another classmate’s obese sister was found dead. There were rumors; she’d overdosed on diet pills, she’d had a heart attack, she’d choked on a sandwich, her brother killed her with emotional abuse. I felt I knew the truth then. These horrible things happened because I wrote them.
I remember so well the feeling that the events around me were like a camera’s iris, closing into tighter focus. I was choking inside that aperture like it was a 360 degree guillotine. Now I see that my brain was ready for all of it. I was an open soul, begging to be trod on and tried. I didn’t create the events; they blazed inward, highlighting pre-existing sensitivities. It was as though I had an acute sunburn in the winter time and was utterly surprised when dishwater scalded me.
I think of this today because my vocabulary of this life has expanded once more and opened me to new sensitivities. Where before I thought of cancer as a general, unfathomable disease, I can now hear the word cancer across a crowded subway train and it sets my brain reeling. I think of the women who call me at work begging for an earlier surgery. I think of the wheelchair-bound patients in the elevator with their wigs askew and their fragile, bare ankles. I think of how a nurse talked of one of her patients, how he already smelled like death.
So at my brother’s wedding my ears twitched open to the family friend, the woman we call “Aunt” and whose husband we call “Uncle.” Her cancer, I hadn’t known, was one I deal with daily. She asked me if I could pull strings to have her seen at Mass General. I told her, honestly, that I’m new there, and I have no idea. I didn’t want to discuss it further. I hated the immediacy of knowing the possibilities.
And now, a month later, another family friend was claimed by cancer. I saw the New York area code on my work phone but it didn’t click until halfway through my, “This is Jo, how can I help you.” My dad told me to call my mother tonight. Our old neighbor died after a long and strenuous fight. I asked about the kind of cancer, how long it’s been going on (and no one told me). She had a gynecologic cancer, the kind I deal with. She had metastases in her lungs.
Is it possible I was so self-involved before that I never noticed that the women I love on this earth are dying? Is there some energy in the world that draws these coincidences together? I want to believe that it has to do with this sensitivity, like the honing of a musical skill. I can hear the pitch and color of the word cancer in its full spectrum now. It existed before I could hear it and won’t stop its cacophonous echo now that I can.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

the incredible shrinking jobiv

I truly am disappearing. There's a positive aspect, at last: I'm losing weight.

I can't figure out how I'm doing it, either. At first it was pure poverty, and maybe the stress of running between four different jobs, never quite remembering my stomach needed feeding. There were several nights when I'd get home at 10 and realize that it was far too late for dinner.

And now, I think, it has something to do with financial security. I can't completely connect the dots, but perhaps it's that I grab and gulp less. I used to devour food whenever I could get my hands on it because it seemed like a precious commodity - one I couldn't afford most days. Now I'm at leisure to choose what I consume. Very new.

On the dark side of all this is my increasing need to become invisible. I am full to bursting with a distressing dichotomy: I'm ever so happy in my work life and find the rest of the world outside of it deeply embarrassing and troubling. More and more I find myself sending brainwave imperatives to those around me: "Don't look at me. Don't look too closely. I'm not here. Don't notice me."

This is apropos of the need for new clothes, by the way... I've been shopping because my clothes look funny on me - too big - but find myself shying away from colors I used to love. My wardrobe is a limited and muted spectrum of gray, beige, black and brown.

I am a cloud passing through. Don't notice me. I am a mud puddle. Avoid me. I am blending with the pavement, shiftitng my chameleonic skin to the steel of subway stations. I'm invisible.

Why, though... I push my thoughts out to grab at answers and they come back empty handed.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

in which our heroine hates doctors but takes a job in a hospital

Working among health professionals strikes me as perilous for a person as unhealthy as I am. I knew this, going in. I knew I'd be walking directly into the lion's den every morning and sitting among them, reeking of delicious eland or ibex or whatever lions particularly love to eat.

It's difficult to guard my health issues, most of which I keep extremely private because I usually think my body came along for the ride with my soul just to embarrass me. At a hospital, however, there is no thing they have not seen before. Practically.

One of my least favorite nurses, with whom I do not work directly, thank god, loudly pointed out my limp one day. "Do you have foot drop?" she exclaimed, like she'd discovered proof of my deep dark past and was displaying it to the jury. Yes, I told her... yes I do. I limp. I had a back thing. It's much better now. MOST people don't notice, or at least never mention it.

The woman who sits in my glass cage with me has noticed many a symptom by now. At first I was good at controlling my little issues, but soon enough the hair began to fall. I don't even notice when I'm pulling at it. She's never said anything, but she watches out of the corner of her eye with a creased forehead. I do it when I'm speaking to someone on the phone, begging for OR time, or convincing a woman with cancer that she can wait six weeks for surgery because the doctor said it's okay.

And of course the panic attacks haven't truly abated. The more I try to suppress them, the more likely they are to spread and fester. So I try to use every coping strategy I've ever learned. I try to pull from my secret stores of strength. There was one morning, though, when I couldn't control it and I hadn't even left for work yet. There was no mistaking that I'd been crying and distressed since the wee hours of the morning. I called my doctor's office for some other little thing, got an appointment, called in to work to say I had to see the doctor and would be in later... told people some vague thing about allergies - not a lie, but imprecise.

These disguises are so thin among women who work with distressed women. They notice everything, down to the nurse who points as she walks past and says, "squinting!" to remind me to visit the optometrist. In my more paranoid moments I'm sure she'll walk by, pointing and shouting out my darkest secrets, like the old crone in The Princess Bride who boos Princess Buttercup in her nightmare. "Bow down to the queen of putrescence," etc. I don't even know what this nurse could notice that could be so bad and why I think I'm not obvious as it is. Is it so horrible if people know I'm anxious or tend towards depression?

It is if it's incapacitating. If it interferes with my job... if I'm not able to help people get the care they need because my personal resources are so depleted...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

In the immortal words of D. Bowie, "Turn and face the strain."

Wednesday morning and I woke up in an immaculately clean room. I stretched for an hour, got up and assessed the milk situation (completely out), made a cup of jasmine green tea and a serving of corn mush. Everything is different from the last time I was out of milk; that’s what I thought to myself. Just a few months ago I was getting creative with all I could afford – cheap, chewy bread, eggs, and heads of lettuce. I made myself eat the greenest parts. I hate the really green parts. They offer no resistance for the teeth, but that’s where the vitamins hide.

A few months ago I would check my bank account daily to make sure no weird little fees were going to incapacitate my rent check. A few months ago I would wake up before God for my daily corporate coffee catechism: “Good morning, how are you today? Would you like room for milk? Soy milk is on the counter now. Have a nice day!”

Here it is, June of 2009. My brother Cripps got laid off and just lost his work-from-home job, too. My dad is always reading on the back deck when I call him, “Waiting for a business call.” My friends are scrambling to keep jobs they hate. And I got hired at the hospital.

This feeling is something like survivor’s guilt, I think. I’m thrilled, on one hand, to have lucked out so completely; I temped in two places, loved the second one and they loved me back. It was a mutual fit with some time to luxuriate and research if it made sense for me. I’m still adjusting, of course. I went from working 6 hour shifts at a coffee shop, running to old lady sitting, running to the kids’ clothing store… Now I have one job to dress for. One place to establish friendships. One set of people to surprise or disappoint. I can faithfully say I’ve never had just one thing on my plate until now. It’s jarring and strange, but I tell myself it’s a good thing.

Here’s the extraordinary part: I write the rent check without looking now. I can do it with one hand tied behind my back. I’d have to hold down the checkbook with my nose, but still…

All of this puts me in a better position for the week to come. I’m still scared shitless, but, y’know, when people ask what I do I have an answer that doesn’t make me cringe.

My brother Smacks gets married this weekend. I’m headed home.

I actually took off Monday and Tuesday (and clearly Wednesday) to prepare myself. I couldn’t explain it to anyone at work so I told them I had to catch up with doctors’ appointments. The truth is I need this time to breathe and be sure of myself. I cleaned the crap out of my room, I went through old journals, I fed myself kindly… I want to think of Boston while I’m there and remember how well I’ve done. I won’t be able to say it much so I have to know it.

The truth is that these are still lonely, scary days. I know the day will come when I’ll have a panic attack at the hospital and they’ll have to know a few things I don’t want to share. And I still have to face the part of me that was so sure I’d grow up to be something different – someone completely in my own skin, creative and growing and bursting with extra love to give out freely.

I’m not there yet. I’m getting there. I can almost see that person behind my reflection, kinda waving me forward, encouraging my steps.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The small birds are chattering in rained-on outrage. I wish I could say what kind they are, but they’re puny and hide in bushes. I only hear their tiny voices, raised together to form a brave cacophony.

I only have one voice, and it’s surely puny right now.

My panic attacks are leading to another job ending abruptly. This will be the third time. It’s very hard to speak up for oneself when one's throat is collapsing.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The path near the intersection of St. Paul and Beacon is a narrow one, hedges on one side bullying pedestrians toward the curb. The concrete slabs of sidewalk pitch and lean whichever way. Huge roots push them around in the summer time and ice splits them in the winter. It's not unsafe to walk there; merely difficult. Being a bit tilted, I feel like a wide, ponderous load for those who exit the trolley at that same stop. Most of the crowd heads the same way - up that narrow path.

I've made an art of unreadiness and it seems to help. I hold my book until the last minute, bury my gloves in the bottom of my bag and leave my coat unbuttoned. I stand there under the shelter for a moment, fixing and digging and putting-away. These little natural movements make me appear merely disorganized, I hope, although they are carefully choreographed. To a girl with a limp, a pair of gloves are a saving grace. A finicky bag is a godsend. Every button on a coat makes the walk more endurable. People rush past and I let them, along with the terror of becoming a hindrance to humanity in general. Pass me by pass me by... please oh please pass me by.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

and thank you for riding the MBTA

Confession: I secretly believe that Lucretia The Guitar and I will rise to stardom through busking in train stations. I will be that pitiable yet alluring starving artist who rejuvenates songs by one-hit-wonders that have since settled into the backwaters of pop music due to overly rich and hopelessly dated soprano saxophone solos. People will lean against tiled pillars, perusing their text messages and avoiding each other’s eyes until, lo!, they hear a familiar strain and can’t quite place it. Such musicality! Such expressiveness! What talent to draw out pure beauty from a song heretofore passed over by even the most nostalgic of music lovers! Unrecognizable, and yet immediately embraced by those weary denizens of rat-races and corporate ladders! Yea, even the Ugg-clad adolescents find they must lower the volume on their sonic devices to hear her rend her soul for the mere coins in her guitar case…

I should learn how to tune my guitar first.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I fall down sometimes.

Especially when it's icy and gross outside, and the irresponsible/over-privileged citizens of Brookline and Boston don't clear their sidewalks.

The other day I did a split on some black ice. Well, it was more of a jack-knife maneuver than anything, but the result was the same searing muscle pain that comes from stretching a part of one's body that has not been stretched in, oh, say, ever.

Over the course of two days, I fell five times.

Other people fall down when it's icy. I just fall more. It's this here limp, y'see. It's the lack of control over my left foot. I think I'm fine and then I slip a little and can't get my muscles to do what they're supposed to and fwoop, "Mother EFFER!" Down I go.

At the moment I'm sitting in bed after my get-this-coffee-smell-offa-me shower and letting my scabs dry and heal while my knees are bent so they won't tear open when I go to walk. I remembered that trick from childhood playground injuries of yore.

My knees always looked like this in those days.

Although I did tan better back then.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Once again, that deep ache has solidified my ribcage. It's the ache of impossibility, I think. By that I mean I keep wanting the course of my life to shift to something it can't be. I want it to shift to loving families and exciting work and a healthy body. How is it that I can't get there? It's this Alice-y feeling of frustration - just barely catching a glimpse of the right path and not getting my feet on it in time.

To clarify; the ache isn't merely that I don't have satisfying work, it's that I don't have the courage to find it. It's not that my body isn't functional, it's that I have one more layer added to the nonfunctionality of my already messy body. It's not that it's my brother's 30th birthday tomorrow and I can't be there, it's that he doesn't want me there.

I feel my ribs hardening and cracking and resisting the expansion of my lungs. I can't make any of it right. I can't write a script for my life that anyone else will read out with me. "Just do this, stand here, and say the following," I want to say. It never, ever works that way.

Monday, January 05, 2009


I shall not do my roommates' dishes anymore. I will stick to this, even if I begin to twitch and cry and they find me rocking myself on the kitchen floor when they come home.

I shall not plan trips to Le Victoir that span longer than 72 hours.

I shall write to the people whom I love in this world, and, when I have time, to the people I like and admire. (Luckily, the two categories overlap quite a bit.)

I shall cook with zeal, not only because I can't afford ready-made meals, but because food is fun.

I shall divorce myself from Starbucks. And soon.