Magic

This morning my daughter turned on the movie Rio, laughing at the silly birds and their swirling colors. I got a little misty-eyed as I was mixing up her hot chocolate, and then I remembered why — a tiny slice of life that comes back in a burst of red and blue and emerald green.

After two years of off and on attempts at finding what was wrong with me, when my daughter was a year and a half old I finally found a doctor who would listen to me. Or, to be more accurate, an ARNP. I had been in and out of my insurance-covered primary care physician’s office, and he just told me I was tired because I was a mother, and that I needed to be patient with weight loss. After two or three bouts of weeping and Googling I found that my symptoms, although vague, matched with hypothyroidism. Specifically, I found the information about Wilson’s Temperature Syndrome to be very useful. Most importantly, it gave me something to test. I got out my basal thermometer and bought a glucose meter and started charting my body temperature and blood sugar. Even though I had felt terrible and run-down for a while, I was surprised to find that my body temperature was often below 97.0, sometimes hanging out as low as 95.9. I also had blood sugar levels as low as 49 mg/dL, where most people start to feel bad below about 70 mg/dL.

Armed with my handwritten temperature and blood sugar charts, I took one last shot and made an appointment with the holistic ARNP, paying out of pocket because her medicine isn’t “real” medicine, I suppose. She took one look at me and said she could see my thyroid from across the room, it was so enlarged, and after a quick exam she ordered some tests, and a week later I came back. She told me there was a problem — I had a high Reverse T3 count — and I started crying in her office, not because of the news but because I had news. I wasn’t just fat and lazy and doomed to stay that way.

The whole experience made me into a bit more of a feminist than I had been, and I wondered immediately how many other women are walking around with undiagnosed thyroid problems because the symptoms are what we expect from mothers: exhaustion, depression, low libido, high body weight, constant hunger. It took me almost two years to get a diagnosis — or even to find someone who would test me for something besides TSH imbalance — and I was actively trying to find a solution. Imagine if I didn’t trust my body enough to believe that there was a problem?

It comes down to this — for months, I was literally starving myself. I did the little calorie calculator online and found that my body at its post-baby weight was using about 1600-1700 calories a day, so I cut my intake first to 1400 per day, then 1200, and then, for a week, even as low as 1050, though I couldn’t push myself any lower than that. Cardio made no difference. Carb levels made no difference. And these facts, when I presented them to the doctor, made no difference to him. I was just another fat mom.

When the ARNP got my results in, she put me on Armour Thyroid, a natural thyroid hormone supplement that contains active T3, and the results were instantaneous. I took my first dose in the parking lot of the pharmacy, and by the time I got home, I was on the verge of tears again. There was something flooding my veins. A feeling of motivation I hadn’t had since my daughter was just a few days old. In my neighborhood, I paused before turning on my street, my eyes trained on a red Solo cup laying on the asphalt. The red… it was… somehow more red. I couldn’t believe it.

Inside, we ate dinner and put on the last scene of Rio, a rainforest dance party, and the kids leapt from couch to ottoman and back again, laughing as they did. The song was vibrant, the colors brighter, and my feet started to move. I was dancing — expending energy unnecessarily — for the first time in over a year. I’ll never forget holding my daughter and bouncing back and forth, looking at the parrots spreading their feathers in HD, and seeing, suddenly, my life turn from dull flatness into 3D again. I cried, dancing around the living room with her, as the music and the happiness flooded back into me.

I like remembering that time, and the feeling of purpose that I reconnected with when my health started to return.

So what’s the point of all of this?

Just a bit of encouragement. Trust your instincts, and if you don’t feel like you are well, keep going until you find advocates who will help you. Enjoy the bright feathers, and enjoy the dance.

The Dance of Food

I’ve had a very tumultuous relationship with food throughout my life, or at the very least, it changes a lot. When I was young, I loved to eat. Then I hit a phase in my early 20s where I lost my appetite and twenty pounds in the space of about half a year. Might sound awesome but it was terrible. I was always jittery and I couldn’t wear any of my clothes anymore.

Now, post-baby, post-30, I love to eat, and I don’t feel conflicted about the size or shape of my body — and now it turns out I have a slew of annoying food allergies. These are not anaphlactic allergies, but the kind that just sort of accumulate and make you feel run-down over time. So I have a list of things to avoid: soy, corn, dairy, almonds, wheat, and green beans, some of which I used to eat every day.

I think I figured out a strategy — something like putting on my own oxygen mask before I take care of anybody else. I went to the store yesterday and shopped only for myself, meticulously planning food for every single meal. Today I’m cooking and putting it up in the freezer. This way, I just eat these meals that I have prepared, and I can fix other food for my family without having to figure out how to adapt it to myself.

The interesting-new-food highlights so far: flax milk, which I didn’t even know existed (and which is quite good) and Scottish oat cakes, which are amazing and delicious. I’m about to find out how my soy- wheat- corn-free black bean+beef+chicken taco chili turned out. Slow cooker, don’t let me down now!! 🙂

I am very interested to see how I will feel throughout the next few weeks as I get old allergens out of my system. It’s been about five days and I have to admit I do feel a little more sprightly, although this might just be because I am happy to have answers. Onward and upward!

Howling at the Moon

Image

Before I was writing regularly, this strange thing used to happen to me, and often on the full moon.

(No, I’m not a werewolf. Not that I know of, at least.)

I would be riding along down the road of life, trying to be good, trying to keep up with the dishes, and then all of the sudden a thing would grip me. It was a feeling of total urgency. A you-must-you-must-you-must. But what did I must? I was never sure.

It was something creative. It was like… a command: create, create, create. I would end up sitting up until 3:30am typing out threads of stories and half-cooked narratives. Then I would fall to bed, exhausted, until a few weeks later, and then it would be back again.

Being a member of a family fairly rife with mental imbalance — a bit here and there, I think we all have it in one way or another — this scared me shitless. I would imagine myself on the counselor’s couch, taking a test for grandiosity:

Do you feel omniscient?

Well, yes. Sometimes.

Do you feel like you have a special calling?

I do…

Do you feel like the whole world is on fire, and like you want to devour it all, bite by bite, licking its honey from your fingers?

Yep.

Now that I write every day, these strange, clenching feelings of must-create do not haunt me in the same way. They still come, but the pass just as quickly as I sit down and write, and get it all out.

A few things this has taught me:

I am made of untold stories. And I have started letting them out. How much more is someone full to the brim, who never writes or tells or creates at all?

Unlike my original fears, when I lavish the inspirations that pop into my head on my most recent work, I do not run out of ideas. Instead, as quickly as I write them out, more flourish in their place. The “problem” now is having more to say than there are hours for saying it. It’s the problem I would rather have, to be sure.

Writing becomes a purpose in itself. I enjoy it so much that I would do it just for myself.

I am glad that the grip of inspiration is a bit gentler these days. I am learning to live alongside it and although we might stop to wrestle for the upper hand every now and then, we are coming to a peaceful coexistence.

Except on the full moon. Then, all bets are off.

Being Present to Your Purpose

In some ways, I really miss being in school, not so much for the constant homework and parking difficulties, but because when I was in school, I had a clear path. I knew what was in front of me, what my goals were, what my challenges were, and what I needed to do to navigate them.

I was not prepared to make my own goals when I got out of school. It is not because I didn’t know how; I have always been “self-motivated,” for better or for worse. It is very hard for me to do things for other people’s reasons. Rather, it is because I graduated and had my son almost at the exact same time, and when I had kids, for the first time I met the reality that I couldn’t achieve everything I set my mind to. In fact I could accomplish almost nothing, whether I set my mind to it or not. My achievements slowed down, considerably. This sounds so awful and conceited when it’s typed out on the screen, but it is a fact that I was a really high achiever just about up to the moment that my son was born. If I hadn’t gone into labor that day, I would have gone to work in the morning for the university, the afternoon as a nanny to a little girl, and the evening as an online tutor.  Meeting goals, making money, getting things in order. Then he was born and everything was turned on its head.

After the molasses-swamp of infancy, postpartum depression, and a thyroid shutdown, I started to feel like I would never achieve anything ever again. And even now, as the physical and mental problems fade farther into the distance, I am left without a blueprint for success. Before I had a family, my way of being successful was through grades, dollars, and obsession. Constant work. Late nights. Punishing schedules and perfectionism. It is maybe unfortunate for me that this method worked so well, just because now it leaves me with very little to build on. I can’t be harsh and exacting and be a good mother at the same time; I have to be flexible, a little squishy, and really, really patient. (These are not my strong suits…)

So, where does all this rambling lead?

I had a little miniature epiphany yesterday while I was walking through the rain to take the garbage out. Who knows why that was the moment, unless it is because the air was fresh and cool and I was alone, and quiet, for a moment, outside of the house. What I realized was that I have been measuring my “success” by the wrong yardstick. To me, I had been thinking in the back of my head that success as a writer (or as a person) necessarily must entail being wildly popular (or at least mildly — is it so much to ask?? 😉 ), and earning money, and all these sorts of things. But maybe my work as a writer and as a person in general is just meant to have a smaller scope. Maybe my job is to connect with the people who I happen to connect to. One thing I can say is that while journals and publishers have no interest in my writing (at least not yet), I very often get notes from individual people, telling me that my writing has reached them in some way: helped them, made them laugh, made them cry, given them courage. In fact it is nearly every day now that this happens. That is not insignificant.

The point of reporting this is not to brag about being awesome, but to just consider, out loud to myself, that maybe this is the kind of measure of success that I should be looking at. If my writing reaches a person, if it breaks open the shell of their human experience in some way, then haven’t I done something good? If I pursue that sort of task of illumination, of holding a burning pine knot up at the cobwebby corners, doesn’t that fulfill my mission and purpose, even if I only affect a few dozen people in my life, rather than hundreds or thousands?

I have been a strangely egotistical and ambitious person since as early as I can remember (and I’m sure even earlier). As I get older it gets harder to square this with reality, but the formula seems to be something like (1) chill out (2) break the task into pieces (3) do a piece every day, and (4) be present to your purpose, not the purpose of the person next to you.

Do the thing that you do, and do it well. Even if that is writing novels that only a dozen people will ever read and taking the garbage out with a stunning, breathtaking regularity.

I’ll be thinking a lot about purpose and calming down within reality this week. And tackling NaNoWriMo (2k words today, and plan for tomorrow’s writing!). Perhaps these two goals are contradictory, but I think I at least feel ready to attempt them.

Wish me luck!

Celebrating Failure

As an “aspiring author” (oh, what a horrible term — I think “unfinanced writer” might be more fitting? haha), I come in contact with a lot of failure, on a daily basis. This is, of course, to be expected. There are small goals: I wanted to revise 3,000 words, but after 785 I want to stab my eyes out so I stop. I wanted to post every day, but instead it’s every third day. Then a whole week of nothing. Then every third day again. And there are larger goals, too: set up a profile on this and that and the other freelancing site. Send out more things. Get over my perfectionism and submit one thing a week, rain or shine.

Today, I’m mentally haggling over one of the toughest types of writer-failure — wasted time that is gone, gone, gone. The short version is that a while ago I wrote a story that I thought was mostly good — the 30,000 words or so of raw material felt rich and fertile, and the surface problems… well, they were fixable. So I fixed them, or I thought I did, and the feedback, to put it mildly, is not good. The thing I thought was so good — like a pan of fudgy brownies right out of the oven — turns out to just be some dusty shit in the bottom of a pan, or an undercooked batter gone cold.

In itself, as with so many things, it’s not a big deal. So I struck out with one story. Big deal. I did learn some things from it. But now I’m standing here with a sort of half-pieced quilt, and I’m trying to decide whether it would be a bigger waste trying to stitch the whole thing up until it’s finished, or whether I ought to just cut my losses (weeks and weeks and weeks! screams my brain) and throw all that shit out.

(I mean, not literally. It will live on in my Documents folder forever.) But should I sink any more time in it? Is it “sinking” or “investing”? These are questions I can’t answer on my own.

The best thing I can come up with is that I want — sometimes terribly — a ritual to solemnize productive failure. Some way of celebrating the fact that I got up every day for weeks and worked on this thing, and in the end, it tanked like a Britney Spears movie. A sort of dancing-on-the-grave-of-the-thing ritual, a way to look up at the sky and stick my tongue out at the universe and pour strong spirits out on the black dirt and say, the mantle of failure that holds my shoulders so tightly? It doesn’t matter to me at all. Look at me dance.

But it is a heavy cloak. I hate it. I want it gone. I want a sliver of some kind of accomplishment. Is the fastest way to that goal to keep on? To stay the course? Or is it time to cut and run?

Maybe it’s just time to dance.

Cheers

Image

Life provides so many opportunities to doubt — yourself, your God, your love, your career, your choice of laundry detergent — but sometimes, just as a sort of Christmas-morning surprise, it tosses you a moment when you are absolutely, completely sure that you made the right choice.

Marrying my husband was hardly even a choice; by the time I knew him at all, I knew that it was useless to do anything but marry him and take his name and start having his kids more or less immediately. There was just something there — some kernel of truth and clarity — that made me Just Know, in that terrible cliched way.

One thing I love about our love is how it grows with us, like a magical favorite sweater that shifts and changes with every gain or loss and always fits just right. It hangs on when we’re being ridiculous, as well, which is the greater gift. Last night, in a fit of temper and gin and exhaustion and intense frustration with career-type things (the growing pains of shifting from being a mother of young children to a mother of school-age children) I ended with my fists clenched by my face, crying like a baby because I didn’t want things to turn out this way — I didn’t want to have one of these tense-money-conversations-in-the-kitchen type of lives. I wanted to plan and plot and front-load my life with achievement so that I would never be touched by any sort of uncertainty. Which is, of course, ridiculous.

And in that moment he didn’t chide, or laugh, or tell me reasons why I should be happy. He just held me and said, “Oh, babe. That’s just life,” and let me snot all over his shoulder. “This is why we got married.” Then he poured cold beer down my shirt to make me scream and laugh.

It’s a small moment and it might not look like much from the outside, but the soothing words, the reassuring touch, and the shock of icy IPA in a moment of my greatest doubt makes me somehow let go of doubt altogether.

Easy, Baby

Image

I have been trying to think of a good way to spin this post, a nice way to wrap it up like a skein of yarn, all soft and close and silken. But I think the point is that doing such is difficult, so I’ll just type it out willy-nilly as it comes.

I have just recently found out that my children — when they were babies — were inhumanly difficult creatures.

You might think I would already know this, having, you know, raised them from birth, but I didn’t begin to suspect until after my daughter was a year old, and did not fully realize the import of it until just now. Until a week ago while chatting with a friend of mine, who has an adorable little baby girl who is so inhumanly chill and good natured that I kind of wanted to poke her a little with my fingernail to see if she was real. But that’s weird, so I didn’t.

To summarize, my children were intense, demanding little babies. They were incredibly cute, but man, did they take it out of me. I expected it from my son. For one thing, he was my first so I had nothing to compare him to. At the time that I had him, I had only one friend who had had a baby so far, and she quit returning my calls a few months before he was born. In addition, he was born two months early, and preemies do a lot of “catching up” in the time that they would have still been in the womb. In that benign little phrase — “catching up” — is held a little piece of personal hell, though. When a baby “catches up” it means that they eat. Constantly. For his first two months of life, my son ate for forty-five minutes out of every two hours, around the clock. I never slept for more than about an hour and a half at a time, for sixty days. “Day” and “night” had no meaning — there was just a vaguely dark time of day when I tried to sleep between feedings, and a somewhat lighter clutch of hours when I gave up on sleep and tried to do things like folding laundry and cooking food. When I mentioned the situation, which was rare, I just got a cheery reminder: “Nobody said it would be easy! Ha ha!” If you ever wonder what it would be like to live the life of a Stanley Kubrick character, just try out that sleep schedule for two months and by the end you’ll be full-metal-jacketing your way around the breastpump section at Target. You’ll get some weird looks. but hey, nobody said it would be easy! Ha ha!

*I pause, my fingers hovering over the keyboard, and take a few dozen cleansing breaths.*

Really, this is a hard topic to talk about, not because it is emotionally ragged or anything like that, but because my anger swells so quickly that I can hardly refrain from sarcasm, and sarcasm is such an empty literary device. But in all seriousness, raising a baby who eats like that is like being in a prison camp. A baby-powder-scented prison camp, and everyone around you just says how cute your little torture-master is.

After the every-two-hours schedule my son eased up a little bit in his eating frenzy, but still woke up every night at nine, eleven, three, five, and seven to eat. I felt lucky because of the stretch from eleven to three, and because he could down a whole bottle in under twenty minutes instead of marathoning for forty-five. He kept that schedule, dropping the eleven o’clock feeding at about nine months and the three o’clock one at ten months. My daughter followed suit almost exactly. At almost exactly one year old, they both would sleep from nine until five or so, and then until seven. Finally. Relief.

I started to sleep again and my brain functions began to slowly return, and I would hear things like this:

“My son finally started sleeping through the night at six weeks old. It was really rough until then.”

“My daughter (6 months old) is really difficult sometimes because every other night she still wakes up at three to eat.”

My fists clench. My knuckles crack. Why did I get such difficult babies? There is no way to tell. My best guess is that, a little like their mother, they are flinchingly, agonizingly perceptive creatures for better or for worse, their sensitivities dialed up to level 11 out of 10. Maybe it will serve them well later in life. Maybe I had too much mental acuity and the universe had to file it down a little. (I kid. I kid.)

So, where does this leave me? I would lie if I said I weren’t a little resentful, although there is no one, really, to resent. The kids are just who they are, and they certainly can’t control their infant temperaments. I suppose I feel a little tetchy at the parents who moan and complain about two or three months of broken sleep before returning to stretches of five, six, eight hours at a time. But mostly I think — I hope — that it makes me more compassionate toward moms in general. I remember walking among the living as a zombie, and what a difference it made when occasionally someone would turn to me and say something like, “And how are you doing these days?” or, “Wow, she looks so big and healthy!” — then a pause — “Good job, mama.” Every pound of cute pudge that a baby puts on is hours and hours and hours of dedicated work by a parent, most often a mama, most often alone in the silence of night. Pinch the baby’s cheeks but remember that it doesn’t come free.

For the moms, those nighttime hours in the rocking chair can be lonely, especially when you think they will never end. But they do, and the babies sleep again, and one day you will look back on it and laugh. You’ll cry, too, but there will be laughter in the tears.