Voice and Vaccine

Like so many others, I was awed and inspired by poet Amanda Gorman and the beautiful work she shared at President Biden’s inauguration, “The Hill We Climb.” What a gift for words she has, her performance all the more impressive for her having lived with a speech impediment. Her voice positively soared, and it was a thing of beauty to listen to and watch.

Amanda Gorman — Photo by Erin Schaff, The New York Times

I’ve been thinking about voices a lot lately, as I keep losing mine. The persistent hoarseness I’ve developed is likely a symptom of the hypothyroidism I was recently diagnosed with, that being a common side effect (or, more accurately, after effect) of the immuno-therapy regimen I was on from January through March 2020. For most of the past month I’ve sounded a bit like a Muppet when I speak, my voice high-pitched and low-powered, raspy and squeaky in turns.

The voice loss is disconcerting, eerie even, given the way that fear and anxiety have centered around my throat for much of my life. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a thing about my throat, hating any sort of touch there, barely able to sit still for a doctor’s exam, jerking away from a sweetheart’s gentlest kiss. What’s more, the key recurring feature in any nightmare I’ve ever had is my inability to speak–something bad is happening but I can’t stop it, because when I try to call out for help, I can never muster more than a weak whisper.

Graphic from houstonmethodist.org

When I was younger, a writer friend of mine postulated that my voice was the seat of my power, and that my dreams and discomfort arose from twin fears of either never finding my voice and/or the changes that might come with realizing its full potential. I myself have occasionally mused on the possibility of past lives, whether I might have lived one that made future me’s protective of my throat (French Revolution, anyone?). Now, between my voice loss and the esophageal narrowing and swallowing challenges I’ve experienced, I find myself wondering about cellular memory, what the body knows at its most basic levels, what it might predict.

I know, I know. It’s a little out there. But perhaps I can be forgiven the occasional fanciful turn. If you wish, ascribe my wild theories to the happy delirium resulting from this week’s combination of a newly installed president and my having gotten my first COVID vaccine today! I’ve never been so happy to visit the hospital, or be stuck with a needle. We’ve a long way to go, but it feels like we’re finally moving in the right direction. As Amanda Gorman so eloquently said, “For there is always light, / if only we are brave enough to see it. / If only we are brave enough to be it.”

Sometimes light shines from surprising places

When I was 22, Gorman’s age, I was still struggling to find my voice, trying to understand how I was meant to respond–as a writer and a human–to feedback on my poems such as “This shows what you can do when you get out of your own way.” It’s difficult to imagine having had Gorman’s confidence and self-possession back then. Thankfully, all I’ve lost at present is my physical voice, and with luck, the thyroid medicine I’m taking will bring it back to full power sooner rather than later. I do miss being able to project (“Herry! Get your paws off the table!”), and as a teacher and performer, I require a strong voice to function effectively. Not to mention, it took me many years to find and embrace my voice, and I still have more to say!

Thanks, friends, as always, for listening.

On Porches and Peril

Our front porch is currently under construction. We started with the knowledge we had some gutter issues, which had led to some issues with runoff, which had rotted a few isolated spots in the roof and the floorboards along the front railings. I’d hoped we’d just need a little gutter work, a few replacement boards, and some fresh paint, but that’s not how home renovations work.

Front yard as construction zone

We signed on for gutter repair and an entire porch floor replacement. That morphed into replacing all the joists supporting the floor too, since they were too far apart to meet code, and adding footers when the builders discovered there weren’t any. The rot in the porch roof, it turned out, was more extensive than anticipated, partly because there were some places in the metal that were completely rusted through, places someone who lived here before us had disguised by simply painting over them. The porch roof will have to be replaced as well.

So now we have a big hole in the ground outside our front door where our porch used to be. The builders are working diligently, but it’s going to be a lengthy process. By the time all is said and done, the only original parts of our porch will be the columns and the railing and its pickets.

The current state of the porch

The porch is our favorite room in our home. It’s what sold us–Steve in particular–on buying it. When we were house-hunting, we stopped by the empty house one spring afternoon and sat in the chairs the realtor had staged on the porch. Looking at the rolling hills and towering trees of the park that faced two sides of the house, we were smitten.

It’s unsettling to see it torn apart, even in the interest, ultimately, of repair. That’s how I feel about our government this week, too, and as often as not, it’s also how I feel about my own body in the course of treatment. It’s difficult sometimes to imagine what’s on the other side of destruction, even when that destruction isn’t unexpected; even when, as with chemo, it’s deliberate. You hope the discomforts and sacrifices will be worth it. Time will tell.

Back to the future, we hope

I’ve been around this block enough times to know that it will never be the same. However necessary the work, however skilled the reconstruction, something will be lost. For that, I grieve.

Meanwhile our days are underscored by banging, drilling, and occasionally, the soft shwush of a paintbrush’s bristles whitewashing wood. As winter slowly winds its way toward spring, I dream of warmer days, when the sounds of hammers will be replaced by the gentle creak of a porch swing, when calmer voices and haler cells might prevail, when sun-dappled shadows will dance across the painted boards once more.

Heads Up! #10: Pleated Merlot in the Snow

This week has left me alternately ranting and speechless. Between insurance frustrations, the seemingly unavoidable “this is worse than we thought and it’s gonna cost more than we planned” home renovation revelation, and the horrifying events at the US Capitol, it’s been… a lot.

So after getting my brain sampled (i.e. a Covid swab test) this afternoon in preparation for an upcoming medical procedure, it seemed like a good time to take a walk and clear my head. I kept said head warm with a new lid, this one a Christmas present from Steve, a pleated wool bucket/cloche in a lovely shade of merlot.

Sporting my new hat

I haven’t resorted to drinking any merlot yet, but I haven’t ruled it out.

The light snow we got today had stopped falling by the time I made it outside, but there was still enough white stuff on the ground to make for some pretty views across the park as the sun dropped. Not far from me, a couple pulled their happily shrieking child along on a sled, and a black lab romped through the slush, chasing a ball. I felt myself began to breathe a little deeper, a little easier.

From a distance, the home repairs seemed less daunting.

I was pleased to discover that the new hat blended perfectly with the plaid wool wrap I brought back from our trip to Scotland in July 2019. Wearing it takes me back to another gray, chilly day, one on the Isle of Skye, and a cozy showroom filled with fleece and all manner of warm, woolly items at the SkyeSkyns tannery. After shopping, we had tea and cake in a yurt, then huddled up in our Waternish lodgings to watch the play of light and rain on the loch below.

Perhaps, in another year or two, I’ll don my merlot hat and be transported back to a snowy afternoon walk followed by a mug of hot chocolate, or a quiet Christmas morning spent in flannel pjs, giggling at kitten antics.

For now, its pleats are keeping my bald head toasty on a wintry day’s walk. As I eyed the scaffolding climbing the sides of our house, I kept thinking there’s a metaphor in there somewhere. You have to tear out the rot before you can mend the roof. When you’re clearing out and fixing up, things often look worse before they get better.

Here’s hoping. May next week be a bit less eventful for everyone.

Wishes: more snow, less drama, peace for us all.

Time for a New Year

As another year (and what a year…) draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the passage of time. Because of the relative frequency of my treatment schedule and the fact I have a couple of days after each treatment where I’m largely out of commission, I live with a near constant sense of an impending deadline. As each treatment day approaches, I feel much like I do when I’m readying for a trip–there’s always a list of things I need and want to do before we leave, and it always seems the time is too short to make it all happen.

Curious as to its origins, I looked up the etymology of “deadline” in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and found, in addition to the unsurprising reference to “1920, American English newspaper jargon,” the following, rather grim citation: “Perhaps influenced by earlier use (1864) to mean the ‘do-not-cross’ line in Civil War prisons, which figured in the trial of Henry Wirz, commander of the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

And he, the said Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure containing said prisoners a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison and about twenty feet distant from and within said stockade; and so established…he, the said Wirz, instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under [or] across the said “dead line” …. [“Trial of Henry Wirz,” Report of the Secretary of War, Oct. 31, 1865]”

Talk about harsh consequences for missing a deadline. Yikes. Not striking something off my list for a few more days pales in comparison.

Always to do’s to be done

Writer Gretchen Rubin tells us, “The days are long, but the years are short.” As we round out 2020, I think a lot of folks might revise that statement: “The days are long, but the year was interminable.”

We are all so tired–the medical community, especially–of the pandemic and the damage it’s doing. Yet we’re so close to turning a corner, now, with the vaccine being distributed. We have to be patient, stay the course, even when it’s hard, because the consequences for not doing so are potentially so much worse. Reminding myself that I’m sacrificing a few “good” days up front so that I can have more days, period, down the line is what gets me through the toughest chemo side effects.

Kitty snuggles help on the tough days, too!

Actually, many of the coping strategies I’ve learned from fighting cancer have helped me meet the challenges of this crazy year. Going bald, for example, quickly settled the whole “should I or shouldn’t I risk getting a haircut?” question. But seriously, I’ve had a lot of practice at doing what the mother of one of my fellow cancer survivors preached: “accept and adjust.” I adapted quickly to wearing a mask, partly because I’ve already learned to adjust my daily wardrobe in more intrusive ways, pulling on a compression sleeve each morning before I even put on my underwear. It’s just what needs to be done, and spending energy bemoaning the discomfort or inconvenience is a waste of time.

And I understand that, like cancer, coronavirus is a sneaky little bugger, especially with its asymptomatic spread. I hear so many people say, “But ____ hasn’t had any symptoms,” as if that’s proof they aren’t infected or infectious. It’s counter-intuitive to believe something invisible, something as tiny and common as a virus, could wreak havoc upon your health. Trust me, when the rash appeared under my arm that signaled the return of cancer, a reddish patch not much bigger than a couple of quarters, it seemed utterly absurd that something so small and benign-looking could be life-threatening. It’s hard–but necessary–to get your head around.

A little artwork I created this time last year, and still true.

If you’re tired of me, or anyone else, banging on about the virus and masking and being safe, I offer this: the last four years have shown me, again and again, how profoundly your entire world can change in an instant. I understand at a deep and visceral level that we are all vulnerable to such sudden shifts. Acknowledging that isn’t succumbing to pessimism or negative thinking; it is, in fact, its opposite. It is that knowledge that encourages me to treasure time, to try to spend it wisely.

“The days are long, but the years are short.” On the whole, Rubin’s statement resonates with me. But as we look forward to a new year (with a new vaccine), I think there’s also value in flipping her statement, our perspective. The days until we can move toward a different (improved) reality are drawing short, and there is hope in that. And if we can hold out and take care of ourselves and each other, our years will, god- and the universe-willing, be long.

Cheers!

Happy New Year, friends! May 2021 bring us all health, happiness, and peace.