Don’t get ambitious

I’m trying to imagine myself as a pasty-faced superheroine–Anemic Woman!–battling vampires with cast-iron skillet and chimichurri (having learned fresh parsley is highly ferrous, I’m putting chimichurri on everything and calling it “Iron Sauce”). All this mythologizing, however, takes a lot of vim, and I’m tuckered out. I really enjoyed visiting Kenyon last week, and I’m delighted to be reading at the Taubman at Roanoke this Sunday at 2 pm , but I’m finding I have to spend energy cautiously. My hemoglobin levels were pretty low a couple of weeks ago, and it takes six weeks to make a new red blood cell, so all I can do is behave virtuously now and trust I’ll feel the difference in late May sometime. Even the morning walks Chris and I usually depend on are hard to manage–the littlest incline makes me lightheaded, and this is not a flat town. It’s frustrating to be sitting out some of our loveliest weather.

My experiences with chronic illness have been small potatoes, really (also good with chimichurri). But I can remember the first extended, taxing illness–gallstones at twenty-two, which took a while to diagnose–and how differently that experience colored the world. I would walk down the street carrying my own secret worry, looking at strangers’ faces, and marvel: all these people could be in terrible pain, and I wouldn’t even know! That’s true of grief and depression, too–before they debilitate you, they can be utterly invisible. It’s one of the few good things about pain, I guess, that it can teach compassion. I’m better than I used to be at taking a deep breath, when someone infuriates me, and reminding myself: I don’t know the whole story. There is a lot of suffering out there.

I’m better at compassion, mind you. I didn’t say I was good at it. That’s why it’s so wonderful when, instead of simply taking out her troubles on you, someone tries to explain them. Check out this poem and blog by Molly Spencer, for example, about the unpretty side of being a parent. Her frankness makes me grateful.

Some secrets, I suppose, may be better kept in darkness. For example, I had a perfectly good post-op visit with a doctor today, who cheerfully announced all my biopsy results were clear. She also–bless her heart–keeps giving me glossy photographs of the inside of my uterus before and after surgery. “Look how red and beefy it was,” she sighs. “You can post these on social media, if you want.” Um, no thanks. Truthfully, dear reader, wasn’t that beef image delivered verbally already TMI?

“Don’t get ambitious,” she then said, when I asked whether exercising was okay (I’d read some alarming things about overworking the heart when hemoglobin’s low). Slow to moderate. These are not words a writer wants to live by as her sabbatical draws to a close and brain fog hovers.

But I’m doing my best to be (imagine my wince here) moderate. Slowly reading and revising the novel I drafted last December and January, with even a nap here and there. The protagonist, a department head and mother of teenage twins, amazes me with all her chores and worries and plot twists. Who put her on such a grueling schedule, anyway? That poor woman deserves some rest.

P.S. I have some thematically appropriate poem recordings up on Cherry Tree‘s “The Stump” this week.One called “Perimenopause,” for instance. Rondels–that’s where a poet can REALLY get away with TMI.

forms

Noisy heart

“Has anyone ever told you you have a heart murmur?” asked the cardiologist, extracting a stethoscope plug from his ear. “Could be a leaky valve.”

I was in his office to talk about palpitations, long runs of crazy rhythm ten times a day, bad enough that I’d cough insanely and have a hard time focusing on anything useful. The week before, I’d picked up a Holter monitor from his building and walked around for a couple of days with electrodes on my chest, keeping a log of all the behaviors and emotions that, as far as I could tell, bore absolutely no relation to the arrhythmia.

Looking at the results, he pronounced, “Premature ventricular contractions.” Early or extra beats. “Maybe hormones,” he continued, “or maybe we’ll never know. The PVCs are only worrisome if your heart is weak, so we’ll do more imaging to rule that out.”

Turns out, after an X-ray, a sonogram, and various other diagnostics, that my heart is perfectly healthy. It’s just noisy. And a bit jumpy. The blood burbles to itself as it goes about its business. I’m helping the little red muscle along as the cardiologist prescribed, by taking magnesium, and the palpitations aren’t bothersome at all anymore.

But a few weeks later, the diagnosis is still making me laugh. Of course I have a noisy heart—I’m a poet. I’m quiet enough in person, but every poem and blog post is a kind of cardiogram. My metrical poems incline to extra beats—iambs and trochees turning into anapests and dactyls without my permission. I’m even writing poems about palpitations (there are older ones in Radioland, because I’ve been trying to figure this out for a while). But I would rather have people peer inside me via a poem’s small machine than by medical technology, and there’s been too much of the latter lately.

On a much needed break from the radiology unit, I spent most of last week in LA at the annual AWP conference. This was my first time attending as an AWP board member rather than as a citizen-poet at large, so I spent less time at readings and panels than I would have liked, but I still had a lot of fun.(For an example of said fun, have a look and listen to Jeannine Hall Gailey’s report on the Women in Spec panel, with audio.) On a yearlong sabbatical, I’d had a hermit-like winter (aside from doctors’ appointments), so it was startling to find myself in a convention center holding thousands, most of them projecting the contents of their noisy hearts.

It also struck me that while just about every person at that conference had a deep allegiance to the power of words, most of the information we broadcast to each other still flows underneath language. I can’t always name what signals I’m registering when I have a gut feeling about someone—she’s ill, those dudes do NOT like each other, etc.—but I’ve learned, at least, that I know things that I don’t know that I know.

And then, post-AWP, I again became the diagnosee, which Word does not think is a word. After more prodding, imaging, and exsanguination, I ended up having surgery Friday morning with less than 24 hours notice, although it went very smoothly. I was home before lunchtime and had a much-needed quiet weekend, and in some ways already feel better than I did in LA. I just have some anemia to resolve now.

Which is good, because this wan, beef-eating, noisy-hearted poet is on her way to Kenyon College tomorrow. The details about my Monday evening poetry reading are here, and on Tuesday I visit poetry workshops run by Janet McAdams and Jennifer Clarvoe. I’m excited, although I have to say, LA’s weather forecast was rather nicer.

awp 2016
AWP Book Fair with Jeannine Hall Gailey and my Very Special Board Lanyard