Great Expectations…OK Zero Expectations

Something funny happens when you become chronically ill. Ready? You become totally shitty at fulfilling the roles that probably came easy and natural to you before The Grand Interruption. Parent, kid, sibling, husband, wife, friend–all of those roles are going to suffer, because you’re simply unable to do the things you could before. Your capabilities become limited, your time becomes precious and cornered, and your ability to meet your and other peoples expectations will fall short, again and again. I admit it fully, I’m in general an unreliable source of help, or maybe just unreliable period. And if you don’t think that stabs me straight in the ego, then try saying out loud “I’m a human wasteland” and see how it feels. Because that’s about how it feels.

But we have to be fair, to ourselves and others. We can’t hold ourselves to the same standards as before, especially when we don’t have the same working parts. And we have to remember that the adjustments we make are not adaptations that we alone have to get used to. All those people for whom we provided some kind of role, they’re going to be affected too. They’re going to get exhausted, be disappointed, feel the pain of you not being who you used to be, just as you, the sick person will. I don’t know what it’s like to be a friend or a family member of Mary Gelpi, but I know that I begin 90% of my texts, emails, and conversations with an apology–because I couldn’t make it, I’m responding so late, I won’t be able to attend (insert anything important) I’m sure they become as tired of hearing it as I become of saying it. It’s exhaustive, saying sorry all the time. It’s probably tiresome to be on the other end of it too. But you are sorry, you don’t want to be this crappy of a friend or sister or girlfriend–and while being sick is nobody’s fault, it is the reality and it’s going to be painful. Learning to redefine our roles must be a lifelong process, I’m not sure. I just know I’m still learning.

Maybe a part of being proactive in that transition is becoming more honest and realistic with myself about what I’m able to do. I don’t deny that I suffer from wishful thinking, and probably make commitments I shouldn’t. Letting people know that I can’t be counted on, which is still hard to say, would probably let fewer people down less often. They have to know what to expect, which is unfortunately very little, but it’s up to us to fill them in.  Sometimes you get so busy being sick, you forget to communicate. You forget that people don’t know, or remember. Or you give up on telling them because it can feel repetitive and pointless, but I don’t think that’s true in reality. If I’m not honest about what I can do, out of fear or pride or whatever it is, I will let people down because they won’t know where the line is

I’ve had to face the reality in the last few years that there is no such thing as “solid plans” for me, or relying on myself 100% to be able to follow through with them. Every plan basically has an invisible “tentatively” written behind it. Last month I rescheduled 3 doctors appointments because I was too sick to make it. I have no idea how I’ll feel one day to the next, and that takes constant adjustment. I remember my whole family coming to visit last summer, they were sitting around my living room trying to figure out who could babysit the kids while they went to the French Quarter for the day. I remember sitting in the room saying Guys, I’m right here, I’ll watch them. I was actually, momentarily, offended that they didn’t consider me. Then someone said Mary, you can’t even do your dishes right now. Oh yeah, whoops. I forgot my own unreliability! As Louis C. K. would put it, I’m a non-contributing zero. Hah, yes. That sounds right. I had to laugh that even I couldn’t remember that I just can’t be counted on right now, and as much as that can be a kick in the gut to admit, it’s sort of silly to take it personally. If you’re sick, you’re sick–just admit it and keep moving.

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“Sweetie, can you do the dishes?” “No dad, I’m a non-contributing zero.” “Oh, right. Well, we love you anyway!” “Thanks guys.” “OK now get out of the way so we can do the dishes.”

 

I said in the beginning that being sick makes us crappy at fulfilling our roles, and in the traditional sense that may be true. But it also remains that when you’re sick, you just can’t do what you can’t do. If you don’t have legs, you can’t walk. It’s toxic to compare yourself to an old life where all your faculties were in place, to a new one where half your parts aren’t working. But being sick forces you to redefine your role, and I think there are ways to use your new way of “being” in the world and still be functioning in your respective roles. It’s not as is being sick effects your ability to love. If anything it’s made me love deeper, made me more grateful, and made the friendships that have lasted grow in certain ways. Still, I fail a lot, and many times it’s because I’m a flawed human being, not a chronically sick person. So I try to be extra cautious of both. Like most things being sick teaches, awareness seems to be key.

I’m always asking the questions that I think everyone is asking; am I doing the right thing, am I good person, what am I meant to do with my life? My circumstances? We all have our different sets of assets and vices, and it’s a balancing act trying to find the middle part where your feet are solid on the ground. Becoming chronically sick picks up your lifeless body and throws it upside down and backwards so that when you land you hardly know which way “up” is. It’s a puzzle, a maze, finding your way, but not impossible. The guru’s are always asking “How are you going to use what’s been given to you?” I always looked at that question as asking how I’d use the gifts I was given–the positive things in my life. Now I realize the question is far deeper than that…I think more often they mean, What will you do with your pain? How will you use this Extreme Disturbance to do better? Well hell, I don’t know. I just know that all we can do is try. Many times that means living with the mystery and not the answer. Also not easy to do.

I think it’s possible to use the condition of being sick in positive ways and to also maintain your roles by newly defining them. It seems to require incredible creativity and ingenuity, and I’ve certainly suffered from a lack of those many times. But I know there are ways to transform your old ways into new ones that are equally rewarding but not costly or impossible. I wouldn’t have confronted these conundrums if I hadn’t become sick and lost control of all the things I used to think of as mine. It has at least opened me up to the possibility of higher consciousness, and compared to who I was, I know the Mary without control has a better grasp on reality, is more compassionate, a better listener, less proud and more forgiving. I hope that doesn’t sound like bragging, I just think it’s good to examine the gifts that our so-called shitty circumstances can uncover. I obviously have a long way to go, but I know being sick has opened up deeper channels for me, and transformed the way I see the world and being in it.  Maybe it’s selfish, but I learned forgiveness by having to forgive myself first–for being where I was, for the things I could not do, for always thinking I should be doing better or further along. I had to let the unrealistic expectations go, and forgive myself for not reaching them.

I remember in my first serious relationship, which wasn’t until college, he frequently complained that I never apologized. My response was always “But that’s because I’m not the one who did anything wrong.” Holy cow, I’m the worst! It took years of learning humility and grace that being and saying sorry is a virtuous thing. It means recognizing your wrongdoing and at least becoming temporarily conscious of things you can do better. When you have a fight with someone, sometimes it’s because one person flat-out messed up. But many times, it takes two to tango, and talking things out, forgiving, letting go…all of it is stuff that moves both people forward. I don’t say this pretending as though I’ve mastered the art–I only know it’s there, it’s a choice. And it’s a good thing to know. I don’t know what or who I’d be like, were I still in my structured world, independent, living my life. But I know I enjoy the view from where I am now much more. I almost don’t look at life as mine anymore–I’m not sure whose it is. I’m still the driver, but it’s definitely a borrowed car.

Anyway, I guess this is your healthy reminder to keep those expectations low! And be grateful for the people who love you despite your human-wastelandednesss. They obviously see that you’re still cool despite being sick. And when people ask you to do something you’re incapable of, remind them with a smile: “I’m a non-contributing zero!” Then find new ways to contribute. :)

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“Son, you’re a non-contributing zero, and that’s OK.”     “…Thanks Dad.”

Health, Happiness, New Expectations

 

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One Month and the Buzz

So, I took a month off. I’ve missed you.

Health-wise I’ve been up and down, but more ups I think. I’ve been out of the house doing things; normal people things, 29-year-old things. Living like a normal person doesn’t always fair well on my body and a few times I pushed it too far and paid the price, but somehow it felt worth it. My soul needed to get out in the world and roll around in the dirt. I felt like Monty when he sees a squirrel and I unhook the leash–caution to the wind, full force ahead. Maybe 50%. I’m often battling this fear that if I’m sick for too long I’ll go to sleep one night and when I wake up thirty years will have gone by and I’ll have barely moved. It’s not always easy but I know it’s important for my soul and my psyche to get out there and try a little. So I do. I did. And I experienced these moments where I felt so intensely alive I could feel it buzzing in my fingertips. And that’s the stuff of life people! The best kind of little reminders.

A while ago I was invited by a friend to attend a three-day meditation retreat in Magnolia, Mississippi. I’d never been on a retreat before and I felt apprehensive at first. For starters, I felt angst about whether my body would hold up through the weekend. Secondly, I had this cliché vision of long-haired hippies dancing naked around a fire, sharing their “truths” or something. But when I learned it was a silent retreat, I knew I had to do it. I don’t know if I’ve made this apparent, but I sort of hate meeting people. I cringe at smalltalk and I find strangers questions difficult and exhausting to answer. I know it’s just part of conventional social norms, but this question of “What do you do?” causes me an intense five-second panic attack, and introductions almost always go there. To give an honest answer comes with this pressure to provide a back-story, which is long and convoluted. I expect strangers have as much interest in hearing these details as I do telling them, and sometimes I feel like rolling my eyes at my own reality. But I haven’t yet figured out a way to give a succinct honest answer that leaves everybody comfortable. I think I’ll start answering ‘waitress’ and save everyone five whole minutes.

So this the idea that we wouldn’t have to talk to other people, including our assigned roommates, totally sold me. But I still felt angst about my health hovering in the background. This is nothing new. I confront this fear all the time making decisions because my health has failed me so many times before when I’ve really counted on it. So I don’t anymore. It’s hard always having to maneuver around this invisible thing in your life that you don’t even like. But this is my reality and hating or fearing it does me no good. So I considered the worse-case scenario; I crash. Even if that were the case and I spent the weekend in bed, what were they going to do? Strap me to a chair and force me to meditate? I figured I’d be OK. So I said yes. And there’s something pretty revitalizing about saying yes to something new, especially when for so long these kinds of opportunities were an automatic no.

I wrote an essay about the weekend and I’ll post that next. I’ll say now my favorite part was eating lunch next to my friend in total silence, only making eye contact every now and then. There’s a lot of space and freedom that opens up when no one feels the need to talk. They call it “noble silence” and I think we could all use a little more of it. It rocked!

After that I was invited on a weekend trip to the beach where I would share a house with 12 other girls. So basically the opposite of the silent retreat. I am a total beach bum and don’t feel I get enough of it, so I went. And it turned out to be a really awesome and fun weekend. I was feeling pretty sick the day we left, but I was also really craving the sand and the air and warm gulf water. (I’m a pansy about water temp) I knew I’d feel better once I got there, so Emily and I drove the three and half hours there and watched the sun set while crossing the Louisiana/Mississippi border. I felt really happy in that moment. The sunset was the kind that changed colors every 10 seconds and was remarkably beautiful over the Louisiana marsh. I tried to capture the spectacle made by all the intense colors, but a picture never does a great sunset justice. It’s like holding a rookie drawing next to a Monet. Maybe it’s better to just pause and enjoy the splendor of a disappearing sun. It’s such a short-lived pleasure anyway. Watching them always make me feel grateful.  We finally arrived and learned that our house was next door to the classiest bar in the South: Florabama. So naturally, we went. Never heard of it? Here’s a peek.

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No Pets
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Every time I visit this bar I am overwhelmed and baffled by it. It’s three stories (possibly more, I don’t know, I’ve gotten lost in it twice), hosts multiple bands on different levels, and is jam-packed with drunk people of every age. Every surface is a proverbial guest book where people under the influence leave their mark for the world to see. I’m always riveted and only sometimes horrified reading the graffiti that adorns literally every surface. I started photographing the funny ones so I could laugh later and have some weird photographic keepsake of the trip. So I took a photo of the surface of the bar we were ordering from.

Damn you, Laken
Damn you, Laken

We couldn’t stop laughing at the idea of some angry person pulling out a marker and deciding to write that Laken Franks sucks Donkey Penis. A while later I entered the Florabama bathroom, where I confronted many, so many more messages, in every color, on every surface, including the toilet seat. I took some more photos because so far no one I met was as interesting as this graffiti of the world. I liked the idea of one picture having the mark of so many strangers, many of whom likely have no memory of the literary gems they left. And now I’d have a piece of it and they’d have no idea about that, either. So what did I find while looking through those photos later? Another sentiment for Laken in the bathroom stall.

Damn you again Laken
Damn you again Laken

Only this time Laken’s a baby murdering whore. I couldn’t believe the name showed up in two photos. Pretty crazy odds given the volume of surface area in that place and the amount of angry messages. I wonder who Laken Franks is and what she (he?) did that left someone upset enough to get creative with their insults and tattoo them on two of the walls of the worlds classiest bar. I shall never know. I’m just glad I was alive enough to be there and capture it. My fingertips were buzzing at little moments like this all weekend. But mostly when I watched the sun rise on the beach at 6 am. There’s something almost holy about a sunrise. It feels like a sneak-peek at reality unfolding–a backstage pass to the universe or something. Anyway, I’ll leave you with that photo, because I was feeling very alive when I took it, and my fingertips still buzz when I look it now. Maybe yours will too.

6 am, alive and well
6 am, alive and well

Health, Happiness, Buzzing

The Plague.

I feel the need to begin here by expressing my deep gratitude for the response to my last post. As usual, my decision to publish a raw and somewhat sad update was not without hesitation on my part. My preference is always to write in a happy and funny and optimistic tone, even if the words I am writing are happier, funnier and more positive than I actually am. In some ways it’s therapeutic, and in others it’s a challenge in creativity and authenticity. As much as I’d like my writing to point towards the fun and the funny, life is not always that way, is it? Sometimes it’s overwhelming and can feel too heavy to bear. I resist putting words out there like that for maybe the same reason I never liked to cry in public or ask for help when I needed it. It means, gasp, I’m not perfect. And that’s what the ego fears a lot. 

Over these last few years, the pride that held tears back and forced a facade that was untrue began to crumble. This writing project entered the picture when those superficial layers were starting to shed, and consequently this blog has some really vulnerable things in it, which can leave me uneasy. At the same time, I can feel that my most honest posts are the ones that connect most with strangers. (Duh) And that doesn’t mean they have to be in the tone of “True Life: I’m Sick All the Time.” Humor can be just as much genuine and communal. It’s the one I prefer, it’s just not the one that always is.

Anyway, it’s a battle inwardly and materially, but I just really need to extend my thank you to everyone who received my words and reciprocated with such loving support and encouragement. How can we lose faith in humanity when across the world, people sit down at a desk to uplift and strengthen a stranger with words? It’s a two-way street yall! I’ve been reflecting on so many responses from people I will never know, and that alone is healing. On a form level, it makes me trust in the direction that the blog is taking–one I did not design. On the formless level, it had me feeling so much better despite being so sick. That transaction served such a greater purpose than “You should try eating more JuJu Beans!” And I attribute that to all of us. This doesn’t feel like a solitary project anymore. So thank you. That’s all I’m saying, THANK YA VERY MUCH.

Now, onto the plague. I’ve been puking my guts out. But that’s not the plague I’m talking about.

My siblings with their partners and children rented a beach house in the Florida Keys last week. It happened to be the same weekend as the wedding of a long-time good friend. For two months I went back and forth. Beach house or wedding weekend? (Assuming I could move) I could always go to the beach and fly home for Saturday night and make it to the wedding just in time for the festivities, right!? But with the way I’ve been feeling, my unsteady ability to sustain, my mom didn’t even have to tell me with her eyes this time. I knew I couldn’t do both. Or maybe I could, but the price would be big, and these days the price of choices like that are not just gargantuan but scarily long lasting. Crash days have turned into crash months, and the basic goal is, Don’t do things that could set you back so far. 

Back and forth I went, and it was tortuous. It always is; I do this all the time.  Both choices seemed correct and incorrect simultaneously. My indecisiveness is one of my largest sources of anxiety. I won’t get into the details of why one choice was better than another, there were many pros and cons to both. But often when it comes to my immediate family, they’re the default decision. I don’t get to see them a lot and they’re my lifesavers after all. They’re my blood bro! After my brother called me a few days before the trip, started describing the waves and the weather and a hammock outside, I booked the ticket and felt confident momentarily that now I didn’t have to suffer. The decision was made and now I could relax. I guess.

“Indecisive Girl” by Carli Ihde

…Until I saw my friend who’s wedding I would miss and then saw all my old friends who I rarely see that would be there. And all the shit they gave me, it was more torture. What have I done?! I blew it! At the same time the trip was booked- let it go. You get to hang with your family on the beach. That rocks. That’s true. I got to the beach. I held my nieces and laughed with family around the dinner table eating fish my brothers caught that day. And then on day 2, I awoke at 5 am and had that feeling in my gut that something wasn’t right. And then at 5:30 I started puking up all those “not rights” I was feeling.  I had caught the stomach bug that half of my family had experienced the week before. My sister was up with the baby conveniently and she held my hair and that was nice. An hour later with my face pressed against the cold tile in between cycles of puke bursts, I moaned and tossed: “Shoulda gone to the wedding. Shoulda gone to the wedding. BLLLLURGGGH”  (puke sound)

I’m still recovering from that evil stomach bug and it’s a bummer. But the bug isn’t the issue here and I know that. I’m the problem. Shit happens that you can’t foresee or plan for. Regret and hesitation are such hinderers of the present. And we all know that the present is where peace lies. Happy is in the here and now. A lot of my unhappiness, and perhaps unhappiness in general, is being here and wishing to be there. I could easily have gone to the wedding and convinced myself I was missing a beach trip of a lifetime. I could have tried to breakdance and broken my butt. (That almost happened once) So while I lie here sick on an air mattress, in the living room, on vacation, (once again) I’m trying simply to just be here. I’m looking for the lesson. I’m trying to focus and trust in the experience I’m having instead of the one I did not. Thoughts like that are like swimming up-current–they consume and exhaust me even more. It’s just another battle that’s no use fighting.

I don’t know how long I’ve been plagued with indecisiveness like this. Though I remember even in middle school spending far too long picking out deodorant at Target, never certain I would choose the right scent. It’s been a long time. As always the first step to breaking a habit is awareness–creating a space between the routine reaction and a healthier one. Maybe it starts with knowing myself more. Trusting myself more. But maybe it’s simpler than that. In stillness the answer points to this idea; be where you are. Wherever that is.

I be sick in Miami! And it’s fine! Whatever!

Here’s something Tolle says: If you resist what happens, you are at the mercy of what happens, and the world will determine your happiness and unhappiness. …To be in alignment with what is means to be in a relationship of inner nonresistance with what happens. It means not to label it mentally as good or bad, but to let it be.

Pretty good no? I’m marinading on that one. Ew, marinade. I’m still queazy.

Health, Happiness, Plagues.

Artwork: Indecisive Girl from Carli Ihde

Fall Yall.

They say the only thing constant is change itself. And when seasons change, particularly Summer into Fall, I always seem to feel a change on the inside as I watch the atmosphere play out it’s own changes. As if my circadian rhythms, my organs, my soul knows that things are going to change. I’ve always liked the feeling. The transition from Summer into Fall and Fall into Winter has always been the happiest time for me. That first gust of cold air. Pulling out old sweaters and cardigans. Cuddling in close to whoever you’re with. (I’m talking to you mom!) And there’s that slight reminder that the Holiday’s aren’t so far away and if you’re like me and ridiculously elated by Christmas, then it’s a good feeling to pick up on. I’d say if I could choose a season to fall in love, as if you could ever choose these things, I’d pick Fall. It also seems most likely to happen then in my eyes. A girl can dream. I say that a lot.

New Orleans weather is really weird. And by weird I mostly mean crappy. Our summers are long. Just too long really. And unrelentingly hot and humid. It takes your breath sometimes. Every time I fly into Louis Armstrong and exit baggage claim, my lungs get coated with a Southern sheet of bayou film and I have to remind myself how to breathe. It’s all part of the fun of calling Nola home. And I mean that. Our Fall is very short, much like the Spring. And Winter is fickle. A cold day comes. Everyone dresses as if the blizzard of the century is approaching and the cold due to the moisture in our air is penetrating and bitter. And then two days later it’s 70’s degrees and uncomfortably wet. If I could present our seasons through words arrangements it’s like this:

 

S   U   M   M   E   R R R R Fall W I N TER Spring S U M M E RRRRR

 

So maybe the climate isn’t our major selling point, but I also don’t hate it. Cold days are such a novelty here, and the excitement brought on by temperatures allowing boots and a chunky sweater is contagious. Nothing gets a Southern girl excited like Sweater Weather. Just say those two words to one and watch the magic unfold. It’s true we don’t have four equal and distinct seasons; we have summer with a side of spring or winter sometimes. But we still get a taste of everything it could be much worse. We also get extreme thunderstorms, and I truly love rain. And not just the grey drizzly days. I’m talking intense thunder and lights flickering and those storm clouds that somehow turn up in shades in green. I love those days. Monty prefers to spend thunderstorm time in the bathtub, and I say whatever floats your boat homie.

Anyway I’ve been cleaning the leaves out of the pool with a net as Monty swims despite the water temperature having dropped majorly. To me, this is the quintessential image of Fall at home. Brown leaves floating in an empty pool. It’s perfect. I drag the net through the water and I get these bursts–an urge, an inspiration–I’m not sure exactly what it is. But I think maybe if I were a tree, I’d feel like shedding my leaves. And then suddenly, for one brief clear moment, nature makes sense. I continue to sweep the pool for miscellaneous debris including a Gatorade water bottle that monty dropped in and has sunk to the bottom. Since I don’t have leaves to shed, I went with the next best thing. My hair.

Pardon my selfie skillz.
Pardon my selfie skillz.

I chopped it. And got blonde added to it too. Mostly because, I felt that thing, that very internal tinge of electricity. The thing I think trees might feel. And I had to do something with it. I didn’t even care so much about the outcome once I made my decision. I just had to go for it. And leaves grow back in the spring–my hair grows fast. I’m 29 and I’ve never colored it. I’ve had long hair for so long that it was starting to look sad to me–sick even. It was reminding me of being sick. Suddenly I wanted the weight gone. Something lighter. Something new. As the hairdresser snipped my first 6 inches off, I remember my ex-boyfriend telling me he didn’t like my hair short. I shut my eyes and listen to it all come off. It felt good. It felt great. It rejuvenated me somehow. No more sick hair. Sick thoughts. Time to be happy and try new things. Time to act on positive impulses. Time to finish things I started and stick to things that I know are important. The leaves have fallen and my hair has lightened. (See what I did there?) I feel good about things. Good things are in the works. I encourage yall to make a change too. Do it for me. Do it for you. For Fall. Why not?

Report back. And rock on.

 

Health, Happiness, Fall.