Three Seasons Triptych

LILAC TIME (for Steve)
(2015)

Eleven or twelve, the year doesn’t matter;
May seventeenth,
or twenty-second, irrelevant dates
that both happened.
Let the world smirk at our disdain of time,
tradition, convention,
question our memory or our ardor;
recall is overrated.
Sometime in May, every year, lilac buds
open just enough,
release a premonition of fragrance,
to make the eyes close
as for an unknown number of kisses.
Why count or count down?
Let’s just stay in this half-bloomed state,
not caring how many
buds are past or promising, unable
to put a finger down
on the pulse of that fugitive perfume,
with the light just so.
SECOND CHANCES (for Ellen)
(2019)

News: there is no law
against second chances.
So much is allowed.
The equinox came and
went, and September
dug its claws deep
in summer’s flank.
And there, under an
improbable arbor of
grapes ready to press,
you and I went back
seven years and kissed
the world right again.
COLD COMFORT (for Claudio)
(2015)

It’s a bitter night
to hunt the Huntress;
but the brittle clouds
have cleared the way
for me to glimpse her
from behind glass.

I feel as trapped
as my cat tonight,
taunted by shadows
under the snow.

Last night he saw an owl
poach a fat rabbit
that should have been his,
striking so silently.
I can still see the imprint
of its ghostly wings.

It’s cold comfort,
sharing this cozy cell,
but again tonight
we dine on moonlight.

Setting my blogs aside on a note of romance, given it’s the central theme in my writing. The formatting may not be correct, but that’s WordPress all over. These odes to my three loves are old poems, as new ones aren’t particularly forthcoming these days — one of my principal reasons for stepping “away from the machine”.

This and The Fairy of Disenchantment will remain, willfully taking up space on WP’s servers, and I’ve got subscriptions to the folks I follow here, so I won’t be entirely absent. But if there’s new work to be read (a big If, it feels like right now), it will be on Instagram (@sunhesper, also my Twitter handle) where I have more room to play with creative (im)permanence. Finishing the novel(s) will be my main focus; in fact I’ve booked myself a little writer’s retreat this weekend to hopefully make progress on that. The end of the first Beast is so close. I refuse to let MS rob me of that victory.

Lots of mental space has to be cleared first, though. I suppose I needed to be this sick to quit deluding myself that my work situation is sustainable. The next few months will be laying the foundation for that departure into the land of Disability. It’s scary, even though I grew up in lean times. But a time has to come when you re-evaluate what comfort means. Look after yourselves, friends, and hold on to what matters most.

“In my defense,” the shirt reads, “the moon was full and I was unsupervised.” Only half true in this case.

Third Day

The UNPRECEDENTED project is wonderful. It’s turned a really miserable period of time — and I don’t mean this year+, I mean the past several days — into something useful. Sometimes only the most brutal inspiration will get me to break past the barrier I make in my mind between visual art and written art and what I permit myself to produce based on some arbitrary assessment of self-worth. The point, the project presses, is simply to pass the time. And it happens to be a dark, damned time.

Tomorrow will actually be the Thirteenth Day of my journey into delayed-reaction-vaccine-induced MS misery, which has felt like traveling back in time to my first full-body assault by the disease. (This is not uncommon, and I’m not necessarily regretting vaccination but I really would’ve liked a little advance warning.) I have no idea how long I’m in for, but as of yesterday I can actually walk pretty well, so that’s something; we may be tapering off into the more tolerable end of the spectrum. That, I believe, is thanks to a new prescription for Baclofen… a Faustian bargain to be sure.

Ignus Fatuus

An unknown age of ice
fractures, attenuates
all patience, stretches
to the perfect limit of
pain, disintegrates like
sugar on the tongue.
March rushes under.
It has never stopped.

The last two lines of this poem came as a surprise to me. Why? Because when winter comes, I always feel as if it’s never actually left, just lain dormant. Like it’s a return to reality. Summer for me has felt illusory for a long time. Ignus fatuus. (My grandfather loved that term, discovered in the giant encyclopedic dictionary that was his daily reading where another man — at another time, before the death of his second child — had once read the Bible. “Ignus fatuus,” he’d say to me, apropos of nothing sometimes. And I’d supply the rejoinder: “Will o’ the wisp.”) And I’ve realized over the last several years that this is a survival mechanism, because Messers (as I’ve come to call people with MS) largely dread the hot months as times of misery — a flare-up of every possible symptom. It helps to view summers as temporary things. Which goes so against my grain I could cry.

I was born on the summer solstice and am by nature a creature of the sun. I am rampant in the desert, or on a sole-scorching beach. Or I should be. Once was. Whatever. Spring, though… What was it, before? The thing I tolerated, before my season started.

It seems that’s altered, since. And on a good day, it’s March, not December, that feels dormant — eternal. The bubbling up of water under broken glass, pushing apart the shatter so gently, and yet with such force. I won’t say I welcome it more than October, because my shadow-loving nature will always keen towards Samhain. But the flip side, kindled at Imbolc, is definitely powerful. And that’s a good thing… growth, I’d say, to more than tolerate a time of burgeoning.

The Midnight Sun / As the World Burns

I’m pleased to share that my poem “The Midnight Sun” was published in the Indie Blu(e) Publishing anthology As the World Burns: Writers and Artists Reflect on a World Gone Mad. Thanks to those of you who provided valuable feedback for the final draft. It’s wonderful to see many of your works in this collection! (For a full list with links to the authors, see The Feathered Sleep’s comprehensive post here.) This is the first poem I’ve had published in print since I was sixteen, so I’m grateful to my sister from another mother, Candice, for inviting me to submit something at a time when disability, and just the daily trauma of living through this era, so often gets in the way of my creativity. It is a tremendous collection, and I hope you purchase a copy, particularly if you support the Black Lives Matter movement (50% of the royalties, once they reach their break-even point, will go to BLM-centered organizations).

It has been an interesting time since my last post of substance. A few weeks ago, in preparation for a likely decision to retire with disability in April rather than being laid off from my job May 1 (a stay of execution from the original date of Jan. 31), I went through a neuropsychological evaluation for the first time. (Sidenote: the tests totaled more than $4,000 in my case; if you ever need one of these, you might want to make sure your insurance will cover it before you go. I have yet to see the final bill.) The results, which I was given immediately, revealed one surprise and one thing I knew already — which was largely responsible for my plan to retire.

The surprise was that my memory is better than I thought; in remembering lists of words, recall was apparently off the charts. I scored lower, though, on my ability to come up with words on my own, and that was telling. But my complex problem solving ability, especially when fatigued (and I was plenty fatigued after the second hour) was well below average — or average for me, as the neuropsychologist explained. The ultimate conclusion was that if I could manage my fatigue, and my quality of sleep, and my depression, I might do better at work, for as long as I need to, but all in all I’m in pretty classic company with all the other MSers out there who leave the workforce because of cognitive dysfunction.

So here I am on my second week of Amantadine. I think it’s working, but not to manage the symptom it’s supposed to. Oddly, for an anti-fatigue medicine, it’s improving my sleep. (In fact, one of its more hilarious/terrifying potential side effects appears to be falling asleep suddenly, in the midst of any activity.) I usually can’t get through a night without waking up after a few hours and my brain going into panic overdrive, but with the exception of one rough night after an especially brutal day, I’ve actually been sleeping soundly. So, one piece of the puzzle at least is in place. The rest, I guess we keep working on.

Hopefully I’ll be able to shake some new poetry out of my brain to post here in the coming weeks. I’m also doing #NaNoWriMo this month, trying to bang out as much as possible out of the sequel to “The Beast” before finishing Book 1 this winter. (If they are in fact two books; that remains to be seen.) I hope you are all keeping sane, and healthy, and celebrating every little triumph of reason and love over madness and intolerance that the world delivers.

It was her, all along

The plant that is growing over the Elsewhere Throne has been known to me now for some time: Rhus typhina, the Staghorn (or Velvet) Sumac. When I was close enough to the naked branches this spring, it was clear to me how it came by both its Latin and English common names, evoking the velvet of deer antlers. Now, with autumn in full swing in my neighborhood, I look hopefully for a few buds that will flower into those classic Dr. Seussian crimson clusters.

Perhaps you are rushing things, Jian Qing.

“Yes,” I say, admiring the play of light over the subtly reddening leaves, “perhaps I am rushing…”

My mouth snaps closed. I peer sharply through the dappled shadows concealing the abandoned chair’s tattered seat. Jian Qing (簡晴) is my Chinese name, given to me by a Taiwanese friend almost thirty years ago when I was a Linguistics major studying Mandarin. (The characters mean Simplicity and Clarity.) It is also a name I have heard spoken by only one person in the last few years… and she is not mortal. The forms of Disenchantment are myriad, but I have often seen her take no shape at all but sunshine. Few things, for an alter ego, would be more suitable.

“Jing Huan Xian?”

Oh! So formal… Disenchantment smiles in her incorporeal way, a brightening that I feel down to my marrow. It takes a great deal of self-restraint not to hurl myself into the chair and immerse myself in that long-lost warmth and light. I don’t want to crush the sumac.

“D. you are killing me. Have you been here all along?”

Theoretically. You, on the other hand, have been elsewhere for a long time.

“I’ve been dead, D. I died — the last time — in February of 2019, was reborn as someone I’m not, and now they’re going to kill me again on January 31, with a stake through the heart this time, and you know what? I am actually elated about it. Terrified, but elated. I’ve been having a lot of conversations.”

I know, the Fairy of Disenchantment replies quietly. Are you okay talking to me in the middle of the sidewalk, or should we go home?

Laughing, I turn on my heel and head back up the hill to my house. I have Angélique Kidjo’s version of the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light still playing on my headphones: Tin guidi guidi guidi tingui tingui, Zo yéli yéliShe is only partly human being… She describes the possibilities… The light follows me up the hill.

I have indeed been talking to a lot of people lately, most helpfully at my local Aging and Disability Resource Center. There are a few missing pieces of data from my employer’s benefits office, but the way I’m seeing things now, going on disability is actually looking like a viable possibility.

It seems like a perfect time for a certain someone to come back into my life. You will find that other blog here: The Fairy of Disenchantment (Apologies for all the missing image links; I’m slowly working on replacing everything lost in the WordPress export…)

There Now; I’m Here

You must build a routine,
is what they say,
if you plan to survive this
and so I’ve studied you,
master of circumscribed wildness,
and the dark secret places you find
to gather your squandered power,
and the way you emerge
wringing sleep from your body
(it takes longer than it used to)
and stare at this door until it opens
and stare again from the other side,
when after an hour of exploring,
and checking empty traps,
you will tolerate what passes
for meat among the low-level
predators who shelter you,
and most particularly
I note the company you choose:
this caretaker or the other,
the one with the warmest lap
or the one whose claws reach
the places yours can’t.
Or the one most in need
of that single touch that says
There now; I’m here.

………
I’ve often said that I’m modeling my life philosophy after my cat’s — and not just any cat’s; call it Claudioism — but if I ever wrote a poem about it, I’ve forgotten it. My understanding of the basic precepts have definitely gotten a workout in recent months, and they will in the coming ones for certain, particularly now that I will be out of a job Jan. 31 and will be spending the interim scouring Indeed.com for a suitable new profession.

I don’t think I’ve held back here on the subject of how deeply I despise the organization I currently work for, so it’s largely a blessing. But for all its faults, the program I managed (which is also being cut) was a good one, with a measurable impact on my community, and I was good at it, and it will be a challenge to find any employer willing to take me for the hours I can work (80% is the best I can do with MS, and even that’s a stretch). At least the pandemic has had positive effects on people’s general acceptance of working remotely; I might get lucky there. And actually, I might get lucky in other ways. I could actually succeed in persuading some other entity to take on my whole program (and in an even more perfect scenario, my whole team). I’m not quite to the “acceptance” phase of this prognosis.

In the meantime, I follow Claudio’s lead. And since I always close with some music or other, I’ll choose one of his favorite songs, Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27 No. 2. (He loves this whole album, but I have to turn down the applause.)

Screen-poisoning

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I like to think that the above is a photo I’m unlikely to ever take again, because I seriously doubt I’ll be setting up a used 2014 Macbook Air bought on eBay for my aunt Sam on any kind of regular basis. While using my own 2014 laptop to see how I can further overburden my to-read list with suggestions from today’s “Shelf Awareness” newsletter, and checking work email on my iPad, and taking photos with my phone that give me techno-social anxiety. (Meanwhile texting my aunt and my girlfriend simultaneously, which could’ve had disastrous and/or comedic results.) By the end of the night — and we haven’t even talked about my hours of computer-time at work — I was suffering from a serious case of what I call screen-poisoning. 

I never experienced the phenomenon before MS, but I also never spent half as many hours subjected to unnatural lighting as I have in the last eight or so years. Some of this, of course, is my own doing. I really wish I was one of those writers like Neil Gaiman who’s able to put down large chunks of his books in ink on paper. And I still do earnestly try that, from time to time. For the most part, though, if I can’t type, I can’t write. Over the holidays, when my laptop reported that my screen activity was averaging 6 hours per day, I chose to interpret this not as the warning it was designed to be, but as a cause for celebration. That was 6 hours of writing that I’d achieved every day!  But the fact is, I knew damned well that the news wasn’t all good because around that 6th-hour mark, pretty much every day, my body had already performed an intervention.

What happens is, by mechanisms I may never understand, Body decides I’ve had toxic levels of screen-time and proceeds to make me literally, physically nauseous until I step away from the machine. Not just for a break (which I do try to take now and then); I’m completely cut off. It might, in fact, be a form of headache-less migraine — I have one friend that’s been diagnosed with that, and mean to ask my neurologist about it one of these days. Whatever it is, though, it’s barking obnoxious. And at its worst, disabling. I’ve gone home from work ‘screen-poisoned’, more than once. But when it comes to the book… it’s adding insult to injury.

I realize that I ask a lot from Body. Particularly my brain. Like Sherlock, ‘I crave mental exaltation.’ But unfortunately, while simply turning off all my screens will instantly kill my nausea, it’s not going to stop me from bullying my brain into some kind of exercise, no matter how tired I am. There’s always unfinished knitting (Just a few more rows!) or music practice (I can’t believe you’re still on Vol. 1 of the Christopher Parkening guitar book!) or a language to keep up (Where are your Chinese flash cards?)  Sometimes, I can get away with just reading a book. Or even better, listening to one. But even there… (Are you really listening to The Starless Sea? You just read it two months ago! You’re never going to finish The Overstory!)

Speaking of The Starless Sea, though, I blame that book, or perhaps more specifically its author, for poking a long sleeping temptation, which can’t possibly be an antidote to screen-poisoning. And yet. I miss video games. Every time my friend Audra talks about Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, I get itchy.  (And maybe I shouldn’t listen to the soundtrack for writing background music.) And part of me is saying, Hey, if Erin Morgenstern can be addicted to Skyrim (I’ve never actually played any of the Elder Scrolls but I think they’re madly beautiful) and still finish her second book… and in fact find the inspiration for that book in the playing… there could be something OK about this? In moderation?

Fortunately, at the moment, I’m liberated from answering the question by the fact that I can’t actually afford buying a system to play anything on for at least the next few months. By that time, maybe I’ll have discovered a compromise with Body that might actually help me finish this book faster. I’ll report any breakthroughs. For the time being, though, I’m going to go rest my eyes.

 

 

 

Snow is its own time

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This vulnerable season, premature but inescapable. You have a choice when it comes, to rail against it, or resign yourself. Today, after the last two weeks of unrelenting adultness, I’ve more or less made my decision. But I reserve the right to turn my back on it tomorrow.

Monday morning began with the news that my father-in-law had died. Actually, in this case, I can legitimately use the term “pass away”, because he actually did do so, peacefully, in the small hours of the morning, in his sleep, at the age of 89. I’d been expecting it, as I had my two previous deaths this year (my paternal grandmother in the spring, my maternal grandmother in late summer). If it were up to me, I’d have been present for all of them. Circumstances don’t always allow. But the choice to take no time for myself, after any of these losses… Or time for the people grieving with me… Nobody but I can answer to that.

At the bus stop that morning, after I’d just left my man and my cat to comfort each other — because there’s a war on at work and gods forbid I should fail to keep my end up — I received my first message from my own psyche. In the fumble for my bus pass, my new phone, which I’d owned for just under one week — purchased optimistically before the Mercury Retrograde — flew out of my purse and cracked its screen spectacularly on the sidewalk. I confess something to you: that sound… was exquisite. And when I saw the damage done, my first thought was I’d never seen glass break so artfully. If it weren’t for the tiny crystals that have been embedding themselves with increasing frequency in my hand when I touch the thing, I wouldn’t even seek to replace it. The metaphor loses its appeal. I begin to look into the warranty.

Yesterday… I don’t know. I recall no specific details except that I failed to put dinner away and all the rice dried out. But no… I do remember one thing. Last night, a volunteer for Wisconsin Public Radio came to the door, and because it was dark and snowy and cold, my husband brought her inside. “Talk to her,” he told our uninvited guest, jerking a thumb in my direction, and disappeared in that uncanny way of his that never actually involves his leaving the room. Short-tempered and half-dead from the day, I did not expect this to end well. Twenty minutes later, I was signing a pledge to be a monthly subscriber. Because 1) the girl was an undergrad double-majoring in Music and Political Science (remind me to tell you what my novel is about!) and 2) she was of Chinese-American descent and when she told me what her name meant, and I told her in Chinese that I knew, she was so delighted that it renewed my resolve not to let 20 years of Mandarin study go for nought; and 3) my cat liked her. A moment of warmth, and purpose. Something familiar, if fragile.

This morning, I made it half-way to work. Ten minutes away, brittle-nerved and blurry-eyed on an overstuffed bus with more than my recommended daily allowance of whining children, I spontaneously decided that the war at work would carry on fine without me — or at least for as long as it took for me to get my shit together. I texted my comrades-in-arms that I’d finally come to my senses and was taking some time for myself. An hour. It hardly sounds like enough. It wouldn’t have been, if not for the snow.

It was perhaps the fourth snowfall in two weeks — heavy, wet; February in November. But I realized, as I made my way against the current of office workers to one of my most reliable coffee houses, that after weeks of resenting this early winter, I was suddenly synchronized to the precipitation. Snow is its own time. Difficulty is its own time. Disability educated me on this, but I still forget. When I’ve been well for too long, I have to relearn that all over again when I crash. Snow teaches the same way. It isn’t so much resignation as it is reorientation.

This feeling probably won’t last long. But for at least a little while today, as I made my long walk in to the office, I was terribly peaceful. The ice on the sidewalk, the cracks in my screen, unsolicited solicitors, death upon death. All the things that slow me down, and the world with me. I take you all as you are.