Take a Hike

When the pressures of life start smooshing your head like a vise, when outside forces conspire to turn your stomach into an ulcer factory, hold your head high, take a deep breath and run like hell. That’s what Amadeus and I do, and I swear, it works like a Harry Potter spell.

Where you run is important– obviously, a crack house is not a good destination for stress-relief. Bars are smoky and can be quite expensive. Retail therapy is good if you have money, but if bills are a cause of your distress, it’s not a realistic solution. This is true of Caribbean cruises as well. And hookers.

Our cure for the blues, and our escape from the daily grind is hiking. We literally head for the hills. We throw on our jeans, pack a few sammiches, grab some bottled water and take off.

When the weather’s warm, we fish and camp out. When a chill hits the air, when the leaves turn to fire and start pirouetting  from trees, we hit the trails.

I love doing this. I love the fact that my husband grew up here and knows these hills and valleys like he knows his phone number. We discover new places, and revisit ones that he’s seen and wants to share with me. Seeing the world with him– even these small patches of the world– is one of my greatest pleasures.

Yesterday, we traveled about two hours away, to a fantastic trail head along the Buffalo River, deep in the Ozark Mountains. We took our cameras and clicked over 500 shots between us. What’s funny to me is that, when we get home and unload our SD cards, we discover that a lot of the same things have caught our eye– we often take the same shots at identical angles, at different times. A million things to see on the trail, but the same stuff grabs us. We’re spooky that way.

I wish I’d done this with my children. I wish I could have instilled in them a love of the Great Outdoors, but I never did. I was too busy trying to keep us afloat at the time, and a big backyard or football practice field was as close as we got to nature. I take comfort in the fact that I was raised a big city girl. When I first arrived in the Ozarks, twenty-something years ago, I had to inquire as to whether sheep bit. I couldn’t identify a robin and I thought eggs grew in styrofoam boxes. I was a new bride, and my new groom moved us to a God-forsaken trailer in a God-forsaken pasture, where goats frolicked on the hood of my Volvo, chickens laid eggs in our living room and snakes occasionally greeted me on the porch. For some reason, the marriage didn’t last, and those years didn’t attune me to nature. That came later, when my son and daughter grew up and I had time to consider the things that made me happy. I fell in love with bicycling and bike trails, which led to walking trails which led to hiking and camping and fishing and tree-kissing.  When I met Amadeus, I found someone who loved being outdoors as much as I do, and it’s an integral part of our lives. Maybe there’s hope for my kids yet. Maybe one day, they’ll find solace in nature. I know that at their ages, I’d rather have listened to the Sex Pistols and chugged tequila. As my daughter points out, at this stage of the game, packing a bunch of crap into a car, wrestling with fish and sleeping on the hard ground is not her idea of relaxation.

The beauty of the woods is overwhelming. The shapes and textures of the trees tell us stories. There are boulders as big as A-frames and plants so stubborn they could grow through steel. Every leaf is a masterpiece. Animals are standing around, peeking at us through the brush, though we seldom see them.* Water bubbles up from deep inside the Earth and trickles over silk smooth rocks.  Emerald green moss clings, fungi sprout like lace. Below is the river, as ancient as the world, winding like ribbon around bends and turns. I stop often as we walk the path, breathing the pure air, listening to the sounds of the rushing water and the wind pushing through the leaves. I’m in the moment. I can’t think about anything but the woods. At the same time, my ADD does double time, because everywhere I turn, there are a million treasures– it’s impossible to take it all in.

It’s the most glorious art form. We joke about taking so many photos, but really, I understand why we do it. We’re attempting to capture the thing that’s making our hearts sing. We’re trying to preserve it and take it home with us. Though it’s impossible to recreate through a lens, we try. We sit in our living room and transfer the mementos of the day to our computers. We’re tired and happy, our legs ache in a nice way. As we study each shot, we talk about what we were thinking when we took it– why a particular tree spoke to us, what a cutie the little snail-shell was, how impossible it was to capture the altitude of the trail or the gargantuan size of a rock.

When we hike, we’re enveloped in a soft cloud of serenity and beauty. It rides home with us at the end of the day, and we float on it as we fall asleep at night. We wake up Monday morning, and our worries are greeting us at the door again, but somehow, they just don’t seem as bad.

*One bear sighting and I’ll be simultaneously crying, running, screaming and peeing in my pants.

Camp Complain

Disclaimer: I’ve spent the last two days babysitting the Grandpea and I’m exhausted. Hurricane Baby just blew through our house, and don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but it’s work. Chasing that beautiful two-year-old is nature’s way of reminding me that I’m freaking old.  Yeah, yeah, she’s wonderful, she brings joy and bubbles and all that happy crap, but right now, I’m pooped.

I almost feel guilty for writing that. She’s hilarious and sweet and adorable and oh my gosh, we had a blast. But sometimes, just sometimes Mimi just has to gripe a little.  Especially when someone removes the dinosaur head from her drinking cup and pours juice all over the carpet.

But on to happier things. Amadeus and I went CAMPING last weekend—our first trip of the season– and it was heaven. We had so much fun, casting our lines while standing on big boulders, mooning over the endless lake while trying to catch fishies. Amadeus had a lot more success than I. I ended up with one tiny, mocking perch, and have reached the conclusion that fish hate me. My husband reeled in several, and while happy for him, I’m beginning to take it all as a personal, gilled affront. I consoled myself by burning hot dogs at sunset. We built a blazing orange fire on the lake bank (thanks, Pres-to-Logs!), and passed a bottle of whiskey (thanks, Jack Daniels!) and quietly lost ourselves in tranquility. Snuggled in our tent, we jabbered until we fell asleep and in the morning we made coffee and fished some more. I took photos, and snapped some shots of Canada geese for Annie (Calliope’s Tablet), who recently wrote a post about birds.

***

The trip was a much-needed replenisher for both of us. I’m no mu-mu wearing, bonbon eating, middle class housewife who hobby writes to stave off boredom (but God, I wish I was).  I work hard at being an uncompensated scribe. I write until my buns are numb and my shoulders ache, and then I write some more. I research markets and send query letters; I try to learn more about technology and constantly rack my brain for ways to help subsidize our impoverished little household via the Written Word. My eyelids are permanently puffy. My eyeballs, once so sparkly and clear, are now two fried brussels sprouts attached to some optic nerves. I thank Buddha and Oprah for my husband, who occasionally places a trail of M&Ms from the doorstep to the car in order to lure me from the house. I’ve barricaded myself indoors lately, and if he didn’t occasionally nudge me outside, my skin would turn pasty and sunlight would burn out my retinas.

Last night, Amadeus heard me say, “Haaaaaahhhhhhhh,” which is the way I sound when I’m sucking a lot of breath into my chest all at once, the sound that lets him know that I’ve gotten an e-mail from an editor or from someone offering work.  In this case, it was the sound of discovering that the finalists for a memoir contest I’d entered had just been announced. It wasn’t a big contest, or a big deal, but in a way, everything regarding writing is a Damned Big Deal.

The contest was a call for entries about overcoming loss and grief. In my mind, there would be about twenty-five finalists, and I was fairly certain I’d be one of them. I don’t often feel such confidence, but memoir writing is my passion; grief and loss are as familiar to me as my knuckles.  Lately though, I’ve been semi-depressed and dejected about freelancing. No one knows this more than my husband, who sweetly asked, “Do you want me to look at the list of finalists for you?” I nodded and stepped out onto the patio and smoked a Spirit (no, I haven’t quit yet).  After ten minutes, I knew I’d been rejected. If I’d won, Amadeus would have been out there, hugging and happy dancing with me. I went back inside and the expression on his face was my confirmation.  For some reason, tears welled up in my eyes. It’s been a rough few months.

I got my hug anyway. “You’re just a grittier writer,” Amadeus said. “More blunt. They picked more flowery, gentle stories.” Not only that, but there were only five finalists.

Later, while I was moping around, pity partying, Amadeus called out, “Moonbeam McQueen—you’ve got mail!” It was my beloved copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker, which I’d won in another recent contest.  It’s sitting on the buffet, and I’m not cracking the spine until I’m through basking in its glow. Dorothy’s looking at me, saying, “Put on your big girl panties and get back to work.”

Still Life With Plant, Parents and Portable Parker

I felt a little better, but not much. As I sat next to Amadeus on the sofa, sighing every four minutes, he finally turned and said, “You’re a good writer. You’re not going to win them all.” In fact, he’s told me that I’m the best writer he’s ever known, and although I’m not sure that he’s ever known another, it counts for a lot. His belief in me often keeps me writing when all I want to do is hide under my blankie.

“You can’t let every little rejection get you down.” I could tell he was sort of laughing at my sadness. This really was not a Big Deal. But the Grandpea had just left the building and I was exhausted. My normal, “Something wonderful’s waiting around the corner” attitude has been waning lately.

“Listen,” Amadeus said, still trying to shake me out of my gloom, “you got three blog awards last week. Three. Apparently, someone likes your stuff.”

Oh wow. It’s true. I did. They do. My pity party ended right then and there. I put away the Triscuits and dried my eyes.

It’s crazy—blogging is the most rewarding, joyful writing that I do. If left to my own devices, I’d die of starvation with a laptop on my desk, WordPress on my screen and a smile on my lips. Every rejection slip is tempered by e-mails and comments from fellow writers and blog readers who enthuse and encourage and let me know that they appreciate what I do. It’s enormously meaningful to me. It makes a difference in my world. In a way, it keeps me steadfast and helps me believe in myself almost as much as others do.  And for that, I truly thank you.

All Through the Summer and Into the Fall

We had a great summer, Amadeus and me. We traveled, we camped, we fished; we had sexy time in an orange tent under the starry sky and shared a cabin in the woods.  We took zillions of photos (maybe a zillion point five) of waterfalls, butterflies, rivers and a whole lot of bikers.  We visited friends and family and shared my motorcycle magazine adventures. Amadeus played music in clubs with his band and at home we made crazy music in the living room.

At the end of August, a little gloom trickled in. Amadeus had to go back to his teaching job. A few days into the school year, his brother died (thankfully, we got to visit him a month-and-a-half before he left the planet). The magazine folded and I lost the most fantastic job I’ve ever had.  A couple of weeks later, I was in the ER with a terrible ache in my gut and a fever. Amadeus read to me from The New Yorker while we waited for test results. The MRI showed a tangerine-sized cyst on one of my ovaries. My tumor markers were elevated. I was sent to a gynecologist, then a gynecological oncologist.

Throughout the summer and into the fall, something began to happen to Amadeus and me. I can’t name it, I can only say that at some point it dawned on each of us that, no matter what we were experiencing—positive, negative or neutral, we just flowed with each other, tuned in at some mighty powerful frequency. We had each other’s back no matter what, and gradually, we became trusting and sure of the other’s place in our hearts.  It all felt (and still feels) as big as the sky and as deep as the Earth and as strong as a hurricane—not a poofy little hurricane either, I’m talking Katrina here.

I couldn’t write about it until now because I wasn’t very familiar with this language—the language of love through action, the language of deep respect and reciprocal caring and admiration. The past didn’t matter—that was just the mode of transportation that got us to where we were now standing. And where we were standing was with each other. I began to realize the depth of my love for him, and how subtly and gently he makes me feel worthy of his. It all hit me like a freight train, but a freight train that ran over me slowly, making sure I really understood what was happening. He is dearer to me than I can express.  Also, when I watch him play upright bass, I want to jump all over him like a kangaroo on a tourist. It’s an aphrodisiac, that instrument.

~~~

The oncologist, before even examining me, said that he recommended a complete hysterectomy.  I tried to bargain for body parts (“Can’t you just take one ovary?”), but he wouldn’t budge. “You’re at the median age for menopause, you aren’t having more children– you don’t need any of it,” he said. I secretly wondered how he’d feel if a doctor told him, “Listen buddy—you’re at the median age for impotency—let’s just cut those balls off. You’re not using ‘em anyway.”

I left feeling terrified. He’d talked about chemo and radiation, and he wanted to do the surgery immediately.  No bikini cut, either—he wants to slice me, belly button to vageena. I pulled into the parking lot of Big Lots and sat there in my car, crying and shaking for a while. Who do you call when you have no idea what you’re calling about? Do you say, “Hi, it’s me. Just wanted to let you know that I could be dying, but it might just be a little lump?” I didn’t want to scare anyone. Finally, I phoned my friend Shanti, and she told me to come right over. She made me lunch and made me laugh, and pointed out that this was probably not as grim as it seemed. I went home feeling much stronger, though the neurotic part of my brain was figuring out which of my kids would get my bicycle and which would get my car.

Holy crispies, it’s been hard to find humor in these events. I feel like a contestant on “Survivor: Loser Island.” I miss the photo sessions and the fascinating biker folk I used to interview.  I can’t yet find a giggle in words like “cyst” and “chemo.”  I’m sure there’s humor somewhere in all of this, but I’m in a comic holding pattern until I get this medical stuff resolved.

Being a confirmed nerd and a research fanatic, after the oncologist visit I went home and pulled out my trusty laptop. I read obsessively about hysterectomies—the pros, the cons, the ins and outs. I took solace in the words of women who reported that having their reproductive organs harvested was the best thing that ever happened to them. I fretted over the stories of women who said it ruined their lives.

I love my ovaries. I adore my uterus. I believe that they’re somehow connected to the same circuit board as my brain. I’m girly and emotional. My hormones help fuel my creativity and my passion for life. That’s part of my belief system anyway.  I know that my body’s in the process of slowing the flow of estrogen, but I want it to ebb away gradually and gracefully. I don’t want some plumber coming in and removing all my pipes, just because I’m clogged.

Some of you reading this have probably had hysterectomies.  Please know that I’m not dissing the procedure. It’s saved many lives, and eased a lot of pain. I’ve talked to many women about all of this and realize that it can be a very positive experience.  But here’s the thing: I’m finally at a point where I love my life. I’m happy with who I am, I love the interactions I have with others, I adore the man I live with and the beautiful nature of our relationship. It’s been a hard fought battle, getting to this place, and (pardon my Swahili) I just don’t want anything to fuck it up. While some women happily go on with their lives, post-hysterectomy, others have had devastating results.  So I’m scared.

I went back to Dr. Oncology, asked more questions, expressed my concerns. We talked, but I never got the feeling that he could hear me. I’m not going to go into the boring details, but what I was aiming for was a kind of partnership, where my doctor would consider my thinking and treat me conservatively. I came away convinced that, no matter what he found, this guy was going to take all my toys.  He went from “cyst” to counseling me on radiation and chemo, and he didn’t even know what was going on inside my belly yet.

One of the difficulties of all of this was being uninsured. It paints you into a corner, limits your options. I was in this hospital’s system, the train was rolling, I was seeing the only gynecological oncologist in the area. And he wasn’t listening.

Poor Amadeus. God, I love him. He’s listened to all of my fears (for weeks) and he understands exactly where I ‘m coming from. He’s worried as hell, but even when I’m at my most distraught, he stays strong and calm, like Gandhi in Levi’s, only taller and with more hair.

“Some women end up incontinent. Will you still love me if I pee my pants?”

“A lot of women gain weight after hysterectomies. Will you still love me if I’m fat?”

“Will you still love me when I’m insane?” I should have said “insaner,” but he knew what I meant.

“You know, this could kill our sex life, or at least change it dramatically.”

This one’s a huge worry. From what I’ve read, if your sex life is a 1 or 2 before surgery, it could actually improve. If your sex life is a 10, the quality might decrease. Not to over share, but we’re solidly in column “B”, and I don’t want to rock that lovely little boat.

He just doesn’t give a shit. He loves me. It kills me how willing he is to stand by me, even though I’m  terrified that I’ll come out of surgery all butch and surly, yearning to drive an all-terrain vehicle and needing a shave.

“Somehow, I just think that you’ll be able to manage this,” he said. “I know you.” If I could sprinkle little sparkly pink hearts around this part of the story, I would.

~~~

I’ve cried a lot lately, mostly out of frustration.  While I know this doctor is probably a helluva surgeon, I just hate his overzealousness. I’ll bet he has a trophy room somewhere in his house, with hundreds of healthy stuffed uteri mounted on the walls.

So I’m back to square one. I can feel this “thing” inside of me, and I don’t know if it’s growing or shrinking or eating my liver. I sweat, I swell, I feel like hell. But the story gets better- I swear it. I’ll tell you about it soon.

~~~

Soon.

Romanticalness. Passionality. Squooziness. This is the language of love, and though I just made those words up, I know you understand their meanings.

And so it was that my beloved Amadeus presented me with a bouquet of lush flowers in a candlelit French restaurant, got down and one knee, and said, “Moonbeam, my darling, will you make me the happiest man on earth, and do me the honour of becoming my wife?”  I put that letter “u” into the word “honor” because it makes it more frenchy and romantical.

Okay- it didn’t happen that way at all. Amadeus is romantic, in a practical sort of way. He’s also been burned to a crisp when it comes to love, which, between you and me, can make a man as wussy as a scrawny kid on a school playground. He’d brought up marriage a few times, then he’d drop the subject. Eventually I said, “Look—things are great as they are. I love us. Let’s just don’t discuss marriage anymore, m’kay?”

We were both skittish, superstitious about making any moves that would change our lovely situation. This thing we had was so special, such a gift, that in a sense marriage seemed appealing– a way to differentiate it from past relationships, to step it up and finally say, “Wow—so you’re the one.” But realistically, we both knew from past experience that marriage can kill a relationship faster than D-Con kills fire ants. It didn’t matter if we tied the knot or not, we were bonded, and it was almost impossible to imagine a future without the other in it. We have an incredible amount of passionality.

So, here’s how it really happened: I was sitting at home with my swelly belly, when I received a text message from my sweetie. And it was then that he wrote eight of the most beautiful  words in the English language: “I think u should b on my insurance.”

And that’s how he proposed. Seriously, isn’t that full of romanticalness? Isn’t it squoozy?

I texted back: “So, you think we should jump the broom?” After all, I’m a romantic too. I think I even added one of those smiley faces.

We talked about it when Amadeus got home from work. Adding me to his health insurance would almost quintuple his premiums, leaving us temporarily impoverished. That mortified us, but the prospect of a second ovarian opinion pleased us.  Surgery without bankruptcy thrilled us. And the idea of marriage made us giddy. We gidded a lot.

 I was in a daze. It’s been twenty years since the demise of my first marriage; there’s been a lot of heartbreak in the interim. My relationship pattern was to fall in love, often with a fellow of dubious intent whose guts my children hated, and when things started going south, I’d run like hell, across state lines if necessary. This time around, the fellow is wonderful. Thick, thin, uterusless or not, he loves me. This time, I want to stay put. It still blows my mind.

 So, a couple of weeks ago, we jumped the broom.  Beforehand, in a top secret pre-wedding ceremony, we sacredly pinky swore that the foundation of our relationship will never change—we’ll still have adventures, we’ll remain best friends, we’ll never take this “thing” we have for granted.  Insecure woman that I am, I wanted reassurance that this had more to do with love than it did with co-pays. Amadeus wrapped his arms around me and said, “Everything we’ve done was leading to marriage anyway.  We’re just speeding up the process.”

It was the quickest quickie wedding in the world. We held our secret for several days beforehand, leaking our plans to just a few close friends and family members. On the way to the ceremony, Amadeus realized that he’d never formally asked for my hand. In the car, all decked out in our wedding finery, headed toward our huge, life-changing event, he asked, “Moonbeam, will you marry me?” It sounded so beautiful that I made him ask me a second time, then accepted his proposal.

My children were there, and so was my granddaughter. Amadeus’ grouchy dad (whom I adore) arrived with his wife, and a few close friends were in attendance. Everyone was beaming, everyone was joyous. Shanti performed the ceremony, which was infused with beauty and meaning, and which I’ll never be able to remember because I was love drunk. We exchanged vows and cheap rings (Amadeus’ actually spins), shared a kiss and it was done. And it’s just beginning.

It still doesn’t seem real. We’ll be talking, and I’ll look over at him and think, “Wow– that’s my husband.” I look at the ring on my finger, and think, “Wow– I’m his wife.”  I imagine the future and try to wrap my mind around the gorgeous fact that I will have the pleasure of his company for what I hope will be at least forty-two years.

Wow– we’re married. 

Last night, around midnight, we kissed and celebrated the fact that I’m now officially insured. Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a new doctor. I’ll keep you posted.

Our wedding was a small, informal affair, attended by only a few close friends and family members.