Dump Him

Mother’s Day, 2012

“If you want to know how a guy is going to treat you down the road, take a look at how he treats his mother. If he’s respectful of his mother, he’ll be respectful toward you. If he’s a jerk to his mother…you’d better dump him. Fast.”

My mother’s guidelines were intended to direct me to a suitable marriage partner. I applied them accordingly, and married a guy who adored his mother. That was twenty years ago. My mother’s advice proved so effective, I thought I’d never have the need for it again.

This summer, I was given a rare opportunity to apply Mom’s precepts to a relationship in an entirely different sphere. The man in question had done some business with my lady-parts, but that did not make him a potential romantic partner. The man in question was my urologist.

When I’d met the urologist in his clinic, I’d been dressed in a johnny coat. He’d been dressed in a suit and tie. His old-world formality, his swarthy complexion and his slicked-back, jet-black hair reminded me of my dear departed Grandpa Blanco. But despite the family resemblance, deep in my heart I didn’t trust the guy. I thought he was a show-off. He seemed more interested in impressing me with the latest gee-whiz treatment than in treating me appropriately.

A relationship with a doctor ought to be strictly professional, not personal, so I put whatever personal reservations I might have about him to the side. Yet a nagging voice inside me wondered if perhaps this man’s showmanship might lead to a less than desireable outcome. I was on the fence about seeing him again, or pursuing his “cutting edge” treatment, in part because I didn’t want to go through the trouble of shopping for a new urologist, and in part because mere intuition didn’t seem like a reliable measurement of a doctor’s professional aptitude.

As fate would have it, my intuition would be proven correct, luckily without the messy consequence of an undesired clinical outcome.

In what would be my last encounter this urologist, I was dressed in street clothes, and he was dressed, as always, in his suit and tie. I was carrying a parcel, a bright silk dress I’d purchased off the $50 rack in the back of the shop, which was nestled in the heart of the self-proclaimed “largest bridal district in North America.”
We both did a bit of a double-take, as sometimes happens when you run across a familiar person in an unfamiliar context. My husband and son arrived at the shop, having finshed their task of getting measured for tuxedos across the street. I introduced them to my “doctor” without spelling out his specialty for all the assembled would-be brides and bridesmaids to hear. And then the explanation for the urologist’s presence in a bridal shop became clear. A little old lady hobbled over to us on the arm of a lovely young college girl. The urologist introduced us to his daughter and his mother, who had just flown in that morning from Iran for a family wedding.
I couldn’t help it—I shared my delight at the bargains on the fifty dollar rack. “You couldn’t buy this much silk for fifty bucks! It’s Dupioni.”
As it turned out, the urologist knew all about the $50 rack. They were only there for the bargains. As nothing on the rack “carryies her size,” the urologist was planning on driving his mom to Goodwill to peruse the dresses there.
Goodwill? I wondered if his shopping plans weren’t a bit labor intensive. Why not pay full price at one of the 250 bridal shops within these scant two blocks? Hadn’t the urologist’s mother already had quite a day, flying all the way out to our fair midwestern city from Iran?
“She’s made of iron. Look at her.”
At this point, our party of two families had moved onto the street. My husband was halfway down the block, in a hurry to get to the car so he could deliver me from this unpleasant awkward encounter here in bridal shop purgatory. My son was halfway between his dad and his mom, tarrying in case I needed an arm. The urologist was keeping up with me, while the urologist’s mother, that stalwart traveler, was shuffling slowly but determinedly past the fifties-era storefronts, unaided by her granddaughter or her son.
At that moment, I made my decision. Dump him. The urologist wouldn’t wait up for his ancient mother, no matter how I tried to slow our pace. The man was too cheap to buy his mother a new dress for a wedding she’d traveled a long way to attend. If he could afford a plane ticket from Iran, he could afford a full priced dress.
My husband pulled up alongside us. My son opened the car door for his mother.
That is how it’s done.
When I waved goodbye to the urologist, I knew it was forever. The next specialist to weigh on the situation was a urogynecologist recommended by my local MS doc. She told me that if I were to continue to follow the advice of that urologist, I would end up in bad shape. Not that I needed a professional opinion to confirm …Mother knows best.

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Labels

One summer night, my husband and I were sitting on a picnic bench outside an ice cream shop in one of the more precious neighborhoods in Cincinnati, as our son and his buddies from Shakespeare Camp clowned around and blew off some post-performance steam. The flavor of the outing was pure vanilla. Let’s just say none of the boys would be a shoe-in for the role of Othello.
My husband said, “I don’t feel white here.”
My husband is white. Half white. He is also half Chinese.
He spent most of his childhood in North Dakota, except for a year in Pakistan. There were no Chinese kids, or other half Chinese kids, in Grand Forks, North Dakota. There were no Chinese kids, or other half Chinese kids, in Lahore, Pakistan. Of the two cities, Lahore was by far the more racially diverse.
In North Dakota, my husband-to-be was regarded as an alien. In Pakistan, he was regarded as an American. It’s hard to guess which must have felt more uncomfortable. Even back in the ‘70’s, Americans were not exactly beloved in Pakistan.
In any case, his identity as an American pretty much evaporated as soon as he returned to the good old US of A.
Chinese Americans can tell at a glance that he’s not Chinese. Just like white Americans can tell at a glance that he’s not white.
There is one state in the union where my husband blends right in. While vacationing in Hawaii, he may be offered a local discount via a top-secret hand gesture and a knowing smile. For an hour or two, he’ll be all puffed up. And then he’ll be offered a fork at a Chinese restaurant. Deflated, he’ll be forced to ask for chopsticks.
When we moved to Cincinnati, I think things got a little easier for him. (I could be dead wrong.) Race in Cincinnati is black and white. Black Cincinnatians and white Cincinnatians can all agree on one thing. My husband isn’t black. Which means, for all intents and purposes, he’s white.
That standard generally holds, unless my husband happens to be surrounded by unfamiliar white people. Then he’s not-white. And the question hovers, usually unspoken, unexpressed, except through second glances.
“What is he?”
On this vanilla flavored outing, my husband and I talked to the other Shakespeare parents about volunteer opportunities at the arts school, about an upcoming pool party at the swim and tennis club. We did not openly mock the affluent white street guitarist playing Bob Marley. Instead, we exchanged whispers and surreptitious snickers.
After our breathless son rejoined us, my husband went off to get the car. He wasn’t just being a gentleman. That particular evening, it wasn’t physically possible for me to get up and join him for the three block walk on a mild summer night.
Once my husband pulled up in front of the ice cream shop in our Element, the gig was up. It was my turn to be the outsider. I stood. My knees buckled. Our son took my arm. My knees buckled again. Once, twice, three times more before fair Hamlet got me to the car.
I, too, have a shifting identity. For me, relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) means sometimes I can walk, and sometimes I can’t.
What am I?
I am disabled. I have a placard to prove it.
What am I?
I am healthy. I can swim a lot of laps.
Once—only once—a man yelled at me as I walked or ran, I suppose with undue vigor, away from my placarded car.
“You’re not disabled.”
What does he know?
Usually, when I run from my car, I am running to the bathroom, ‘cause I have an MS bladder, and I’ve really got to pee.
Sometimes, when I see an available handicapped spot, I don’t have to pee. My legs feel just a wee bit tingly. I entertain the notion of parking further back. If there is only one empty handicapped parking space, I may just keep the placard in the glove compartment, and park somewhere less accessible. Which doesn’t always turn out to be such a smart decision. I can’t tell you how many times I have parked politely, and then felt not-so-good on my return. I have had to lean on a full shopping cart as if for dear life, my legs in excruciating pain, as I’ve pushed the cart past two, maybe three, perfectly empty handicapped parking spaces.
So much for that.
My husband doesn’t get to choose when he is perceived as white. I don’t get to choose when I am perceived as disabled.
I look disabled when I’m in my wheelchair.
I look fit when I swim my laps.
If I didn’t swim, if I didn’t persistently lift very minimal weights, I would not be at all toned. I would not be able to blend right in with all those other white parents from Shakespeare Camp, if only for a while.
Oddly enough, my husband still hasn’t gotten over caring what other people think about our parking our car in a handicapped spot. He will often run around the car, and give an ostentatious show of offering me his arm, whether I need it or not. It’s like he’s broadcasting, “See, people, my poor wife is handicapped. That’s the reason why we’re using this spot.”
He clearly feels the pressure of the unasked question.
“What is she? Is she really handicapped?”
Screw that. I’m not dead yet. Don’t put me in box.
And while you’re at, screw, “What is he?”
Race is a construction.
So is disability. All of us have an uneven distribution of abilities. These attributes will wax and wane over time. We might as well relax about affixing any labels. They all peel off eventually.
What am I?
I am.
Who are you to ask?

Power Outage

Six days and six hours after Hurricane Irene blew out the power, a friend in Connecticut finally got her electricity back. She posted on Facebook that she’d started the dishwasher and the washing machine. She wrote: “I have to say it wasn’t entirely a negative experience. I’m actually happy to have experienced it.”
I have a hunch I know what she means. I’ve lived through a few power outages. They transform the humdrum household into an exotic locale, where previously automatic tasks require improvised solutions. With every reflexive, futile flip of a light switch, we are reminded of how much we ordinarily take for granted. We feel entitled to our electricity, darn it. And then we adjust. Instead of cursing the darkness, we light candles. We grill all the meat. We gather together. We entertain each other. We tell stories. We sleep deeply. The remaining food rots. The dirty clothes pile up. We understand the power company is working tirelessly to fix the problem. We wish they’d hurry the hell up. We understand it is useless to complain. We complain. We wish everyone else would quit complaining— we’re all in the same boat. We’re all in the same boat—and that’s kind of cozy. The power comes back again. We are oh so grateful for a good five to ten seconds. Then we scatter—one to load the washing machine, one to buy the milk, one to download distractions. Normal life resumes, with all its quotidian conveniences and isolations.
An attack of multiple sclerosis is also a power outage. The brain blows another fuse, and a function is lost, maybe for a few days, maybe for forever. A previously automatic task requires an improvised solution. I feel entitled to cross a room on my own two legs, darn it. And then I ask for assistance. I take my husband’s arm. My son pushes the wheelchair. The family draws closer together. We see ourselves as problem solvers. We wonder when the power will come back. We understand the pharmaceutical companies are working tirelessly to fix the problem. We wish they’d hurry the hell up. We understand it is useless to complain—we don’t know anyone in the same boat. We prepare ourselves to live this way forever. “This way” doesn’t stay this way for long. It gets better. We are oh so grateful. Or it gets worse. We adjust.
We never take my relative health for granted. No one understands the vast complexity of the central nervous system better than a person whose central nervous system is constantly on the fritz. The basement fuse box presents a laughably simplified metaphor. We are only dimly aware of the multitude of problems that could yet occur, and we are fully aware that such ignorance is bliss.
After our last multi-day power outage, I proposed that maybe our family could consider off-the-grid Sundays. By off-the-grid, I envisioned something sort of fuzzy and candlelit, nothing as hard-core as an unplugged refrigerator, although an unplugged stove, and the consequent necessity for Thai take-out, seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Needless to say, I was met with immediate opposition.
There’s no need to opt for hardship. Hardship will come to us. It’s too bad we can’t fully rejoice with every flip of an operative light switch, or with every synaptic leap in our central nervous system. But we can’t. If MS relapses have any benefit at all, it’s that I keep getting new chances to recover, whether fully or partly. I get to be aware of the health I’ve still got. It’s not often that I’m not in pain. I know, then, to celebrate its absence.

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Heat Wave

Interior Night Scene. Concerned Husband sits in profile at metal desk, stage left. He is wearing a white T-shirt and bright red Patagonia boxers. His face is illuminated by the glow of a gigantic iMac. Wife with MS is seated on leather couch, stage right, facing audience. She is wearing a pale blue cotton nightshirt. Her brand new Malcolm X style bi-focals are illuminated by the MacBook open on her lap.
Concerned Husband (still facing iMac): “We should look into getting you one of those refrigerator vests….”
Wife with MS (still facing open MacBook): Silence.
Concerned Husband (still facing iMac): “I know you can hear me.”
Lights dim.

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The Answer

In the past few months, I’ve made the same complaint to every health care professional I meet. I report that my range of abilities is shrinking. That I don’t feel as fantastic as I used to back when I first went on daclizumab to treat the multiple sclerosis.
Year One on daclizumab, I was inspired to stretch myself to my physical limits. I was suddenly able to swim three hours a day. I could hike for an hour at a time. Every other day, I’d be off to the gym. Once a week, I’d attend an hour and half yoga class. Year One, I discovered I could stretch pretty far.
I am now in Year Four on daclizumab. I still stretch myself to my physical limits. But I tell you, those limits are not what they once were. Hike for an hour? I’m lucky to walk a few blocks. The funny thing is, I do feel lucky. But isn’t that also perverse? Shouldn’t I feel…outraged?
These days, if I decide to go to an hour and a half yoga class, that means I am implicitly deciding to write off any further physical activity for the remainder of my day. Which would be fine if I didn’t have a family. But I do have a family. My day is also my husband’s day, is also my son’s day, is also my dog’s day. My cat could care less if I walk or not, as long as I am still able pour his food. But the rest of my family is aversely affected if I overextend. They would probably prefer it if I would under-extend.
I wouldn’t want that. I’m not dead yet.
Every day becomes an experiment. I check in with my body more or less continually. If I don’t, my body checks in with me. More and more often, my body is saying, “Enough.” More and more often, I listen. I stop what I am doing. And I agree it is enough.
Is this acceptance? Or is it complacency?
I think there’s a difference. Acceptance is wonderful. But complacency is dangerous, particularly when you have a debilitating disease. You can mistake a medication for a cure. You can think you are doing enough, and by the time you find out you’re not, it’s too late.
Lately I’ve been wondering if daclizumab is doing enough.
I will whine to the nurses, or to the neurologists, “I feel like my physical range is shrinking.” I will speculate, “Maybe I don’t have Relapsing/Remitting MS anymore. Maybe I’m slipping into Secondary Progressive.”
No one can tell me. There’s no clear line to cross. What they can tell me is this: every MRI of my brain comes back showing no new lesions. How have I responded? I’ve asked to have an MRI taken of my spine. I want the whole story, even if it doesn’t have a happy ending. I don’t want to be living a lie. I want a clear answer to the question: why I do I feel I am in a long slow decline?
A very clear answer occurred to me just this afternoon. I was downtown, picking up a new pair of glasses, which happens to be my very first pair of bifocals. These glasses are totally and completely nerdy looking. It turns out my distance vision is -11.75. And all these years I thought the vision span only went to -10. It looks like the parameters for bad vision can stretch like the debt ceiling. Maybe the parameters for physical (dis)ability will stretch that way, too. And stretch. And stretch.
In the optician’s office, I thought of an explanation for this insidious phenomenon I’ve been experiencing. I am aging. That first year on daclizumab, I was still in my thirties. I’m not in my thirties any longer. Maybe the answer could be as simple as that.

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Does it stop?

The other day, my husband found a cryptic message scrawled on a Post-it note by his computer: “Does it stop?”
He looked severe as he passed the note to me—so severe, I just had to laugh.
The content of the note was ominous. The form was ominous, too—the writing barely legible. Why, then, was I laughing?
Our son came rushing over to inspect the note. “That’s Mom’s handwriting.” I couldn’t argue with him. “But worse.”
Those two seemed so serious. Too serious. I tried to remember why I’d written, “Does it stop,” but nothing was coming to mind.
Two matching sets of brown eyes were fixed on me intently.
No pressure.
Does it stop? Does it stop?
Surely, I could not have been writing about multiple sclerosis. It’s been sixteen years since my diagnosis. C’mon, people. Give me some credit. I wouldn’t scribble an angst-ridden message about that.
Does it stop? I’d recently been on hold with the phone company. Had I written the note then?
Being on hold could feel interminable. But no. That wasn’t “it.” I didn’t write the Post-it while I was on hold.
Then, when?
What was, “it?”
It.
I quit laughing long enough to confess, “I don’t remember writing that.” Which merely served to ratchet up the tension. Apparently, I was not merely angst-ridden. I was amnesiac. And to top it off, I wasn’t even disturbed about being an angst-ridden amnesiac. There was the question of my laughter. Was my laughter not disturbing?
Sorry.
My son hypothesized, “Maybe you wrote it in your sleep.”
The note was indeed sloppy enough to have been sleep-written. But c’mon. I can—and do—write sloppily enough while fully conscious, as all who know me can attest.
I just didn’t buy the sleep hypothesis. But try as I might, I couldn’t disprove it. I could not recall the exact circumstances surrounding the Post-it note, which in my mind was an argument against its emotional significance. Surely, if I had crawled out of bed to scrawl a message from the depths of deep despair, wouldn’t seeing the note trigger some dark association? I was certain the Post-it had a trivial origin. Yet clearly, I was the only person in the room with that certainty.
For years, my husband has carried around this hip little black book—a Miquelrius—designated for jotting down his observations of my MS symptoms. I’ve never been tempted to peek inside. I find it all a bit… humiliating. When I’d first fantasized about becoming this man’s muse, I was thinking he might fill the pages of a very different little black book.
There is nothing remotely sexy about a long slow decline.
I could tell by the mood in the room that my husband was way past considering whether to include the Post-it note in his little black book. He was considering whether he should categorize the note as a symptom of depression, or as a symptom of cognitive loss. Both depression and cognitive loss crop up fairly often in the MS population.
I am no stranger to depression. Which is why I was pretty certain that, had I been struggling with depression, I would have been the very first to know.
Whereas, if I were struggling with cognitive loss—I would be the very last to know. Which made remembering the origin of the note all the more important. And all the more inaccessible.
The answer came to me a few hours later, while I was brushing my teeth. With my new electric toothbrush. The old electric toothbrush had made a buzzing sound every 30 seconds. It had put me in the habit of polishing every surface of each successive tooth, slowly and deliberately, so that each time the buzzer buzzed, I was exactly another quarter of the way through brushing. Four beeps equaled two minutes of another round of pristine dental hygiene. I would be just finishing the final wisdom tooth when the old electric toothbrush would emit a final, conclusive sounding buzz, and would turn off. The synchronicity had been very satisfying.
Over the years, however, brushing my teeth with the old electric toothbrush had become less than satisfying. The vibrations would cause the toothbrush head to shimmy up and off the communal toothbrush post. I quit using our old electric toothbrush months ago, preferring an old style manual toothbrush that didn’t suck up electricity or spit itself out. By the time my husband came around and bought us a new electric toothbrush set, I was thoroughly out of the habit of the two-minute brush.
Even so, I felt like the new electric toothbrush was working overtime. The new electric toothbrush beeped…and beeped…and beeped…and beeped, but I wasn’t in synch with it, like I’d been in synch with the old one. It seemed to me like this session was dragging on to be an awfully long two minutes. And then the answer to that nagging question finally came to me.
When I had written the Post-it note, I’d had a vibrating toothbrush in my mouth for what I could swear had been more than two minutes. The darn thing would just not shut off. I’d tried pressing the off button with my feeble finger. It only buzzed the louder. And vibrated more. So I’d sidled up to my strong-fingered husband as he tapped away on his computer. I couldn’t very well pull a vibrating toothbrush out of my mouth to ask him if this new fangled electric toothbrush was on a two-minute timer, like the last one. I reached for a pen. And a Post-it note.
And wrote…

author’s note: As it turns out, my husband had not posted the note in his little black book. He hadn’t been as concerned as I’d thought. When I went hunting for the visual aid, he recovered the crumpled Post-it from the trash.

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Prescription

Me: My neck hurts from too much reading.
My son: Maybe you should take up bird watching.

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Still Standing

Sixteen years ago, I coerced my husband into doing something crazy. I had just come back from a doctor’s appointment that hadn’t gone at all well.
When I arrived at our shack, I was crying like a baby. I mean this quite literally. I was crying so hard, I could not form a word.
We both found my speechless sobs distressing. My sweet husband’s dark eyes were widening with horror.
Just a few months earlier, his mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He’d already learned about the flipside of love.
My husband loved me. I now knew he was going to lose me, was losing me already, one little brain lesion, one little spinal cord lesion, at a time.
Until that day, I hadn’t heard of multiple sclerosis. I didn’t know for certain if an MS diagnosis was better than a terminal cancer diagnosis, or far, far worse.
I wanted it to be better. Far better. As much for my husband’s sake as for my own. I wanted to comfort the poor guy, who was standing there, unflinching, receptive, gathering his strength to endure the unendurable, in whatever form it would turn out to take. I wanted to tell him, the love of my life, “I’m not going to die.”
Which was, of course, both the immediate truth and a big fat lie. I wanted to say it anyway, but I was blubbering so hard, even I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
I knew MS wasn’t terminal. The doctors had been very clear on that point. I was going to die with MS, but not necessarily of MS. When I eventually die, it will most likely be due to some other cause.
But to deliver even this cold comfort, I would have to quit bawling. I would have to pull myself together. I would have to form some words.
We had the same idea at the same time.
My husband handed me a pen. The man can be counted on to carry a pen. And that’s when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to do the explaining. As he rooted through our rotting shack for a blank piece of paper, I rooted through my cluttered pocketbook for the wrinkled MS Society brochure.
Then we made our exchange—a sheet of blank paper for a printed pamphlet.
I wrote on the sheet of blank paper, “I’m not going to die.” When I looked up, he was scanning the pamphlet.
The look we exchanged said it all. We were in deep trouble.
Oddly enough, I didn’t sob harder.
Already, I started to feel better. The good news was, I wasn’t in it alone. And yeah, that was also the bad news. But as bad news went, it was at least bearable bad news. For me. I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly be bearable bad news for my husband.
Lucky for me, my husband exceeds the boundaries of my imagination.
The man was capable of deciphering the pamphlet. More so than I was. I have a head for nuance. I have no head for statistics. The nuance of the pamphlet was ominous. It conveyed this the-glass-is-an eighth-full kind of optimism that I found highly suspect.
My husband has a head for nuance, but he also has a head for statistics. He could at least calculate the specific inverse of an eighth full. He isn’t bullied by statistics. Conjecture outright bores him. The guy has a constitutional aversion to freaking out about the future. This quality has served us very well. Which is not to say the diagnosis did not scare the hell of him, out of us.
My husband and I had always intended to have a kid “later.” “Later” meant after we’d both finished grad school. “Later” meant after we’d upgraded our living quarters from a $375/month shack.
The MS Society pamphlet blew apart our concept of “later.” We were just kids. To us, “later” had always meant, kind of like now, but slightly better. But even according to the optimistic pamphlet, “later” meant, kind of like now, but an indeterminate fraction worse. And then worse still. And then worse still.
As I saw it, this meant only one thing. We couldn’t count on “later.” If we wanted a kid, we had to have one immediately. Like, while I could still push a carriage. Like, while I could at least lift a baby to my breast.
Gentle reader, “later” turned out to be a whole lot rosier than my mildest conjectures.
Our son is fifteen now. The child has never spent so much as a night in a shack. (Wait ‘til grad school, kiddo.)
We recently took our healthy son with us to Iowa City for the 75th Anniversary of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. We gave him a tour of all the places we’d lived while I’d studied there, from the crazy apartment on North Dodge in the back of Hilltop Tavern, to the farmhouse in Swisher, to the metal house on G Street, to that sorry, ramshackle shack.
My husband took a picture. He said, “I can’t believe that place is still standing. I underestimated so many things about the world.”
So did I, my love. So did I.

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Conjoined Twin

The cover girls on this morning’s New York Times Magazine are cute young twins…conjoined at the head.
My son, an only child, could not imagine himself in such a conundrum. Since I have two sisters, it was easier for him to imagine such a thing happening to me.
“You probably wouldn’t like it if you were conjoined with one of my aunties.”
I immediately imagined an even worse scenario.
“Image how she would feel being stuck conjoined to me! She’d want to go out…and I wouldn’t be able to walk fast enough. She’d be dragging me along! And then I’d stop walking altogether. And she’d be stuck! She’d hate it!”
And then it hit me; I can imagine this hypothetical situation so well because that’s exactly the situation that I’m in. My MS is like a pesky conjoined twin with a will of her own.
Take this morning, for example. I wanted to pull weeds. But I had to drag along my pesky twin, MS. Let’s pretend MS is short for Mary Sue.
It’s a beautiful, clear day. Blue sky, fluffy white clouds. 80 degrees. Finally, no rain. Finally, a chance to pull those 16” weeds!
Mary Sue whines about the heat. I’ve gathered only a handful of weeds, but we go back inside. I pour us some ice water. A compromise. We go back out again. Gosh, it’s beautiful day.
Mary Sue starts whining again. Now she’s making our legs all tingly and heavy.
I ignore her, and pull. Satisfied to be finally getting something done.
The little girl across the street shouts, “Hello!”
“Hello!” I call. I smile and wave. I can’t see the little girl.
Mary Sue has gotten us dizzy.
I drink more ice water. Mary Sue complains that we are going to faint. She complains about our legs getting heavy.
Our legs have indeed gotten heavy. (Thanks to Mary Sue.) I drag our legs all the way down to the compost bin in the back of the yard, and dump what weeds I’ve managed to uproot.
I turn for home. Mary Sue is dragging our feet all the way to the front door, and her precious air-conditioning.
We’re inside. She’s won. I plop down, exhausted from our struggle, and read a book.
Mary Sue is outraged. I’m ignoring her. She finds a new way to make trouble.
Outside, she was too hot. Inside, she’s decides she’s too cold. She starts jerking our legs around in painful spasms. I stretch. She whines. I pull on long pants. She quiets down.
I dream of separation.
I long for a cure.

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The Keys to Heaven and Hell

The mind is its own place,
and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell
a Hell of Heaven
-John Milton

Nearly two years ago to this day, I met two unforgettable working women on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Readers, tuck away your image of nubile brown women gyrating in grass skirts. The two women I’m about to describe were both, by my estimation, well over fifty—although there is a strong possibility that one of these women was much older than she looked, and the other, much younger. In any case, it is highly unlikely either woman would remember Ms. Lab Rat, or would have found our quotidian interactions at all remarkable. Yet in that day, just by going about their usual business in their usual ways, these two women inadvertently handed me nothing less than the Key to Heaven and the Key to Hell.
I met the woman with the Key to Heaven in a place you don’t find listed in any glossy Big Island travel guide. A place that has never been rated by Zagat. A place undocumented by Lonely Planet. My husband is in-the-know about quite a few noteworthy spots on the Big Island of Hawaii, as this island is his mother’s birthplace. He listed this particular location above all the other hot spots we planned to visit that day: above Onekahakaha Beach, which is totally a beach for locals, above Volcano National Park, which is totally a top-ten contender for any sane person’s bucket list. Be that as it may, this list I’m referring to was not my husband’s bucket list. It was his to-do list. You see, we happened to be staying in a plantation cottage so rural, so isolated, that there was no municipal garage pickup.
Yes, we found the woman with the Key to Heaven working at the local garbage transfer station.
I was as mystified as you are.
At first glance, the woman working at the transfer station looked completely ordinary. It wasn’t as if she wore a fragrant lei and a grass skirt. No, her outfit was more along the lines of a drab polo shirt tucked into pressed khakis. Yet this woman was utterly dazzling. She radiated well-being as she stepped out to greet us with what felt like the warmest word on the planet.
“Aloha.”
As she greeted us with Aloha, she was smiling uncontrollably, just beaming with joy, as though she had been waiting to meet our little family her entire life, and she could imagine no better place on the entire planet for this transformative event to take place than on this very spot. The garbage transfer station.
Her joy was utterly contagious. I couldn’t believe how happy I was to meet her. How happy I was to be there, at the transfer station, with my husband and son, where we could complete our meaningful task of getting rid of garbage. And to think we’d assumed this task was merely something we had to perform to go on to our real destinations.
“Aloha,” we responded. And it felt like we were returning, not so much a greeting, as a blessing.
Raise your hand if you think you know the meaning of the word, Aloha. I would have raised my hand, too, even back in the day when I thought all Hawaiian women traipsed around in grass skirts. Like most Mainlanders of my generation, I considered myself an expert on Hawaiian culture after I’d watched a portion of the three-part Brady Bunch Hawaiian Adventure. Ah, well. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’ll say this much—don’t look to little old freckled me, a haole, a white person, to define Aloha.
Instead, allow me to consult a genuine expert, good old Aunty D.
Aunty D’s Hawaiian Language Workshop cites the dictionary definition of Aloha as follows:

Greetings! Hello! Good-by! 


That dictionary definition is probably not too far off from my old Brady Bunch-inspired definition.
But buckle up. Aunty D and I are going to get all mystical on you. Aunty D digs a little deeper into the etymology of the word Aloha, to reveal that “alo” means presence, and “ha” means “Divine Breath.”
Now, what does the phrase, “Divine Breath” evoke for you? If you are of European origin, like me, that phrase may seem bizarre at first hearing. We white people do not, as a rule, associate the breath with the Divine. Breath can be bad. Breath can be good. (And then only when camouflaged by mouthwash and/or toothpaste.) But Divine? Get out of town.

According to Aunty D., Aloha is

…the spirit of God in Man. As life’s essence, Aloha is everywhere. It is the magnificence in every person, as well as in the `âina, i.e., the environs which is the air, the land, the sky, and the sea…

Does this deeper meaning of Aloha remind you of any single word in English?
Me neither.
Where I was growing up, The Divine was never mentioned in the same breath as breath. The official word was that God resided in churches, in flat tasteless communion wafers, (and then only through the specialized mediation of a priest.) God was not in Man (or woman), and was certainly not in the air, the land, the sky, or the sea.
Then again, I didn’t grow up in Hawaii.
Luckily for me, I was raised by parents who hauled us kids off to the woods to check in with God at least as often as they hauled us off to church. My mother would remind my sisters and I, “Your body is the temple of the Lord.”
Aloha, Mom.
I would not encounter a word even remotely similar to Aloha until I was an adult confronted with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, and I thought maybe the lifestyle I’d been living wasn’t working too well for me. I got myself to a yoga studio. The first word I learned there was a greeting in Sanskrit.
Namaste.
Namaste means, roughly, the divine in me recognizes the divine in you. That’s not so different from Aloha. I must say, either greeting is far superior to, “May I take your order?”
When the lady at the dump greeted us with, “Aloha” that morning, I not only heard the word, I felt it, too. I felt the spirit of the Divine in this magnificent woman. I immediately understood her source of contentment. It was within us, and all around us, right there in the transfer station. I saw that she wanted for nothing; she had a job, a useful job, in a beautiful place. Her status in life was irrelevant. Her job description might not impress anyone, but that was irrelevant, also, because she was clearly in no need of external validation.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was viewing the transfer station agent’s situation through a vacationer’s rose-colored glasses. I think she was simply so magnificently present that she blew away all the labels and judgments that habitually taint my perceptions. I tell you, it was a relief to take a moment to lay down this burden. I could clearly see the Divine in this woman, the Divine in her workplace. Sure, it didn’t hurt that the sun was shining, and that the sky was blue, but I might not have noticed the warmth of the sun, or the color of the sky, had I been wearing my habitual blinders.
I thought a lot about that moment when I started reading a book by Eckhart Tolle. What a Hawaiian might call the power of Aloha is what Tolle calls “The Power of Now.” He observes, “identification with your mind creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgments, and definitions that blocks all true relationship. It comes between you and yourself, between you and your fellow man and woman, between you and nature, between you and God. It is this screen of thought that creates the illusion of separateness, the illusion that there is you and a totally separate “other.” You then forget the essential fact that, underneath the level of physical appearances and separate forms, you are one with all that is.”
In The Power of Now, Tolle implores us to, “Break the old pattern of preset-moment denial and present-moment resistance. Make it your practice to withdraw attention from past and future whenever they are not needed.”
I found myself in no rush to leave the transfer station, in no hurry to reach the many distant points on our list. That shift in consciousness proved useful. As it happened, the next destination on my husband’s list was clear across the Island, on the rainy side, and the speed limits on the one road available varied from 45 mph to 25mph. The posted changes were frequent, and seemingly random. A recipe for aggravation? Only if you weren’t driving in the Now. The view out the window was lush and verdant; life in spectacular display. That road dared you to care to be anywhere but where you were. It was a darn uppity road.
As there is no photograph of the Transfer Station, the place where we found the woman with the key to Heaven, I will supply no photograph of the restaurant where we encountered the woman with the Key to Hell.
The woman with the Key to Hell may have dressed better the woman with the Key to Heaven. But my heart didn’t leap at the sight of her. Surely, she held a more prestigious position, at a far more prestigious place. Or so you would think, if you were unaware that every place is sacred.
The hostess took her time acknowledging our presence. She fluffed a few papers on the lectern before her. Looked to the right of us, and to the left of us, without appearing to have spotted us, although we were the only people standing in the entrance.
When she ran out of ways to avoid looking at us,
it was clear that she saw three dirty people who had sloshed through ocean water, and over lava rocks. She surely didn’t see three expressions of the Divine. It is true we three were not at all attired for dinner at, say, The Four Seasons. But this restaurant was not The Four Seasons. This restaurant was located at the top of a volcano on an island where acceptable nightlife footwear is a pair of zoris, or flip-flops. Not that you’d ever see a local eating there. No, this restaurant’s clientele consisted entirely of the marooned—those of us dressing out of suitcases and backpacks. Our little family had eaten there many a time in the past, dressed as casually, or worse.
Having run out of alternatives, the restaurant hostess finally deigned to greet us. She did so mechanically, using the same word as the transfer station agent, but without so much as a fake smile on her face.
“Aloha.”
Here’s what Hawaii’s last ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani, had to say on the subject of Aloha:

More than a greeting, it is a blessing. To be ONLY used with sincerity: “‘Aloha’ could not be thoughtlessly or indiscriminately spoken, for it carried its own power. No Hawaiian could greet another with ‘Aloha’ unless he felt it in his own heart. If he felt anger or hate in his heart, he had to cleanse himself before he said ‘Aloha’.”
Did our hostess have anger or hate in her heart? I doubt her feeling was as vehement as that. She went to extreme pains to continue to treat us as if we were invisible by asking, “How many of you are there?” As though it wasn’t plain to see.
My husband helpfully suggested, “Three.”
She pursed her lips. “I’ll check and see if there’s room.” Without another word, she turned her back on us and disappeared inside the restaurant. She was gone long enough for us to start discussing a Plan B. As our hostess was insinuating, this was indeed the best restaurant for miles. But that was only because it was the only restaurant for miles.
My husband and I had just agreed to start back for the cottage when our hostess returned. She sighed, exasperated. “I can squeeze you in.”
We followed our hostess inside the serving area, a vast room with all but two tables empty. Just as our hostess had found us invisible, we found her crowd of patrons invisible. Clearly, she’d manufactured the seating problem.
Tolle asks, “Why make anything into a problem? Isn’t life challenging enough as it is? The mind unconsciously loves problems because they give you an identity of sorts. This is normal, and it is insane.”
Later, he reflects, “The pain that you create now is always some form of nonacceptance, some form of unconscious resistance to what is. On the level of thought, the resistance is some form of judgment.”
Indeed, I feel a little guilty singling out this one hostess. She is not the exception. Her behavior is almost the rule. Some people, some very insecure people, actually prefer to eat out in an establishment that snubs them. Think of the Groucho Marx joke, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
I’d like to think there was more going in that restaurant than I was aware of. Perhaps the hostess was doing a remarkable job remaining calm, as the cook had just keeled over and died in the kitchen. Indeed, that explanation would also explain the quality of the food we would be served.
Oh, gentle reader, in my judgments, I carry the Key to the Hell, and in my observations, the Key to Heaven. I can almost hear those keys jingling, day in and day out, with every sentence that I write. I didn’t need to travel to find two women to illustrate the options. I can look no further than myself.
Similarly, I can assure you, Gentle Reader, that you don’t need to go to Hawaii to experience Aloha, or to India to encounter Namaste. Eckhart Tolle would advise you to tear up your bucket list, and stay right where you are. And while you are there, you could do worse than reading his simple book, The Power of Now. It won’t change your life. It will change how you live it.
Thanks for reading!
Aloha.
For more about the joy available to all, watch this talk by Srikumar Rao.

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