How to Breathe Again

Wisconsin

I was so honored to spend the week in Wisconsin teaching and writing personal narratives with some of the best in the business. This is a one-night Dinosaur Sweaters engagement. I’ll duck back down after this, at least until Thanksgiving. Thanks to Patty, Leah, Nikki, Kristin, Dani, Amy, and Marissa!

*

I always wanted to be the kind of person who’d know how to answer the nurse’s questions. I mean, I knew the answers to her questions by heart, but I didn’t know exactly how to answer them. She was asking me if I was having a mastectomy preventatively or if I had been diagnosed, then when I was diagnosed, then why I chose not to have a lumpectomy. And I assumed she was asking in some official capacity, that she’d print the answers neatly in the little boxes on the forms clipped to her clipboard. So I answered clearly and succinctly, staring straight forward, no trace of anything in my voice. “I was diagnosed with cancer. Two months ago. I have a BRCA mutation.”

Apparently, though, she was just trying to make conversation, trying to make me feel comfortable and cared for. I always wanted to be the kind of person who would know how to pick up on cues like that, but I wasn’t.

She gave me this limp little smile, rubbed my shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry, honey You’re in really good hands here.”

*

A few months earlier, I stepped onto the elevator that would take me many, many times to see the breast specialist at St. Luke’s. And because I knew I’d being seeing a lot of the people in this office, I fantasized about being Everyone’s Favorite Patient, who, in my mind, was kind of like the patient version of Patch Adams. I’d walk in, and the receptionist would show me a picture of her daughter in her dance costume, and I’d gush about how big Skyler’s getting and how cute she looks with her hair like that, and I’d high five the other patients in the waiting room. I’d have in-jokes with the technicians, and we’d pull pranks on the doctor. I would be Everyone’s Favorite Patient facing cancer with humor and fortitude.

But the elevator ride was only six floors up, so I had to face pretty quickly that I have neither the cheerful disposition nor the folksiness nor the off-beat sense of humor nor the interest in other people’s children to pull off this character I’d created. For me, it was always about how I’d play this role. Who would I be, or who I should be, as a patient?

And I guess that’s why I felt so disappointed with myself, answering the nurse’s questions all wrong, making her think I was one of those patients who needed to be consoled.

*

When I woke up from the first of what would be three surgeries, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had an oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. I’m sure it was meant to help me breathe during surgery, but it seemed so much in that moment like it was suffocating me, like it was keeping me from breathing. I wanted to take it off or yell out to the doctor to take it off. But the eight-hour surgery had sapped the me out of me, and, like in a dream, I couldn’t get myself to speak. And even if I could have summoned the energy to say something, I was afraid to. My body seemed so fragile. My whole being was held together with stitches. I was afraid that if I moved the wrong way or spoke too loudly, my body would come open and fall apart.

So I just lay there and listened to her tell me that they biopsied my lymph nodes and nipples during the surgery, and that they came out clean. And, even though it was wonderful news that I’d get to keep my hair and my nipples, I just needed that lady to stop saying things to me. So I just looked at her with big eyes, the only part of my face I could use, until I fell back asleep.

*

By the time I had my third and final surgery a month ago, I was surprised to discover that I had learned how to be a patient. I knew that the nurse was talking to me about the octopus salad at Kefi so I wouldn’t notice the needle going into my vein, and, that third time around, I hardly did.

I knew they’d roll me up to the operating room, but not into the operating room. I knew that I’d have to walk in on my own. In the operating room, I knew to gather the gown up around my waist and sit not in the middle of the operating table but a little bit higher. I knew to sit forward and grab my ankles while the nurse put patches on my back. I knew to let go of my ankles so the PA could wrap the compression devices around my legs. I even knew that Maggie’s little boy was born a month before Sam’s, and I knew those babies looked damn cute in the photos.

And it felt so weird that this was all so normal. Did I really want to learn how to be a patient? Did I really want this to become so routine? I didn’t cry or even look like I was about to cry because I knew they wouldn’t put me under like that. So I kept my eyes dry for just a few seconds until I fell asleep.

*

When I woke up from that final surgery a few hours later, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had this oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. I didn’t want to get used to all the bad stuff about being a patient. I didn’t want it to become normal, and it did. But so did reaching up and ripping the oxygen mask off my face, waking up from surgery and remembering how to breathe again.

The Last Dinosaur Sweater, Part Two

A year ago today, I posted my very first Dinosaur Sweaters post. Rereading it now, it’s like re-watching the pilot episode of my favorite show (The West Wing). It has the familiar look: there’s the communications bullpen, the Mural Room, the Oval Office. It has all the characters you know so well: there’s Toby mumbling, Donna whining, Bartlet pontificating.  But it all feels a bit uncanny.

I wrote:

I propose that, if we imagine that our life is our art, then our days are our medium. We can craft our days as a sculptor carves away all that is not essential to the form or as a poet writes, stripping her poem of its excess language. Our days are our medium; they’re how we commune with ourselves and decide how we are to spend our lives. What we wear, what we eat, how we get from here to there, and, above all, how we make plans and either carry out or abandon those plans are our material to shape.

That’s definitely me there, but it was definitely me…then. I still like to “propose” things, both here and in real life, but I’m not sure I’m as earnest as I once was in my entreaties. “Commune with ourselves” sounds like something I’d say, but these days I wouldn’t say it without immediately undercutting it with self-deprecation. (By the way, I feel obligated to mention that several close friends have told me that I’m not nearly as hilariously self-deprecating as my old therapist and I think I am. So, there’s that.)

I wrote the post before the blog existed. The idea came to me early one morning. I called it my “functional minimalism manifesto” and sent it to Sarah. She dutifully complimented it and offered some advice on functional minimalism:

One place I think you could go next here is to talk about the systems that were working in your life, e.g. whatever the opposite of the forgotten fennel is.

How brazenly I ignored her advice! Case in point: a couple of months ago, a blogger commented, “Your definitions of functional minimalism are too vague to be functional and too multiple to be minimal.” I gave him points for being right—and for wishing me “continued success” at being me—but rejected the comment. I never cared to define this philosophy of mine more clearly. I’d rather just invoke it when I feel like it, which is what personal philosophies are good for, right?

Earlier this year, I figured I’d do one of two things with the blog. I’d either fix it up and make it more professional or abandon it entirely. I wanted to work out specifically what I was doing with it. Did I want to become, like, a “blogger”? Do I look like a blogger? Do I sound like one? Or did I just want to get some practice at this genre so I could go on to write elsewhere?

I talked to people who could help me fix it up, and I started really waffling. I didn’t want Dinosaur Sweaters to look all sleek and perfect. I didn’t want it to be like the time the record company made that “Smelly Cat” video with the wind machine and the back-up singers. I imagined that they’d make my dinosaurs look sexier and less pear-shaped.

So, maybe it’s that, or maybe I’m just getting antsy, but I’ve decided to abandon it, at least for a while. After all, I do have a dissertation to write, a book chapter, some poems, and I have an idea to write some flash fiction. And I think blogs should be more like TV shows anyway. They should have seasons, and each season should come to an end. Let’s call this my season finale. And so begins my indefinite hiatus. I’ll be off, doing all things. Thanks for reading, everyone.

The Last Dinosaur Sweater, Part One

When I was a kid, I always had to be right. I mean, literally. In our family, being right was one’s ticket to enter the conversation, to be part of the group. My brothers were always right. Even the story of how Zach thought the lobsters at the grocery store were meant to be pets was about how he’s always right, minus that one instance. The story was told to throw his otherwise infinite rightness into relief.

I wasn’t often right. Instead of rightness, I offered a mostly positive attitude, occasional melodrama, and off-brand peppermint patties as birthday presents (especially wrong, I was told). I wasn’t right in thinking that the people in the TV could see us or that all of the planets, gaseous or not, a bazillion miles from the sun or not, were inhabited. And Santa Claus—I wasn’t right about that, but, oh, how I tried to be.

*

Once, Rachel and I were sitting around discussing our respective wild days of yesteryear—hers spent in Michigan and mine in New York. We were seven.

“You won’t believe this, but, one Christmas in New York, it actually snowed,” I said.

“It snowed pretty much every Christmas in Michigan,” she said.

“No, it didn’t. A white Christmas is really unusual. That’s what my mom said.”

“Maybe in New York, but it was really common in Michigan.”

I didn’t want to have to do this, but, at that point, I told Rachel that, when we were living in New York, my mom and I woke up every Christmas morning, turned on the national weather report, and recorded the snowfall in both New York and Michigan. It was our tradition. We did this in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988, and, if she’d just excuse me for a minute, I’d go into my closet and retrieve the records.

Rachel excused me for many minutes. When I reemerged, I produced the unimpeachable records of New York’s and Michigan’s Christmas snowfall.

She was too nice to say anything, but I sensed she was on to me. I didn’t want it to be obvious that I was worried, so I waited a couple of hours before asking, as if just to make conversation, “Do you think I’ve ever lied to you?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Like, earlier today when you went into the closet and wrote all that stuff about the snow.”

I had to admit to the lie because it was too funny not to. I didn’t judge myself too harshly. As far as I was concerned, my greatest obstacle in life was persistent wrongness, and creative falsification was as suitable a substitute as any for rightness.

*

I was never as achingly wrong as I was about my plans for the future. By ninth grade, it was decided: Rachel and I would take on high school together, separate for college, and reunite in a New York City suburb, where we’d raise our kids down the street from each other.

When she called me one Friday night and told me she was moving to Phoenix, I couldn’t bear my wrongness. I just moved on ahead with the plan and corrected for the new information.

“We’ll talk every other night on the phone. We’ll alternate calling each other, and we’ll tell our parents that we’ll pay for the long distance. We’ll IM on the nights we don’t talk. And we’ll take turns visiting each other. I’ll come to Phoenix over Christmas break, and you can come to Dallas over spring break. We don’t really take the same classes anyway, so it won’t be a big deal. It’ll be like you just went to another school.”

There are moments when the fineness of Rachel’s wisdom demands respect, and this was one. She said, “Mia, we can’t just pretend like I’m not moving away.”

I wished there were some records I could retrieve from my closet. I wanted to tell her that Marty McFly had come to see me and written down everything that would happen between us. I wanted to tell her that pretending like she’s not moving away was exactly what we could and should do.

*

Eventually, I became an arbiter of rightness, a teacher. I put red x’s over wrong answers. I calculated the rightness of literally hundreds of tiny people. That wasn’t enough, so I became a teacher of teachers. I told teachers that they were right or wrong to tell students that they were right or wrong. I was the Meta-Rightness Grand Master, but I hardly thought of rightness, as such, at all.

My desire to do good work pushed my desire to be right to such a depth, over such a period of time, that, when whatever remained of it resurfaced, it was hard and smooth and shiny, something more like righteousness.

Then, on a family trip to Miami a few years ago, Zach told Ashley and me that he evaluates the accuracy of everything everyone says to him. “Everyone gets a new chance every time they talk to me. I don’t care about anything that happened before. If what you’re saying is accurate, I’ll listen to you. If not, I won’t.”

It was our night out, and this is how we spent it, walking down Ocean Drive through bands of hot and cold air. We talked. Each in turn, we accounted for ourselves.

At first, I maintained the absolute wrongness of Zach’s obsession with rightness. What kind of life is that, going around evaluating everyone’s accuracy? I don’t care about accuracy. I care about humor, generosity, soul.

Later that night, back in the hotel room, I sat on the edge of the bed next to my mom’s, silently running my feet over the sand on the warm tiled floor, waiting for her to fall back asleep. I thought about what Zach said and started remembering the peppermint patties, the people in the TV, the planets, Santa Claus, snowfall, all my grand plans–a childhood spent being wrong. I’d assumed that my desire to be right had long ago transformed into righteousness, into a desire to do what’s right. But I realized then that, more likely, I had managed to arrange a life in which I was always right, and, in that life, the desire itself lay dormant.

*

Over the next couple of years, I dated two men who had their own fraught relationship with rightness. (One of them stormed out of a family gathering because his mother served farm-raised salmon. I’m just saying.) When I shared my thoughts on big, important stuff and little, unimportant stuff, both would invariably tell me I was wrong. Farm-raised salmon guy did so rather cruelly and the other less so.

On a road trip, the less cruel man’s friend was telling us about the measures his high school took to prohibit school prayer.

“I’m impressed by your school’s commitment to the first amendment,” I said.

“No,” replied the less cruel man, “school prayer has nothing to do with the first amendment.”

Mind, the less cruel man is Canadian. Over the course of the ensuing argument, it was revealed that he didn’t even realize that the first amendment included freedom of religion. He didn’t relent. And I didn’t relent until I felt the heat and tears gathering behind my face.

I decided to spend the rest of the ride taking silent refuge in my rightness. How would I know anything about this? I only grew up in the Bible Belt with an atheist lawyer for a father. Why would school prayer ever come up at our dinner table? It’s not like I, like, actually know what’s in the first amendment or anything.

Back in the city, he took me to the Restoration Hardware by Madison Square Park (don’t ask me), and we had a little talk about the argument on the tufted Kensington sofa in taupe. I hated that sofa.

“I feel like you’ve been picking on me. You’re just tired of me, and so you’re picking on me,” I said.

“It’s not that,” he said. “I always evaluate fact claims.”

This account—“I always evaluate fact claims”—was a red flag I refused to see. If I recognized it, I’d also have to recognize his obsession with accuracy, with rightness. I’d have to recognize that he wasn’t the free-spirited artist I thought he was, and I couldn’t bear to be wrong about that.

When I got home that night, I looked up court cases. I called my dad, and we discussed how people on both sides of the school prayer argument invoke the first amendment. I watched the episode of The West Wing in which Toby soliloquizes on school prayer and freedom of religion. I was right. I was so, very, freaking, extremely right. But it didn’t make me feel any better. I felt embarrassed about the argument and pessimistic about the relationship. There was no comfort in being right, only distraction from the discomfort of needing to be right.   

*

The less cruel man and I broke up. When Rachel and I went to Spain last summer, I was still swimming back up to the surface. One morning, late in the trip, we were eating churros and discussing Morocco. Neither of us remembers what was said, but it went something like this:

“You know the guide book said that Morocco is X.”

“No, I think it said that Morocco is Y.”

“Rachel, no, it said that Morocco is X.”

“I think I remember that it said Morocco is Y.”

“You’re insane. How can you even think it said that?”

“Why…” Rachel said, and in that word the whole question was foretold. “Why do you always have to be right?”

I was right about the Morocco thing, but, as always, in all the ways that matter, Rachel was much more right. I was disappointed in myself. I thought the desire to be right had been purged from my mind. And maybe it had been, but, apparently, it was still in my muscle memory.

Long after Rachel and I made up, as we boarded a 9 PM flight out of Barcelona, I was still demanding an explanation from myself. Why am I like this? What does being right really do for me? I knew there was nothing in it, but I reckoned it gave me a sense–if only the most temporary sense–that I possess some knowledge and wisdom to which I have no real claim. Rachel was asleep as soon as we took our seats. As I struggled to cram my head and shoulder and elbow into sleeping formation, I made a mental note to remember the feeling the high of being right left behind.

*

Our family spent Christmas in New Mexico last year. We were back from dinner one night, and Zach and I walked up the driveway together.

“It’s so creepy to be out here in the country at night with the stars. Who knew they even existed?” I said extravagantly.

Right then, I remembered who I was talking to, recognized my mistake, and pulled myself in. I expected him to correct me. I expected him to say that there’s nothing creepy about being out in the country at night, that there’s nothing creepy about stars. They’re a natural phenomenon, I imagined he’d say. Just because we can’t usually see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Nature designed them to be there, and there they remain.

“Yeah,” he said. “It is pretty creepy when all you’ve ever known is the city.”

Even Zach learned to concede the limits of rightness. Even he learned that we can’t always see everything from where we stand. Damn him for his progress. I thought I’d always be able to define myself against him. I’d have my imagination, and he’d have his rightness. I guess I was wrong about him. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

 

Ten Sentences: Telling Stories

Some stories are airtight—I mean, vacuum-sealed airtight. You know the kind: they’re those stories in which a squeeze of the hand means that all will be forgiven (and only that) or in which a look that lasts a millisecond too long means that he’s in love with you but can’t admit it to himself because his father raised him to believe he should be with one kind of person and you’re something else (and only that).

Storytelling is a process of constraining meaning. In order to make our stories intelligible to ourselves and others, we exclude all but one of the possible meanings of the squeeze of the hand or the look that lasts a millisecond too long. This means this, not any of that. How do we tell an honest story when our story can’t accommodate every possible meaning of an event?

Some believe that the storyteller’s main job is to control the audience’s experience of a scene, to limit what the audience knows and when the audience gets to know it (That afternoon, about three, he turned the knob of the bedroom door and opened it. He walked in and joined me at the foot of the bed, where I had been sitting, staring out the window over the rooftops and the water tower and the Kentile Floors billboard. But I might as well have been staring out over nothing at all. We were silent. I inhaled and held the air in my lungs. I was too nervous to exhale. He took my hand. I felt it move, ever so slightly, in mine. I couldn’t face the possibility that he may never forgive me, so I thought about everything else instead: the warm roughness of his palm, the white threads that stretched across the holes in our jeans, the feeling of my own tongue on the roof of my mouth. Finally—only because I had to—I exhaled. Just then, he squeezed my hand. I inhaled again and exhaled, realizing that this squeeze, this tiny but distinct movement, meant that one day–not today, but one day–he’d forgive me.). In this manner, the supposedly expert storyteller engages her audience, and the audience walks away satisfied, knowing that this means this, not any of that.

Truly great storytelling should be a process of both constraining and unconstraining meaning; every once in a while, when we’re feeling brave, we should let our Very True, Really Real Account of Events slide open to reveal not every other possible meaning but the circuitry between meanings. We should let the audience see our bravado in insisting on a love to which we have no claim, the uncertainty that compels our declarations of certainty, our convenient lapses in memory, the strangeness of our unassigned feelings, and the self-extending possibility that not all will be forgiven.

Ten Sentences: Ross and Rachel

On one hand, Rachel did say she wanted “a break…from us,” but, on the other hand, she didn’t say she wanted to break up. On the other hand, yeah, but a “break” is not a conventionally defined relationship status with mutually-agreed-upon expectations or rules.

On the other hand, Ross slept with the manic pixie copy shop dream girl the very same night, which would be bad even if the break were more clearly a break-up. On the other hand, OK, but Rachel invited Mark over the very same night.

Ross and Rachel were on a break, but that was never really in question. Absent a more explicit definition, Rachel’s invitation to Mark defined the break, and so it was a de facto break-up.

But even that doesn’t really matter. Ross caused Rachel pain, and that pain was true and deep and, as such, warranted a proper break-up. By dwelling on technicalities and insisting on writing Ross off as a cheater, she deflected that pain rather than experiencing it. Had Rachel been brave enough to experience it, to climb right into and through it, she might have much sooner found happiness with Ross, and with herself, on the other side.

Ten Sentences: Being Italian

Italy

My mother taught me—by example, of course—that being Italian makes everything OK. One spring morning, when I was thirteen-maybe-fourteen, a ray of sunlight shot through my window and fell upon a bluish vein in my leg. It was a vein like the veins in my mother’s legs and like the rhizomatic veins in the legs of older women on her side. I hated that vein for a moment, but then I thought, “It’s OK that I have a vein there. It’s very Italian.”

About a year later, I rescued myself from hating my frizzy hair and oily skin in the same way, by saying, “It’s OK that I have frizzy hair and oily skin. It’s very Italian.”

About a decade later, when I was living at home with my parents, I’d overhear my mom reminding her friends and relations that Italians live at home with their parents until they’re married. We’d cin-cin our glasses of prosecco and congratulate ourselves for being a proprio Italian family.

These days, when I’m sharing some musings on, say, the teaching of writing in American schools, and it’s pointed out to me that I happen to be yelling and pounding the table as I do, I remember that it’s OK: passion and stubbornness are hallmarks of L’Italianitá.

When I first recognize them, these qualities feel uncomfortably alien, but the moment I call them Italian, I make them mine. They’re like long-lost nieces and nephews who’ve sought shelter in my home, and so I invite them in, wrap them up in Frette, and serve them a big bowl of meatballs, the kind with mortadella.

Today and Tomorrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you live in certain neighborhoods in New York City, you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you about their big dreams. They want to write a best-selling book, open some kind of distillery, or be a Broadway star. Most of them don’t have “jobs,” as such. They have, instead, “revenue streams.” They tutor rich kids and are almost always involved in some sort of Airbnb racket. Most of these people are my ex-boyfriends. Not too long ago, a friend described my type as “overeducated and underemployed.” 

These people dream big. They set long-term goals for themselves and believe that if they suffer for their art now, they’ll be rewarded in the future. That is, after all, how they got into Harvard years ago. Meanwhile, friendships develop and fade, opportunities come and go, sunny days begin and end—all unnoticed. Today is just a vehicle to get to some distant, glorified tomorrow.

Occasionally, they’ll even apply this reasoning to their personal lives. They don’t trust that relationships that make them happy today will also make them happy in the future. So precious their futures are, so thickly encrusted with sparkling perfection, they’ll do anything, even end or sabotage happy relationships, to protect it. (No te preocupes. I’m not bitter.) These people are often freakishly talented. They’re also—take it from me—unhappy and unsuccessful.

I’ve seen this phenomenon take shape in my professional life. Ed reformers teach even the youngest kids that college is the Promised Land. If they work hard now, the world will be theirs…in a decade or so. We’ve collectively decided that college is the goal, picked some knowledge we imagine kids will need when they get there, and raked it backward through the grades. Now, when kindergartners misbehave, we respond by appealing to their supposed dreams of college rather than to their realer, more immediate dreams of helping out, expressing themselves, sharing, exploring, and playing with their friends.

E. L. Doctorow wrote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Life is like that, too, I think. You only really need to see the road right ahead of you. Set short-term goals. Concern yourself with what will happen today, what may happen tomorrow. Give yourself the gift of working hard. But don’t be a martyr for a future that may never come.

*

I’ve been hard on them, but there’s a reason I’m romantically and professionally attracted to big dreamers. I’m one of them. Over the past few months, I’ve sketched out a few odd, lopsided poems about fear for kids, and I’ve already daydreamed about what I’m going to wear (Suno pencil skirt, white top with black piping, sequined cardigan, t-strap heels) and how I’ll do my hair (like this) at the book release party.

I love people who have such a large sense of themselves, who hope for and expect much from their lives. And, in fact, those kinds of big, remote dreams can motivate us. What’s problematic is when we’re driven exclusively by what may happen in a distant future that’s not entirely in our control. What’s especially problematic is when we sacrifice the present for the promise of that future.

This year, I’m intentionally investing in my present and near future. When I decide how to spend my day, what’s at stake is not a distant goal but an immediate one. For example, what do I lose when I spend two hours on a Saturday morning reading what everyone on the internet has to say about Woody Allen? It’s not infinitesimal progress toward some distant goal of being a famous writer, educator, and intellectual consigliere. It’s a whole lot of progress toward the immediate goals of writing a blog post, a poem, a paper or of enjoying my city and the people among whom I live my life. When I fail to spend my day intentionally, I can actually experience the loss, take the feedback, and adjust.

Being happy and doing good work today is an end in itself. I’ll keep writing those little poems as long as I’m happy doing so. I bet I’ll keep being happy, and I bet that, eventually, they’ll be good enough to publish. If they never get that good, I’ll have lost very little.

There’s a rather convenient truth in all of this: If we’re intentional about how we spend our days, what makes us happy and whole in the short term will rarely conflict with what will make us happy and whole in the long term.