Sunday, April 22, 2012

spring storms

I'm sitting in the cafe at Barnes & Noble, facing the giant parking lot that holds this fissure firmly to the earth. For a few moments the sky above Home Depot reminded me of Kansas. Heavy, black clouds curled behind the orange stripe while the sun shone brightly overhead. Had I seen this in Kansas, I would have felt a bit nervous. The pit of fear that a childhood full of sirens created would have reopened. I would've wondered where I should run if a tornado hit.

I haven't spent more than a few weeks in Kansas since 1998, and rarely during tornado season. Virginia weather is much more idyllic. Not that there isn't a possibility of tornadoes, but there isn't an assumption of "tornado weather" that pervades the air of any plains town.

A tornado watch of sorts came up this past week. I had applied and gave a presentation for a promotion at work. Not quite sure what pushed me to do it. I guess the "well, you won't know unless you try" was the main motivator. The presentation went well. I felt I sounded pretty competent, and figured even if I didn't get it, it was more due to the fact that the only other person applying was a more experienced teacher than my presentation. Strangely, though, I felt an impending sense of doom in the days following. I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong, until I talked with my husband about it. He said, in that gentle matter-of-fact way of his: "Well, you lost your last job after you asked for a promotion. You're probably expecting it to happen again."

I hadn't thought of that. Things are going pretty well for me in many ways. I'm getting my novel, Shaken in the Water,  published in December by Foxhead Books. I won an honorable mention for my essay, "Mustard Seed." I like my job. But I have the whole "waiting for the other shoe to drop" mentality. Things are going to good to last. That, doubled with the fact that yes, I had just asked my manager for a promotion days before I was "let go" (an insidious phrase, as though it were for my own good), would push the feeling of doom.

I've read that losing a job can cause trauma similar to losing a loved one. Even though I found my much-better job barely six weeks after I was "let go," the trauma did not leave--has not left. On the second day of teaching, none of my students showed up for class. A fear grabbed my throat and began to squeeze. You're such a horrible teacher. They've gone to complain to the director. You're finished. You're a failure, the fear whispered.

My students appeared ten minutes after the fear began to squeeze. They had gotten lost, they said, laughing with their broken English. So sorry, teacher. So sorry.

I've hesitantly talked about it with a coworker who also was "let go." Her horror, anger, utter depression was nearly identical. "Does it ever go away?" we both wonder.

There was a spawn of tornadoes in Kansas and Oklahoma last week. One of the cells was basically headed for my hometown; reports of a twister on the ground on the ground were broadcast on the TV and radio stations. My mom said that the weirdest thing about that storm was that it was completely silent. No wind. No rain. The only thing to warn them a tornado was in the area was the sirens that wailed for over 45 minutes. Five people died in Oklahoma from that massive storm. Why? The sirens were busted in their mobile home park.

Life after losing a job--even when you've gotten a better job than the one before--is a little like sitting in a silent storm without sirens. You wonder if it will strike. You wonder if the storm will ever blow away.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn!

There are certain songs--often hymns--that move me to the point of tears. Some are joyous: Hymn 606 (Praise God from whom all blessings flow, which is now 118 in the Mennonite Hymnal); most are sad: Allelujah! The great storm is over and the refrain of the song quoted above. Even certain religious traditions bring up landslides of emotion. Last week was Easter, and my church meets before sunrise to drum up the sun--literally. Now, in general I'm not a fan of drums, but in this case there is something so earthy, primeval, human, to thrum the sun back to our side of the earth. I'd forgotten how this made me cry last year, so at first I was shocked at the tears. Then I remembered this had happened last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

It's automatic--the moment I open my mouth to sing the words of particular songs (not just hymns--The Story, by Brandi Carlisle, for one) the tears sprout from my eyes as if I'd been sad for days, weeks, possibly years. Often I've thought I was pretty happy--until those words cross my lips.

I believe in God. I am a Christian, but I don't believe non-Christians are headed to hell. I'm not even sure there's even a heaven waiting for us, honestly. I'm not convinced the reactions are because I've been visited by the Deity I call God.

For the last two years, however, I've been suspecting something far more prosaic: brain damage.

About two years ago, I went to visit a neuropshycologist, Dr. Audie Gaddis. My neurologist referred me to him because of some behavioral concerns I had. I tend to lash out at odd moments--very rarely, but it was enough to cause concern. My memory is often foggy. I feel a bit "out of my skin" at times. I went to him, he ran me through some tests, and gave me the answer I'd assumed but hoped against: the brain tumor I'd had partially removed surgically and through radiation had damaged my brain. (See my essay, "Mustard Seed," on the Bellevue Literary Review website for more about this.) 

The day he read my diagnosis was less than a week after I'd lost my job unexpectedly. My husband was in grad school. I had been the sole source of income. We were searching for a cheaper place to live (also, our apartment was less than a ten minutes' walk from my former workplace--I wanted nothing to do with it or its inhabitants). The town we live in is not necessarily a great place for an unemployed MFA graduate with a certification in TESOL, so we had no idea what we were going to do. Needless to say, his diagnosis couldn't have come at a worse time other than the death of someone I loved.

The brain damage, he told me, could lead to dementia. The brain damage, he told me, was reversible. I could improve my memory, curtail those fits of rage. There are brain games one can access, for free, from the internet that sharpen cognitive skills. He encouraged me to try them. I did for a few months. I was horrified by my initial scores, but tried to think positively and continue. Last August I went to his office to show my progress. I played some of the games in front of one of the analysts. To my embarrassment, I actually lost points from that period. I haven't gone back--to the site or the office--since.

I know how ridiculous that sounds. I should have just soldiered on. But there is one curse we call the "Penner curse" in my family: the idea that we are too special--or too broken--to be helped by anyone or anything. That failure in that office "proved" what I'd secretly guessed even as I doggedly played those games three times a week as prescribed: it would work for others but not me. I was too far away from that oasis of fix-ability. 

I'm pretty sure that whatever causes my anger and memory lapses also causes my tears, my shivers of joy. I don't know what I think of that. I wish I could believe that they are visits from the Divine. I wish I thought they were signs of my devotion or singularity. 

I remember reading or hearing or imagining I heard a short story about a talented writer who found out her fits of genius were caused by a brain tumor. That brain tumor was going to kill her if it wasn't removed. She had to choose whether she should save her life or her writing.

I wonder if my reluctance--really, my refusal--to continue with the mind games is parallel to that story. More than once, I've regretted submitting to the brain surgery. I lost muscle control of my left eye. My right hand and leg have never regained their strength completely. I'm tired of fighting my body to win normalcy--something I don't necessarily want. What writer really wants to be normal?

When I've shared my writing about my experiences, the seizures I began to have when I was 21 that led to the discovery of my brain tumor, people have often said I describe it with such detail and without superfluous emotion. This ability has bled into my fiction as well. 

"How do you do it?" they ask.

I try to answer, to explain, but it never sounds right when the explanations are given.  

Perhaps I chose wrongly when I let doctors wrestle with my mind. Perhaps I shouldn't fight whatever comes my way because I chose not to play the mind games. Perhaps that thing inside my brain feeds my creativity and all would be silenced.

When the first MRI was prescribed, the MRI that set things into motion, I was sad. I had had every part of my body X-Rayed since I was three years old. Every part but my head. That part, the part that hadn't been reduced to a sheet of glowing green paper, was the true me. It was my home. And it went away, never to return.