Notebook: My Character Clemency Begins Chemo

Editor’s note: In the months since I last wrote to you at Joyous Paradox, I have begun a novel. Four women meet and bond in a healing garden, a cancer support center modeled after the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden in the town of Harvard, MA. GrubStreet Creative Writing Center has given me a scholarship to the Novel Generator, a nine-month program for writers working on their first draft. In the following excerpt, Clemency Weems, a Boston widow in her mid-sixties, has begun chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer. In this scene, she is imagining what she will talk about in a support group at the garden. — MAB

Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (detail)What story will Clemency tell today? A chemotherapy treatment regimen comes with its own built-in narrative arc, no matter how changeable the side effects, no matter how variable the outcome.

First you enter the cave, then the poisons are pumped into your body, and then you go home to await the symptoms, which could be fatigue, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, diarrhea, itching, weakness, mouth sores, dizziness, tingling and numbness in your feet, or a profoundly convincing sense that you’re better off dead. Or that you’re dying. Or that you’ve abandoned your Life, like abandoning a small child in the middle of a crowded street fair.

You float above the crowd at the fair, watching your Life scan the strangers’ legs and call out for her mom.

“Mommy, where are you?” she screams. She cries, her face pinched tight around her eyes/nose/open-and-astonished mouth.

Someone comforts her, arm around her shoulders, and rubs her back, the flowered cotton dress soaked with sweat between her young shoulder-blades. She buries her face in the Comforter’s broad shoulder.

Then, Kleenex administered, trip to Porta-Potty completed, your Life stands hand in hand with the Comforter at the fried-dough stand. Powdered sugar or maple syrup? Both? Both.

Where is your Life when your body reaches the nadir? More precisely, the nadir is the point at which the chemo drugs have killed their maximum number of white blood cells for this cycle, as well as their maximum number of cancer cells and red blood cells, and swift-dividing cells in your mouth, digestive tract, and hair follicles. Fewer white blood cells mean that your immune system is at its weakest.

For these few days of nadir, you stay home, avoiding crowds, imploring your family and friends not to come if they have colds or other infections.

Do you have to worry that your daughter-in-law Rhonda, who makes no secret of her frequent yeast infections, will use your toilet and leave little yeast organisms behind to attack you from within?

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Barbara Dürer, Dürer's Mother (detail)Is your use of disinfectant wipes compulsive yet? Or do you pray before grasping the glass knob on your bathroom door that everyone has washed their hands thoroughly before leaving the facilities? Is your Life in isolation, that young creature in flowered cotton, cared for by masked and gowned attendants?

Finally, the hoped-for recovery. Symptoms recede. One morning you wake from restful sleep. You and your Life, joined in one shaky body. Unutterably weary. Unutterably relieved. Yet the ground is no longer the ground, the stone no longer the stone. You float in the knowledge that true North is no longer true.

– Mary Ann Barton, 9/24/2016

Notebook: Opal’s Madonna

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madonna and Child, German, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art Hewitt Fund, 1911.

Another Friday morning. Mim showers in Opal’s salmon-pink bathroom. The smell of Cameo brand soap, wet in her hand, reminds her of kissing her mother-in-law’s fragrant cheek.

Already, though Opal has only been gone for a week, Mim craves her sturdy kindness, her laugh billowing out over the dining table like oceans of acceptance. When Opal opens her side door — nobody but the mail carrier uses her front door — she greets you with the heedless energy of a rough-coated dog who has waited all afternoon for your return. A short, wide woman, her hands wet or floured, a drift of her gray hair falling out of its bun, her sensible shoes polished black and sprinkled with flour. She waves you into her kitchen and bends down to open the oven, where baked cinnamon apples burst out of their skins.

How could a woman like this have died? How could she have faded away? Opal, a woman as lavish in her affection as anyone you’ve met. Shrewd, mind you: an eye for a sound bargain. Mim can see where her husband, Opal’s son, got his head for business.

Mim shuts off the water. She steps out of the shower onto Opal’s plush bath mat. She dries her sad self with a striped beach towel, blows her nose, and shimmies into a set of underwear. Black pants, black top; salmon-pink socks, in honor of Opal, the lover of all warm colors: orange, marigold, cerise.

Then, at the breakfast table: “Sweetheart,” Mim says to Arnold, “shouldn’t I bring the Madonna to the funeral home? I want your mother to feel comforted. Those parlors at McMurphy’s are so impersonal.”

Opal had brought the Madonna home from Austria after the war, along with other treasures she’d found in antique shops in Salzburg. Her husband, Arnold’s father, was stationed there with the U.S. Army of Occupation after the German Reich surrendered. In the chaos of war, so many families had sold their treasures. The Madonna and Child, a devotional figure twelve inches high, was probably German, the antique dealer said, perhaps 18th century, polychrome on walnut.

“I’ll find you a box to put her in, Mim,” Arnold says, shoving his chair back from the table. His mother’s cardboard box collection, like other repositories of useful items, is in the basement.

As Mim lifts the Madonna down from the bureau in Opal’s bedroom, she sees that the Virgin Mary could be any young mother. Her watchful gaze; the mild gesture of her baby’s hand reaching out toward the visitor.

Underneath the statue Mim sees a deep gouge in the base that shows charred wood inside. Has the Madonna come through fire, or been treated roughly for an invasion of wood-boring insects? The unpainted surface on the bottom has darkened, over the centuries, to the color of roasted chestnuts. On the Virgin’s neck, where paint has flaked off more recently, the raw wood glows a soft umber.

Who else, Mim wonders, has prayed before this figure of the Virgin and her son? Who else, praying or reminiscing, has wept for kinfolk lost to old age, war, or execution in the street?

“I am not myself a believer,” Mim says now to the Madonna, “but Opal believed. She loved you; she loved your son. Give her peace.”

Spoken out loud in the quiet room, the words bring Mim a sense of relief so vivid as to be almost tangible. It’s as though nothing else matters. Only this moment. Only one woman, breathing and remembering love.

— Mary Ann Barton

 

 

Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-Lengths

Dear Emma: Snappy Letters to My Alter Ego

Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-LengthsEditor’s note: From time to time I share my writing process with readers of the Joyous Paradox blog. Today’s post is about my literary character Emma Davies, who began showing up in my notebook when my son Edward was in elementary school. (He’s now 35.)

“Who are you, Emma Davies?” I asked her, when her name first slipped into my consciousness all those years ago. “Why do you feel so familiar?”

Back then, all I could see of Emma’s life was the title of a story, “Emma Visits the Wise Woman.” It’s a story I hope to write one day. In the meantime, I often write to Emma in my notebook. Here’s a recent sample, edited and extended for clarity. Hope you like it. — Mary Ann Barton

Girl Writing by Franz NölkenSunday, June 7, 2015

Dear Emma,

It’s crowded and noisy here in the First Parish parlor. Small boys bounce up and down on the antique sofa. They hop off and drop to the oriental rug on the floor.

“Let’s say goodbye to Nana,” says a mother to her son.

“Bye, Nana,” the little boy mumbles.

“Nana can’t hear you,” his mother says. “It’s very loud in here.”

“Nana!” he yells, tugging his grandmother’s sleeve. “Goodbye, Nana!”

I’m writing this letter to you while I wait for Steve to finish chatting with the ministerial intern. I’d like to go somewhere quiet and write my author bio to share with Susan and Stephanie when we meet at Dumpling Daughter tomorrow to talk about book marketing.

Essayist Mary Ann Barton has taken full advantage of the opportunities life offers for failure and rebirth. Working as a rare coin dealer, arts agency desk-jockey, lobbyist, textbook proofreader, and library fundraiser, she found her niche in her fifties as a certified nursing assistant and companion to elders. Her work in progress, a trilogy of self-help books called Rest, Renewal, and Repose, will help family caregivers of all ages get back to sleep when worrying about a loved one who is very old, very young, or facing serious illness. She blogs about caring for ourselves as we care for others at JoyousParadox.com.

Portrait of Lola Braz by Zinaida SerebriakovaHere’s what I write about, Emma: How we live with others. How we live with ourselves. I’m writing a peach of a book for family caregivers. I want you to pick up Rest in the middle of the night when your old dad or your tiny child is safe in bed. Find tips and techniques for caring for your body, mind, and soul. Read a poem about a garden, a grocery list, or a grandmother who plays the cello. Love a painting by Philippe Mercier. Write in your journal. Dance as you cook dinner. Stretch your arms wide with an Octaband.

Really, Emma, caring for a loved one can be full of surprises. As Facebook would say, it’s complicated.

For some of us, there’s so much accumulated hurt and resentment that the free flow of love and concern is jammed up behind a Hoover Dam of bad memories.

For some of us, love flows so freely that we can’t let ourselves even dip a toe in the reality that we might lose our dearest on earth.

Writing a Letter by Kusakabe KimbeiFor all of us, there are images, real or imagined. I look at the shifting family groups in the church parlor — women and men and grandparents and babies and five-year-olds and young girls who might be anything from ten to 17 — and see them as photographs in an album.

Maybe the photos have a matte finish like the slightly pebbled surface of an oldfashioned school portrait. Mrs. Ansell’s Second Grade. That First Vacation at Lake Sunapee.  The Balloon Flight in Southern France. Our Last Visit with Grandma Hyde.

Maybe one day I’ll see a photo or a painting, Emma, and know that this is your likeness. I can’t wait.

Love no matter what,

Mary Ann

Copy this text to tweet: Caring for a loved one can be full of surprises. As Facebook would say, it’s complicated.  #caregivers

Image credits: Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Netherlands (fl. circa 1500–1530), via Wikimedia Commons. Girl Writing by Franz Nölken, German, 1916, via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Lola Braz by Zinaida Serebriakova, Russian, 1910, via Wikimedia Commons. Writing Letter by Kusakabe Kimbei, Japanese, before 1933, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperbole and the Long Winter Walk

Once upon a time, in a small log house at the end of a long lane, there lived a dog named Hyperbole.

Whenever his friend Edward would come driving down the long lane to visit him, Hyperbole would bounce and bark and run around in circles. His ears would flap and his brown eyes would shine. His big black nose would shine, too, in that pixelated way dogs’ noses shine when they are moist with enthusiasm.

Now, on one particularly frosty winter day, a day close to Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, when snow had fallen on the little log house and melted in the ruts of the bumpy lane and frozen again, so the ice cracked and crunched under your boots when you walked up the lane to check for mail in the mailbox, on this particular winter day Edward came driving up the lane and crunched to a stop beside the log house.

“Oh boy, oh boy, bark, bark, bark!” said Hyperbole as he ran in circles and sniffed and snuffled and bounced around his friend Edward.

“Let’s go for a walk in the woods, Hype,” Edward said. “But first, I have a Secret Package to carry inside and put away for later.”

“Oh boy, oh boy, bark, bark, bark!” said Hyperbole. “Can we have the Secret Package now? Can we have it now?”

“Have you checked the mailbox yet today, Hyper?” asked Edward, who really wanted the Secret Package to be a surprise.

“Not yet, not yet, but I’ll go see,” said Hyperbole. He bounced and ran around in circles a few times, and then shambled down the long lane, sniffing and whuffling at the interesting repositories of smells along the way, such as old cattail stalks that other animals had peed on, and a muskrat’s tracks in old snow that had thawed before the muskrat walked across it and then frozen afterwards.

As soon as Hyperbole was out of sight, Edward carried the Secret Package into the kitchen, where he unpacked it hastily while keeping an ear cocked for Hyperbole returning. He put some of the items from the Secret Package in the refrigerator, and then, glancing over his shoulder to make sure nobody was looking, he put the rest of the items in the cupboard, high up on the top shelf.

“Whuff! I’m back, I’m back,” announced Hyperbole, just as Edward shut the cupboard door. Hyperbole’s voice was somewhat muffled by the mail he was holding in his jaws, but when he had dropped the mail on the table and Edward had wiped off the drool with the sleeve of his jacket, the dog’s voice rang clear as a bell again.

“Anything for me, for me?” asked Hyperbole.

They pawed through the mail looking for Christmas cards from Edward’s nieces, Jasmine and Dakota and Cheyanne, but there weren’t any Christmas cards yet, just L.L. Bean catalogs and fundraising letters and bills.

Finally, Hyperbole and Edward took a really long, long, walk
run
bark
bounce
circle
sniff
pee-on-a-tree
scrape-the-snow
walk
run
bark
bounce
through the woods.

Hyperbole and Edward walked all the way up one side of the mountain, past the pine trees and the hemlocks. They passed the old foundation stones where lilacs bloom in the spring. They passed the place where last time they saw bear tracks (extra-long sniffing here).

Then the two friends came back down the mountain, with a few detours after squirrels (Hyperbole), and a few pauses for drinks of cold, cold, well water from a BPA-free water bottle (Edward), and fur that was cold on the top and warm next to the skin (Hyperbole), and frosty cheeks and a red nose (Edward), and puffs of breath visible in the cold air (both of them), and stretched trapezius muscles in the shoulder (both), and joy in the heart (both, for sure).

Now, by the time the two friends got back home, Hyperbole had forgotten all about the surprise. Secret Package? What Secret Package? He trotted over to his water dish and gulped and guzzled the water until his thirst was slaked. Then he curled up in his dog bed next to the wood stove and tucked his nose under the plume of his tail and slept.

Perhaps Hyperbole dreamed, for every once in a while his muzzle quivered or his front paws twitched.

As he slept, I wonder if Hyperbole heard, dimly, the squawk of the squeaky hinge on the cupboard door, or the whump of the refrigerator door closing, or the hiss of water running in the sink.

Or perhaps he smelled, in his sleep, the deep and glorious smell of onions frying in an old and experienced cast iron skillet, and the brown smell of floured chunks of beef tossed into hot oil, where they sizzled, minute by minute by minute, the brownness crisping and crusting and deepening until, at just the right moment, Edward scraped under the browning beef chunks with a spatula and flipped them to brown on the other side.

But I will tell you that by the time Edward’s Surprise Beef Stew was finished cooking, Hyperbole did hear the clink of knives and forks on the table.

Hyperbole woke up with a start.

“Whuff?” he said. “Whuff?”

“Let’s eat!” said Edward.

“Oh boy, oh boy, beef stew! Bark, bark, bark!” said Hyperbole, for beef stew was his very favorite dinner in the whole wide world. And he bounced into his chair at the table and fell upon his portion like a ravenous wolf at the end of a very long winter day.

And when the two friends had polished off two huge bowls of stew each, they stacked their dishes in a sinkful of hot and soapy water. Hyperbole went out briefly in the cold to sniff around the woodpile and pee one last time, while Edward scrubbed the skillet and blotted it with a towel and wiped it with oil and set it on the stove to dry.

Then Edward shoved two more logs into the wood stove. He clinked the stove door shut and adjusted the draft so the fire burned brightly. The stove ticked softly in the peaceful, after-dinner silence. The two friends curled up together on the sofa and slept and slept and slept. And what they dreamed about, sleeping in that warm log house at the end of a long lane under the bright and icy stars, I will leave you to imagine for yourself.

The End

Hyperbole_Ornament_01_f7f7f7Background

With thanks to my son Edward for walks in all seasons; to Dorothy, for the hospitality of her log house in East Lempster, NH; and to the writers, illustrators, and publishers of all my favorite children’s books, especially The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, for their stories. — MAB

Want to Help Me Write My Book?

May 5, 2014

Dear Readers,

Want to help me write my book?

Mary Ann Barton, September 2012

Mary Ann Barton. Photo by Wendy Wolfberg.

Rest is a book of readings about finding rest and renewal as we care for others.

The poems and stories I’m writing for Rest are relatively easy to compose. How not to love a character, Grandmother Cellist, who appears suddenly before me as I gaze at a favorite painting on my widescreen computer monitor. I imagine her playing music after dinner with her grandchildren, drawing her bow in an exquisite arc of notes. I imagine their music as a balm of sound that reaches the kitchen worker toiling downstairs and the new mother resting, exhausted, upstairs in bed.

However, these evocations of happiness — of joy, beauty, comfort, and intimate family connections — aren’t just aesthetic considerations for me.

Increasingly, as I read about recent scientific studies of the structure and function of the brain, I’m coming to see poems, songs, and paintings as tools that we can use in structured ways to help ourselves become calmer and more resilient, even in the midst of hard times.

I first started thinking about art, happiness, and healing two years ago, when I took a course called Taking in the Good taught by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

“You can use your mind to change your brain,” Hanson told us, in ways that “change your mind for the better.” Simply by paying attention to small moments of positive experience, Hanson says, we can, over time, strengthen the circuits of the brain that promote “contentment, calm, and confidence.” *

I wish I could write a brilliant essay for you that explains how modern neuroscience, ancient contemplative practices, classic European paintings, and my WordPress.com blog have helped me cope with the hardships of aging and caregiving. I’ve tried to do it, but I’m just not there yet.

Here’s where you come in.

I Want to Know What Brings You Joy

What brings you joy today? What are those small moments of relief that raise your spirits or ease your pain?

I’m talking about specific sights, sounds, tastes, smells. Touches. Textures. Heat. Cold. Flame. Glances. Words spoken and understood. Movement. Stillness. Silliness. Pratfalls. Puns. Wiggles. Giggles. Barks. Purrs.

So how do we do this?

Let’s start with a survey. I’ll give you eight words, and you give me eight associations. You could give me just one word, or describe a complex image. Tell me something you remember. Something you want. Something you’d forgotten. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with joy. But it has to be specific.

REST Survey #1: Eight Words, Eight Associations.

Take this survey any number of times. Forward it to your friends. Link to it on your Facebook page. Post it on your blog. And if nothing comes to mind for a word, just write “Nothing today.”

Writing is a mystery. Who knows where these words will take us!

All the best,
Mary Ann

PS: I chose the eight words in this survey for their somewhat mysterious importance to me as a writer, so they may not seem to relate to the topic of this post, which is about sources of joy in our lives. Please know that whatever you write will be received with gratitude.

* Hanson, Rick, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. New York: Harmony Books, 2013.

 

The Town of Kindness

A Story in Memory of Nurse Julie

Editor’s note: I wrote the original of this story many years before meeting my nurse-mentor, Julie. She died in October, 2013, after a long journey with cancer. Julie taught me that sometimes the most comforting thing one can do when sorrow comes is to wash the floor, so today I’m sharing this story with you. — MAB

Scullery Girls by Rudolf KremlickaThe women and men of Kindness are scrubbing the streets of the town. They are scrubbing with bristle brushes and buckets of water. Scrubbing over and over the cornerstones and cobblestones and bricks and pavements of the streets. They scoop the brushes, whoosh, into the buckets. Sweep, sweep, scrub-scrub-scrub, sweeping their brushes around those old, worn curbs and courses of sidewalk, clear water darkening to black.

And you know this one morning at the end of the month the pleasure is so clear; my hands feel the warm water rinsing and dripping off the wooden back of the brush, the bristles softening with age and use. Still scrubbing, I dream beside the soft, old mud on the side of the one street where there is no sidewalk. The dust and old leaves in the gutter turn wet and run down the storm drain with the water.

And the children of our town are bringing the buckets of water. Warm water, and it’s slopping out down into their shoes, slopping into their shoes as they carry these buckets, which are heavy, full, slippery. Children carry; they lug, heft, slosh, pull, tug on these buckets, and bump them down to their mothers and fathers.

The mothers and fathers of Kindness scrub the streets. And the small children squeeze leaves of ceanothus, the soap-making bush; they Haltern Canalizzazionepick leaves and twigs and berries of ceanothus; they scrub it in the water, where it makes soapy bubbles in the palm of the hand. It smells a slightly sweet, green smell. And the ceanothus soap goes into the buckets of water and we scrub it over the pavements, over the dip in the curb where the storm drain opens, over the handicapped ramps at the corners. We are scrubbing the brick wall of the day care on the corner, and then the rain comes.

The rain comes, the warm rain washes down on us. The rain wets our faces and our backs and our wool sweaters. We are easing our muscles in this warm water. The men and women and children of Kindness are wet. And we are happy.

House of Love and Psyche in Ancient OstiaImage credits (from top): Scullery Girls by Rudolf Kremlička, oil on canvas, 1919. Rudolf Kremlička [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Haltern am See (Germany), water and decoration with stones in the street near the tower, color photograph, 2009. By MM (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

House of Love and Psyche in ancient Ostia, color photograph of pavement with multicolored marble, 2011. By Dalbera from Paris, France [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.