It’s a new week. Time for one of those I’m-turning-50-gifts that I’m giving to myself in April. This gift comes in the form of a new challenge – to drive 200+ miles to New York to participate in a page to stage writing workshop because I don’t know what the hell else to do with my life. Here’s a quote from Vita Sackville-West (she’s the chick who did it with Virginia Woolf):
“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?”
I came across this quote in Dinty Moore’s wonderful new book, The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life.
All of this is to explain why I ended up on Mass I-90 today – because I want to be a writer who claps the moment with a butterfly net, although for much of the trip, I felt like someone in a white coat should throw a net over me. To keep driving in the direction of New York, I had to employ a lot of self-talk, and sometimes, self-inner-scream-and-banshee-cry. All necessary so I would not turn around and go home. My self-talk was impressive, the way a natural disaster impresses in its relentlessness. That tsunami will scare you and probably kill you, but damn, look at it, how can you not see the beauty of that disaster, that big beautiful deadly wave coming at you? I think the only thing beautiful about me is that I’m a natural disaster that I keep living through, year after year, decade after decade.
As I drove and fought anxiety, I made plans for my imminent medical emergency. These plans formed and grew in layers of depth and sophistication. At first, I thought I might just need a couple of Advil. By the my fourth pit stop, I frantically tried to figure out where I could find a hospital to admit me in a strange new land called the Catskills of New York. I was astonished at my propensity to feel this fucked up by anxiety, after a lifetime of living with it and learning to manage it. You know, year after year. Decade after decade.
This is how it started. (I often tell stories backwards.)
Boy, my lower back is really hurting me, I thought, as I exited the Ladies Room. Well, humph….I carried on.
Forty minutes later I turned off the turnpike at the next rest stop. I had to pee again. This is not so unusual for me. But damn, by the time I left the second ladies’ room my lower back was killing me.
Last week I took antibiotics for a urinary tract infection, one discovered at a physical and for which I’d had no symptoms. As I headed back to the turnpike, I was convinced the infection had returned and had traveled up to my kidneys and I would need hospitalization if I didn’t figure out a way to get more antibiotics and this whole fucking trip would be a disaster. It didn’t help, I’m sure, that when I walked outside after the second pit stop, I noticed part of the plastic shield from the front end of my car was hanging down, and I wondered if it would fall off, pulling the entire front end down with it. I’d recently spent a fortune to get the front end repaired, have other car repairs, and four new tires put on after a recent 2-hour drive over 15 miles to Cambridge only to get dumped by the lady who was not the one of my dreams. It’s just the tires blowing out that broke my heart.
What the hell, I thought to myself (inner scream) as I re-entered the Turnpike, I felt fine yesterday, just fine, strong and fit and a great specimen of a nearly 50 year old woman. And in less than 24 hours, I’m in so much pain I’m sure I will not be able to make that writer’s workshop. I’m not sure I can make it to the hotel. Fuck.
I will need to find a pharmacy near my hotel. I’ll need to call my doctor and let him know the infection is back and what if I can’t find a CVS?!!??!!??? OH MY GOD….
I drove on, many more miles down the Turnpike. That Mass Turnpike is effing long.
As I sat in the car, the pain in my lower back lessened, but I had to pee again. I stopped at the next rest area. This was my third stop and the last one on the Massachusetts side of the turnpike. By the time I returned to my car, I thought: Turn around and go home, you need medical care, urgent care, emergency care. You are dying.
My lower back was throbbing. The infection was eating up my kidneys. I would only live if I turned around and traveled back home.
Oh, fuck, Cindy, are you kidding me? Really, dying? Just fucking cut the shit.
I’m a mean self-talker. Sometimes I’m a rational self-talker:
Cindy, your AT&T Navigator says you have 63 miles left to the hotel, but if you turn around, you will have 160 miles to drive to get home.
Panic at the moments of indecision: keep traveling to New York and die because you can’t find a CVS, or turn the car around and travel 3 hours back just so you can panic in your own bed. Well, eff that. Home is where ever you make it.
I repeated, Home is where ever you make it. Got that Cindy-girl? Got it??? Now fucking DRIVE.
Maybe it’s the Mass Turnpike I don’t like. I don’t have the greatest memories of traveling to western Massachusetts or Vermont. Years ago, in my early twenties, I left what was then the Bennington College summer writing workshops after two days. I actually made it to the Green Mountains in my old yellow Datsun (now Nissan, look it up), and I was just about to acclimate to being so far from home. So, why did I rush home? The workshop leaders tried to get me to stay, but home, equal to safety, a grand illusion if there ever was one, beckoned, demanded, downright insisted, that I make that long ride back to Boston after only two days. The workshop was a two-week event. What a schmoe I was. I wonder what kind of illness I thought I had then, more than 25 years ago.
But a quarter of a century has come and gone and here I am, traveling to New York, with my lower back in pain and the need to pee at every pit stop.
When I turned onto Route 87 South in New York, a change came upon me. I found the scenery on either side of the highway and far down the road mesmerizing. From many angles, I could see the Catskill Mountains, or maybe the Adirondacks, silhouetted in gray against the sky. They weren’t as high as the mountains I saw in Colorado last summer, but they were high enough, and beautiful. Farmland occupied much of the green spaces on either side of the highway. I saw cows. I love cows. I saw farm buildings. Why is it that seeing farm buildings and farmhouses and cows makes for a serene experience? Is it some kind of weird, nostalgic, sentimental emotional illusion that brings me back to what I think was a simpler time in life or in the history of humanity? Yeah, the history of HUMANITY. If I’m going to drive this far, I will think BIG thoughts.
I stopped at the first rest stop on the New York highway. This was stop number four or five. I’d lost count. I dreaded getting out of the car and panicking all over again as I figured the pain in my infected kidneys would roar once I stood up. I was so far from home. And what if I couldn’t find a CVS for that next round of antibiotics? I was forty miles from my destination, so I figured I should pee one final time. You know, urinary tract infections make you pee a lot.
You know what else makes you pee a lot? Anxiety.
Why doesn’t my back hurt anymore?
I stepped out of my car at the New York rest stop. Certainly it will hurt by the time I get out of the Ladies’ Room. And yet, miraculously, my kidney infection-pain-imagination-fantasy-illness was gone. I was almost at my destination, so my anxiety was almost gone. Coincidence? I think not!
It’s taken 35 years to understand how to both suffer with the anxiety and all of its crazy symptoms and manage it through self-talk, inner banshee screaming, losing the will to go on but going on anyway, and through multiple bathroom breaks along major state turnpikes and thruways. I haven’t taken any Xanax because I save that for the BIG stuff, and as hard as this trip may have been, it’s not the big stuff. The big stuff is landing in Colorado and trying to breathe thin air. You know?
I am not actually in Woodstock right now, although the Writer’s Festival starts tonight. The one event on the calendar is sold out and it would have been too much for me, anyway. I’m staying 15 miles away in a Courtyard by Marriot in Kingston, NY. In the morning, I will travel to Woodstock for my workshop and hopefully, for some sightseeing after the workshop, unless my kidney disease returns via my anxiety tsunami.
I’ll let you know how that goes.
Happy 50th Cindy. How many more of these gifts must I accept between now and April 27th?