Would they miss me?

Seth Godin asks  “Would they miss you if you were gone? What would have to change for that question to lead to a better answer?”   This prompt took me aback. I’ve been thinking about it since it landed in my mailbox last week. It jarred me so deeply that I ended up having to skip another prompt earlier in the week in order to ponder this one and come up with an answer.

You see I’ve already left the planet once.  From what I can piece together from all the information I have, my heart stopped on the surgical table after I was attacked in 1987.  The surgeons familiar with the case during rounds would tell me I was a miracle, that I should have died, that I was a lucky girl, that I was a fighter. Their eyes would shine as they smiled at me while teaching my case to the medical students. The EMT guy who held the artery closed with his finger in the ambulance told me he’d never seen anyone cut as deeply as me survive. He fully expected me to be a DOA case in spite of how hard I’d screamed at him to keep me alive in the ambulance.   So,  death has jumped up at me out of the dark suddenly, and I’ve lived to tell about it.

Almost dying changes you, in such deep ways there is no way I can address it in one small blog post.  At twenty nine, I instantly knew things many people at that age didn’t.  I knew that much of what everyone else wanted didn’t matter to me. Right after that incident,  I didn’t care about most things a normal twenty nine year old woman would typically care about in the United States in the late 80’s. What I cared about the most was that I was still alive, still walking the planet, still here.  It was that simple. I cared that the sun still warmed my  face in winter, that I could still stand in front of a mirror and dry my hair, that I could still eat, laugh, dance, and make love. I didn’t think about who would have missed me. I didn’t care. What I cared about most was that I still had a body with a heart that was still beating.

I wrote a series of prose poems to the attacker and in one of them the speaker marvels at simple things: the tomatoes and avocados on her plate, the shimmering of the tallow tree leaves outside her Houston apartment window.  And truth be told I wasn’t thinking about who would miss me if I’d have died, although I can list them.  The truth is, is that my closest friends in Houston at the time this happened, split. It took  a few years of therapy to get why: I was a mirror to them. When they looked at me and looked at my scar I reminded  them that anyone can die at anytime. It scared them, so they ran. No one wanted me to talk about it except my therapist.  Many people wanted to shut me up.  I wrote and wrote and wrote about it, using my pen as my mouth because I kept getting hurt when I’d tell people the story in the early days right after it happened. I’d get victim blamed, harshly.  And that lead to another insight, folks were secretly asking themselves what could they have done differently so this wouldn’t happen to them? And when they asked me to tell them my story, many times I got a response that went something like: Well I would have done xwz, instead. And I’d blast back at them telling them that in truth they really didn’t know what they would have done, and in truth what I did do saved my life. I fought, I screamed, I got up and ran to the nearest apartment after the attacker pushed me down.  I did all the right things. I used to rail at the unfairness of being blamed for something I had no control over. Now at fifty seven,  I’ve stopped railing. The Robert Frost poem “Out Out” about a sudden death comes to mind

Out, Out–

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Refusing to let sentimentality get in my way the truth is, after a death, people move on. They have to. Obviously, my new husband would be devastated and even thinking about leaving him is too much to bear, but I do think about it.  I think about it a lot. I also think about losing him.
Death has always lived close to me. I glimpse it out of the edge of my eye. It’s every where I look, and right now,  because of the insane rash of mass shootings, it’s haunting many people in our country. That’s painful for me to watch and even more painful to know the long term damage of all those survivors. I know how long the road is to walk and how much work it takes to pull oneself oneself out of that kind of terrifying trauma. I sometimes wish I had ten thousand arms and ten thousand mouths, so I could reach out to them all, to hold their hands, and to tell them it will get better. But I don’t. What I have is a pen.
Right now other than my husband, my family, and a few good friends, I don’t know who would miss me.
The second question is the hardest. What would I have to change for that question to lead to a better answer? That’s nearly an impossible question to answer.  No one really knows how much they have impacted other people. The only people who know that are those who have been impacted. So the answer and I know it’s a strange answer:  it’s really none of my business.
What is my business is this:  To live my life in radical kindness, act in radical kindness, and give in radical kindness. To love those people around me that I love as deeply as I can.  And to keep my life’s calling front and center: finding new ways to help alleviate the pain of those who have suffered at the hands of violence. I won’t do it perfectly, and that doesn’t matter. But, if I live the rest of my life in this way, I’m hoping  I will have increased my impact in the world from perhaps a ripple into a wave. A wave would be good.  It rolls up onto the sand, and for a brief moment, it leaves a mark.

 

What’s Knocking?

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Tracking Wonder Quest 2016- Day two.  Prompt by Jonathan Fields.

You wake up to discover a knock at your door. A wealthy uncle you barely knew has passed and left you a fortune. It’s more than enough to live out your days in glorious splendor, but there is a condition. To be eligible to collect, you must commit your full-time working energies to the pursuit of an answer to a single question of your choosing for the next 12 months.

You are welcome to continue that pursuit after the year ends, for years or decades if it warrants, but you must remain fully focused on seeking the answer until the last minute of the 365th day. A minute shorter, the entire inheritance goes to your annoying and equally long lost cousin, Philly.

What is your question?

Since 1987, after almost being murdered by a crack addicted mentally ill young man who randomly jumped me in a parking lot, slashed my throat and left me for dead, I’ve been obsessed about violence, more specifically obsessed about helping those who suffer at the hands of it.  So at twenty nine, after this attack, I had a vision, a dream, something I wanted to do that would help those the way I so desperately needed. In 1987, very little was known about PTSD, and at the time the only support groups I could find were for rape survivors at the local Women’s Health Center in Houston, Texas. There was other help out there:  a Victim Assistance program connected to the courts that helped maneuver victims through the judicial system and the Victim’s Compensation Fund sponsored by the state of Texas that helped survivors get money to pay for counseling, lost property, and lost wages. What was missing, however,  was a place where people could go and get support from others who had lived through this same nightmare.

This dream of mine which I told my therapist in complete earnest had two parts:  I wanted to write a book that would help other survivors heal from random violence and I wanted to open a center, a safe place for survivors to go. The model I had in mind was based on the twelve step AA clubs sprinkled through out the city, places I hung out where others like me could share our stories in safe spaces with support from other people who had the same problem. It was a good and valid dream. My counselor agreed.  But, God in her/his wisdom had other plans for me.

One night in early December in 1988, I walked into a meeting  in a bad mood. I was deep in PTSD, newly sober, scared, and broke.  I’d been to this meeting quite a few times before.  There was a man next to me who took one look at me and could see I was in bad shape.

“What’s wrong? he asked.

I looked at him and just spilled: “I was attacked a year ago March and almost killed, I’m working at a job I hate that doesn’t pay enough money, my student loans are coming due, my car is falling apart,  I can’t find a full time college teaching job in English, and I have no idea how I’m going to survive financially. Right now, my life sucks.”

He nodded, leaned over with his arms crossed and said in a low voice, “Call Tomball College. There’s a position open out there right now.”

I shook my head, “No there isn’t. I just got off the phone with North Harris County College District’s personnel office yesterday and they told me there were no available positions in English anywhere in the entire district. It’s the middle of the school year. No one’s hiring.”

He was adamant. “I’m telling you, call Tomball College. There is an opening. Call them tomorrow.”

I listened; I called; I got the job.  At the interview,  I found out the position had been listed as a developmental writing/English position, so when I called the personnel office it didn’t come up as an English position.  Such is the magic of walking into a spiritual fellowship and being willing to open one’s mouth and being willing to listen. I went back to that meeting many times looking for him. I wanted to shake his hand, give him a hug, tell him I’d listened, that I landed the job, and that I was deeply grateful. I never saw him again.  I consider him one of my twelve step angels.

So off I went and for the next twenty two years, I taught literature and all forms of  writing to freshman and sophomores, the dream of that center faded into the distance.  But, I kept my drive and did what I could to help other survivors. I lived in that question every day and when the opportunity came up I acted on it.  Here’s how: in all my classes, I was open about who I was and what I’d been through.  I was a fearless writer, a fearless professor, someone who was not afraid to show the students who she was: I was not afraid to tell them what had happened to me, I was not afraid to show them I didn’t know all the answers, and as the years went by I found myself not afraid to tell them in my office that I was a recovering alcoholic. After all, a professor at the School of Public Health where I worked that shitty job was the person responsible for helping me see the light around my own alcoholism.  He was not afraid to keep his sobriety secret either and because of him, I’d been continuously sober since  Sept 30th, 1988.

Each semester in the first week  I would introduce myself to the students, tell them I was a writer and a poet, tell them the few places I’d published poems (they always asked), and that I was working on a memoir about healing physically, psychologically, and spiritually from that attack in 1987. They were hungry for details about the attack, so I got the story down to a quick ten minute talk during the first week and told them they’d have to wait for more until I finished the book, but I covered all the bases: who, what, where, when, how, and most importantly did he get caught? And I would cover them all finishing with yes, he got caught, indeed, he did.

In my creative writing classes, I taught  writing practice as it had been taught to me by my long time teacher Natalie Goldberg.  I would write at my desk along with the students. Many times I’d share parts of what I was working on aloud, always going last so I didn’t intimidate them. Every Tuesday and Thursday we wrote together for the first ten to fifteen minutes. The cw students learned to trust me.  I read my rough crappy writing to them too and was willing to show them I was a human being with problems too. I’d read aloud and laughingly tell them I didn’t live under the desk. As the years went by, multitudes of students (many from the creative writing classes) showed up in my office willing to divulge their biggest problems and secrets: I heard stories of rape, I heard stories of sexual abuse, I heard stories of random acts of violence, I heard stories of drug and alcohol abuse that ended in violence.

I heard so much that by the end of my career if a student came in and acted afraid, but needed to spill, I’d tell him/her that there was not much left that could shock me.  And with each student, I’d listen deeply,  then I’d give them handouts I thought might help: pamphlets on PTSD, on rape, on domestic violence, on suicide crisis hotlines, on self harm, and of course alcohol and drug abuse, anything I could get my hands on from the counselor’s office. Then (if they chose),  I’d personally walk them to the counselor’s office, supporting them while they screwed up the courage to set up an appointment to get professional help, deeper help than I could give. Many years into it,  it dawned me:  my goal had manifested itself in my life in the form of that small office.

At twenty nine when I took that job, I took it with mixed fillings because I was on a mission that I’m still on, a question I have lived in every day since that awful night in March:  How do I help alleviate the pain of those who have suffered at the hands of violence?  That’s the question.

Now the hard part. Would I take the money?  It’s tricky business, money with conditions, but I also view money as a spiritual force, a tool that can be used to create great damage in the world, or used to create great change. Money has come and gone in my life, but, spirituality speaking, it has usually shown up at the right time, and usually I’ve gotten just what I needed at the exact time I needed it, many times coming from directions i would never have imagined.  I view it as part of the spiritual dance. I have never forgotten my twelve step angel.

So, would I take that money from that imaginary long lost uncle? You bet your ass I would.  And here is what I would do. I would contact the executor of my uncle’s estate and because these attorneys do this also,  I’d ask at end of the year that a trust fund for a foundation be created for one mission:  to create centers to alleviate the pain from those who suffer at the hands of violence. Then I would spend that whole year doing what I wanted to do before I took that teaching job: write, research, and scour the earth for the wisest people I could find to help.   Perhaps then, I could achieve the goal that deeply wounded twenty nine year old woman cooked up in her head when she was in the darkest place in her life, determined to heal, determined to help others, and determined to dream big.

More About Jonathan Fields:

Jonathan Fields is a New York City dad, husband and lawyer turned award-winning author, media producer, and entrepreneur. His last book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt Into Fuel For Brilliance (Portfolio 2011) was named the top personal development book in 2011 by 800-CEO-READ.

Jonathan’s current focus, Good Life Project, is a global movement that inspires, educates, connects, and supports mission-driven individuals in the quest to live better, more engaged, connected, and aligned lives.

Twitter: @jonathanfields

What I most need to tell myself about 2016 is…

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Today I open this new blog with Tracking Wonder’s Quest 2016: a month of creative prompts by some of the top visionaries in their fields. Today’s prompt comes from Susan Piver, a New York Times best selling author. You can read more about Susan at the end of this post.

 

WHAT I MOST NEED TO TELL MYSELF FOR 2016 is . . .

2016 is my year of transformation. Here’s why: in 2009 I fell desperately ill literally overnight with a mysterious illness. In 2010 because of that illness, I lost my career of twenty two years as a professor of English and Creative Writing at Lone Star College in the greater Houston area.  For the first five years I could barely read, follow easy television plots, or even simple conversations.  My world collapsed in one day: Sept 19th, 2009 when I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed, think straight, or barely move. My limbs felt like they weighed a hundred pounds and I could barely lift my head off the pillow for ten days straight.  After numerous doctor visits that spanned an entire year,  I was finally diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 2010.  But something in my soul told me something else was desperately  wrong, so I kept digging, researching, and listening to wise people in private groups on Facebook who shared this illness and had been sick many more years than me. Slowly I started seeing posts about people becoming deathly ill from mold.

After a lot of research and questioning of certain patients, I finally realized that living in a home with hidden mold for ten years due to a massive water intrusion from an over flowing toilet is what triggered the collapse and cost me my career. Thankfully, I was blessed to find the right information at a website called Surviving Mold.com founded by Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker, the world’s pioneer in bio-toxin/mold illness.  In April of this year, I traveled to see a specialist in this field in Roswell, New Mexico. After a four hour extensive in-depth visit that included an entire hour of blood draws the next day, I traveled home with the high possibility that I had found my underlying illness: Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, a genomic based bio-toxin/mold illness (CIRS).

In 1999 after we discovered that several kinds of  mold was literally covering almost every inch of drywall on the inside of the house, invisible to the eye, we had the house professionally re-mediated. It was stripped down to it’s bones and basically rebuilt by professional re-mediators.  My home was re-mediated, but my unfortunately my body was not. When I got the first follow up call from Dr. Scott McMahon in Roswell, I learned that I had been born with the worst HLA haplotype gene for this illness from both my mother and father, something that is extremely rare. In the bio-toxin/mold world we call this the “dreaded gene.”  What this means is that I will be dealing with this illness for the rest of my life, managing it in some ways the same way a person manages diabetes.  I now have the tools and treatments to manage it where before I was semi housebound many days only well enough to climb out of bed, move to the couch, and go back to bed at the end of the day.  Going out to a grocery store was a rare event. My life had shrunk down to nothing but illness.  I felt shattered, flattened,  groundless, the same way I had been when my life blew apart from the attack at twenty nine when I was almost murdered in a parking lot, randomly jumped by a young male crack head who was stealing hub caps from a car parked two cars up from mine.

I learned from my new specialist that I was a very sick woman who was literally so full of toxins I was dying from the inside out. I was a walking sink of toxins that I’d been collecting since I was born and that the collapse in 2009 was from toxic overload. My body could no longer function in this level of toxicity.   Due to my genetic makeup, I learned my body doesn’t know how to recognize and detox through the normal detox pathways. It sees toxins I take in as being part of Katherine.  This genetic make up also answers the mystery why no one else who lived in that house during those years got sick but me.

In April of 2015 I began my long journey back to health and will be following  an eighteen step protocol treatment.  After just one month on the first two steps of the treatment,  I was feeling more functional than I had since I collapsed in 2009.  I’m starting to slowly heal. New friends and people who see me on a periodic basis are shocked at how quickly I have begun to transform.  They can hear it in my voice on the phone, they can see it by the color of my skin, and by the renewed energy I beam out.

Three years ago, my husband and I made the decision to leave Houston and move to a retirement community in Georgetown, Texas about an hour north of Austin,  so I could begin to build a new social life and a fresh start. We had decided that we did not want to spend our middle and senior years in a city of speeding freeways and insane traffic. So my husband and I built a home where he could work from home as a mainframe computer programmer and I could heal and meet new friends who might have more in common with me.  I needed a fresh start and a new social life.

My transformation had begun.  When I lost my career, I lost my identity and while I was sick I floundered around at writing a memoir on healing physically, psychologically, and spiritually from a violent attack I survived at 29. I was struggling a great deal since I was up against serious cognitive impairment that would and could for weeks on end prevent me from writing, reading, or editing.  However I pushed on and managed to produce a hundred and thirty pages of a first draft with the help of mentors and fellow writers in an online course I took during the worst years of the illness.  I’ve been carrying this book in me and vowing to write it since.  This past spring I felt well enough to take a more demanding intensive writing course with Tracking Wonder’s founder Jeffrey Davis and I began to make strides in my manuscript along with his adept guidance and feedback from my fellow classmates, stumbling along slowly still because of my illness but making progress nonetheless.

So why Transformation? A writing friend and mentor from that other course once told me she saw me as a snake shedding her skin, someone who was growing a new skin but it wasn’t clear what that new skin would look like. That resonated.  I’m healed enough now that I can take small steps on this path of transformation.  I do not know what exactly that transformation is going to look like. I do know it will entail diving deeper into being a writer of both poetry and creative nonfiction, perhaps reinventing myself as a teacher of writing in a new way.  I’m excited to know that I’m learning about who I am now that I’ve dropped the skin of college English professor. Now that I’m slowly getting my life back, it is up to me to discover a new creative existence. I have many people along the way cheering me on: mentors, fellow seekers, writers, classmates, and new students I’m teaching writing to at a monthly meetup in my retirement community.   I’m beyond excited to see just what kind of snake I will become.

 

 

Visionary for Day One:   Susan Piver is a New York Times bestselling author, an exceptionally skillful meditation teacher, and renowned speaker. She has penned eight books, including How Not To Be Afraid of Your Own Life (St. Martin’s Griffin 2007). She has been a student of Buddhism since 1995, graduated from a Buddhist seminary in 2004, and was authorized to teach meditation in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage in 2005. Susan’s mission is to teach everyone how to slow down, soften our hearts, sharpen our minds, and create a life of fearlessness and authenticity.Twitter: @spiver