A Long Overdue Update During Hurricane Sandy

I made it a point today to make my house feel as warm and cozy as possible — not just to divert from the storm but also as a way to mentally prepare for my annual autumn write-a-thon.

Today, for about the first time in over a year, I attempted to write something new.

I have revised in the past year, but I have not attempted anything from scratch. 

Today, I not only attempted to write for what feels like the first time, but I tried (am still trying, as this blog post attests) to write all day. This is ambitious, to say the least, because I am under doctor's orders to sleep 10-14 hours a day (more on that in a bit). But I told myself I could take naps, and so far I have not had one. 

It is a point of pride for me to be able to participate in what has become an annual all-day marathon. Three years ago, a professor gave our workshop this assignment: to replicate Midwinter Day, a la Bernadette Mayer, and write for 24 hours straight. A few of us from that class generated so much material that we decided to do it again the next year, for the sheer volume of it. But, if memory serves, last year we only gave it 12 hours.

This year, we said we'd do it again — and I'm sure we will yet — and so today, with the storm out there and classes canceled for the next few days, I decided to give it a shot here by myself, as either a warm-up to the actual event whenever it happens, or as a personal test, just to see if I can, to see how much I am able to do. . . . 

Because of my brain injury (more on that in a bit), I opted for the 12-hour session again instead of the 24. About 8:00 p.m. now, I'm at the beginning of Hour Seven and can claim only 3 journal pages, 2 cups of Earl Grey, and a pot of roasted poblano and corn chowder soup for my trouble. When I have completed this post, I will call it a day. Basically, what I learned today is I'm good for about half an hour, then need to go do other things, and then, through sheer force of will, can struggle through a blog post. 

(Oh, I also started a personal Twitter account because some other "Molly Gaudry" (what!?) exists on Twitter. Another "Molly Gaudry" in the world is news to me. For years I have been the only Molly Gaudry on Facebook, and the first 20-some pages of Google results for my name all belong to me or my work or something related to my work. All this time, I thought I was all alone in the world. Now, I'm not so sure. It's hard to tell. But in any case, I decided I should at least reclaim my name to all the webspace things I can, I really don't know why but it just makes sense, and so who knows, maybe I'll keep the account active and tweet every so often.)

As for the writing plan — so far it seems to be a total failure, but I'm OK with it and now, well after 9:00 PM, I'm happy to count this longass blog post in the tally and also to keep truckin'. Besides which, I don't stress out anymore over writing or not writing. It just hasn't been a priority since I hit my head last September during preseason endurance training for roller derby tryouts and, oddly, six months later started seeing double.

I can, at long last, finally, explain that:

  1. When I fell, my body absorbed most of the fall but I rolled quite a bit down a cement hill and my head, which was the last thing to hit the ground, stopped all my momentum. I blacked out for an unknown amount of time. There was blood in my ear and the doctor's report, which I've only just received for record-keeping's sake, notes a 5-inch vertical abrasion on the left side of my face, which I did not remember at all. What I remembered was that I bruised a whole side of my body, jammed a wrist and a shoulder, went to the doctor and was told that people get concussions all the time and there's not really anything you can do other than make sure not to hit your head again. She told me to worry instead about my wrist and shoulder and not getting an infection from the road rash up one leg. 
  2. I healed up and seemed fine. 
  3. Six months later, I went to AWP and my damaged brain was completely overloaded with too much information — over 600 exhibitors and over 10,000 registered attendees. There were too many moving objects, too many people, shadows, and lights; too many food smells and perfume smells and hair smells inside and too many city smells outside; too many voices, near and far, happening at once; too many hand-skin textures shaking hands and too many fabrics and other things we touch when hugging. The whole operating system fell apart then and there. My OD, FCOVD says I don't have a hardware problem; I have a software problem. 
  4. But I wouldn't find the right kind of doctor (the above-named OD, FCOVD) for months and months and months, during which I believed I was going blind and would never be able to read again (I have yet to be able to get more than a few pages into any adult book, but I have since discovered that I can at least read children's literature, and I am loving, absolutely loving Judy Blume and Roald Dahl and E. B. White again, and the hardest books I've managed to finish are Wilson Rawls's Where the Red Fern Grows and Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming and Dicey's Song). But, only a few months ago, I truly thought I was unable to read, and that I might lose everything I had ever worked for, everything I knew and recognized as my life. I accepted that I had no marketable skills other than writing and teaching, and I lost my shit a little for quite some time. 
  5. After another six months of completely stumping 7 other doctors — 2 of them neurosurgeons — I finally have a diagnosis: traumatic brain injury. 
  6. The reason for the delayed diagnosis is simple — I kept telling doctors that the trouble began at AWP. I did not drink there, I did not fall there, I did not do anything out of the ordinary there other than try to sell some books from behind a table. My eye doctors said my eyes couldn't be healthier. But for a stress-related ulcer, my general health checked out just fine. My CT-scan came back fine. Blood work all came back fine, too. Eventually, a psychologist gave me the all-clear, and told me to go have a great life and not look back unless I want to exchange pleasantries. It wasn't until a neuro-opthalmologist threw up his hands in exasperation and sent me to a vision therapist that I began to (1) be believed and (2) understand. 
  7. The vision therapist, an OD, FCOVD, took one look at my eye teaming, did a few tests, looked over my intake forms, and said, "Did you hit your head?" I said, "No." He said, "Are you sure? Think about it. Take your time." I thought about it. I kept thinking about AWP. I was like, Hmmm. And then I remembered last September. I told him about that. He did a few more tests. Asked a lot of questions. And gave me the good news: "You have a brain injury." Believe me, it was welcome information. A diagnosis! And a treatment plan!
  8. My new OD, FCOVD (unfortunately, I had to move and start over again with a new OD, FCOVD) says that since the damage occurred on the left side of my brain, the language side has been affected. The loss is permanent, but with therapy we will try to build new pathways, in an attempt to teach unused brain to take over the functions that the lost parts used to manage. 
  9. I'm also, simultaneously, struggling with an exacerbated underlying childhood condition — convergence insufficiency, which has always, as long as I can remember, been a part of my life. But until recently, I only ever had trouble after gym class, which ended in grade school, and otherwise playing ball sports (which I rarely ever did for obvious reasons), and it was nothing a good night's sleep didn't fix by the next morning. Now, since AWP, I live every moment of my life like this. And reading looks like this. I am lucky, though; because I can recognize letters and words so fluently, I'm better off than most, and I can struggle through it. 

When I boil it all down, I can tell you this: At its worst, my brain injury has left me with a 5th grade visual memory. The best way I can explain that is with a task I have to perform fairly regularly — addressing envelopes. When a PayPal order comes in for a Lit Pub Book, I have to copy the person's name and address onto a label. Most names, if I already know how to spell them, are absolutely fine. I see it, I remember it, and I write it. But a name that has an unusual spelling means trouble. I do not recognize it, and I cannot remember it. I have to copy it letter by letter. Same for street names. Cities and states are generally no problem. But zip codes are impossible. I can never remember one zip code. I cannot remember 5 numbers in any sequence. I always, always have to copy the zip code one number at a time, and then I have to double check it, triple check it, because I cannot be sure that it is right. With a word, I am more fluent. With numbers, I'm fucked. Numbers are a nightmare.

In Coping with Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, "Gail" reports that fatigue is the biggest problem she faces:

"Because she is tired all the time, her possibilities for rehabilitation are severely limited. Gail has noticed that when she is tired, she doesn't cope well, sleep well, see well, or even speak properly. Her speech is slurred and she frequently trips up the stairs. 

Gail's fatigue is worst during fine motor activities. In fact, writing a single check exhausts her more than scrubbing floors. She explains that while floor-scrubbing requires her to fill a bucket and make large arm motions, check-writing calls for writing on lines, forming letters and numbers, knowing the date, and folding and inserting checks into stamped, addressed envelopes. Gail says that writing a check causes her to break out in a sweat, as if she were running a marathon."

I sympathize. 

But I can get better — not 100%, but as close as possible — in vision therapy, which I just started this past Friday, to the tune of $250/week, out of pocket (it's an exclusion). I don't know how long I can continue to pay for treatment, but I had to at least get started, see what it's all about, give it a shot, to be able to try to replicate it at home when the money runs out and at least continue with my at-home exercises. 

I don't have much else to say here.

I am reading, slowly, and writing, very very very very slowly (today is day one of trying to write again), and I'm hanging in there, very strong, focusing most of all on finishing my current degree and applying to PhD programs. I've been through the process of applying to grad schools before, but it has never been so challenging. I'm very lucky that I've got two samples already written, one from last fall, and one from last spring, and they will serve me well I think. Unfortunately, my old GRE scores were from 2006, so I had to retake the general test last week. I have put off the subject test until April, when I hope to be much improved. In the meantime, I am really looking forward to my writing scores, since there wasn't a writing section last time I took the GRE, and because I went out of my way to privilege the writing sections. I didn't bother with the math and scored in the 0 percentile. I only scored in the 73rd percentile for the verbal, but all things considered I did much better than I thought I would. And now I'm just taking it one day at a time, one task at a time. Now that it is past 10:00 PM, I'm 3 hours short of my 12-hour goal, and I only really wrote for 2.5 hours total. Still, it's something. And it feels good to put this out into the world. If for no other reason than to explain my absence from so many things. 

To close: for anyone who is overly concerned, rest assured I enjoy my days, which are leisurely. I'm leading a healthier lifestyle, physically and mentally, and I am above all else relaxing more than I ever have before. More than anything else throughout all of this, rest and relaxation seem to help most of all (TBI-related chronic fatigue is crazy). If I don't get enough sleep, I have trouble concentrating, I'm irritated by every far off sound, a random smell can set off an instant migraine (although I have fast acting nasal spray to combat that, which helps), my left eye droops and hangs, and, worst of all, I can't type: aSim pels entnece l okoslik ehtis. That right there, on top of it all on a bad day, can be soul-crushing. 

But we persevere. And life goes on.

(And, if we're lucky, on great days, like today, we distract ourselves with Pinterest and pretend that it is working toward a new book, after all!)

The Kindergarten Teacher

Now somewhere past its second draft, my "teacher story" exists now in the realm of potentiality. It could be something, it might be something, and it is this sense of possibility that is exciting. There is still so much work to be done, but it's a writing project I'm committed to and excited about. 

I made a crucial change. The main character is now a kindergarten teacher instead of a junior high teacher. This opens up a lot of space for her to grow and evolve into a new person, away from my initial inspiration. I think this may have been the hardest part of getting here to this point: really digging at this existing figure and trying to rethink her in order to create a new space, the right space, for her to occupy — a space that she is truly at home in, a space that will betray her, a space she must reclaim eventually, and a space that can support and sustain the length of a novel. 

It feels good to be in it again and good to be doing these things that for so long I've been missing: working, creating.

I feel like, additionally, now that she is a kindergarten teacher, I understand more about her. She is the kind of woman who leads a quilting club at her local women's shelter so that the women can take these coverings with them when they go. And she volunteers as the choir director at the senior citizens' home and gets them out into the city, where words are not enough and song is how they can express their deepest sentiments. She is also the kind of woman who, in the car on the way to school every morning, listens to The Chordettes.

I feel like she has strong maternal instincts, which is not as obvious as it sounds. What I mean is that even though she nurtures all these children in her care all day, all week, year after year, she is growing ever more aware of a desire to have her own children. And that what she wants most is to love. In everything that she does, in everything that she touches, all she leaves in her wake is proof of her love.

I feel like, more than ever, I need to be writing a character like this. 

But of course there needs to be more.

What I've got so far is something like this: When a little girl from her kindergarten class dies one night at home in her sleep, and when the teacher begins to obsess over the idea that any of her children could also die in their sleep during afternoon nap time and in her care, in her classroom, this haven she has made for herself and for them, her entire world goes dark. Not only will she feel that she has failed that one little girl, that she could now fail any or all of them with her inability to keep them safe, but she will also question her ability to mother. She will do inexplicable things and lose herself. . . . 

So this is it: this is the new book. It is an exciting time. 

P.S. Do you see that little braided flower up there? The kindergarten teacher made it. She made it for you. 

"A throbbing. A certain pulsing."

Of course today's title comes from AVAI plucked it from the shelves just now and Wittgenstein's Mistress and My Happy Life with it. I want to read lines — sentences, fragments — I want to read a 300-page poem with a first-person narrator who makes me bawl. 

Have you ever sat at a blue country table wanting to write your guts out? I don't often but tonight I find myself dreaming. 

Something I'm glad to know: I will wait years for a few good poems to find their way. There is no rush. 

How do books find us and why, when they do? Is there something in them we're meant to know?

Strange to think that after three? four? years away, I'm back to fiction again. I have no plans for it. I wonder what it will be. All I know is this: I've always loved the teacher. More and more, she demands rewriting. She wants her story told and I don't know what it is or why. I have only bits in fragmented language that won't be right this time around. For instance: 

The teacher brought the father inside and bathed him in her gigantic tub. He had never seen a tub so big. He held her thighs with his thighs. They ate nothing and drank too much coffee. Black. They made love. No. Fucked. No. Some sort of savage love. Yes. No. He held her breasts in his soapy hands. A pair of castanets makes two sounds he said. The female hembra is held in the right hand. He held her right breast in his right hand. Lifted. Gently. It is smaller and higher pitched than the macho. He lifted her left. Which is held in the left. She laughed and he continued. One translation of macho y hembra is hook and eye. Her smile fell. You she said. Fit into me. Sounds like an order he said. Cast a net does too she said. But safer.

Who can resist an Atwood reference? What I want to preserve is that moment her smile falls. What's packed there? Who is this woman with a stranger in her tub? Who is this woman who laughs one moment and becomes, in the next and all at once, sad, demanding, accusatory, scared?

And this:

The teacher took to eating one meal a day. Usually lunch. An appetizer. Something fried. Or cheesy. Or both. Like jalapeno poppers. If they were spicy she cried openly without shame. She would have a cocktail. Orange vodka with soda water. She would go home and have a bottle of wine and dessert that she brought with her from the restaurant. Sometimes she went to a bar in time for last call and waited while a stranger finished a draft beer. Sometimes she asked the stranger to walk her home. If the stranger did she invited the stranger in. The stranger always accepted the invitation. It was why the stranger walked her home in the first place. She knew this. It was why she asked the stranger to walk her home in the first place. One night the stranger was a woman named Iris. In the morning Iris stroked her hair. Hyacinth the teacher said was Apollo’s lover. He died from a discus to the head. Nobody ever said it was his due for being a homosexual. Instead he was immortalized in the form of a flower. Though it was probably an iris. Not a hyacinth. 

Why does she need spice and public space to cry? Why alcohol? Why now? Why the constant late-night need for bodies?

I tell you I have loved the teacher since Philadelphia, where I discovered her and first began to tell her story. I was a different woman there. So much has changed. So much time has passed. And now — why now? — she reaches for me across time and distance, asking me to do this thing, to find the rest of her story and tell it. 

The teacher went to Amsterdam and tried hallucinating on absinthe but it didn’t work. She went to the Red Light District and touched her fingers to the glass of one window where a young woman in a red teddy stared at her with sad painted eyes. She went to the Van Gogh Museum and thought of a poem she had read and taught: & what if she would’ve just taken the ear. And what if the great Mughal emperor really did cut off the hands of the men who built the Taj Mahal. By then she was in Agra where she let a tour guide tell her about Mumtaz Mahal and how she died giving birth to her fourteenth child. The teacher thought for the first time about how she didn’t have even one. She took the tour guide as her lover and stayed for seven years.  

What are those seven years like? What happens to her? Wouldn't I like to know! So here it is; this is why those poems up there can wait: it's time to try "a larger canvas."