Being alone in Colorado

2 October 2010

My mother died on this day 30 years ago.

Being alone in Colorado during the day.

When I’m in Pittsburgh I’m immersed in noise.  City noise–boom boxes and explosive car radios, trash trucks, jack hammers, car alarms, planes, helicopters,  that incredibly irritating back-up sound that goes Beep, Beep, Beep, insanely, driving you insane; trucks driving or idling, for no apparent reason,  buses, motorcycles, leaf blowers, people walking down the street who converse by shouting at one another from either side of the road.  In the 19th century the steam engine was thought to be a kind of devil, roaring through the world and practically tearing people’s ears off.  But it seems to me that the devils of the 20th and early 21st centuries are machines powered by gasoline.

When I “relax” I turn on the television, usually quite loud so that I can hear it over the noise in my neighborhood, and when I go “out” to “relax” and have a drink, I go into a bar where there is usually a television blaring or music drowning out the silence that city people have apparently no ability to deal with.  And speaking of bars.  It’s annoying enough that there is a television to deal with, but what I don’t understand is why the t.v. always has to be tuned to golf or baseball or football?  Why can’t it be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Six Feet Under or Battlestar Galactica?  Let it be CNN or even that republican machine, Fox News.  Are city bars only populated by sports fans?

But here, where I am now, I hear virtually nothing but the sound of my own breathing, the dogs, three of them, following me here and there, their panting, the cat meowing to be let in the door that he knows he doesn’t usually go through, the wind, if there is any, the very rare car passing by.  If I want to hear something, I can play something on my computer, through itunes.  There’s a t.v. here but nothing on.  Nothing means: nothing I care to watch or listen to. And the radio isn’t much better.  Colorado stations seem to feature NPR most hours of the week, but so much of that programming seems to have to do with authors excessively pleased with themselves, who really don’t have that much to say, in fact.  Or that idiotic program, Car Talk, with the brothers whose laughter is so obviously forced it grates.  They don’t laugh because they’re amused, but rather because they’re uncomfortable.  Or so it sounds.  Why would anyone want to listen to the sound of forced, uncomfortable laughter, when one could listen to silence in one’s car or house?

But how rare is it to “hear” silence, to be able to think for one’s self, in quietude?  We live in cacophony and wonder why it is that we are continually getting sick from “stress.”

I’m not lonely.  There are three dogs here–Bear, Blackjack, and Kea, in order of importance.  Bear is a good friend, even though he begs too much.  Blackjack snores in his sleep and I find the sound comforting.  Kea is always way more excited to see me that I think she will be.

I love being able to do exactly what I feel like doing.  I can walk, dance, cook, and drink. I drink as much wine as I feel like drinking.  I’ve been cooking a lot and finding that I have lost my taste for meat.  It is good to be alone; to be with myself for an extended period of time, in the quiet, without a schedule, without quantification, just being.  I go to be around 8:30 and get up at 5 or 6.  I live as I want to.  It is wonderful.

Being alone in Colorado at night.

I had to go to Hotchkiss this afternoon and didn’t turn back until after dark.   Halfway home I stopped along the road, turned off the engine and the lights, and got out to look at the sky.  A dog at a nearby farm was barking but it fell silent.  So many stars.   It had been a long time since I had seen the Milky Way.

It’s hard to comprehend how we could be “in there” when, from earth, it looks as though it is “up” or “out there.”   And when I remember that it is not a water-cloud, but a star-cloud, and that the opacity of “out there” is more or less how our “over here” looks to the beings on that side of the galaxy, it’s harder to grasp.

Is it like the relationship between Self and Other?  We dismiss or underestimate or simply forget about or try to kill the Other because it is other, because we can’t stand the difference in the color of their skin, or the way they eat, or walk, or express affection, or believe, or vote, or fish.  What we’re missing out on when we allow these differences between to divide us is that we are not “here” and “there” but, rather, together, bound up in the same web, the same world.  There’s a German word for this, mitsein.  It means “being with”  So, it is possible to say, in German, not only “ich bin,” I am, which is a pretty powerful thing to say, actually.  But it is  also possible to say “ich bin mit,” I am with.

As I got back on the road I thought about how insignificant I was, in my tiny little car, soft flesh clothed in an exoskeloton driving along on a capillary.  So often I think of myself as the center of the universe, a “me” an individual, isolated sun, and that what I am doing is of infinite importance, and must come before all other things.  The sky above seemed so vast, so much greater than this personal scenario, this whole world. But then I thought about the complexity beneath the tires on the road, and beneath and beside the road, all the birds and skunks and snakes and lizards and toads, and the insects that they eat, and the hives and burrows that the creatures build,  and the thread-like paths that ants leave, and the smaller ones, the mites, the tiny larvae, all busily going about and around And then I thought about smaller things that you can only see under microscopes, and all the organisms that make up dirt, in which the plants grow.  So I felt better.

And when I got home the three dogs were so happy to see me they danced. Blackjack ran around the yard with his enormous teddy bear in his mouth, and Kea wagged her whole back body at me, and Bear was love-dumb as always.  I laughed at them and said, “Hello, Friends!”

Danse Macabre: Mourning My Mother

So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life.  Or since I was 20.  When does adult life begin?  Hard to say.  I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up.  But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.

But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55.  She was diagnosed when she was 54.   There were signs before.  The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas.  How could we all have been so stupid?  Yet we were.  What do orthopedic surgeons know about the diseases of the internal organs?

So, she died.  By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs.  She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs.  It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.  She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy.  We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath.  And my father knew.  I didn’t.  Not until the very end.

It was yuk.  You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it.  I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing.  I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.

The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there.  It refuses.  And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense.  It interrupts the rational.  It fucks you up.

So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer.  The silent killer of women.  A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures.  When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.

Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about.  O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said.  It’s one of the best cancers you can get.  There are no good cancers.  Each one of the is deadly.  Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows.  And it flourished in my mother.

My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing.  This bitter root spreading throughout her.  Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it.  She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die.  This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim.  It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help.  If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover.  And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of  course.  We weren’t allowed to be negative

I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful.  I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her.  I was pregnant.  I needed my mother.  Nothing worked.   She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying.  As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building.  It was worth a shot, of course.  But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going.   When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.

Yes, I know.  This was an unreasonable fantasy of power.  But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true.  I did not believe that she was going to recover.  Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?

My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow.  This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hate this program.

It seems to me–and how I hope that  will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise.  We are responsible for our health every day.  But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser.   She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day,  had good friends, a relatively happy family.  As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber.  But she still died of colon cancer.  It wasn’t her fault.  Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.

I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me.  But she didn’t. She just left.   And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that  was capable of doing.  If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.

It’s hard.  You have this life, however short.  My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last.   Nice sentiment.  What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live?  What would you do?

My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book.  Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months.  But what if I didn’t have the energy?  What would I do then?  I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life.  Maybe I would do nothing.

My mother did not write any letters.  She just left.  But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her.  What more could she say?  Probably something.  But that was not her style.  She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.

In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives.  We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years.  We remember them fondly, openly, with love.

Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world?  Probably.

I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality.  How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women?  Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer?  This, too, is a woman’s issue.  Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ?  How do I know that it has not also invaded my body?  Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?

I am frightened.

Looking for work or having a baby? Leave the country: The Global Gender Gap

Of all the interesting and depressing statistics that the authors of a recent Newsweek essay on sexism at work–U.S. men still earn 20 per cent more than U.S. women do–the following seemed most important to reiterate:

The Global Gender Gap Index—a ranking of women’s educational, health, political, and financial standing by the World Economic Forum—found that from 2006 to 2009 the United States had fallen from 23rd to 31st, behind Cuba and just above Namibia.

The report measures how countries distribute their resources and opportunities between women and men.  That means it also measures how various countries continue to treat women as less than human beings.   It measures “hard” statistics in four “pillars” of civilization:

  1. economic participation and opportunity: “hard” statistics measuring what women and men get paid for relatively equal work; the ratio of women to men in positions of leadership (bosses) and workers;
  2. educational attainment: girls’ and boys’ access to education and literacy rates;
  3. political empowerment:  the ratio of women to men in positions at the highest levels of government;
  4. health and survival: life expectancy of women and men and  sex selection at birth.

Scores in each of these countries measure the level of sexual equality and freedom for women.  Women have more liberty in 33 countries than they do in the United States.

Women have the most liberty in the following countries: Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, S. Africa, Denmark, Ireland, Philippines, and Lesotho.

Women are least free in the following countries, in descending order: Morocco, Qatar, Egypt, Mali, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Benin, Pakistan, Chad, Yemen.

Why does the U.S. score so low? The statistics don’t look so bad at first, especially when you look at education.

We’re at the number one spot, with Iceland, when it comes to literacy.  93 per cent of our girls and 92 per cent of our boys are in primary school.  96 per cent of our women get some education beyond high school, while only 68 per cent of our men do.   Still, gender equality in U.S. literacy rates is no greater than it is in Mongolia, Cuba, Honduras, Latvia, and Nicaragua, so it’s hard to brag.   Consider the fact that, in Kazakhstan, women hold 63 per cent of the tertiary (beyond high school) teaching positions, while only 45 per cent of the tertiary teachers in the US are women.

Men overwhelmingly dominate positions of authority in U.S. institutions of higher education. There.  We’re not feeling so smug now, are we?

Things also look  not too terrible in category one–employment.  After all, 69 per cent of US women work, compared to  81 per cent of U.S. men.  But the average woman makes only $25,613, which is paltry compared to the average man’s salary: $40,000.   In Iceland, where 83 per cent of the women work, and 89 per cent of the men (it seems the Scandinavians DO have a stronger work ethic in general), women earn $29,283 compared to $40,000 for men per year.   There are even statistically more women in positions of authority in the workplace–bosses, managers, and senior officials–in the US than in Iceland.

In short, fewer U.S. women have access to paid work, and those that do get paid a lot less for the same kind of work than in other countries. Men are still powerfully discriminating against women in the U.S. workplace.

It’s rather humbling–and quite infuriating–to find out that women in 16 other countries–including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Mozambique–have greater economic equality and opportunity, compared to men, than they do in the U.S.  Canada is way ahead of us in providing jobs and equal pay for women, and Uzbekistan is ahead of Canada.

When you get to category 4, political empowerment, it becomes very clear that men are making most of the laws in our country:  women hold only 24 per cent of our high-level (ministerial) office, while 76 per cent of the high-ranking officers are men.  In Iceland, women occupy 36 per cent of high-ranking positions.  But they have also had a female head of state for 16 of the last fifty years, while we have never had one.

What really brings the US down in this study of equality between men and women around the world?   You guessed it: our abysmal health care system.

Maternal morality rates are a very good indicator of how a country takes care of its people, especially women.

HAVING A BABY?  LEAVE THE COUNTRY:  Women are  more likely to die in childbirth in the U.S. than in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

11 out of every 100,000 women who give birth in the U.S. die.  In Iceland, 4 of every 100,000 women die.   Okay, so we’re way ahead of Yemen, where 430 out of every 100,000 women, or Nepal, where a startling 830 out of 100,000, die giving birth.

Humane health care is the sign of humane attitudes, not wealth:  Women who have children in the U.S. receive far less support from government and private sources (like employers) than they do in 39 other countries, including Guatemala, Barbados, Columbia, Mauritius, Mexico.

Here’s the really startling statistic that shows that our failure to provide health care results in many more teen mothers than in other countries:

In Iceland, as in all countries that offer universal health care, or nearly universal health care to its citizens, only 14 out of 1,000 adolescents give birth. In the U.S., where  religious extremists who oppose giving women their constitutional right to make their own health care decisions, 41 out of 1,000 adolescents have babies.

How many of those 15-19 year olds are ready to be mothers, do you think?  And what kind of health care are those new mothers and their children getting?  How likely are those children with babies to get a higher education? How likely are they to fall into poverty?

I’m still mad and I’m still writing.