Requiem for the ‘Lady Parts’

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Last summer, a cyst on my right ovary burst on the Fourth of July and sent me to the operating room.

It was the second time a problem with an ovary has required surgery. And a third time, a fibroid in my uterus threw a major temper tantrum, sending me back to the hospital less than a week after my daughter was born.

In between surgeries and hospital visits, I’ve had 15 years of anemia-inducing periods, chronic abdominal pain, intestinal symptoms that mirror the effects of IBS, painful sexual encounters, and inconvenient or anxiety-filled social situations as a result of these medical problems.

My condition – a combination of cysts, fibroids and endometriosis – is quite common.

More women than not will develop fibroids before they reach the age of 50 (though many will not realize it because the fibroids shrink or grow in un-troublesome spots). Ovarian cysts are less frequent but still common — about 8% of pre-menopausal women will develop cysts that require some sort of treatment. And nearly 30% of women in the United States will suffer from endometriosis, a condition in which endometrial tissue grows outside the uterus and sticks to other organs like the ovaries, bladder, intestines, and (in rarer cases) lungs, brain, and skin.

In addition to the symptoms I’ve experienced, many women also struggle with infertility as a result of endometriosis in particular, which is how they first become aware of the problem.

Yet despite the sizable population of women who can no doubt empathize with my situation, I’ve kept it mostly to myself, postponed fixing it, and struggled with anxiety around it for a number of reasons I think many will relate.

We don’t feel empowered by or in control of our bodies. This isn’t about sex or childbearing; it’s about health. But in too many instances, our culture still places more value on what a woman’s ovaries, uterus, and vagina can do for someone else than what they can do (or what they do to) her.

I have a wonderful female doctor who has been telling me for years that hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) coupled with oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) is the most likely outcome of my prognosis. I am finally coming around to this, and have scheduled my surgery (hopefully my last of this nature) for the end of December. But I will reluctantly admit the fear of what happens as a result of these surgeries has held me back and keeps me up at night. I am afraid of the ensuing changes in my body (no longer able to bear children, changes in sexual function, changes in my physical appearance), and how that might affect how I’m perceived by others, particularly men.

Speaking of men… Men are calling the shots. After an experience in the hospital with a ruptured fibroid – the pain of which far transcended that of childbirth – I asked my gynecologist about treatment options, including tubal ligation. That may not have been a viable solution to my health issues, but rather than talk to me about options that might have worked (uterine ablation, hysterectomy), he cautioned me against any procedure that might limit my ability to have more children in the future. He advised me to “just hang in there”. I eventually found a new doctor.

Periods are still a taboo. Even in progressive cultures in 2016, we are conditioned not to speak of what is a normal, healthy, monthly biological function. Boys aren’t educated about girls’ bodies. Hygiene products are marketed for their discrete packaging. Every woman I know slips a tampon up her sleeve rather than carry it in her hand on the way to the office restroom. If we can’t talk about a functional menstrual cycle, we sure as heck can’t talk about one on its last legs.

We hate to age. The other taboo in this story is that of aging. Again, this is especially hard for women, I think. Men are sexy and powerful when their hair grays and their resume builds. Too often, aging women are perceived as less attractive sexually, and either more intimidating or (if they’ve taken a break to raise children) more obsolete professionally. A breakdown in health, particularly one that comes with the loss of childbearing capabilities, is bound to trigger anxieties around aging. Our culture is not gentle in this regard.

I don’t know what the solution to any of this is, but I do think it can’t hurt to put some of it in writing – to remove a bit of the mystery and chip away at the taboos. I want a healthy body in 2017, and for anyone else struggling with these issues, I hope she finds relief as quickly as possible. Open conversations in a healthy culture will help us all, surely.

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The Courage to Love Creatively

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I recently finished a novel in which the narrator noted several times that she loved her ex-husband more once they divorced than she did while they were married. She also checked herself, reflecting on how it’s easier to love when love is a concept instead of a daily reality. Or maybe, she posited, space and distance is the place in which love is possible with some particular people. The novel, “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout, is not about divorce, or marriage, and so the narrator didn’t go much further with this thinking.

I have, though. Continue reading

The Heavy: A eulogy for my grandmother

399842_3006220879033_1957528962_nIn the crime shows my grandmother loved – Matlock, Murder She Wrote – you typically have a good cop who loosens people up and a “bad cop” who gets to the bottom of things. In politics – which she also loved – it is also this way. For every Bill Clinton, there is an Al Gore. A straight, dutiful man to add credibility and grounding to the beloved, folksy man of the people.

My grandparents had this, too. Continue reading

Paintings on the Ceiling

Paintings on the Ceiling

Every now and then an odd artistic idea drifts into my head and I have an overwhelming impulse to turn the idea into something real, beginning immediately even if it takes several weeks or months or even years to complete.

I think most creative people recognize this feeling, and I think most can also identify some of the emotions that trigger it.

For me, some of the most common creative emotional triggers are also some of the saddest or most negative: loneliness and sorrow, frustration and stress.

toothpicksFor example, one time after a particularly stressful and irritating week at work, I hand-painted a few hundred toothpicks and then arranged them in a pattern I then glued together and hung on my living room wall. When I was going through my divorce, I spent several months refurbishing an old farmhouse window pane by mounting decoupaged family photographs (including one of my ex-husband) in the panes; I did this to remind and redefine family for myself.

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But it is not depressive thoughts or sadness that compels me to creative; rather, it is creativity that helps me work through those emotions. The work I’ve created in these states is meditative, highly personal, and ultimately very therapeutic.

The most recent example of this is something I’ve been working on in my head for quite a while but put into reality this weekend.

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The idea is a series of 1×1 acrylic paintings on stretched canvas, each of them with some sort of 3-dimensional embellishment (a table and chairs in one; a mirror in another, etc.), mounted onto the ceiling in a grid in my library.

I made four of the paintings this weekend. My intention is to continue to add more to the ceiling as I paint them, eventually covering the whole room. I think that will take about 100 paintings, total.

As I said, I’ve been thinking about this sort of idea for awhile – toying off-and-on with the thought of building a miniature “set” of a room in my house and then mounting it from the ceiling in that room, so that when you’re sitting in that room and look up, you’re looking at an inverted tiny version of your environment. And I might still do that one day.

maproomBut then I thought I could go ahead and do something interesting to the ceiling, including with 3D elements, in a simpler format using paintings. My daughter and I went to Rome this summer, and my favorite part of the Vatican Museum was the Map Room, where the ceilings are inlaid with a series of encrusted paintings and priceless frames. It’s a different, more extravagant look than the austerity of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.

NOT that my paintings are anything remotely like the Vatican! 🙂

paintingsMy paintings – at least the four I made this weekend – are abstract representations of my grandmother, who is in hospice care in Auburn, Ala. One is blue and green squares in a post-modern pattern that makes me think of a couple of rooms in her house on the lake, including one our family calls “the green room”, which is furnished with an avocado green bedroom suite from the 50s. This painting has a little coffee cup in it. In my mind, it is spiked with Tia Maria, which was our custom when my grandmother was well. The second painting has a table and two chairs and a painted woven rug like the one in her living room. The third has flowers and a gold mirror. She told me last weekend a story about looking at herself in the mirror and having a conversation with her mother, whom she resembles more and more every day. And the fourth is a tree of life with a clock mounted in it. I think the oldest antique in her house is a clock that belonged to her great grandparents and is one of the few items of value that remained after a long-ago family property dispute. Like many elderly people, she repeats this story, and all of her stories, like it’s the first time we’ve heard them. But that’s okay. One day we will miss it. I think we already do.

Working on this weird little project has been a way to be close to my grandmother and work through some emotions I have about the journey she is on. Art can most certainly be therapeutic, and even if you are not an artist (I’m a creative person, but certainly don’t consider myself an artist), spending some time creating with your hands can be intensely helpful. For me, it’s usually painting or crafting of some sort, though I know others get this same release from cooking, woodworking, sewing, etc. Whatever your preferred medium, I hope this post offers some value to folks who might be looking for productive ways to deal with complex emotions.

Step One: Remind yourself how large the world is

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A moment from 2014 that stands out to me:

It was mid-January and my friends in Nashville had been enduring a cold snap while Chuck Ellis and I sipped bottomless pina coladas on Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. On Punta Cana in January, it was in the mid-80s all week — sunny, a nice breeze, unspoiled. We ate whatever we wanted, drank whatever we wanted, went topless, slept late, went for walks, got lost on the beach, etc. We had one of the most revelatory conversations of our relationship during a session at a swim-up bar, seriously. It was an important week for us.

But it did take me about four days to stop checking email constantly, and I never did stop checking it altogether.

At home, three colleagues and I had just launched 12th & Broad, an experiment combining media, real-life experiences, community, philanthropy and advertising. It was the first time our parent company had given me the opportunity to brainstorm, plan and launch a business unit from scratch. My background is in journalism. As a reporter, editor, columnist and newsroom leader, I had 15 years experience writing and helping craft pieces and projects about other people’s personal adventures and business ventures. But this was the first time I, myself, was doing such a thing. Continue reading

Mom and Dad are in my house again

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Contents of my kitchen floor: one sock, a ponytail holder mistaken by a cat as a toy, the remains of the 10-minute taco dinner I’ve substituted as cat food because I haven’t been to the grocery store, and glitter confetti from my daughter’s 13th birthday party three months ago when all four of her grandparents came dressed in the party’s advised “bling theme”.

Above: a painting of a cardinal my former mother-in-law gave me, askew on the wall above the coffee maker, the pot with the remnants of the morning’s brew made by Dad, way too early. He and Mom are in town again from Alabama where they retired but haven’t seemed to have fully moved, the two of them with many loose ends here in this town where they raised my brother and me and where I still live.

I’m sitting on the kitchen island, pajama-clad and tired but wired from an evening networking event. I would go to bed but the music playing on my kitchen radio (it’s not really a radio; it’s a device that plays music from my phone) is stuff my dad likes and thus I am thinking about my parents. They are staying in my house but are out late because they have theater tickets to Chicago.

I think they’ll be coming back to Nashville for the rest of the TPAC season, probably staying in my guest room, showering in my daughter’s bathroom. So we’ll have three generations here on occasion, which is unexpected and sometimes awkward but fine. Dad always fixes the things he breaks after trying to fix them in the first place. Mom forgives me for being easily impatient and short-fused at this odd family arrangement, which is more than we can sometimes say for her own mother, who is elderly, back in Alabama, in need of constant attention and is more impatient and short-fused than I am.

In my driveway is a trailer with a tall ladder they brought for Dad to fix a light fixture no one else can reach. They hauled it all the way from six hours south after they took my grandmother to a doctor’s appointment that didn’t start until 4:30 in the afternoon. They arrived at midnight, slept four hours in my aforementioned guest room, woke up, made the coffee, went to meetings and dental appointments here in the city they don’t seem quite to have moved away from, and then to the theater. They’ll be home again – to my home again – in another three hours, at which time I’ll probably be asleep. Then, tomorrow, they’ll fix that light and probably pick up the sock and buy cat food and straighten the askew bird painting and drive six hours back south to be with my cranky grandmother.

They’re too old for this, I’d think, but clearly I’m wrong. Brat that I am, lucky kid I am, horrible cat owner I am, proud daughter I am.

The Gift of Petty Grievances

The Gift of Petty Grievances

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Thursday night I was the second to last parent to pick up my daughter from the middle school football game because I went first to the wrong school and sat there in the crowded parking lot while I talked to her on her friend’s cellphone, wondering why she couldn’t see my car right in front of the main entrance where I said it was.

And Wednesday morning my mother texted me to ask if she and Dad could stay at my house another night because their brakes were suddenly shot and the mechanic told them it was unsafe to drive back to Alabama, where they live now and spend the majority of their time fixing up the house they just bought and taking care of my elderly grandmother, who needs them like I presume my daughter still needs me.

My brother has been looking after their golden retriever, who requires a thunder shirt when it rains. It rained three nights ago in Auburn, and the thunder shirt could not be located.

The day I moved into my house eight years ago, a hornet flew in and landed on a second story windowsill in a clear story unreachable by any normal sized ladder, and it died there and the crumbled remains remain.

The air conditioner stops working on the hottest day of summer. The water hose disconnects from the washing machine and floods the basement. The fruit flies return. The email piles up, then disappears (along with the IT guy) in an email vortex. You disappoint a colleague and annoy your spouse. You run out of clean pants.

God, the petty annoying stuff of life is always there, but we don’t even notice it when we’re freshly in love, beginning a new job, or packing for vacation…

And then the minute routine kicks in, so does our sensitivity to irritants, until sadly someone we know is diagnosed with something terrible or otherwise dealt a hand irrefutably uglier than a crowded inbox, kid waiting at the wrong school, or large repair bill. Suddenly, the daily bullshit things are reminders you’re still here in this game, still fighting and mostly winning.

A cat falls asleep on your feet, a teenager trusts you with a secret, your boss calls you a star. Life is good, and you can see that it is. You kiss your darlings good night, and you sleep tight without Ambian or alcohol.