Two Weeks Later

Two weeks ago I had my uterus removed. LAVH, which means I had small incisions by my hips and navel, the doctor filled my belly with gas and poked around with tubey cameras to make incisions, then removed my uterus, fallopian tubes, and cervix through an incision in the birth canal.

At least, that’s about as much of it as I can stand to Google. It grosses me out to think about the last part, and while I’m all for knowing what’s happening to my body, I’ve been unable to calm the queasiness that comes every time I read the details of this operation. Since I had both my kids via c section, the idea of delivering my uterus strikes me as ironic. Or odd, at least.

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What I’m not feeling right now is any kind of sadness about my uterus being gone. I’d read a lot about women who didn’t feel as feminine because they lost that part of themselves. I didn’t know if I’d feel that after it was gone. Not so far. But I never liked my uterus. It’s been a shitty relationship for 23 years, and even when it gave me those two amazing children, it was still a huge, uncomfortable and awkward pain. I never had easy periods or pregnancies, so I can’t say I feel a sense of loss about that part of my body. I am sure when I’m not having to miss work or spend days in bed every month I’ll be even more glad. Adios.

I do feel a loss of possibility, even though the rational part of me knows that the possibility was already gone, since several years ago Eric and I decided we were done having kids. We figured out that we didn’t need new babies, just missed was our two as little ones. No amount of hanging on, martyring myself with a busted, miserable uterus was going to make that possible. Right now the worries I have about the space where my uterus was are about complications in the future. In a fit of pain and sleeplessness the other night, I started Googling what can go wrong after a hysterectomy, and that was a bad, bad idea. It will take a while for me to forget some of those words.

If I’m honest, my overwhelming feeling right now is fear of aging. Fear of living in a body that’s declining in performance rather than one that bursts with possibility. My hysterectomy underscored my mortality. And while I don’t feel old, or bad, or sad, I know I’m constantly checking my watch at the party. This is fun, but I know someday it will end. Have you read Sharon Olds’ poem, “35/10”? At our house it’s 36/12, but the sentiment is the same. Time is passing, man.

So. Recovery. It’s going, but it’s going so much slower than I had hoped. So here are some details (none of them more disgusting than anything you’ve already read, if you’re still with me). AKA: What I wish someone had told me about LAVH.

I was in and out of the hospital in one day–checked in at about 6:30 and home before 3:00. My doctor told me the requirement to leave and go home sans catheter was that I had to pee on my own, so I spent one very drowsy and determined half hour in the bathroom immediately after surgery. Once I proved myself, I was released and I was home in my bed. Not to be outdone, Henry came up with a sudden case of the stomach flu at school that day, so I didn’t see the kids a lot until we were sure I wouldn’t catch whatever thing he had.

One of the doctors told me I’d be nauseous when I got home, and they gave me multiple meds to combat it. What I didn’t do was read the side effects of the pain or nausea pills they gave me. If I would have, I would have known that they caused blurry vision and dizziness. Maybe I wouldn’t have fallen down on my way back to bed from the bathroom that night, hitting my head on the door frame and cutting my cheek on the dresser. Two days later I also discovered that the splitting headache I had was from the same medicine. I felt a lot better once I was off that and the Norco.

The worst pain for the first five days–and it was awful–was from the gas they used to inflate my abdomen so they could see with the cameras. I know, you’re like haha gas. Not that kind of gas, because that kind of gas lives in your digestive tract and no matter how bad it is on a scale of one to fire sauce burrito, you know it’s going to eventually exit. Not this gas. This gas is just in the space outside your organs, and it can’t leave. Every time you move, it makes you want to die. Stabbing, shooting pain in your shoulders. Roiling bubbles across your guts. Pressure and discomfort like you wouldn’t believe. My doctor told me my shoulders would hurt (“don’t call us if you have shoulder pain,” she said), but this was so bad and so painful that I am still having trouble finding the words to describe it. In the first week my incision felt fine and I wasn’t really moving around so gravity had yet to have her way with me, but the gas? GOD DAMN, YOU GUYS. I’m just keeping it real. I wished I could cut a hole in my side to let it out.

It took me four days to leave my bed and get to my couch. It took me a week and a half to feel strong enough to walk past my mailbox. I just started driving again yesterday. I feel good and stronger every day, but I feel sore and tired. Gravity doesn’t help, especially the area surrounding the internal incisions. My ex-cervix. The longer I stand, the more unbearable that feels, but the pain seems to migrate to different areas of my stomach, depending on the day. My ab muscles feel weak and I am sure this contributes to not feeling like I can stand up for a long period of time. I miss being strong, feeling like my body can move with a semblance of agility and fortitude. I feel stupid fragile.

Before the surgery I told myself this would be no big deal because I’d had two caesarians and I knew what that was and that I could do that, not sleep, feed a baby and still manage to move around. I have not been handling this as well as the caesarians, and either this means a) I am a weak soul, a shivering baby bird of a person, or b) it’s just different. I am trying to convince myself that it’s b. Am I glad I did it? Not today. Today I feel pissed off that I’m wasting my summer, and angry that I can’t really leave the house for any period of time that amounts to anything. It’s been hard to ask for what I need constantly, and hard to rely on other people for so long. I think I’ll eventually be glad I did this, but I’m not there yet.

I have eaten the full gamut of Things Heather Loves, from peanut butter M&Ms to Cheetos to ICEEs to gummy bears and two kinds of Oreos. I am glad I lost 18 pounds before surgery, because post-op, I wanted comfort foods, and my comfort foods skew decidedly lowbrow and high sugar. Eric has been so good to me, taking care of every single thing I needed. My friend Kitty stopped by with something for me every day, sat with me and talked so I’d feel like a real person. My sister scooped my kids up and delivered dinners without making me ask for anything at all. My parents, my grandparents, everyone has sent food and love and hugs. My room looked like a florist’s shop. It is good to be loved and cared for. It’s only hard to be a patient patient.

Henry said I’m different since my surgery. When I asked him how, he said “well, when the doctors removed the part of your body where a baby grows, I think they also took out the part of you that makes you embarrassed to talk about poop.”

So there you go, Internet.

Here are some pictures of what I’ve been up to. Spoiler alert: not much.

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Summer Reading List

I love summer reading. Most books are better read outdoors–a phenomenon I became aware of during my preteen cat mystery obsession. Sacramento summers provide lots of opportunities for sweaty outdoor reading while guzzling ice water.

Since high school I’ve been using summer to get ahead on my work. There never seemed to be enough time to read everything during the school year, so summer became about preparation. Getting things read so they were off my plate. This didn’t change when I started teaching, and grad school necessitated that I read ahead so I could meet all my deadlines. But the other side of summer reading is freedom. When you decide at age 13 that you’re going to teach English (then write stories, then review them), your normal life is going to mostly be about assigned reading. So many of my summers were the only time to read what I wanted to read. As an adult, I try to make my summer reading list a mix–getting ahead and indulging in something fun. This year is no exception.

What’s on my summer reading list this year? Books of all different types, it turns out. And–as always–the hope that I’ll get through one monster, one Big eFfing Book. The BFB.

Car Buddies

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I happily let Colin Firth read this story to me as I ran errands in my car: Graham Greene’s moody and obsessive 1951 novel, The End of the Affair. I’m haunted by this book in a really good way. Something about Firth’s accent and the structure of the story (maybe the cold way these lovers regard each other?): it begins at the end of a relationship, and it unwinds slowly. I couldn’t get enough. This may be unrelated, but Mr. Firth is invited to drive around with me and tell me any stories he’d like.

Learning Things

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The opportunity to interview David McCullough about his book, The Wright Brothers, for Goodreads was a huge surprise. And he was delightful–speaking with him ranks as one of my favorite experiences, ever. It also earned me more cred with my best friend, father, and grandfather than I could’ve ever hoped for. But even though I was familiar with Mr. McCullough’s work and a huge fan of the HBO series based on his biography of Adams, I hadn’t read more than fragments of his other books. So lately I’ve fallen into a nice rabbit hole of American history. His style is so conversational and easy, and it’s lovely to read to learn about something. I’m not sure if that makes sense? I hope everything I read makes me a little smarter, but usually I’m reading for style and literary content. I’m usually learning about feelings. It’s nice to read for information. It feels like it uses a different part of my brain. I love history, and I’ve loved every page of his work I’ve read.

The Wright Brothers is exactly that, the story of the two Ohio gentlemen that changed the world. The Greater Journey is about Americans in the mid-1800s who went to Paris to learn everything they could; they wanted to go and study so they could bring back art, medicine, and culture. Since I was in Paris almost a year ago, this was really fun–I could picture exactly what parts of the city he was writing about, and I had no idea about most of the history in the book. John Adams was fascinating, and besides giving me even more respect for the relationship President Adams had with his wife, Abigail, it was such an interesting look into the early American experience. It gives me hope that we were so messed up then and we still managed to make it work.

I’m hoping to dive into 1776 next.

Core Work

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Lately I am acutely aware of the relationship of all stories. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m writing this series for Ploughshares, so I’m searching out connections, but I have felt for the last 6 months or so like I’m building a lifetime independent study course. I read things for fun, but even the things I read for fun end up circling back to things I’ve studied. Eventually it’s all material for the same project. This is kind of exciting, if you think about it–I just read this article about biliotherapy and how sometimes books are prescribed to people for various conditions. But I’m thinking of this in a looser sense–I’m building the kind of person I want to be, and accessing the information I want to know. It’s all working together.

So. In that vein, I read Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation. Mostly, I was just curious, since the Arab’s perspective in Camus’ The Stranger is certainly something I’d discussed with my AP students. Camus was huge for me in the years I taught AP English. I talked to Literary Disco about the book just last year. But I’m curious about anything that examines a story from a different side. I read it just for fun, but by the time I finished the (short) novel, I had pitched it as a post. I had too much to say to keep it to myself. So that’s coming soon.

My Brilliant Friends

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Do you ever read books just so you can fit in with your peer group? That’s what happens when you go to grad school. If someone reads a great book, you read it too, so you don’t feel like the dumb one the next time you’re all standing around chugging martinis. Well, you still might, but at least you’ve read all the cool things. You can nod with authority.

My friend group has such good literary taste and reads so voraciously that I can barely keep up. But I finally had time to read Emily St. John Mandel’s excellent post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleventhe other day, and it did not disappoint. And if you like Shakespeare (me!) and Star Trek: Voyager  (me!) there’s a few details that might make your day. My friends, as usual, were right. Station Eleven is thoughtful and well-written. Up next in Books My Friends Said Were Decent is the first in the Neapolitan novels series, My Brilliant Friend. And yes, I do have to look up how to spell Neapolitan. Every time.

Real Work

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I had pitches accepted to review both Phoef Sutton’s Crush and Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness in translation. Neither one of them seems like it’s really going to be work to read. Sometimes I can’t believe that reading books is my job.

BFB

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Every summer I read something enormous, something that I think is too challenging for me and something that I want to read just so I’ve read it. Like running a marathon. Summer offers the opportunity to get through something that will take me a looooong time. Something I need to walk through carefully. Slowly. Methodically.

I haven’t decided yet what the BFB will be this year, but right now the two front-runners are Infinite Jest and War and Peace. Really.

Aim high, kids.

June One.

Hello, June. Hello, real life.

I wish I had better reasons for not writing anything lately. Not just here, but writing anything other than book reviews. But I have no reasons because I don’t even have the head space to think of reasons.

When I look back at 2015 and try to remember what it was about, I am sure that all I will remember about this time is that I sat in my car. I sat in my car or I drove a child somewhere in my car, and I tried to hold on to a thought for longer than five minutes. In 2015, I felt like I might never hold on to a thought for more than five minutes, ergo, I might never be able to write any fiction again. Or feign to work at writing any good fiction. (Because being a writer is mostly about looking off into space and thinking the same thought for a really long time, right?) In 2015, I had so many ideas, and they were all gone by the time I pulled into my driveway.

Yes, it’s fun, seeing each of my kids find a way through the world, and junior high (for the big one) has been something so alien to our entire family that it took all our combined willpower to get her through the first year. But while I’ve been able to dedicate myself to a strict schedule of waking up early so I can write my book reviews and not feel panicky about that (mostly), I am unable to dedicate myself to a strict schedule of creativity. Because creativity needs some freaking space, and my brain is mostly full of things like: 7:05, leave the house. 7:12, drop Henry at Grandma’s. 7:22, say goodbye to Addie before PE. 7:50, run to the restroom before class starts. 9:55 sneak out of class during the last five minutes so you can make it to the restroom again before all the kids are in the hall. 11:15, lock classroom door so you can eat without talking to 9th graders. 1:05, run to restroom again before the next class starts pounding on the door. 2:20 try to get to Henry before he’s the last lonely kid in the parking lot. Etcetera. And there’s a lot of me having to say “really?!?” to kids and shooting mean looks around.

This, too: I’ve been trying to lose weight since January. Succeeding, slowly. But I will maintain until I die that some part of my creativity comes from consuming doughnuts and ICEEs and pretzels and red licorice, and that carby/fun part of me is being brutally repressed for a little while longer.

Anyway. I’m home. It’s quiet, and I just finished the last review I need to write for three weeks. I’m having some minor surgery next week, so the break in work isn’t really a break, but not reading for work and not writing for work and not going to work–that feels a little bit like a guilty thing I’m doing just for myself. I’ll take it. I don’t really know what to expect this summer. We’ve purposely kept our schedule open since I don’t know how I’ll handle the surgery. Before you ask: It’s a hysterectomy. Not a secret, not major, and not life-threatening, just something I need to do so I can stop being in agony every month. I’m a little sad to say goodbye to some part of my body that gave me these awesome kids. And I’m a little sad that I’m not packing for some European adventure like I was last summer. But in addition to riding in my car, 2015 just needs to be about evicting my bum uterus. As soon as I do that I can get back on a plane.

For now I am just happy to be home with my (almost) eighth grader. Happy that all of the problems of the school year will fade over the next few weeks. I’m hopeful I find space enough to keep my thoughts, to turn them over and let them become something more than a passing idea.

We’ll see. If not, at least I get to lay by the pool and eat fresh tomatoes.

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I Don’t Want Another Mockingbird

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in 1994, as a high school sophomore. It changed me. It was the first book that showed me that stories offer clues about humanity, that they’re full of meaning beyond the literal. That they tap into a need for connection that we feel deeply beneath the narrative. I don’t exaggerate when I say it was reading To Kill a Mockingbird in Ms. McMichael’s 10th grade English class that opened my eyes to the world of literary analysis. I didn’t know I would be a book critic then, but that book certainly set me on the path, and before that it set me on a path to being an English teacher. I wrote my first successful essay on Mockingbird, an exploration of why Mayella Ewell’s carefully tended flowers–red geraniums–mean that she wants more than her sad life. About Lee’s choice of flowers–such hardy, indelicate blooms–that show how everything about Mayella is rough, even the natural beauty that surrounds her. Harper Lee’s book was the first one I wanted to explore, discuss, write about.

Because of this, I’m well aware that my feelings toward the book aren’t neutral. When I started teaching high school English at my alma mater in 2002, I was excited to share Mockingbird with my students (and my heart melted a little if they didn’t love it as much as me). Mockingbird remains a part of the curriculum. It’s a rite of passage. Every student that’s passed through my school has–if not read it–at least endured the expectation that he or she should know this story. It’s cultural currency that we want our students to have.

So in light of this, my reaction to yesterday’s news about another Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, wasn’t so happy. I felt excited for the first few minutes after I heard the news. But my glee faded quickly as I thought about what a sequel (even a related book written before the one we know as the first) would really mean. Sequels almost never hold up to the original. More isn’t always better.

We want more from the world of our beloved characters, but the truth is often less appealing than what we can imagine. It’s too prescriptive. Full disclosure: I don’t read fan fiction. I don’t generally like sequels penned by different authors. It makes me sad that J.K. Rowling has broken her word about not writing anymore Harry Potter stories. Even if a series is imperfect (as I mostly expect it to be), I’m happy for it to be over.

Chasing after more of a character is chasing after a want that can never be fully fulfilled. Once we see Scout as an adult, we have to live with knowing that she was someone else to Harper Lee than she to us. I like to imagine her in her ham costume, her future wide open. I’m free to make what I want of her childhood, of her revelations, and of the meaning of the book itself. I’m free to imagine that Scout is in some ways, like me, and that I can absorb the lessons of her childhood as my own.

Do I imagine the world beyond the known world of books? Outside the boundaries of story? Sure. But that’s part of why fiction is enjoyable. What we learn in a finite narrative is measurable; the lessons of life are not. Fiction has arbitrary bookends of structure, and they are not the same bookends of birth and life that set the narratives of history. The rhythms are different. Fiction isn’t real by virtue of its form if not just its truth, and I would argue that the very fact that it’s incomplete is part of why we like it. We don’t want to know how Gertrude came to fall in love with her murderous brother-in-law or see Walter White teach Chemistry before his diagnosis. Partially, because these things are boring, and we spend our own lives in boredom. But partially because fiction is concentrated magic.

Also, this. One of the hardest things to learn about being a writer is how to edit. Not what to say, but what not to say. Which details to choose and which to leave hidden to your reader. There is a reason this novel was put in a drawer. And now, by all accounts, Harper Lee isn’t healthy.We know her sister protected her until she died. By publishing her novel now, I think we ask something of her that she might not have the capacity to handle: we ask her to abandon earlier ideas of editing, of choosing what is most poignant or most right, in order to satisfy our own greed for consumption.

I’d rather have something brief but wonderful than a glut of sub-par.

That’s what this is, right? We can’t get enough of a good thing. We can’t accept the work that Harper Lee gave us and be a good steward to her legacy. We can’t be a good steward to old ladies, either, because we want the brief illusion that we can quiet our urges to know everything. I don’t like what that says about us.

Miss the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird? Maybe you should just read it again.

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Doing and Not Doing

Mostly, it feels like I’ve been standing in line at Ulta.

Do you notice how there are always about fifteen people working there, yet there is always a line to the back of the store? Hate. Shout out to my new favorite eyebrow pencil, however: Anastasia Brow Wiz in Caramel.

But what I’ve been doing? Teaching. Cat snuggling. Books, and walking to podcasts. Oh, and a short Super-Bowl-avoidance shopping trip.

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What am I not doing? I think that’s more interesting–at least to me. Most of my worry time is devoted to it, anyway. Since December, I haven’t written any fiction. Zip. I tried once and all I got was two confused pages.

I feel like such a loser. Way to use your MFA, HSP. I sent my friend Faye a letter the other day, and I whined about this for about two pages (yep, I totally could have put that time to good use writing a damn story–or, you  know, this time I’m using right here to blog). But I’m struggling to get a story out. Really struggling. Anything.

Why is this? I have all kinds of excuses. The first is that I have been really busy with review work–a blessing, the best, happiest kind of blessing–but this is also a time of change. I haven’t found equilibrium yet. Damn if I’m not predictable about what sets me spinning.

Excuse #2: My whole family has been sick. Fortunately (and it’s just a teensy bit hard to admit this, but I will) I didn’t get as sick as the rest of them because I was the only one who had a flu shot. But one or another of us has been down for about three weeks. Lots of missed work for sickies. I’ve also had some ladyparts problems again, which has meant a shitton of doctors appointments of one kind or another. And a lot of laying down while they put me into giant tubes (nothing wrong, just a hassle, and time). While it’s been a time of gratitude about our double medical insurance, it hasn’t been my most productive moment for the written word.

Excuse #3: I’m trying to lose weight, which means I hate everything.

But so what, Whineypants. I know. None of that matters when it comes to what I want for myself. Do I want to be a writer of fiction? I do. And if I do, that means putting my money where my mouth is. Or maybe a more apt way to say it is that it means putting my butt into my chair. Making myself write the stories that I know I need to tell. Something. I haven’t figured it out yet. I like systems, and for this I don’t have one. Fiction feels like it needs space — in my head and in my day. I haven’t found that. Not that kind, at least.

Don’t get me wrong. Things are good. I have work. I have a routine. I have a way to make it work with my day job and my family. I have myself figured out when it comes to reviewing, and I just recently found my maximum capacity. That’s a strength, in a way, to know how much you can and cannot handle. Now I do.

But this is how it is: the job of critic will always come with crises of confidence. I go along fine, read-read-read, write-write-write, and then I get another wave of who am I to say what I think about a book? Nobody cares about you, English teacher who still lives in the town where she went to high school. That feeling is stronger from time to time and I know to ride it out — it eventually passes. But lately I wonder if I can be a critic if I’m not also walking the walk. If I’m not putting my words on the page, if I’m not sending out stories, do I even get to write about what other people have done? This is just a different kind of worry.

So that’s where I am this week. What I am doing? It’s not work. Not the right kind, at least.