Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Inherent Depravity of Peanuts: An Inquiry Into Blind Faith

     As someone who firmly believes that life's too short to adhere to convention, the notion of conformity, especially for the sake of religion, has always been a bit problematic for me. It's not that I'm particularly difficult or unusually strong-willed, it's just that I can't envision a worse existence than that of selling myself out to an ideology--following someone else's rules--instead of going with my own flow. Being who I already am means everything to me. Content to fly insubordinately beneath the radar of societal norms, I live life on my own terms, not anyone else's. Although I consider myself open-minded and quite tolerant toward other viewpoints I don't necessarily understand, every now and then the lack of common sense which accompanies rigid traditionalism leaves me dumbfounded, nearly at a loss for words. Perhaps I'm in need of enlightenment, but why would anyone want to trade dogma for free thought? That's a way of life I just can't get my head around.
     Yesterday, my son, Nick, came home from work, looking troubled. He said, "I found out I messed something up at work two weeks ago." For the last 10 months, he's worked at a natural foods store, a job he was very excited about taking mainly because of his interests in Ayurveda and alternative healing. The store is located in a diverse neighborhood with a large orthodox Jewish contingent. Although the store itself is not strictly kosher, it receives lots of business from the local Jewish population, and part of Nick's job is stocking and organizing kosher foods. Here's where I have to plead ignorance. When I think of kosher foods, I think of items like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, and I totally "get" the whole concept of kosher and Halal laws pertaining to the ritual slaughter of animals. But, who would ever have thought that something as benign as a peanut could cause such a stir? I mean, what exactly is the point of kosher peanut butter?
     Well, apparently freshly ground peanut butter made from kosher peanuts is a big seller at the store, so there are separate machines for holy and unholy peanuts. A couple of weeks back, Nick was charged with refilling the machines. By some accident, he unintentionally and unknowingly placed "tainted" peanuts in the kosher machine, an honest mistake that his boss discovered yesterday. I sat in disbelief as Nick told me that because of his human error, the store had lost all its kosher peanut butter sales. "We either have to get a new machine or take the old one apart and boil all its components." I'm sorry, but this is nothing short of ridiculous! First of all, every peanut in that store is organic, and as Nick puts it, "They've already been blessed by Nature." Secondly, if there is a God, does he really care about whether peanut butter is kosher? It seems he might have more pressing issues on his agenda. People have been buying and eating that unorthodox peanut butter for the last two weeks, yet there have been no reports of anyone in the community being struck down by the hand of God for inadvertently disobeying Halakhic law. Gimme a break! We're not dealing with allergies, GMOs, or a salmonella epidemic here; it's simply a matter of a few unconsecrated peanuts. Why not just run a few batches of kosher peanuts through the machine with a rabbi standing by to bless it? Wouldn't that be more common sensical? Frankly, I fail to see how the inner workings of this peanut butter machine could have been so drastically altered by a gallon of unanointed legumes as to render it unacceptable for future use. I have no doubt that God would also approve of my plan for absolving this defenseless machine of its iniquity.
     It's all a matter is perspective, really. My work as an anesthesiologist involves life and death on a daily basis, and this tempers my philosophy about people who take themselves, their jobs, and their religion too seriously. Piloting an aircraft is one thing, whereas working in a grocery store is quite another. Theoretically, one could argue that stocking groceries carries the potential risk of selling expired or contaminated food, directly threatening public health, and in this case, carelessness can certainly be deadly. Nick's dilemma is less clear cut; he's unwittingly and unfairly assumed responsibility for the spiritual health of an entire community. What should have been a blip on the radar might turn into a big hairy deal. I'm willing to bet that the people making a mountain out of this molehill are also the biggest hypocrites in the bunch, the "holier than thou" whose sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness is thinly disguised beneath a veil of piety and service.
     Does a depraved peanut taste any different or provide less nutritional value than one that's been sanctified? Can someone please explain convincingly how fresh organic peanut butter can be deemed unfit for consumption by some, while it's fine for everyone else, or why a machine that was perfectly good two weeks ago is now unclean and unusable? In other words, if consecrated peanut butter is really that different, why didn't anyone immediately suspect that's not what they were eating? Like Nick said, those peanuts were already blessed by Nature; isn't that enough? I find it difficult to appreciate how anyone's spiritual health was even remotely compromised in this situation.
     Is the abandonment of reasoning, judgment, and intuition an inherent aspect of developing faith? Is faith itself necessarily blind, devoid of wisdom and practicality, intolerant of inquiry or human error? More importantly, why don't we have more faith in ourselves? Herein lies the quandary: if God exists, and God made everything and everyone, and God is everything and everyone, then isn't everyone and everything also God? And, what's the purpose of a God who's external to ourselves? When someone figures that out, please let me know. I'll be in Aisle 9 along with the other infidels and miscreants, shamelessly sampling the subversive peanut butter, la dolce vita style. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

My First Interview as a Writer!

     What an honor! Thanks to the staff at BlogCatalog (BC) for selecting me to be interviewed. Not only was it great fun, it's an excellent way to gain exposure in the world of writing. I've been a member at BC since January 2012, and have found this blog directory, the caliber of its writers, and its discussion board really superb. I've made some very good friends at BC!
There Is a Doctor in the House

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Uncommonly Short Half-Life of Our Arrogance

     It's Saturday, and my fingers and arms are still sore from the vicelike grip I held on my ambu bag, furiously trying to push oxygen into my patient's lungs during Monday's laryngospasmic* moment-of-sheer terror, a complication that every anesthesiologist eventually comes to know and dread. There are no words which adequately describe the intense tangle of fear, desperation, and adrenaline involved in a resuscitative effort. What just happened? What IS happening here? Time orientation is the first of your capacities to crap out on you. Seconds and minutes feel like hours, no...eons. Everything in your immediate surroundings becomes surreal, and you feel strangely removed from the experience, as if it's all just a bad dream and you're not really there, watching Life circling the drain as Death--adorned in her signature cyanosis and pallor-- taunts you, shrieking with obscene delight at the folly. What are we missing? What should we try next? With a mind-numbing array of algorithms swirling wildly through your head, you realize you are praying to someone, anyone, Please don't let this patient die. You're vaguely aware of a nurse's voice. It's the same nurse you were joking with about a new-fangled CPR machine just an hour or so before this event, only now she's solemnly delivering ominous news about your patient's heart rate and blood pressure, both of which are bottoming out. Oh my God, this patient's gonna die if we can't oxygenate! "Would you like me to give some epinephrine?" she queries, as you're sliding a breathing tube into the patient's trachea. "Yes, that'd be great. Can someone push on this lady's chest to help the epi circulate?" In the meantime, helping hands are flying every which way, with everyone around that stretcher intently focused on thwarting life's premature exit, communicating only through objective observations and simple direct questions. It's a realm we don't often see in medicine, a place where egos temporarily evaporate, where we're all clearly on the same page, Please don't let our patient die. Circulation. Airway. Breathing. 
     Suddenly, the black clouds part, yielding a singularly auspicious ray of thank-goodness-I-think-she's-gonna-make-it. Dare I exhale now? Your monitor has abandoned its lento doloroso of constant physiologic alarming in favor of the reassuring allegro vivacissimo of restored ventilation and perfusion. O bless you, Almighty Oxygen! Lips and nailbeds that were blue are now pinking up. She's swallowing, and fighting the tube...YEAH!!!!! Once again, you've managed to triumph over death, but for physicians like you who remain unafflicted by the deceit of over-confidence, arrogance in the face of victory has an uncommonly short half-life. Did I just get lucky? After talking with the patient's family, you sort out and document the details of the code blue using a fine-toothed comb, thanking everyone again for their help before making the solitary, silent drive home. You beat yourself up pretty thoroughly in the land of Hindsight Is 20/20, thinking of all the things you could've-should've done differently, pondering this roller coaster ride that is your chosen profession, contemplating whether it's time to finally throw in the towel. What on earth possessed me to become an anesthesiologist?
     Emotionally and physically exhausted, you make yourself a grilled cheese sandwich, still coming down from the catecholamine-fueled sequence of hair-trigger decisions and interventions which enabled you to save your patient's life. Why can't I gloat about this? Am I being too hard on myself? You know it's going to be a while before you feel "normal" again. Maybe a nap will make everything better. I just want to forget. Before you lie down, you recap the whole scenario online with your good friend, Todd, who also happens to be an anesthesiologist. You trade mutual tales of disillusionment; he understands precisely why you want to quit. "We all get burned at some point in time," he observes. "What makes you a great doc and the precise reason you should stay in medicine is because you DO care. The same thing that is killing you right now is what makes you an ideal physician. Yep, it's stressful, but you're damn good. When our patients 'do this' to us, they need us and we need them. You're a damn good doctor, and you need to keep at it for their sake. You totally made a huge difference today because you were there...you were experienced and you knew what to do. Don't give it over to the other people in our field who don't care." Finally, I feel validated.
     Todd is absolutely right. It's not that we care too much: we can never care enough. This is what separates us from those "other people" who view medicine primarily as a means of making money, instead of an altruistic endeavor. Booksmarts and a God-complex will only carry us so far in this profession, whereas benevolence, intuition, and impeccably honed skills offer real redemption. Donning a white coat symbolizes our ethical obligation to our patients, but all too often, it's worn as a shield of conceit. Paternalism still runs rampant in medicine. My own son, who was just discharged from the hospital after being treated for a cystic fibrosis pulmonary exacerbation, remarked disparagingly, "None of my doctors really seem to listen to me." For someone with a chronic illness, that's a sad state of affairs, one that embarrasses me as a physician.
     We've chosen a difficult vocation, made even more so by the fact that people like Todd and I care so deeply about our patients. Doing the right thing hurts sometimes, and yes, we all get burned. It's strange to think that five days ago, I saved my patient's life, a feat which I still don't view as being particularly extraordinary, certainly nothing worthy of anyone's admiration or exultation. It's simply what I do, and believe me, I had a lot of help. I no longer sport a white coat, having traded it in for scrubs many years ago. Today, I'm clothed in a not-so-invisible armor of compassion and humility, outfitted with the accoutrements of patient advocacy, the true trappings of my craft. I sometimes just need to be reminded that I'm good at what I do.
(Dedicated to my friend and colleague, Jeffrey Todd Wheeler, M.D.)
Todd & me in 2005, at my surprise house-warming party. We survived Emory anesthesia residency together.


*laryngospasm: a life-threatening involuntary spasm of the vocal cords, usually triggered by mucus or saliva, which temporarily restricts airflow into the lungs.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

This Side Of Tomorrow

     Every now and then, I seem to have not just one of those days, but one of those weeks, the kind that leaves me bewildered, emotionally and physically exhausted, flirting with an old familiar despair that I normally ignore because it's too close for comfort. The whole week was kind of a shitstorm, really. It began at work Monday with an ethical dilemma, culminating in perhaps the most severe violation of personal dignity and autonomy I've ever witnessed: an elderly Alzheimer's patient being bullied into accepting a feeding tube by her own daughter. Because of issues surrounding informed consent, as well as the old woman's clearly stated objection to having the tube placed, I chose not to become involved in her case. The helplessness in that poor woman's eyes haunted me, though. She'd wondered aloud, "Why would I want a feeding tube? I'm in my late 80s!" to which her daughter replied, "Mom, you'll die without a feeding tube!" In a moment of extreme clarity, the old woman quietly said, "Well, people die when they're my age." Although I'm quite certain that neither she nor her daughter were aware of the data which demonstrate that feeding tubes don't improve outcomes, increase longevity, prevent aspiration, or enhance quality of life in patients with advanced dementia, this frail old woman had a gestalt about the situation. Yes, people die when they get to be her age, and many of those who are living without their faculties wish for an even earlier death. Why is our culture so opposed to death with dignity? I realize this sounds morbid, but the truth of the matter is, we start dying the moment we're born. The only guarantee we have in life is that one day, we're going to die. From that perspective, wasting away gradually and naturally when you're 89 because you're tired of living isn't necessarily a bad way to go.
     Twenty-two years ago, my three month old twin sons were handed a death sentence: cystic fibrosis. Although the pediatric pulmonologist who called to deliver the results of the boys' genetic testing hadn't intended for it to come across that way, their father and I knew exactly what it meant. Out of all the possibilities, it was the diagnosis we dreaded the most. Cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disease which progressively affects lung and digestive function, leads to a lifetime of crippling pulmonary infections and malnutrition, and until two decades ago, claimed the majority of its victims during adolescence or young adulthood. Today, the predicted median age of survival for CF patients is still only the late 30s. The year Nick and Rory were born, the gene mutation which causes the symptoms of CF was identified, and we were led to believe that a cure was just on the horizon. No one bothered to mention that this so-called horizon was actually a personal hell, especially designed for parents who'd unknowingly and unintentionally passed on bad genes to the children they created out of love. My sons will never see the cure--their lungs and pancreases have already sustained irreversible damage. The best we can hope for is more targeted therapy that will work at the cellular or molecular level, the pharmaceutics of which is currently undergoing agonizingly slow clinical trials. It's a process that can sometimes take years, and when you've got sick kids, each year is numbered. We've been fairly fortunate in that neither Nick nor Rory has had to spend much time inside the hospital. With the exception of just a few bumps in the road, such as Rory's three courses of home IV antibiotics over the past year, they've enjoyed reasonably good health. Now that they're adults, I don't have much involvement in their daily maintenance. They go to the CF clinic by themselves, deal with their doctors and therapists, manage their myriad medications, and perform their own breathing treatments. As someone who's spent a significant portion of parenthood silently grieving the very real possibility of outliving my children, I've eventually had to resign myself to that tired old maxim: "No news is good news." It's the only way I know to survive.
     As I drove home from work Monday, ruminating about the demented old lady and her pushy, condescending daughter, Rory called to let me know his CF clinic visit hadn't gone too well. "Mom, my lung functions are down again. I just haven't been able to kick this infection. Dr. Walker wants me to go back on IV antibiotics and have a bronchoscopy. I really don't want to have to go to the hospital, and I'm sure you'll agree that we can do the antibiotics at home." My heart sunk. "No, baby, this time, you're going to have to go into the hospital. This is the fourth time in a year that you've had to go on antibiotics. You're on a slippery slope right now...we've gotta get this infection figured out for good." Rory sounded defensive, "I've been trying so hard, Mom, doing everything right, all my treatments and everything!" My throat tightened, the bittersweet lump of lament quickening in my chest as I blinked to keep the hot tears from spilling out, but I could no longer contain the deluge. "I know, sweetie, I'm not blaming you, I'm just so frustrated and sad. I had a terrible day at work. And, I don't know what to do to help you...I feel so helpless and I hate that this is happening to you again." An uncomfortably long silence followed, interrupted by my choking sobs, the despair threatening to resurface once again: Is he going to make it to 40? Will his dreams come true? How could I live without him? "Mom, don't worry, I'm a fighter." Rory will be admitted to Emory University Hospital next week, and I'll be there with him Thursday morning for his bronchoscopy, an endoscopic procedure that's done under sedation to look inside the lungs.
     Last night, while Spartacus and I were eating dinner at our favorite outdoor pizza joint, a little tow-headed boy caught my eye. He couldn't have been more than five years old, and his tousled platinum blonde hair reminded me of how Nick and Rory looked when they were that age. With gleeful abandon and not a care in the world, he jumped up from the table where he and his parents were sitting, dancing barefoot in the middle of the walkway, gyrating wildly, almost purposefully, his sun-tanned limbs effortlessly twirling and spinning in perfect sync to an old Motown tune that was being played overhead. It was exactly what I needed to see, a welcome distraction. I thought about Rory, who's only known life with cystic fibrosis, and the poor elderly lady, who can no longer remember her life--he's fighting to live, she's fighting to die. They've both been dealt an unfair hand. It is what it is. For the old woman, her memory impairment is probably a blessing in disguise. To her, every moment brings a new day. Like the beautiful dancing boy, Rory lives on this side of tomorrow, the buoyancy of his spirit counteracting the physical imperfections he's done nothing to deserve, the ones that are slowly tiring him out. But for now, he's got good wind, and he's dancing like a fiend, like there is no tomorrow, and you know what? I'm dancing right along with him.
Nick, me, & Rory at one of their band's outdoor gigs, right before it got busted up by the police. And yes, that's a PBR in my hand.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Something Majestic

    Last night, I dreamed that I was being apprehended on foot by the police. I had no idea what I'd done wrong, or why they were after me, but I had a vague sense that I was about to be "found out." Even though I knew there wasn't much point in running, I wasn't going to let them catch me if I could help it. When I finally woke up, I was exhausted, nearly out of breath. Spartacus was awake already, still in bed, and as we lay there talking about the dream, he said, clearly interpreting its content at face value, "That means you've done something wrong and you're trying to get away with it." Ironically speaking, though, he's right.

     How in God's name did I end up with the life I have today? I should have been dead a long time ago. Thirty years back, I was a 19 year old shell of a girl I once knew--an annihilated spirit, worn out from years of seeking approval for who I was--hell bent on self-destruction, medicating my crappy self esteem with drugs and sex, wrecking my body, consorting with criminals, stealing from my parents, corrupting my younger brothers, wreaking havoc within our family, asphyxiating from shame and remorse in the quicksand of despair that I alone had created.

There are years of my life that I have no recollection of; perhaps it's better that way. The way it all went down is surreal: standing naked in the middle of my room, admitting all the terrible things I'd done to my father, crying together as he embraced me; escaping from the psych hospital after a week because I was afraid I might really be crazy; voluntarily signing myself into an ultra-confrontational family treatment center which lied to me, holding me against my will when I tried to leave; the nightmarish manipulation of my family and me during those 14 months, the constant and insidious brainwashing; the unbearable social isolation; the food and sleep deprivation; the exercise sessions, used as group punishment, conducted in a windowless space with the heat turned all the way up in mid-summer; the countless dreams of escaping from that building, of being able to take a shit without someone watching me, of no longer being humiliated or led around by the belt loop at the hands of an authority figure half my age, of simply being able to taste birthday cake again; the desperate repetition of David Bowie song lyrics in my head while sitting for hours at a time on hard blue plastic chairs, just so I wouldn't forget who I was; the eventual reformation which occurred the day I finally caved in; the assimilation into recovery from an addiction I never had in the first place, becoming part of a system I hated because I could see no other way out, the regret over which I've never fully forgiven myself for, wondering whose last shreds of dignity or integrity I might have destroyed because I had none left of my own.

     What exactly have I been running from all these years? I'm a fucking physician, for Chrissakes! I've legitimately worked my way to the top of the educational and professional ladders, but I still don't feel integrated. There's always been a part of me that I've felt necessary to conceal in order to get where I wanted to go. I'm finished hiding. I don't have anything to apologize for. I'm who I am today because of all the shit I've been through in my life, not in spite of it. Every single trial and tribulation I've endured has been transformative in some way, and though I haven't always recognized that in the midst of a crisis, somehow I've managed to flourish from this amplitude of misadventures. I'm really not a complicated person. It's taken me decades to recover my original personality, the one Straight, Inc. tried so hard to deconstruct and obliterate, but even when I was Robot Me, my true self clung tenaciously to whatever sparks of Old Me it could find, and held them for safekeeping. It's taken me a good 20-something years to get here, but I'm back, braving my own personal renaissance, the sparkling clarity from which is surging out in torrents. I am in tears. I am intact.

     As I've written this, I've also been engaged in the following parallel e-mail conversation with my friend, Elaine, who's known me since I was twelve:

Elaine: "Helena, the thing is back then, your perception of yourself was so different to what you were in my eyes. You were statuesque with blue eyes the color of polar ice. And so intelligent and creative! And my self perception was one of lacking confidence, but determination was building in me to overcome it. Inwardly we both felt similar, I think."
Me: "Isn't it strange how we see others and ourselves through such different lenses?"
Elaine: "Yes! I think we never see ourselves in 3D, we never know the beauty of the impact of ourselves on each other. You were stunningly beautiful and that just gotten more and more so over the years!"
Me: "Sometimes, Elaine, I felt you believed in me more than I believed in myself."
Elaine: "That is what friends are for!!!  To show us our majesty that we do not recognize."

     I've loved my life, even when I hated it. That's probably why I'm still alive today, the mother of gorgeously kind and talented 22 year old twin sons, the ex-wife of the father of my children, who I consider to be my friend, the wife of my beloved Spartacus, who opens his heart anew to me every day, the daughter-sister-friend-artist-cook-physician-writer who's always been known as Helena, because something in that girl refused to surrender, something infinitely sustaining, something so fragile it could never break, something majestic.
A picture my younger sister took of me when I was 19. I was wearing a sweater  and socks that I knitted myself.





Saturday, September 1, 2012

Promptings

     With the exception of a few friends, it’s safe to say that I detested nearly everything about junior high and high school. In the summer of 1974, my family relocated from Osawatomie, Kansas to Columbus, Georgia, uprooting me not only from a progressive, medically-oriented neighborhood where I had friends from all over the globe, but plunking me smack dab into the middle of The Land of Cotton, a sweltering netherworld of grits and overgrown kudzu where I was sure I’d never see snow or hash browns again, forever haunted by the specters of Uncle Remus, Scarlett O’Hara, and Piggly Wiggly. This isn’t surprising, considering Osawatomie was settled by abolitionists and free state guerillas in the 1850s, the most notable of whom was John Brown.
     My first day of seventh grade was semi-disastrous. In comparison to the much smaller school I would have attended in Osawatomie, Arnold Junior High School (AJHS) was chaotic and crowded, teeming with the smells of cigarettes, Love’s Baby Soft cologne, and over-ripened pubescence. Worst of all, I didn’t know a single soul there. For a shy, somewhat introverted, moderately chunky, reasonably bright and introspective eleven year old girl, these weren’t just dire circumstances: it was hell on earth. At lunch that first day, I made the mistake of purposely sitting at a table full of black kids, forever sealing my fate as a weirdo. Although my intentions were good, demonstrating my lack of racial prejudice in this way didn’t win me friends or even enemies, just strange open-jawed looks and rolled eyeballs. Hell, the kids at that table didn’t even want to talk to me! My preconceived notions about the South, though not entirely rooted in misperception, got the best of me that day, eventually leading me to what I know now: that racism comes in a variety of flavors--subtle, overt, brutal, insidious--and that it isn’t just a Southern “thang”, it’s pandemic.
     The first friends I made at AJHS were a couple of girls in my math class. Gwynnie and Paulette both smoked and were astonishingly well-developed for their age, and whenever phlegm-spewing old Colonel Andrews would step outside the classroom for his twice-hourly smoke break, Gwynnie took it as her cue to regale us with sordid stories of her stepfather’s not-necessarily-unwanted sexual advances. Theirs was a world so foreign and disturbing to me that I never invited either girl home. In time, I befriended two other girls, Anne and Bonnie: normal girls with normal parents, both of whom lived in my neighborhood. Finally, I had some real friends. I remember the latter part of seventh grade and most of eighth grade as being a time of sleepovers, of band practices and birthdays spent together, of passing myriad intricately folded notes written in secret code, but perhaps most of all, a time of firsts: first pubes, first periods, first loves, and first heartbreaks.      
     Transitioning to high school was difficult for me in a more profound and substantial way. In a cruel twist of fate, Anne and Bonnie blossomed into physically mature, attractive adolescents the summer between eighth and ninth grades, while I remained flat as a pancake without carnal knowledge of even a lousy tampon, seemingly passed over by the goddess of boobs and menstruation. As an awkward incoming freshman, I’ll never forget being mistaken for a boy by a popular stoner kid named William. It was utterly mortifying. Desperately, I clung to Anne and Bonnie, but they were exploring new friendships, navigating those turbulent waters of teenage angst and insecurity far more confidently and elegantly than I could ever dream of doing.
     I spent the first few weeks of ninth grade in a deep funk, even suggesting to my parents that I should see a psychiatrist. Things weren’t panning out for me the way they did in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” I felt like such a freak. Between the guys at school thinking I was one of them, my tragically retarded fashion sense, and my glaringly absent “cool” gene, I didn’t stand much of a chance at popularity. Oddly enough, what saved me from guaranteed obscurity was the fact that my family was Catholic. To explain this, I’ll have to backtrack a little.
     In the spring before I started eighth grade, my father recruited a psychiatrist from Topeka, Kansas, who also happened to be Catholic, to join his hospital staff. Within a few weeks, this doctor, his wife, and their brood of seven children moved into our neighborhood. That’s when I first met my lifelong friend and muse, Elaine. She was a year older than me, and she had striking features: natural platinum blonde hair, eyes as green and mysterious as the sea on a cloudy day, and unusually large, powerful gymnast’s calves, from which she could hurl herself into a standing back flip, landing squarely on her feet. I could barely turn a cartwheel, and was awed by her grace and agility. Because Elaine and I were both artists and romantics, we hit it off immediately, spending the rest of that summer hanging out at each other’s houses, drawing, sketching, and jumping on our neighbor’s trampoline. In the fall, Elaine would be starting high school, while I still had another year left in junior high, which unfortunately meant we’d be attending different schools. We actually tried to see if she could repeat eighth grade, just so we could go to the same school, but our parents wouldn’t go for it. For the next ten months, Elaine and I saw each other mainly on weekends, during sleepovers as well as at Mass and Sunday school. I was really freaked out after starting high school. The fact that Elaine and I were close friends wasn’t able to offset the sudden distance I felt from Anne and Bonnie, or the sense of loneliness and isolation I felt, most of which came from within, not from without.
     Despite living in the heart of the deep South, Elaine and I went to school with a surprising number of other Catholic kids. Not long after I started ninth grade, a Catholic family from Ohio moved into our neighborhood, just a few doors down from Bonnie’s house; this family had four girls. Peggy was my age, and her fraternal twin sisters, Susie and Sandy, were the same age as Elaine. I became very close to Peggy, but she and her family ended up moving to Texas the summer before our junior year. When Peggy and I were in tenth grade, she, her sisters, Elaine, and I went with our church youth group on a largely unsupervised weekend hiking retreat in the mountains of North Georgia. It was an absolute blast, a real taste of freedom, especially after our groups accidentally got separated, and ours didn’t include a single adult. The day we returned from that trip, I became violently ill, presumably as a result of drinking from a contaminated mountain stream after we ran out of water. Even so, we all learned that we could survive on our own for a few days without our parents, not through prayer, but through sheer determination and cooperative effort.
     Elaine and Peggy both became cheerleaders. Although they were extroverted and pretty, they were popular because they were genuinely wholesome and friendly, proudly and devoutly Catholic amidst the scores and scorn of fundamentalist Bible-beaters who didn’t consider us Christians, so steadfast in their friendships and faith that I came to view them as incorruptible, even holy. Our priest, Father Shinnick, might have disagreed. Knowing that Elaine and I were aspiring artists, he approached us one Sunday after Mass, asking if we’d be interested in restoring the statue of the Virgin Mary, which stood in a little grotto in front of our church. We happily agreed; what fun! On a crisp spring Saturday afternoon, Mary underwent quite the transformation, from virginal to va-va-voom, replete with painted eyelashes, arched eyebrows, and cherry-red lips. She looked refreshed and fabulous, but when Father Shinnick laid eyes upon her, he immediately averted his gaze. Clearly horrified by Mary’s newly acquired garishness, he  said calmly, “I don’t like the lipstick,” trying hard to conceal his regret over having commissioned us for this project. Elaine and I were disappointed by his prudishness, but we acquiesced unapologetically, returning Mary to her original state of chaste beauty. We knew Mary would have wanted crimson lips, had she been given the choice.
     It’s funny; so many of my memories from childhood and adolescence contain similar elements of this na├»ve brand of mysticism. I jokingly refer to myself now as a “recovering Catholic,” but deep down inside, I still cherish those days of Irish hippie priests and humorless nuns, of the mysteries of celibacy and trans-substantiation, of biting my lip to keep from snickering while waiting in line for Holy Communion with my friends, of innocence that had no idea it would soon be lost. Although I was never a religious kid, I was happily Catholic, mainly because of the friendships and the notoriety it afforded me. It was a way to stand out, here in Dixieland, to be recognized as someone unique who wasn’t afraid to go against the grain. It's no wonder my favorite quote comes from Hermann Hesse: "I wanted to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?" Despite everything that's happened to me in life, I've always followed those promptings, and I haven't yet become cynical or jaded. It's odd, but at the age of 49, I feel more innocent than ever. Hmmm. Maybe what they say is true, that maturity is one's innocence regained.*
A little painting I made of Elaine when I was 18.  


*Inspired by my friend, Marty Rubin's aphorism: "Maturity is the moment one regains one's innocence."
Marty's "Out of Context: My Anthology of Aphorisms"
Marty's blog "Aphorism of the Day"

Last Tango With the Virgin Mary: A related post