Sunday, December 6, 2009

Small Matters of Life and Death: An American Euphemism

The American Euphemism is an unnoticed art form except of course if, like me, you hail from a part of the world where blunt speech, unfettered sarcasm, and the art of the clever put down is as much practiced as the American Euphemism(AE). The AE has become more than a form of speech, it has entered American culture and cloaks all manner of bad news, human foibles, bodily functions and mannerisms, not to mention life as it really is.

The AE is what enables military commanders to consider the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan to be collateral damage. It's what helps many Americans, particularly the congressional hawks, to overlook the 4327 deaths of soldiers in the wars in these countries. It is what allows health care panels to overlook the estimated 47,000 women who would die from breast cancer if they did not get a mammogram before the age of 50. It is what is killing the possibility of health care reform. The AE can be a deadly partner, it provides us all with a means for bypassing whatever we have determined to be ugly, unwanted, and terrifying.

The American Euphemism, however, gets unloosed from its deferential moorings with a rapid jerking motion when opportunity knocks - not necessarily opportunity for the greater good, but opportunity for self aggrandizement. When Terri Schiavo's husband wanted to end her life with some quiet dignity, all manner of euphemisms were ripped from hospital protocols, ethical conduct, political process, and especially from good manners. We were subjected to hellfire and brimstone rhetoric that seared the airwaves and the interiors of churches alike. There is no holding back when a political agenda is being waved alongside a flag. The AE is a resilient but high maintenance creature.

I find myself asking questions that challenge the AE simply because I can see through its veil of obscurity a little more easily given my no bullshit upbringing in New Zealand. Sitting in a new-to-me doctor’s office one Saturday morning recently I found myself asking questions that often appear in some form that contains the word man and a downturn of my mood.

“Would a man put up with this? Would a man even be asked to put up with this? How long would a man wait?”

I am sitting in the first of what would be many waiting rooms. The chairs are the same as the chairs I see in doctors’ offices and banks. They have been constructed so the back lines up exactly with the wall and the seat comes out at a right angle. They take up the minimum amount of room and appear as if they would be comfortable. But, the body does not recline well at ninety degree angles and it takes less than five minutes before the extreme discomfort of the chairs cracks through the fa├žade of comfort. There is only one other woman waiting in the small pleasantly nondescript room. I give my information to the receptionist and am given the inevitable forms-on-a-clipboard to complete as a first time patient.

By the time I have completed the forms a young couple have entered the waiting room. He is carrying several large manila envelopes, one about the size of an x-ray. He is tall and blonde, dressed like a professional on his way to work on this Saturday morning. She is of Asian heritage, unexpectedly tall, attractive, a pleasing open face. They sit quietly not talking. He looks at the nondescript wall. Perhaps he is trying to find a name for the orangey, mustard, tan, yellowish wall color. Another woman goes to the receptionist. I pick up a magazine. A woman bustles into the office. She looks like a woman on a mission. She is clearly bald under her pink headscarf. She goes through a door to the left of the receptionist.

I remind myself that this is an obstetric oncology office.

The young couple are called through. They disappear wordlessly through a door, manila envelopes clutched under the tall blonde man’s arm. The other women in the office are called through. I focus on “Everyday with Rachel Ray.” It is the only magazine there of any interest to me any more. My days of being interested in “Parenting” or “Family Fun” are gone. I pass over “The Working Mother,” which I first remember encountering as no more than a two page pamphlet. What mother isn’t working I wonder. There was once a time when I wanted to write for “The Working Mother,” I thought I had plenty to tell them about being a single mother in America, but I was too busy.

A cheery looking woman appears from one of the doors. She explains to me that they are not having people bump me from my turn for some reason or other that sounds convoluted and unnecessary. The door closes. A prim looking older woman enters the office. She too is given the forms-on-a-clipboard. She sits stiffly, well forward of the ninety degree angle, carefully completing the form, face pinched in concentration. My name is called. An elderly woman who rests her weight on the sturdy walking cane escorts me slowly to the scales and weighs and measures me. She escorts me to another waiting room and informs me that someone will be there soon to get me.

The young couple sit on one side of the room. He is staring at yet another wall. It’s a different color of nondescript. There is a bookshelf with an assortment of brightly colored glass globes in one corner. Beside it, firmly fastened to the wall is a double row of brochure holders. The brochures are all soothing shades of blue and white with titles that no-one wants to open. She smiles across the short space of the room at me. I smile back. The stack of manila envelopes is on the table between us, on top of the few magazines. All “Parenting” and “Family Fun.” I make a quick exit back to the original waiting room to retrieve my “Everyday with Rachel Ray.”

The young couple is collected by a cheery woman who leads them into the labyrinth of hallways, examining rooms, and waiting rooms. He picks up the envelopes. I wonder if perhaps they are his x-rays and results. Do men go to see an obstetric oncologist? I remember many years before when my husband took our nearly three-year old son to the obstetrician in Northern Cyprus where we lived. My son had slipped in the bath and cracked his chin open. The obstetrician was the only doctor available to stitch up his chin. In the process he sprayed the wound with a topical analgesic to which my son was apparently allergic. By the time I arrived home several days later my son’s face was one enormous brown scab from beneath his chin to just under his eyes. More tender than a woman’s perineum.

Cheery woman is back. She escorts me to an office where I am informed that someone or other will be right with me. Cheery woman number two, who is nearly indistinguishable from cheery woman number one, appears. She doesn’t have what she needs so leaves me to inspect the very small office. The desk is huge. It takes up most of the space. The uncomfortable padded chairs with arms have been replaced by equally uncomfortable padded chairs without arms. There are three of them lined up against the wall mere inches from the edge of the huge desk. To the left of the desk there is a large door. It is a pleasant light smoky color and I wonder what kind of veneer it is, maple or sycamore. I guess that it is the mandated handicapped accessible door to a bathroom. I note that there is no way a wheelchair will make it to the door without removing the desk, the three uncomfortable chairs and probably part of the wall.

Cheery woman number one informs me that she needs to ask me questions about my medical history and that these are questions they ask all incoming patients. I am not to be alarmed. These are questions difficult to couch in AE. They have to ask if anyone in the family has ever had breast cancer, colon cancer, ovarian cancer – all big killers. She takes a phone call part way through our question and answer session. She informs me that an examining room is free so we are going to get through the remainder of the questions as quickly as possible. When discussing the history of life and death matters on a leash shortened by time requirements, there is no room for AE. This is where reality is unadorned by veneers and padding.

I am led to an examining room with the inevitable table with clean paper and stirrups. Cheery woman takes my blood pressure. It is unremarkable but I tell her it is high for me.

“Probably the visit. We tend to have that effect on people.” Somehow I am not reassured. I am given my instructions.

“Everything off. Gown on with the opening in front. The doctor will be in in a minute.”

I do as instructed and sit in the chair rather than the paper covered table. There are no magazines. There are no brochures. There is no piped music. There is no clock but I know that way more than a minute has passed. I am left with my fears and morbid anticipation and the table with stirrups. The minute stretches, pulls, and warps around my left ovary and its unwanted visitor.

Finally the door opens. Cheery woman enters and slides to the side. A small middle- aged man in pale blue surgical scrubs enters. He snaps a salute at me and announces his name. He looks and sounds for all the world like Harry Morgan as Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H. I smile and instantly like him.

He is pleasant, brusquely efficient, and wastes no time with pleasantries. This is not a man who deals in AE in the examining room. He is clearly a man who has palpated thousands of women’s breasts, poked his fingers into their orifices, and searched for the fearful things lurking inside their bodies. His manner tells me one of two things; he has come to respect that women are far stronger than cultural propaganda and AE will admit or he doesn’t care about women’s strength and is there to find what is killing them. Either way, I find myself becoming willing to accept him as my doctor.

The examination is brief. I am instructed to change back into my clothing and go to the waiting room at the end of the hallway. As usual after an internal examination, I want to take a shower. I wonder again at the American lack of acceptance of such non-euphemistic appliances as bidets. A bidet for every table with stirrups. I adjust my clothing around my discomfort and open the door. Which hall, which way? I am directed down the hall to my right. The waiting room is not so much a room as a cul-de-sac at the confluence of two hallways. Several women are seated in the area. I recognize one woman from the first waiting room. Another is reading a book. A third has the only magazine in the space. There are no brochures. The lamp lighting reflects off the gray textured wall with barely distinguishable multi-colored flecks.

We wait. We wait with our thoughts and the Georgia O’Keefe print on the wall. Down the hall the door opens and the attractive Asian woman and her nervous husband appear with Colonel Potter. He talks to her. She talks back, earnestly and carefully. The husband says nothing. He still carries the envelopes. They leave and Colonel Potter approaches us.

“Who’s next?” He is cheerful, comfortable in his own skin and blue scrubs.

A man joins us in the waiting room. He is clearly on his own. Apparently a man would be asked to wait. Apparently men do visit obstetric oncologists.

“ We just seem to go from one waiting room to the next.” He is not complaining, just making an observation. The conversation with the woman reading a book is brief. The door opens again; the “next” woman was apparently in the wrong waiting room. Cheery woman is escorting her down the hall having a conversation over her shoulder with her. Colonel Potter waits for us to determine who is next. We know, he knows we know; he lets us choose. The woman with the magazine gets up. I put down my notes and pounce on the discarded magazine. Underneath it I notice what looks like a cell phone on the side table.

I bury my head in the Family Journal. The man and the woman with the book have begun a conversation about the new hospital being built behind the center. I don’t live in the area. I have nothing to contribute to the conversation. The tall blonde man with the manila envelopes hurries around the corner. He stretches out a long arm for the cell phone. I smile at him.

“I wondered if that was someone’s phone left behind.” Could I be any more inane? He looks at me directly. His eyes are the palest blue I have ever seen. He is handsome in an incredibly blonde, chiseled, Scandinavian way. His serious face looks relieved just for an instant. For this moment he is reaching for something he wants. For this moment he doesn’t have to think about what is inside the manila envelopes or his wife. He smiles back at me, scoops up the phone and leaves. The American Euphemism has its small moments of usefulness.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


It was the flimsiest of excuses but it did the job as well as any finely honed paring knife. It cut away the last gasp of hope, peeling the flesh and tissue of anticipation away from the bone, exposing it raw, white, clean, and grotesque in its isolation from the supportive tissue. It wedged itself, sharp and choking into the narrow part of my throat as I sat by the side of the road in the waning light of the cool October evening.

“It’s her kids. They don’t want her to do it.”

I felt the anger billowing past the obstruction in my throat.

“It’s going to cost her money to pull out of the deal.”

But he was gone. For the fourth or fifth time I was talking into the empty space of the universe through the small black plastic microphone in my hand. I flipped it shut in disgust. The tears gathered somewhere in the pit of my stomach witnessing this parody of errors.

I had known all along that he wasn’t really suitable, that somehow this whole thing would just fall apart, that the dream I had nurtured and whispered into being was just that; a dream in locomotion, flitting through the ether to land for a brief moment on a piece of paper, looking real - and then to waft away as if this cursory visit into the second dimension was just not something it cared for.

I could see it dancing on the ebbing waves of joyfulness out through the windshield into the light beam of the oncoming car without so much as a backward glance leaving me without words, without hope, without joy, feeling manifestly unloved.

I contemplated the usefulness of violence. My pacifist heart was wrenched open and I felt the solace of small savageries seep into my anger, saturating it into heavy expectancy. Like honey dripping from a fresh comb ripped from a hive, small, heavy drops of venom slipped down through the cracks in my non-violent philosophy. They slid around the pouches and folds of decades of peace protests and humanist causes coating them with the sweet talk of force. They gathered and pooled in the blackest and farthest outreaches of my being feeding into life the small dark, hairy, scratchy things that hibernate there.

These tiny things, red-eyed and brittle, long clawed and curved back, fanged and fickle, envious, fearful, ignorant, and contemptuous wait for these moments - the moments when pain becomes violence, and violence becomes force, and force becomes greed, and greed consumes everything in sight. In these moments wars begin, not with a shot, or an order that begins an invasion, or an explosion that tears apart thousands of lives. Wars begin when pain finds a friend in anger, a conspirator in ignorance, and nourishment in the fresh blood of others.

I want to believe that, like the Mahatma, there are causes for which I would die and none for which I would kill. But I know that’s a lie. I know that backed into a corner with my children’s lives on the line, I would kill. And I know there have been many moments when pain has found that companion in anger leaving me murderous and full of the blood lust of those small, hairy things lurking in dark places.

What recourse is there for these moments? What rescues me from this seductive, sickly, sweet venom? Tears, tears from the bowels of hurt and anger, screams from the gut, from the place where we were joined to our mothers, and ultimately the solace of others, the admission of defeat and the confession of an encounter with violence.

Would that wars were so easily avoided.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sculpting a Day.

Yesterday it rained.  It was one of those days that you know, before you’re even fully conscious, that it is the perfect day to stay in the warmth and coziness of the bed nest.  Unfortunately, there are those of us for whom nature will not abide cool rainy mornings at the end of summer.  I had to get up and pee.  I had to get up because I had an appointment for a massage.  How hard can it be to get up and go for a massage on a Saturday morning?


I can make hard work of just about anything.  The reason I have so many unfinished projects littering my life is that I make all of them into something so vast with so many layers of complexity that I just cannot work up the energy to complete any of them.  Granted, I love nothing more than to get into one of my creative projects, the kind that has its intestinal parts strewn from the front door through the front room, into the living room and onto the large kitchen table.  These are the projects that I love to live with for days and sometimes weeks on end. 


I can visit them every morning in various states of undress while on my way to the kitchen.  We see each other in all our unadorned incompleteness.  There are days I don’t make it to the kitchen for hours because of a conjugal visit with one of my projects.  This is not always a good thing – to commit to art before caffeine.


When I was sculpting my triptych of the three phases of a woman’s life, I spent many mornings working in my underwear in the living room.  Not having the luxury of a studio, I had the pieces arranged in the living room.  The piece I was working on at the time, The Maiden, was giving me all manner of psychological and spatial fits.  I wanted her emerging from the earth among the roots of the tree I used as a connecting force for the pieces.  At first she was strangled by the roots, she was in completely the wrong place, even though she had a face Matisse would have loved. 


I had to learn a serious lesson in art with this piece.  She had to be freed from the roots; she had to be moved.  My instructor, Ski, took one of my tools and made huge gashes through her beautiful face, her hands, the roots, through other sections of the piece. 

            “ You have to move her from here, to here.  You can whack or you can whittle.”

I chose to whack.  Mainly because I couldn’t bear to live with those gash marks.  I moved her and in the process freed her from the root prison where I had placed her.


It hurt me to remove her beautiful innocent face piece by piece, scraping the grey Roma clay from her bones, pulling her hands apart and laying them piece by piece in a new location.  Like a forensic scientist, I reassembled her, centered her, and freed her all at once.  It seemed like an incredibly long process.  After a few hours, her face was almost completed; her bones were covered with the new skin of youth and she was emerging once again from the clay like a face emerging from the surface of still water.  Ski told me the process changed me from a woman with a project into an artist.


Artistry has its price as well as its process.  You have to be willing to live with frustration and undergo regular visitations with pain.  It’s almost like living with cancer; the best you can hope for is survival.


The Maiden sat on the inclined artist table in the living room.  She beckoned to me each morning of that summer to come work on her, to finish the whacking job with the finesse of whittling.  The whack or whittle thing is really not a choice, regardless of which you choose, you still have to, or end up doing, both.  Many mornings, in the rising warmth of my old house I paused, picked up the tools and began to whittle.  I worked patiently on the hands.  I wanted them to evoke both softness and strength, a delicacy of self love and a fierceness of self protection.  I held up my own hands, inspected the photos I had taken of my daughter’s hands, I whittled into the heat of the summer mornings.


By the end of summer the hands embraced but barely whispered over the skin of the Maiden’s face, long slender neck, gently curving shoulder, and rising breast.  On my sleepy-eyed journey to the kitchen I would pause to inspect her.  I felt a mix of pleasure and uncertainty – there was something terribly wrong and I just couldn’t place it.  The face had matured under the plastic surgery of relocation; the hands became more real, free and loving rather than struggling out of the roots.  What was the problem? 


Some problems are hidden in plain sight; they await discovery with an abiding anticipation.  My hidden problems are often like those pictures hidden under a repeated graphic – no matter how long I stared, no matter how many different ways I scrunched up my eyes I could never manage to see the picture hidden in a plethora of small designs.  My children could not comprehend my particular form of blindness.


Some problems are just sensed rather than seen.  They defy a full on stare; they flicker through the periphery of our consciousness until one day we realize there is something flying through wearing fuchsia pink tights, orange brocade shawl, and burgundy pumps.  It demands our immediate attention.  That’s how it happened.  One morning on the way to the kitchen, I didn’t stop, but I saw it, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the full deformity of it all. 


And, it stopped me in my tracks.


There’s only so much you can do when faced with a self-created monstrosity.  After staring for a long time in complete disbelief, after checking to make sure I was finally seeing things as they really were, I began to laugh.  First it was an embarrassed behind the hand titter with a check to ensure that no one else was watching.  Who would be watching into the life in my living room?  Then it was a full on laugh, followed by exasperated sighs of frustration.  I picked up the tools and began to work.  How had I managed to do this?  How did I miss seeing it? 


Epiphanies are like that – surprising and simple.  I want to believe they are also timely but sometimes I wonder if the Gods simply want something to laugh at.  I had managed to sculpt two beautifully constructed right hands on my self-embracing Maiden. 

I have learned that it is easier to whack at mistakes rather than whittle away at them.  Even if they are resurrected in a new deformity, they provide the possibility for future learning.  And that, I guess, is what happens to some of my days, especially the cool rainy ones.  Yesterday my body did not want to participate in the day but I dragged it to the luxury of a massage and ultimately it was grateful.  The day that remained rainy saw me in a chair, not doing a whole lot, allowing the massage to permeate every cell membrane, playing with my laptop, watching for a break in the rain over New York so the tennis could actually happen. 


The rain didn’t stop.  I didn’t do anything creative the entire day.  I didn’t do anything that exerted brain or body the entire day.  I lazed and I dozed.  I read a book.  The only mistake was that somewhere along the line, I berated myself for doing nothing much of anything for the day.  I know better than to abuse myself that way. 


There’s a large gash in the clay of yesterday.  My perception of it has to be moved.  It needs to be freed from the prison of my busy little internal “doer” who every now and again will arise to pee on my parade, usually the parade where I am well fed and cared for and carried on a lush litter through the day.   


            Written while awaiting the final of the U.S. Tennis Open.



Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Zen of Whining

I feel like sitting here and filling my empty coffee cup with tears; tears of frustration and self-pity.  Some Saturday mornings are like that – full of frustration and self pity accompanied by the smell of  On What Grounds coffee, the clank, huff, and whistle of the espresso machine, the tramp of feet past my wrought iron perch, and a funky New Orlean’s style version of “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.”


I feel as if everything has already gone – nothing left to take except the wanting.  The small hoped for things that aren’t really things but hang in the air like silver spoon wind chimes constantly tinkling in the wind reminding me over and over of the song I want to sing.  Not that I’m a singer, it’s some kind of Zen reference to finding your own note, your own unique note in the Universe and sounding it.


Sometimes I just want to smack those Zen things but there’s nothing tangible there, nothing that will sound with a solid thwack.  They just hang around, sometimes in my peripheral vision and sometimes square center in the core of my being.  Some of the time they give me a little more endurance to keep on hanging in with the wanting and the living life on life’s terms. 


There’s a story that keeps regurgitating itself into my memory.  It’s the story about the artist student going to the Zen master who has her paint a blue check mark day after day, week after week, month after month until she finally complains more loudly and vehemently than usual.   So the Zen master takes her latest effort of a blue check mark painting away.  He comes back a little while later and beckons her to go with him.  Now, this is the point where violins should start shrieking in the background; it is not a Hallmark moment about to happen.  The student has to make a choice whether to follow and receive the inevitable Zen slap upside the head or just walk away.


Of course it wouldn’t be a story if, despite the wailing violins and the inevitability of pain, the student victim didn’t walk into whole point of the story willing to be impaled on the whole Zenness of it all.   She follows the master into a room full of paintings of blue check marks.

            “Which one is yours?” 

On Saturday mornings like this one, I see the Zen master as just being too smug for Zen at this point.  I know he is full of compassionate light and all that happy love stuff but after months of painting blue check marks, if I was the artist student, I know exactly where I would want to be putting my next blue check mark.


Unable to discern her own unique check mark, the artist student is humbled, if not humiliated, and returns, full of insight and empty of complaint, to the process of bringing herself, her full self, out onto the canvas via a blue check mark.  What if all the check marks were hers?  If we are all One, wouldn’t all the check marks be hers?


I’m sure there’s a Zen sequel to this facetious response but I haven’t yet come across it.


Some days you just have to be allowed to snivel into your empty coffee cup and act as if the Zen masters of the world are in fact recalcitrant sadists with severe detachment disorders.


So, back to my self-pity and it’s current resistance to Zen.  Just what do I have to be sorry about?  Let’s start with the fact that it’s Saturday and it’s raining.  All week the weather has been close to perfect, warm sunny days perched on cool morning air.  These are the days where I am shut into the dark prison of my job.  I am grateful that I have a job; I am not obsessively ungrateful, my whining has its limits. Each morning I enter the lower level of the school where I work at my desk, at my computer, in my windowless classroom.  It feels like a prison where the guards come by every now and again to run their nightsticks across the bars and yell and holler their frustration at me. 


When you’re the low person on the totem pole, the yelling and hollering all ends up like so many sharp pointy barbs hanging out of your flesh.  This is the place where there is a need for a Zen shield, some kind of protective device that bounces all the sharp pointy barbs off into the stratosphere.  Maybe it needs a blue check mark, a very definitive blue check mark painted on it for it to work.


Someone told me this week that my students were fortunate to have me in their lives, that I made a difference.  That day I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself.  I laughed and told them I would inform my students of their good fortune.  I didn’t of course.  Maybe that was the point where I allowed the sharp pointy things to enter my flesh, to feel the barbs tearing away at the places that are vulnerable. 


No matter how confidently I enter my prison, no matter how Zen like I am about embracing freedom as an inside job, no matter how many prayers of gratitude I send into the stratosphere, I usually crawl from my day broken and dispirited, exhausted and bleeding, with more left undone than completed.


It’s been this way for a while, a long while.  I want to be able to crawl home to a home that feels like my blue check mark home.  I have found it, close by and in a community where I would feel comfortable.  This week I put in yet another bid on yet another townhouse that I just love.  I have to sell my house, my old falling down house, to make the whole thing happen. 


The last people who looked at my house said they were “in awe of the beauty and care” on the inside of my house.  They haven’t made an offer.  They haven’t come back.  I called my realtor this rainy Saturday morning hoping he would lasso them into some kind of deal – any kind of deal.  This crazy “I want, I want, I think it’s happening, the door is open, oh no  - it closed again, I can’t have” journey has been going on for more than a year.


The "now you see it, now you don’t" peek-a-boo game of serendipity gone awry challenges all my levels of acceptance and humor.  It slashes through the flesh of the psyche with razor sharp precision.  It exposes all my vulnerable places and I end up in sitting in On What Grounds on a rainy Saturday morning oozing into my empty coffee cup, not the ceramic coffee cup that Lori forgot to give me this morning, but a paper cup.  She said she was sorry; it didn’t make me feel any better.


I will have to endure this rainy Saturday, this frustration with my current life events, my falling down house, the ingratitude of my job.  But, because it’s Saturday, I can choose whether or not to be happy about it.



Monday, September 14, 2009

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

There are few things more satisfying than a sound night’s sleep.  Last night I slept deeply on a futon bed in Susan’s guest bedroom.  My arms and shoulders were aching from the serious weed whacking I had done the evening before.  My body was protesting every move that didn’t involve the prone position.  The futon bed wrapped itself around me, the light-weight duvet warmed me in the cool of an end of summer night and after a few pages of a new book, I fell into a deep, complete sleep.  Even the barking of the dogs in the early morning hours did not bother me.  I heard them, rolled over and went straight back to sleep.

Usually I don’t sleep well the first night I spend in a strange bed.  I learned to carry my pillow with me when spending the night somewhere different.  Like a security “blankie” my pillow helps me rest easily in strange surroundings. 

Not that there is anything strange about the places I choose to spend the night, not any more.  I have noticed that as my body ages it has developed a preference for stability, for dependability, for sameness.  When I ask it, as I have so many times in the past, to indulge my latest concept of adventure, it protests, dragging itself reluctantly behind the excitement of my mind, or perhaps it is my ego.  Without some smidgen of familiarity, like my own not-too-soft, not-too-thick, just-right pillow, my body just flat out refuses to go.

Yesterday I forgot my pillow.  By the time yesterday was done, I was so tired I would have happily slept on a rock. 

I did once - sleep on a rock out of choice.  It was a long time ago in the space of my life but I can see that evening from here more clearly than I can see yesterday.  We were in Pakistan.  We stopped late into the evening.  The youth hostel we had planned to stay in was no longer in existence. Our guides kept the truck rolling until we found a reasonably secluded spot. We stopped on the roadside where the grass grew full and green down a rolling slope.  No-one bothered to pitch a tent.  We ate our usual meal of tomatoes, cucumbers and flat bread along with some re-constituted dried meal from the rations on the truck.

Karen and I surveyed the terrain, walking and circling it like a pair of dogs looking for a spot to sleep.  We decided the grassy slope was bumpy, uneven, and probably swarming with insects just waiting to dine on our unsuspecting flesh.  We chose the concrete slab that once held a picnic table.  It was flat for starters.  The rocks and pebbles embedded in the concrete were nowhere near as lumpy as the mounds of earth under the lush grass.  And, more importantly, it was far from the snores of our companions.

Choosing the hard place to sleep doesn’t necessarily make that much difference.  We lay on top of our sleeping bags.  I wrapped myself in the yellow cotton sarong I had purchased in an Indian bazaar.  I had learned that the soft cotton allowed a greater degree of comfort in the steamy nights we slept through in India and Pakistan.  I packed my towel and a sweater into my pillowcase forming a solid thin square. I fell asleep as quickly and as soundly as I slept last night on Susan’s futon bed.

Pakistan has probably never been a place for sleepy westerners on the side of the road.  We were awakened during the night.  Karen and I further from the truck than our companions could hear the shouts and see the beams of flashlights.  Bodies appeared to be moving in all directions.  The shouts were not friendly – from either side.  

Lying on the relative obscurity of the concrete slab, I immediately became pre-occupied with what was happening in my sarong.  Something had found its way between the layers of soft yellow cloth and was heaving up and down on my chest protesting the accommodations.  Perhaps because I was in that non-thinking place of sleepiness and panic, I leapt up and tore at the sarong, pulling it off my body until the frog, angry and probably panicked, fled from my body, leaving me nearly naked staring into the turmoil of the night. 

The light was shone inches from my blinking eyes by a thoroughly entertained Pakistani soldier.  He grinned beneath his red beret and thick moustache.  He and his companion  herded Karen and I at gunpoint towards the others.  Some of our companions were protesting noisily at their sleep being disturbed.  Even then I knew better than to argue with a man with a gun, no matter how antiquated that gun appeared.

The soldiers were conspicuously armed at every seam with knives, scimitars, hand-grenades, and guns.  Who knew what they had beneath the folds of their khaki uniforms, tucked in their socks or beneath their cummerbunds or their red berets? 

They were very clear.  We could not litter the side of their road with our sleeping bodies.  We had to go to a hostel.  The hostel, as it turned out, was incredibly close to their barracks where they were heading on foot.  And so, on a relatively cool night in Pakistan, we shared the back of our Bedford truck with a small troop of delighted soldiers.  They grinned most of the way.  We glowered back at them.  I remained quiet and simply followed along passively until my heart began to beat at something that resembled a normal rate. 

We all survived that trip through the Pakistan night.  Now, more than thirty years later I can barely survive a night on Susan’s futon bed without my own pillow or unless I am incredibly tired, so tired that I think I could sleep on a rock if I had too.