Wednesday, January 13, 2010

January Miracles

Well, the year isn't so far along, yet some big changes have happened in my little nook of the world, already. Granted, we're coming off of 2009, which will mostly be remembered as a year marred by economic gloom and doomoh, yeah, and Michael Jackson's death, something Larry King still hasn't gotten over. And I suppose, given Jackson's financial worth, even that event must have caused an economic ripple, of sorts, felt 'round the world.

But since my blog is titled "A Vermont P.O.V.," I'd like to keep my focus on the Green Mountain State, if you don't mind. Sure, there's not much Hollywood glitz, here, but we have plenty of white glitter atop of our hills, which not only looks good but also serves a more practical purposeskiing. So, getting back to the economy and 2009, on the micro-level,it proved to be a significant year for my family. My husband ended up needing to go on disability, due to an ongoing back problem. I guess that's putting it mildly, since it nearly killed him ten years ago, this same month.

He has a rare spinal-tumor condition, called an ependymoma, which is technically benignbut that doesn't mean it can't kill you, all the same. Luckily, for us, his tumor formed at the base of his spinal cord, rather than somewhere in his brain, where it would have meant almost certain death. Typically, this condition gets discovered in one's childhood; but in rare instances, like my husband's, it gets missed or overlooked. In his case, as a teenager, he was diagnosed with scoliosis; but the tumor, which had been growing since his birth, went undetecteduntil the day it ruptured, decades later, causing him to pass out and collapse, while at his desk, at work. Typically, as well, if you are one of those few individuals which make it to adulthood with this tumor still intact, the tumor ruptures, you die, they do an autopsy, and that is when your loved ones learn what you had. To my knowledge, my husband is the only known survivor of this type of tumor rupturing. He is a walking miracle, for sure.

Of course, the doctors were quite perplexed, at first, and tried frantically to save his life, working from the assumption that he had suffered an aneurysm. They were wrong, even though quite miraculously his life was still saved through their efforts. As it turned out, it took a team of neurosurgeons five days to determine that his condition was indeed a rare spinal tumor, one which by then had grown to the size of six vertebrae long. The rupturing of the tumor had caused spinal fluid to build up within a cavity, below his brain, which is what produced the brain swelling that caused him to pass out.

For the first two days, after the rupture, he lived hour to hour. On the fifth day after he had stabilized, an MRI of his spine and brain was ordered; and that is when we finally received the answer to his mysteriously-plaguing back painpain which was so intense, during the three years leading up to the rupture, that he couldn't even bend down to tie his shoes. Yet not once had a doctor ever ordered a simple MRI. They were convinced it was only a muscular problem, most likely due to his sitting at a computer all day. Boy, were they ever wrong!

However, a strangeequally mysterious and miraculousthing happened, during that first, five-week hospital stay, relating to that same, fateful MRI. After we had its results, I had wanted to thank the doctor who had ordered the test. Yes, we were facing a serious, life-threatening condition and were both terrified about what our future held; but I still felt some measure of gratitude and peace of mind in just knowing what we were finally up against. I don't know, but for some reason a foe seems more easily defeated if you can visualize it. So, anyway, I went around the hospital, from doctor to doctor, but oddly none of them had ordered the MRI. In fact, there wasn't even a paper trail found anywhere in his records or medical chart, which would have been necessary for such an expensive test as an MRI to have been ordered.

It wasand still isa mystery, who or what allowed him to have that MRI taken, which enabled us to find out about his tumor condition. Without that test, he never would have had the subsequent eight-hour surgeryat least not as part of a planned strategy of attack. The surgery, ultimately, is what has kept him alive, ever since the time of the rupturewell, that and three follow-up surgeries (because the tumor grows out of the base of his spinal cord, lending the tumor and spinal-cord tissue to fuse together). The surgeons have always had to leave a small piece connected, or else the risk for paralysis is too high.

So, the fact that he is just going on disability now is sort of a miracle toowell, at least an extremely good stroke of fortune. And I know that might sound odd, given the financial and physical limitations the disability places on our entire family. But I'm looking at it from the perspective that my husband, on all counts, should've died ten years ago and all this time I could've been left a widow, to raise our two kids on my own. So as bleak as our situation may seem on the surface, the reality is we're all really lucky to still have him alive and in our lives.

Which brings me to what I wanted to get at in the first placehow my life has changed, just two weeks into this new year. Naturally, with our situation drastically changed, I no longer could afford to keep my writing business going, not with our income cut so much and my health insurance squeezed out of the disability equation. (Yes, spouses are not covered by disability insurance, only the children are.) So, I started that horrible, demoralizing taskthe dreaded job search. And what a lovely time to do it, tooduring the worst economic times since the Great Depression! Well, I'll spare you those infinitely low moments when I thought I would never find a job, when I thought this was itmy fate: to never contribute to society in a meaningful way, to never help support my family financially in the way we so desperately needed, to never be able to pay off my student loans, to not be able to help send my kids to college, to never be able to travel the get the idea.

But, lo and behold, as Fate would have it, the worldor at least my little corner of itdid seem to need me, after all. Just this week I landed myself not just a job, but hopefully a new, exciting career. I am the new Training & Events Coordinator for Vermont Family Network, which serves families of children with special needs. It's a great organization; they do amazing work, so needless to say, I'm hoping to live up to the expectations and be a contributing asset as soon as possible.

So, see, miracles of all sorts can happen, anytime. I sure learned thatin fact, I keep relearning it and always when I need to learn it most. Maybe that's how God operates. Maybe when He senses we've just about given up, He decides it's time to give our faith a little boost. Who knows the reason? All I know is that I'm extremely grateful for what I've receivedthis January and ten Januaries agoso I have no intention of wasting any of my miracles.

And what about you? Can you say the same?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Vermont's Future via The Art of Action

Today, I had the pleasure of participating in a wonderful and rare arts opportunity, when I attended an exhibition’s pre-launch reception, sponsored by the Vermont Arts Council (VAC). You could say it was the kick-off event to the Council’s latest statewide project, The Art of Action, which has been in the works for the past two years—if you count the “germ of an idea” stage. That’s when Vermont philanthropist, Lyman Orton, and his partner, Janice Izzi, began discussing the possibility of such a project with the VAC’s Executive Director, Alex Aldrich. Well, thanks to Lyman’s generosity and a multitude of folks, working either at the VAC or on its behalf (among which I am honored to be, serving as editor for the exhibition catalog), one of the most exciting and inspirational arts episodes, in Vermont’s history, is firmly underway.

To give some perspective of the magnitude of this project, I can tell you that there were more than 300 artists, from 26 states and three foreign countries, who competed in the multifaceted-selection process, which also involved input from the Council on the Future of Vermont (CFV), the Vermont Downtown Program, and the project’s Review Committee. Of that effort, ten fortunate, but well-deserving, finalists received the largest artist commissions in VAC history, averaging $25,000 a piece. Once this new group of artists—the now-dubbed “Green Mountain Ten”—was solidified, the artists were given nothing short of an education, as they were “enlightened” by the wealth of data, previously gathered by the CFV through polling, research, and interviews (i.e., nearly 4000 Vermonters’ concerns and opinions about the challenges facing Vermont/Vermonters) in order to get a clear sense of what Vermont’s priorities need to be for a sustainable future.

Well, despite today’s almost unbearable heat, the reception—held at a beautifully-restored Vermont treasure, the West Monitor Barn of Richmond—was a huge success. Not only did VAC folks and their project associates get the opportunity to meet en masse, but all in attendance got to mingle with the “Green Mountain Ten”—who have been working solo for the past year, creating the exhibit’s 100+ pieces of art—and watch as many of the exhibition’s pieces were installed in a makeshift exhibit display, before the traveling exhibition heads off to its debut venue—a Chevy-car dealership, in Manchester Center, set for September 4th.

Now, upon first hearing that, some people might cringe—or at least seriously question the choice of that locale, especially if they’re familiar with Manchester’s acclaimed Arts Center and numerous, quaint-yet-chic galleries. But that’s what’s so unique—and extraordinary—about this project. It’s The Art of Action, after all; and one of its primary goals is to make Vermont’s everyday-scenes (as depicted in the artworks) accessible to the public—that is, make it accessible to all Vermonters—at ordinary, non-traditional venues, with the intent of not having the art be tucked away in some exclusive art gallery, where only upscale tourists and cultural elitists might venture.

Naturally, with this blog’s focus being topics that relate to Vermont and its uniqueness, especially how issues, events, and the like are viewed from its “privileged” nook of the world, it seemed fitting to share news about this project with the blogging community. From what I could gather today, at the reception, by speaking with the artists and the Arts Council folks, no other state is undertaking such an ambitious project—certainly not one that encompasses so much artistic talent along with such critical ideals and vision for the state’s future. As Lyman once put it, he was tired of seeing art that only revealed Vermont’s past; he wanted to see art that dealt with Vermont’s future and—in doing so, impact it for the better.

Fortunately for us, particularly Vermonters, the “Green Mountain Ten” rose to Lyman’s challenge and tackled the project’s primary mission. At today’s reception, the resounding consensus was that this singular collection of artwork far exceeded anyone’s expectations, but probably most especially those of the three individuals—Lyman, Janice, and Alex—who first tossed around the idea for an arts project, centered on giving art and artists a key role in the dialogue to determine Vermont’s future.

And so, even though the project is technically past its time-line’s midpoint, the fact that the artwork was unofficially “unveiled” today makes it feel as if, somehow, The Art of Action is at a new threshold—a second beginning, if you will. For the next ten months, the project’s accumulated art pieces will be divided up into two, traveling exhibits—“The Artists’ Choice Tour” and “The Curator’s Choice Tour”—while they work their way across the state, through 24 venues and 19 communities, as well as the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda, in Washington, DC, next spring (thanks to our arts-friendly Sen. Patrick Leahy).

If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, I invite you to check out this link at the Vermont Arts Council's website for more information—and stay tuned, as I’m sure I’ll be writing future posts about The Art of Action, before all is said and done.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

What Two Vermont Writers Share

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by fellow-Vermont author, Julia Alvarez. She is the acclaimed author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, among many other successful books, written in multiple languages, multiple genres, and for multiple age groups. Now, Julia and I share at least one thing in common, besides our passion for writing, and thats that we are not “native Vermonters”—which, as many misnomers go, has nothing to do with Vermont’s true native people, the Algonquin Indians. No, when you hear the terms: “native Vermonter” or “true Vermonter,” that typically is meant to distinguish the select group of folks living in Vermont, who minimally have at least one grandparent born in the state, from those who have since made this beautiful state their home, Vermont’s flatlanders.

So, while I’ve lived in Vermont for over 17 years and feel it’s always been my true home, some of my closest friends can claim they are seventh-generation Vermonters. From my perspective—having moved 20 times and lived in six different states—that’s pretty impressive. Hell, even my American roots don’t go back as far; my earliest immigrant ancestors arrived at New York City, in 1852, from Newcastle West, County Limerick, Ireland, only two years after the Great Potato Famine’s five-year reign decimated most of Ireland’s population and much of Europe’s.
So, while at best I can claim myself to be a fifth-generation American, at least my two, flatlander children were both born and raised in Vermont.

Now, for Julia Alvarez—her story’s a little different. She was born in New York City, just like my husband; but when she was only a month old, her parents moved back to their native Dominican Republic, despite the fact that there was a dictatorship in place. A decade or so later, when it became too dangerous for her family to remain, they immigrated back to the US, this time for good. Obviously, transitioning from a Spanish-Latino culture to the English-speaking American culture presented the young Julia with plenty of challenges; but perhaps as a testament to her strength of character, not only did she overcome those obstacles, she went on to become a best-selling, bi-lingual author and tenured, Middlebury-College professor. Not bad for a little girl who was ridiculed and ostracized in her hometown of New York.

When I went to hear Julia speak, I was struck by how many things we shared in common and how we, both, had discovered some of the same universal truths about writing, along our seemingly very different life paths. One of her most striking ideas was that being a writer makes it necessary to be an avid reader as well—and by being a reader, one is automatically drawn into a “storytelling circle,” meaning the reader enters the all-inclusive community of storytellers—storytellers who don’t even have to be alive. It’s as if they invite you in and tell you their stories—stories that writers, like Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen, once conceived in the creative juices of their now-nonexistent minds, sometimes centuries ago, yet still live on. You continue to read and partake in this amazing community until finally you reach a point when the writer, inside you, beckons to tell your story—the one that only you can tell.

When asked if she thought it wise to discuss her story/novel-in-progress with others, Julia advised against this for the very simple reason that a story should be told from “the inside-out”—to talk about the plot too much before it hits the page risks having it “crystallize” before its time and force the writer to tell it from “the outside-in.” There’s a lot of truth to that notion since the writing process, itself, is at its imaginative peak when it’s kept fresh and open to new discoveries along the way. Sure, it helps if a writer has a general sense of where the story ought to go, but the writer should also be open to listening to his/her characters and letting them wield some control over their own fate.

Most writers are fascinated to learn how other writers navigate the writing process. Stories—especially novel-sized ones—often take on a life of their own, so-to-speak. Characters of our own creation often rebel against the path we’ve laid out for them and demand to take the plot in new and unsuspecting directions. This is what makes storytelling so compelling for so many writers. Personally, I’m a writer who likes to write a novel from a well-developed chapter outline; short stories, not so much, but the complexity of a novel does usually require some degree of foresight as to how all the story elements will be woven together—crafted, as they say. Yet, even if you are a writer who, when it comes to deciding your characters’ fate, feels most at home in the role of omniscience, it’s often wise to remember that even God provided us with a window of unpredictability, a.k.a. free will.

Friday, April 17, 2009

All Forms of Heroism

Last Sunday, Easter, was quite special for our little, ol’ state of Vermont. It’s not often it makes the national news, let alone, international; but as it happened, one of our own—Captain Richard Phillips—was safely rescued by the US Navy, after a harrowing, five-day pirate-hostage ordeal, hundreds of miles off the coast of Africa.

I can assure you that topics, such as Africa, Indian Ocean, and pirates, are exotic and rarely discussed, in these parts—and hardly, if ever, associated with land-locked Vermont—until now, I suppose. The small village of Underhill, which is home to Captain Phillips and his family, is barely a speck on a map without so much as a single, traffic light; yet it now rightfully claims having a genuine American hero.

I don’t have to recount for you how Phillips risked his own life, in order to save those of his 19 crew members. Everyone knows the story of how four pirates terrorized the humanitarian-aid-bearing cargo ship, forcing its captain aboard a tiny lifeboat, at gunpoint. The world—at least from our corner—seemed to hold its breath, awaiting the situation’s outcome. I, along with countless others, added my prayers to the multitude God received on the captain’s behalf. However, while I profess to be a woman of faith, I also consider myself to be a realist. As much as I had hoped the captain’s life would be spared, our troubled world’s hot spots all-too-often reveal life’s evil and vulgar underbelly, as well as the negative consequences of those influences. The situation was grim by even the most-optimistic standards.

The fact that Phillips’s ordeal happened to fall during Holy Week—the most sacred days of the year, for faithful Christians—arguably could be seen as more than mere coincidence; after all, does it not mark the time when Jesus offered himself up, in order that others might be saved? Yet we all know the fate of Jesus.

Okay, so they killed Jesus, but His story doesn’t end there—far from it. He returned in all His glory, just as Captain Phillips did this past Friday afternoon, to his home of Underhill. Like I said, it may have been only coincidence, but I think, either way, God must be pretty impressed by the captain’s exemplary behavior. (I know everyone around, here, sure is; so much so, Vermont is just about busting with pride, right about, now.)

Of course, the truly amazing thing about how the captain behaved is that he acted exactly how we’re all meant to act—all of the time.

Globally-speaking, imagine if everyone did just that; how wonderful would this world be? Seriously, if everyone could be as selfless as Captain Phillips—as selfless as Jesus and Mother Theresa and Gandhi—there wouldn’t be any pirates or terrorists or criminals or dictators or greedy bank CEOs or corrupt politicians or drug lords...not to mention all those types of people’s victims. Sure, there’ll be cynics who say that we won’t succeed at fixing the planet’s problems—that the sheer magnitude of them is just too great to overcome—and perhaps that’s true; but I say, why not at least try?

Why not try to fix the ills of this troubled world, one “Captain Phillips” at a time? After all, was not our newly-anointed hero just an ordinary American, only a few short weeks ago—working hard at making a living to support his family? Millions of us do just that as well, day in, day out. Yet, somehow, through unseen means, this unassuming Vermonter found it within himself to reveal his hidden, extraordinary noble and courageous nature at the precise moment when his crew needed him to do so, most. You could say that’s what distinguishes heroes from the masses, in the first place. They are deemed rare—arguably even pre-destined—individuals, willing to “walk the walk” at life’s most-critical junctures.

And I guess that’s my point. Not to diminish Captain Phillips’s feat, but how do the rest of us, ordinary Americans, know that we, too, don’t possess his exact, same character traits? Why shouldn’t we assume there’s a hero/heroine dwelling inside each of us, just waiting for the right opportunity to break forth? Maybe our “walk” won’t involve staving off Somali pirates on the high seas. Chances are we won’t experience the fanfare and media frenzy like the Phillips’ family, but that doesn’t mean our deeds can’t be noble or that they won’t require of us heroic efforts. “Walking the walk” for the rest of us might mean engaging in the not-so-exotic, like delivering meals to housebound seniors or volunteering at a local soup-kitchen on a regular basis. Maybe you take time each week to coach your child’s rec-league team or volunteer in a school or as a scout-troop leader. Some of us will no doubt be America’s unsung heroes, working as nurses, street-cleaners, teachers, bus drivers, and daycare providers, despite the modest paychecks.

So, do me—and yourself—a favor; the next time you go food-shopping, thank the single-mother cashier and the high-school student, who bags your groceries. Take the time to notice all the unsung heroes you come across, in the midst of your daily routine. They’re the ones who keep this country going strong. Maybe you won’t feel as proud as we, Vermonters, do right now, but I bet you’ll feel pretty proud to be an American.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Resurrecting Memories

With Easter on the horizon, I find my thoughts turning to my deceased mom, more and more. Part of that, no doubt, is because holidays are inherently linked with family, even those who are no longer, physically, with us. The other reason, just as compelling, is that death and resurrection are inexorably linked to Easter. Naturally, the specificity of Jesus’s death and resurrection give rise to general thoughts of death and the question of life-after-death.

When I was young, between the ages of four and seven, I lived in West Lafayette, Indiana, where both my parents attended Purdue University—my dad, completing his Ph.D. in Biochemistry; my mom, finishing her undergrad and then a Master’s in American Studies. Despite Purdue being in the heart of America’s conservative “Heartland,” counterculture thrived at that time, during the late 1960s. My parents were not immune to the influences of that movement; so, to a certain extent, I was immersed in it as well, even though I may not have really had awareness as such. It wasn’t till much later, when I better understood the reality of the Vietnam War, that I made the connection of my parents leaving us with babysitters, to go off and protest at anti-War demonstrations.

All my Indiana years were “war years.” While the Vietnam War had raged thousands of miles away, I spent many an afternoon playing army on a common lawn, with my brothers and the kids, from the same graduate-apartment quad as ours. Little did we realize, then, that actual, flesh-and-blood people were being maimed and killed, amid smoldering ash from torched, jungle villages. Back home, in our oasis of white-bread Indiana, my brothers and I coped as best we could with the “injustice” of being the only kids not allowed to own toy guns. Our unsympathetic parents seemed oblivious to the embarrassment we felt at having to rely solely on our thumbs and index fingers. Yet, somehow, in spite of our deficiency, imagined or otherwise, we held our own in the heat of battle; the neighborhood kids died just as readily from our “hand” guns as from any of the store-bought models. Under an afternoon’s warming sun, we took our turns, falling dead—spread-eagle on the ground for thirty seconds—before miraculously resurrecting ourselves and rejoining the game.

Too bad real war can’t work like that. Too bad adults can’t tap into early-childhood innocence and take a peek through that window of ignorance, through which we once were privy to observe life—during that time in our lives before we even knew of death, let alone of its universality and permanence. We certainly didn’t expend time marveling at—or even questioning the feasibility of—our immortality; forget about our fully grasping the miracle of resurrected life and how the claim of its one-time occurrence impacts all of humankind, forevermore, whether you believe in it or not.

My mom lived roughly half her sixty-one years as a practicing Roman Catholic and half as an agnostic with atheistic leanings. Despite her personal spiritual journey, she celebrated Easter every year, without fail—many of them with me, both when I was a child and an adult with my own, two children. Given the fact my parents left the Catholic Church when I was five, it’s fair to say my mom spent more Easters with me as a non-believer than as a believer. (I had rejoined the Catholic Church, making both my First Holy Communion and Confirmation, during my freshman year of college.)

Nonetheless, Easter was always a special time for us. My earliest Easter memory is from when I was four or five, because I can remember going to Easter Mass with the family—my two, older brothers, included—at the church on Purdue’s campus.

I donned my fancy Easter dress with a yellow coat and matching hat, all of which were bought just for that special occasion. I also wore a pair of white bobby socks, each with a small, embroidered flower on its lacy ruffles. Completing my outfit was a pair of black, patent-leather shoes and a matching purse. Seemingly, for this one occasion, even I—a proclaimed “tom-boy”—didn’t mind how feminine I must’ve looked. For once, I savored not looking exactly like my brothers, in my often-worn hand-me-down clothes of theirs; instead, at least on that particular morning, I relished looking more like a mini-version of my mom.

Still, despite the clarity of these recollections, my memories, in general, are fleeting. I can remember walking from our car to the church, my hand, secure within my mom’s. That Easter exuded freshness, everywhere—its air, laden with springtime’s renewal-of-life sounds and scents, as the mid-morning sun rays pierced around the edges of Purdue’s tall, brick buildings. An image of the church’s interior is pretty vague; although, it’s a safe bet to say it was huge and contemporary. I remember sitting way in the back, on the left-hand side, seated next to my middle brother. (We were inseparable, back then. Even with his being two years older than me, we were roughly the same size and often mistaken for twins.)

I remember straining to see past the wall of bodies, just to get a glimpse of the front alter; and, so, I have no real memory of the priest, readings, or homily. There was a folk-music group, consisting of hippie-like characters, playing songs, like “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and “Kum-Bi-Yah.” I remember the singers standing, on the right side of the alter area, I believe, next to a wall of stained-glass windows; at least, the image I have in my mind is of them with sunlight streaming through the window panes, casting a golden glow behind them.

Yes, memory is fickle. I can’t explain why some memories resurrect themselves, while others shy away from the light. I’m just glad that, on occasion, they feel inclined to work their way to the fore—especially when they’re of my mom.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In the Eye of the Beholder

I read my friend’s latest blog entry, which made it very clear just how much she hates having cancer—as if any of us would’ve doubted that. Obviously, that was a given; but I think it was still therapeutic for her to actually come right out in the open and spew a litany of specifics—everything from the color of her chemo drug entering her veins to the baldness on top of her head. I can remember reading one of her earlier blog postings—the one which focused on losing her hair—and finding such profoundness in her realization that she had been more upset after losing her hair than after learning she had lymphoma. And while that may surprise some at first, when I thought about it, I could understand what she was getting at. Naturally, her reaction made her question her own degree of vanity; but can we really fault her for being more upset about baldness than cancer? Or do they not really represent one and the same?

Anyone who knows my friend could tell you what I’m going to tell you, now: her hair looked great. It was gorgeous—long, dark, thick, and flowing, with waves just where you’d want them. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve taken enough psychology courses to know that her self-image is firmly meshed with such a physically-identifying feature as her hair. And so, yes, I’m sure part of her emotional response was due the fact she feared not looking as good as she could to others, at least not on the outside. But, more so, I suspect her reaction—whether conscious or not—is because the baldness is a constant reminder that things are not right, for her, on the inside. Every time she looks in a mirror she’s forced to confront an image of herself that she, subconsciously, does not identify with, at all. By her nature, she is not weak, ill, or helpless. Thus, the incongruity is palpable, as it leaves her feeling unsettled in her most-forgiving moments—and, justifiably, angry, in her most-trying ones.

And that’s OKAY! What’s important for her to remember, throughout this ordeal, is that while she may look different on the outside, she still looks her same, old beautiful self to us.