Losing Our Senses

I think most of us, at one time or another, have felt the sensation of losing our senses.  And although that phrase tends to evoke images of madness (something about which I have some tangled and complex feelings), recently I was reminded that I have, at distinct moments in my past, literally lost my senses, one at a time.

I don’t just mean being unable to smell because of a case of sniffles, or temporarily unable to taste after scalding my tongue on a too-eager spoonful of hot soup (both considerably unpleasant experiences).

When I was little I used to practice navigating my house with my eyes closed, stumbling up and down stairs and through the halls, testing my abilities with a determination that seemed to signal a certainty that I would imminently lose my eyesight.  I can’t recall if this activity started before or after I was first informed that I needed corrective lenses.  Oddly enough, I continued to do this even as I got old enough to realize how silly it must seem.  I guess I imagined there was no harm in it, and that way if I was ever attacked by a flock of birds that pecked out my eyes, I might still be able to find my way to the refrigerator.  Of course, I never imagined that I would be so thankful for the practice.

In my teens I was struck with a frightening combination of concurrent respiratory illnesses.  The severity of my symptoms delivered me to the hospital – not overnight, but just for a lung X-ray.  The procedure was routine enough that I was prepped in my heavy lead gown and directed about the radiology room by a student technician.  Poor fellow.

Everything was going fine until I realized, as I stood after the second scan waiting for the technician to reenter the room, that I could no longer see.  My vision wasn’t simply blurred as it might be without my glasses; it was absent.  I could see nothing at all — everything was darkness.  I was completely bewildered at first, and I remember putting up my hands to feel my face just to make sure my eyelids weren’t closed.  When I touched my open eyes, I’ll admit, I was scared.  I stood there silently just touching my face in disbelief and turning my head every direction to seek out some form of light, but nothing changed.  I finally heard the door open, the technician’s footsteps, and his slightly shy detached recitation of the next round of tests.

Afraid he might walk away if I didn’t say something, I interrupted with a rather high-pitched squeak of “I can’t see.”  I can only imagine his look at this point (as I didn’t see it), but I remember him stumbling over his words for a second before asking, “What?”  I can’t see; I can’t see anything.  My hands fluttered over my face again, and I felt myself losing my balance.  His voice had a confused tremor to it when he asked me to sit down, and I blurted out “Where?” under a panicked laugh.  He didn’t seem to understand until I stumbled while babbling that I couldn’t see any place to sit, trying to make him believe me.  I wondered what my eyes looked like, but they must have appeared normal since it took him so long to register the extent of what I was saying.  Finally he guided me to a chair and just said, “I… I’ll be right back.”

I don’t know where he went, what he told the doctor, or how long I was there alone, wondering what the hell was happening.  It felt like hours.

I do remember thinking, I’m glad I prepared for this.

As inexplicably as my vision was lost, it eventually returned, sometime shortly after he returned with a doctor.  I was too young to feel I could ask them for answers, and they never offered an explanation or any words of particular comfort.  Maybe they thought I had been lying and were relieved when the problem silently resolved itself.

I recall that when we were children we used to frequently ask each other what sense we would give up if we had to choose one.  Do young people still play that game?  Did you?  If so, what sense(s) did you tend to choose, and would your answer change if you were asked again?

For a long time I considered entering a convent.  Not out of religious conviction, but because of a need for silence.  I didn’t feel like the world around me was too noisy, but I felt sometimes like I myself would never stop talking, and that only an outside order could teach me the thrill of golden silence.

Then one morning I woke up, and I could no longer speak.

I have lost my voice in the past, several times.  My sister used to say I was the “voice-losingest” person she’d ever met.  But usually it was accompanied by other symptoms, came on gradually, and would allow me to have that raspy fun Hollywood minx voice for a while, maybe whisper softly, or at worst gurgle a little.  This was utterly different.  (Or unutterably different.)

I felt perfectly fine before, during and after, except for the fact that I could not produce any sound through my throat, not even a polite cough.  I decided I must need rest, and I didn’t push it.  Instead I resigned myself to hand signs, exaggerated facial expressions and scribbled notes.  I thanked my stars for my sign language class and quickly improved at shorthand, because my voice didn’t come back.

A week went by.  Finally, I signaled to my mom that I needed to see a doctor.  She made the call.  Checking in at the reception was interesting… I had forgotten to bring a notepad, and the ladies behind the desk looked at me like an alien while I floundered to communicate to them who I was, what I was doing there and why I couldn’t talk (which, of course, I couldn’t have explained anyway).

The doctor looked down my throat, did some tests, and ultimately told me that there was nothing wrong with me.  (Really.  He actually said nothing was wrong.)  But, friendly guy that he was, he prescribed me some heavy medication anyway.  (Suffice to say I never wanted to go back to this doctor again.  And I’m not even going into the time I went to him for immunizations before travel and he got the place I was going to wrong twice.  Who knows what he actually injected me with, if he thought I was off to a different continent?  But that’s neither here nor there.)

Another full week passed before the one morning finally arrived when I woke up, gingerly swallowed, and finally produced words.  As before, there was no gradual easing back, no identifiable cause for the loss or the return, and no comforting wisdom that I could prevent it from happening again.

I hadn’t thought about these experiences for a long time until very recently, and I suddenly wondered if I were being tested somehow, and whether I should be prepared to experience the loss of some other sense or ability soon.  I also realized for the first time that while dealing with some back issues last year that culminated in a sudden collapse in front of the sink — as though my body momentarily forgot how to support its own weight — I recognized the same kind of feeling.  One of shock, detached wonder, then awareness, thinking “Oh, so this is what it’s like for those who can’t do what I take for granted.”

These experiences of mine had no clear cause, no obvious reason for their resolution, and had the unusual trait of being witnessed by medical professionals.  I don’t ignore the possibility that there are, somewhere, simple explanations for all of them, but when I lay them all out like this it sounds like a fable.  The girl who lost her sight, her speech, her ability to walk.  But each was granted back to her by the power that took it away, like a light switch flicked off, then on.

To what end?  What is the moral?  Is the story over, or what lesson do I still have to learn?  And in its learning, what do I have yet to lose?

Last spring my dad lost his hearing.  In an instant.  He woke up, thought perhaps it was some sort of head cold, but the buzzing, the pressure, the muffling silence never waned.  After ENTs, steroids, acupuncture, chiropractic, essential oils, and favors called in to the brightest experts of the western medical community, there is still no change.

I never thought to draw a connection, but maybe now I can summon up the courage to tell him that I know, at least a little bit, how he feels.

Courage enough, maybe, to tell him my wish that I could find that power to turn his switch back on.

Someone once told me that pirates used to wear eye patches even if their eyes were both fine, but they would switch the patch to the opposite eye each morning and evening.  So doing, one eye was kept always in darkness, so that after sundown or below decks when it was uncovered, accustomed to the lack of light, it provided the pirate with naturally perfected night vision.  Maybe my temporary losses were teaching me to sensitize – or be sensitive to – my senses.  And maybe someday my dad will wake up above decks and have the sharpest ears, like an owl.

Thanks for listening.



Celebrating a Summer of Fire

What a beautiful weekend!  Yesterday there were so many summer events on the docket that it was hard to know what to do with oneself.  I felt a little useless in the morning, still full after our sushi overdose date Friday night.  After the boy went to work at the studio, my friend Bex and I went out for a stroll about town and visited the closest block party.  The crowd was a bit overwhelming, but the bands were good, and we indulged in some brightly colored snow cones that dyed our tongues and made us feel childlike and giddy.  We walked home arm-in-arm as the afternoon sun was growing in intensity.

After Bex headed for home, the boy and I biked down to the full moon puppet show across the bridge, led by a spectacularly wide rainbow that generously appeared despite the lack of any rain.  This month’s festivities were being held outside in the middle of the street, with a stage in front of one of the houses, chairs, blankets and strings of lights draped over the facing lawns, a truck with screen printers parked down the line next to the blacksmith’s anvil, the band on the corner, and the sheep roasting over giant flames signaling the entrance with flare.  There was a bit of theatrics as some industrious young gents worked to lasso a rope over the nearest utility pole so they could string up a giant fabric and metal framework moon over the street lamp.  Their efforts were only partially successful, but unimpressive anyway next to the true full moon that rose just beside its makeshift impersonator.

The children were frolicking about with water balloons, bubbles, ice pops and face paint, all gleefully rolling on the ground in harmony despite the fact that many of them did not speak any shared languages.  It was quite adorable.  We stood around and chatted with friends while Rambo spun northern soul records, waiting for the sheep to be done and the show to begin.  Once the meat was juicy and crispy, everyone queued up for tacos and the entertainment got fully underway.  As the darkness fell further, the hoots and howls from the audience grew rowdier, fireworks were catapulted into the sky, and we all delighted in the bewildered expressions of passing motorists as they slowed and stared at the tattooed, pierced and barefooted congregation, the hunks of glistening meat, and scores of mounted skulls flickering under the carefully orchestrated fireballs shooting from the gas line rigging above the spit.

Eventually the show concluded (on a very optimistic and poignant note!) and we went on our way enjoying the dusk clouds and a bike ride in the moonlight.  We stopped for bubble tea, then spent a few sweat-soaked hours dancing in Dinkytown before grabbing some local pizza with preposterous toppings and finally dozing off around 4 am.

After all the excitement of Saturday, today was a relatively quiet, contemplative sort of day, with contented enjoyment of corn, portabellas, tomatoes and eggplant to celebrate the first fruits of our garden, grilled apricots with ginger syrup and angelfood cake, more bubble tea, and a lot of Griffin & Sabine.  (If you haven’t already read this series by Nick Bantock, I highly recommend it.  It has everything: art, Jung, alchemy, parallel universes, world travel, cryptozoology, timeless expressions of desire, and the thrill of reading other people’s mail.)

Now it’s time to curl up with a book and the boy until the next bout of dreaming carries us to tomorrow, when the boy starts his new job, and I (hopefully) return to mine with a bit more pluck, calm, optimism and courage.

I hope everyone is doing well, and I encourage you all to look for some rowdy independent entertainment in your hometown this week.  Ideally some that includes a lot of fire.

All the best,

Lakefront Visit, and some Campy Tips

Hi all!  I’ve recently returned from my annual pilgrimage north, and I have to say the transition back into city life is going fairly well, considering what a spectacular week I had to leave behind.  There were a number of beautiful and memorable moments: a gigantic setting crescent moon sliding down the most vivid crimson sunset sky just minutes behind the sun, glorious weather and captivating clouds, remarkably not-frigid lake water ideal for sauna-ing, the spirits of the bluff shooing us away with absurdly brief and localized thunder and rain (two warning claps and a 15-second sprinkle), mesmerizing sky-wide northern lights swelling and flickering for hours on the night of our sixth anniversary, and – miracle of miracles – our Polish-Swedish and Danish-German skin *not* getting sunburned despite eight straight days under the sun!  That last feat was accomplished only with much credit to some Cataplex-F capsules, gallons of water and diligent/obscene re-lathering of sunscreen.  We even got to have a shivaree* for my cousin and his new bride on her first visit to our little wooded Mecca.

*shivaree or charivari (Fr.): a medieval French custom involving lots of raucous noise-making and satiric songs traditionally used as social pressure to mock and scorn sinners and fornicators, which somehow migrated to the American prairie and my family now uses it to serenade those on honeymoon.  We still begin by parading around and banging lots of pots and pans, however.

On Wednesday my partner and I got up before dawn and trekked out to our secret spot near the border, arriving before 7 am when the mist was still laying heavy over the water and the mossy groves.  (Yes, the very same sacred spot where, six years ago, we first got that twinkle in our eyes and discovered the more flirtatious aspects of blueberry picking.)

Though we have been blessed with unfathomable bounty these last many visits, the northwoods finally made us work for our harvest this year.  Four labor-intensive hours to get anywhere near our usual quantities, with scant and scrawny (though perfectly delicious!) berries to choose from.  I also could have done without the slug patch I wandered into right off the bat.  I should have left some kind of marker for myself in the cattails so as not to repeat the experience… it was not a pretty sight!  At first they were tiny and harmless, but they got progressively larger as I ventured back, transfiguring into grotesquely swollen wood-grain-patterned cashews slurping all over the choicest bushes in oozing piles.  Yum.

Anywho!  What was I trying to get at?  Oh yes, lovely sunny breezy romantic wooded fruitful outing with a loved one.  The birds were flitting and calling, the squirrels scolding adorably, the insects keeping a respectful distance, and the plant life as diverse and impressive as ever.  It amazes me how much certain northern fungi and mosses look like deep sea creatures building soft coral empires under the birches and pines, luring you in your pre-dawn stupor to sink down onto them and relax a moment before you remember the dampness just waiting to seep through umpteen layers of pants…  (It is always worth it, however.)

After several hours of back breaking, I finally stumbled through a bramble onto a perfectly lovely and gluttonously ripe cluster of blueberry bushes.  I inhaled deeply and tumbled down, relishing the thought that I might at last stay in one location for a few minutes without having to desperately hunt for more than a handful.  Only a few branches gleaned, I heard a short call.  It had been a while since our last “Marco!”-“Polo!” exchange that we volley back and forth periodically to keep tabs on each other through the thicket, and I was just about to respond when a chilling chorus broke out behind me.  It was a louder performance than any the wilderness had put on for me yet, and I quickly gathered that this was because the source of the fanfare was only a few short yards away.  And that short call I had heard had *not* been human.

The rally was breathtaking.  I couldn’t find a perfect example, since recordings can’t do justice to the sheer harrowing volume in that early morning forest silence, but to give you an idea, check out this video, around the 2:37 mark.

I love wolves, and I love being around them, but with that love comes a respect for their territory and a healthy dose of awareness of my rank in their food chain.  Granted, I was probably in no kind of danger, since I have encountered them here many times before; this pack has plenty to eat and no interest in snuggling up with humans.  (Many more people are killed each year by pet dogs than by wolves.)  Their playfully carefree howling was perhaps the best indicator that they had no concerns about our presence, since they undoubtedly already detected our scent.  Even so, I couldn’t help but recall that the last time I had heard a cry of this complexity at this time of day had directly preceded a very noisy pack kill, and I was overcome with the need to have a visual confirmation of my partner’s whereabouts.

I (prudently) snatched up my pail of berries and darted off away from the sound towards the last “Marco!” I could remember hearing.  Bumbling through the branches with all the stealth and grace of a careening fruit cart, I found him within a few gasping breaths, calmly standing with his head cocked, listening silently and appreciatively to the cascade of howls still echoing behind me.  I felt foolish, and I never was able to find my way back to that prime berry patch.  Maybe to ease my embarrassment, the boy suggested that we stay a bit closer to the path.

Despite my undignified behavior, it was a truly magnificent thrill, and I look forward to sharing air, earth, woods, lake, sun and berries with the pack again next year.

Brandenburg Wolves

And now for your Witch Outdoors tip of the day:  To repel insects the easy-but-powerful, natural, and better-smelling way:

Pour about a teaspoon of carrier oil of your choice into the palm of your non-dominant hand.  (I recommend Fractionated Coconut Oil because it’s light and absorbs quickly, but you can choose whatever you like: jojoba, sweet almond, sesame, olive oil…)  Add to the carrier two-to-four drops of citronella essential oil and one-to-three drops of geranium essential oil.  Blend with a fingertip, then simply dab on any exposed skin and rub in like a lotion (but try to avoid getting it in your eyes, please).  Any excess can also be patted on clothing or swiped over your hair.  And no need to wash your hands — these oils are naturally antiseptic and bactericidal!  If desired, you can make the blend in larger quantities in advance to store or bring with you on group outings.

An additional tip:  A study conducted at Iowa State University revealed that the principle active ingredient in catnip essential oil is actually more effective than DEET at repelling mosquitoes.  Note, however, that the pure oil is so potent it should be used only in very low dilution (one drop to at least one teaspoon of carrier) if applied directly to the skin, or better yet simply spray/diffuse the oil if you’re going to be in one area for an extended time.  Be forewarned, however, that this can be a risky oil to use extensively if you’re in an area with any kind of wildcat population!  (They don’t call it catnip for nothing!)  Your best bet is to blend with other oils to take down the feline-summoning odor a notch.

That’s all for today, then.  Perhaps I’ll post some pictures once I wrestle them out of my camera?  Hope everyone is enjoying their summer and staying cool and safe.