“What happened!?” Dave said as he ran towards the kitchen, though the better question—and the one implied by his facial expression—upon seeing flames exploding from the toaster oven, might have been, “How the hell did you let this happen?” We could still make out the shape of the eight hard tacos, each cupped within the other, burning in effigy. It was fairly obvious what had happened. Caroline ran up to her room in search of her two favorite stuffed animals, screaming “I CAN’T FIND BLUE BEAR! I CAN’T FIND BLUE BEAR!” on her way back down. I could see her in my periphery, dancing like a boxer in a ring. Dave unplugged the toaster; I passed him a bag of flour and he doused much of the fire in seconds. As soon as possible, armored with hand mitts, Dave carried the destroyed toaster to its temporary resting place in our back yard.
I had been dicing tomatoes for Taco Tuesday, my back turned to the toaster. I had been distracted because I was going in the following day for eye surgery.
And of course I was thinking about Oedipus, who blinded himself by gouging his eyes with his mother’s brooch. I was thinking, I suppose I understand why he did that, but how could he have done that? And then I was thinking, but wait, I’m choosing to go in tomorrow so that someone whom I’ve met only twice can shoot lasers at both of my eyes. And I’m actually going to spend money in order for this to happen.
As it turned out, the most worrisome part of the day was the three-hour wait for a sixty-second procedure. The most disturbing part of the day was that I had to watch a Ricki Lake violent crimes episode while I was waiting. I was thinking, rather than the faces of my children, what if these were the last faces I would ever see. These will be my final images before I go blind or possibly die, according to the paperwork I had just signed. At the very least, I was wishing for Out of Africa or something else cinematically breathtaking to appear onto the big screen in front of me.
Valium arrived like a holiday.
And then a nice doctor shot lasers at both of my eyes.
It felt as if I were in a rocket or a racecar, my head back and strapped. There was machinery noise. My vision grayed and blackened while my eyes remained open and then reappeared to a pulsing red light. All the while, the doctor’s confident, calm voice talked me through from somewhere beyond me.
The girls were with me for several of the follow-up appointments because Dave had to drive: I wore sunglasses even inside and could faintly make out Caroline’s smile as she carried on about her “Twizzler phase” and the streak of pink hair on Lexi’s mermaid Barbie doll, Merliah. Lexi warned Dave not to hug me or he’d get “the eye.” She was two-weeks deep into her dinosaur unit at the time, but for Show and Tell that Friday, she planned to bring Merliah.
I would have brought my eye doctor.
Not only had she helped me regain my vision, but she kept telling me to “rest” and “take it easy.” After my contact bandages were removed, I was to go home and nap for four to five hours. It was luxury. And then it just became silly. I couldn’t read or write. I listened to one movie on the television. But mainly, I tuned into podcasts on Pandora–I discovered “The Dinner Party” from American Public Media, developed a crush on the handsome, humorous voices of the two hosts, Rico Gagliano and Brendan Newnam. I anticipated the segments—the “cocktails” that guest bartenders create to match a moment in history, the “eavesdrop” spot when writers read from their latest works, the celebrity visits. These are Dinner Parties I aspire to attend, I thought as I continued to lounge in my Christmas tree flannel pjs, dreaming of the future—parties without mini tater tots. We would converse; we would listen, we would enlighten.
I couldn’t read or write, but wickedly, I could clean. I was mid-way through Day Three of imposed rest, having just scrubbed every bathroom and washed and folded every shred of laundry. Girls’ closets had been rearranged by color. Kitchen Tupperware was on-deck but I decided to again rest my eyes, so I tuned into a podcast from LA Public Radio.
An essayist, Daniel Mendelshon, was reading a piece he’d written from his collection, The Ecstasy of Influence. I thought I might pick up some modern day tips, but his focus was on the Greeks, and the misconception that once someone like Sophocles had written a play, it remained unchanged and untouched, set in stone like the playwright’s bust set in marble at the Musei Capitolini. In reality, read Mendelshon, even back then, storytellers tampered with other storytellers’ stories.
And one of his examples was the Oedipus tale.
I was obviously beyond stir-crazy, because when I heard Oedipus, it was like getting a phone call from an old friend. I said excitedly through the imaginary phone line, “I was JUST thinking about you, Oedipus!”
I listened more and heard this—Sophocles’ Oedipus violently blinds himself (this I knew), but only twenty years later, Euripides writes of an Oedipus who loses his sight through injury rather than self-infliction (this I probably should have known). Euripides tweaked the story and made Sophocles’ tragedy a little less tragic.
And for reasons as unclear as my eyesight, this anecdote made me feel better.
Please, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing tragic about affording the time and cost of eye surgery. My point is that self-imposed temporary blindness has temporarily provided me with a new perspective.
I am a worrier by nature, and especially in the dead of winter, though there are moments of clarity, for me there is mainly blur. So I am attaching myself to this word, “adapt,” this notion that our stories will shift and alter. I am attaching myself to a Life Less Tragic.
My eyesight is improving, doing so in the slowest of increments—but I can see—and what an unveiling it has been: the crisp red cheeks of my daughters just home from the first sled of the season, the flash of a cardinal, the punch of a green street-sign I was never before able to read outside of my bedroom window . . . which brings to mind the final lines of one of my favorite James Joyce stories, one, by the way, that features a most famous literary Dinner Party.
Allow me to adapt:
A few light taps upon the pane made me turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. I watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. Yes, the Weather Channel was right: snow was general all over Maryland. It was falling on every part of the treeless hills, falling softly, softly falling, faintly falling too, upon the hill where the abandoned toaster lay.
Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.
-Henry David Thoreau
Two of my favorite writers are Henry David Thoreau and Kate Chopin. I love Chopin’s style—deceivingly simple, jarring. Her stories stick with me days after I finish them. I don’t re-read a lot, but I revisit Chopin’s Story of an Hour like I keep coming back to ice cream. And Thoreau—if I can’t take a year and live in the woods, then at the very least, wherever I am, I’d love to live deliberately. That’s his message. Granted, his messages have been stamped on Hallmark- and post-cards, but if I’m going to try to teach my kids anything, I’m going to encourage them to simplify their lives; I’m going to suggest that they move towards their dreams.
I’ve been in a book club for several years. During discussions we sometimes get heavy into character flaws and conflicts . . . then we stop talking about in-laws and start discussing the book itself. I recently sent my book club friends an email asking for something lighter—for them to jot down a few of their dreams and wishes. It felt a little funny, like I was talking politics at a cocktail party, but they got right back to me, and I have to say (as I wrote about in my piece Mad Skills), I learned new things about old friends.
Some were funny—Liz has been gluten free for a month, so she described a literal dream from two nights earlier of eating a grilled cheese sandwich, butter dripping from crisp bread.
Some read like letters to faraway places—one friend wants to host the Today Show, another to own a shop selling all things happy and handmade; another dreams of doing mission work.
Some were as distinct as photographs—I was at Carrie’s ranch, mountains on one side, flat lands on the other, weather perfect, crops yielding top dollar. I saw the large cabin, her boots and Wranglers. (No foolin’, this girl can dream—I’d put money down this one is going to happen.)
Most were compartmentalized. Tina sent a to-do wish list: run a marathon, cruise the world, learn another language. But being remembered as a good mom is her dream-of-choice. Liz, despite her hankering for bubbling cheddar, wants a backyard her kids can get lost in. Jordan—right now—is making the time for her family. It’s in the future that she would like to make a difference in somebody else’s life. It’s in the future that she’d like to re-learn the drums, have the chance to sit down in a solitary place and just hammer it out.
One of my dreams is fairly generic. You know the one: I’m at the Telluride Music Festival (or it could be Tanglewood) listening to James Taylor on the main stage when he invites me up to sing back-up to “Millworker.” It has to be this song because even though he recorded it with only one vocal track, it sounds beautiful with harmony, and, in my dreams, I’m just the girl to do it.
But I’ve got more: own a beach house, grow old like Diane Keaton.
And more: publish oodles, write pieces that will make my girls and Dave Barry laugh.
I could go on, but, what I’m finding these days is that I don’t. I really don’t spend enough energy focusing on my dreams.
You may assume, then, that I am successfully and purposefully living in the moment, attentive to The Now, but I am not doing that either. Thoreau writes, to be awake is to be alive, and in that Transcendental sense, I find I am barely keeping my eyes open.
I was obviously awake yesterday morning as I stood at the bus stop, but I will tell you I was not living deliberately in any sort of Walden Pond-way. I was not taking note of the blue bird’s faint silvery warbling, or the geese sailing, or the brooks singing glee to the spring. I was clutching my coffee mug like a life ring.
And later when Lexi and I arrived at the grocery store, I did see that nice lady in the produce aisle as she stood smiling at us while Lexi was chirping away about the Princess of Gardania. I did hear that same nice lady when she chimed, “Enjoy it now because it doesn’t last!” I smiled back, nodded, and thought to myself, I will; I definitely will. But right now I just need to figure out the difference between arugula and kale.
I left the grocery store, slipped a bit on my flip-flop because of a single, gentle rain that had fallen, and I was suddenly reminded of being in Cape Cod the summer before Caroline was born. As I loaded the bags into my car, I recalled a particular morning in Chatham, remembered the dog walkers enjoying coffee, and then – BAM – I was alive. I looked right at Lexi, told her that I would someday take her and her sister to the Cape, and my heart jumped a bit.
It’s funny how a dream can wake you up.
We have a lot to balance, obviously. Our families and jobs demand our attention. Of course it’s about balance. (The word, “deliberate” derives from “Libra,” the scale.) Even Thoreau knew that constantly being in the moment is reaching for something unattainable. Yes, he writes to be awake is to be alive, but he also writes that he never met a man who was quite awake.
Lexi will be in kindergarten next year. I wonder, have I spent enough time taking all of her in, playing Dance Party in the basement, lights off, watching her smile through the strobe-like twirl of a flash light?
And Caroline, almost finished one year of kindergarten—do I really see her now, the gaping gorgeous hole in her grin, and how she earnestly studies flyers, hymnals, street signs, catalogues, no printed word safe from her I’m-reading-now blue eyes?
Thoreau says, live the life you always imagined.
I say, I will. I really will try. But honestly, Henry David, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined these girls of mine.
Thoreau says, go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
I say, arugula looks like spinach, and kale is a bit darker and curlier.
Then I say, I’d like to raise great kids, enjoy good health and happiness, and spend as much time as I can outside in beautiful places.
Hammer it out.
Let life be long.