Monday, May 03, 2010

Life: A Novel

Chapter One

Of all the flowers of all the seasons, I am obsessed with photographing tulips. We have a complicated relationship, the tulips and I. I love how they catch and hold the sun -- or the rain -- like votives or canthoros, the fonts of holy water that are just inside the door of Catholic Churches and hearken back to the need to be clean before God.

I believe tulips are clean before God.

They are also notorious Jezebels, however, showing off their sex to the world without any of the rose's folderol of petticoats and skirts or the profusion of pubic pollen that a peony hides behind. The tulip is proud and available.

Except at night, when she closes up against the cold. Perhaps she has harbored the sunlight and she clenches it for warmth. She is, in any case, smarter than those dumbbell daffodils and narcissi that glow hopelessly and virginally twenty-four hours a day.

And finally, there is her history, reaching back to the Middle Ages and the mountains of China where she was a weedy thing until she was brought to Constantinople, where she became the empress of flowers and sought after by the Czechs and the Dutch for any price. The tulip broke the guild system in Holland because there was no guild for flower-cultivators. Anyone with access to a little property could cultivate the tulip. And the stripes of the tulip that became so prized? They are cause by a virus.

The tulip doesn't smell like the bearded iris and lilacs I love so much, or have as long a season as roses. But it is a flower of a thousand shapes, colors, lights, viruses and miles.

Chapter Two

The WASPs are upon us. There should be a joke about how various faiths advertise activities at their churches and temples -- Lutherans using colored paper taped to light poles, Unitarians satisfied to advertise on their big information board, Catholics with that great smelling blue mimeo ink...

Grace Church has had a number of events lately and their congregants are involved in even more. They are the Pillars of Brooklyn Heights, some old money or old families, many families because of their pre-school. And so the signs around the `hood right now -- for organ concerts and the annual Brooklyn Height House Tour (a.k.a. You Are Poorer Than You Know) -- are laminated and tied to the iron fences with wide pastel satin ribbons. Worse yet, they are tied to the fences of the congregation. If God decided to smite everyone but the Episcopalians, He'd know right where the smiting should take place.

It makes me feel sorry for the Grace members who live in apartment buildings that don't have fences. Perhaps they tape the literature to their door.

Just in case.

Chapter Three
High Anxiety

This is what it's like to live with an anxiety disorder that borders on agoraphobia: the knot in my stomach begins around 9 a.m. I argue with it, reassuring it that Nothing Will Happen Out There, that No One Is Going to Find Out. The knot takes on more mass until, at 9:20, I am shaking and sweating and rooted to the chair at my computer. I turn to one of a half dozen games, hoping my anxiety will forget to fold over on itself in order to take on more anxiety buds. By 9:30 I realize I am not going to conquer it with Monopoly. A half Klonopin is needed. If only I could get out of my chair. Get. Up.

Five minutes of this and I go into the kitchen and shakily cut a pill. I brush my teeth. I dither at this and that, waiting for the twenty-minute softening of my muscles. I take a deep breath, arm myself with cigarettes and go out to do what I need to do. Then I come home and have diarrhea before worrying about my next task or errand, bargaining toilet paper for Kleenex and instant coffee for Maxwell House on late Sunday afternoon when the store is mobbed with working people laying in the week's supplies, whether my rent check will take another day to clear and relieve me of going to the bank, if I really have to take the trash to the basement.

It's exhausting. And by the time I manage to do the outside thing, I've spent all my energy on propelling myself out that chances are slim I'm going to do anything but go back to Monopoly.

Chapter Four
Dr. Sometimes-It's-Just-a-Cigar

I quite like my new therapist of the last six months or so. He's kind of a cherub and he's good at pointing out when I've been scammed by someone, which is one of the things I'm in there to learn. I sit on a couch overlooking downtown Brooklyn (which is not a great view) and tell him about, oh, my anxiety.

We've had some spots of absurdity, however, that I've never encountered with another shrink.

For instance, I sent out about 250 Christmas cards. They were identical, a picture of Christmas lights tangled in razor wire with a mournful verse from Shakespeare's Sonnets inside. I've seen the card in various homes because the recipients like it. I got compliments on it. Dr. Cigar, however, announced in our first session in the new year that We Needed to Talk About It.

What, he wanted to know, was I trying to tell him with that picture and verse? Well, gee, Dr. C., it was the Christmas after my mom and my favorite aunt died, after a ruckus in my family. I wasn't feeling very cheerful. Also? It's one of the best pictures I've ever taken. And I sent it to two hundred and fifty people.

That was our last session until March when my ankle and the weather decided I'd been held hostage long enough. Of my ankle, he opined, "It's possible you wanted it to happen."

Umm, h'mm. Well. No. I'm quite capable of staying in the house 24/7 without the aid of a cast and a blizzard. Although if I'd known about the Vicodin, I might have stubbed my toe.

Each time I think I've gotten my story across, Dr. C. comes up with or returns to another of these Freudian fault lines. This last Saturday, I was telling him about how I tried to tell someone an important thing. He found my way of saying it rather... sideways. Just like the Christmas card.

Thank heavens he doesn't see my typos.


marlequin said...

Frances, just wanted to say I so agree with Chapter Four. I love therapy, but my least favorite part is the therapist pointing a finger at you and trying for deeper insight of certain choices that you just don't have, or want right now.

I love you!

bestgrandkidsever said...

Sideways or not, I love the way you write. Very creative.

Vickie said...

One year I planted over 500 tulips and the squirrels dug/ate them all. Several years later a squirrel planted ONE lone tulip bulb in one of the flower beds. It is still there. It comes up every year. It has yet to bud/bloom.

I think of you each spring when my beds start to unfold, green and bloom. I have loved all your pics over the years.

Speaking of pics - did I miss the link to the xmas card photo? because of course now I am dying to see it.
I don't think I could come up with 50 people to send xmas card - let alone 250. I assume yours was a fix of blogland, bookland, neighborhood, dogland, family and friends. But even with those and any other categories I missed - 250 is a boatload of people!

do I remember correctly that your first shrink was a man and that the one before this was a woman - ? And I guess I don't know if there were many/any between - ? How goes it with MALE shrink? I ask that 100% because I live with a male husband. . .and have to explain/translate the world of women constantly. I don't think I could take translating the world of anxiety AND the world of women. but maybe yours gets it. (I could totally see a gay shrink getting it).

Valerie said...

I loved my therapist...loved her loved her loved her. I almost want to go back to regular panic attacks just so I have an excuse to go talk to her...almost. But not quite. Okay, not even close. I did love that she never overanalyzed...and have you ever noticed how the word "analyze" is built from the word "anal". How very...appropriate.

Panic disorder sucks. People who don't have it can't ever quite grasp how much it sucks, and even those who do never understand exactly, because it sucks for different people in different ways and to varying degrees. But there's no question that it sucks.

I will say, though, that even when you don't leave the house for days, Frances, you still have a way of touching and reaching more people than most of us do running around in public all day long. Not sure what my point is, just thought I would mention it. :-)



E. Jane said...


I have been following your blog for years, and I must say that I love your writing style, The thoughts you put on paper are so worth waiting for. I've been through an agoraphobic phase in my life (it's still there a bit), so I understand the effort that goes into some of your activities (particularly your book interviews and travel). The fact that you sent out 250 Christmas cards--WOW--you must have lots of people who are in your life! Best to you...

Unknown said...

As one of the 250, I can only say that your Xmas message was the one that resonated, the one that called me back again and again. This despite my pathological happiness and absolute lack of faith. It is a true message and I could feel it calling out to me on that sideways frequency. You suffer to make that message heard, and I'm grateful to you for it.

Unknown said...

As an artist I LOVE the Christmas card picture and perhaps you can print some up and sell them on the side? ($$$) I'd send those. I'd even send one of my own to Dr. Sideways. (Take that you overanalyzing prat!) LOL.

Don't second-guess yourself. Dr. Sideways seems to make you do that. From experience I can tell you that second-guessing uses a LOT of energy and can make your fears worse.

When you're stressing, let me know when you're up for Monopoly. Chances are I'm stressing too.

*whispering* And typos? Um...end of Ch.1.



Vickie said...

the photo (xmas card) gave me a chuckle - because I agree it is an outstanding pic - and because I could totally see him scratching his head wondering what it meant. thanks for adding it to the post

Unknown said...

I suppose we pay therapists to scratch their heads and wonder about things we do/say/think. But sometimes (most times) a flower is blooming or closing because that's just the way God meant for it to do.

Thinking about it, wondering about it and asking it WHY isn't going to make it more (or less!) beautiful and great-smelling.

My therapist asked WHY sometimes, but he also smiled at me and said "Well done" too. :)

Vickie said...

thinking of you today - are you doing okay? firsts/afters are really hard. And there are so many of them.

Cindy said...

I think you could publish an entire book of flowers and it would be exquiste. Thank you for writing about anxiety. It made me want to cry. My daughter has the disorder and I forget how it is for her on school mornings. Me so bent on everyone getting where they need to go and so on I feel so insensitive at times. Horribly. I have a version of it myself but it is not nearly like hers or what you describe. It is walk in the park by comparison. I love your writing. And having had much experience with razor wire, I love the Christmas card. thanks

Bea said...

Hi, I hope you see this way down here at the end. Great bunch of writing.

Is hating to leave home to do frustrating errands in foul weather agoraphobia? If so, sign me up. After I have nerved myself up to go out and about amongst 'em (and survived to return home) I reward myself with a sustaining cup of cheesecake.

More and more I find myself making excuses to leave home. Do you think the cheesecake could have anything to do with this?