Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Inside Out

In concept-fragments, texted and emailed to myself, I seem to be stockpiling essays that are stuck inside me, swirling around in my head, waiting to be written. The list grows daily. Like this morning, when I saw a NYTimes article on how rising flood insurance premiums in the wake of Hurricane Sandy may force poor and working-class folks out of their oceanfront properties, paving the way for the rich to snatch up their land for luxury abodes. “Disaster Gentrification.” That’s one of my yet-unwritten blogs. Pieces critically yet constructively reflecting on the Quebec student strike and its red square, Strike Debt and especially the recent telethon, Occupy Sandy Relief and the Occupy legacy/potential, shifts in capitalism & culture and the dialectical relation of those shifts to our own practices of resistance/reconstruction, and on and on… I feel increasingly anxious, as if I’m drowning in ideas, in words, in language that I can’t find time or energy to give embodied voice to in letters on pages (or computer screens). I’ve never quite felt this way, and to a great degree, am thankful for this urge to write, like an urge to breath — the result of this past year of engaging in social movements through the streets and writing. Both breathe and words offer me calm, focus, meaning. Life.

Such “life,” though, gets interrupted by the fullness of life, which also includes things that seem to be without meaning, that take us out of focus, out of our calm. That bring endings and even death. Since late August, I’ve been undone in so many ways by the interruption of my parents both simultaneously having to deal with life-and-death illnesses. My dad’s the worse off, so much so that my mom, my sisters, and I have been forced to be his voice, his words, his language in terms of treatment (or not) decisions, although what he wants to say or might want under these conditions is inexplicable, as transparent and slippery as mud. And the more I’ve needed — or thought I needed — to be his voice, the more my voice can’t speak up. The more my voice longs for quiet, for silence, as if that quiet and silence will calm all those words gurgling around inside me.

Stress is a funny thing, manifesting in the oddest of ways. Some people hurt or hit other people, or want to break things. Admittedly, there was about 30 seconds one day when I felt like throwing a book against a wall — but I love books too much to do that, so the moment passed, with the wall unharmed. Other people tend to hurt themselves or get immobilized by depression. For some reason when stress is related to my parents being sick, I tend to get spacey, or spacey for me, and lose little things like keys. I also can’t concentrate well. And I tend to trip more than usual; each and every time my mom’s cancer has hit potentially critical moments these past 2.5 years since she was diagnosed and almost died at first, I’d stumble on pavement and skin my knee. I now have two to three probably permanent scars to show for my stress, or cheap tattooed reminders that life involves a spectrum of beginnings, endings, not to mention the processing, navigating, tension, promise, and enjoyment as well as sorrow of it all in between.

The unwritten fragments banging around in my head right now are other types of scars, wounding me on the inside. I keep wondering what will happen to my innards if those stories, those essays, don’t soon find their out and into print. Like when you get a splinter, try to pull it out, watch it sink deepen into your skin, and nervously say, “It’ll work it’s way out,” trying not to feel that point of pain that is ever so much larger than that little wood splinter could ever possibly be causing you to feel. It’s the thought of it more than its reality. So what happens when thought gets stuck inside us, causing a similarly physical stab of pain? Yeah, oddly, I can physically notate where the words and essay fragments inside me are impacting me — jitters as if I’m always cold, vague stomach upsets or feelings of a slight fever, and mostly, muscle and back aches. One weekend, I was convinced I was getting the flu, and dosed myself with a strong tincture, loads of vitamin C, and untold amounts of zinc, thereby making a “miraculous” recovery. Now I know that it’s those words, the unwritten ones, all still inside me, and that need to instead take form and shape as stories.

But I’m all turned inside out by life, by the relation of life to death, and death to life. So try as it might, my lack of focus, losing things, spaciness, and tripping on sidewalks are, this time, the lesser of my stress symptoms. My writing is what’s being tripped up. Every time I attempt to pull one of those marvelous fragments out, or what I think might be a marvelous essay (writers can all-too-easily delude themselves into visions of grandeur before thoughts become words), run it around in my mind, and get excited about starting to write, I fall and scrape myself — figuratively. Those tumbles to the ground look like  a text I get from one of my sisters, and then five more texts from her. Calls from or to my mom. Receiving calls from two doctors next, and then me needing to check in with various hospital bureaucrats. And on it goes, long-distance communication after long-distance communication about whether my dad will ever get well, whether this is quality of life for him, when he’ll be discharged from the attentive hospital he’s been in for over two months to, as of two hours ago, a glorified nursing home, an expensive warehouse for people stuck in the limbo of modern technological mechanisms to breath for them, eat for them, and keep them alive/not alive. And my words, like my knee, get scrapped once again. Get scraped.

Or they fall into blog posts like this one. Posts I’m not sure are saying  much of anything, and still, posts that need to get outside of me, so I can find another crevice in my overfull mind for another political essay I want to write but need to stockpile for the moment. At times like this, today, my writing might only be for me. And maybe that’s OK. We — those of us who make art of various kinds — can’t pick and choose our audiences. They pick us. They interpret us, reject us, are inspired by us, and in so many other ways choose how they want to engage with what’s not ours anymore. That’s part of the beauty of offering up culture: it sparks a dialogue (even if it’s one that ignores you or doesn’t interest you). Right now, maybe I am the only one who is my audience for this particular kind of writing-as-”therapy,” or writing as simply a product of me being so inside out.  And needing, and not succeeding at, getting so many other words out from my inside. Someday soon.

For now, my dad is trapped in a body, locked inside himself. Stuck in a place that likely isn’t great, with the only alternative being hospice. My family was supposed to decide for him, including by trying to consult him. We had three full weeks…and suddenly, no time. I wrote about the difficulty of trying to facilitate inclusive, consensual decision making within a bio-family the other day (http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/messy-this-is-what-democracy-might-always-look-like-but-its-worth-it/). At the end of that piece, I felt hopeful. As if the nonprocess process we were stumbling into was going to result in a decision. Instead, the very next morning, I got a phone call that the hospital was going to discharge my dad to the nursing home — since we hadn’t made a decision. I begged for more time, yet time wasn’t on our side anymore. Time hasn’t been on my dad’s side for months now. Time too got stuck inside us, because my bio-family wasn’t able to be decisive as a whole. And so I was compelled to shrug my shoulders, those nearly always-aching shoulders of mine these days, and tell the hospital, “Yes, send him there.” I had tried to so damn not to be the one to make the decision — nursing home or hospice; not to abandon the directly democratic forms I believe in so much and be forced to resort to some benign “dictator of the eldest child, who has nearly always been the parent,” but in the end, failing to facilitate a process that worked. So I gave the OK. It wasn’t a decision exactly, but it sure as hell felt like one — an OK between me and a hospital bureaucrat who had little patience for process, or my feelings, or those of my families or my dad.

This morning, knowing my dad was going to be transported by ambulance this afternoon to his new — perhaps forever, perhaps until a hospice soon — nursing home, I was able to pretend for about an hour that yes, today, I would finally be able to let my words out. The stress of uncertainty was what was standing in my path to freeing up my own voice. Finally, I was going to be able to bring a fragment to fruition as a political essay. I was debating silently to myself which of two topics I wanted to write about as I took a subway from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn to settle into work (not “work” as in wage slavery but my labors of love). Then my phone rang. Another hospital bureaucrat. “The ambulance is arriving for your dad in an hour. Have your sister meet him at the nursing home an hour later.” His new “home” is an hour from my mom, an hour away from his hometown and home — from anyone and everyone he knows. I stumbled over my words in response, hung up, tripped over a curb, and just barely caught myself before falling. I felt a brief flash of victory, as if I’d conquered my stress. Maybe, just maybe, letters would become sentences would become . . . and then I coughed. I coughed from those words, stuck like an itch in my throat. I imagined my dad, stuck in his new bed in a new town, inside out of anything that feels like life.

*  *  *

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.

(Photo by Cindy Milstein, street art on a fence, NYC)

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This entry was posted on November 29, 2012 by in Dispatches from Life.
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