Lori Thatcher

Writing and Thinking about writing


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Zigzag

Once a month or so, a pinpoint of light appears in the center of my field of vision. If I’m watching TV or driving in the car, I don’t notice it at first, but if I’m staring at a blank page or even the blank computer screen, I see it right away.

This time, I pick up the bottle of liquid Advil capsules nearby and realize it’s empty. I shake it to make sure, and then panic. I yell to my husband to help me find some. There’s usually a small supply in my handbag and another in the car, since I don’t want to be caught without it. The sooner I take them, the less time I will lose to this migraine.

By the time I down the pills, the point has grown to a circle, the size of a penny at arm’s length. Within the tiny circle, the colors are brighter and distorted by undulating lines. It’s not dissimilar to the areas of wavy glass on very old window panes that bend and alter the light passing through them.

It’s impossible to look away from it. As I avert my gaze, it follows, always in the center of my field of vision. It’s like the floaters in my aging eyes, except when I try to look straight at those, they jump to the side. This spot is impossible to look away from. Even closing my eyes doesn’t make it disappear and it carries into the dark of shielded eyes or unlit room, the last colors in view, magnified and sparkling.

By now it’s impossible to read written words. Soon it would be dangerous to drive, or for me, even to walk.

By the time it’s grown to the size of an apricot at arm’s length, the spot will change into a zigzag, wavy, backwards C. It will continue growing, usually until it takes up half of my field of view.

I go and lie down with my hand over my eyes to wait out the twenty minutes it usually takes for it to develop and then dissolve.

Except that this time, the capital C is not backwards and it disappears before it gets much bigger than a grapefruit. Different than usual.

Still, I’ll have to wait another twenty to thirty minutes to know if I medicated fast enough to dodge the headache completely, or just to mute it. Regardless, I’ll be left slightly nauseated, like I imagine a mild hangover would feel, similar to how I feel the day after taking the Valium that allows me to tolerate being constricted in an MRI.

The first time I experienced this migraine, I was in my thirties. Late for supper, I was making a quick stop at a discount store after a long day at work and before a long drive home, desperate to find an appropriate white blouse for a performance by the chorus I had joined recently. Without warning, the light in the store changed, increasing in intensity and appearing to flicker. I tried to ignore it, but finally, with several white shirts in my hand, I ducked into the dressing room and cowered on the bench. Lines of fluorescent lights above me changed into menacing zigzag teeth. Was I losing my sanity?

Closing my eyes didn’t help, the gaping mouth stalked into the dimmed area behind my eyelids. I froze and attempted to slow my breathing and relax; perhaps it was just stress playing tricks on me. After a while the visions dispersed and I flew out of the cubicle and thrust the hangers at the attendant mumbling something about the clothes not working.

I was already more than half way home when the nausea hit and horrid pain clamped onto my head. I took some aspirin from the glove department, dissolving several of the foul tasting tablets in my mouth. But it was too late to help. A half hour later, I limped up the steps into my home, said barely a word to my husband and tunneled under my bedcovers. Sleep brought relief but the next morning, I felt hung over.

The lull between the visual disturbance and the headache was such that it took two more occurrences before I made the connection. Now it’s a rush—get some pills into me as soon as I see the pinprick and I can intercept and knock down the worst. I still get the hangover, but it’s not dreadful.

I feel lucky not to undergo the excruciating, debilitating pain most migraine victims do. If I have to be a migraine sufferer, this silent migraine or “aura type” is probably the best type of migraine to have. As soon as I think that, it seems silly to me, like I had any choice in it. But not quite the same way it did in 2003 when my gynecologist called me in on lunch hour with the office closed and dark—“Knock on the window and I’ll let you in.”—to hold my hand and gently tell me I had cancer. She said, “If you have to have cancer, this is the one to have.” I pray it will be, one day, a world where no one has to have cancer, or for that matter, migraines.

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Fleeing the Cold

A grey day on St Augustine Beach

A grey day on St Augustine Beach

I would celebrate yet another windy grey day here in Florida if it weren’t for the family in the vacation rental next door. I can afford a few days of bad weather, a trifling part of the three months I’ll be here. And besides, something about lousy weather charms this Northern-girl-at-heart. Even a crummy day here rarely features the icy walking conditions which trap me inside in Massachusetts.

Instead it’s a refreshing deviation from Florida’s boundless sunlit days for someone in love with the “wait a minute” New England weather.

But not for this family. They’re here to trade seven days in the refrigerated north for a blissful week in warm, sunny Florida. Except it isn’t. Not now. One balmy bright day bookended by seemingly endless grey, foggy rifts with rain thrown in here and there. I watch Mom and Dad drag their beach chairs and sand toys across the walkway, the kids cocooned in freshly purchased sweatshirts. They huddle on the sand, determined to have a time on the beach to recall.

Me? I’m inside, But I can’t draw my gaze away from the seascape. The palm tree fronds whip back and forth, the ocean flaunts whitecaps as far as I can see, and the horizon is cottoned by grey. I slide the glass door open just an inch to relish the wail of the wind. The kid’s voices are gusted to me by the squall, “Daddy, can we go inside?”


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The Forest

“Close your eyes and think of a place where you feel relaxed and safe. You could be lying on a sandy beach or overlooking the Grand Canyon. Choose a place you can see clearly in your mind.”

I closed my eyes. The counselor was guiding me through a relaxation exercise to help me manage anxiety I was feeling during my freshman year of college. I was a high school dropout who began college as an adult with complications: a job, a marriage and a kindergartener in a parent cooperative school.

When she asked me to visualize a place, I knew immediately where it was – a small section of forest I had stumbled upon earlier in the year.

We moved to New Bedford in 1975 for my husband, David, to complete his bachelor’s degree. Our rundown apartment was on a peninsula that separated the harbor from the cove. The setting didn’t faze me, especially since the smell of sea salt infused the air. Although the ocean was right at the end of our street, the deep channel on the other side of the sea wall was too dangerous to bring five-year-old Justin, so we brought him to play at a little beach not far away. The water was chilly but he dug channels and constructed castles and moats.

There were no facilities and after a while I left David with Justin playing in the sand and looked for an alternative convenience. I crossed an open grassy field and found a small path leading through some bushes. As I parted the branches and stepped into the deeply shaded forest, I entered another world.

The temperature dropped and surrounding noises disappeared. Only a trace of sifted sunlight reached the forest floor and the earth was like a thick sponge, covered with emerald moss and miniature ferns. Rivulets crisscrossed the ground and fingers of mist rose from each one, giving the forest a primeval aura. It was not just beautiful; it was enchanted.

I forgot my original mission. I lay down on a smooth mossy bed looking up through the pattern of leaves to tiny patches of blue sky. I listened to the raucous call of a crow and suddenly, I was the big black bird perched in the canopy surveying the scene below. I examined the cushion of moss with its little reddish capsules, like miniature flowers waving over a green lawn. I picked out a tiny path between the moss gardens. Little stick fences bordered the trail leading to a notch in the side of a tree – a diminutive door to the fairy’s bower.

I felt a deep yearning to remain in this tranquil place, divorced from the mushrooming responsibilities of my life.

It seemed only a few minutes, but my sense of time must have warped, and when I returned to the beach, we had to leave so I wouldn’t be late for my GED class. I described to my family the magical place I had found, the memory already indelible.

During David’s spring semester, he had encouraged me to apply for admission. I was full of doubt and insecurity, but I unenthusiastically signed up for a prep class for my GED. I passed easily and registered for the fall semester. Justin was enrolled in Learning Tree School, a parent cooperative in Tiverton, so we moved to Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Once I began college, free time was non-existent. Morning car pool; a twenty mile commute to SMU; a full course load; and five to ten hours a week doing work study and tutoring at Learning Tree kept my days hectic. In addition, I worked overnight shifts 20 to 30 hours a week as a private duty nurse’s aide in Newport, Rhode Island. I was routinely sleep deprived.

When I arrived home on Saturday or Sunday mornings, I found it almost impossible to give up the day with my family just to go to sleep. I would lie awake a long time, doze for a few hours, and then drag myself out of bed to get ready for work again.

But I loved college as much as I had hated high school. Finally I hungered to learn. The other freshmen all seemed so young and carefree, but I was determined to do as well—or better—than they did. This resolve multiplied my stress.

I was feeling swamped when I saw the poster at school which mirrored my thoughts: “Feeling Overwhelmed? Our counselors can help.” I made an appointment right away.  

I used the image of the forest in meditation frequently during that year, when I was terrified before a biology test or feeling such panic that dropping out of college seemed inevitable. But I never had time to go back to the forest physically. I intended to, and I planned to, over and over again. But each time, something would intrude or some necessity would supersede my goal. When I finished my freshman year, we were bound for New Orleans. I transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University and carried the forest with me.

After many moves, we ended up returning to our home region in western Massachusetts. We added two new members to our family when David’s young nieces came to live with us after their father died, presenting new kinds of challenges. David and I were also struggling to run a fledgling automotive advertising publication.

I learned to use other methods to de-stress, different meditations and prayer, but whenever I would call the image of that forest to mind, it would spring to life complete with its peacefulness and magic.

In the mid-1990s, we took a snorkeling trip toRhode Island, but met rough surf so we followed the coast toNew Bedford looking for a sheltered cove. As we approached the familiar, yet unfamiliar, beach, I found myself holding my breath, excited but with an underlying trepidation. How would time have tainted my haven? The small beach hadn’t changed much, although the nearby parking lot was somewhat spiffed up.

While everyone went to the water, I veered away, pausing to orient myself. Although I located the grassy area behind the beach, I could not find my forest. It hadn’t been replaced by development; it just wasn’t where I remembered it. I walked back and forth, trying to recreate my path. In one area, a fence barred my way, but beyond was an open rocky knoll which probably didn’t  replace the moist low area of the forest. At times, I thought I caught a whiff of the sweet moist loam and swamp decay, but it dissipated with any slight turn of my head. 

I searched until I heard the others calling for me. I was tired, but reluctant to involve my companions in the hunt, so I left without finding the forest. Curiously, there was a strange relief in my leaving, as if, by not locating it, I had preserved something precious. Was I hesitant to perhaps discover that it was not all that I remembered?  I’m not sure, but somehow I haven’t felt like going back to try to find it since.

The memory of the forest remains etched in my mind as vividly as if I walked there yesterday, with an added ethereal property springing from my failure to find it again.  The explanation is probably simple, that it seemed much closer when I was twenty years younger. Still, I can’t help fantasizing that it was like Brigadoon, appearing only once every hundred years, or like Shangri-La only being findable to someone who really needed it.


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Tired

I woke up and saw the fence looming. My hands were gripping the steering wheel as I slammed my foot on the brake pedal, knowing that I was too close. I would never be able to stop in time.

But the car wasn’t even running, never mind careening towards an imminent accident. My heart was thumping as I stared with wonder at the fence a few inches in front of my bumper.

Slowly I came to the realization that I was sitting next to our apartment in Easthampton. The fence in front of me was the one that bounded the parking lot behind our house. I had fallen asleep after pulling in and parking, but before my hands had released their grip on the steering wheel.

I looked at my watch. It was 2 am; I had been asleep for only a half hour.

It had taken a lot longer to reach home than I expected because of my sleepiness. I’d stopped a half-dozen times to jog around the car trying to wake up enough to drive another 20 miles. I had napped for 10 or 20 minutes in two dark roadside rest areas and afterward poured an entire bottle of water over my head, not caring as it soaked the fabric seat. I had shouted and screamed and sang at the top of my lungs, but it was not enough to stem the tide of exhaustion.

It was Wednesday morning. I had slept a few hours Monday night, but I had been without sleep for the entire week-end before that, if you didn’t count shutting my eyes and laying my head on the light table for a few minutes.

Monday noon was Wheeler Dealer Magazine’s scheduled press slot and if I missed it, it would throw the whole schedule off. If I wasn’t there on time, the layout for our small advertising magazine would be pushed into the pile of things to do when the press crew had extra time – it might be Thursday before the issues were printed. That would push distribution into the weekend when traffic and store closings would cause even more difficulties. Our sales would be hurt also, because many readers wanted to snatch the issue up in the first couple of days hoping for a miraculous deal on a used car.

I had picked up the finished issues at four Tuesday morning in Holyoke and finished the day’s route at nine Tuesday night after delivering magazines all over western Massachusetts. I was delivering to convenience stores and  trying to open new outlets for the automotive photo advertiser  that I had run mostly by myself for the last few months.

We couldn’t afford to hire anyone else and David had to keep his job, because the ad revenue and sales income didn’t pay the bills yet.

Running a business, the American dream, was our dream. We wanted the freedom of working for ourselves. And eventually we did have some of that freedom, but also found that some of the freedoms of working for one’s self are not as free as they seem.

But that night all I had was overwhelming fatigue. Right then I didn’t care a bit about the dream, I just felt sorry for myself as I cursed David for seeing the ad in the local paper that said “Like photography? Want to own your own business?”

I knew I should go inside to bed but even thinking about it seemed too demanding, so I sat there until I fell asleep and slept for another two hours in the car. At least this time I had my hands in my lap instead of clutching the steering wheel.  

Before another year passed, David would quit his job and begin working with me and shortly afterward we would hire several people to do the job I was doing that week. We would continue to publish the magazine for 18 years, and during that time I fell asleep in some other strange places, but none as disturbing as the night I almost ran into a fence with a motionless car.


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Hiding

When I heard my father call my name, I froze. I was on my back on the top of the hay in my favorite place right next to the wall, where the sun shone through the cracks and illuminated a snowstorm of hay dust in the shafts of light. I had been there since I finished my barn chores after school. I guess I was daydreaming, although if you had asked me, I would have said I was just looking at stuff: The light, the yellow-green color of the hay that looked like it smelled and the snatches of scenes I could see through the thin cracks in the barn wall. I moved to slide down off of the pile, but hearing my name called a second time Continue reading


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The New House and the Lesson of the Pump

My grandfather owned a large piece of land in Montague Center, Massachusetts, in an area that people called the Montague Desert. The land had been part of an ancient delta that flowed into Lake Hitchcock, a lake that formed when the glacier receded and the melt water was blocked from flowing into the ocean by the terminal moraine. The delta sorted the soil so what was left was white sand that looked Continue reading