Nineteen

19_1

When I was younger cats seemed so boring. Maybe you could play with them when they were kittens but as they got older they just laid around. That plus their reputation for being finicky and headstrong made them seem far less desirable than dogs. Then the summer before my senior year in college, one scary DC night, my roommate got mugged on her way home. We had tossed around the idea of fostering an animal before, but that night, between hugs and tears, we decided it was definitely happening. It was 3am but we looked for an organisation, filled out their form, and our first cat came a few days later.

He was black and very needy, completely turning my idea of what cats were like on its head. He always wanted to hang around whichever one of us was home – and I worked from home a lot so that was usually me – and was always under foot. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember the name of our second foster, Jelly Belly. She was another black cat, but fat and with the opposite temperament: incredibly skittish, running from us when we entered the room, hiding underneath furniture and on top of the fridge. I wondered what trauma might have made her so wary of people. Although I wouldn’t have wanted to live with either Jelly Belly or our first cat for the long term, after that summer I warmed up to the animals in general.

Then came Feliz, my aunt and uncle’s cat, who I lived with when I came home after college. She was sweet, much older and well used to being around people, so somewhere in the middle of the two from DC. I liked her relaxed energy and independence, and the fact that she was indoor/outdoor so we didn’t have to bother with litter. I started to wonder, Hey! Maybe cats are better than dogs! I liked that they could be great companions and also low maintenance.

So when I was moving for grad school and my new roommate asked if he could adopt kittens for our place, I agreed. Remus and Romulus were the cutest grey lion cubs I had ever seen, but they made my life a sneezing, itchy-eyed, swollen-face, sleepless-night mess. After that semester I moved out, my skin slowly cleared, and I resolved to avoid cats for the rest of my lifetime.

Fate had other plans however, and I’m living with a new family cat, Nineteen. We got him when he was a kitten, and he hasn’t caused me nearly as much trouble as Remus and Romulus – probably some combination of the fact that he’s indoor/outdoor and we share a much larger space. We’re almost never in the same room, and he spends a lot of time outside. Today though he came looking to snuggle, right as I was getting ready to write a new post, and I couldn’t resist petting him and letting him lie next to me. I was ok at first. I sighed contentedly and imagined years hence, in my own home, with my own cat. We’d chill sometimes and do our own thing other times, and it would be great. But then my throat started to itch, my nose felt a bit funny, and the spots on my hands and arms with eczema cried for attention. My dream went out the window, and needless to say, I’ve finished writing this in another room. It’s too bad, turns out I’m a cat person after all.

Two Truths and a Lie

fruits-grocery-bananas-market

My first few weeks of college were filled with orientation activities. I had to get to campus early for a week of sessions for international students, and after that went through the standard programmes for all incoming first years. I don’t know how many hundreds of people I met – literally, there was a huge game night called Playfair with everyone from our class – and I played countless icebreakers as leaders tried to get us comfortable and engaged. Two truths and a lie was one of them, and I thought I’d do a written version here just for fun. Can you spot the lie?

  • After I graduated from college I took a serious look at the disconnect between my real and imagined eating habits. I grew up in a household with a label-reading father, a salad-loving mother and a minimum of processed foods. I didn’t exactly throw the training they gave me out of the window when I left home, but after four years of free cookies and pizza at every school function, plus all the food I could eat at our d-hall, my diet was way out of balance. When I realised that the way I thought I was living was completely different from what was truly happening, I knew there needed to be a change. One of the habits I picked up was making green smoothies, which I still enjoy regularly today. They’re a bit time consuming though, so when I discovered that I could make a quick tonic with aloe vera gel from the plants growing in my backyard, that became part of my daily morning ritual. Aloe is such a super plant, I don’t know why it doesn’t get more attention!
  • When we were little, every day after school my siblings and I met a bowl of prepped fruit for us to snack on. I think my dad might have been the one to insist on this, but my mum was equally supportive of this structure as well. The fruit held us over until dinner time, and if we were feeling very hungry then we’d have something like bread or cheese, but there was no junk food in the house. Rarely, anyway. I remember many disappointing conversations with my dad, who did the grocery shopping, in the food store. I would plead with him for chips, cookies, lunchables, dunkaroos and whatever other cool thing I saw my classmates eating, to no avail. I continue to rely on fruit as a snack, and love all kinds. Bananas are one of my favourites, and because they are so cheap I found myself buying them all the time in graduate school and in New York. I ate a banana every day for 3.5 years, and the streak has only been broken since I’ve come back home.
  • Don’t let all this talk about fruits and veggies fool you – I enjoy plenty of sweets and treats, and am a big fan of food in general. I’ve always loved to bake, and after college got into cooking too. Most of the blogs I follow are food-related, as are the accounts in my insta feed, my go-to tv shows and a couple of my podcasts. When I was in New York I’d find myself easily losing an hour trying to choose a place to meet a friend for dinner or take a guest for lunch, and I enjoy picking apart the best and worst elements of the meals I’ve been served. You can imagine my thrill when I found out that one of the places featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives was down the street from my residence hall in graduate school. I lived in a small town in Connecticut, and this diner has been an institution since before I was born. I’ve had a few breakfasts there, including of course the amazing french toast that was featured on the show. Delish!

Itching and Addiction

How do I explain what it feels like to be in the middle of an eczema attack? I mean the kind where I’m itching so badly that I can’t do anything but scratch. My mind is focused on stopping the itching, going on the offensive to get it to go away. Or maybe it’s really a defensive move, since truthfully scratching is the surest sign that I’ve been beaten, despite my mind’s conviction that the opposite is the case.

For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a horrible flare up on my hands. It started first on the right, then appeared on the left, and now it’s crept down my right forearm and is spotting on my left forearm too. There’s a patch on my back that’s been around this whole time, and in late winter and springtime the rash showed up on my face and different parts of my legs. Thankfully those are pretty much gone now. But my hands. They are where I have to fight a battle on a daily basis. In the most terrible moments, I move frantically from one hand to the next. As soon as I quiet the itch in one place I become aware of the sensation in another, and another, then it jumps back to that first place. All over the backs of my hands, my fingers, in between my fingers and now even on my palms. The desire for relief is totally consuming, and everything stops but the clawing. I’m paralyzed. Does that sound horrific? That’s fine, it is.

When I say paralyzed, I mean that literally. In the middle of a conversation, on my way to the shower, chopping vegetables or combing my hair, there is no time or activity that is off limits. The scratching goes beyond my hands too, it affects my entire physiology. My breathing becomes shallow, I feel strange sensations deep inside other, seemingly random parts of my body like my leg or arm, far away from where I’m scratching. My stomach becomes embroiled in the episode too, rolling and tightening. I find myself squeezing my abdominal muscles. I don’t know whether that’s my body trying to help itself or if it makes things worse. Though anytime is an importune time for an attack, I’m most vulnerable at bedtime; I get caught in this silent struggle, this manic feeling behaviour, in darkness, silence and solitude, magnifying the psychological challenges of the episode.

I am so grateful that the worst of my rashes is confined to my hands, and even more so that these flare ups have become rare in my life. They’ve also helped me empathize with people who suffer from addiction; the complete tunnel I feel encased in during an attack must be what it’s like for them when they feel a yearning for a fix. I was listening to a podcast about the connection between prescription drugs and illegal drug addiction, and one interviewee, a heroin addict, described his inability to fight his body’s cry for the needle, despite his best attempts to become clean. Not long after that – possibly even the same day – I had one of the attacks I’ve described, and my understanding of the addict’s position clicked in a way it never had before. I don’t know if you can really get it unless you feel it in some form yourself – how your mind is near-powerless to think its way through the tsunami-like impulses from your body, coming in urgent, insistent waves. My experience with eczema has become another warning to stay away from dangerous substances; I can imagine how hard fighting to free myself from dependence on them would be, how awful it would feel to be trapped in my body’s impulses. It makes me want to comfort those who are striving.

The itching that I feel, it’s a form of pain. When those compulsions from deep inside finally cease, a wave of calm rolls through my body. I relax entirely, and usually am shocked by the degree and extent of the tension I was holding. My breathing evens out, it feels pleasant and even sweet. When my mind clears, it’s like a fog has lifted and a siren is silenced. Not only can I return my focus to whatever I was doing before the paralysis, I can entertain other thoughts as well. What luxury! Even after the cessation of less insistent sensations, I am surprised by how much I was distracted by, and consumed with, fighting the itch. It’s not like having a mosquito or sandfly bite, jellyfish sting, or even the chicken pox. I am hopeful that this flare up I’ve been in will heal completely soon, but the lesson I’ve learned this time around will stick with me forever. I can do more than tolerate addicts or agree that there should be social services to help them overcome their illnesses. I feel compassion for their struggle, as I know what it’s like to fight your own body over self-harming behaviour.

Possibly Too Personal

I live next to a park. I can see trees and sky from my windows. As winter gave way to spring, I watched new life emerge from the earth and heard it transform the air. Where before the ground was rocky, barren and still, now there are plants pushing their way to the surface, trees returning to life and animals scampering across the rock face. Where there was relative silence, punctuated by traffic noises, now there are birds ever-chirping. I love my bedroom. I love this park. On weekends, when I can waken slowly and luxuriate in its sights and sounds, I am filled with a sense of wonder and peace, and the possibility of the new day shines brighter, seems greater.

I will be leaving this park soon. Much sooner than I would like or am prepared for. This is a city of transience, where people rarely come to put down roots. I heard this sentiment just Sunday, in church. I don’t exactly want to put down roots here either, but I do want to stay a while longer than I’ve been here so far.

I’ve struggled a lot in the past year with frustration at this world I’ve been born into, with its political systems and antiquated ways of conceiving of and policing the individual based on more or less arbitrary boundaries and bastions of power. It’s hard to focus my frustration on such abstract notions, as real and oppressive as they may be, so I’ve also struggled with resenting people around me who have greater freedoms than I, and thereby greater access than I. It’s a feeling I try not to dwell on, and move to snuff out when it arises – especially because I know have benefited so much from any number of privileges – but it’s a struggle all the same.

Another reality I’ve had to come to grips with is my dispensability. Many times in the past year people have been unwilling to fight for me because they know I’m replaceable. I say “know” because it’s a fact. I am. Sure I have a unique blend of skills, personality traits and experience, but at the end of the day another person could do my job or provide romantic or platonic relational fulfillment. The same is true of all of us; it’s how the world keeps turning. Again, I know that on some level we each touch lives and contribute to the world in individual ways. But sometimes, when business sense or the law or emotions dictate otherwise, we are passed over or cast aside in favour of another person or non-human solution.

So here I am, preparing to move away from my park, to a destination yet unknown. Working to find my footing and direction in spite of realities that oppose my freedom and confidence. Moving ever-forward, pushing past frustration and setbacks.