27 February 2014

driving in my sleep with Elizabeth Bowen

As much as I tried I could not finish the short story I was reading last night. Too tired. It was a beautiful story by Elizabeth Bowen, the magnificent Elizabeth Bowen who wrote Last September. And of course, Bowen's Court, long since knocked down.
The story opens with a woman driving along a country road on a summer's evening, the sun is setting and shadows are slowly covering the distant hills. And of course I was searching for clues and names and eventually placed her on a road coming down from the Galtee Mountains driving south towards Fermoy or maybe even Cork. But it was late, too late now and I fell asleep with the beautiful thought that I will continue reading in the morning.

Some time ago I went to this public lecture. Nowadays, public lectures have to have spectacular themes to pull a crowd, what with all the competition and the internet. This one was called: Learning in your sleep. Actually, it transpired that it's not strictly learning that takes place in our brain while we sleep but that our brain apparently stores and develops whatever we have been thinking about just before sleep. In smart science vocabulary, the offline consolidation of memory during sleep represents a principle of long-term memory formation.
So, we are thinking or reading about something just before sleep and if we are lucky, glimpses of it wander from the temporary storage area inside our brain (where, so it seems, most of what we remember gets lost) to the permanent storage space. And during this process the new stuff sticks onto old stuff and lost memories are rekindled and new memories are formed and so on. There is a lot of clever research done, incl. sniffing rose petals and lavender while memorising complicated rows of figures and shapes before going to sleep.

In my dream last night I was 30 again, driving our battered moke up and up the St. Louis Road and into the forest and then downhill with all the sharp bends towards the coast, past the police station, turning left towards the beach where I stopped the car underneath the large Takamaka trees.
I walked into the almost still surf, north-easterly monsoon, hardly any waves. I closed my eyes and pushed myself under water, resurfacing after a long slow dive. Floating with my face down I could see the sharp colours of coral and fish deep deep below me. And I was overwhelmed by the incredible feeling of being carried, supported on this thin line where ocean and sky meet. The sun was about to set. So close to the equator, it sinks at the count of ten. I turned around and watched the sky darken. The trees were full of birds.

I have had the most wonderful life, so far. I have even been to paradise.

25 February 2014

So the guy who wrote Ghostbusters has died of my disease. Strange feeling.
In the early days, one of the experts told me that had I been diagnosed 25 years ago I would have been dead within six months. But that today, with all the meds and the research and the developments, nobody dies of it - just like that.
Well, some do. But I am invincible.

23 February 2014

Today, an ordinary person can't pick up the phone, email a friend or order a book without comprehensive records of their activities being created, archived, and analysed by people with the authority to put you in jail or worse. I know: I sat at that desk. I typed in the names.
This is a quote by Edward Snowden from yesterday's Guardian. All well and good, I want to say. But no, what bothers me more than anything is the term ordinary person. Because, my dear Edward, you are thinking in a box, your box of ordinary people. Your ordinary people live in Western societies, affluent Western societies. In another interview, you claim that a child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy. You actually claim that mass surveillance is watching everything we do, how it affects the average person. I get your point, don't worry, but when I think about your average person, I also get the arrogance, because with all due respect - and I mean it, you did and continue to stick your neck out for all the right reasons - the world is far more complex and there are children born in all the myriad corners of this planet for whom privacy will never be a concept worth considering. In fact, according to the latest statistics, 22000 of them die every day and not because Bill Gates has failed to supply sufficient mosquito nets or because someone is spying on them. Indeed, maybe they would benefit from a bit of surveillance, maybe less would die. But before I get carried away with my standard rant about causes of poverty, hunger and injustice (which in my book are all man made), let's remember this: Just because we are wealthy - and by gosh, we are - and have iphones, we are not the apex of some imaginary pyramid of advancement.

If we accept that we're all cut from the same genetic cloth, it means by definition we all fundamentally share the same kind of raw human genius. And that brilliance and potential is made manifest through technological wizardry and innovation--which has been the great achievement of the West--or, by contrast, invested into unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, or understanding nuances about the relationship between human beings and the spirit world. All of those things are simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation.
 Wade Davis

19 February 2014

The idea of human nature with inherent flaws is consistent with a tragic view of the human condition and it's a part of being human that we have to live with that tragedy.

Daniel Kahnemann

15 February 2014

Four days on another planet. Only four days, three long nights. R picked me up in his space ship and I slowly came back to Earth as he drove along the river in the rain.

During the day and when not examined under clouds of midozolam and various other anaesthetics, I walk the long hallways, those shiny yellow linoleum floors, meeting other patients. Strange, how we all recognise each other here as if we have met before. A young man with many piercings and tattoos tells me he will have surgery tonight. He almost runs from me to hide his tears. A Turkish woman walks beside me for a while, she has no German but uses her fingers and smiles to tell me that she has three daughters and two sons. And with the thumb of her other hand, she introduces her grandchild. She lifts her top to show me the two massive scars near her kidneys and gently pats my belly when I indicate why I am here. When I tell her my age, she lifts her arms and shakes her head and I realise she does not know her date of birth, her age and probably cannot read or write. One of her sons steps out of the elevator and she quickly covers her beautiful long hair with a large embroidered scarf.

My compulsory insurance cover stipulates room sharing. This time, we are three. Which is nice, all in all, and not only because it enables food swapping. I feel very grand giving away everything from my tray except the clear broth I am allowed. 
At night, we talk, tucked into our identical bed clothes, with the lights down and the gurgling noises from the oxygen masks of my two room mates. First, the usual stuff, children, work, homes, family and so on. And then of course, being ill, the treatments, the doctors, the future, the past, the pain, the heart, and so many worries. And before you know it, K talks about her three year old girl, who died of cancer 44 years ago, back in Greece while she was working here sending money home to pay for treatment and M bursts into tears telling us about her horrible horrible marriage to a man who died 27 years ago. Outside the church bells ring, two o'clock.  

Later on, we lie in this strange silence, drifting from sleep into thinking and back again. Tomorrow K will be told that the cancer has spread to her liver. M's granddaughter will promise to look after her when she gets better, please please please. And one of the doctors with a friendly but worried smile will explain procedures to me. Which include a most horrid disgusting 12 hrs of you don't want to know (mainly spent gagging etc. on toilets) and something like 5000 biopsies taken here and there and suddenly it is all over.

Take it easy for the next 48 hrs, they tell me. No lifting etc. Eat what you can handle. Results asap, they promise.

10 February 2014

Tomorrow at 11 am I am to check in to hospital for the whole shebang, four, maybe five or who knows, just three short days of fun with colon and stomach and assorted other organs. I don't expect I will get to eat much. Part of me wants to treat this like any old adventure, cycle there with my essentials, my nightdress and toothbrush tucked into my old red panniers. And of course, cycle back home when I have seen the sights and run out of clean underwear. 
But I suppose I better play the part of mature woman with a nagging chronic illness. Anyway, I feel so much better. It probably was nothing apart from losing a bit of weight.
I'll bring a couple of books and the ipod with my latest collection of radio documentaries and the soothing voice of Jarvis Cocker for long nights. And I'll catch up on life without internet. Last time I was in hospital, I watched two series of Madmen almost nonstop. And now look where that got me.

07 February 2014

Some things seem to get more complicated. Maybe Ireland in the early 1980s was more radical than I thought at the time. I think I was once asked to go upstairs because "granddad was coming". Obviously, I stayed put and he didn't seem to mind.

05 February 2014

I suppose it's all about doing something without thinking. It's nothing really, we all do it. 
Brahms. I just switch off. Especially when it's dark and rainy and the traffic lights change too quickly and I know I will be sitting here in the car for another ten minutes or so. At least. So, no Brahms and no Haydn, no Mahler, no Dvorak while we're at it. None of that stuff for me. Thank you very much.
Honestly, I do try it once in a while. I mean, it is beautiful music. I know that much. Sometimes I can just sit there in silence but most days, I quickly change channels.

Small children love their parents. They can't help it. Small children are like Konrad Lorenz's baby geese, forever following their parents. All that love, that hope, that devotion. And the trust. Thinking of this overwhelming trust my knees begin to shake.

Some days when I am waiting at a traffic light in the dark car just after I switched off the classics channel I want to sit my mother down and look into her eyes all calm and composed. I want to be the small girl I was then and at the same time I want to be the woman and the mother I am now. I want to tell her that small children can feel compassion, that they can understand and that they care, that they watch you and that sometimes what they see can be so big and heavy it hurts. I want her to know, very urgently, that small children need to understand what is going on, that whatever it is, it is not their fault. 
The Sunday mornings, the house full of Brahms, a mother crying in the kitchen, gagging from the smell of frying meat, overcome with black memories of burnt flesh, the pleading voices, the sound of breaking china, the ambulance.
Your children, I want to tell her, will stand out in the cold by the garden gate for long dark hours waiting for the headlights of your car to reappear. They will sit quiet as mice in their room waiting for you to unlock the door again. They are waiting for you to allow a hug and they will promise you to be good, to be quiet. With all their heart, they will promise you anything. For you to be better.
And when it becomes harder and harder over time, still your children will try. Until one day, when it will be easier to pretend, to lie.

And I want to tell her that I know all of this because my own daughter taught me this so beautifully from the day she was born.

04 February 2014

02 February 2014

After six days of swallowing a handful of pancreatic lipase capsules with every meal I can see some light at the end of the tunnel. Faint, but there it is, incl. a cup of decent coffee with hot milk, outside in the spring sunshine. Never mind that spring at the beginning of February is more than odd, if not downright scary.

Of course, I have consulted dr google only after I read my way through a couple of online articles from scientific journals. I know what happens when you do this the other way round.
I have also chosen to ignore the fact that the capsules are made from the pancreas of dead pigs. (In my defence, I can state that I found this out after I felt the first improvements. But still. My inner vegetarian is however too sick to respond.)
At night, when I wake up and listen to the rumbling and painful cramps in my abdomen, sipping more hideous herb teas and hugging a fresh hot water bottle, I discuss my case with my GP. 
I am his best informed patient and he listens quietly while I expand on the probable causes of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, its therapy options and my suggestions on further steps to be taken. I can do this really well. I have seen enough court room dramas to know how to plead my case of mild hypochondria cum panic. Still, it is quite some work and fills the hours nicely until the dawn chorus sets in.