Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Hallway of the Mind

In the corridors of my brain a Medieval Knight dwells, sword at the ready, armor blessedly silent as he makes his rounds.

Startle me and you might meet him, although what you'll see is a mid-sized, pale-faced brunette looking entirely wigged out, in my head the warrior peers through his visor, weapon held high. In the fight or flight instinct we all have, some long ago ancestor evidently is responsible for a genetic predisposition inside of me that runs towards conking any threat on the head. Luckily the ensuing generations have honed the art of not letting that blood-thirsty guardian loose on anyone.

If you've ever been inside a Walgreens Drug Store, you know the vibe of the place, if you haven't: Even a brand new Walgreens seems vaguely dingy. The lighting inside was designed by people who secretly hate all of humanity, and want us all to look like we perished sometime earlier in the day and are now the Walking Dead. They aren't bad places, they're useful, packed shelves that almost always manage to look rickety enough to cause concern are filled with the foot creams and antihistamines most of us need from time-to-time.

Most of us have prowled through these stores, or ones like them, as we drop off a prescription for an illness, and in those times we end up waiting for it to be filled. That's how we end up perusing the shelves, occasionally making some daft purchase like a Snowman that sings in a high, piercing electronic voice while swaying back and forth on battery operated hips, and playing the ukulele. Generally we were waiting for a prescription for antibiotics to be filled, and as we waited, our fevered brains whispered, "You should totally buy that."

Me, I tend to huff the potpourri, sachets, and scented candles while there. They're awful. Seriously, beyond description levels-of-bad but it does make me feel as if I have discerning taste each and ever time as I grimace at the chemical-laden scent while replacing the product on the shelf. It is an ironic form of fun for me. It probably hails from the ancestor who first said to another of my ancestors, "Does this milk smell sour to you?"

I was taking a whiff of an alleged cranberry candle, contained in a glass jar and wondering if the cranberries had been grown in a radioactive bog when a piercing, rattling sound blasted out seemingly seven inches from my right ear.


"Zounds, interloper!" Yelled the Knight-in-my-head, "Declare your purpose, fiend!"

Luckily for the person making the sound the Knight never got to say anything in the real world, as he was then occupied by pounding the swearing sailor he hangs out with in there into silence. I jumped six inches, the candle flew briefly away from my hands and blessedly back into them unharmed as I turned, wild-eyed and accusing.

"Guh!" the sailor managed to blurt before the Knight threw himself bodily atop the seafarer.

"Sorry," A rather plain-looking woman a polite five feet from me said, "I have Tourette's. It's a syndrome, a disorder."

"Oh! Okay," I replaced the cranberry-chemical-bomb. I consciously stood still, making sure not to retreat, or turn away. A little bit of an effort as the panic system within my head powered down, "I'm familiar with it. Sorry."

"It's okay. It's a syndrome, a disorder," the woman said again, "I can't control it."

"I've heard of it," I said again.

I continued to stand in the household goods aisle, understanding that this woman encountered too many people that scurried away in her life.

"I take medication," she said, "it helps a little bit."

And then she made the sound again at the end of the sentence. Loud, startling but this time I was prepared and my feet remained on the ground, my expression hopefully unchanged.

I never found out her name. I stood with her for five minutes, helping her to find something by explaining how to read the labels on the shelves to find out where something should be. I honestly don't recall what it was but as I worked in a drugstore when I was a teenager, one of the pieces of information in a file in my brain is about labeling systems. There came a point in the conversation when I realized this woman was eager to be having it. That for her, this thing we all take for granted, this exchange among strangers, was something of a treat.

She explained to me what Tourette's was, and I listened, although I was already familiar with the disorder. Not that I knew anyone with it, but I had encountered people with it before. I knew it was an inherited disorder.

All of my ancestors, they gave me things, passed them down. Most of them are good. I'm an acceptable size and shape, intelligent enough to feel up to most of life's challenges. There was a crazy person or two in the mix, a recluse here or there. At least one murderer, evidently. Soldiers, sailors, teachers and more. A predisposition towards being articulate lurks within me too, and it comes in handy. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about how fate and genetics were primarily good to me.

Maybe our minds are like houses, full of hallways with doors leading into rooms. For the most part we mill around in the foyer, thinking in our regular thought patterns. Encountering the odd Knight within.

But every now and then we'll meet someone who opens a door within that hallway and introduces us to a room we didn't know existed in our minds. A new thought, a fresh concept. A room that was always there, but we never looked in before. Our challenges often make us throw the doors open on all needed rooms, as we search for tools within, and most of us find them.

Forget whether or not I am comfortable talking to strangers, as it is likely clear by now that I am, what about the fact that I can with ease? A thing I take for granted, everyday as my right, and my own.

Every now and then I meet someone that makes me peer into a room and realize I don't know much about limitations, not in any real sense. The rooms that contain my unquestioned good fortune are the ones I need to look in more.

Eventually the pharmacist called my name over the loudspeaker, mangling the pronunciation, a thing I'm used to. A small, tiny thing about a name I otherwise like.

"Well, that's me," I nodded and smiled. I wish I could describe the look on that woman's face well, but I can't. She was so happy having an easy conversation. For her it was a rare treat, so she looked both happy and a little sad.

I so seldom think of true isolation. I'm a self-entertaining unit, I don't mind being alone, I rather like it often enough.

"I'm sorry I frightened you," she said.

"That's okay, no big deal," and I wished her a good day as I went on my way.

I collected the prescription and left, thinking of that room in my head I so seldom enter, the one called loneliness.

Today I thought of that woman from an encounter two years ago. We had been talking here about being an introvert, while having to pretend to be an extrovert. A trait many of us share, it seems. Something occurred to me, and I ran a search entitled:

Tourett'es Syndrome Forum that returned 114,000 hits. Over one hundred thousand places, and option where acceptance, understanding, peers and friends await. Clubs, gatherings, in real-life too. Options, and rooms with possibilities.

The rooms in our heads are wide and varied. Some are lovely, some rather grim. Some we haven't opened for years and we find them again, while wandering down our mental hallways.

That was a delightful, hopeful room you all sent me to. Thank you.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Stands Knee-High to Little

The first time I met Anna* I wouldn't have been surprised to look behind me and find I was being trailed by a blue ox. Although my husband is nearly a foot taller than I am, I'm not actually short, I'm of average height. Still, I'm not used to feeling enormous next to anyone. Anna's height definitely has her shopping in the petite section, but more than that, she has a tiny frame. This doesn't change the fact that she could likely kick my butt, and yours too. Probably at the same time without breaking a sweat.

"Hello, I'm Anna, you know my dog," She began. An auspicious start, I thought. I knew I was bound to like anyone who had already figured out that she was easily identified by dog association. She was right, I do know Mo, a.k.a. The Running Dog. I first met him following a snowstorm, as I shoveled the driveway. Nose streaming (me, not the dog), tail waving frantically (the dog, not me), I heard the familiar cry of "Noooooooooo!" as Anna's teenage daughter arrived seconds after Mo did. Mo is a gregarious creature. A fast, gregarious creature. He would eventually grow to be a gigantic size, but that first day I could have easily shoveled him aside. Instead I wiped my nose and played with the puppy. I have priorities, after all.

The day I noticed that Anna could be packed into a teacup for transport, she invited me to a barbecue she was hosting as a neighborhood get-together. Those sort of things are common around here, generally hosted by real estate agents, or people trying to sell candles, jewelry or political candidates. Networking in the suburbs, you get used to it.

"What's the occasion?" It's not that I'm against sharing a cup of coffee with folks just trying to build a client base, but I do like to know if I'm walking into one of those situations. Mainly, I confess, so that I know how much time to schedule before I can make a polite retreat. Coffee with the real estate agent across the street will take a quick twenty minutes. A political get-together means that I'm chronically ill with some Victorianesque malady for which there is no cure. I'm not above claiming the vapors, allergies, a decline of an overall nature.

Truthfully I just state that I'm unaffiliated but a liberal and take a pass. However, I always have a wicked urge to claim that I'm unable to attend due to a lack of smelling salts.

"Just trying to get to know everyone," Anna said with a smile.

I was a bit afraid that I was signing up for a literal Come-To-Jesus meeting, but I readily agreed. Then I had to convince Rob not to develop fictional rickets, scurvy, or consumption and get him to go. He agreed warily. He likes Mo too, after all.

No one was trying to save my immortal soul. Or get me to vote for anyone, sell me jewelry I'll never wear or candles with names like Harvest Fiesta, Spa Melody or Christmas Cookie. It turned out to be a get-together of people from around the town, and they all knew Anna from somewhere different. I was the only person from the neighborhood. Introduction after introduction marched by.

"I'm Steve, my wife and I play tennis with Anna," the people I played a game of pool with informed me.

"I'm Heather, Anna and I take Pilates together," said another.

And then something happened that made me understand what was going on, why I was encountering people from exercise classes, church, clubs and hobby groups:

"I'm Sandy, I know Anna from our divorced women group," A kind-eyed woman told me, "How do you know her?"

To each and all I answered truthfully, "She rang my doorbell and I already knew her dog."

She wasn't trying to sell anyone anything. Anna was just rebuilding as she'd done for years when her ex-husband's job took them around the country and the world. Nigerian art decorated one wall in her home, her teenage daughters talked about the schools they'd attended in Africa, and elsewhere. Then not long after she landed here Anna found out that her husband was behaving like a middle-aged cliche and all the nubile blonds that entails. At the age of 47 she showed him the door, found a job, and completely new to Colorado, set about building a new life for herself.

I'm not sure what really constitutes bravery. There's the kind of courage that it is easy to recognize, and appreciate. People who tackle terrorists aboard planes spring easily to mind. Soldiers who draw enemy fire trying to give their compatriots a chance at survival during heavy engagements. We know that kind of courage but there are all kinds.

Rob and I manned the grill at that first barbecue and talked to some of the most diverse people assembled all because they met a tiny woman who runs, bikes, plays tennis and invites people she meets to her home regularly. It turned into a rather regular occurrence.

Later today I'll be putting together some appetizers, and venturing across the street again to the home of a woman who told me something that stunned me:

"I'm shy," Anna admitted, and I nearly fell sideways into my bookcase as we stood in my home office. I'm being literal, thanks to reconstruction on an old injury, my balance isn't the greatest but it isn't just a bunch of pins and plates that had me tottering. I was genuinely astonished.

All of my life I've been an introvert that can do a stunning impression of an extrovert. It never occurred to me that fittest, tiniest, most outgoing specimen in the neighborhood was doing the same thing.

After that admission yesterday, I remembered something. That first time that I opened the door to Anna I'd noticed a small detail. As you approach my front door from the inside, there is a side window that allows whoever is on the other side to be visible from both sides. I'd spotted Anna, and remembered her from one of the times she'd come to fetch Mo. I smiled as I approached, and raised a hand in greeting. The straight-faced woman on the other side broke into a smile too, which is not unusual.

But I remember fleetingly thinking that she looked relieved. At the time I'd put it down to being preoccupied. Yesterday I learned that, in truth, she was doing something that was difficult for her, but doing it nonetheless.

When I told Rob that Anna was having a get-together, he sounded a little regretful that he wouldn't be able to attend.

"It's good of you to go," he said. "I know parties aren't your favorite thing."

It's true, I prefer to get together with friends one-on-one but I liked Anna from the first, with her dog as a calling-card, ready-to-return-a-smile personality.

"Do you feel sorry for her?" Rob asked, knowing that, generally speaking I only attend parties because I feel like I should.

I thought back for a moment, to all the people who had introduced themselves to me. How the woman that knew Anna through Pilates had suffered a rather dreadful injury in a fall. She was a little plump, but told me of how much weight she had lost and felt confident she could lose more.

"Anna was there encouraging me every step of the way," she said proudly. I found it easy to believe. This from a woman who is every bit as fit as an Olympic athlete. Truly, Colorado wins the leanest state slot every time those things are estimated. We have an unusually active population and Anna is still considered unusually active here.

"No," I answered Rob, "I don't feel sorry for her. I like her. I'm not sure I have all that much in common with her, but I like her."

It's her ex-husband who has my pity. Upon realizing that he had made a dreadful mistake, he had promised the Earth and Sky if only he could be forgiven. Offers Anna turned down even though she was in a state where she knew no one, she preferred to go it alone.

Every now and then in life, you meet someone who is remarkable in the quietest of ways. Who has the kind of courage it is easy to admire if only we take a couple of moments to recognize it.

Anna is, at most, a size zero. She stands maybe 5'1" after a deep inhale, yet she's awfully easy to look up to.

So I feel a bit sorry for her husband that he realized that too late.

* Not her actual name, but all else is true