MayBelle on Marriage: Take Two {Who Says MayBelle Isn’t Romantic?}

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Lest MayBelle be labeled “inexcusably unromantic” or “a marriage buzzkill” (not her critics’ exact words), in light of last week’s post on marriage, let her set the record straight by providing intimate and heartwarming examples of the things she and Precious do for one another to show their affection. Don’t panic: This does not involve sexual innuendo.

Every year on their anniversary, Precious works to get gifts from both the “modern” and the “traditional” anniversary gift categories. To wit:

For their third anniversary, leather and crystal, Precious got MayBelle a baseball glove and a crystal baseball paperweight. He started trying to teach MayBelle about baseball when they first got together (Go Cards!), and they would “watch” games together over the phone. Those lessons continue today, as you might imagine if you’re privy to MayBelle’s deep and abiding disinterest in sports.

For their eighth anniversary, when the gifts were linen and bronze, MayBelle actually found a bronze (ish) lamp with a linen shade. It was a flying pig lamp, but Precious appreciated the effort nonetheless.

Precious cooks for MayBelle almost every night, because if they had to rely on MayBelle for food they’d be either really thin or really fat. Plus, he seems to enjoy the hunting down of recipes and the prepping and the chopping and the simmering, deliberate activities that require patience and a decent attention span, both of which MayBelle lacks.

Precious’ parents died before MayBelle came along, so she knows them only through Precious. One Christmas, MayBelle found an old drawing of his mother and had it framed beautifully (thank you Beveled Edge in Nashville) and it made Precious tear up a bit when she gave it to him, so surprised was he.

On another Christmas, when MayBelle had to be out of town for work, doing two things she really doesn’t like to do, fly and be on television, she thought there wouldn’t be time to get a tree due to the timing of her gig. They had agreed they’d “skip the tree this year.” But Precious went ahead and bought one and had it waiting for MayBelle when she got home. There it was, in all its Scotch Pine glory, in the middle of the den. Boy oh boy did that make MayBelle cry.

MayBelle hopes these examples reassure you that romance is alive and well in the MayBelle-Precious household. There are others, but MayBelle believes in leaving some things to the imagination. Plus, Precious is a private kind of guy.

“I think Precious might be more romantic than you,” said a friend, after, apparently, reading last week’s blog post. (This friend happened to be the one Precious called to ask for suggestions about the best spas in town so he could get MayBelle a gift certificate for her birthday.) She might be right. Having long prided herself on “bring practical,” MayBelle could probably stand to amp up her romance game. But she doesn’t let a day go by without telling Precious she loves him, and he seems to think there’s romance enough in that.

MayBelle on Marriage {Don’t Worry, This Won’t Take Long}

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Back in 2002, at age forty-one, MayBelle, who theretofore had been considered an “old maid,” transitioned to someone who “married late.” She resents both those descriptors, as you might imagine MayBelle would, because there were no guarantees—or requirements—she would ever marry. MayBelle is delighted that cultural norms have shifted at least somewhat although not enough to suit her–especially in the Deep South where she lives–toward realizing marriage is not the only route to happiness.

One element of such partnering is a numbers game, along with a dash or two of serendipity and a handful of what might only be described as “secret ingredients.” MayBelle’s parents did not promise her a prince, riding a horse or otherwise. They were too busy telling her she had to go to graduate school so she would be positioned to support herself. MayBelle is driven to distraction by people who fill little girls’ heads with seemingly surefire notions of weddings and white-picket-fence happily ever afters (is this really a thing?) as if it’s a done deal. Some folks get it, and some don’t. (MayBelle knows she’s talked about this before, but that’s how much it bugs her. She appreciates your indulgence.)

Several of MayBelle’s mentors have been women who never married. Her Aunt Vannie, for example, who lit out from Water Valley, Mississippi, for Greenwich Village and made a life for herself by herself. What a fabulous broad she was. MayBelle still wears a shawl (black and white, from England) and a big ol’ topaz ring she got from Vannie, that enticing woman now long laid low. And her Aunt Theora, who took up painting later in life and developed into an acclaimed, self-taught artist.

Here’s another thing MayBelle loathes: “Why did you wait so long to marry?” Because, she wants to snap back, it took that long for Precious to get here. Plus, if you must know, the only guy who asked her before that was drunk at the time, and the only one she thought she might have wanted ended up marrying a friend of hers. Two friends, actually, after the first one divorced him.

MayBelle may have been a little slow to matters of the heart, not having dated much in her life, but she did know enough not to say “I do” simply to avoid living alone. So when MayBelle and Precious, who is six years older than she, announced they were getting married she thinks they were as surprised as anyone. And really, really, grateful.

MayBelle heard the whispers, though, people saying they wondered if she knew everything about him, and did he know how much MayBelle adored (the word “worshipped” might have been employed, for emphasis) her father?

“No wonder she didn’t marry until after her father died,” was an especially insightful barb tossed her way. (Did MayBelle’s sarcastic tone come through there? If not, let her know and she’ll try again.) Baggage all around. Of course there’s baggage, MayBelle wanted to shout; we’re alive, aren’t we? And in our forties, for goodness sake. No baggage, no fully lived life, thinks MayBelle.

Those comments reminded MayBelle, in an intensely personal way, about the need for minding one’s own business: Don’t think you know best about other people’s lives. Tend your own instead.

And here they are, celebrating fifteen years of marriage. It’s not a lifetime, they realize, or an assurance of fifteen more, but it’s what they’ve got, and they’ll take it. They celebrated, in part, by hiking to a beautiful spot in western North Carolina, even though Precious’ idea of outdoorsy is being on the golf course and MayBelle has only recently taken to exercising. This is what marriage looks like to them: Walking side by side, even when the husband wears shoes meant for strolling, not trail trekking, and the wife keeps asking if they should turn back. Four feet, two hearts, one team.

MayBelle and Precious are not the kind of people who think love is enough. They don’t post on social media (Can you imagine Precious on Facebook?) about having “the most perfect spouse in the world,” and they don’t take much for granted. They think you need love, sure, but you also need luck, and a bit of work. Commitment helps, and trust, and all sorts of other intangible components that contribute to tangible sustainability.

So MayBelle and Precious can both tell you when they “ just knew” they were meant to be together, although they can’t necessarily tell you one another’s favorite flavor of ice cream. And no, they don’t have an “our song,” but if they did, it would be John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

 

 

 

 

Estate Sale Blues {On What’s Left Behind}

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Seen at yet another estate sale. MayBelle’s mother used to wear Ferragamos, before she got so old, she’d say, that she had to trade fashion for function.

Often MayBelle doesn’t miss her deceased parents on those days you might consider made for mourning: death anniversaries, family birthdays, major holidays. Most likely she begins to cry, or is forced to her knees, at unpredictable times and in unexpected places.

Like this weekend, when she went to an estate sale, the kind where it’s obvious someone has left the house for good, as opposed to a garage sale intended to make room for more stuff. What’s left is what’s left behind, after the inhabitant has died or moved to a retirement community or skilled nursing facility, perhaps. For some reason, in her mother’s final days, MayBelle much preferred “skilled nursing facility” over “nursing home.” She was choosing her words deliberately, she surmises, so that she might survive the fact that her mother could no longer care for herself in a meaningful way.

MayBelle knows the territory because she’s been there, deciding what stays in the family, what gets donated or sold, what needs to be discarded. How to choose between a memory and a marble candlestick? Indeed.

As she made her way through the tidy townhouse, MayBelle looked for old postcards and photographs, small things she might use as writing prompts or for her art projects. Exiting a bedroom she glanced in the closet, where she noticed clothes like her mother wore in her later years: matching, machine washable, sturdy with a hint of style. MayBelle began to weep, seeing the same brands she and her sisters used to buy for their mother, clinging to any last gesture they might offer her when so much had been taken away. For a while there, MayBelle could tell any woman of a certain era where to get the best deals on Alfred Dunner and high-waisted cotton underwear.

MayBelle is what’s known as a “highly sensitive person”—yes, it’s a thing—and she can be moved to despair at warp speed. Bless her heart. She is also a person with an estate sale problem. Probably she should not spend so much time rummaging around in the pasts of strangers, as it often makes her sad and she does not need even one more tea towel. But this weekend it is where MayBelle found herself, wondering what had happened to the homeowner (was it a happy life?), forking over eleven dollars, and missing her mother.

Walking “Into the Fire” and Coming Out Renewed {On The Sun Magazine’s Retreat}

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Just back from another great trip to Wildacres for The Sun Magazine’s “Into the Fire: The Sun Celebrates Personal Writing” retreat.

“Life-changing,” said a fellow Pilgrim Writer who went with me. I don’t think she’s overstating the matter. Top-notch presenters, beautiful scenery, good food, and kindred spirits. Plus, it’s in western North Carolina, my soul’s home country, so I’m always fed there.

In short:

Krista Bremer: I didn’t attend any of her workshops.

John Brehm: Don’t tell Precious but I think I’m in love. John is a poet who teaches in Oregon. He’s edited a volume of poetry for those of us who work in the realm of mindfulness and who are tired of relying on Rumi and Mary Oliver exclusively. And although Oliver’s “Wild Geese” is hands down my favorite poem in the universe, and Rumi’s “Guest House” opened up the work of my heart, it’s nice to have other options. His workshop, “The Magic of Metaphor,” helped clarify what metaphor is (I know, I know; by now I should have a handle on the difference between metaphor and simile and how to employ them effectively but, alas, I didn’t until I met John, who says he doesn’t make a big deal about trying to distinguish the two, so it’s no wonder I like the guy) and how we can use in it our writing, be we poets or creatives of another sort.

Frances Lefkowitz: Her workshop, “The Art of Short: Flash Fiction and Micro Memoir” was great. And by great I mean accessible, informative, and a whole lotta fun. People raved about her last year at the retreat, so I was glad to get the chance to hear her this year. (She was the only repeat teacher from 2016, if memory serves, which it doesn’t sometimes now that I’m, you know, old.)

Heather Sellers: One of the best writing teachers around. Buy her books Page After Page and Chapter After Chapter if you want to write, and hear her live if you get the chance. I did not attend Heather’s workshops as I had the pleasure of hearing her at Kentucky Women Writers a few years back.

Marion Winik: Let’s just say she’s “candid.” I knew Marion’s work from her days on NPR. She was a bit crude for my taste during the workshop, but her model for memoir has already changed–for the better– how I write, and teach.

My most treasured memories, though, will be the people I communed with, whether sitting in Adirondack chairs facing the mountains or while passing the lemony green beans (delish!) at the dinner table. People of varying ages and assorted physicalities, people who have been published widely and people who just like to read, people from all over the country, brought together through their love of the written word and their respect for The Sun—what it publishes, all it stands for, how it informs and inspires.

One evening, I talked with a twenty-something neuroscience major from Tulane. Egads I could not stop staring at this rare, lovely creature; so young and full of promise and smarts and drive; “You’re going to be a neuroscientist?” I kept repeating. “Who plans to work in impoverished countries?!” Then there was a Quaker from Up East, who knew all about the Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Indiana where I’ve taught; the woman I had met five years ago when I led a workshop in Seaside, Florida, but hadn’t seen since; and a retired lawyer who wants to write memoir but is hesitant to reveal herself. “Quite the challenge, then,” we joked.

What a luminous assortment of humanity, this gathering. It’s worth going simply for the people you’ll meet, even if you don’t write.

But I hope you will, of course. I hope you will write your hearts out, fellow pilgrims, for it’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.

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Missing Martha {On Mother’s Day}

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Martha Lee Lyles Wilson, 1922-2016

Last month my two sisters and I met in Oxford, Mississippi, to see our mother’s gravestone for the first time since we had buried her just over a year ago. We’d all made sojourns to the cemetery before this particular April afternoon, but it had taken a while for us to get the ledger in place. So we walked from The Square over to St. Peter’s Cemetery, around the small grouping of trees I think are cedar but don’t know for sure. Then, just past the curve of the road, we veered right to the Wilson plot on the hill.

It looked beautiful, elegant and classic, just like Daddy’s. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” it read. Ann, Ginny, and I got her as close to Daddy as we could. It’s where she liked to be in life, right next to our father, and she told me more than once, “that’s it for me,” after he died, some sixteen years before she did. She would quickly add that she still loved being with her family, but I knew what she meant, I think, for something life-giving abandoned her the day he died.

We had a ritual when we got back to Ginny’s house, putting out some pictures, lighting a candle, and telling stories of our childhood. I read a poem entitled “We Remember Them,” by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer, sent to me by soul-friend Sheri Malman when I told her what I wanted to do. She also managed to have a bouquet of flowers waiting at the cemetery for us, which contained calla lilies and roses, my parents’ favorites. That’s a good friend, people.

The last line goes like this: “For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”

Let all those who miss their mothers on this day say Amen.

Somehow comforted by hearing Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” on WMOT, the fabulous Americana station I listen to daily in Nashville, as I write, and remember.

 

Watch Your Step {On Noticing}

IMG_7718While walking in the Radnor Lake Natural Area near her home in Nashville over the weekend, MayBelle stopped to watch some deer feeding among the trees. Lovely, calm creatures nourishing their bodies while MayBelle filled her soul. It was one of those quiet, still moments that keeps MayBelle going when she thinks all the noise and unsettledness in the world at large might overtake her. She has come to crave time in nature, finding it to be as sacred as any brick and mortar church she’s ever knelt down in.

Soon she heard some Very Loud People headed her way, in the form of two young women debating with enthusiasm the best bars in Tuscaloosa. MayBelle heard enough to be able to make some recommendations, so let her know the next time you’re headed that way and she’ll hook you up. Consumed by their chatter, they almost ran smack into MayBelle, who had stepped to the far side of the trail. She had not called out to the women so as not to disturb the deer. MayBelle is nothing if not polite, even when meandering in the woods.

“Oh,” said one of the women as she stopped short in front of MayBelle. “What are you looking at?”

MayBelle tiled her head in the direction of the deer.

“Wow,” the other woman said. “We hadn’t even noticed.”

Indeed, thought MayBelle as the deer skittered away.

There were other delights during MayBelle’s time in nature, like the big woodpecker beating his heart out; the call of the turkeys; lines of turtles on logs. And, alas, there were other Very Loud People. But MayBelle is learning, slowly, how to tune out what she doesn’t need to hear and instead concentrate on what really matters.

 

Dog Love {On Losing a Pet}

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Sloopy: The Beginning of MayBelle’s Dog Love

Sloopy was the dog of MayBelle’s young childhood, a sweet, block-headed lab who was her constant companion. When MayBelle looks at old pictures now she wonders if she had any friends at all, so often does she appear with the dog.

Then there was Savoy, and Rasta, and F. Scott. And, in her thirties and forties, Quay, who was the dog of MayBelle’s adulthood, by her side as they made their way in Nashville, just two. When Precious came along he was warned that he had to pass muster with Quay Girl or the dating deal was off. At their first meeting, Precious got down on his knees and rubbed Quay under her chin, resulting in two smitten gals instead of one.

Quay Girl was MayBelle’s heart. She was scared of thunderstorms, wary of screaming children, and shed her mixed-breed hair like tumbleweeds. She was also fiercely protective, a great traveler who never threw up in the car, and prone to trying to curl up on MayBelle’s chest long after she had grown too big for such. Her fatty tumors came, as they do sometimes in older dogs, and then it became clear she also had cancer throughout her system. MayBelle and Precious knew it was the humane thing to do to let her go at age fourteen. MayBelle cried for days.

Then came Hiram, a West Highland Terrier chosen for his low shedding properties, as Precious is allergic. Hiram was the smartest dog they’ve ever had the pleasure of tending to. Stubborn, funny, endearing, and dead at only seven and a half. MayBelle and Precious are bereft.

If you are a pet person, what is it about these creatures that crawl on our laps and steal into our hearts? Chew our furniture, demand our attention, and calm us like nothing else can?

Recently a piece about people who refer to their dogs as their children made the rounds on social media. The writer was outraged that anyone would presume to compare a pet to a child. MayBelle gets it, really she does, that dogs are not people. And as cute as she thought Hiram was, he didn’t hold a candle to her great- nephews and nieces. But seriously, people, dog love is its own thing, and if it brings someone joy to spoil his or her pooch, what’s the harm? Sure, it sort of creeps MayBelle out when she sees dogs dressed up in human clothes, but she doesn’t feel moved to criticize their owners for it (not out loud, anyway).

As for MayBelle, she’ll spend her time on articles such as this one that proclaims the health benefits of pet ownership. That said, she understands that not everyone loves dogs like she does; even some of her own family members back away at the mere mention of slobber. (MayBelle is sometimes tempted to bring up “expressing anal glands” when around these relatives but so far she has resisted the impulse.) MayBelle, on the other hand, relishes the time with her canine companions and knows she will need one with her until the end of her days. There have been times in her life, after all, when a dog was the only living, breathing creature she’d see for days. It’s hard to let go of a bond like that.

So dress up your dogs, saddle them with family names (MayBelle’s personal proclivity), spoil them with treats and toys, post their pictures on Instagram. MayBelle, for one, doesn’t mind.

Dear Wednesday: What Do You Have for Me?

IMG_6362Dear Wednesday,

As you dawned this morning, I hesitated, tempted as I was to stay in bed, or maybe wear my pajamas all day. Some days are like that for me, slow to get started, peppered with doubt about if what I do in the world is enough, seeing that I’m not curing cancer or alleviating poverty or even sitting behind a desk from nine to five at a big corporation. It’s easy for me to get caught in a whirlpool of worry, first, because it’s my nature, and second, because as a self-employed, freelance creative such as myself I sometimes pay more attention to what the world might think of me than to simply doing the work I am called to do. So even though I hesitated, Wednesday, I did get dressed, I am up and working, stringing words together and helping others do the same. It may not sound like much, but it’s what I have to bring to the table. So give me what you’ve got, Wednesday. I’m ready for you.

Looking forward,

Amy Lyles Wilson

Hospital Aftermath {Every Patient Has a Story}

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Some of the fine people who helped me at Vanderbilt. Even though they couldn’t give my malady a name, they gave me excellent care and comfort.

Not long after I returned home from the hospital, I noticed a pain in my chest, near the lower part of my ribcage.

“Maybe you pulled a muscle,” said Precious, which might have made sense if I’d actually moved since I’d been home. The most exerting (is that a word?) thing I’d done was spread a quilt over my feet and reach for the remote. Active I was not after four days in the hospital and a mandate from the doctors to stay put. They probably didn’t mean I couldn’t leave the couch, but I am a literalist at heart and I wasn’t taking any chances.

“Maybe,” I said, both appreciating my husband’s tendency not to overreact and simultaneously needing him to freak out on my behalf.

“But it hurts to breathe.”

Because we had not sought help immediately when I started feeling bad earlier in the month and thereby ended up in the hospital, we vowed not to make that mistake again. So we consulted my primary care doctor, who said she also suspected a pulled muscle but would x-ray just in case. We got word it was pneumonia before we even made it out of the building. I’ve never had pneumonia before, so I didn’t realize that it’s actually painful. Yowza. More antibiotics.

(WARNING: If you are squeamish about the female nether region, run for your life. Or just skip to the last paragraph.)

Then about a week later, I noticed an intense itching in my privates. Seriously scratchy. And my skin was flaking off like those little balls of rubber cement you roll up after you’ve been acting a fool with the arts and crafts supplies. It made me want to cry out like when you were a kid and your mother ripped the Band-Aid off the abrasion you got when the Doberman from down the street yanked you from your banana seat bike and you fell into a puddle of gravel. Yes, like that. I was scared to look, but I did, and then I was really scared and really grossed out. I grabbed some antibacterial cream and started googling.

Shortly thereafter I convinced myself I had Norwegian Scabies (FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DO NOT LOOK THIS UP!) and that I had gotten it from the hospital, having already suspected they didn’t change my sheets often enough.

For the next day or so I continued to slather creams of varying consistencies on the affected areas, hoping my discomfort would go away. It did not.

Back to the same walk-in clinic where we had gone when this saga first started and we were told I had the white blood cell count of someone who was receiving chemotherapy and that I needed to get to the emergency room immediately.

I’m not a sexist (gender-ist?) about doctors, having had both male and female along the way, but I must say I did request a female this time around. I told her about having been hospitalized for neutropenia and then added, “Something’s wrong,” I said. “You know, down there.” I lowered my head for effect.

“I’m pretty sure it’s Norwegian Scabies.” I think I was whispering.

“Let’s take a look,” she responded, snapping on a pair of blue latex gloves. She might have been smirking but I can’t be sure because I was too busy planning my lawsuit against the hospital for having unsanitary conditions that resulted in my contracting this rare and embarrassing disease to notice her facial expression.

One beat, two.

“This is easy. It’s a yeast infection, most likely as a result of all those antibiotics you’ve been on for the low white cell count.”

“You mean it’s not Norwegian Scabies?”

“No,” she said. “Whatever that is. I’ll give you a prescription for some cream and you’ll be fine.”

She did and I was, although for weeks afterward I continued to wonder about each ache and every itch. Eventually, though, I stopped obsessing and gave up googling. We’re all healthier for it.

And Then a Crow Ate a Goldfinch. {Every patient has a story.}

img_6788I lose it about 4 a.m. on Wednesday. I think I scare the nurse a bit, for it must be like seeing his mother break down. That’s how young he is. And he is great at his job. Also, a doll.

“I need to draw more blood,” he says. “Another culture.”

This means taking a good bit of blood. How do I have any to spare? I start to cry.

He stands in the doorway a few seconds, unsure.

“I just need a minute,” I say, grabbing for some tissues. “I don’t think it’s all that strange for me to feel frustrated.”

It’s as if, as usual—I’ve done it all my life so I shouldn’t be surprised—I’m seeking permission. Approval.

“Of course,” he says. “I know it’s hard. We’ll get you through this.”

Oh, those words, precious boy. He doesn’t say they’ll cure me, or that it will be easy, or that he has answers. Just: We’ll get you through this. Pardon the cliché but it is just what the doctor ordered. (Or should have.)

Later Wednesday morning I feel a bit better, but there is still no diagnosis. Some big things have been ruled out. The hematologist tells me this happens more often than you might think, that an infection invades your body and you never know its source.

Then, toward evening, I see a crow eating a goldfinch. Right there on the ledge outside my window. I notice little bits of fluff wandering around the sky, and I see the crow picking at something at its feet. When it turns over its prey, there is a brilliant flash of yellow. I am mesmerized, trying to decide if this is a sign of some sort for me—the cycle of life and death and all—or merely nature doing its thing. And if it is the cycle of life and death, which will it be for me? I am sad and mesmerized by nature all at once.

I can’t get to my phone to take a picture and while I hear you saying, “Bless her heart. She was probably hopped up on good drugs and just imagines she saw a crow eating a goldfinch,” let me remind you that when I ask for some calming medication, I am given melatonin, people, not anything mood inducing. (And when I tell the nurse the melatonin didn’t really do the trick, I am given MORE melatonin.)

I decide not to take the crow incident as a sign and instead say a blessing of gratitude for all that nature–and man–is capable of. I go back to watching Gilmore Girls. I didn’t follow the series when it first aired and I am quickly becoming hooked. Hooked, I tell you. I want to dress like Lorelei (sp?), drink coffee out of bowl-like mugs, and matriculate at Yale. Somebody get me out of here…

My dinner is pretty tasty, and, ta da, is actually what I ordered. (Several times my order was not what I ordered and that was disappointing. Not a big deal, but when what you have to look forward to is a biscuit with turkey sausage and you don’t get it, it can seem like a much bigger deal than it would on a regular day, like when you don’t think you’re dying and there isn’t a crow eating a goldfinch outside your window.)

When I wake up on Thursday morning I am covered in sweat. Instead of being grossed out, I am delighted, as I think it means I am on the mend.

“I think my fever broke,” I text Precious.

“On my way,” comes his reply.

Several hours later the doctors tell me my white count is on the upswing, my fever is down, and I’m free to go. Still no diagnosis, and oral antibiotics and follow-up checks will be necessary. I’m a little scared to leave, actually, what with the not knowing and all. But apparently if I want to wait until I get some sort of definitive answer, a reason, I will be hospitalized for a very long time.

Although I have never believed in a puppeteer kind of God, a deity that picks and chooses who will suffer and who will flourish and decides which of us needs to learn a lesson and which folks can afford to skip class, I must say I’m trying to see this experience as a learning opportunity for me, in that I have long been one who wanted to figure everything out, to have a cause and effect that I could grasp. To understand. Even if it was bad, I’d say, I want to know. And now I don’t. I am being called to lean into the mystery, so lean I shall.