Friday, April 3, 2009

Beauty in the Breakdown

A friend and I were recently talking about words, and how I recently used the wrong ones.

But hell, that's why writers have editors, and unfortunately I don't have one for this blog.

I'm over the incident now, but I need to mention it one more time to set the scene for this post. 

In a previous (and now deleted) post, I ticked off a couple of people by saying that many people who spend marathon hours in Second Life are either incredibly bored or incredibly damaged.

In that post, I put myself in the latter category. My friend and I later agreed that maybe I should have used the phrase, "many people come to Second Life to heal" instead of the blunt and derogatory adjective "damaged."

Fair enough.

That aside (but not really aside), I've been thinking a lot about how everyone has a story. Hell, every life IS a story. A long one -- with chapters. Some chapters are boring as hell, some are thrilling and some flip the plot around completely.

If I look back and try to pinpoint the day my life flipped, I think it started when I read an Entertainment Weekly interview with "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk. He talked about his hellish, hellish insomnia and how his life at times seemed like a constant battle with it. 

The interview resonated with me because I hardly ever sleep. 

Pakahniuk said he had two particular methods of dealing with insomnia. Sometimes he imagined he was lying in a coffin six feet under ground, dead, without a worry in the world. Other times he imagined he was sleeping in the palm of God's hand.

It was the latter analogy that really struck me: sleeping in the palm of God's hand. "How beautiful," I remember thinking.

You might wonder why I'm talking about this stuff in a Second Life blog. We'll get to the connection later. Stick with it or leave, I guess. It'll take a few paragraphs.

Flash forward to a few weeks later, a sunny day on a popular shopping promenade in Tempe, Ariz. I was successful and happy and probably getting laid on a regular basis and high on my damn horse without a care in the world. A homeless man asked me for some change. Impulsively, I gave him a $20 bill.

About a block farther down that street, I heard footsteps running after me and his voice calling, "MISS? EXCUSE ME, MISS?" and I was terrified. I'm ashamed to admit that I figured that since I gave him 20 bucks, he was going to hit me up for more money.

I turned around and he was standing there, holding the $2o in his hand.

"You gave me a $20 bill," he said. "I'm pretty sure you only meant to give me a dollar."

(Hey, maybe I just dispelled all your convictions that every homeless person out there is a con-artist drug addict!)

"Um, no," I stammered. "I meant to give you that twenty. Take care and good luck out there." I turned and started walking off quickly.

"Miss!" he called. 

I turned back.

"Never forget that God is holding you in the palm of his hand," he said.

"Uh, I sure hope so," was my flippant response.

"This is my own proof today," he said, and held up my $20. 

I remember thinking "whatever" and hurrying on to whatever stupid shopping destination I was trying to reach. *travels back in time and slaps myself* I do remember briefly thinking how uncanny it was that I had heard someone refer to God's palm twice in two weeks.

Flash forward to a couple of months later, to me sitting in a doctor's office, listening to her tell me that some of my cells had gone just a wee bit renegade on me, listening to her discuss my "options," listening to words I had never heard before, new multi-syllabic words that would soon become a big part of my vocabulary, feeling simple words like "procedure" and "treatment" stretch into gnawing nightmarish proportions in my head, imagining bad cells that looked like malformed rabid monsters steamrolling over the good ones.

That's when I started writing a blog about dealing with things that are out of our control, and the sheer terror that descends on us when that out-of-control thing happens to be our own bodies. I kept a diary and flung it out into cyberspace every day, if only to get it all out of my head.

I wrote about fear and about backflipping into the black unknown and hoping to God that I landed in a safe place. I wrote about having to surrender all of it just to keep from going insane -- to place it all in the palm of God's hand, so to speak, if only so I could inhale and exhale and make it through one day at a time.

Once again, I thought about the homeless man on the corner, instructing me never to forget that my life was in God's hands, and I thought about the bizarre timing.

A publisher stumbled upon that blog -- so yes, kiddies, it DOES happen! -- and asked permission to publish some of it in a book. I made the mistake of agreeing without asking my boss. Later, an editor at a now-defunct magazine called Jane read the chapter and asked me to become a contributing columnist.

And, um, it all caused kind of a brouhaha in my company. One day a vice president sat across from me at a meticulously polished wood table, in a room larger than my apartment, and told me that it was "something of a problem" for the country to read that the corporate director of a global company was "sick and frightened."

I told the vice president that a) assuredly, the whole country wasn't going to read that silly book and b) even if so, how refreshing for America to read that actual HUMANS run companies, and not emotionless money-grubbing suits.

I almost lost my job. At the time I didn't give a damn. Well, I needed the health insurance, and that was my only concern.

The morbid thoughts I dwelled on in the heat of The War with My Renegade Cells were small sharp weapons themselves: The fear that my clock was winding down, that I was running out of time, that soon I might actually Die with a capital D. 

"Die. Death. Dead. Funerals. Coffins. No more Chuck Palahniuk insomnia fight club tactics because I really WILL be six feet under ground. And I will come back from the grave and KICK THE ASS of anyone who leaves a lame stuffed animal at the base of my hopefully lovingly selected and tasteful tombstone."

(Literally, I wrote "no stupid little teddy bears or Beanie Babies at gravesite ever" in my will. I also wanted "I Told You I Was Sick!" inscribed on the aforementioned tombstone, and yes, that request and even the thought of it caused a family commotion.)

Months later after the battle was fought and (knock on wood) won, with those thoughts behind me, a second chance in front of me and a new lease on life, I looked around my beautiful corner office and wondered what the hell I had fought so hard for. 

Life, every day, in a lovely corporate headquarters, a comfortable paycheck, this daily grind, boardroom meetings, who's wearing what label and how much did that suit cost, the wonders of cosmetic surgery and should I explore them, making budget to get my annual bonus, is my housekeeper ripping me off, expense reports, what do I have to do to get a competent intern, why the hell can't my assistant ever order the right freakin' pens, why am I working for a company that considered kicking me out just because I said the Big C word in public???

Suddenly it just all seemed . . . not so beautiful and not worth the hell I had been through to keep it.

So I quit that job. And then I guess I had what you could call a midlife crisis or what my doctor called post-traumatic stress syndrome or what I just called "a yearlong nap." 

Last year I took the remnants of my big fat salary, paid my rent a year in advance, put my bills on auto pay, got in bed and pretty much only got out when I had to buy food, take care of bodily business or sit in a hot bath with a glass of wine. I rescued a cat from under a condemned building. We hung out and watched movies together. I sent money every month to St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Occasionally I wrote for a magazine or two. I let my hair grow long and wild. I stopped answering my phone. I checked my e-mail once a week. I created Emerald Wynn. I probably spent about $1,500 RL bucks in Second Life last year. I watched a healthy, attractive, vibrant avatar run around on a screen and have big fun and part of me felt like I was having big fun too. And as bizarre as it sounds, I really don't care. Despite what everyone says, it wasn't a wasted year. It was fun. And if I ruined my career by taking a year off, as some people say, well, who the hell cares? What's a career, really? I mean seriously. Career my rear. (juvenile)

Please note that so far I've spoken my truth matter of factly here. I don't want your sympathy. I don't want your applause. It was what it was and it now is what it is. Frankly, it's by the grace of God that I'm here right now. When it started, I did nothing but follow a bunch of doctors' instructions and pray and wait in terror. When it was over, I made a conscious choice to stop moving . . . or quietly freak the hell out . . . or go completely bonkers . . . or waste a precious year of my life . . . or whatever label you want to put on it. My own explanation will always stay the same: I was tired, I wanted to rest, I was sick of working, I was sick of people, end of story.

I will say in retrospect, however, that I don't recommend lying in bed until you run out of money. It's fun while it lasts, but then you're sort of screwed. :\

So when I finally did run out of money, I had to come home. That's why I'm here now. And I'm not going to get into my childhood, but it was not the ideal childhood and home is not the ideal place for me to be. 

But here's where we get back to the palm of God and Second Life, because I'm sure those of you who are still reading are rolling your eyes right now and thinking, "What the bloody hell IS THIS?"

Coincidentally -- or not -- my father -- the person I have been the most terrified of my entire life, the person who "inspired" me to leave home when I was 18 and go from Tennessee to California and then all over the country and the world and never ever ever look back -- hurt himself and recently had to have immobilizing surgery.

Coincidentally, my mother started suffering from physical symptoms of severe stress.

Coincidentally, my father also lost his job and they started having a hard time paying the bills.

Meanwhile and coincidentally, I had no job and a few remnants of my big fat salary and nothing better to do with my time.

So I came home here mainly to help my mom by taking care of my dad. And a lot of me was terrified and the rest of me was gleeful. Frankly it was my wildest dream come true. The cruel, abusive bastard was finally weak and helpless so YES, there is justice for the meek.

At least that was my attitude at first, how much I would love to see the tables turned and my father in pain for a change. How the sight of him hurting and needing my help was going to give me back the power he had taken from me as a child.

But you know what? Once I got here, it didn't feel good, seeing my father suffering and weak. It wasn't the triumph I thought it would be. It wasn't the justice that I thought was a long time coming.

Every day I feed my dad and give him his medicine and clean the house and do the laundry and walk his very old dog and *gulp and puke* empty the bedpan thingy he has to use and politely look the other way while I help him change clothes.

And as weird as it sounds, this position of servitude, of helping him when he cannot help himself, of feeding him and giving him medicine and, hell, helping him survive, has healed my turbulent past and given me more strength than . . . laughing at him and reveling in his weakness ever would have.

I don't understand the transformation that is taking place inside of me right now, but maybe a good shrink could. All I know is that it is a good thing, and it is a strong thing, and that terrified little girl inside of me is no longer terrified, and things that I thought were forever broken suddenly feel . . . well . . . glued back together again.

And I think of the chain of events that've happened and how at the time each one seemed like a nightmare, but then they all fit together like a puzzle.

If I wouldn't have gotten -- and then gotten through -- cervical cancer, my life wouldn't have suddenly seemed like a meaningless, throw-away joke.

If my life wouldn't have suddenly seemed like a meaningless throw-away joke, I wouldn't have decided to up and quit my job.

[Um, we'll leave out the part where I sort of flipped out and stayed in bed for a year, because, well hell, that was just screwy.]

If I wouldn't have up and quit my job, my mom wouldn't have anyone to help her take care of my dad and pay the bills right now.

If I wouldn't have come home to take care of my helpless aging dad, I wouldn't have finally gotten this . . . I guess we'll call it peace and power that I have been searching for in the wrong places my whole adult life. 

I finally got my power back, and I learned to my surprise that it's in my nature to use that power for good. And that made me feel like this life, this life was not a mistake, that my second chance was not just luck.


When my dad's meds kick in and he falls asleep, I sit near his bed with my laptop and I go in world, but I don't talk much to people these days. I close all my group chat boxes. I enjoy the silence. I look for eggs or I fish for prizes and there is something really calming about mindlessly going about small tasks in a virtual world.

For the first time in my life, everything inside of me is quiet. And even though my "nurse duties" make it hard for me to physically leave my house much right now, I can still find peace and even stillness in the beautiful corners of a metaverse. I sit on an icy throne in Narnia or look for pixelated Easter eggs or cast a virtual fishing rod into a lake and wait for a bite, and meanwhile something inside of me that was shattered a long time ago is finally piecing itself back together, and everything that was chaos is suddenly making sense.

We all sleep in the palm of God's hand, Chuck.

And, yes, I've learned that I'm one of many shattered people who come to Second Life to heal. 

But my answer to a recent accusation is no, I'm not a victim. If anything, I've been a student. And the lessons I've learned were of gratitude. And humility. And awe. And gratitude. And gratitude. And more gratitude. (And bling is bad.)

And as a good friend of mine said in her own blog post recently, I will no longer apologize for my words in this blog.

And hopefully all posts from this point on will be FRIVOLOUS and RIPE with bad photography.


P.S. Disabling comments on this one. I just wanted to write it for me, so I could read it later . . . in case I ever get skeered again. Or sick of walking my dad's geriatric blind-and-deaf dog.