Life as Lorianne


Lego Starry Night

While everyone else on my Facebook feed has been playing Wordle, I’ve been playing with Legos.

Although I had a generic set of interlocking plastic bricks when I was a kid, I blame J for my adult onset Lego-mania. Several years ago, J surprised me with the Women of NASA Lego set for Christmas, and I enjoyed building that to display on my desk. The next Christmas I bought the dinosaur fossils set for myself, and next the Lego White House…then by the time Lego debuted a botanical collection featuring a flower bouquet, bonsai tree, and bird of paradise plant, it was clear that building Lego sets had become a thing I do.

In many ways I am the perfect market for Lego sets targeted to adults. I enjoy the process of building. It’s relaxing to follow step-by-step instructions while watching a structure arise brick by brick. In this sense, Lego building is akin to the rug hooking and cross-stitch kits I enjoyed when I was younger. You don’t have to be a great chef to follow a recipe, and you don’t have to be an architect to build a Lego set.

I also enjoy the display quality of completed Lego kits. I’m not building Lego kits to play with them; I’m building them to sit on my shelves. As silly as it sounds, I like looking at the Lego sets I’ve completed. When I was a child, I collected model horses, and instead of actively playing with them like dolls, I enjoyed simply looking at them and creating stories about them in my mind. Like those model horses, Lego sets are fun and interesting to look at, and seeing them reminds me of the process of building them. There is the simple but profound satisfaction of saying “I built that.”

This past Christmas, I bought myself the Lego typewriter as J’s gift to me. (Like many long-married couples, J and I surprise one another with a few small gifts but largely choose our own presents.) The Lego typewriter is the most complicated set I’ve built yet. Although I bought it as a pure display piece, the typewriter has moving parts so that when you press the keys, a typebar rises and the carriage moves to the left.

It takes a lot of fiddly bits to achieve this functionality, and after making a mistake early on that made the entire structure shift askew, I dismantled the entire thing halfway through to start the build from scratch. When I finished the entire thing and felt how solid it felt in my hand, I felt an embarrassing level of satisfaction. In my writing and teaching alike, I trade in intangible words and ideas. Rarely do I get to hold in my hand something I built, or even see the fruit of my labor.

Although it feels a bit silly to admit to playing with toys, I missed out on the jigsaw puzzle craze during the early days of pandemic lockdown. While others were stuck at home playing board games, baking bread, and learning how to play the ukulele, I was teaching remote classes, prepping hybrid classes, then returning to in-person teaching. Having missed out on the “downtime” of the pandemic, now I’m finding simple ways to debrief from another hectic school year. Between you and me, I’ll take “silly” over “stressed” any day.

So earlier this year, I built the Lego Statue of Liberty, followed by the Lego globe J bought me for Valentine’s Day…and earlier this summer, I built the botanical orchids and succulents sets to display in my bathroom. Today, I finished building a replica of Starry Night, which wonderfully captures the three-dimensional nature of Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes, and next I’ll build the Lego jazz quartet and Space Shuttle.

In other words, it looks like the building boom will continue.


Gathering storm

Just over a week ago, on the same day my social media feed blew up with gut reactions, primal screams, and hot takes from the official announcement that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, I was on a hospital gurney, waiting for a diagnostic colonoscopy after a positive Cologuard test.

Although I’ve spent the past month telling myself the test results were either a false positive or “just” indicative of benign polyps, I’ve also been nursing a lingering sense of dread. What if I have cancer? What if the cancer has spread? What will I do in the aftermath of a dire diagnosis: what might treatment look like, and why me, why now?

I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never had a pregnancy scare: like Terry Tempest Williams, the only thing I’ve done religiously my entire adult life is keep a journal and take birth control. But I’m guessing quietly worrying you might have cancer is similar to quietly worrying you might have an unwanted pregnancy. In both cases, you fear something growing inside you might end or upend your life.

One of the first things my gastroenterologist did before starting the procedure was ask me to sign a consent form. Nobody can force a patient to undergo cancer screening or even cancer surgery: had I wanted to ignore my Cologuard results, that would have been a bad decision, but it would have been my right.

Because we assume grown adults have the right to make their own medical decisions, nobody can force a person to eat a healthy diet, quit smoking, or give blood, even if doing so would save another’s life. Even after we die, nobody has the right to harvest our organs without our consent. But with the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court erased the right to bodily autonomy for women across the country. If you’re a woman of childbearing age living in a red state, what happens in your body is now the government’s business, not your own.

In the month leading up to my colonoscopy, I told only a handful of friends and relatives. I didn’t share my fears on social media, and I didn’t blog about them, either. I chose, in other words, privacy over publicity. Roe v. Wade argued that women have the right to make the most intimate of decisions about their health and families privately, without government interference. As soon as a woman begins to show, however, everyone has an opinion about her pregnancy: whether a pregnant woman likes it or not, her personal decisions suddenly become political.

During my colonoscopy, my gastroenterologist found and removed four polyps, each a clump of cells that could be benign, cancerous, or precancerous. While I waited for my pathology results, I realized the world of difference between cells that are precancerous and those that are cancer: the difference between an acorn and oak, zygote and child.

It doesn’t matter what your or my personal beliefs about abortion are: medical decisions are each individual’s personal business. Earlier this week, I got my pathology report: all four polyps were precancerous, not cancer. I dodged a bullet when it comes to my personal health, but I still have dire concerns about the American body politic. A court that ignores precedent to strip away rights is a threat to democracy from within.


Curved corridor

This morning, apropos of nothing, I woke up with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” endlessly repeating in my head. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard the song–probably years, maybe decades ago–but there it was playing on the jukebox of my mind, randomly alternating between Neil Young’s original version and Michael Hedges’ instrumental cover.

Where did either song come from, other than the deep recesses of memory? There are CDs that bring me to my emotional knees when I revisit them: Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, for example, or Peter Gabriel’s Us. These albums are so interwoven with a particular time in my life, I immediately recall where and who I was when I listened to them endlessly, their songs providing a sonic bridge to my past.

I don’t have the same emotional connection with “After the Gold Rush”: it’s a song I’ve heard, for sure, but not one I’ve intentionally listened to time and again. But apparently it’s embedded itself into my consciousness, for this morning it randomly popped up from the auditory flotsam of my mind, a spontaneous and nonsensical earworm.

Popular wisdom says scents are connected most closely with memory, the scent of Proust’s madeleines triggering a flood of childhood recollections. But as someone who can smell only occasionally, I am more emotionally susceptible to sound than scent.

When I walk with friends, they will sometimes be stopped in their tracks by a specific and striking smell: for example, a gentle waft of lilac. But the things that stop me are sounds: a house wren singing in a rhododendron, or a brood of starlings churring in a tree cavity high overhead.

When I walk with friends, they seem to focus primarily on human sounds–the words we exchange–while I experience sound as a layered tapestry where words are the embroidered surface and birdsong or other ambient music are the woven warp and woof underneath.

Songs weave themselves into memory almost unconsciously–like a jingle you can’t forget–and occasionally years later the thread of a particular song frays loose at random, exposed at the tattered edge of sleep.


Rhododendrons

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday night, so now I’m returning to the leisurely routines of summer: reading on the patio, writing in my journal, and walking Roxy twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, rather than just once, after I’ve returned from teaching.

Teaching is tiring in part because you’re the one responsible for keeping everyone motivated and on-task: you’re the one setting the energy level in the classroom. By the end of the semester, my emotional cupboard is bare, and I need to refocus and refresh. This is what summer is for.

For years, I taught online classes all year round, starting one semester as soon as the previous one ended. That perpetual teaching schedule paid the bills, but it was emotionally exhausting. These days, I juggle two part-time teaching jobs during the academic year, and I recover from this juggling act during the summer: a chance to refill the well.


Flags

I’m superstitious when it comes to Mondays. I have an unproven theory that if I start Monday organized and on-top of my schedule, the rest of the week will go smoothly, but if I start Monday scrambling, the rest of the week is doomed. As goes Monday, so goes the week.

Today I fell behind schedule before I’d even left the house. Morning chores took longer than I’d planned, and I left home later than I’d like. I arrived at my post-holiday COVID test a few minutes late, only to discover a long line of students waiting ahead of me. As I stood in line answering emails on my phone, my wrist buzzed to alert me to the office hours I was supposed to be holding. It’s never a good omen when you’re late to your own office hours.

And yet, after my COVID test I found a parking spot–the last one–right outside the building where I teach. And when I entered the building where my office is located, the elevator that had been out of service all last week was fixed. I arrived at my office ten minutes late, and nobody was in the hall waiting for me.

I might survive the week after all.


Empties

This year like last, J and I are planning a quiet Thanksgiving at home. Even in the Before Times, I never enjoyed traveling for the holidays, when roads, airports, and train stations are crowded. In the years before the pandemic, J and I would go to a fancy restaurant for Thanksgiving; last year, we had a turkey dinner delivered from a local catering company, then J divided the food into three meals we ate over the course of the holiday weekend.

This year’s Thanksgiving feast was delivered today, so the refrigerator is full. I went to Trader Joe’s last week to avoid going to the grocery store this week, and we literally have nowhere to go tomorrow: no crowds or traffic to navigate.

Now that I’m back to teaching in-person, I remember with strange nostalgia the early days of the pandemic, when introverts were in high clover, not having to come up with an excuse to stay home and avoid social events. Although I don’t want to return to the days of complete lockdown, I’m looking forward to hunkering down for the long weekend. Teaching gives me more than enough social stimulation; what I need right now is a chance to recharge my batteries at home.


Japanese maple leaf

Last night I dreamed that J and I took one of our dogs, Djaro, for a walk in a park. It had recently rained, and one of the grassy fields was flooded with ankle-deep water. Djaro charged into the water and laid down, covering himself with mud.

When I tried to take a photo of Djaro lying in the water, I tapped the wrong button and changed my phone settings, making the camera unresponsive. In the meantime, J called for Djaro to come, and Djaro jumped into J’s arms, leaving a dog-shaped muddy imprint on the front of J’s sweatshirt. By the time I got my camera to work, the mud had dried and I’d lost the moment.

Later in the same (or a separate) dream, J and I went to a large, crowded shopping mall. We had lunch in a restaurant where we sat in a booth, and I went to the restroom before we left. When we exited the mall, we had to descend a long, crowded escalator. Halfway down, J and I were separated, and as J reached the ground level, I realized I’d left my purse and phone upstairs in the mall.

Shouting to J that I had to go back, I turned around and fought the crowds to climb the escalator. I returned to the restaurant and checked the booth where we’d sat, but my purse wasn’t there. I returned to the restroom and had to wait in line (of course) to enter one stall after another, looking in vain for my purse and phone.

Although my smartwatch showed my phone was still connected via Bluetooth, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I wished I could tell J to call my phone so I could hear it ringing in the crowded mall, but he was outside and I had no way to reach him.

The dream ended before I found my purse and phone, and without me reuniting with J outside. I awoke with the unsettled feeling of waiting for a resolution that never comes.


Norway maple leaf

This summer, after gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of several events at the Tokyo Olympics, the world learned about a phenomenon called the twisties: a feeling of disorientation when a gymnast literally loses themselves in midair, no longer able to sense where they are in relation to the ground.

Although I’d never heard of the twisties, I’ve often wondered how spinning figure skaters keep track of where they are on the ice. How easy it would be, I thought, to get dizzy, spin out of control, and slam into the boards…and how much more dangerous it would be to experience a similar kind of disorientation while flipping and spinning in midair.

I’m neither a gymnast nor a figure skater, but I thought of the twisties this morning when I woke and had the same thought I do most every morning: what day is it, where do I have to be, and what do I have to do? We’re at the point of the semester when time is speeding up, and it’s easy to lose track of where I am in the air as another whirlwind week unwinds.


Burning bush

Last night I dreamed J and I were attending some sort of performance in a large auditorium. Brad Pitt was inexplicably sitting in front of me, and the giggling middle-aged woman on my left was trying to photograph a tramp-stamp tattoo above his waistband that read either “Michelle” or “Monica.”

The details of the dream don’t matter; what matters is that I had and remembered a dream. For years, I rarely remembered my dreams, but more recently I’ve realized that remembering dreams is a sign I’ve had a good, sound night’s sleep.

I’ve also learned that I’m more likely to remember my dreams when my sinuses are clear and I can breathe through my nose. Waking up with the memory of even a silly, nonsensical dream is a sign that I’m well-rested and healthy: a precious gift during these pandemic times.

On Mondays and Wednesdays when I teach at Babson, I have to submit a symptom survey before I’m cleared to come to campus. But every morning regardless of where I’m working, I do a quick symptom-check when I wake up. Can I breathe through my nose? Can I smell soap and toothpaste in the bathroom, cat food in the kitchen, and the reek of a used litter box?

Both silly dreams and stinky smells are a welcome sign that I’m healthy, well-rested, and ready to start another busy day, even if it doesn’t involve mingling with the likes of Brad Pitt.


Sudden mushrooms

It’s been a rainier-than-usual July, with last week’s aftermath of tropical storm Elsa bringing torrential rain followed by gray drizzle and gloomy humidity.  Although Roxy hates rain, we walk regardless of weather, which means this past week has been filled with the smell of wet dog.

Wet dog is a smell I’ve only recently discovered, as I’ve been anosmic from allergies for most of my adult life.  But one of the ironic wonders of this pandemic year is that while many folks lost their sense of smell due to COVID, I have partially regained mine after months of masking, avoiding sick students, and religiously taking my allergy and asthma meds.

Living with only four senses is a strange and alienating experience. When others describe a particular scent triggering a specific memory, like Proust’s madeleine moment, I stare dumbly, having no such experience.  When others remark on the scent of a flowering shrub, baking bread, or distinctive perfume, I politely smile and nod without being able to sense what they’re talking about.

Even on those rare occasions in the past when my sinuses were clear, my sense of smell was unpredictable.  Sniffing a bouquet of roses, for instance, I might smell the water in their vase instead; opening a box of cereal, I might be overwhelmed by the smell of cardboard more than the food inside.  And then there are times when a particular smell has gotten stuck in my nose, supplanting all over aromas, like the time I discovered I didn’t actually like the lavender-scented shampoo I’d used for years, and then I smelled it on everything for days.

But this year, after the pandemic literally cleared my head, I have smelled the waft of blooming lilacs, the aroma of takeout pizza, and the odors of litter boxes, dog poop, and road-killed skunk.  Even the stinky smells of dirty laundry and my own sweat are welcome novelties:  a reminder that being able to smell is a superpower that able-bodied folks take for granted until they lose it.

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