Despite the ordeal with my colitis, the rest of life was moving inexorably forward. I wished I could put it on pause while I sorted out my disease.
After eight years in Madison, Ron and I were moving to Portland this summer. For years, I’d been envisioning this move, and now the time had finally come. It was early July, 2014. Our lease ended in mid-August. Soon we would pack our cats and most precious possessions into our little Hyundai, put the rest of our stuff in a moving pod, and drive across the country. We had a bucket list of things to do: good-byes with friends, Portland job-hunting, Portland house-hunting, figuring out how to transport me across the country with my special diet, setting up health care in Oregon…
I was the impetus behind all this trouble. Increasingly over the last few years, I had missed my home and family. In the spring I had second-guessed myself: Was this the right decision? Was I just succumbing to a restless spirit? Was there some other change I could make, some easier change besides uprooting Ron and the kitties, leaving all our friends, and losing our lakeside lifestyle?
But whenever I pictured staying, it felt stagnant. And when I pictured living in Portland, with its green hills and the ocean and Columbia Gorge and desert nearby, with my family just minutes away, my heart soared. Portland got to me in ways that Madison never had. The sermons and hymns at Portland’s First Unitarian Church made me cry. So did Mom’s contra dance community. The great trees of Oregon were my spiritual teachers. The ocean was where Dad was buried.
I’d been talking about this for years, and Ron was game. We were going.
As the move approached, I felt sad but also excited. The housing market looked atrocious and we didn’t yet have jobs or many Portland friends, but I felt inexplicably sure that my heart wanted me to do this. Following my heart had always served me well.
There were things we would not miss about Madison. One thing in particular. By now Ron and I had both quit our jobs at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources–Ron had quit last year to substitute teach, and I had quit just last month. I had waited till my crowning achievement occurred: the publication of Field Guide to Wisconsin Streams, the book Ron and I had authored together. It was satisfying to hold the book in my hands. I don’t remember how I first got hold of a copy–Did I venture back to the office, braving the scowls of people we had alienated, and pull it out of a box?–but I remember the glossy cover, and flipping through its smooth, untouched pages. That moment is every aspiring writer’s dream.
This book had been the bane of our existence for years. Our excitement at the product was marred by the ordeal we’d been through to get here. The book had actually been finished months earlier, but I had held onto my part-time position until now, when the book was physically in my hands, fearing that if I quit before this moment, it might never actually be published. I made sure to stay in touch with supervisors and the publisher via email, answering any questions that arose and helping the project along. After everything we’d been through, I wasn’t about to leave this to chance.
We had ultimately lost the battle to have our names placed first on the cover. We both agreed that my career, especially, would be hurt by this appalling agency decision. I had written the vast majority of the book, done the vast majority of the work on the project, held the official title of Project Manager, and pushed things forward countless times when the third author, a higher-ranked colleague, had repeatedly stalled and erred. Despite his incompetence, he had ultimately threatened to sue the agency if his name was not placed first on the cover. Along the way, he had also actively sabotaged our careers, attempting to block us from direct contact with other biologists, berating us for made-up offenses in meetings with supervisors, and claiming to have done pieces of the book that we had in fact done. He was unionized while we were not, so unless I hired my own attorney, I had no one to officially advocate for me.
So holding the book in my hands was bittersweet. My joy was mixed with outrage. Because of the author order, people were already referring to the book as the “Miller field guide” rather than the “Songer field guide.” The agency’s recent press release devoted much more space to the third author than to me or to Ron.
Even now, preparing to leave the state, we were still battling with this man for due credit. In July the three of us were invited onto the Larry Meillor Show, a popular Wisconsin Public Radio show focusing on natural resources. In a typical sabotaging move, our co-author attempted to reschedule the appearance at a time when only he would be available, so that Ron and I could not appear on the show. A flurry of emails ensued. We won a small victory when a former supervisor vouched for us: Ron and I would appear on the show, alone.
The show took place on July 9th. I was in the midst of my experiment with prednisone, and I thought the drug might be helping a little, but I couldn’t be sure. I was still consistently having three bowel movements a day, each with bloody diarrhea. (Oh I’m sorry, did you forget that I talk about poop a lot here?)
During the show, my gut cooperated. For an hour we forgot about the authorship conflict and spoke excitedly with Larry about Wisconsin’s stream wildlife, freshwater mussels and crayfish and aquatic plants and trout. We left beaming. I would later write about it all in my writing-and-life blog, katiesonger.com, carefully leaving out most of the conflict or any mention of my colitis.
After the show, I headed across town to my first-ever acupuncture appointment.
I’d heard that acupuncture can help with gut problems, not to mention stress and anxiety, and I’d been having plenty of all of the above. I was excited to give this a try. A serious, slightly awkward white woman led me into a dark, soothing room. She had straight, shoulder-length hair and a nervous smile. She laid me down on a table with comfy pillows, and I told her about my illness and my history of inflammation: my painful knees, the skin flakes on my face, my Raynaud’s disease. She left me for a few moments while she prepared her needles.
I sat up and looked at a drawing on the wall. It was a diagram of the human body with energy meridians, lines that supposedly run through the whole body and connect disparate parts to each other. I wondered how scientific and real these “meridians” might be.
The woman came back and gently tapped needles into me. With each tap I felt a slight sting, then a subtle heaviness, as if a warm relaxation emanated from the needle’s tip. I looked down at myself. Needles poked out of places nowhere near my colon: my feet, my fingertips, my calves.
She left me alone, turning off most lights so that the room was dark and quiet. She had turned on strange music, some kind of bells or gongs sounding in different tones and intervals. I closed my eyes and tried not to move or to think of the needles in me. Each time a bell sounded, it seemed to resonate through my body in a wave. After a few moments I felt myself relax. Then I began to cry.
There was no particular thought that made the tears come. They came with force, all at once, and I suddenly found myself sobbing there on the table, overwhelmed with some nameless grief, confused about its source. Perhaps it was the pent-up frustration and anger over the injustice of the field guide, my powerlessness to stop a powerful man from taking something from me that could have been so uplifting and joyful. Perhaps it was the loss of this spring, a time when Ron and I could have, should have, been enjoying life and trying for a baby. Or maybe, like so many things, it had to do with Dad. Whatever it was, the thought of myself crying here in the dark with needles poking out of me just made me cry harder; I sobbed and sobbed and thought about how ridiculous this seemed, that I was crying here for no reason. And yet as I cried it felt so good, as if something buried in me was being released.
The woman came in to check on me. “I’m sorry,” I blubbered. “I don’t know why, but I’m crying.”
She smiled, unruffled. “That happens sometimes.”
She left and the tears continued. Eventually I settled down, like a baby crying herself to sleep. Afraid to move with the needles in my arms, I left the tear tracks on my face to dry. I looked up at the ceiling in the dark, blinking the water out of my eyes, listening to the chimes and gongs. They sounded gentle and yet firm, insistent, otherworldly.
My body felt drained and peaceful. Somehow, intuitively, the tears made sense. After all the stress of recent months, perhaps I needed this now, this dark, empty space.
When the woman returned to remove the needles, I asked about the mysterious music. She explained that it was Tibetan singing bowls, played by monks. I made a second appointment for a week from today. I wondered if the tears would return each time I did acupuncture.