Summer Storms

It’s a function of summer in the south that we get these pop-up thunderstorms that roll in late in the afternoon. It’s as if the sky gets fed up with the humidity and can’t hold it in anymore. If you’ve ever been to the beach in Alabama or Florida or Mississippi, you’ve seen it coming. The dark clouds way out over the water, the little breeze that kicks up, and then the sheet of fat, tepid raindrops that wooshes down of a sudden.

rain drops on a body of water

Photo by Max Rovensky on Unsplash

(When you’re a swimmer, you call these storms blessed for the reprieve they bring you from grueling two-a-day practices. When you’re a kid just there for swim lessons, you call them cursed for ruining your fun.)

I can picture the hallway at the YMCA where I practiced that led to the outdoor pool. It was lined with benches and tiny doors to racquetball courts, and as we all sat there hoping the storm would last long enough for practice to be called off, middle-aged men clad in terry cloth headbands and tiny shorts would scoot by us with quizzical looks on their way into those echoey rooms. It was air-conditioned, so we sat there miserable and cold in our damp swimsuits.

I have swum in the rain. You’re wet anyway, so a little precipitation was never enough to stop us. I have stood on the blocks waiting patiently for the start with drops splashing down onto my back, the picture of sheer concentration. I have swum in the cold, steam rising off of the pool whose bubble had been taken down prematurely, dashing across the concrete tundra to the towel waiting in your mom’s arms. But thunder is where it ends.

My coach had a little device that supposedly measured electricity in the air and could let us know when it was time to get out of the water. We would eke every possible second out of practice that we could. And then the rule was that we had to sit out at least 30 minutes after the final clap of thunder. As the minutes ticked by, we would cross our fingers for one more, and it usually came.

Some indoor pools are grounded, so you can keep swimming. There were stories of the natatorium in Biloxi being struck by lightning and it arcing dramatically around the roof. I never saw it, but I did swim there in pounding rain.

The Meridian pool was outdoor, and the July timeline of its annual meet meant a storm was practically inevitable. There weren’t many places to go, so we would huddle onto the concrete-covered patio in between the locker rooms, or some of us into the grimy locker rooms themselves (no boys allowed). The wind from even a warm summer storm can bring a chill, and I remember standing there in the eery semi-dark with rain drops whipping in at us, waiting for the call: would we swim again, or not? Someone’s dad would usually make a McDonald’s run.

Another meet in Clinton, the storm blows in before we warm up and we huddle in our cars. Eventually the word comes: no meet today. We drive home past toppled-over street signs and stoplights. Apparently a tornado had touched down.

You take for granted the weather phenomena of the place you call home. I’ve always been skittish of tornados, and more-so since the spring of 2011 when we lost power for a week in a county ravaged by them, but they’ve been a fact of my life. I know what to do, for as much as it can help.

The summer I turned 15 I went to poetry camp in southern California, up on a mountain. There had been a drought (the stalls in our bathrooms had signs instructing us, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”) and a forest fire was raging nearby. I guess it was approaching the base of the mountain, and there was smoke in the air as we went about our days. A firetruck parked calmly near one of the main camp buildings. I went one evening to a play put on by the kids there for theatre camp and I remember shaking with nerves. A forest fire was completely foreign to me. My fellow campers from SoCal thought nothing of it; they counted on its not making its way up the mountain and assumed we were safe.

Sometimes the weather is a character in the story of your life, and other times it’s just a setting or a prop and recedes into the background. Those summer storms felt alive to me, as if they had power over when they would drop the first rain and when the first thunderclap would boom, as if they waited until the start of our 4:30 practice on purpose, for our sake. They determined for me how I might spend hours of my day, a foil to my own self-determination.

A summer storm blew in, and we would wait.

Why I Think I'll Stay

The places I’m from are complicated, y’all, and I love them in spite of the many reasons it would be easier not to.

A young girl in a floral dress sitting on a cannon with her dad standing beside her.

What I love is the first sip of ice cold sweet tea through the straw of a 24oz styrofoam cup on an afternoon when you’ve sweated out approximately half your body weight just walking to the restaurant door.

I love the muscadine vineyard in Canton, Mississippi where we went twice a year, ostensibly to prune the vines and pick the fruit, but more importantly to eat sticky-sweet muscadine juice popsicles and climb trees and play by the scuzzy cowpond we weren’t supposed to swim in and where we kids knew we were safe and surrounded by all the adults who cared about us.

The Sunday school class of a church on a tiny blacktop road just out of cell service that lets you interrupt them in your sweaty hiking clothes to use their landline phone when you get a flat tire and then waits with you until the tow truck comes to patch it.

The smell of honeysuckle that surprises you on a run and makes you feel like you’re 5 years old again swinging in your backyard waiting on your dad to get home from work.

It’s not a lie that things move a little slower down here. You might say there’s a grace to our days and people literally do smile at each other on the sidewalks and we know just when the occasion calls for Grandmother’s pearls.

I’ll admit I don’t love the Palmetto bugs that flourish in the languid humidity and scuttle away as you walk the sidewalks of your college campus at night. (They’re really big, y’all, and I’ll spare you a link to the Wikipedia article.)

I don’t love driving through little towns that wear Confederate flags and everything they stand for as if they’re badges of honor, and I especially don’t love how so many folks can’t even seem to see what’s so wrong about that sticker on their truck anyway.

It’s hard going to a place like Stone Mountain and simultaneously appreciating its greenery, the lake, the natural beauty, the improbability of a lump of granite rising out of the earth like that, while also hating that you drove there on a road named Robert E. Lee Boulevard and knowing that the carvings on its side periodically spark white supremacist fervor. (And I say this as a white person; how much worse must it feel for anyone non-white and especially anyone Black to hear the GPS tell them to turn onto that particular road?)

It’s painful to have a Black coworker who’s always lived in California confess that she’s wary of coming to your city because of the reception she fears she’ll receive. (And yet I respect her truth and am honored that she shared it.)

I don’t love the legislators that keep getting things so, so wrong. I want to say it’s not my circus and they’re not my acrobats. I want to drink a few Bushwhackers and bury my head in the perfect white sand of Orange Beach and Rip van Winkle my way to days that don’t feel like a prequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

But the problem is, this is my circus, and I’ve chosen these acrobats.

I hear people who have never felt the love of this place deep down in ever bone of their body say that everyone, especially women, should leave this state that I call home right now, but they can’t know how that sentiment lands and how impossible it feels to consider leaving this South, especially right when I believe she needs people like me the most.

She needs people that believe in women’s autonomy over their own bodies and aren’t afraid to be loud and to shout for what we deserve.

She needs people that truly believe those words that all men are created equal, and also that some men love other men and some people who look like men are actually women and that maybe we should have used a more inclusive word than “men” in the first place.

She needs people who are going to follow Congressmen John Lewis and make good trouble until she looks a little bit more like what we think the place our hearts can’t help but call home should look like.

She needs people with privilege to lend their support to people who have fallen through the cracks, for people who live in “good” neighborhoods to press for changes that benefit all neighborhoods, and for people with money to spend it in ways that make things better for everyone and especially for people who haven’t had access to generational wealth.

She needs companies to dig in and fight with all the resources at their disposal rather than boycotting and moving their operations away and leaving people jobless and communities poorer and land emptier.

There are things in the news right now that raise every hackle on my 5’6”, Caucasian, female-presenting body and I get the urge to flee. I do. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that I actually have the resources and the ability to leave. But I’m thinking about the people without those means who would be even further marginalized if I and everyone else who could do so left them behind. Those are likely to be poor folks, folks of color, queer folks in rural communities, the people who are doing so much of the heavy lifting when it comes to community organizing and pushing for social change. There are folks who aren’t able to choose whether to stay or to go.

And so, since I have the choice:

I think I’ll stay. I think I’ll try to do the next right thing. I think I’ll volunteer my time, and donate some dollars, and keep riding public transportation to work, and keep shopping locally, and keep calling my legislator even when I’m dismayed that he’s never yet voted how I would have wanted him to.

I think I’ll stay, even though you may not understand why, and instead I’ll tell you all the reasons it breaks my heart to hear you casually tell us we should leave.

I think I’ll stay, and I think I’ll love these complicated places I’ve always called home, and I think I’ll work to make them a better home for a little girl I picture growing up here in the future.

I see her taking photos in front of the vivid pink azaleas in her front yard, the one with the 3 pine trees that drop their prickly seeds on the pebbled front path so she knows she can’t walk down it barefoot at certain times of year.

A young girl in a striped shirt standing among vivid pink azalea blooms with a cat just barely visible at her feet.

I see her reading books with protagonists who look like her and learning about computers and also keeping her toenails painted because it just feels proper, but maybe choosing one of those OPI colors with the perfect name like Madame President, and maybe that won’t be a pipe dream in her world.

And if it still feels simple to say we should leave, I invite you to come visit me so I can try to show you why I can’t. I’ll take you to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, a place that’s grappling with hard, hard problems and that corporations like Coca-Cola have fully embraced by making free for everyone during Black History Month. I’ll take you to Mary Mac’s Tea Room where we can eat fried chicken and drink the potlikker from slow-cooked greens and inhale the sweetest dang sweet potato souffle in a dining room full of white people, Black people, blue collar folks, families, men in suits, and everyone else who just knows good food when it’s set in front of them. I’ll drive you down Martin Luther King’s street where we can see the park rangers in their out-of-place looking wide brim hats strolling down a city sidewalk and maybe we’ll be listening to country music because those songwriters really do know how to tell a story. I’ll take you up into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains where it’s not just the hike up to an overlook that’ll take your breath away (that is, if it’s a time of year when the trees aren’t full and green and blocking the view). We’ll sweat and then we’ll shiver in the AC that’s turned up too high in every establishment you go into in the summer and we’ll buy coffee brewed by refugees and arepas made by a Venezuelan woman and we’ll go watch Gone with the Wind on the big screen at the historic theatre that the city’s first Black mayor helped save before they named the airport after him. I told you it was it complicated, and I meant it.

It hurts to love this South sometimes, but it would hurt me even more to leave.

Maybe you love a place like that, too, and can spare us a little empathy while we muddle through.

Maybe she won’t always be so hard to love.

An All-American Healthcare Story

It started with the spoiled meat. My healthcare journey, I mean. As I was cooking dinner one night, my spouse hollered from the other room, “What literally smells like feces?” Come to find out, the sausage I was browning had gone bad, and I could not smell it.

I’d always known I had a poor sense of smell. Whenever people would say something smelled bad, I would nod along as if I, too, could tell (but I usually couldn’t). On the flip side, I also couldn’t enjoy good smells, either.

When I had a cold the previous fall, my left nostril became completely useless, and didn’t really improve even once the rest of the symptoms had passed. “I should probably go see an ENT,” I thought. But it took the incident with the meat to convince me.

One uncomfortable nasal endoscopy later, my self-diagnosis of a nasal polyp was confirmed. In fact, the ENT’s response when she looked into my nose was, “Wow, that’s a HUGE polyp!” (Very reassuring to hear…not.) That was the beginning of one relatively healthy woman’s trek through the hellscape that is the American healthcare system.

I’ll pause here to say that everything ended well. In fact, everything proceeded well, too. There were no roadbumps along the way, no operating table disasters, no bills sent to collections. And yet, the whole thing felt like an ordeal, and gave me unbounded empathy for the people who have to deal with this shit when they are truly unwell, or alone, or living on the edge financially. I am in the unutterably privileged position of having good health insurance, a fiscal safety net, a job that is flexible with my hours and work location, no children or other dependents who need my time and need me to be well, and a supportive partner with a similarly flexible job and the ability to drive me around and take care of me.

Here’s a probably incomplete catalog of the appointments it took to get my situation sorted out:

  • An initial office visit to the ENT, including nasal endoscopy
  • A follow-up visit to see how the prescription steroids had affected my polyp
  • A CT scan (at a different doctor’s office) to map the inflammation in my sinuses
  • Another ENT visit to look at the CT scan and discuss next steps
  • An appointment to discuss details of the surgery
  • The surgery itself–an early-morning, half-day process, with the following day reserved for recovery
  • A one-week surgery follow-up including nasal endoscopy
  • A three-week surgery follow-up including nasal endoscopy
  • A two-month surgery follow-up, to discuss allergy testing
  • An appointment for allergy testing
  • A follow-up appointment to “read” the allergy test results
  • An appointment to test the allergen mixture
  • An appointment for my first allergy shots
  • An appointment for my second allergy shots
  • An appointment for my third allergy shots
  • An appointment for my fourth allergy shots, and to teach me how to give them at home

I’m now giving myself allergy shots once a week at home, and I had a six-month surgery follow-up scheduled at the beginning of the year. There were also multiple trips to various pharmacies for both prescriptions and over-the-counter supplies that I needed at points along the way.

Y’all, that’s a lot of dang appointments. And consider that each one is, say 45 minutes, at the very least, with an hour or so of travel time to get to the doctor’s office, and another 30 minutes or so to get to my work office or back home afterward. That’s hours and hours worth of time that someone working a part-time, hourly job likely wouldn’t have the flexibility to commit to for what was ultimately an elective surgery.

And not to mention the cost. As I said before, I have good health insurance, provided by my employer. I’ve chosen to carry the high-deductible plan, with an HSA that my employer deposits money into. My spouse and I keep the equivalent of our deductibles earmarked in savings. Last year, for maybe the first time in my life, I hit that deductible, about halfway through the year.

Because the ENT is considered a specialist, I didn’t pay a co-pay each time I visited. Instead, they would bill my insurance provider, and then send me a (paper) bill for what I actually owed. With the frequency I was visiting the office there for awhile, the bills would cross in the mail sometimes. I would go to pay my balance when I was there in person, but then receive a bill for what I was pretty sure I had just paid. Being the conscientious person that I am, I made several phone calls to figure out if I actually owed what was billed. This also took time, which I had the flexibility to do from my desk at work.

In addition to those charges for the office visits, each nasal endoscopy cost something, too. The CT scan cost money as well, that I paid to a different provider. And let’s talk about the bill for the surgery. My ENT’s office has a staff person whose entire job is to meet with patients before the surgery and go over what their financial responsibility will (probably) look like. She calls their insurance provider to talk it over, and then has a meeting with you in her office to go over the numbers. I paid a portion of what it was expected I would owe as a deposit. All of this was okay for me because we had that deductible’s worth of money saved, but it was a lot out of pocket!

So I paid the deposit, I had the surgery, and I knew I would owe some money, but it was unclear exactly how much that would be, when the bills would come, and to whom I would pay it!

Several months after the surgery, the bills finally started arriving. I owed money to the ENT for her services. I owed money to the surgery center. I owed money to the anesthesiologist. There may be others that I’m forgetting. And of course, there were multiple different third-party systems that I had to access to pay all of these.

Asynchronously from the paper bills, I would receive email notifications from my insurance provider that an explanation of benefits was available. This had numbers that corresponded in some way to the bills, but were not directly mappable.

The bills themselves were mind-boggling. There would be a column for the total cost (around $44,000 for the surgery alone), a column for the adjusted cost once my insurance was billed (something like $7,000), a column for what the insurance paid (something on the order of a few thousand dollars), and then a column for what I owed (around $700). The amount paid by insurance combined with the amount I owed did not actually match the amount of the adjusted cost, which itself was obviously a lot less than the initially quoted total cost.

There are entire associate’s degrees dedicated to learning how medical billing works in this country.

Once I hit my deductible of $1500, I had an additional $1500 to spend to hit my out of pocket maximum. I got there pretty quickly, too. At that point, I would occasionally still get a bill in the mail, but for $0–effectively just more paper to shred; existentially, a confusion to ponder over.

There are so many what ifs that I take away from this story.

  • What if…I had not been well enough to drive myself to the initial appointments, and had no one in my life to drive me, so had to either pay for a ride or spend the extra time it takes to navigate public transportation?
  • What if…my job didn’t allow for the hours I needed away from the office to go to all these appointments?
  • What if….I was living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford the out of pocket maximum insurance required of me?
  • What if…I didn’t have a live-in partner to drive me to my surgery and then keep an eye on me as I recovered from the anesthesia? (He hollered up the stairs periodically, “Have you gotten up lately?” to make sure I was moving around like I was supposed to, to avoid blood clots.
  • What if…I had moved in the middle of all of this, and some of the paper bills got lost in the mail?
  • What if…I could only access the Internet from a public computer, making it that much harder to pay all of the bills online or do research about what was wrong with me?
  • What if…I couldn’t immediately pay the bills out of pocket, so they got sent to a payment plan or, worse, to collections, adding yet another layer of complexity and paperwork to getting them paid?

I am a relatively organized, highly educated, financially comfortable, married American citizen, with stable housing and a vehicle that I own. Given all of that privilege, navigating an elective surgery was eminently doable–more of an annoyance than an actual hardship. Given the same advantages, I can imagine that navigating all of this for an emergency surgery, or for a long-term illness, would be significantly more difficult because of the emotional strain and physical side effects, though still doable. But lacking that firm footing, I can barely fathom what it would be like trying to handle all of this.

I think the healthcare system in America is broken. My story shows it. I’m not a politician, and I’m not the one who can bring about systemic changes in any of these systems, but I can vote for the the people who will. And I can be understanding when I hear stories about healthcare related bankruptcies. I can have so much more sympathy when co-workers take time to deal with health issues, or to support family members with health issues. It’s easy to feel helpless, but I think my list of what ifs can give us some ideas.

  • What if…we make ourselves available to give rides to people in our lives dealing with health scares?
  • What if…we use our influence at our companies to protect the jobs of people needing time for appointments, phone calls, etc?
  • What if…we educate people about financial literacy and help them save to have a cushion for healthcare spending?
  • What if…we volunteer at hospitals or surgery centers to look out for people who are alone?
  • What if…we support places like our local libraries that are invaluable resources for people who need access to computers and the internet?
  • What if…we make noise about making Internet access a public good?

My story, which was hardly traumatic in the first place, has a happy ending. The bills are paid. I have a lot fewer doctor’s appointments on my calendar. I can smell now, and I can count on one hand the number of sinus headaches I’ve had since my polyps were removed and my deviated septum was repaired.

My spouse bought me a candle for Christmas last year, that I chose not to light until I knew I’d be able to smell it. We joke that it’s the most expensive gift he’s ever bought me: a $44,000 candle. And it sure smells awfully sweet.

Maybe Easter is Coming?

I have fond memories of Easter. Even secular households in the Bible Belt South learn to embrace the evangelical rhythms of spring, and my family was no exception. We would die the eggs and hide them in backyard, for just me, the only child, to find. I’d get a basket of goodies (I remember I never liked the giant chocolate bunnies, though they seem like a delightful extravagance.) Easter lunch meant egg salad, the occasional bite tinged purple or pink, having been made from the colored eggs.

Other years we ventured to church, if only for the family-style lunch that followed at Uncle Ray’s house. Then I learned about Easter ham, and Sister Schubert rolls, plates piled high and tables crowded with family and friends. I squirmed through the service, not knowing the words or the tunes and not believing.

At fourteen, I was born again, and Easter meant something more. My dad, a notorious late sleeper, drove me to a sunrise service. I remember it was always chillier than the floral sundresses we donned would have indicated. A tableau on the church lawn under a grey sky, and then we piled onto the buses bound for Cracker Barrel. Big breakfast, a nap on the youth room couch, and then the sanctuary service. I loved the swelling verses of Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia Amen. We only sang it that one day of the year, even though its truth carried us through the rest of the days.

We were married on the Saturday following an Easter, which also coincided with my dad’s birthday that year. Our guests kept asking whether our wedding date was on Easter weekend–no ma’am, we’re in the South, the church wouldn’t let us do that! The flowers outside the church had exploded into bloom, as if resurrecting themselves in celebration of our union–Allelulia, Amen.

The first Easter we were in Atlanta, I felt drawn to open my home as others had before to me, and we invited in some transplants like us. I made Easter baskets for everyone and cooked way too much food. It felt over-the-top but also just right.

And then I broke with the church, and Easter was a somber day. I awoke with Christ the Lord is risen today in my heart, and I couldn’t stop myself reading the onslaught of social media posts from my friends who still blithely believed. I didn’t buy the resurrection story anymore, and it broke my heart.

So I began making attempts to mask the sadness, reverting back to the secular version of celebrating–food and friends and conversation. I cooked the ham and bought the jelly beans. It felt better than wallowing in my sadness and unbelief. I believe in the trappings of religion, and I miss them, those markings of the passage of time.

Easter is coming again. It was early last year, and I imagined the scurry of women pulling out cardigans and scarves to layer over their celebratory garb, little girls wailing their feet are cold in their brand-new white sandals, family photos with a steely sky in the background. This year it is later, and we’ll have people over for brunch in the sunshine, and drink mimosas, and I will make too much food again, because that’s what I do.

I could write a trite tale of Easter coming again in my heart, but that wouldn’t be true. Chris the Lord is risen today ends with a question mark these days. But I do feel the resurrection of spring coming, the sun returning to bronze my winter-paled arms, the grass sprouting up greenly, flowering trees dropping petals like rain over parked cars. I have new rhythms these days. I open the windows with an Allelulia, Amen on my lips. Easter is coming.

New Year, Old Me

The year started off for me with more of a whimper than a bang. I was laid out sick on New Year’s Eve and binged an entire season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I didn’t see midnight; at 11:26pm I was conked out. But I slept like a rock until 8:52 the next morning and woke up feeling fine. I watched the Bulldogs lose their bowl game and powered through putting the Christmas decorations away in preparation for heading back to work the next day. By the evening of the 2nd, my fever was back! So I worked from home in my sweats for the next two days. So much for getting back to the grind.

It’s difficult to make resolutions when you are fundamentally happy with your life. I’ve mostly caught up on laundry, I’ve cut back the dead plants in the backyard and under the mailbox, and I cleaned out the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Andy and I have planned out some vacations for the year. I could expend a lot of mental energy and a fair amount of effort on minor tweaks and optimizations, say, setting an SLA on folding the laundry…but honestly I don’t think the ROI would be worth it. I’m mostly pretty efficient, and I’m mostly organized enough. I’m content.

I’ve stuck with Pilates for a year now. I remembered in my first Sunday morning class of the year that I had started going as a semi-resolution last year. And I’ve finally decided I somewhat like to run. I’m already signed up for a 15K in February and will find another fun half marathon to run in 2019.

This will be the year I commit to volunteering with the cats at Lifeline Animal Project more regularly and finally find a way to read to kids. I’d also like to make new candles out of the bits of wax left from old candles. And, I’m going to plan to read one book every month that I already own.

That’s it! Those are my big plans for the new year. And maybe you’ll see me back here periodically.

Here’s to books, cats, traveling, and eating relatively well in 2019!