Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ghost Stories

Today is one of those days when my vitality, my life force, is just so low. I'm so worn out by the pain and the pills that I have little motivation to do anything--even the basics, like paying bills and grocery shopping. It all has to get done HAS to. All that's in my fridge is butter, apple sauce and maple syrup.

But pain sucks the life energy right out of you. What little of it is left I use for flamenco classes, the occasional painting, even volunteering at the local shelter when I can. But activity of any kind, particularly dancing, can flatten me for a day or more. Maybe the fatigue is from the pills. I've actually been a little spooked lately that I may take one pain pill too many and inadvertently check out of this existence long before my scheduled departure.

On the one hand, a permanent rest sounds lovely, but there's also this sneaking suspicion that I'm supposed to meet this challenge, and I have absolutely no evidence as to why I feel this way.

Like other times in my life when something deep within my psyche was speaking to me, either overtly warning me of grave danger (to the extent that I made a decision that averted catastrophe) or providing me with a general premonition that something cataclysmic and unavoidable was about to occur (and then it would), there's something now nagging at me from my center that's telling me that there's more meaning to this experience than I'm willing to admit, and I wonder why I'm fighting it.

I'm guessing it's because it means more work on my part...more silence, more journal writing, more reading, more meditation...and frankly, I can't be bothered. I'd rather watch Ghost Hunters.

But if I'm ever going to get out of this mess, I've got to follow hunches and at least be open to the possibility that something else is going on in the dimensions all around me (hence my interest in shows about the paranormal). While we humans live in three, science has now mathematically proven the existence of nine (last I heard), and something is going on there.

Whether that something can be of any use to me is a mystery, but I need to review some crucial paranormal events in my own life, as they were as real as the hands I type this post with, and maybe they're the evidence I need to find some hope in this hornets' nest of pain and misery.

While I'm trying hard here to be a good newly-born atheist (letting go of all notions of inherent meaning to terrible events and the idea of any master plan), if I'm to give up my beliefs in an afterlife, then I basically have to erase certain experiences from my brain, and, of course, I can't.

There haven't been many, but they've been memorable. Here they are:

1) The first happened when I was 17. I was driving my dad's big old Cadillac at around 2 a.m. after dropping off a bunch of high school girlfriends at their respective homes. I remember being at a red light and feeling agitated, like I wanted to run it as there wasn't a soul around. But it was a main intersection, right by Seton Hall, and I figured it would be just my luck to run it just as a cop car came along.

So I decided to sit and wait, but when the light turned green, something bizarre occurred. Fully formed sentences in my head told me to not move, that someone was going to run the light, and I froze in position--not out of fear, but more as if I were paralyzed into a type of powerless obedience.

Sure enough, after a few long seconds, a large white van ran the red light at about 50 mph. Had I not listened to this voice, I would have been broadsided and killed instantly.

What's so striking about this event, other than its obvious strangeness, is that I thought nothing of it at the time. I had a type of "of course" response, like, "Of course someone would run the light; I knew it would." And then I just went home and never spoke of it until 20 years later, not because I feared anyone thinking me nuts, but because I just forgot about it.

What reminded me of it was my friend Lynda's very similar story, about an internal voice telling her (when she was a teenager) to step back from a curb. She obeyed and averted getting hit by an out-of-control car.

It was her story that awakened this very clear memory of my own. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lynda and I went on to become very dear friends in our adult lives, meeting all kinds of joys and challenges together. Did something intervene for us both at the same time in our lives to make sure this adult friendship would happen?


2) The next biggie wouldn't come until I was 43, quite a long time after my teenage experience. Interspersed in these years were extraordinary occurrences of synchronicity, but I'll leave that subject for another post. Synchronicity is very different from predictions or premonitions, which is what I'm sticking with here.

It was in August of 2002, just after the release of my second album, My Life of Crime. As I was planning for a trip to Los Angeles to do some shows, I remember being in the kitchen on the phone with my mom when this all-pervasive feeling of...well...nothingness wash over me.

It were as though I could no longer see my future, and the experience was so startling that I remember exactly where I was standing when it struck. I simply wrote it off as record-release jitters and the anticipation of travelling to L.A. and London to perform. But about two weeks later, I was overcome by abdominal pain, only to find out that the main vein in my liver had clotted, as well as the liver itself, and that my life was in grave danger.

I remember the doctor coming in to tell me the news with this look of shock on his face, as doctors almost never see this condition; one told me it's something they only read about in their medical textbooks.

Having been introduced to the works of Florence Scovel Shinn around this time (an author who first wrote about the Law of Attraction and the power of words in the 1920s), I kept a vision of myself in my head as an old lady planting tomatoes as a counter-measure to the premonition.

As for the feeling that I "couldn't see my future," years later I was to read an article about author Lucy Greely (Autobiography of a Face), who had told her best friend of those exact same feelings in that exact same language just weeks before she died.


3) This same futureless sensation overcame me about two years later, after having been in and out of the hospital for three months with an esophageal hemorrhage and its accompanying complications.

I wondered why in the world I was getting this feeling now, as it seemed that the worst was behind me and that I was now on the mend. But there it was...the feeling that there was no future before me. Nothing...just a blank slate, neither dark nor light, good nor evil, and nothing to be afraid of. It was just...empty.

Unlike the previous premonition of '02, which I didn't utter to a soul, I did tell friends and family about this one. And sure enough, a few weeks later I was in a psychiatric hospital with depression and suicidal ideation, which was to be the biggest threat to my life EVER.

Of all I've been through, I can attest that severe mental illness is the cruelest cut of all, as it so blights our subjectivity. When serotonin and dopamine aren't getting through, you can no longer choose your response to anything, and you feel like the walking dead, truly. The trick is to just HANG ON until the meds start to work.

What was particularly challenging at this time was to keep that positive old-lady image of myself in my head to again counter the premonition. It was so difficult, though, because every cell in my body was screaming to die, if for no other reason than just to end the screeching, untreatable pain in my face and jaw. I didn't want to live anymore, which made me feel that perhaps this current futureless feeling was more prediction than premonition.

The real point, though, is how did I know this was coming? How did I know any of these events were about to happen?

There've been other things, I guess, but nothing as big as these three. (I know there's a fourth, which escapes me at the moment.) While technically I haven't been visited by ghosts, I was certainly visited by something in these instances, or perhaps tripped on some space-time warp that gave me a vision of what was to come.

And then there's my mom, who just last month heard someone whisper her name late at night right next to her bed. She says in all her 75 years, she's never had a single thing like that ever happen to her. Suffice to say, she was freaked.

I watch science shows about phantom matter, dark matter, dark energy, black holes, etc., all the time. Will the paranormal all be scientifically explained one day by the mysteries of the universe that still baffle us? Even if it is, will we ever know how or why the universe was even created?

While there are no answers, I do know this: if I ever actually see a ghost, I'll crap my pants. Premonitions I can handle, but full-bodied apparitions? Get out the smelling salts.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Part I: Blood, Guts and SpongeBob

Part I of the Whole Story

I'm beginning to wonder what it's like NOT to suffer. I honestly can't believe that I haven't yet gone stark raving mad.

Wait...back up a bit. I actually DID go nuts in 2004 and ended up in a psychiatric facility. Oh, brother. Who'da thunk? I was SO depressed that I couldn't even walk the two blocks to St. Mary's and had the suicide hotline call an ambulance to come pick me up. You know things are bad when you can barely find the motivation to walk into the kitchen. I honestly believe there are thousands out there, maybe millions over the eons, who've killed themselves over far less, as I can assure you, I don't think an ounce of serotonin was left in my brain that day.

Things had been gearing up to this point for a number of weeks...actually months. For the 18 months or so prior to a massive internal hemorrhage in March '04, I was feeling quite saucy and slick. Yes, I battled daily abdominal pain that occasionally required Vicodin for "breakthrough pain" (maybe one pill two or three times a week), but other than that, Tylenol handled the job, and I was happy to have survived a major blood clot in my liver (portal vein thrombosis and Budd Chiari Syndrome) in September 2002 (the cause of the abdominal pain).

I was so happy, in fact, that I seemed to find enormous new meaning to my life. And the coumadin I was now taking had two remarkable effects: it eliminated my chronic fatigue syndrome symptoms that I'd been suffering with for 15 years or so, AND it significantly decreased my jaw pain that had started in 1999.

To say that I was a happy camper during this year-and-a-half window is an understatement, for never had I felt so joyous. Every day felt like a gift, and my life was expanding in new and unexpected ways. As my freelance writing was going well, I was able to upgrade to a new large art studio, and I suddenly produced a prolific output of new paintings.

I also came up with countless creative ideas, one of which was the short-lived talk show "Highball! With Mary Ann Farley" at my local bookstore.

The idea of it was to celebrate local artists and personalities, with the format of it first being a Q&A over highballs ('natch), and then the person would perform.

I thought of everything. I had local sponsors pay for a nice spread for audience members, I had the video fireplace (long before other talk show hosts stole my idea :)), and I had glamour in spades.

The idea garnered such quick attention that The Bergen Record did a Sunday feature on the first episode, and I was getting hit for "bookings" long before we even did the first show.

But then something strange began to happen with my health. The abdominal pain, which had been a daily companion for 18 months, was starting to go away as well, and I thought for sure all of my good Law of Attraction thinking was manifesting in spades.

My relationship with my "creator" felt so solid that I decided to get oral surgery on my jawbone to rid myself of any remaining infection and facial pain, and really shoot for a completely pain-free life. Not only were things looking up, but I felt somehow that I had finally arrived, that so much of the awfulness of my life was now behind me, and I was in the moment for perhaps the first time in my adulthood. All goals were short-term, and I expressed my newfound loopiness by wearing clip-on ponytails of all kinds just about every day...long, short, curly, straight. I think it's fair to say I had a grin on my face just about every day.

But then...

It was a Sunday morning and I awoke feeling very achy and thirsty, thinking I was getting a bug. But by the time the afternoon arrived, I knew I was in deep trouble, as in going to the bathroom, I discovered that my stool was absolutely jet black, a sure sign that I was bleeding internally--something I'd been warned about.

As the clot in my liver had calcified, the pressure in my stomach had caused varicose veins, and in being on coumadin, I was in constant danger in having one of them burst at any time. The tar-black stool was confirmation that the inevitable had occurred.

As I'd been in the hospital so many times up until this point, the idea of packing up a bag and walking over to St. Mary's was just plain boring, but dutifully I gathered my paperwork, my toothbrush, my journal with a few art supplies, then took my place in the emergency room.

As usual, I called my dear friend Lynda, who'd come to St. Mary's with me numerous times back in 2002, to tell her simply that I was there, and that there was no need whatsoever for her to come over and be bored with me, despite her offer, once again, to keep me company. I now wish, of course, that she had come, simply to witness the events that were just a few short hours that I haven't even seen in the most grotesque movie or TV dramas of extreme emergency room scenes. It was something you'd see more in a horror movie, where you'd say, geez--what sick mind dreamed this one up?

It came up upon me quick, without notice...a sudden urge to vomit, and as I had nothing to throw up in, I quickly grabbed the liner of a garbage can, while yelling to nurses that I needed something to get sick in.

At first, it was just spitting up blood into the bag, but when the basin came and landed on my lap, I began projectile vomiting volumes of pure unadulterated blood that made the eyes of the nurses around me go wide and their faces go pale.

Unbeknowst to me at the time, I'd also aspirated a fair amount of blood back into my lungs, which had the effect of suffocation, or drowning, and I could feel my vision going black. "I'm fading," I said, "I'm fading," and I thought for sure this was it...that I was checking out for good, and I turned to a young nurse next to me and asked her point blank, "Am I going to die?"

She was way too young for such a question, and answered, "'re going to do everything we can"

She couldn't even answer the question when I felt another surge of vomit rising to the surface, only this time they couldn't find a basin in time, which meant I projectile vomited even more blood over the side of the bed, trying to aim for the garbage can that I'd removed the liner from previously.

Again, I felt myself fading to black, which I have to say was the single scariest thing I've ever felt. To feel the life force begin to drain from your body in such a violent way is chilling, lonely and just plain awful.

I then turned to the head nurse, Nurse Betty, and again asked, "Am I going to die?"

"Not on my shift!" she yelled back, and I immediately wondered what time she clocked out.

What then ensued is something you see in a scene of ER. The bed was whisked away into another part of the emergency room, and suddenly I must have had half a dozen people surrounding me, inserting tubes into veins that, because they're so tiny, would not expand wide enough to accommodate the insertion of new, thick blood.

Ultimately, a handsome Indian doctor inserted a line into my groin, which had to be stitched on, and at last the new blood was finding its way into me.

By this time, my pal Lynda had arrived, and unbeknownst to me was told by Nurse Betty that I had lost an enormous amount of blood and was in critical condition, and that she should walk into the room with a smile on her face.

She did, but with big watery pools in her eyes, which perplexed me, as it still hadn't sunk in just how bad things were. It was only when I overheard her a few minutes later on the phone with my mother, and hearing the words "critical condition," that I knew this was bad.

Yet somehow, I knew I was going to live, and Lynda and I began joking with the various personnel helping me, especially "SpongeBob," the gay nurse, who teased me that I was "a big baby" for complaining about the unanesthetized stitching process going on in my groin.

Obviously I made it through the night, and the next morning they were able to find and clamp the popped vein in my stomach. It turns out that I'd lost 70% of my blood volume, as ultimately I'd need nine pints of blood and six units of plasma to replace all I'd lost. (I was to vomit again at 5 a.m. the next morning.)

I stayed in the hospital for a week, fighting off fevers from the new blood, and mentally preparing for the surgery I would ultimately need at Columbia Presbyterian to reduce my gastric pressure, so that this wouldn't happen again.

As bad as this all was, things were to get far, far worse.

Next up: Three months of hell, followed by my descent into stark, raving insanity.

Note: Drawings were done my first night in ICU.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Catching Flies

I haven't posted for a couple of weeks, as I've been writing the story of what happened in March 2004, when life took such a dive. I've been wanting to get it down for awhile now, just so that I don't have to tell the story anymore. If someone wants to know what happened, I want to be able to simply direct them to the blog posting, which will liberate me from having to tell such a weighty story over and over. I suppose it's a way of putting it in the past, even though it continues to play out in such painful ways.

In writing it, though, there are so many details to the story that I begin to even bore myself with it. While there's plenty of action, blood and guts, literally, it tires me to write it, so I've been carefully editing and shortening, as at the end of the day, I'm an entertainer at heart. If I'm gonna spin a tale with that much real-life drama, I've got to lighten the verbiage to capture the essence of how rapidly things declined, and how close I came to meeting my maker, with all of the harrowing details intact.

Who knows if anyone will ever read it, and who cares. I just gotta get it on the page so that I can leave it somewhere. As the World Wide Web is a fairly large place, I suspect it can handle the load.

As for how things have been the past few weeks, comparing life to a rollercoaster is an understatement. I'm working with a new chiropractor who's doing trigger point therapy--working out the knots in my face, jaw and neck that have taken years to develop.

On about two occasions, I had a couple of hours where I was completely, absolutely pain-free. There was one night that I caught myself with my mouth open in astonishment, the old "catching-flies" gape, as I felt so completely myself again. When physical pain lifts, the speed with which it becomes a memory is nothing short of shocking. Immediately, my thoughts raced towards all of the things I want to do, goals I want to accomplish, paintings I want to start. I even continued work on a song I began last year.

I was so heartened by this new turn of events that I also signed up for a one-month intensive workshop of flamenco study, where I go to class in New York every other day. The exercise has boosted my endorphins, and I've had short periods of such hope and happiness.

But in the last few days, the pain in my face lapsed back into being as bad as it ever was, and I've been popping Vicodin like candy in an effort to get the level down, not just because I don't want to suffer, but because I'm going out to dinner this weekend with my family to celebrate my 50th birthday.

Fifty. When the hell did that happen? In some, if not most, ways, I'm thrilled to say I'm younger than I've ever been. But time is marching on, and each day has a new value that hasn't existed before. Twenty years ago I was 30; in another 20, I'll be 70.

As Carly Simon once said, "I haven't got time for the pain," but it seems that pain has time for me.

Well, I can't do anything about it except accept it, hard as that is. When they say we "practice" acceptance, that's exactly what it is--like practicing the piano.

I need to get better at it.


Friday, January 02, 2009

Another Bum From The Neighborhood

This is my first post of the new year, 2009. As I'm still achy from this flu, I snuggled on the couch this morning and was lucky enough to stumble upon the film Rocky and watch it in its entirety.

As Sylvester Stallone's career took such a bizarre, unexpected and disappointing turn after those first few Rocky movies, the lustre of the original Rocky wore off for me in the wake of Stallone's real life decisions over the years, both professional and personal, which seemed to call into question the universal truth of despair and triumph he so perfectly captured in his first major box-office success.

Yet 32 years later, I'm seeing the film with fresh eyes again, and have been mulling over what made it such an astronomical hit back in 1977, when I was a teen. Aside from his perfectly written script and flawless direction, it's Stallone's true-blue characters that are at its core.

Rocky himself is a product of his low-brow, working-class neighborhood, where opportunities are few for the uneducated, and he starts out in the film as a "leg breaker" for a local loan shark. To walk with him through his transition from thug to champion can't help but pull at the heartstrings of anyone aching in the human condition, for whether you're rich or poor, smart or leadheaded, strong or weak, Rocky--both the film and the character--makes us believe that any of us, with just that one lucky break, with just a modicum of chance, could rise to the heights, provided we have a dream and are willing to work doggedly to make it happen.

What's also lovely about this tale is Rocky's relationship with Adrian, a woman unseen by most men because of her shyness and the fact that she buries herself deep under sweaters and behind her glasses. In developing this romance, Stallone didn't miss a beat, which is why women adored this film as much as men did, as many of us could see ourselves in Adrian. She perhaps wasn't a standard beauty at first, but love ultimately morphed her into the beauty she was all along (surely a skilled acting turn for Talia Shire).

As the story unfolds, we begin to see what Rocky sees. Her skin is peaches and cream; her hair is flaxen; her eyes are innocent and pure. And never once in the film is Rocky not sensitive to her plight. Back in 1977, and right up until this day in fact, it's a relief to see a love story where the female protagonist isn't a Hollywood beauty distorted to look ugly, like Charlize Theron in Monster. While Theron's transformation into brutishness was masterful, while her acting was impeccable, we all knew while watching the film that at the Red Carpet event touting its release, Theron would go back to being a stunner.

Would an actress who really looked like Aileen Wournos have been given the chance to make the film? Of course not, which is why it's so touching that Stallone even cast Shire. She's real-life pretty--at times looking haggard and older than her years, and at others, positively luminescent.

That's why it was such a disappointment that in real life, Stallone abandoned his longtime marriage and hooked up with a string of Hollywood starlets and models, seeming to discard the very life lesson he taught us, which is that undiscovered feminine beauty (and masculine beauty, for that matter) is all around us if we only have the eyes to see it.

Perhaps the most poignant scene in Rocky is the night before the big fight, where he lies in bed with Adrian, saying that no matter whether he wins or loses, he will always feel like "just another bum from the neighborhood."

To those of us who grew up in the likes of Rocky's environs (in his case, the row houses of Philadelphia, and in my own, the streets of Newark), a little of that always lingers, no matter how far or wide we stray, and when Rocky made these utterances, he hit a very old, very personal nerve.

This unending decade of physical trials (which actually started long before 1999) has often tapped into some vague dread of mine that I will never really triumph over my own worst fears about myself--that I'm one of the chosen few who simply gets barraged with unfortunate events because of some unspoken demon curse that hangs around my neck like an anchor in a stormy sea, forcing me to battle ceaselessly the elements and live a life that, at times, has made me wonder if it's even worth staying alive for.

But then today there was Rocky, running along the Philly waterfront in his tattered clothes, towards a future where his own unlucky streak could change on a dime, and in a sense, already had in his newfound romance with Adrian. He had the eyes to see the possibility in her, which opened his eyes to see the possibilities within himself.

What I also love about the film is the element of chance, which plays like a central character. In looking through the pictures of amateur boxers to fight, Apollo Creed could have easily missed Rocky's photograph and chosen another. But Creed stumbled upon the Italian Stallion, and so Rocky got his chance to prove to himself, and us, that winners are made, not born, provided we have the courage to say yes to life.

Roman philosopher Senaca said that "luck happens when opportunity meets preparation." But even opportunity itself can often be random, and some of us get more of it than others.

Rocky could have just as easily continued with his leg-breaking career, save for the break of a different kind--a chance to beat the heavyweight champ of the world, which, let's face it, has as much of a chance happening to some poor soul as getting struck by lightening, probably less. That's why they call it luck; it doesn't happen often. And in this case, that's why they call it fiction.

I've been weepy today, probably because I've run out of painkillers and because I have the flu on top of everything else. But the tears started after Rocky did his majestic stair-climb, when it was clear that his luck (and the luck of Sylvester Stallone for that matter) had turned for the better.

I suppose I could take my own long run along the Hoboken waterfront, then charge up the stairs of City Hall while listening to the Rocky theme on my MP3 player, but I'm a bit out of shape. My flamenco dance lessons start next week for an intensive month of study, which will be a challenge for a body that's been so sedentary for the past year.

Back in the days when I had a break in the pain, I remember walking through the Broadway district one afternoon after a lesson to go buy a new flamenco skirt. I remember thinking, "Wow, I'm a dancer in New York. I'm doing it. I never even knew that I wanted to do this, but I'm right here, right now, and it feels amazing."

That was my own moment of Rocky-like victory, and one I intend to have again.

Pan shot to me doing some flamenco victory spins in Times Square.