Heart, Echoes, Hydrogen

I have been laying in bed for an hour with my hand over my heart in a sort of horizontal pledge-of-allegiance pose, feeling the beats. Every so often, my heart hiccups. My chest swells up suddenly and briefly, like it’s taking a deep breath, then gets back to its normal work. I think this has to do with the heart murmur I have had since childhood, but I am not sure, and until recently I never bothered to learn exactly what a heart murmur is.

Last week I went for an echo-cardiogram. I put on a hospital gown backwards so the gentleman who runs the machine could reach in and press the sonogram wand against my ribs. It was cold due to the conductive gel, and rather uncomfortable—he had a firm touch. But I stopped noticing after a minute because on the screen, in a fuzzy greyscale, was my beating heart. Underneath, a sound wave, with peaks and valleys indicating blood flow. An audible whoosh whoosh and thump. At points, the technician would switch the display to a bright blue and red: blood coming in, blood going out. My heart’s valves opened and shut like thin, rapid-fire wings. He pushed the wand around and then we’d be looking at it all from a different perspective. My aortic valve. The convulsing muscle. He asked me to take a deep breath and hold it: to expand my ribcage, get my lungs out of the way, and allow my heart to fully expand, maximizing blood flow. The whoosh whoosh got louder.

My beating heart. It was elegant in a way I hadn’t expected, and deeply captivating. I’d joked to my friends that an echo was the only way to see one’s heart outside of one’s body, save for an Indiana Jones movie. I didn’t know it would be so beautiful.

The echo turned up nothing, and was a precautionary procedure anyway. A “just to be safe” test because of my heart murmur. The week before I’d had an MRI for a totally unrelated reason: an old shoulder injury that turns out to be a labrum tear. I’ll need surgery, but they’ll be able to fix it. I haven’t had much functionality in my left arm for a while because of the constant pain, so I’m glad there’s a solution. I googled the procedure, saw the thick metal tubes they use in arthroscopy sticking out of an anonymous man’s shoulder like pop-up turkey thermometers. His shoulder was covered in iodine and flecks of blood. He was powerfully built. An athlete? I wondered if there was even enough flesh on my bones for the surgeon to work with.

I’d never had an MRI, either, and was surprised to find that it was exactly as it is in movies: the long white tube, and the tray they strap you to. To be strapped to a tray isn’t an idea I relish. To be strapped down and pushed into a hole so narrow your nose nearly touches the top is absolutely unnerving. The nurse gave me earplugs, and covered those with a giant pair of headphones. “It’s loud,” she said. “Do you want music? We have Pandora.” I didn’t. I wanted to hear the machine as it did its work. The best term I’ve been able to coin is “medical techno.” Loud as hell, but rhythmic in changing patterns as the machine knocks around, honing in on different angles and aspects. They let me take home a disc of the images, and I spent that evening scrolling into and through my shoulder, from skin to fat to muscle to bone and back out again. Little holes dot the area under my scapula get bigger and then vanish beneath a rib. I’d asked the doctor about them, and he said they were arteries. He quickly added: “We don’t go anywhere near those.”

The body is magical and the body betrays. A beautiful and perfect and yet deeply flawed amalgamation of tissue, bone, blood. My heart on a monitor, ventricles in a symphony. But then the hiccup: my heart abruptly resets. Or my body on a slab, scrutinized by magnetic fields and radio waves—the hydrogen atoms inside me spinning up and then settling down again; the image being a capture of the states in-between. The queerness of it, your atoms collectively photographed by an enormous, noisy machine. I had no idea this was how an MRI worked. I asked afterwards, embarrassed to have just undergone a procedure unaware as to how it even worked. What all we subject ourselves to without knowing.

Dispatch from S.C.: Getting Away With It

Lately all I think about is escape. Get out of the city, out of the country: get out of dodge. I’m visiting with my sister and we’ve been talking about our predilection towards transience, to always being on the move. She’s been in Aiken for 12 years now, and neither of us can fathom how that happened. In our world, 12 years is a lifetime to spend in any one place. I don’t think I’ve lived anywhere for longer than five years at a time, and five years is the outlier—this includes my childhood. Now I last two, maybe three years. Then I have to mosey: get rid of what I can, pack up the rest, and go.

This has put me into a ping-pong pattern, shuttling constantly between the South and the Northeast. Up north, I’m all nervous energy and idea; everything I do and think is as precisely vertical as the city itself. The hard angles, the immediacy. Down South, I stretch my mind across the landscape. Fall into the long view. In Texas especially, I seem to live as if trapped in the past, and what I create in that space has its germ in an almost physically painful nostalgia.

I cannot function fully as an artist without these dichotomous experiences. They are critical to my identity, in line or in letter. The impulse to move is directly linked to a need to switch modes—I use environment as an enormous lever whose sole purpose is to unearth new perspectives.

This can be difficult to explain to others when, say, trying to justify a move based on a “feeling” and not a concrete—a job, a relationship, etc. My father is always amazed that I can jettison myself from a place with no plan. It’s irresponsible. Undisciplined. And puts me at a constant economic disadvantage. Were I wealthy in any sense of that word, I might solve this problem with a house in Marfa, Texas, and a studio apartment in Brooklyn. Or, preferably, a shack on the beach and a flat in San Francisco. (As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more attuned to the west coast and water. Plus it’s better weather for motorcycling.)

I thought, naively, that Baltimore’s position between my twinned cities might make it the perfect compromise. But you can’t measure the map and simply say, “here be convergence.”  In the middle-ground I have felt lost. More than it should, maybe, my environment influences my moods and self-expression. This city is too vague, the angles neither sharp nor smooth. The landscape is aimless, circuitous, uncertain. I can’t catch hold of it and be carried along the way I like to be.

Faced with another impending move I am uncomfortably nervous. A job in Austin might take me back there as predicted. But my stubbornness for new experiences might also lead me to venture somewhere unknown, again—a big risk given my less-than-positive experience with Baltimore. But I came here on the promise of a job, not because of any romantic or subconscious feeling. I chose logically: work, affordability. At the time I was very concerned about behaving the way I felt I ought to in my 30s. Had I second-guessed my motives, I might be living in Athens, Ohio, right now, sweating out a PhD in an academic community that, while significantly smaller, is far less stodgy and a bit more in-tune. Alas.

One of my brothers says that he took all the crazy risks he did when he was younger, because he felt he wouldn’t be able to get away with it when he was older. (One of these “risks” included absconding with his college funds and travelling throughout Europe for months. When the cash ran out, he sold his hair and shacked up with wealthy, single women—I hear this was particularly successful in the Greek isles. He has zero regrets and is one of the happiest people I know.)

I have to end this dispatch abruptly because I can’t see through to an ending. So let me wonder, briefly: Could one just keep on “getting away with it,” straight through ’til the last fabulous days? What does it take to try?

[Image © Alex Maclean. His aerial photography is amazing. Look him up.]