Nina Gaby

Essays, art, and healthcare


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A Kind of Gratitude

turkeyThe patient was in her fifties, simple alcoholism (as if any addiction is simple) and doing well in her treatment. It was twenty two years ago and the big relief for her was that she had never added crack to her repertoire. “I want to quit smoking cigarettes too,” she told me, so one of her recovery goals was finding something she enjoyed that did not involve bars or bad men and kept her hands busy. She joined one of those ceramic classes that I used to joke about with my art school friends. Once upon a time, during my own days struggling with “simple alcoholism” I was a serious art student, getting a BFA in Ceramic Art and would go on to have my work in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian and support myself and my studio selling my handbuilt porcelain objects in fine craft galleries across the country. Selling pieces I could never have afforded to buy myself, and very much a craft snob. My work was professionally photographed and I was featured in coffee table books. My friends and I called those little hobby shops where ladies went to paint bisqueware “s’ramics” and we often made fun of them. Of course that was just a cover up for shame at our own beginnings, at least my own, in an aesthetically barren, or at least questionable suburb of the fifties, where housewives like my own relatives and neighbors did crafts when their husbands would let them out of the house. Our own living room was full of ashtrays that my aunt had glazed, often in holiday themes, although the pieces I still own and have grown to cherish include a boomerang shaped nut dish in a gold and turquoise crackle and a plate with a shadow image of a little girl in pigtails with my name across the bottom.

One day, after I had closed my clay studio and become an advanced practice nurse, still a snob regarding the university I had chosen but nonetheless somewhat more humble, the patient came in for her monthly “check up.” She had completed the group portion of treatment and was now in AA and reunited with her daughter and grandchildren. Maybe she got her driver’s license back, maybe she was working again. Her appointment was the day before Thanksgiving. She was carrying a box which she set down on my desk with a flourish, lifting out a ceramic turkey with a fan of lollipops as its tail and carefully painted eyelashes. “I made this for you and your family!”

My first inclination, a nod to the loyalty of art school snobbery, was an “oh no” and my second was to remind her that therapists can’t accept gifts. But I did neither, instead I thanked her and in good therapist form we discussed what this turkey represented to her (sobriety, love of family, gratitude for my help, finding a new way to be) and I brought it home and put it in a prominent place on the holiday table, where others said things like “what the hell is that” and my three year old daughter was thrilled and my nieces and nephews stole all the lollipop tail feathers over the course of the holiday afternoon. Twenty two years later it’s hard to find those same lollipops and nothing else fits the little holes quite right so I just put him out without a tail.

For a number of years after I left healthcare and we moved to Vermont, I couldn’t find the ceramic turkey. My husband said it’s just as well, he could never understand my attachment to it, and my daughter forgot about it. We went through some hard times, I gained humility and managed to stay sober. I found the turkey.

I never lost him again, although every year I worry that he won’t be in the plastic holiday crate with my grandmother’s menorah and the handmade ornaments from my daughter’s elementary school days and the frayed felt stockings from my husband’s childhood and my own. I admit there are a few aesthetically pleasing objects in the crate but less than my old self would have thought. Every year now I put out the ceramic turkey as I make dinner for a much smaller crowd-one year it was just me and the tail-less turkey, as my daughter was doing her Junior year abroad and my husband was sick and stayed in bed and my mother had died and the rest of my family was in another state. The turkey flirted with me from his perch on the piano. And I understood a kind of gratitude, a new way to be.


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Blogger Block? Me?

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Valid excuses abound for my lack of follow through to my commitment of blogging twice a week to develop a presence. A “platform” as the new vernacular insists. How hard could that be for someone with boundless opinions on everything and insatiable energy for anything to do with the written word?

Yes me. Caught in a wash of the ennui that has always made me pity others. Me, of the “just do it” mentality. Legions of exhausted wordsmiths, I humbly join you. Hands folded, the laptop keyboard about as inviting as the treadmill in the corner that I am also avoiding. I can get mildly energized by the metaphor of laptop and treadmill, thinking I’m on to something, but it passes. I go get a yogurt, throw laundry in the washer. I have prepped for writing, I remind myself. I spent yesterday, a work day from home, writing up a pile of overdue psychiatric evaluations for my day job, got some discharge notes done, took a nap, and yes I will admit this to you, caught up on the Young and the Restless. All that so I could write today.

Or at least try to untangle the loop-de-loop that my anthology project has become. An interested agent needs me to include in my proposal some writers of household name stature before a publisher will even look at it. Household name writers don’t write on spec so I need a publisher. Generous women willing to help, waiting for more info. I wait for the universe to toss me some secret tool to unravel the loop or at least get more of my pleading emails answered.

I list all the reasons I can’t write today, all the reasons I am planning to go to a matinee with a friend instead. Why I spent last weekend eating fried seafood along the coast of Maine instead. A double sabotage, nothing pokes a hole in the energy reserve like overly oxidized trans fats. Actually I am doing a lot of stupid things to avoid how I feel about some really bad things that are going on, things I should be writing about. Like that my cat had to have her leg amputated this week. Like that a friend has been given two to seven days to live. Another friend has relapsed. Another friend’s dog died. A family member has had a serious exacerbation of a chronic illness. I’m worried about my daughter. I can’t keep up with the need for my services at work, and Obama-care isn’t helping with that. I cannot write about what’s important in mental health care right now because the state that I live in has an even broader interpretation of confidentiality laws than the feds. I have a sore throat. Headache for weeks. Cataracts. My house is a mess. Where does the list end, where does it cease to be valid? At any rate, I have to share the yogurt with the cat, it’s the only thing she’ll eat. And then I’ll post this, knowing you will understand.