And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

Since starting this blog back in 2017, I guess it could be categorized as an “I’m happy to be alive” sort of thing. But I never expected my moment of happiness to actually be an “I nearly died and I’m so glad I didn’t” moment.

Last Friday, I left home for the first time since COVID hit. I don’t really count trips to the grocery store and to pick up take-out. I mean leave, as in climb in the car and go somewhere and stay awhile. In this case, it was for a week-long retreat in Onalaska, Wisconsin. As I wrote last week, I take retreats to get a break from the many roles that I play. It’s a chance for me to fully immerse myself in my own writing, to be alone in the quiet, to do things because I want to do them, not because they’re my responsibility. I learned over this past year that it’s just not possible to do this at home. I live in a live-where-you-work condo, and so AllWriters’ is on the first floor, at its own address, and I live above it, on the second and third floors. Consequently, I am never away from work. Taking a “retreat” at home, it’s all too easy to answer the phones, answer emails, check out possibilities for the studio, still let it eke into my everyday existence. And so I go away.

I’ve been to this little cottage before. It’s all in one room, the only doors leading to outside and to the small bathroom. A few feet away from my front door is Lake Onalaska, an expressive lake that changes every single day. I knew there were going to be differences with this retreat, with COVID still around. I wouldn’t be going out to eat. I wouldn’t be sitting in a coffee shop every day, casually sipping my drink of choice and reading a book of my choice. I wouldn’t be wandering the streets, window-shopping and going into stores that attracted my attention. But I still wanted to go.

And what I learned was that I really need to pay attention to my own gut instincts.

When I arrived in the early evening on Friday, I opened the door, heaved a big breath, and  instantly thought I smelled gas. But then I made excuses – it was probably just mustiness. The owners had been in the cottage before I got here, restocking it and leaving me the keys. They would have noticed the gas smell. So I went around and opened all the windows, despite the 40-degree temps outside. The place aired out quickly, and by the time I went to sleep that night, I didn’t smell anything.

Over Saturday and Sunday, I thought I smelled whiffs of gas, especially as I passed through the kitchen area on the way to the bathroom. There was a gas stove. I don’t use a gas stove, but I thought it was probably normal to get brief sniffs of gas from one.

Then I began to get headaches. Allergies, I thought. I felt queasy from time to time. Eating too many prepared foods, I thought. I noticed my skin was pinker than normal, and I wondered if I’d somehow gotten sun on the way to the cottage, despite not being in the convertible, or if the owners possibly used bleach in their sheets. I’m allergic to bleach.

But then Monday morning. I’d had an odd night, in and out of bizarre dreams, not quite able to wake myself up. Then I did suddenly come awake at 10:15 a.m., with a horrendous headache, fully nauseated, and the smell of gas all around me. I got out bed and had to hold onto the walls as I went from window to window, throwing them open. I had very little muscle coordination. And all I kept thinking was, I’m dying. I’m dying.

I threw open the front door and stood in the fresh air, not caring that I was naked, not caring that it was freezing. I breathed. I tried to get my brain to work. I got to my cell phone and texted the owners. I didn’t think to call 911. My brain was stuttering.

I managed to get pajama pants and a t-shirt on before the owners arrived and called someone to come turn the gas off. I just kept breathing.

It wasn’t until later in the afternoon that the enormity of what happened, of what could have happened, hit me. The cottage was aired out. The leak was to the stove and the gas was shut off. I got in my car and drove to an independent bookstore, Pearl Street Books, in La Crosse, one that had me visit twice for an event and signing. With COVID shattering so many small businesses, I wanted to stop in, to share my encouragement and support, to buy some books. I told the woman behind the counter who I was and she immediately ran about, finding the books of mine they had for sale, having me sign them, taking a photo of me which went up on their Facebook page. I bought every Ramona/Beezus/Henry book by Beverly Cleary they had. Three days before Beverly Cleary’s passing last week, I was reading a book over Zoom to my granddaughter, and a character in that book mentioned Ramona and I lit up. “I need to read you the Ramona books!” I said. And then Cleary died, and I thought, I have to read her even more now. She has to stay alive.

I stood there in that bookstore. Bookshelves with ladders went up to the ceiling. Old hardwood floors that gave that special creak. Writers everywhere, including me. Including me! I turned to my left and my eyes fell on a shelf that held two novels written by one of my students.

And I was suddenly saturated with the realization that I was alive, the gift of being alive, the wonder of waking up as my breath was being taken from me. Everywhere around me in that bookstore in that moment was my life…writing, writers, students, books, bookstores, family, passion, compassion, and on and on.

I was never so happy to be breathing in my entire life. Not when I made it home after the assault that started this blog. Not when I woke up after the breast cancer had been removed from my body. Never so much as at this moment.

I have never been so happy to be here. In this body, in this brain, in this life. I am so grateful.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

Lake Onalaska, right outside my door.
My view while I write.
Pearl Street Books in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

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