A Canary in New York

Since this blog is called “One Canary Sings,” I’ve decided I need to blog more actively about this canary’s ongoing efforts to sing, sing, SING about health and the environment. And a lot has been going on since last I submitted a report from the mines.

First, I found out that my essay, “The Butterfly Effect,” which intertwines the parallel stories of the dwindling numbers of monarch butterflies and my challenges traveling—with multiple chemical sensitivity—to see them, was accepted for publication in the winter 2011 edition of the esteemed literary journal, Creative Nonfiction. (In stores now!) Then, I learned that the essay was selected from almost 500 entries to win the $1000 Robert Fragasso Animal Advocate Award for the Best Creative Nonfiction Essay about Animals. And finally, Creative Nonfiction invited me to read the piece at a venerable literary hangout, the KGB Bar, in New York City. Of course I said yes.

And then came the fretting.

Two weeks before the big event, I had a dream. I dreamt my friend M and I were standing in line for an interactive show. M asked me what it was called, and I told her I was pretty sure it was called, “Star of the Artist.” But as the line moved closer to the threshold, I realized that actually it was Star Wars, because there was Darth Vader, waiting in the wings. I was so not ready for this, and all I could think to do was tell everybody to run. As I was running, I realized I was meant to be the Luke Skywalker character. But I didn’t feel I had the experience. After all, I couldn’t even think of anything we could do to save ourselves but run. What kind of Luke Skywalker could I be?

Rarely have I had so transparent a dream. George Lukas based Star Wars on anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s groundbreaking work on the cross-cultural myth of the hero’s journey, Hero With a Thousand Faces. And here I was, a writer on the threshold of her career as a megaphone for environmental health—scared shitless, wondering if she was really up to the task.

So I practiced. I practiced reading the story, and I practiced the words I would say before the story. That 11% of Americans (30 million people) describe themselves as sensitive to chemicals, for instance. And the quote from 19th-century naturalist John Muir, who said, “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

When finally I climbed the stairs to the KGB, I was accosted by the cloying stink of the restroom air fresheners just outside the bar’s threshold, and determined I would try to avoid the need for the ladies’ room.

The bar’s walls were red and the light was sparse. Standing at the podium, I could barely make out the faces of those in the audience, but it was a full house and I could see the silhouettes of people standing in the doorway.

Afterwards, a number of people approached me to enthuse about the piece. One of them told me about her friend who is chemically sensitive, and how the woman had felt so terrible asking her college classmates to refrain from wearing scented products to class that she believed she had to ply them with baked goods to make up for it. It reminded me of the days when I was in college. I, too, was forced to ask my classmates to accommodate my needs. It was never easy. I hated to reveal my vulnerability in the first class of every semester; I hated asking people to change their behavior because of it. But what always amazed me was that without fail someone would come up to me after I’d given my little MCS speech to tell me that s/he or a friend or loved one also suffered reactions to chemicals. That was when I began to see myself as a human canary. It was the tenuous launching of my career as a “spokes-canary.” I am thrilled when someone tells me “The Butterfly Effect” provoked curiosity about MCS; one reader emailed to say that the story had motivated her to go online to find out more about the illness. What more could a human canary want?

After the night was over, I descended the stairs and opened the door to the cold New York winter. There on the steps stood the evening’s emcee, a writer for the New York Times. He was a little lushed up, and told me about the girl who broke his heart in college, and how he is still damaged from the experience. I said, “We’re all damaged.” I was thinking of my own love life, but he commented on the damage wrought by my illness. “But that’s not your fault, that damage,” he said, hastily. “That kind of damage is not your fault.” Then he asked me how I was feeling at the end of this intense night, given, you know, my health problems. I said I was doing well;  I had just a twinge of a headache. He apologized for wearing cologne, and said he didn’t even think about it but he should have, as he had read my piece. I told him I hadn’t even noticed. Then I told him about the phthalates in fragrance, and how they’re hormone disruptors, which can cause cancer, and I talked some more about my MCS. There was a silence, and then I said, “You know, I’ve spent years just wanting people to hear what I have to say about my illness, and now I’ve written this thing about MCS and it gives me license to talk about it, and it just feels weird, you know? I mean, who wants to hear about illness? How boring.”

No, no, no, he says. Not boring at all. “People love weird illnesses.” He tells me he recently went on assignment to an OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) conference. “People love that shit. They eat it up.”

Huh. I’d never thought of my illness in quite this way—a “weird” illness. I’d never thought of this angle. But of course, it is weird. Weird in the sense that it’s outside the realm of what people know. And that New York Times reporter is right. People do love weird shit. I can capitalize on that.

I began writing this report on the train home. I wrote, “So I’m sitting here on the train, wearing my mask because the smell of the blue toilet water has infused the entire car with its odor, and I feel like the hero on her journey home. Veni, vidi, vici. I came, I saw, I conquered.”

I’m not afraid anymore. I can do this thing. Darth Vader, watch your back.

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