One Canary Sings, my book-in-progress, is a work of creative nonfiction about the industrialization of the human body.
In 1989, I came down with a case of mononucleosis that dragged into chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), leaving me bedridden for the better part of fourteen years. The fatigue felled me. I couldn’t hold a book. Talking on the phone wiped me out. Walking a block to the corner store wrecked me. I took baths rather than stand in the shower. I stopped brushing my teeth at night.
It was as though my ship had sunk hundreds of miles from dry land and I had been cast adrift, the lone survivor of a terrible calamity. My bed was my lifeboat. I lay on it day after day, month after month, as weak as a castaway wasting away for lack of food and water. I had read about chronic fatigue syndrome. I knew the prognosis. I was alone at sea, with little hope of rescue.
As the years fell away like pages in a film noir calendar, I found my disability commingling and then finally shapeshifting into multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Fresh paint, new carpeting, air fresheners, perfumes, fabric softener, cleaning products—the chemicals that most people found innocuous jumbled my thinking and made my head ache as though my brain had swollen inside the cradle of my skull.
I developed sensitivities to sugar, wheat, and yeast, and then dairy, and then all grains, even quinoa and millet, and then all sweeteners, including agave nectar, stevia, and even yakon syrup. I pushed my cart past most of the aisles at the supermarket, subsisting on a rotating diet of meat, some vegetables, a few beans, and less than a serving of fruit a day.
My illness turned me into an environmentalist. I came to believe that I and others like me are canaries in the coal mine, our bodies the early warning systems signaling the dangers in the bad air of our chemically saturated culture.
The great lie of American individualism is that we alone bear responsibility for our illness. But I now subscribe to the feminist dictum, “The personal is political.” Something is wrong, and it’s making us sick. MCS and CFS are cautionary illnesses, asking us to wake up and pay attention.
Thus, this book.