A few mornings after I returned from this year's wonderful session of The International Cabaret Conference at Yale, I had a little dizzy spell. Walking down a narrow hallway, I bounced off the walls a bit, like a pinball. Nothing serious. But when I opened my eyes the following morning and started to sit up in bed, the room took a sickening lurch. It was a brief sensation, very uncomfortable, but familiar. Years ago, shortly after I moved from Chicago to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate NY, I experienced a long siege of bronchial infections. When I had to fly back to Chicago several days before a series of engagements, I was still husky-voiced and very tired, but I knew I could do the gigs. My wonderful voice teacher has instilled technique that usually carries me through such things. If I can stand, I can sing.
A few days before the opening night, I had a brief, odd sensation of dizziness. It passed. A couple of days later, when I turned my head on waking, and tried to rise, I was violently nauseated. The room rocked. The only thing that gave any relief was to be utterly still, with my eyes partly closed. I felt even worse the next day. Every time I moved my head, I had to vomit. I tried to shower and wash my hair to get ready for the gig. I couldn't stand, so I crawled from the bathroom to the room I was sleeping in, and, lying on the floor, began putting on my makeup. It just slid down my cold perspiring face. My accompanist, Dean, knocked on the door, and took a look.
"Laurel," he said, "no one's going to pay money to see this. You have to cancel."
I did. The cancellation cost me about $1500. But with the help of a phone consultation with an ear, nose and throat doctor who prescribed an anti-nausea drug, I was at least able to fulfill the latter half of the engagement. But the doc didn't tell me what I might have, and not knowing was frightening.
It was not until I returned to the mountains that a PA (physician's assistant) in the local health clinic told me what was going on.
"You have a textbook case of labyrinthitis," he said. "Probably a secondary infection resulting from your long bronchial crud." He gave me Antivert to counteract the vertigo, and told me to get some rest, so that time could heal me. Which, eventually, it did. He also suggested I stay out of smoke-filled rooms, but as that was almost a synonym for jazz clubs, I didn't have a way of doing it.
That was probably in 1989 or '90, a long time ago in human years. Three dogs and a cat ago. A divorce ago. Fourteen house moves ago. Several hairdos. A lot of anti-smoking legislation (which saved my career). A lot of books read, a lot of water flowing under the bridge. Yet this past summer, when I tilted into the wall, I remembered.
I'd had bronchitis earlier in the season, which I could have picked up anywhere. I had just about recovered when I left for Yale. The schedule of the Cabaret program is very full, and the air in the dorm this year was damp and silted with construction dust. When I returned home and started reeling like a drunken ballerina, I cancelled everything, and went straight to bed for a week.
Because I did, the labyrinthitis was not as bad this time. I was up again far sooner, though I could not look down without feeling nauseated. I developed a very erect carriage, sailing through rooms like a tall ship, and if I dropped something, it pretty much stayed dropped. Sang some gigs, did some recording, was in a play, all without looking down.
The doc I saw this time told me that, although they know what labyrinthitis is – an inflammation in the the labyrinth, the part of the inner ear that control's the body's balance – they don't know for sure why it develops, though there seems to be some correlation with bronchial infections, stress, allergies, and head injuries. Nor is there a medication that cures it, other than time. Months, in fact. He prescribed rest and patience, and also suggested I look down from time to time, to help my brain rework the balance issue.
I've been doing that. I am much improved, but I do still have it. When I get very tired, I get dizzy. Not about-to-faint dizzy. It's more like boat-deck dizzy. But this time, I recognize something that was hidden all those years ago.
When I moved from Chicago to the Adirondacks, almost every aspect of my life was assaulted by change. Moving from big city to deep country. From having lots of friends to knowing no one. From a church community I loved to one that made me feel very unwelcome (another time for that story). From trusted musical colleagues to no colleagues at all. From an established local and national career to an empty calendar. From proximity to my family to proximity to my then-husband's family, who were very, very different. Though I had moved all my life, no move was as big a shaking as this one. Looking back, I can connect the dots: I was flung utterly off-balance, and my body didn't know what to do. So it got sick. And what was affected? My ability to communicate (bronchitis) and my equilibrium (labyrinthitis). Perfectly perfect, as my step-niece would say.
Twenty-two years later, this summer, too, has been for me a time of waking up to intense discomfort and rebalancing. What is really important? What do I need to do and to have? Of what can I let go? And this shaking up is not happening just in my heart and home, but in those of many friends and relatives, and of communicators – writers, speakers, artists, people of spirit - whom I follow but have never met. I think the ground is shaking all over the world, for millions of people. A global shift is taking place, and we are struggling to keep our balance, trying to find our way through a labyrinth we helped create, or allowed to be created, until we realized we'd been trapped. A whole lotta shakin's going on.