This is the story of eczema, a spot the size of a postage stamp on one finger of one hand, and what it taught me about the story of my life
The burning is unbearable. I give in and scratch. The burning turns to pain – pure, fiery pain. I try over the counter cortisone cream, prescription cortisone cream from my doctor, homemade calendula-olive oil-lavender salve. Nothing soothes it.
What are you trying to tell me? I mentally ask my screaming finger.
Its response would have been funnier if it had been the middle finger, but alas, it is not. It just weeps big, ugly tears from big, red splotches.
The first time that eczema appeared on the ring finger of my right hand, I was a senior in high school. I sat in the second row from the door, first seat, in Mrs. Scheidler’s math class. Behind me sat my best friend, Sue. Across the room, my other close friends, Danny and Jen. We were in something called basic college math, or as we called it in high school, math for dummies. My eleventh-grade teacher had refused to recommend me for calculus, the senior year math, a fact which, although it caused me a moment of anger, caused more than a moment of relief. I wanted to be a writer, after all, and had no use for calculus.
We had just received our high school rings in March. I paid for my own ring from my earnings as a gal Friday at Rosenzweig Insurance, a job I loved. I was in a class that didn’t suck, with friends I cherished, friends with whom I was planning a blow-out prom and senior week and all sorts of fun over the next few weeks.
The ring was also something I was proud of achieving. I wasn’t good at saving my money, and I had to save $90 to pay for the basic high school ring. It looked like a boy’s ring, but it had my name, my author name, carved into the band – Jeanne M. Rudmann. I was on my way. I was going to be novelist. Once college was done, publishers would lap up my books. I planned to be the next Famous Writer. I would live in a Victorian house with a dog and cats and a garden. It would happen.
Meanwhile, my finger burned and itched as the spring sunlight slanted through the beige window shades and Mrs. S squeaked chalk against the board reminding us of how to multiply compound fractions or something barely useful.
My finger burned, itched. I scratched. Soon, oozing sores appears around the curve of the ring.
That night, I showed it to my sister, a nurse. “Atopic dermatitis,” she announced, producing a tube of cortisone cream from the drug store.
It helped. It didn’t fix it.
A few weeks later, I walked to Dr. Shivers’ office. Dr. Shivers was his real name, and he was our family doctor forever. His office was in his house two doors down and across the street from my old elementary school and his cat, Felicia, sat sunning herself on the walkway, greeting patients.
Dr. Shivers took one look at my finger, pronounced it was eczema, and told me that soap was getting caught under the thick nickel band of my high school ring. That night, I soaked the ring in rubbing alcohol, used the drug store cream he suggested, and the eczema faded in time for me to look fabulous at my senior prom.
But it never really went away. That patch of eczema the size of a postage stamp might have disappeared, but it wasn’t really gone.
Most kids can’t wait to graduate from high school and go off to college.
I never wanted to leave high school.
I had a love-hate affair with school. I loathed my repressive Catholic elementary school, the dowdy uniforms, the sour nuns, the heavy odor of pine disinfectant and sauerkraut that permeated the walls.
Hanging over the stairwell where we assembled to be called, ten at a time, into the hot lunch line to purchase limp cheese sticks, four squares of cherry Jello and a piece of Elio’s pizza (warm, if you were lucky, cold if you weren’t) was a religious mural. I knew the painting well, for its twin was printed in the red-bound children’s Bible in my night table at home. Jesus, in a white robe and sandals, sat on rock where cherubic children in very clean tunics and smiles gathered around him. Gilt lilies adorned the frame of the mural and lettered around the frame were the words “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”
Except, our mural was so old that some of the words had faded away to ghosts. All we could see was “Suffer little children” and believe me, we suffered.
When I look back at the eight years I viewed as almost pure hell at that school, and try to share my frustration, my anger, my panic at the memories of that place, I’m astonished that few others from my class felt the same thing. Most loved it; some tolerated it; few loathed it as I did.
I couldn’t wait to graduate eight grade and get the hell out of dodge or the hell out of Catholic school. Unlike my older sisters, who were encouraged to go on to Catholic High School, my father wanted me in the public school. It was a good school, he reasoned, and he had already paid my tuition over and over again in the form of incredibly high school taxes. Why should he pay double for another four years when we had a perfectly good school nearby?
My mother wanted me to go to Sewanhaka High School, which made sense, since it was only about a quarter of a mile away. We could hear the carillon in the bell tower sing its noon day tunes and mark the hours. But our town also had its own public school in addition to the multi-district Sewanhaka. Floral Park Memorial was on the polar opposite side of town, on the border with Elmont. The English classrooms overlooked Belmont race track; we could watch the horses exercise each morning if we were lucky enough to have classes on the Western side of the building.
Besides, Sue was going to Floral Park Memorial. Sue and I had met in 6thgrade, Mrs. Owens class, when she had moved to Floral Park. Mrs. Owens sat her in front of me and I leaned forwarded and whispered, “Hi. I’m Jeanne.”
“Where do you live?
“Wow, I live on B—-” That was one block away. Our neighborhood was a kid desert. It was mostly old people and working people. Most of the kids from school lived on the opposite side of town, closer to the town center.
Our friendship was sealed. From that day forward, we walked to school together in the morning and home at night. When it came time to go to high school, that terrifying place of changing classes, lockers, and potential group showers after gym class, it was unthinkable that I proceed there without the comforting, familiar presence of my best friend.
Besides, she had an older brother at the school who was popular and who could keep the bullies away. I was a bully magnet back then.
So it was set. On to Floral Park Memorial High School. Within a few weeks, Jen, another friend from the bad Catholic School Days, had transferred into the public school after discovering she wasn’t happy at the Catholic high school where she had started the semester.
Added to this mix was Danny, someone we met in French class. He quickly added laughter and wit to our group, and our foursome moved in a pack from class to class, separated only when the academic subjects split Jen and me into honors and gifted classes and Dan and Sue into the Regents classes.
Soon, our foursome became six and more as new friends joined us, but the nucleus of the four of us – quiet, funny Jen, witty, handsome Dan, and quiet, sweet Sue, with my kind intellectualism rounding out the mix – became a fixture in high school.
At the start of senior year, we entered Miss Haudberg’s French classroom, laughing as always and greeting others we had taken French 1, 2 and 3 with. Miss Haudberg was one of our favorite teachers and we waited politely to see where she wanted us to sit.
“Oh no,” she exclaimed, waiving to the four seats near the front of the room on the left side, “you four have to sit together. I have never seen such friendship before. You are truly unique.”
It wasn’t just Miss Haudberg who noticed the incredible bond we had formed. We heard it from the music teacher, the art teacher, the English teacher. They noticed not just the foursome who raced to classes and tried to be part of everything at school, but the way we accepted others into our group. The misfits sat with us at lunch, protected by our friendship; the outcasts had a place at the table.
Four years may not seem like a long time to me now as I approach middle age and round the corner into cronehood, but to and 18 year old, four years is a quarter of a life. That’s a long time.
And it was coming to an end. While our friends, jaded by hanging out with the same kids since they were in diapers (Floral Park is an incredible close-knit community despite being on the border of Queens, New York) couldn’t wait to head to California, Florida, New England and other places beyond for college, we four were looking at more modest goals.
My aunt taught at Molloy College, a Catholic college for women, recently co-ed, in Rockville Centre; I would be a commuter student on scholarship thanks to the Dominican nuns. Sue had scrimped, saved, and found loans to put herself through business school at St. Johns, but she would driver her mother’s battered old compact to classes. Dan found a way to commute to music school to pursue his gifts of singing and acting. As for Jen, she was Boston bound, and seemed as excited to try her hand at dorm life as she had been back in 9thgrade embarking for Catholic school.
It was all coming to an end, too fast, and I wasn’t ready for it. I wanted high school to go on forever.
On the last day of eight grade, I took off my hated Catholic school uniform and unceremoniously dumped it into the filthy trade can outside the back stoop. A pile of itchy polyester plaid skirt, a stained Peter Pan collar blouse, green knee socks the color of shamrocks, hot smell polyester blazer, all in the trash. I slammed the screen door and never looked back.
On the last day of high school, I ran my hands over my locker – number 214, second floor, outside the physics classroom. I twirled the combination – 28-14-36, I can still remember it 30 years later! I walked past the chorus room where I had learned to love formal choral singing and how to read a symphony score. I cried as I walked the route familiar route home, touching the white roses that grew along the post and rail fence of the Tudor house on the corner where, each June, the appearance of the roses and the elderly man gently tending his treasures had been a touchstone.
College wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t high school. I made friends – good friends, friends I still treasure. But the days of feeling like I had a pack, a tribe, were gone.
What is it about human beings that makes us need a tribe? Anthropologists have answers. I have only questions. I’m not one who needs a crowd to be happy. I can be joyfully alone for hours, days, weeks. To quote Cicero, if I have a library and a garden, I am happy. Add a cat, dog, and some good music from my Spotify playlist, and I’m delighted.
But something happened that day in math class in my senior year and it compressed and expressed itself through a postage size stamp of skin on the ring finger of my right hand. The ring finger of the left hand is, of course, the finger that since Roman times has been reserved for love, marriage, commitment – the wedding band, the engagement ring.
The ring finger on my right hand has always been for my choice, my life. In high school, the heavy silver ring that represented four years of feeling like I belonged in a lifetime of feeling like I never quite fit in, the square peg in the round hole, the shoe half a size too small. In college, I switched to a heavy horsehead ring, another symbol of my life as I was able to pursue my lifelong ambition of learning to ride horses, leasing a horse, riding, showing and training.
Strangely enough, the postage size stamp of eczema didn’t appear under the heavy horsehead band until 1994.
College was good, bad, and in between. Jen eventually quit Boston and came home, attending City University at Queens College where Danny ended up too to pursue a degree in English. Jen worked at a library then Barnes and Nobles; Dan worked at Blockbuster Video, then Barnes and Noble. Our childhood loves never really leave.
Sue finished her business degree went on to a career in the insurance industry which supported her true vocation, wife and mother. As for me, I wrote awful novels, good short stories, and strong articles, and found a voice writing business articles, personal essays, and advertising copy full time for a division of the Yellow Pages.
It was here, in a square office tower in Rockville Centre, that I discovered my second tribe. Not just friends, but an amazing group of talented, creative, driven people who were all pursuing other goals while cranking out ad copy and voiced radio commercials and answering machine scripts. There was Walt, who had an amazing sportscasters voice; Craig, a comedian with whom I shared my cubicle; Steve, who invented a game called Zone Ball, wrote plays produced off off off Broadway, and palled around with Craig at the comedy clubs; Lisa, who also did drive time weather and traffic for the cable news station, and many, many others.
Like high school, I had found my tribe – a group of caring, open, welcoming people who lived up to the motto of “the weirdness in me greets the weirdness in you.”
I began writing ad copy there in 1988, progressed to customer service, and eventually found myself working full time there after college. I loved it. I made friends – Eleanor became a soul sister just the way Sue had in elementary school. I cat and dog sit for people, went to Copperwaithe’s after work for drinks and greasy chicken wings, and drove to the barn to ride horses after work or out to City University for graduate school where I pursued my dreams of being a fiction writer.
Then, the unthinkable happened. The company decided that our group wasn’t profitable anymore. They were dissolving the department. I didn’t lose my job; I was moved in with Kelly and two other ladies from another department into a new group formed to handle specialty advertising. But the crowd of creatives I loved were all scatted to distance ports.
As the old, familiar dissolved, an old, familiar burning appeared on the ring finger of my right hand. Why, hello old friend. Eczema, a patch exactly the size of a postage stamp, appeared again. This time, leaving off my ring entirely, swaddling my finger in a cocoon of cortisone cream and bandages didn’t help.
Finally, six months after the group dissolved and I went on to a new job, so too did the eczema dissolve from my finger. A pattern had emerged, but I didn’t see it. I just knew I had this annoying thing called eczema.
The fact that it appeared when I was forced to move away from people I loved didn’t click – yet.
What is eczema? According to medical science, it’s an inflammatory response to an unknown trigger. There are a bunch of factors that go into it – heredity, of course, a false auto immune response, and environmental factors. That’s probably what triggered my first bout. I’m guessing Dr. Shivers was right about the nickel in the ring along with soap and lotion caught under its band irritating the skin. And of course, the same thing could have happened again when I had the bout in 1994. The old horsehead ring was, after all, gold colored paint applied over a cheap nickel band.
Years come, years go. I worked hard, rose in my careers as a marketing director, found new tribes, and moved on. Some jobs were a delight; others a dread. I learned that I thrived in team environments where I worked with people who respected diversity and differences and who had some intellectual prowess.
My eczema lay dormant, quiescent. I wore rings and did not itch. I forgot all about it.
In 2007, I did what my family and friends said was impossible. Crazy. What was I thinking? I was thinking of all those childhood dreams of green meadows and rolling fields and horses and wildlife and more. I was thinking of my teenage dreams of being a writer living in a Victorian house with dogs, cats, and a flower garden. I was thinking, in short, of my life, a life lived on my own terms.
I quit my job as Director of Marketing at McGraw-Hill at a time when all signs pointed to a future with the great global publisher. My husband and I were living in 500 square feet above my in-law’s living space in a shared house that had, over the years, grown to be home. My father-in law sold the house. We bought 17 acres of forested land in a quiet corner of Virginia no one had heard of and that my family swore was probably still infested by Confederate soldiers or their decedents with a hatred of Yankees. We’d be killed in our sleep. We’d be kidnapped by Deliverance-style rednecks. We’d be murdered in our beds by bears.
None of those things happened. We cleared three acres of the 17 and built our dream house, designed by my husband. It was a modern Victorian and I picked out every tile, every color, every door way and detail. I loved it. We packed up our cat, a cranky nonagenarian in human terms, and moved into our dream house.
My grand plan had been to get a job as a marketing director in Lynchburg, the closest city, about 40 minutes away. Unfortunately, my grand plan didn’t take into account that there were few marketing jobs available, let alone digital marketing. Richmond beckoned, but it was an hour and a half’s drive away, and one of the main selling points of moving away from New York City was ditching 60 and 90-minute commutes in favor of closer work.
I’d started my own company in 2004 while still living in New York, an online art gallery for equine artists. I tried making that work full time. Aside from one smash hit artwork in 2008 which puts us in the black, it was an uphill battle. The rise of Facebook and other social media made our services obsolete; artists could publicize their own work easily, cheaply, and better then we could. I folded that company.
I offered marketing consulting services. Some years were good, most years, we struggled. I offered writing services. That provided steady, if underpaid work.
In 2010, I answered a blind ad on Craigslist seeking a direct response copywriter. I was on vacation when I called from the backseat of our Buick as we rolled along the Blue Ridge Highway, my husband in the driver’s seat, my father in law in the front passenger seat, and me and the dog sprawled on the back seat. The interview was a success, I got the gig, and for a few years, I’d write off and on for Steve and his company. I liked him; he paid well, he was smart, and more importantly, easy to work with.
In 2016, Steve called and said one of the clients I’d written for years ago wanted to work with me exclusively; he was okay with that, would I be interested? I was. That led to my work with an entrepreneur who had cut his teeth in copywriting and who demanded the best of me.
Finally, my work from home career took off. The company was thriving, and I began working with a group of creative, dedicated, fun people.
We all worked from home, connecting daily on Skype, Slack, and other shared messenger apps. But a feeling of camaraderie, a feeling I hadn’t had since my work back in 1994 at the Yellow Pages or with the old gang in high school, emerged.
It was a wonderful feeling. It was a feeling of belonging. The weirdness in me – my herbalism studies on the side, my cat rescue work, my continued pursuit of publishing – jived with the weirdness in my colleagues.
We laughed together. We enjoyed long talks outside of work. Others joined the company. You may think that a group of people, living so far apart, never meeting in person, could not be friends. You would be wrong. I sent Christmas packages of homemade jams made from fruit I had grown in my organic garden and dispensed herbalist wisdom via teleconferences when people needed me. They sent me ice cream gift certificates. We updated each other on our pets’ antics, especially if, during phone calls, dogs barked, cats threw books off office tables.
We were a work family.
We were a tribe.
I had found my tribe.
The Wise Woman way of herbalism asks questions of illness and the answers guide deeper insight, deeper exploration.
Hence, eczema, the size of a postage stamp, on the right ring finger helped me understand something about myself I never would have considered.
The burning in my finger is back.
Hello, old friend.
I’m at the doctor’s office here in Virginia. My right ring finger bears tiny white blisters the size of pinheads that itch and burn to the point where they wake me at night. They sit in the space between two joints on one finger.
It is astonishing that something this small can cause so much discomfort.
She hands me a prescription for cortisone cream. She starts writing again. “What’s that?”
“Just a temporary course of steroids,” she says cheerfully.
I like my doctor here in Virginia, but she’s quick with the prescription pad and slow to listen. I had said again and again that steroids were out unless not taking them meant imminent death. I’d seen what damage steroids had done to my mother’s health, and I wasn’t having any of that.
“I’ll use the cream, but not the pills.”
The finger burns. It’s always worse on the weekends. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. By Tuesday, it feels better. By Thursday, it’s saying howdy, miss me?
I want to cry. I scratch it. It hurts worse. I put the doctor’s cream on it. It feels worse. I return to the red and white tube of ointment from the drugstore. It works – sometimes.
What really works the best is cold water. Ice cold water. A soft cloth soaked in ice cold water and wrapped around my finger is the only comfort I can bring to it. It’s getting so bad that I wish it was winter when I could wear my leather gloves when in public so I don’t have to expose the weeping, angry rash to the world.
I sit in silence. I put down my copy of Susun Weed’s The Wise Woman Way. Susun, my teacher from afar, the teacher I have never met, invites us to ask the illness what it is trying to teach us.
“What,” I strive for patience in my voice, “Do you want, finger?”
I feel like a complete idiot. I am asking my finger what it wants.
I try again. “What are you trying to tell me?”
What am I expecting? The Finger Monologue? A complete and logical discourage on the reason for eczema appearing only on one finger, between two joints of my finger?
No response but an intense, burning pain. It is an urgent pain that wants soothing and reassurance. Clues, all clues.
“Why? What?” I murmur, feeling more compassion for my ring finger.
Suddenly, insight and clarity. I see, in my mind’s eye, my best friend, Sue. I see math class and a moment of looking around the room and realizing this is not my future, this is my past, and I do not want to go. I do not want to leave. I want this time, this predictable routine of togetherness and laughter and shared jokes and people I can count on to last forever.
I think of other times when I have felt this good, this right, this feeling of I have found my tribe. It is a beige office with cubicles lined in garish movie posters, Coke cans lining the floor, laughter and cries of “Quiet, I’m trying to record!” It is Yellow Book, when my tribe included creative, fun people who, like me, wanted to make art and needed to make a living.
But now? Why now?
I live in Virginia. I work from home. I work for multiple people, writing copy, providing marketing and management services, and yet…
It is the tribe. A tribe who accepts and likes me for what I am.
It is work I enjoy. I’m using every skill I’ve developed over my 20-30 years as a marketing manager, a writer, a leader. I love it.
I love the people I work with. I love my clients. They are scattered throughout the world – England, Ireland, Belgium, Mexico, Hong Kong. They are funny, savvy business people starting big companies with huge goals and new technology and I love the fact that every day is a challenge to my skills, my intellect, and my sense of humor.
What I don’t love, however, is the uncertainty. I’m an independent contractor. Tomorrow, this could all end if the funder behind the company, a silent partner behind my boss, decides I am no longer valuable. Despite the fact that my boss values my abilities, my coworkers like me, and my clients love me, I could be no longer a part of this tomorrow.
My finger throbs.
What are you telling me?
I am telling you, the spot of eczema the size of a postage stamps screams, that I don’t like this. I don’t like not being in total control when things go my way. I don’t like being forced out of situations where I feel comfortable. I want change on my own terms – not the universe’s terms. I don’t want to be at the whims of fickle fortune anymore. I want certainty. I want the certainty that this work I love, the people I enjoy, the good times now will last forever.
Don’t make me go. Don’t make me go.
Illness is not to be fought or battled in the Wise Woman tradition. It is, instead, an ally. It is a teacher. What it has to teach you is a lesson you need to learn for your growth.
Eczema the size of a postage stamp lead me down the spiral path of my past into the depths of the why. Why did I feel so happy and healthy in high school and during that period in the 1990s when I worked for, of all places, the Yellow Pages? Why now do I feel the same happiness – and yet the harsh, angry flare of blistery skin comes again?
It is like a flare, this red finger pointing to the sky and tying to my heart. The Romans thought that the ring finger of the left hand connected directly to the heart; this is why we wear our wedding bands on that finger. The right ring finger in my mind also connects to the heart, and to the intellect, and it is a sign, this painful, angry flare, that my heart and my intellect are intertwined, connected to this group, to this time, and that I loathe the time when it will be severed.
For time never stands still. Like a river, it is always shifting and changing, and someday, someone from this group will move on. Clients come and go. Coworkers find new jobs. I may find a new opportunity that speaks to me.
Somewhere, though, the small child within who hates change, who wants to cling to the family she’s built, does not want this time to end. And so, she sends a signal out through my heart, through my mind, through my immune system, making a flare the size of a postage stamp consume my waking hours with its incessant, fiery whine.
What do you want? I ask my finger.
Permanence. Love. Keep this going. Don’t let it go away!
But it will. It always does. Life is a spiral. Haven’t you learned that yet?
I woke up this morning, and my finger doesn’t itch. It doesn’t hurt.
I learn life lessons from a patch of crusty skin the size of a postage stamp.