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Posts Tagged ‘pain’

spine

Some people have spiritual journeys. Like the woman at the pool today. She gave me a copy of her book, the one she’s self-published about her awakening. Praise and bible verses sing their glory from the pages. She told me Satan still tempts her sometimes.

I’m going to have to read this because we’re neighbors. We need each other more than I need the security of my convictions. I’ll learn about her journey. No matter how indirect its impact on my life, a person’s story is a big deal. Reading a slice of it is a small task.

Lately, my journey has strayed far from the spiritual. I’ve gone on a physical detour, as if I’ve stumbled upon some hidden hatch and tripped into my own body. I wander through this wondrous machine, in awe of what I’m witnessing. Connections! Understanding! Everyone needs to hear about this transformation — You! Yes, you! — because it could be this good for you too! Really! This one simple set of practices could give you back life you didn’t even know you’d lost!

Because who doesn’t love hearing yet another opinion about how to improve oneself?

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streb fly 2

STREB/Ringside: Photo by Lois Greenfield

Maybe the talisman doesn’t save us after all. Maybe something suitable just happens to be within reach at the moment we need to be saved.

When it comes to rescue, coincidence can look a lot like fate.

Several months ago, I “threw my back out.” An uber-intense workout involving a particularly brutal instrument of torture called Jacob’s Ladder twinged something in my lumbar region. Within hours, pain immobilized me.

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Crouching Aphrodite

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.


– Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

The gait is an oddity.  You scoop now, or maybe swoop.  To walk forward, you have to cover distances along the vertical, an axis you’ve rarely considered. It is as if one torn hinge down below popped a hasp hidden along an adjoining edge.  The door swings upward now.  You must believe in this way of opening.  You must be willing to shift the fulcrum and lean against places you thought were solid.

Adaptation reconfigures the concept of self-reliance.

You are unable to chase down your wild one.  You find people who can. The children of the neighbors whose names you vaguely remember, they invite you because you invite yourself.  Their friends come, chatter and thump, with chocolate glass and athletes’ names stitched onto their backs.  Meat hisses and blackens over a grill.  Your little man plucks a fallen tree from the ground and hurls it across a blossoming acre of sky.  The other one rips a PVC frame from a soccer goal and turns on him.  They tear around the side where ropes and fence posts swallow them up.  Inside, girls scream.  Grease pops, a baby reaches with his crystal mouth for a slice of fruit left on raw wood.

You scale concrete steps and marvel at mechanics which you thought your birthright.  Undeserved, as is every blithe entitlement.  Fleeting, as is every aspect of the truth you trusted enough to ignore.

Pain is a flavor like coffee gone cold.  Good coffee, though.  Oil gleaming on jeweled beans.  Smoke at the edges.

Your joint is a broken tongue slipping around the memory of speed.  This is a small inconvenience.  You are grateful in a wholly unexpected way to those who have tripped over this earth in imperfect bodies.  All the ones who have scrabbled with impossible latches that bar the way to gardens too narrow anyway, or too terraced.  You thank them for every smooth paving stone, every ramp, every handrail.  You are ashamed of your earlier blindness, that disability of of the unimpaired.

The lips of those who see your hitch at first pucker with scars.  Then they chuckle them loose.  “This is just the beginning, you know.”  They are your comrades in arms.  In hips, ankles, in sciatic nerves.  Together with these allies in mortal combat, you watch an enemy front advancing over the horizon.  It moves fast.  It swells in on your flank.

Defeat is inevitable, a foregone conclusion.  You resist nonetheless.  You hold it off and clutch at your inch of territory even as it shrinks in your grip.

You lift your arm and ride its arc.  It will go too, soon enough.  It is here now, though, that crescendo, that cascade.  You lift your ears to the buzz (engine, wasp, feathered wings dipping then gone) and let heat squirm against your bare face.  This wash and flurry grates awake sinew that in its younger, uncracked state felt barely anything all.

You may return to ignorance.  Luck, they say.  This could heal without blade, just a dimming of pain, a steady return to familiar physics.  You welcome the liberation of your attention.

But you know better now.  You know that luck never holds out.  Bones will hollow.  Fluid will vanish from the eyes and reappear in lungs, in ankles, in tiny bubbles scurrying through veins.  Forward motion is a fleeting state.  As is independence.  As is hubris.  Soon you will need bodies stronger than yours to escort you across your days.  The same will happen to your children and neighbors, to your heroes, to everyone you’ve ever loved.

Like the shattering of childbirth, this crack and shift will fade.  Like childbirth, its footsteps will echo.  Its ghosts will walk your body’s locked corridors.

Keep all the hinges oiled.

Hold the keys close.


Image: Crouching Aphrodite (Venus) at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Roman Museum)

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He oils the rusted hinge
sliding between threads
stiff with corrosion
grit
age
and presses his weight
again
again
a silent skirmish
tenacity versus obstinance
until the creak and shift,
a mere inch
or less
cracking the seal,
unspooling ribbons
of forgotten light

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How far away can I go and still be connected?
What can I — and do I — want to do for myself?
And exactly how much of me am I willing to give up for love or simply for shelter?

At several points in our lives, we may insist: I’ll do it myself. I’ll live by myself. I’ll solve it myself. I’ll make my own decisions. And having made that decision, we then may find ourselves scared to death of standing alone.

– Judit Viorst, Necessary Losses

Sometimes, we don’t even know this old push-pull is operating until our minds yank us into position and force us to see.
 
Or, in my case, the body does the yanking. At the start of the new year, it all comes rushing, this longed-for independence. No men are waiting in the wings. The ex has moved on to a new girlfriend. The condo is galloping towards me. What happens? I fall.
 
And fall again.
 
And end up in urgent care.
 
In a cast. On meds. Then in a splint. Unable to work for days on end.
 
Then wrench my back. And suffer mightily.
 
And retreat to the safe but suffocating confines of my family’s care.
 
Some part of me refuses to step forward into the open mouth of adulthood. A long-ago self insists that this is too much. It wobbles. I slip. My center of gravity tilts. I stumble. I need. I reach backwards and downwards for the kind of help that children demand.
 
Fear is a clever thing. I does an end-run around rationality. It kicks the legs out from under the boldest stance.
 
And so, I convalesce. I gather strength. Someday soon — Next week? Next month? — I will be able to come to a sitting position on the side of my bed without grasping for a handhold, without gasping for breath. And then I will make my way down the stairs. Out the door. Into the wide open day.
 
I just have to keep acting against the illusion of falling, the trickery of my fright. Alone is never alone, not really. All around, these kindnesses. These people. These approaches moving in the opposite direction of rapprochement. This mind more powerful than fear.
 
These ways forward I have not yet found. These secrets, waiting to reveal themselves.
 

Viorst, Judith. Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. Fireside, New York: 1986
 

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“Are they going to give me a shot?”
 
“I don’t think so, baby. It’s just strep throat. They’ll give you medicine. The kind you drink.”
 
“But are you sure? Do they ever give shots for strep throat?”
 
“Not that I know of. But I can’t say for 100% sure. You know what you do get at the doctor’s? You get stickers. And they put the cuff on your arm, and we find out how tall you are and everything.”
 
“But are they going to give me a shot?”

 
 
It would be so easy just to tell him what what he wants to hear. That “no” would ease his mind and get him off my back. Nevertheless, I refuse to submit. I will answer his question 147 times as truthfully as I can even though a single lie would quiet his fear.
 
The mind has a way of spinning out of control once it has fixed on a worst-case scenario. Untangling the knot of obsessive thoughts becomes even more difficult if a past hurt has laid down an association between experiences. Rock climbing = broken limb. Making art = ridicule. Professional risk = debt. Love = heartbreak.
 
Doctor = pain.
 
Mystery ailments haunted Bug from his first birthday until his fourth. On top of the bombardment of normal childhood immunizations, the poor kid had blood drained from his arm several times a year. Is it any wonder he starts fretting about injections before we even make it through the door? He clings to my leg and urges me to ask about shots. The nurse smiles and gives wheedling reassurance. “Oh, no, big guy, no shots today.” I feel Bug relax his grip and begin to look up. We stride down the hall to the exam room.
 
Then the doctor comes in and checks his chart. “Oh, we need to take a little blood,” she tells him. Bug contracts into a fist. His eyes flash in my direction. Sighing, I shake my head. “I’m so sorry, buddy.”
 
This contrition. For what? For his having to feel pain? No, the needle is not the real hurt. My apology is for the falsehoods of grownups. It is for those of us who choose compliance over presence of mind. Maybe the adults of the world are just too rushed to speak the uncertainties. It’s easier to zip on past a hard conversation, scoot the kiddo to the next room, and keep everything humming along. We have a schedule to keep, after all.
 
Every time this occurs, I see one more brick in Bug’s foundation of trust crumble. While I understand the argument that life is not fair and kids need to learn that the world does not always deliver on its commitments, I do not agree with the premise. What is this need we have to make promises we know we cannot keep? Living with unknowns is a much more powerful skill than living certain that people will lie.
 
I want my son to learn how to orient his attention in the face of his demons.
 

No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear…the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away.
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

The misery of children makes most adults uncomfortable. We want to allay it or make it stop. We want to divert it. We want kids to Be Happy! We want these things for all kinds of complicated reasons, but one of those reasons is that we know the dark power of the mind to spill us down the rabbit hole. Most of us have visited its depths before. And we want children to stay up here in the light.
 
Wanting it is not anywhere close to teaching it, though.
 
Positive thinking is not as easy as it seems like it should be. Reducing mindfulness to sugar-coated optimism, which is another form of putting on blinders, ignores the effort involved in re-training the perception to take in a wider selection of what is real. Broadening one’s attention requires practicing with the rigor of a marathon runner. It takes serious muscle to sit still in the face of uncertainty and pain, and building that fortitude requires going through the exercises no matter how the winds howl.
 

“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ”
Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You

“Let’s breathe together, honey,” I tell Bug. I grow very calm and take him in my lap. We sit in the exam room together cuddling close as the doctor checks his vitals. Bug knows that a needle with his name on it is waiting in the lab. His gaze is narrow and his shoulders are hunched. The grinding of the gears inside his panicking brain is almost audible. He is doing what we all do: seeking a way out or around this thing that terrifies him while being unable to resist its pull.
 
As we listen to the machine beep, I talk in a quiet voice into his scalp. “The doctor is listening to your strong heart,” I tell him. “It is pumping blood all through your body, giving oxygen to your arms and legs, your stomach, your brain.” I touch him here, and here, and here.
 
The doctor places the stethoscope on Bug’s chest and he pulls in great swallows of air. This is his reserve. He is filling his well. I whisper and keep my hands gentle on his legs. “Everything is working just right to keep you growing and swimming and singing and playing.” Bug does not respond but I can feel his back seeking the comfort of my belly. We will go together to face the blood draw, and he will cry. I will remind him that the hurt is fleeting, and that he is well, and that everything is working exactly as it should. Even the pain. We will talk about this later in the car, about the wonder of nerves and how they send messages to the brain, and how the sting is one way the power living inside his body makes itself known.
 
Instead of hurling past the uncertainties to find solid ground, I want my son to learn to slow his gait and feel where he is. It is good to sense ourselves suspended above that crevasse. Even children need to learn to stay inside the questions. What holds us? Perhaps just trust. What becomes of us? Perhaps nothing at all.
 
I only hope that by pausing with my boy here in this place of no answers, I am helping him lay down another pathway in his busy neural network. This one is about orienting to what is right here. Needles, yes, but also breath. Skin and blood, health and a comforting embrace. Pain and fear.
 
Also love.
 

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