Putting one leg into my shorts while standing upright on the other
Sitting up in the car
Driving myself anywhere I want to go
Standing and looking out the kitchen window at the neighbor boys playing in the street
Taking a shower
Gulping a cold drink on a hot day
For four days, I couldn’t do much of anything without acute pain. I spent most of my hours in bed, flat on my back, longing for my ordinary, everyday life. All I wanted was to throw a load of clothes in the washing machine, run to the store to pick up food for dinner, water my flowers, wipe down the kitchen cabinets. I craved these things, the ways I have of keeping order, making beauty, caring for myself and others.
What a gift, to see how much there is to love about simply existing in our bruised, broken, shattering world.
Thirteen days ago I pulled something on the right side of my back while deadheading some flowers. If you’ve ever put your back out, you know how that is: You’re doing some mundane, every day task and your back seizes up.
Twelve days ago I had a private skating lesson, in spite of my back pain. I felt better after skating, though I couldn’t even begin to swing my leg up to try a baby jump.
Nine days ago the pain on the right side was waning, but pain on the left side increased. I’ve been dealing with that pain for more than a year. I’d been told it was my sacroiliac joint. It hasn’t been a big deal. I went to one session of physical therapy for it, but the experience was not positive (The therapist complained to a colleague, in front of me, that I was his 4th diagnostic for the day, and basically said “good luck” when I asked about how to schedule regular sessions.) I went to my group skating lessons that morning, but I left halfway though the second class. I just didn’t feel well, and I couldn’t seem to make my body do what it usually can. That afternoon I made an appointment to see a doctor about the SI joint pain and talk again about physical therapy.
Seven days ago I was functioning, but it was difficult. While I was cleaning up the kitchen my daughter told me to sit down and I snapped at her that I was fine. “You’re moaning,” she said. “You’re not fine.” Cane let her know that I was not aware of the moaning. (I wasn’t.)
Six days ago Cane and I moved my son to Seattle for school. The ride from Portland was challenging; I couldn’t find a position where my back didn’t hurt. The actual moving wasn’t so bad, and I didn’t do any heavy lifting because of my back pain. Five days ago we met my parents for lunch on our way home. I was uncomfortable, but was able to get through the lunch without showing it. I was sure I could manage for two days until I could get to the appointment I’d made.
Four days ago I woke up after a night of pain-interrupted sleep and called to see if I could get a same-day appointment because I couldn’t walk or sit without unbearable pain. There were no same-day appointments available with anyone, so I was advised to go to urgent care, an excruciating experience which now feels like the beginning of a tumble into a rabbit hole. I don’t think I’ve landed at the bottom of it yet.
I had appointments with 4 different doctors in 3 days. In addition to urgent care, I’ve been to an office for routine appointments and the ER. I’ve been prescribed 7 different medications, one of them an opioid. I’ve not yet been able to talk with my primary care doctor; I have a phone appointment scheduled for August 3. I have a referral to a spine clinic and an appointment for an MRI. I’ve been mostly on my back, but yesterday I finally started to get better rather than worse. I can now be upright for 5-10 minutes at a time. I try to do that every hour, as I’ve been told that movement will help me. I’ve been told that it could take weeks to months to recover my previous level of functionality/pain.
All I know right now is that I have “degenerative disc disease,” severe in some places and mild in others. I have “exaggerated lumbar lordosis” and “mild degenerative retrolisthesis.” I have “diffuse facet arthropathy.” My sacroiliac joints–originally deemed the problem by the overworked and unprofessional physical therapist–are “unremarkable.” No medical person has talked with me about what any of this means; I know what I do only because the x-ray report is in my online healthcare portal. What I can surmise from Dr. Google is that I have some form of arthritis.
I suspect that this will end up being one of those “before and after” moments in my life, a line of demarcation between one way of being and another. I’ve known for some time that I need to live differently in order to be healthy. I’ve taken steps toward that; I retired (earlier than planned), I began skating (regular exercise), I’ve made some dietary changes. With arthritis (as with migraine and fibromyalgia, two other diagnoses I’ve been given), there is only management, no cure. Stress, sleep, and diet are all factors in managing the condition. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to bump my efforts up exponentially.
As I lay in bed unable to find a pain-free position, unable to roll over without using my hands to support my hips, not knowing what was happening or how long I might be in such a state, I could not stop thinking about how fortunate I am. I have access to healthcare, imperfect as it is. I’m not missing work and don’t have to worry about getting back to work. I don’t have young children I need to care for. I have family who have been able to care for me. (I’ve been told I’m not terribly good at receiving care, but I’m working on it.) Don’t get me wrong: This situation is bad and scary, but in different circumstances, it would be catastrophic. I’m grateful it’s not worse.
I don’t know if I’ve even begun to really process this, but it’s shaken me. It’s challenging my sense of self. It’s humbling. It’s filling me with gratitude and questions. Pain is a beast. I suspect that taming it is going to be my new full-time job.
One of my favorite sites is Maria Popova’s The Marginalian; while I don’t have many words of my own to offer this week, I want to share hers, about the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. (I strongly recommend clicking through to read her post; there’s so much in it.)
Popova shares the origins of the story, which are rooted in war and fascism and friendship–and a real-life bull who became famous for his gentle nature. In this time that feels increasingly dangerous and bleak, I appreciated learning the story of this book that I have encountered many times but never read. I appreciate Popova’s insistence on the importance of art to help us imagine alternative endings.
I suppose some might consider Leaf’s ending of the story, which is far more happy than the ending of the bull’s life upon which it is based, sentimental. Perhaps they would consider it a lesser work for its lack of realism. Perhaps they might even deem it dangerous, for perpetuating a false idea of how things are likely to go in this world. Perhaps I would do so myself; there have been so many times in recent years that I’ve bemoaned an earlier idealism (naivety?) in myself that I blame for my previous lack of understanding of how so many things really are. I’ve attributed that idealism to beliefs instilled in me when I was young.
But Popova provides a different evaluative lens, one that I find useful in this time, with her claims that “We have always survived history’s dark patches by making our own light and meeting brutality with beauty,” and that “All the art we make — the picture-books and the poems, the paintings and the songs — is our act of resistance to the blade between the horns that menaces us with its unpardonable promise from the moment we are born.” She quotes Kathleen Lonsdale, who wrote that “‘those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking… must persuade others to do so'” and makes a case for the importance of art as a tool for such persuasion.
Leaf’s alternate ending isn’t a true one, in the sense of non-fiction’s truth, but it is a possible one. It puts into the world a story that could be true, and isn’t being able to imagine alternate endings the first, crucial step to making them happen?
As I’ve been writing these words, a variety of critters have come into my front yard, which I’ve seen through the window I’m sitting in front of. This past week, we’ve discovered a new inhabitant:
It’s been a few minutes since I’ve shown up here because…
I just haven’t had any words. Chuck Wendig had some recently that resonated: “…I suspect that anybody with one iota of empathy and a few braincells banging together will likely feel caught in a miasma of anxiety and depression, either bearing the brunt of it and smashing themselves like a soup can in a car crusher, or they’re disassociating so heavily that they feel disconnected from everything that makes them want to write stories or make stuff in the first place.”
I haven’t feel “caught in a miasma of anxiety and depression,” but feeling disconnected from everything that makes me want to write–that struck home. Which might mean that I have, actually, been caught in a miasma of anxiety and depression and just haven’t really acknowledged it. Because I have maybe been in the numb stages of it.
I started to write a post about abortion and the overturning of Roe, but it felt pointless. My words aren’t going to change the trajectory of the train barreling toward us, are they? And what can I have to say about it that really matters, anyway? Especially here, where the only people reading are likely those who already feel much as I do?
I have been working to adjust, again, to my changed and changing understanding of our shared reality. I have been trying to figure out how to respond to it, how to be in it. Remembering my responses in the face of Trump’s campaign and election, I cringed at my naivety, my lack of understanding about our country and how it works and has always worked. My lack of understanding of people. I abandoned the post, not wanting to make meaningless gestures or participate in actions that don’t actually do anything or write something that will make me cringe five years from now.
No other words, about anything, came forth.
Wendig’s arguments for writing got me to take another go at the abortion post, but I ended up letting another Sunday pass without sharing it. The words weren’t right, and besides, putting my words out in the world felt akin to spitting in the wind.
(All I have felt like doing is sheltering from the wind.)
I once believed, to my core, that the sharing of stories can be life-saving–that it was stories that saved mine, that of a lonely, often sad girl who had no idea why she felt the way she felt or what to do about it until she read and heard the stories of others like her and of others unlike her who provided models and hope. Story is the thread connecting the pieces of my life’s work, and my faith in their power is fundamental to the reasons I became an English teacher, a librarian, and a writer.
(I’m no longer an English teacher or librarian and I long ago abandoned being a traditionally published writer. I suppose there’s a story there.)
These past weeks, though, I haven’t been able to help wondering if such ideas about storytelling are frivolous, indulgent, wrong, and perhaps harmful. Are they ideas for a different kind of time? Do they keep us from doing other work that more directly saves lives, or keep us from seeing how things actually are? Are they just ideas that people like me like to believe in so that we can justify and feel OK about what we do (and don’t do)? What if they are just something we tell ourselves to feel better about dire circumstances, to feel some sense of power, to keep hope alive–and the feelings, power, and hope are false?
A few days ago, I shared my wonderings with a friend, who gave me these words in return: “(My daughter) asked what she could do and I reminded her that a load is always lighter when carried by lots of hands. Your post might not feel like you are lifting enough but your words are bearing part of that load. It all matters and we all have different strengths. This is a time for us to dig deep and use our superpowers!”
I had to sit with that for a bit.
For awhile, my self-deprecating bio on Instagram was: “I write things that make people cry. Not the superpower I asked for.”
There is so much I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure the answer to most of my questions (always) is Yes, and.
Yes, sharing our stories matters, and there are other things we need to do as well. (What are they? I’m not sure. I’m working on figuring that out. Letting go of thinking that any individual actions are going to stop the train is surely one of them.)
Yes, stories can be harmful, and they can also save us.
Here, I think, is what I do know: Truth is what saves us, and stories are a powerful way of truth-telling.
Isn’t it, perhaps, reason enough to tell a story if it does nothing more than help us know we are not alone in a terrible truth–so that we can know that what we are experiencing is both terrible and true and not specific to us alone? So we can counter the forces constantly working to gaslight us? How much of where we find ourselves now stems from the spreading of stories that are lies? Aren’t hope and community and good feeling grounded in truth necessary for all the other work that needs to happen now? Storytelling alone isn’t enough, but storytelling as a foundation for other action–that might be just what is needed right now.
Perhaps it is more important now than ever to throw our stories to the wind (even if our wind is just a tiny breeze, nothing more than Krista Tippett’s “quiet conversations at a very human, granular level”). Out in the world–in the ears, hearts, and minds of others–don’t they have some chance of doing good? They do nothing if they remain in our heads or our drafts folders, where they can provide no comfort, connection, or hope to anyone else.
I’ll share the abortion post next, most likely. It’s still not ready. Or I’m not ready. (And that’s OK, too. Probably.) But soon, most likely. In the meantime, I’ve linked to other stories below that feel worth sharing–stories that contain both hard truth and hope. (Maybe there’s more than one way to be a librarian?)
Take care of yourself, and if you feel so inclined, please do tell me how you’re doing, what your story of the past few weeks has been.
(This is me enduring/recovering from a wicked afternoon headache the other day–which is a fuller, truer story than the one I shared on Instagram with this image. Hope you are all finding ways to take care of yourselves.)
I’m a Christian pastor. Evangelicals have to be defeated in 2022 (“I’ve been a kind of undercover Liberal in an increasingly extremist movement, that while once relegated to minor fringe noisemakers is now at the precipice of Roman Empire-level power. They are less than two years away from having a dominance that they will wield violently and not relinquish.)
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland statement on Supreme Court ruling… (“The Supreme Court has eliminated an established right that has been an essential component of women’s liberty for half a century – a right that has safeguarded women’s ability to participate fully and equally in society. And in renouncing this fundamental right, which it had repeatedly recognized and reaffirmed, the Court has upended the doctrine of stare decisis, a key pillar of the rule of law.”)
What to do when the world is ending via Jill Seeger Salahub’s excellent Something Good, which she shares every Monday (“But while there are some things about this moment that feel unique, I remind myself that the experience of the world ending is not new. Whether due to a prophecy or a very real looming threat, many of our ancestors also likely felt that the world was ending. And in many cases their worlds did end… . Facing loss, despair, uncertainty, and death is as much a part of the human experience as anything else.”)
Sometimes writing is a place to put all your rage, sorrow, and even joy (“And readers may find what you put there useful in the same, or almost the same, way. They too have things to unpack and unravel and examine. And sometimes they just don’t want to feel alone. The story is a signal to them, an echo they hear that reminds them that they are not the only ones feeling this way.”)
Krista Tippett wants you to see all the hope that’s being hidden (“I see the disarray. I see the broken power structures. I see the damage and the pain. I also see people tending to that. At the heart of some of these national-level or community-level conflicts, there is space to move below the radar and start stitching together relationships and quiet conversations at a very human, granular level. We’re going to work on quiet conversations that will not be publicized. That feels to me like a power move in this world.”)
Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American, July 8, 2022 (“Today, Biden reached for the power embodied by the Fourteenth Amendment for the federal government to overrule state laws discriminating against citizens within their borders. But he also echoed the electoral fight to put that amendment in place when he told Americans: ‘We need two additional pro-choice senators and a pro-choice House to codify Roe as federal law. Your vote can make that a reality. I know it’s frustrating, and it made a lot of people very angry. But the truth is this…. [The] women of America can determine the outcome of this issue.'”)