… Nothing, having arrived, will stay.
The earth, even, is like a flower, so soon
passeth it away. And yet this nothing
is the seed of all — the clearer eye
of heaven, where all the worlds appear.
Where the imperfect has departed, the perfect
begins its struggle to return. The good gift
begins again its descent. The maker moves
in the unmade, stirring the water until
it clouds, dark beneath the surface, stirring and darkening the soul until pain
perceives new possibility. There is nothing
to do but learn and wait, return to work
on what remains. Seeds will sprout in the scar.
Though death is in the healing, it will heal.
Abridged from “The Slip” by Wendell Berry. North Point Press, 1987
I am writing this in the hopes that it might help somebody.
Right around the time our church burned down, I began looking at the calendar with a great deal of dread and trepidation. Every weekend, it seemed, for months and months, I was going to have to either board an airplane, drive miles and miles to a gig, or both. The sweet lull we’d experienced in December — preserved to record our new CD and celebrate the holidays — evaporated, as did the cozy, familial holiday cheer. Instead, there seemed a hard reality: as hard as the ground underneath the snow; as hard as the taste of ashes in our mouths as the result of our great loss.
Throughout this period of time, I clung to my yoga practice. There were stresses in my life, but aren’t there always? Mastering arm balances — those positions in yoga where one holds one’s entire body above the earth through sheer willpower, prana and miracle; over 100 pounds of person balanced on tiny little wrists — seemed to give me the strength I needed to get through the cold winter, through the crazy schedule, through the grief. But one day I noticed something: a pain in my right wrist. I ignored it.
And then, more bad news. Worse news, much worse. Tom’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We got the bad news while in Florida, and for some reason, it was this that compelled me to tell Tom, “I think something’s wrong with my wrist.” He, of course, urged me to get it checked out right away, and so when I returned home, I visited my primary care physician who in short order diagnosed me with carpal tunnel syndrome. I set about on my way, confident that I would conquer this quickly and be back on my hands in no time. I bought the dictation software, I diligently took ibuprofen, I bound my hands in wrist braces.
But it was February Album Writing Month. I don’t know why, but the thought of not finishing those 14 songs and presenting them to the 36 or so people who read my blog seemed tantamount to death. A death of sorts, anyway. And so I finished the songs, made the videos, play the gigs, diapered my son, seat belted my children into their car seats even when they wriggled and kicked, bought the gigantic organic grapefruits and gallons of milk at the co-op, folded load upon load of laundry, and eventually began to drive back and forth along the Mass Pike to witness my mother-in-law readying herself to leave the world.
The pain got worse.
People from all corners of my life called and e-mailed and made suggestions. I took them all, including the observation many offered that the pain was related to my stress. I became a keen observer of my body and its habits, and I began to notice that I have a nervous tick: when I am anxious, I furtively flick my thumbnail against my forefinger, which of course is exactly the repetitive motion that causes injury. So I tried to stop doing that.
Here are some of the other things I’ve tried: acupuncture with three different practitioners, positional therapy, modified yoga, mind over matter, as in just notice the pain but don’t believe it, occupational therapy, wrist braces, a thumb spica splint, the aforementioned ibuprofen but this time in gel caps, massage, Thai massage, vitamin B 6 and 12, a new ergo-dynamic mouse, a new ergo-dynamic office chair, a new ergo-dynamic keyboard, Feldenkrais, fish oil, the health-food version of Ben Gay, giving up all vegetables in the nightshade family, and begging off diapering my son whenever I see a willing substitute.
During this time, I have been meeting with a group of people from my church to study the book of Genesis. One night, we talked about the story of Abraham and Isaac, and how Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his longed-for son, finally born to his long-barren wife Sarah. In the story, father and son, along with two servants, journey three days to a mountain top. As they trudge along, Isaac asks Abraham, “Where is the lamb?”
“God will provide the lamb, my son,” says Abraham.
But Abraham’s intention is to bind Isaac and kill him. It’s the binding that really gets me. It’s such a horrible thing Abraham does. Isaac is lying on top of the wood with his hands tied, and Abraham lifts the knife to slay him. At that point, the Bible says, an angel comes, and cries, “Stop! God sees that you fear him.”
And just then Abraham notices a ram stuck in the bushes, which he substitutes for Isaac.
I read this story as being about how messed up our ideas can get about how God wants us to be in the world. We can go drone-like into what we think is God’s will for us. We make all sorts of decisions this way: over-working, marrying the guy we think we’re supposed to marry, having children when we think we’re supposed to have children, spending our weekend shopping and buying that new iPhone or whatever. And the only way I can make sense of the moment when Abraham puts down the knife is to think of the angel as internal to Abraham. Abraham’s own inner angel wakes him up at that moment when he has the knife over his son and says, “Wait a second. Do you really want to be lead by fear? Can this really be God’s will? There is a perfectly good ram suffering in the bushes over there. I think God would prefer I kill that ruminant to my son.”
And, after that, the angel says “Now Abraham, you are well blessed, your descendants will be as the stars in the sky or the sands in the earth.”
This is how we find our right lives. Not by the direction of some external God, telling us seemingly insane things that go against our hearts, but by listening to the voice of the angel.
I was on the verge of opting for surgery, speaking of knives. I was sick of waiting for my body to heal, tired of the mindfulness, the need to be so vigilant about my alignment and posture and ergo-everything. And then, right before meeting with an orthopedic surgeon, I got some information that rang true to my own experience–an inner angel communing with an outer one. I met with a physical therapist in Florence that several people have raved about. He quickly assessed my posture and pointed at That Spot between my shoulder blades which I wrote about last year at this time: the place of chronic pain and tension that many people share with me. (I think of you as my people. We of the hunch. We who use our arms to bring life toward us, rather than meeting it with our hearts.)
“See these wings you’ve got going on?” he said pointing at my scapulae which do indeed jut out in a rather alarming way. “These are like handles, lady. And feel these muscles in your neck. You have this little body, but a neck like a weight lifter’s.” And, lying on the table, I felt him manipulate my neck, bringing it backwards in a way that I found both alarming, and somehow familiar. Like I was going back to an ancestral home.
After I saw this therapist, I went to an orthopedic surgeon. He gave me about 10 minutes of his time, spoke at about 1000 words a minute, and said that it would take many more tests to conclude this, but he was positive I did not have serious enough carpal tunnel syndrome to even consider me as a likely candidate for surgery. Instead he diagnosed me with something called DeQuervain’s Tinosynovitis. (Just for the record, I am not against surgery. I still might have it, if the situation warrants. But everyone seems to be saying–even the surgeons–that I am many months away from a knife. I am hoping I can find a lamb.)
I’m trying not to make a big story about Nerissa out of all this, but I can’t help it. The story goes like this, and I tell it here in part because this was such a large piece of my inspiration to blog last year at this time, and I feel embarrassed that I am once again in the same place: the place of having to admit that I work too hard. I love to work. Working gives me such pleasure, such a sense of self-importance and affirmation. I hate to say no to anything. I hate to say no to anybody. I feel as though my hands are telling me in the only way they know, “My dear. We need a rest.”
One of my favorite treatments for whatever this condition might be is to soak my girls (I’ve been calling them my girls) in steaming hot water with a half a pound of Epsom salts, and then applying this cayenne cream all over my dry fingers, letting the heat sink in, and then putting the wrist braces back on and covering my hands with gloves, warm big soft mittens. I have stopped checking Facebook; I have stopped reading the New York Times or anything else online. I dictate all my e-mails. I don’t read anything or respond to anything and less absolutely have to. Little by little, I am slowing down. Little by little, I am doing less. I’ve been noticing that it hurts to eat with a knife and fork, so I’m trying to find foods that are spoon-friendly, or that I can pick up and eat with my hands. I am buying pre-chopped frozen vegetables. I am having our milk delivered.
And I’m sitting on the couch and cuddling my daughter while she watches Mary Poppins, crying every time the dad has his epiphany and comes home, skips around the family room singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” I sang in church last Sunday, my hands hanging idly by my sides. I am working on opening my chest, opening my heart. I thought I had done this work years ago. Funny, how it always seems to be the same themes. Fear less, love more. Do less, be more.
“Is there hope for me?” This is what I ask every healer I visit. They always say yes, but many qualify that. The positional therapist I saw said, “Yes, but you’re going have to give some things up. You can’t play guitar and write and knit and garden. You have to choose.” Well, of course we know what I will choose. But I grieve that bag of beautiful yarn that won’t get turned into felted bags. I grieve the rosebush out front that won’t get pruned. But aging is a process of loss and of losses. We become limited with every year that passes. I remember being heartbroken as a 10-year-old, when I realized it was too late for me to be the next Nadia Commenici. And in a way, that was a blessing: I was free to focus on what I really love to do, which was sing and play guitar. My girls have given me some pretty clear direction, and when I’m honest about it, they are answering a prayer I’ve been praying for the past year or so: give me clear direction about what I am supposed to do. In the past six weeks, I have not wasted my time poking (OW! painful!) around on my iPhone, or thinking of things to post on Twitter. I’ve been present for my husband, my son and daughter, my clients and writers, the book Katryna and I are writing. Things are pretty distilled right now. Plus, I have these fabulous divining rods attached to my body. Whenever I think or say something, I get an immediate gauge of its true usefulness to me. That fabulous Bible study has been way too much for us to commit to, and we recently made the decision to let it go. Actually that’s a lie: the group decided to meet on Wednesday nights, and I have a writing group on Wednesday nights. Even though, I have no business trying to fit one more thing into my life, I found myself scheming about trying to convince the Bible group to move so that I could do both. When I said this out loud to a trusted friend, the nerves on my hands went zing zing zing! I laughed out loud. The body doesn’t lie. My girls don’t lie.
I have long suspected that the point of study and contemplation is not knowledge, but to become familiar and more comfortable with the not-knowing. So I can’t know if this pain will go away. I hope it will, and I suspect it will. I hope to be playing the guitar for the rest of my life, to be writing many more books, to dance with my children at their weddings, and to be doing handstands in my 60s. But in the meantime, I see this… whatever it is… as a great teacher. I asked for a mindfulness teacher, and now I have one — two in fact — right here, on either side of my body.