Micrograms

What dose are you taking? the doctor asks me.

A hundred… I can never remember what the ‘mg’, or whatever it is, stands for, I say.

Micrograms, she says, and writes it on the pathology order form.

It seems ridiculous that I am so reliant on such a small measure.

Later, in the pathology collection room, the nurse sits next to me typing the details from the form into the computer. She has her mobile phone on the desk in front of her, playing Australian coverage of the US election.

I can’t believe it, she says. I lived in New York for twenty-seven years, and this just makes me so sad.

I think of my recent trip to the US, in the midst of the election campaign, and of the people I met there, the culture I barely glimpsed. I am sad too.

Is it milligrams or micrograms? she asks me.

What the doctor has written on the form is unclear.

Micrograms, I say.

Then she tightens the strap around my upper arm and pushes the tip of the needle through my skin and into a vein. The veins on my right arm are always bigger and easier to access. The needle burns. I watch the blood from my body fill the body of the syringe. Dark, coppery red. A result of the reaction between iron and oxygen inside the dark and mysterious parts of my body. Like rust.


Are you reading anything good at the moment? she asks me.

I laugh. Completely coincidentally, I’m reading a book called ‘Micrograms’.

She laughs too. I tell her it’s a book about small things. Small things that matter. About connections between things.

Fascinating, she says, I’m really interested in finding connections between things. I’m studying tarot cards at the moment.

When she pulls the needle out of my arm, the very end of it catches the tiny thin edge of my skin. I feel the microscopic tear in my skin as a stinging sensation. Two tiny spots of my blood drop, one onto my arm and one onto the arm of the chair. I fight the urge to apologise and immediately wipe them up. Instead I watch them sit there, shining and wet and warm. 

She syringes my blood into a vial. I have never seen it done this way before. Usually the vial is attached to syringe and the blood is collected directly. I do not ask her why she has done it differently, or why she is not concerned about my spilled blood.

The drops of my blood darken, thicken a little, against the outside air, reacting to the invisible oxygen around us.

Tarot cards are supposed to be all about seeing connections you might not otherwise, she says.

She rubs an alcohol swab over my arm, slowly back and forth across the pin prick in the crook of my elbow, and then, finally, down towards the outside of my elbow to wipe up the spilled blood on my arm. Last, almost as an afterthought, she swipes the swab over the drop of my blood on the furniture.

A cotton wool ball taped across the puncture wound, she sends me back out into the world with my tender elbow crook. I can feel the sticky tape pulling on the hairs on my arm, the memory of the burn of the needle running down along the veins and into my right hand.

The radio coverage of the election is the last thing I hear as she shuts the door behind me.

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Traces of things from the past

Ceiling from the floor In the mornings, I roll out of bed and onto the floor, where I breathe and move my body through a series of strange shapes and stand still and move again and sit and lie down and breathe. Some mornings my breath is difficult, sometimes my back or my hips or my neck and shoulders hurt. Most mornings my bedroom carpet smells like the dog who used to live in the house with the people who lived here before I did.

My room is small. Over time, I’ve worked out where I need to stand at the beginning of a sun salute so I don’t end up kicking my bedside table half way through the sequence, where on the floor I need to lie so I’ve room to let my legs drop to the floor on my right side and then my left for a lying twist. I’ve worked out these same things about how my body fits into the space in each of my bedrooms for the last eight years or so. In most of those houses, I’ve also practiced in various shared spaces: the lounge room, sometimes the kitchen. The feel of carpet, floor boards or kitchen tiles under hand and foot; the layer of dust that gathers under furniture; the way hip bones, knees, shoulder blades dig into and are bruised or not by various floor surfaces; the way light plays on the ceilings and light fittings — these are things I know about the houses in which I’ve lived, these are the ways I remember those places.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Buddhist concept of ‘samskaras’, or ‘traces of things from the past’. Which is probably another way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own past. I recently had an essay about the traces of places in memory and the concept of ‘home’ published on Tabula Rasa. I’ve often wondered about how much what we think of as home is really just about familiarity, or whether there are also places for individuals that feel genuinely more like home than others, regardless of how much time a person has spent in that place. How much of ‘home’ is inherent and how much is learned?

My thinking about samskaras and place and home has done strange things to time. I’ve not been entirely confident about where I am in the week, and often where exactly I am in the timeline of my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve repeated several times in the last year, and I wonder whether it’s the effect of making a change in my life like moving interstate, and everything that’s come with that. Moving back to a place I’ve lived before has perhaps amplified that weirdness in time. It’s pushed me to see again past versions of myself, and to try and integrate both past Sophies and present Sophie into some kind of coherent narrative of identity. It’s an odd process. Not entirely unpleasant, but definitely weird.

Another way of thinking about samskaras is to think of them as habits — in doing, thinking, responding — that have formed because of the stuff of life. Of course, periods of great trauma or stress or joy leave traces, but so too does the mundane, everyday stuff of our lives. So it makes sense that a period of transition or big change like moving interstate, where many or most of one’s everyday habits are shed, would have the potential to shine light on some of the other habits or traces.

The shake-up of everyday rhythms and habits might also explain why time is so strange for me right now. In her post on Claudia Hammond’s book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, Maria Popova summarises Hammond’s theory about why a good holiday feels at the time like it’s flying by, but long when you look back on it later.

“…the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.”

Change, they say, is as good as a holiday. I wonder whether that’s because, like a holiday, change injects this novelty into life. It gives us an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. And if, as research suggests, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are so important to our wellbeing, then what a great opportunity this is.

Something I love about the concept of samskaras is that it’s entirely neutral. There is no judgement; the traces are just there. Whether or not a habit is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a judgment value we place on it after it’s noticed. The idea in noticing is to have some idea of what we’re carrying around with us, because those things inevitably affect the way we think and behave in the present. They affect who we are. Figuring out what in that luggage (or is it baggage?) is helpful and what isn’t is a tricky process though.

I remembered the other day that when I moved to Sydney from Melbourne all those years ago, I wrote about packing memories into boxes. (But I also wrote about packing ideas for the future into boxes… and then abandoning them. Clearly moving and packing was a powerful metaphor for me.) My life at that time was incredibly confusing. I’d been through a particularly heartbreaking breakup, immediately after which I’d decided to move interstate. This meant quitting my job, then having to find a new one; it meant meeting lots of new people and learning to live with a whole new set of people. I had to get to know a new city. I felt like I had to get to know myself again too.

It’s been useful for me to remember that time now and how confusing it was for me. Partly because this time around I’m not hurting anywhere near as much as I was then, and partly because it shows me that perhaps, for me at least, prolonged confusion is just part of the process of making big changes.

But now, instead of figuratively packing and unpacking boxes, I’m breathing and standing and folding forward and bending backwards and twisting and sitting and lying down and breathing. Having that thread, the yoga, has become, unexpectedly, a way of remembering what it’s like to take up space in the world I inhabit now as well as what it felt like to do so in times and places I’ve left behind. It’s a way of remembering what it felt like — in every sense of that phrase — to be me at those times, and of noticing what it feels like to be me now. It’s a way of feeling time and all the things it changes and all the things it doesn’t and to see that things just go on even if it’s not always easy or straightforward. It helps me see that at some point I’ll be looking back on this present, perhaps as I roll around on the floor in some new place, and be seeing the traces, the samskaras, left by what’s happening now.

Ghosts and New Beginnings

Life is very strange at the moment. Well, it has been for quite some time now, but it’s been extra strange since my housemate and I landed in Melbourne. It’s taken me a little while to tease out the strangeness, to get a good sense of where it’s really coming from.

The answer isn’t simple, of course, but part of why I’ve felt pretty weird these last couple of weeks is that I’ve found myself trying to marry together different parts of myself. The parts of me that existed when I lived in Melbourne, the parts of me that were there when I visited and missed this city, and who I feel like I am now. I’ve mentioned here before that Melbourne often feels to me like it’s haunted. For me, it’s a place full of ghosts — ghosts of the past me, ghosts of long-over relationships, ghosts of friendships changed. And perhaps the missing of the place has made each of those ghosts just a little more powerful now I’m living here again. Nostalgia is a strange thing, cruel at times.

A while ago, for a piece I was writing, I was reading a lot about narration and the self, and how vital it is for our mental wellbeing to build a coherent sense of self. So much of that building process is about making connections between events, objects and places that are, really, not closely related to one another. In other words, we tell ourselves a story about what happens to us in order to make sense of it, and in order to create the character we call our ‘self’. What’s happening to me now, I think, is that those stories aren’t quite matching up. There’s a bit of rearranging to be done in my thinking about them.

Along with that confusion though has been an immense sense of relief. I feel relaxed here, at home. I guess the weirdness will settle eventually, and that I’ll figure out how to fit all those parts of myself back together again. And, I hope, I’ll learn to live more easily with the ghosts here. They are, after all, mostly benevolent ones.

Breaking

This week I’ve taken (mostly) a break. After last week’s adrenaline-fueled activity, doing very little this week has felt… well, actually, it’s felt a little like breaking. Taking a break has given me space to break a little. And I think that’s a good thing.

But I’m interested in how closely related those two things are — stopping, and falling apart a little, that is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the word ‘break’ covers both. My body is sore and bruised and tired from all the moving of belongings. I’ve got back into a more energetic yoga practice this week, and noticed that tiredness more than anything else. My flexibility and strength don’t appear to have changed all that much after a week or so of only restorative yoga, but just how much my body’s willing or able to do has changed quite a lot. There’s just not a lot of energy there.

It’s funny, I often notice the effects of stress as fatigue in my physical body before I notice that I’m feeling it emotionally. Yesterday, my arms didn’t quite want to hold me up in poses they normally have no trouble with, and my legs were wobbly where they wouldn’t normally be. I had to stop for a while quite a lot. My body was relieved when I finally lay down on the floor to rest at the end. Then last night I finally cracked and cried about some of the logistical issues we’re having with the move. And I realised that what I was crying about was not just the particular worries from yesterday, but about all the worries that are associated with this (and any) move.

So today I’m moving slowly. I slept in this morning, then pottered around before going into town to have lunch with Mum. This afternoon I’ve done a few bits and pieces and will spend a little more time on my yoga mat. I’m just letting myself be a little broken because, well, I am a little broken, and it’s not going to help me to pretend otherwise. Instead of pretending I’m okay, when really I’m fragile, I’m going to put that effort into picking up the pieces and making sure I’m keeping them all together in a safe place.

Writing and Life and Doris Lessing

There’s a beautiful piece by Melanie Joosten up on the Meanjin blog today about writing and how it fits (or doesn’t) into life. Joosten leans on the writing of Doris Lessing, looking for answers. Lessing, she says, “tackles that familiar feeling of inadequacy — that the artist writes out of an ‘incapacity to live’. She reminds me that writing is a way to make sense of the world and to order my thoughts.”

To my discredit, I’ve not yet read any of Lessing’s novels, but I do re-read her 1965 collection of short stories, A Man and Two Women from time to time. I’ve always been struck by the clarity of Lessing’s observations. I agree with Joosten when she writes: “I cannot think of a more electric writer, one whose words speak of things always precisely of the moment.”

But, before now, Lessing is not an author I’d have thought to look to for advice about how to fit writing into my life. Perhaps I should look to her now. Joosten’s thoughts are very familiar: “When I ask myself what kind of person I am going to be, I realise that ‘a writer’ is only part of it. If one of the ways we live our lives is to seek happiness, we have to understand what happiness means. To me, the happy life is an amalgamation of the creative life and the moral life.”

Retraining as a social worker, Joosten seems to be asking herself many of the same questions I am at the moment. Questions about how I want my life to fit together, how I want to fill my days. I realised some time ago that none of the things I currently do, I’d want to do full time. Both writing and teaching are fulfilling, but somehow more so when I’m trying to do them both, turning my life into a fairly complex puzzle. I feel like I’m just starting to get somewhere with it though, like I’ve perhaps got together all of the edge bits and a small section in the bottom right hand corner. And I’m beginning to understand now why my mum, and her mum too, love to do puzzles. Working so slowly to fill this puzzle out requires patience, and rewards that patience with a steady stream of small satisfactions.

~

If you’re interested in reading the full post by Melanie Joosten, you can find it here.

Expansion

Happily, I’m having one of those weeks where my reading keeps building and my thoughts keep expanding out, turning into this incredibly complex web of interests. I’m not quite sure where to look at any given moment. I’ve made some decisions to change things — in big ways and in small ways — over the last few months, and it’s like I’m looking at a map, looking at all the different routes I might take to get to where I’m going. Except that where I’m going is a very vague concept — like I’m headed to a suburb, rather than a particular address. It’s exciting*.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend about how I’m a bit of an airhead, a bit of a dreamer. I need things and people to pull me back down to earth from time to time, and I need to do my best to be really organised so I don’t forget to do things I’ve said I will, or be places I’ve said I’ll be. I’ve also been teaching an awful lot of yoga classes these last few weeks. Having my head in so many different places in such a short space of time makes me even more prone to forgetting things. So it probably shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve found my way back to sitting curled up with a book for hours on end. It seems to satisfy both the dreaminess and the need for some kind of grounding.

Among other things (I seem to have ploughed through books much faster than usual lately), I’ve been reading Anne Enright’s Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, partly for sheer enjoyment, and partly for research. Today I came across this passage, where the character is thinking about St Veronica, who gave Jesus her veil so he could wipe his face as he carried his cross:

“I became quite fond of her; a figure leaning out of the crowd, both supplicatory and tender. I still think of her wherever wet towels are offered in Chinese restaurants and on old-fashioned airlines. We have lost the art of public tenderness, these small gestures of wiping and washing; we have forgotten how abjectly the body welcomes a formal touch.”

It made me think about how we touch. How a small gesture of touch from another human being can bring so much comfort, can calm you down. Of how the gentlest touch when I’m teaching yoga can change a pose entirely for the student. And of how that calming, that grounding, on a yoga mat or in life, helps set the base from which expansion can occur.

~

* And, if I’m honest, at times also confusing and daunting. But then aren’t all the best things in life a mixture of exciting and daunting?