Walking

I miss walking.

It has, for most of my life, been a source of quiet joy, and, at times, comfort. I have, throughout my life, used walking as a way of thinking through things and tending to my emotional life; as a way of reminding myself of the myriad of small things and encounters in that world that spark my curiosity, and that the world is bigger than my thoughts. Walking, too, has been a gentle act of engaging or re-engaging with my body. Having my feet on the ground, and feeling my way through locomotion has been a way of checking in with myself. Walking, for much of my adult life, has been my main mode of transportation, since I have never owned a car.

I will love walking again, I know.

But for the time being, walking is a source of considerable anxiety and often pain for me.

The bones in my left ankle have healed around the breaks, but my body has also grown scar tissue around that, and at the front of my ankle. The tissues in my foot have seized up and are reluctant to relax. These tissues now hold memories of considerable trauma, and of the fear that came with that. I suffered from agoraphobia for sometime after the accident—terrified of being knocked over once again by someone not paying enough attention—while simultaneously feeling suffocated and trapped in my own apartment. (I was literally trapped for some time, able to leave, but unable to re-enter the building without assistance because of the layout of the front security door.)

The skin on my ankle, foot and lower leg is tender to touch, like a bruise. This is especially so around the surgical scars.

My left leg withered away somewhat when I wasn’t using it and was using crutches instead. It is still smaller than my right.

To walk is an effort, even for very short distances. I’m told I walk like I have a wedgie, and this makes me laugh, but also makes me want to cry. My foot and ankle get very tired and swell up if I walk very much during a day, and my knee and hip are suffering too, since they are trying to compensate for the lack of mobility in my ankle.

Stairs are the hardest. They force the ankle into an angle it no longer likes.

I miss walking. I miss being able to stroll. I miss it more than I could have expected when I sat on the road looking at the very wrong angle my ankle sat at immediately after the accident.

I miss walking. I miss the sense of purpose and self-sufficiency it can give me. I miss the feeling of capability in my body. I miss the feeling of strength in my legs. I am questioning the sense of self I had smugly built on the premise of being able-bodied and fit.

I will walk freely and joyfully again. I am determined, and I am doing everything in my power to get to that place. But I also feel guilty about this grief I feel, given my predicament is temporary, and I don’t know what to do with that.

This is a mental wavering I wish I could walk my way through.

Soon enough, I suppose, I will.

There is a tenderness towards myself and my learning again how to walk, too.

It is fascinating to feel the stiffness start to slowly, slowly give way, and to learn about how scar tissue works and what’s happening when the physio is moving my foot around—traction. My left foot and ankle are still redder than—and sometimes purple—my right because my body is keeping up a higher blood supply to aid in healing. Learning this softens the way I look at and think about the oddness of my left foot and ankle, and reminds me that I can feel tenderness towards myself, not only frustration. It reminds me of the immense amount of quiet work my body is doing, trying to repair the damage of the accident and the surgeries that followed.

Walking, then, and all the additional frustration, discomfort and pain it brings with it for me right now, is perhaps an ongoing lesson not only in what it means to be frail, but also what it means to be pouring energy into healing. The walking is, of course, also how my body is processing the recovery from this injury; how I am re-learning its boundaries now that they also encompass scar tissue and titanium.

I am, then, perhaps, still walking my way through this, determinedly, trying to find a way of being comfortable enough with calamity and joy occurring simultaneously.

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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.

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.