Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Here are some of the more peculiar (and probably, therefore, more wonderful) moments of my day:

--Late this afternoon, I stood outside of the bathroom door at Madison Market. Just after a gorgeous ginger apple juice. Just before an hour and a half long massage. You do the math. So I waited patiently until the person before me came out. I was looking down at the floor when the door opened, so first I saw the boots. Brown, worn, and encircled by little bells. A jingling noise ensued. Looking up, I saw a pair of green tights. Above that, a BRIGHT skirt, covered in splotches of spring orange and green. And on top? A grey grizzled beard on a 60ish-year-old man.

--Later this afternoon, in a drenching rainstorm (with a bit of hail mixed in), I turned the corner at Pike and 3rd. I just wanted to make it to the bus shelter, the glass steamed up with all the bodies. Out of the McDonalds in front of me stepped a young Asian woman and man. He was dressed conservatively, all dark blue and business shoes. She was wearing a tan overcoat, over a bright orange skirt about a micromillimeter long. Sheer tights, then tight, black leather, fuck-me boots. As she toddled down the street before me, I was thinking, "Oh honey, why are you working so hard to look like a whore?" At this moment, three young black men, huddled in a doorway together, began calling out in whips. "Ooh boy, you've got some girlfriend!! Hey honey, come on over here!" And whistling. It took me back. I hadn't heard that since New York.
A few feet later, I turned my head in quick surprise, as a skittish clatter rose above all the other noise. A number of us turned back, only to see a homeless couple, walking side by side. I don't know if they were retarded, or drunk. Or both, probably. She had thick glasses, smudged by the rain, and hair pulled back skintight. He shambled by her, lost in a fog, his glasses a complete mist.
She was clearly embarrassed at the attention, and she yelled, in a thick voice: "Okay, I kicked the bottle. Okay? Just a bottle!"
No one answered. No one had accused her.
She continued, slurring her words as she rushed to have them leave her mouth. "Okay, next time I'll just trip over the bottle and fall. Okay?"
I was already starting to laugh at that sentence. But I laughed more when he suddenly roused himself, and at the top of his lungs, with a world-weary voice that said he had been through this twelve hundred times already, shouted: "SHUUUUTTT UUUUUPPPPP!"

As my friend Meri said, it's always a fun and freak show in downtown Seattle.

--And this is how I started my morning. On the bus to downtown, listening to random music on my iPod. (I'm still infatuated with it. In fact, I want to marry it. It plays with me all day long. It's technologically able. And it's always there when I want it.) I've learned that browsing randomly through songs means it goes methodically through songs, alphabetically. So I was somewhere in the Ts. I was surrounded by dour people, still sleepy and clearly not happy about going to their cubicle jobs. I had too much in my backpack, and I knew there would be a Vietnam War lecture to endure in a few moments. But for the moment, there I was, a hot cup of Macrina coffee in my hands, the window beside me fogging up, the sky outside it trying to lift. And there was a pause, and then the iPod must have slipped into the Us. Because what came on next? Unclefucker. From Southpark. Two cartoon voices singing in Canadian accents: "Shut your fucking face, unclefucker. You're the one who fucked your uncle, unclefucker..."
And suddenly, I was back in a cheap rental car with Sharon, on a hot July day two years ago. Just outside of Baraboo, Wisconsin. We were listening to a random mix cd Andy had loaned us for the trip, filled with old-timey bluegrass and obscure Belgian music. We had been appreciating it, nodding. And just outside of Baraboo, without any warning, Unclefucker came blaring out of the stereo. We looked at each other in astonishment, then burst out laughing, our bellies hurting immediately. And we played it again and again, laughing so hard that the car was swerving back and forth on the road, because I could hardly drive a straight line while listening to musical farts.
And so, this morning. Except that I was surrounded by these dour, silent people. And they couldn't hear it through my headphones. And they weren't Sharon. So as I listened to the triumphant swells of farts, a symphony of gaseous explosions, I held all the laughter just behind my lips. And I looked up at the sky, giggling to myself quietly, all that energy and memories buoying up my tired head, until I nearly exploded with happiness.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Acupuncture is the shit.

I know that sentence is probably a desecration of a sacred, ancient art, but that’s as eloquent as I can be after a treatment. They stuck a dozen needles in my back tonight, and I nearly fell off the table in relaxation when I was done.

I’m starting to feel incredibly grateful again, now that the most acute phase of this accident has recovered. Sure, I don’t go more than an hour without thinking about the ramifications of being rammed by that car. And that’s a good hour. Every time I feel pain in my back, or my neck muscles feel like iron cords, or my headache flares, I think about it. But there are a few odd moments in the day when I suddenly stretch my neck and think, “Wait, why does my neck hurt?” I actually forget for a few moments. That’s the kind of forgetting I don’t mind.

And now, having survived the worst of it, I’m grateful for the routine. Most people have bodywork done once or twice a year, if that. I know someone who has never had a massage! When he told me that, I wanted to turn him around and start kneading his back muscles immediately (injured I may be, but my hands still know how to work). But we were at a restaurant, and it may have looked a little odd. So I didn’t. But I know that, for me, a massage was a luxury I gave myself four or five times a year. And afterwards, I felt wonderfully deep in my body, and I’d fall asleep as soon as I reached my bed. I’d be swarmed with realizations and relaxation. Now, I’m having some kind of bodywork every day.


During the cranio-sacral work last week (with a powerful woman named Ursula Popp), images from all parts of my life rose up from my muscles. In a slow, methodical fashion, her gentle hands seemed to dredge up every time I have felt vulnerable, unprotected, and hurt. I still don’t know how she did it. All she did was put her hands under my hips, or along the sides of my neck, or dangling her fingertips on the top of my head. But something happened. I felt wonderfully stoned afterwards, enough that driving felt like a dream. And I slept well. Deeply.

Sarah, my massage therapist, leaves me in a similar state every Wednesday afternoon. She has small hands, with bony fingers, and when I first saw them, I thought: “How is that going to do anything for me?” But they’re wonderfully directed hands. Every week, she releases more pent-up energy from my muscles. I don’t know how. But I feel the warmth of her hands vibrating into my skull. My brain feels different afterwards. After every appointment, I leave feeling like there is nothing wrong with me. Anywhere.

Physical therapy is a bit more prosaic, but still lovely. Lisa, my physical therapist, taught me how to do exercises for my back properly, without making it all worse. She coached me through my despondent days. And she made mix cds for me, when I could first do some kind of aerobic exercises again. (early Michael Jackson! “I’m Walking on Sunshine”) For the first ten weeks after the accident, my neck muscles were too damaged to touch. I wasn’t allowed to start massage, or any of these other treatments. Lisa’s warm hands were the first touch since that day. Her neck rubs made me want to cry for their kindness. I had been longing to be touched for so long. And slowly, the muscles have started to unravel, with all this kind attention.

But I think that acupuncture is my favorite of them. I have an entire team at Bastyr who make me laugh, then plunge small needles in my skin. I really don’t know what they are doing. I don’t really understand how chi moves in my body. I have no way of talking about this practice in the language that Western medicine has taught me. I love that. Before this accident, I relied on my mental acuity: my memory; my vocabulary; my ability to process faster than anyone around. But that was all thrown around by that white Ford, along with my body. I’ve had to let go of so much. And so I’ll happily let go of the need to understand this with language.

I know that I feel protected in that room. The windows look out over 45th and Stone, and usually there’s a rush of golden light coming in through the slats of the blinds. There I am on the table, the hospital gown only covering a portion of me, so my ass is hanging out in the air. Now, there’s nothing like recovering from a car accident to make you lose your inhibitions. Still, it’s a vulnerable position. Plus, I have my face down in the cradle at the end of the table, so I can’t see anything. I’m trusting them to just stick things in me. And as soon as there are four or five needles in me, I’ve lost the ability to be coherent. I can only respond to each needle going in with a soft grunt when it hits the right spot. And then I lie there, everyone out of the room, needles protruding from my skin, blinded, unable to move. And fine. The soft warmth spreads throughout me. I have let go. And that’s when the healing begins.

What an amazing thing, that these injuries make me do this work every day. There isn’t a day that goes by without me feeling like I’ve dropped all artifice. I’m just there. I don’t feel at all oblivious to myself. I feel right here.

And then there’s the lovely sleep that follows, sweet and filled with patient dreams. I’m heading there now. It’s nearly 9 pm on an acupuncture night. What am I still doing up?

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Today was Elliott’s first birthday party. Now, his first birthday isn’t actually until Tuesday, so you should expect a long paean to the little guy then. But today was wild enough to merit a little writing.

I drove to Vashon with the sunroof of the car open, blasting music, feeling good. It’s spring. Friday was the first day of the season, and I can think of nothing better. Yesterday, at Greenlake, I stopped under the canopy of blossoming trees by the community center and gazed up into fat, white buds against blue sky. And today, I drove down 99 feeling fine, almost not blanching at the act of steering the car among other cars. When I saw that the Viaduct was closed, and I’d have to go down 1st to pick up the highway again, I dropped my aggravation out the window after only a few moments. Instead, I sang at the stoplights. Traffic detour near the museum didn’t faze me. So I was going to miss the 12:20 ferry. There’s always another one. And there was incipient green in Pioneer Square this afternoon. Out the sunroof, I saw these little green leaves starting to unravel against brick buildings, blue sky behind. And the sky in Seattle, the light. After long months of flat winter light, one day, the light, like liquid, everything expanding--and suddenly it’s spring.

My accident happened just a few days before the winter solstice. Now, spring is here. Finally.

The long, dark winter is over.

So I reached the ferry terminal in a good mood. I always feel better on that long dock jutting into the Sound. The sky is enormous, the water vast, and Vashon waits before me. And I had my iPod, a bag of animal cookies with pink frosting and sprinkles, and a giant book about the history of Monty Python. What could be wrong?

When I reached Andy and Dana’s house, a dozen or so cars followed me up the driveway. Everyone had come on the same ferry--former co-workers of Dana; fellow teaching-program students with Andy; friends with little kids. When I walked in the back door, Elliott was in my mom’s arms. I sneaked in, then started snickering at him, my face bunched up, saying “Elliott!” in my best Pee-Wee Herman voice. His face widened into a smile, then a giggle, and he immediately arched his back and leaned out of Mom’s arms. Leaned toward me. I held him to me, smiling, hearing everyone in the room coo: “Someone’s happy to see Shauna.” I ran him up and down the room, squealing. And delighting in the way his little white teeth showed as we ran, because he opened his mouth wide and just laughed.

I just love that kid.

And luckily for him, so do many other people. Mom and Dad dote on him, entirely. Andy and Dana’s friends regarded him with amusement and close attention. Dana’s mom flew up from Sacramento for his birthday, to bounce him on the orange ball. And of course, Andy and Dana are the best parents I know: devoted without being clingy; attentive without being sickening; relaxed. That’s one lucky kid.

And how did Elliott react to having a birthday party, when he doesn’t even know what a birthday is? When he was sitting in his highchair, he tugged at the clutch of colored balloons tied to the arm, throttling them up and down while chuckling. When Dana brought over the gingerbread cake on this weird green plate that twirled with soft lights and sang Happy Birthday (I don’t know), he exulted and had to put his hands on it. Also, he bounced in his chair as three little kids under three danced to the song. When Mom put a giant piece of store-bought cake in front of him, he poked his finger into the yellow icing, then saturated his hand with the cloud-white swirls. When he opened presents, he went into such giddy spirals of grunts and giggles that it sounded like baby swearing. He loved the soft animal books. The bubble wands entranced him, especially when I threw him up in the air and into my arms, so he could view them from great heights. But mostly, he loved the tissue paper.

So it was damned great. We did our usual routine at times: he investigated my earrings; he clutched at my sky-blue necklace; he squeezed up his face in a silent giggle when I made faces at him; he cuddled into my shoulder when he grew tired; and to everything else, he pointed, and asked, “Dat?” And me? I just soaked it all in, not feeling anything else but awe and love.

But eventually, I felt more pain. Once again, the muscles in my neck bolted against the noise. And oh, the noise, noise, noise. (To quote The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, whom I have no intention of becoming.) I love kids. Adore them. In some ways, I understand them better than most adults I know. But there’s nothing like having seven children under five in a space only slightly larger than my bedroom, for three and a half hours, to make my muscles revolt. Squealing, squawling, screaming, and shrieking--these are not the s words I need in my life. Really, I should probably just go into a sensory deprivation tank instead. I hate that I’ve become such a ninny. But the parents of these children were talking and laughing too, and I can hear every individual conversation, as well as the general din. Even when we all went out to the neighbor’s barn to look at the newborn lambs (ah, it really is spring), I could hear every echo of every conversation off the thin wooden walls.

So I drove home a little dampened, a little dejected. I-5 seemed spooky in the dark, all the cars too close. And I feared a migraine, for the way my neck muscles felt like dense ropes, sodden and tense. But now, it’s not so bad. My mom brought me some lotion her doctor gave her, thick cream with amitriptyline, a topical muscle relaxant. Yep, my mom is my drug dealer.

Besides, whatever pain came from the cacophonous afternoon, it was worth it. To be there for Elliott, this little being who has completely changed my life with his giggles, his curiosity, and his mere presence in the world? Worth all the pain.

Happy Birthday, little guy.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

There have been so many thoughts falling through my mind today, emotions roiling gently to the surface. After an intensive Hydro-fit class this morning (including a lovely sauna conversation with some of the senior citizens), then lunch and a slow walk around Greenlake with a friend, I was spent. I came home, ready for more play. A solid writing session. Or at least cleaning the house. But instead, I drifted through the afternoon, thinking. Took a long bath. Took a nap. Settled on the bed with the heating pad and never really moved away from it.

If the accident has taught me anything--and the list of those lessons is longer than I can list here--it has revealed to me how keenly I must listen to my body. If I have to spend the afternoon resting, instead of completing the plans I had intended, then the plans have to vanish. If my mind wants to dart faster than my body can move, then I have to let it. If the muscles in my neck ache, unexpectedly, after relative peace the day before, then I can do nothing but rest.

My friend at lunch asked me to tell him about the car accident. (I haven’t seen him since early December, a different lifetime.) “Or, you can tell me about something else, if you don’t want to start with that.” I laughed, then grew quiet. There’s not much else to talk about these days. It makes me sad that all my stories revolve around healing and resting days and lessons learned from my muscles. Me, who always has three thousand stories and the hand gestures to accompany them. (“Shauna, you can make a story out of any three minutes of your life,” a friend told me once.) Now, I can only pause, open up, and reveal deep-at-the-core-of-me stuff.

Or, I can try to go the other way. Become the happy chatterer, go back to old stories, play with words, turn on. And that's not a false self--everyone knows how gregarious I can be. When I’m happy these days, I’m happy with a capital H. I don’t have a headache! Life is beautiful! There has always been this dichotomy in me: talking and cheerful; quiet and solemn. Teacher; writer. Best friend/family member/kind to strangers; hours alone. But now the divide feels farther than before.

Last night, I turned into the happy chatterer. Blame the headache. I sat, trying to listen to this soft-spoken man beside me, with a table full of drunken-loud women behind me. The restaurant reverberated in my ears as soon as we walked in. My body flinched. I should have listened, asked to go to a quieter place. But I didn’t. I thought I could brave it out. Dismiss it. So as I sat amid clinking glasses, the spill of noise from the kitchen before us, tables full of Friday-night jubilance, and the individual sound of every fork on every plate, the headache snaked its way up my neck muscles. And as the headache crept up, I became brighter and brighter. By the end of the evening, even though I was enjoying myself, emotionally, I was miserable, physically. But I was still telling stories and making jokes. I just didn’t want to ruin the evening. I wasn’t being honest.

I hate that.

So this afternoon, when my friend wanted to know, I stayed soft. I let him see some of how difficult this has been, all the spiritual questing and stumblings. I told him how I lost my language for a time. How my super-sharp memory has been blunted. How there are still windows of time I walk into when I can’t remember the telephone number of my best friend. Or, as happened this week, I leave her a melancholy message on a Thursday, saying, “Where are you? We haven’t talked in days.” But we had talked for an hour and a half the night before. So my message was a repeat of details I had already shared. I didn’t know this until she laughed about it today.

What else am I forgetting?

My friend at lunch said, “That must have been really scary for you, considering how language is fundamental to who you are.”
And immediately, I said, “No it’s not. Words are important to me, deeply. But they’re not who I am at the core. They’re not fundamental to me. They’re not real. I don’t trust them.”
He blanched, since we have subsisted on word play and philosophical talks since we have known each other. “You wouldn’t have said that a year ago.”
“Oh, I might have danced around it. I knew it then, intellectually. But since I went into shock, I know it in my body.”

For some reason, lately, I keep going back to the hours after the car accident when I went into deep, deep shock. In some ways, from this distance, this was the scariest part of the entire experience. Because once the adrenaline drained from my body, and the ambulance raced to collect me from the curb, shaking, I lost myself. Everything faded.

In the back of the ambulance, I kept falling out of consciousness. The medic kept trying to shake me awake, to ask me questions, to keep me from going under. I remember him asking my name. Something about the urgency, even the annoyance, in his voice, cut through the fog. It made me realize that he had asked me three or four times before I could focus on his face, hovering above his blue uniform. I didn’t know some of the answers to his questions. I didn’t know much of anything.

I knew that my arms felt useless. I couldn’t feel my legs. I didn’t even remember that they existed. When we reached Harborview, the best trauma emergency room in Seattle, the nurses kept piling blanket after blanket on me. But nothing would stop my shivering, the trembling at the core of me. Vaguely, from a great distance, I heard the confusion, even the fear, in the nurse’s voices, when they wondered why they couldn’t warm me up. From a great distance, a thought arose, “Am I dying?” But the thought vanished, along with any fear of it. Not because I talked myself into feeling all right. Because my mind didn’t have the energy to care.

After having gone through it, and studied up on it, I know that in deep shock, all the blood rushes from the extremities, toward the core, to protect the inner organs, the heart. That’s why my arms felt so flaccid at my sides, so foreign. That’s why my thinking nearly stopped. That’s why I can only remember it now in flashes of disconnected images.

But the studying hasn't helped. Now, I can only feel that hour or so of shock before they finally warmed me back to consciousness. It felt like death. How do I know? I don’t. But it feels like that’s what death will be like. I feel it deep in my bones. And what did it feel like? Utterly anonymous. Everything that was particular, individual, quirky, attached to the world, or what I identify as Shauna? It simply didn’t exist. It just slipped away. And in that way, it was wonderfully easy. There was no struggle. There was no great epiphany, no white light. I was simply fading out.

I haven’t been able to forget it since. Death has been sitting with me ever since.

And in some ways, that has been scary. Impossible to convey. And terribly lonely, because I don’t know many other people who understand this. This is the first time I’ve tried to write about it. I’ve just started talking about it this week. And every attempt with words is a failure.

But in other ways, it has been an enormous grace. This presence has meant that I can’t take anything for granted, can’t take anything too seriously, can’t wrap myself in senseless fear or stress. I know all those trivial details will slip away someday, so why waste my time with them now?

And there’s a comfort in knowing. Of having gone down to the core of me, and knowing that I don’t have to struggle. Or try to control everything. Anything. “Let life live itself.” One of my students brought this in the other day, when I asked them to find one sentence they adore. It has been tripping through my mind these past few days.

But more than that, I’m just so grateful to have this life, as it is: complicated, attached, quirky, and destined to fade away entirely. I’m so damned glad to be here. Because I know, wonderfully, what I am at the core. Not words. Not my stories, my wordplay, my brightness, my kind acts, my memories, my to-do list, my verbal acuity, my accomplishments, or my hopes for the next few days, the year, the rest of my life. I’m not a Shauna.

I’m not me.

What am I, at the core? Just life. Breath. Consciousness. The ability to hear the din of noise in a restaurant, feel the heating pad on my back, smell the acrid cologne of that man passing me on a sunlit day, taste the burger with white cheddar in my mouth, or see the craggy Olympic mountains rising high in the pale blue sky. A beating heart. An alive mind. This moment. Right now.

And the joy that comes from knowing this is immeasurable.

“....having a minute ago nearly gone mad with fear, she was now suffused with a slow, deep ecstasy at being at one with her body and the earth and everything that was matter.”
--Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass


Friday, March 19, 2004

So I did it. I finally bought an iPod.

And here comes the justification. More for myself than for you.

I've been longing for one for months. Years, if I'm being honest. When they first came out, they made sense to me. The same way that digital cameras finally match the way my mind works with photography (spontaneous, looking for that tug of color or texture, the chance to edit, and no need to spend a bunch of money), the iPod matches how I think of music. Why can't I hear one artist after another whom I love, instead of having to be relegated to single albums or carefully crafted mix cds?

Music is constantly flowing through me. If there isn't music on in my house, it's only because I'm a) asleep, b) meditating/trying to maintain a meditative state of silence, or c) dead. No thanks to the last one. And even the three-disc changer in my cd player isn't enough for me. Now, a colleague of mine has a 100-disc player, or some such nonsense. Of course, he also has a typewritten list of which disc is in which space. Um, not going to happen in my house. So I'm left with three discs. And increasingly, that isn't enough.

Music has been one of the great healers for me in this recovery period. The others? Sleep. Dark chocolate. Meditation. All my bodywork. My smart, approachable doctor. Writing. And mostly, loving people and feeling loved. (Insert Raymond Carver poem here, if you know it.) With the help of all these, and my determined, positive nature, I'm slowly healing. And learning, enormously. But that's for another entry.

And so I've been carrying around my discman, as I walk around Greenlake, or walk through the twilight air in Queen Anne, or taking out the trash. Music is ineffably beautiful Hearing the joy, ache, longing, jubilance, caustic humor, and mostly the deep gift of creativity from other people has brought me out of myself in this process. But there are only so many times I can listen to the "Recovery music: yes; healing; love; rest" mix cd I made for myself in the middle of the worst sciatica pain. Or Rufus Wainwright's new album. Or Beck's Sea Change.

Beyond that, physiologically, I need music. Especially now that I'm back at school. You see, my sympathetic nervous system was activated by the accident, and it hasn't calmed down since. This I just realized during my ten-day respite. Or at least, my physical therapist put a name to it during that rest. Because my pulse has been racing, consistently, since the accident. My muscles are having a hard time relaxing. And my senses are so heightened that I have almost-superhuman powers of perception. If you blindfolded me, I could walk into any produce section in the supermarket and walk you to individual fruits. I can hear all the individual conversations in the main hallway of the school, as well as the general din. I can smell every person who walks by me at Greenlake. I can smell cleaning products through closet doors and tell you which ones are in there.

Can you see why I'm a little overwhelmed at a school with 410 teenagers?

Well, now, so do I. Time off allowed for quiet. Space. Sleep. Healing. And therefore, the headaches dissipated. Enough so I could tell what drove them up again. Driving. Oh god, driving still freaks me the fuck out. At every moment, with every movement, I'm physically aware of how it could all go wrong. How that car pulling out could hit me. How that stupid woman talking on her cell phone while driving could just barrel through that light turning red. How I could lose my awareness for a few moments and just drift. After a long drive, my head bulges with pain, because my muscles have automatically tensed up.

What can I do? I put Beatles cds in the car, music I know like my own breath. And whenever I'm driving, I'm singing. Singing makes the muscles in my neck and jaw keep moving, which keeps them looser. And keeps the headache in abeyance.

What else starts the headaches? Well, since I'm so aware of sounds and smells and sights, too much sensory stimulation sets me off too. This from someone who was already pretty damned aware anyway. As you know, I love my senses. I hate cutting myself off from them. But I figured out that if I have just a little less sensory input at school, my mind wouldn't have to process so much. My sympathetic nervous system would calm down and not send the urgent message to my muscles: gird yourself! Tense! Accident coming! You see, my sympathetic nervous system reads too much stimulation as more trauma. And so I'm experiencing the car accident over and over again in my body.

I'm tired of being Sisyphus.

So I figured out that if I bought a good pair of heaphones--the kind with giant puffy ear muffs that block out noise--and listened to music while I'm at school, then I could have more control over the sensory input coming in. And at the same time, block out the inane conversations of some my colleagues. Choose when I want to talk. And always have music playing in my ears.

So I did. I bought a pair of Sennheisers, the kind that look like Professional Headphones. I thought that would be enough. But then I thought about listening to one cd all day long. Or having to carry a bunch of cds in my backpack, for the variety. But I don't need any more weight on my back.

And then I thought about the iPod.

Actually, I had been thinking about it for weeks. Thinking about it too much. Two or three times, I was in the Udistrict, running errands, close to the Apple store. And two or three times, I almost drove there and bought one. But they're $300! And do you have any idea how expensive it is to recover from a car accident? New shoes, new backpack, lumbar roll, a variety of heating pads, new keyboard configuration, more and more Motrin. Ack. And besides, there are so many starving children. Could I really justify spending that much money on a music player?

Yesterday, I said yes.

Actually, blame it on the acuity that writing brings me. Yesterday, I was writing an email to someone, telling him why I was justifying the restraint. And I wrote this line: "But instinctually, I know I want one. And when my instincts tell me what I want, I listen. " After I wrote that, I knew I had given in. How could I lie to myself anymore? My gut kept telling me to buy one. So I did. I walked into the gleaming Apple store and bought an iPod that holds 3700 songs. 37 years I've been alive. That sounds good to me. I loaded it up last night, and I already have 1257 songs on there. (If you should wish to give me more, send them my way.)

And now, I'm sitting at the computer in the Humanities office, typing away, the words flowing from me in a way they haven't at school in months. Perhaps never. Because as I sit here, listening to Yousou N'Dour, Dar Williams, Magnetic Fields, Sam Cooke, Annie Lennox, and whatever the name of the band that did "Afternoon Delight," (I swear that's what is playing right now) I can watch my colleagues talking, growing annoyed with something, and I don't have to hear it. I can't hear the creaking of the floorboards above my head. I can't hear the raucous, joyous shouting of teenagers in the sunlit main hallway. I'm only hearing music.

And I don't have a headache. This is the first time since early December that I haven't had a headache at school.

Thank you, iPod.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Last week, on the first real day of my break, I drove to the Queen Anne community pool, determined to walk in the water. My doctor and physical therapist had recommended it weeks before, saying I could strengthen my back and not have to worry about injuring myself. But between all day at school and an after-school therapeutic appointment every day, I just couldn’t muster up the energy to go to the pool in the evening. But here I was, on a Monday morning, ten hours of sleep behind my eyes, and nowhere in particular to go. So I walked into the community center with my bathing suit in my bag, wanting my solitary trudge through water.

But the woman at the front desk shook her head when I said I wanted to walk. “Come back at noon for lap swim. Now, there’s Hydro-fit.” She gestured through the glass windows into the pool, where I saw dozens of gray-haired heads bobbing in clear blue water. Oh, the old person’s class. My back wouldn’t let me take any gym classes yet, but how hard could this be? Sure. Why not?

I walked into the locker room, the smell of chlorine-soaked bathing suits on wet cement taking me back immediately. To being a kid, in Southern California swimming pools, my body like a seal beneath the water trying to escape the enormous heat of the sun. To feeling buoyant. Everything possible. I ducked my head and grinned to myself, then tried to figure out how the lockers worked. There’s always that tentative feeling when I first enter into a new situation, whatever it might be. Meeting a new person. Tackling a new task. Being somewhere I’ve never been. I’m equal parts excitement and sudden shyness. Like being a kid again. Ussually, I start talking and joking, and the diffidence slips off my shoulders. But here, I stayed silent, listening. It was clear, immediately, that I had walked into a fully formed community. Older women called to each other from across the locker room: “Mabel, is that a new suit? It’s beautiful on you.” They chatted and laughed with ease. They were clearly here together every day. I was the only person under 60.

At the poolside, I tried to watch what everyone else was doing instead of asking what to do, so I grabbed some styrofoam dumbbells and some weird ankle floats. I snapped them on me and put my feet in the water. Warmth. Slowly, I descended the steps in the shallow end and closed my eyes in the pleasure.

I love water. I love being in it, floating in it, not talking in it. It’s something primal, something deep in my limbic system, autonomic. Years ago, when some friends and I went to Jones Beach on Long Island for a day at the ocean, they all spent their first hour arranging their blankets and dabbing on sunblock. But I had arrived with my bathing suit beneath my clothes, slathered in sunblock already. I threw off my clothes and ran into the waves, exulting. I didn’t come out for an hour, as I jumped over waves and did handstands under the water, the sand falling away from my palms. They were amazed. I ate, then went back in.

But in some weird way, I prefer pools. I know that’s absurd, but it’s bred in me. When you fly over Los Angeles, descending into LAX, you can’t even count the dots of turquoise blue spread out across the suburbs. Pools meant relief from the sun. A bit of affluence. Long summer days spread out before us. We only had a pool in one of the houses we rented, when I was 14. But I used it every day, practicing back dives and perfect strokes.

No back dives in this pool, however. Everything still hurts. It’s more localized pain, and the muscles are starting to soften. Now, especially, after my week and a half off. But on that Monday, I was tentative and tender. However, I could feel the headache lift the lower I went into the water.

I made my way toward the deep end, the only dark-haired head among the white and grey. It was me and 28 senior citizens. You know me--I was laughing internally, immediately. Then, the instructor, a muscled young woman who worked as a lifeguard, started softly shouting physical cues. Running underwater. Jumping jacks underwater. Side steps. Criss crosses. Crunches. Twists.

I was exhausted.

The old people were kicking my ass.

It turns out that Hydro-fit is one of the best physical activities I’ve ever done. It’s right up there with yoga for deep muscle work and wonderful relaxation of the mind. Because, the longer I stayed in the pool, trying to move, the more the headache dissipated. And the more I stretched out my limbs, letting my fingers play on the surface of the water. I moved in ways I haven’t been able to move since early December. I could feel the blood rushing back into my body, my muscles joyful for the use. I had to stop a lot, because I haven’t been able to exercise concertedly since the accident. And I felt humbled, again.

I stayed toward the shallow end, because whenever I wandered over to where my feet couldn’t touch, I’d feel as though I was starting to drown, and I’d begin to flail. There’s still a lot of fear left in my muscles from the accident, I guess. After all, they’re still guarding against it, three months later. Also, I couldn’t figure out the floaters, and they kept coming loose. Or, more accurately, they worked too well, and suddenly I’d find myself with my feet at the surface, unable to move, looking foolish. Except no one was looking. They were all chatting with each other, their flowered bathing suits bright beneath the water, their hair perfectly coiffed and dry. Meanwhile, I was drenched and still not able to control this.

By the end of the class, however, I had stopped worrying about control. I just floated. I moved in the poses as I could. Other than that, I remembered to feel the water on my body. I relaxed. And by the time I climbed out of the pool, I knew I’d be coming back on Wednesday.

I’ve been going back every chance I have, ever since. I’ve found my body yearning for the pool. Nothing hurts underwater. In that pale blue pool in Queen Anne, my back is powerful enough to move my legs, my shoulders open fully, and my headache is a memory. For an hour, I’m not in pain. And there’s no way to describe my gratitude.

And more than that, I’ve come to love this community I stumbled into. I’ve found myself jealous of the 70-year-olds. These women and men have it set. They wake up at 9 in the morning. They move when they want. They float in the pool with their friends, talking about good books and good food and good memories. They don’t have to push or struggle or be better than they are. They simply are. And they’re characters. Mary has a broad Irish face, a dark blue suit, and a knowing smile. She’s the major doyenne of that place, apparently. I knew I was in when she handed me my dumbbells, rather than making me swim to them. There’s a man who looks like Joseph Campbell who dives into the pool before class, rather than slipping in like the rest of us. Maybe he’s trying to impress the ladies. There’s the woman who wears a turquoise turban, trying to keep her hairdo in place. And dozens of other happy chatterers whom I want to know.

When I told my mother about taking the class, she said, “Did you strike...?” and then started to laugh.
“What?” I said.
“I was going to ask you if you had struck up a conversation with anyone there, but I know you. You did.”
I did.
There’s Sonora, the lovely woman from India who teaches journalism at Seattle U. She’s only a few years older than me, and she has been coming to these classes for months. There’s a sub-community within the larger one--we younger ones who have been in accidents. She was in a terrible car accident several years ago, which smashed her leg. She’s had several surgeries since, and she has to have ankle replacement surgery this summer. Above water, she still limps. But under the water, she has easy grace. We’ve been talking for a week now. I gave her the names of my acupuncturist and massage therapist, since she hadn’t tried either. We might go out for Indian food soon.

There’s another young woman there, with a slender body, a bathing cap, and sunglasses. For the first couple of classes, I thought she was too cool, wearing sunglasses. I imagined her haughty. I was wrong. Sonora introduced me to Casey, and we started talking. She took a bad fall at work two and a half years ago, tumbling down some stairs, then bouncing her skull against concrete at the bottom. She has not been able to work since. Her nerve damage is so extensive that she has had a crippling headache every day since. Her left side is so injured that she feels pain if someone stands too near to her. And she wears the sunglasses because the light hurts her eyes. I felt instantly chastened, not only for misjudging her, but also because my three-month headache felt blessedly brief in comparison. She talked about how long it takes for her to hang up a sweater, because her memory loss sometimes prevents her from remembering what it is. I felt childish in ever complaining.

And so I’m making friends, people bound together by suffering and good attitudes. We all agree--we love the water. Nothing hurts underwater. “It’s like returning to the womb,” Sonora said, and I laughed, because I had been thinking the same thing. (I’m glad for my mother’s sake that the womb is not as large as the Queen Anne pool, however.) And I’ve been listening to how all the people there care about each other. One of the older women had brought some food for Casey’s lunch that day, since they know she can’t cook for herself. They remember each other’s stories and ask about their days. “Did you choose that tile yet, Mary?” It’s people being kind to each other. They just call it Hydro-fit.

But actually, that class kicks my ass. I’m starting to notice differences in my muscles for doing it. My triceps are aching from the curls under the water. (Turns out that the flimsy dumbbells take on enormous weight when they’re soaked with water. That, plus the natural resistance of the water means I’m lifting weights again.) Everything feels more alive for it. And the endorphins that have kicked in from the class, my long walks around Greenlake, and the return to yoga (yay!), have elevated my mood. I’ve found my joy again. I feel like I’m back.

Yesterday, I returned to school. 6 am hurt my head, and for a few moments, I thought I couldn’t do it. But I did my shoulder, neck, and back exercises, drank my coffee, and forced myself out of the house. All the students at school were thrilled to see me. Plenty of hugs. And lots of noise. The main hallways thronged with teenagers is louder than an airplane hanger to me. I endured two periods, talked my juniors into relaxing about the test today, and then I left. I drove home, because I had a couple of periods off before I taught the seniors how to write. And I drove to Hydro-fit.

This time, I walked into the locker room confident of where to go, what to do. I greeted people and ambled to the pool feeling decadent. Playing hooky in the middle of the day (Well, not really. The head of the upper school gave me permission.) I put on the purple waist belt (I recognize my lack of strength now. I’m not ready for the ankle floaters yet) and slipped into the deep end. I gave up my clinging to the shallow end, on the edges of the experience, days ago. Chatted with Sonora, asked Casey how she was feeling. Smiled with Mary. Talked with a woman in her 80s with a plastic bathing cap who had just undergone bladder surgery four weeks ago. And there she was, back in the pool.

Just before the class began, I looked down at my feet. There I was, floating, my perfect red pedicure chipped from the chlorine, and I didn’t care. It’s the strangest, most peaceful feeling, to see the deep water beneath you clearly, and know that you’re not going to drown. That you can just bob and float, throw back your arms and trust the warm water. I feel like a kid again in the pool. I just play. And nothing hurts.

When I returned to school later in the afternoon, I talked with my seniors, these 18 kids, about-to-be-adults, who have been working hard (and laughing hard) with me all year. They were jubilant at my return, and we just told stories for awhile. I told them that I feel like I found my joy with this time off, and that they should never just succumb to the American ideal of push, push, push. And then I told them about my experiences at the pool. They laughed, of course, but they also looked a little jealous. And I told them, “For the rest of the year, I just want this class to be the pool for you. In your writing, I want you to trust the feeling of being here, try out new sentences you never would have dared before like you’re kicking your legs underwater, and play. And I don’t want anything to hurt.” They looked grateful. They looked even more grateful when I told them I’m never going to give them another grade. I’ll edit their writing. I’ll listen to their stories. But fuck grades. They just make us push. And I just want to play.

So if you need to find me, come by the Queen Anne community pool. I’ll be one of the few dark-haired heads among the grey and white. But I’ll be playing, rolling around the water like an otter, at home in my body for the first time in months. Maybe years. And I’ll have a peaceful smile on my face.

Friday, March 12, 2004

I have been healing. This week off was the best idea I've had since the car accident. I've been slowly spreading out to fill my days. As my shoulders literally open up, like a plant unfurling to spring sunlight, so has my heart. I feel like I've rediscovered my joy, even in the midst of the pain. Perhaps because of the pain. Writing ideas, teaching ideas, life ideas--they've been bombarding me. I feel alive again, flawed and secure, because I'm so acutely aware of the insecurity of all of this.

And it has been mostly mundane. The hilarious hydro-fit classes at the Queen Anne community pool, bobbing up and down with the senior citizens in the warm water. Shopping for the laptop stand, new keyboard, and mouse at the alluring Apple store in UVillage--almost buying an iPod, but refraining for the money. Having lunch at Macrina with Vanessa and Melody on a sunny afternoon when they showed up spontaneously at my door. Curled up with The Golden Compass, my back on the heating pad, as I turned pages almost as fast as my eyes could read. Walking around Greenlake with Francoise yesterday, finally able to walk at her purposeful pace. Waiting for the bus in Wallingford after another transformative accupuncture treatment, the sun warm on my head, and me in no hurry to go anywhere. Dancing to Michael Jackson as I set up my computer this morning. Cooking garlic-lemon chicken in the kitchen. Watching episode after episode of Queer as Folk on the dvd player. Taking my first yoga class in three months, deeply humbled by the exeprience of not being able to reach past my knees in forward bend for the pain in my back, when I used to be able to place my palms upon the floor. But feeling it more fully now. And mostly, not talking with that many people or going that many places, except for the daily therapeutic appointment. I've been with myself, mostly. And it has been a wonderful experience.

The headache is down to a dull roar, with flashes of more intense pain every once in a while. And the glorious patches of feeling my own mind without the veil of pain upon it. My back feels strong after all the exercise, the stretches, the nine and ten hours of sleep a night. I've let my body be my wisest guide this week, doing only what it wants. The house is still cluttered. I don't care. I haven't caught up on my emails, because it took me until today to make my computer configuration ergonomically correct. Fine. All the projects I first thought about have simply fallen away. Instead, I'm just being here.

So I'm going back to school next week, on Wednesday, instead of Monday. I could probably go back on Monday, for the way I'm feeling. But I'd like four more days of feeling pretty good before I forge into the fray again. And I'm returning with much more clarity, buoyancy, and joy. And knowing that there's something beyond it.

And I'm writing.

And today, I spent the afternoon with Elliott, who smiled wide when I walked through the door and started crawling toward me as fast as he could. We danced up and down the carpeted floor. I fed him a bottle full of goat's milk, and he giggled so hard he made raspy noises in his throat when he figured out how to bounce the nipple back and forth in his fingers. With his chin covered in milk, he looked at me, then nuzzled up to my chest, cuddling. Who cares about the t-shirt? He watched in amazement as I drank cold water from a clear glass, emphasizing the "Ahhhh" at the end of every gulp, and then he laughed. We read books. He bounced a blue ball. He bounced up and down on my knee when we watched the breakfast scene from PeeWee's Big Adventure. And he slept on me, his soft breath on my neck, his cheeks growing more and more pink as he slept. Andy worked on the computer in another room, I read seventy pages of my book, and the birds were singing in the big field outside the window.

All feels right with the world. Finally.

Monday, March 08, 2004

I've gone dark lately, as someone I know put it an inquiring email to me the other day. I haven't posted anything in here for ages (that kind of non-specific reference being the only one that makes sense to me these days). I haven't written many emails in weeks, a rare happening normally explained and apologized for profusely. But not now. Now, I'm just here.

I've gone dark inside of me, deep down into the darkness, until I could grab fistfuls of light at the bottom, then make the slow journey up, back to myself.

My stupid injuries are the reason for my ridiculous silence. In some ways, I have experienced a setback. In other, deeper ways, I think I'm finally starting to heal. Last week was exhausting. The day of the Oscars, I realized I just didn't have the energy to be around a group of people, even people I adore. So I couldn't attend the Oscar party I had known about for a month. That's not a good way to start a school week. Exhausted and wanting to avoid groups of people talking.

And then I started acupuncture, last Monday. It opened something in me, deeply, something that had remained guarded since the accident. Have you ever done it? This was my first time, and I'm convinced. It's extraordinary. First of all, they did an hour-long intake interview, asking me about EVERY part of my life. Whatever the consistency of my bowel movements, the frequency with which I turn red-cheeked during the day, or the color of my tongue have to do with it, I have no idea. Whatever they are doing by sticking little needles into various places in my body, I have no idea. But all power to them. At one point, the supervising doctor said, "I bet your bad headaches start right...here," and then proceeded to put his finger on the precise part of the occiput where the skull-splitting headaches are born. (I should call them the Athena-born-from-the-skull-of-her-father headaches.) I screamed and squirmed, and he calmed me with his hands. And then he put a needle there. This wave of cold rushed down my body, and I yelped. When I told them about it, they all just said, "Hm. Good." Okay. Whatever.

I left that night feeling utterly stoned. Deep within myself. Everything as it is. And as I walked back to my car, I realized, I was without headache. For half an hour, the first real time since the car accident. There's no way to describe the first time without a headache after twelve weeks of having one. Beautiful. How could life be better?

Except that I went back to school the next day and undid all the good work. Right back into the fray.

It's hard having a headache for twelve straight weeks. Harder than I can possibly convey, even to myself. But at the end of school days, I have a headache so bone crushing that I've taken to referring to it as my full frontal lobotomy headache. (I have a lot of nicknames for headaches, I've realized.) Ugh. Tuesday night, coming up Queen Anne hill on the #2 bus, I realized that I needed a day off school. I thought that would do the trick.

I just rested all day Wednesday. Went to Macrina for lunch, which felt like a decadence. Worked on my novel. Went to bed early.

But after a day off, and the first hint of real relaxation in my body in nearly three months, I thought I could go back to school on Thursday. And after another day at school, I realized one day off wouldn't do the trick. I really haven't taken a real break since the accident. Oh sure, there was Christmas vacation, but I was a wreck then. In total shock. Unbearable pain. Denial. And I went to Ashland, which made the sciatica pain flare up even more. Then there was the week off from school in January, but that was because I could only crawl on my hands and knees and sleep for an hour a night. Emergency care. And I went back to school the next Tuesday. And there was the week in February, but you read about that already, the nightmare of writing evaluations all week with a series of migraines. And then went right back to school.

Now I look at it, feeling much better along, and think, What? Why didn't I take a month? Partly because this society has all its priorities wrong, and we think we need to push, push, push. As much as I practice meditation and know that slowing down is the path to happiness, it's hard to resist that call. And also, schools are hard to leave. It did my psychology good to be among people I care about, to leave my own confines for awhile. But it's just that the pressures and decisions and craziness that is inherent in schools is not good for my physical space.

And suddenly, I knew in my gut that I needed a break. A real break, to heal. I'm going to some kind of therapeutic appointment every day, literally. And last week, I figured out that I was going to each one and working hard just to muster up the energy to gird myself up and go back to school the next day.

So at my physical therapy appointment on Thursday afternoon, I told her just how exhausted and shattered and still in pain I am. And before I could even say it, she said, "You need to take some time off." She phoned my doctor, who came down immediately from his office upstairs to sign me a form barring me from work. On Friday, I went to work to take care of the logistics. Signed forms. Told everyone I was going. Garnered sympathy. Told my students. Declared myself on medical leave, until... I'm not sure. We'll see. It might be that a week will do the trick, and then a series of three-day weekends in the successive weeks. Or it might be that colleagues will have to donate sick days to me, and I'll take two weeks. Or more. I'm going to let my body tell me. That's the deepest knowledge I have.

Today is the first day off school, and I don't feel at all guilty. It's gloriously blue skied outside, and the entire day is stretched before me. I woke up slowly this morning, took an hour to do all my therapeutic stretches and isometric exercises for my lower back, neck, and shoulders. Ate poached eggs on sauteed spinach with La Brea Bakery french bread. Drank an entire pot of french press coffee, slowly. Talked with a friend. Read three chapters of The Golden Compass. Noted down the ideas for writing and possibilities for jobs outside of teaching that are blooming in my head, as soon as I took the time to relax. Now, I'm going down to the Queen Anne pool, to walk in the water, slowly. A long conversation with a friend. Time to write. Slow lunch. A walk around Greenlake. Then an acupuncture treatment. I'll come home feeling stoned, free of headache and free of school. And then I'll sleep, sweetly and slow, long into tomorrow morning.

So that's how I am. That's why I haven't written before this.

And also because, I'm really fricking tired of talking about my car accident injuries and the recovery from such. I'm one track mind, in conversation, these days. I hate that. And so I've been waiting for other stories before I post again. But these past few days of rest, I've realized that I have to just work with what I have. There will be other stories, soon.

But in the meantime, here I am.

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