These days, there is a lot to think about. After the deluge, we’re just a drift in a familiar but uncharted sea. Waking up each day feels like opening my eyes underwater. The weight, pressure, lack of clarity, filtered and diffuse light fractured and broken. Sound is muffled. It is hard to know my directions. Breathing is hard if not impossible at times. Humans aren’t meant to live under water. Movement feels heavy and slow. I feel suspended not at the bottom but slowly sinking away from the surface. Getting to the surface is hard. I tried at first to just read everything. Each bit of writing and analysis. Like guide wire of information that would lead me to the surface of the turbulent waters and a look at the horizon or shore line. The place we need to be headed toward. But the reading just churned the waters more. Changed the currents too rapidly. So I went for things from the past. Poems of Pablo Neruda. Songs of the Spanish Civil War. Writings of Ella Baker. Those buoyed me a bit. Reminding me that there is a ship on this sea somewhere that people have been working on for a very long time. I’m bound for that ship. I just have to break the surface again. I think I’m getting there, mostly when I’m near friends or family. Mostly when I feel connected to the people and things I love. Their voices travel father and clearer through the water especially when they are laughing and saying “I love you”.
The Battle on the Yuba
Cassie stumbled to her feet hacking. She could hear the coughing of her companions but couldn’t see them through the swirling dust and debris. Her gun was still hot, likely overheated from the rapid fire.
“Jax!” Cassie called, “you there?”
The shifting of rubble to her left caught Cassie’s eye. Jax was laid out on his stomach covered in a layer of dust.
“Christ,” Jax coughed. He slowly got to his hands and knees. Cassie reached for Jax’s elbow and with a heave helped him stand. His face and front were a smeared mess of dirt and gore. Coughing Jax sputtered, “everyone accounted for?”
“Not sure”, Cassie was looking around her doing a quick body count. Three, six….nine. Yes there were nine others and by looks of it they were all moving. “Nine counted, not sure of wounds though.”
Jax and Cassie moved toward the nine that were slowly rising out of of the dust and rubble of the now partially caved in tunnel. They were silent except for coughing. None gave any hint of being injured or in pain. They wouldn’t have, the nine could not feel pain. At least not like Jax and Cassie could feel pain. The nine would experience pain as just a change in physical state but not as discomfort. But that didn’t mean and injury couldn’t debilitate or even kill one of the nine. As Cassie moved among the nine she counted a handful of abrasions and cuts but nothing serious. The long, lanky bodies of the nine seemed to move fluidly and without any breaks. Jax helped one of the nine to steady on their feet. He noticed this one of the nine was perhaps injured an arm. But as the nine did not feel or show pain it was hard to tell.
Jax looked into the face of this nine, trying to read if their was a problem. But their face was placid and calm as always. They made eye contact and as with any of the nine the gaze stuck. Jax felt examined, held in place by the nine’s eyes. Jax realized it was searching him for wounds. Trying to understand if Jax was hurt. He tried to convey through his eyes that he was fine. It must have worked or the nine was able to determine he was alright in some other way be cause they broke eye contact. A nine will always be the one to break eye contact first.
The nine slowly moved around each other making eye contact one by one. “They’re checking on each other,” Jax thought. They nine move slowly most of the time but Jax knew that when need be a nine could move faster than any human. A nine had arms longer than a human’s and hands as large as small boulders. When needed a nine could use their large fists and long arms as a second set of legs to run. Gallop actually, at great speeds. Since they entered the tunnels this group of nine had been walking on fours because the ceiling was so low they would have to stoop the whole time. A nine usually were about eight feet tall when standing upright. The tunnels cave in had dusted their long white hair robes. Jax watched the nine gently brush off the dirt from each others clothes with the backs of their large hands.
“Everyone seems ok,” Cassie had moved to Jax’s side.
“That nine, its forearm seems injured.” Jax gestured with a nod to the nine he had made eye contact with.” The other nine had begun to cluster around the nine with the hurt arm, swaying their heads and humming as they nuzzled the wounded nine.
Jax wondered at how such powerful and mysterious beings could also be so simple. The nine were everything to the resistance. When Jax as 20 he enlisted in the rebellion forces. Before that he had worked in a factory assembling supplies for the front. When a bomb destroyed most of the factory he and the other residents of the settlement moved farther into the mountains settling a ridge. They managed to cultivate some crops for sustenance but the it was merely an existence of survival. A year in a company of resistance fighters came along the ridge escorting a group of nine. It was the first time Jax had seen a group of nine. He thought then that they looked something like a human but with exaggerated features. They were tall and their arms nearly touched the ground with large hands easily twice the size of a human head. They all had long white hair and kind, gentle faces. Jax’s sister had a stuffed bear she hauled all over creation. He remembered thinking that in some ways the nine faces looked like that bears face. A little flat nose, big close set eyes and a wide mouth set just below the nose and no real chin and really big ears. That group of nine had been high in the mountains when the attack forces of the invaders had tried to take them. The rebel company had only just barely made it out, losing a lot of fighters. That night as the settlement hosted a meal for the nine Jax had listened to the fighters and wondered at all they had seen and done. His own life felt very small compared. By daybreak he had spoken to the company leader and enlisted. For many, including Jax’s parents the only existence had been the war of resistance to the invaders. They knew no other life. So when Jax told them he was leaving to join the armed fighters it was accepted as if it were something they always knew would come. Eight others from the settlement also joined and the next afternoon they set out toward the nearest rebel base one valley over from the ridge.
Since then Jax had fought in 12 companies. He had only known fighting. The relentless nature of the invaders meant the resistance was always on the offensive. Given the way he had come to the resistance, Jax had always seemed to become part of companies tasked with keeping safe groups of nine. This often meant extraction of groups of nine from hostile zones and defense of outposts where they met. Over the 11 years he had fought in the resistance Jax had never stayed in one place more than a few nights. It was a life of constant movement and little rest.
This group of nine had been captured briefly by invaders. A front line company of resistance soldiers from the north had freed them. In the escape all but one had died. That was Cassie. Jax’s company had assigned him to go with Cassie to take the nine to a base deep in a river valley in the mountains while they continued on to flush out the remaining invaders.
Jax felt Cassie moving next to him, bringing him back to the present. He was so tired. Jesus he was tired. Jax turned to Casie, “the roofs caved in.”
“It won’t stop them for long. We should move.” Cassie said looking at looking behind her to the tunnel ahead.
“Jesus, you look terrible,” snorted Jax.
Cassie looked back from the tunnel and smirked, “You must be looking in a mirror asshole”.
They both laughed a little. Killing invaders was tough. It took more than bullets. It took super heated, concentrated rays of energy. Their physiology was such that the only way to kill them was to heat ‘em up and let ‘em pop. This meant splatter. In these old tunnels that splatter had nowhere to go but all over Cassie and Jax where it mixed with the dirt and rubble of the cave in, as well as their general grime of living on the road.
“Come on, let’s move. I’ll take the rear.” Cassie moved toward the cave in, gesturing to the nine to move forward. Jax hoisted his gun and adjusted the straps of his pack before moving on. He glanced back briefly to check on the nine with the hurt arm. With no expression of discomfort or pain the nine was moving forward, but on three limbs instead of four. Jax thought for a moment that it seemed like the other nine were clustered more closely to this nine.
“That’s not how they work,” he thought. “They are a whole of nine not nine individuals.” But it still seemed to him as if they were showing concern for this wounded nine.
A group of nine shares the experiences of inputs and the expression of outputs as one being. A group of nine was one consciousness. Never individuated. In fact a nine on its own would only know a piece of a thought. It took the whole to see any one thing or to understand any one idea or think thoughts. When they spoke, which was rarely, they spoke in unision.
Jax moved forward into the darkness of the tunnel ahead. The light on the sight of his gun casting only a few steps ahead.
In the rear, Cassie walked sideways, not wanting to have her back to the cave in. The invaders they had just killed had somehow snuck up on them, surprising them as they ate. She still wasn’t sure how they hadn’t heard them coming. These old mining tunnels carried the sound of even the faintest shuffle. It was unnerving how silently and quickly the invaders could move. As they walked she focused, counting each of the distinctive shuffles of the nine, the steps of Jax and her own steps. Breathing heavily she counted under her breath, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, Jax, you”. She did this over and over as they walked.
The tunnels, old mining tunnels she thought, were hot. Sweat beaded on her brow and sometimes would trickle into her eye. If she wiped at it though it would only spread dust and gore over her skin and into her eye. So she just let it drip. Being uncomfortable and dirty was this life, how it always was. The marching, hiking, endless fighting was exhausting but sometimes Cassie thought that the constant dirtiness and feeling of discomfort were more exhausting. She had had to replace the straps on her pack with scavenged webbing. It wasn’t wide enough to make a proper strap so it always dug into her shoulders. Her right boot was bigger than her left, which meant her foot slid around more and gave her blisters. The buckle on her helmet strap had losts its cover so it was constantly getting loose. Her helmet would slide in front of her eyes if she moved too fast. These were uncomfortable annoyances that she had incorporated into her daily existence. These and being perpetually dirty, smelly and tired.
But now things were worse. Cassie’s entire company had been slaughtered. If Jax’s company hadn’t come through she would have died also. Twelve years in the fight and Cassie was starting to fray. When she had signed up at the age of 19 she was solidly committed and ready to go into battle. She had grown up in a small town that had grown up around the main base of the resistance. Her whole life she had been exposed to the strongest and most constant propaganda of the resistance. But the fighters she saw daily were never filthy and exhausted and covered in invader guts. At first, going into battle Cassie got a thrill with each kill and a jolt of energy from a win that would carry her for a couple of weeks. But not anymore. Victories weren’t victories they were just surviving. That’s all any of them were doing, surviving.
When Cassie’s company ambushed the invaders who had captured this group of nine she had jumped into battle blindly. They all had. When was the last time they had fought with strategy or even a plan? Now they were all dead. It had been Cassie’s fifth company. God, she didn’t even mourn them.
The sweat stung her eyes and her mouth was dry with dust. She just kept walking, counting, looking out. Then, bump. Cassie started. She had bumped into the nine who had stopped. Spinning Cassie raised her gun and pointed the light forward. Her breathing was fast, “what is it, what’s ahead? Why have we stopped?”
“An opening,” Jax was crouching, his guns’ light off. Cassie took one last look behind them and then moved to crouch next to Jax. The nine were in a huddle just behind them, also peering out a small opening, partially covered with rock fall and bushes.
“Twilight,” Jax said peering through the opening. The sky they could see was a gray blue. No clouds. “Alright, I’m going to go first, see how exposed we are on the outside. Give me a sixty count. I’ll report.” Jax moved toward the opening. It was wide, but short. He had nearly bend double to get through. Cassie watched him go, knowing that if anything were to attack she would not be able to save him. She just leaned back against the rock, clutching her gun and began counting to sixty.
At a count of 48 Jax popped his head back in. “Clear. Not as in a its a clearing. It’s a well hidden spot. Large boulders on all sides and dense brush. But it’s clear of enemy eyes far as I can tell.”
Cassie groaned. She hadn’t known Jax long but she had figured out fast that the guy used a lot of words to say very little. “Ok, I’m going to send the nine out now. I’ll cover from the rear.”
Cassie moved back to the group of nine and gestured for them to go out the opening. One by one the lanky creatures worked their way out of the tunnel. Last to go was the one using only three limbs. Cassie noted this and how the others waited close to the opening to assist this nine. It struck her as odd. Like they were singling this nine out. But the nine were never singular.
Cassie moved out of the tunnel and was awash with fresh mountain air. It was cool. It was crisp. It was delicious. Quickly she took in their surroundings. Steep hillside, lots of closely growing trees, large boulders, a river.
Cassie let out a long groan of relief. “Sweet wonder, a river!” She cracked what was likely her first real smile in days, maybe weeks. She looked at Jax and the nine, “a river. A river!” she was using both arms to make an emphatic gesture at the narrow water way. “We’ll be able to get this invader goo off of us!” Cassie felt almost jolly at the idea.
Jax appreciated Cassie’s excitement, he had no desire to stay caked in dirt and guts any longer than need be. But he also felt nervous about the river. It was exposed and in this narrow canyon sound would carry far and quickly. Looking at the hillside though he only felt more anxious. It was too steep to traverse. They would need to be nearer the river in order to keep moving but that cost them cover.
At the heart of it Jax didn’t want to die. He had come to this realization a few months back while defending a resistance outpost. It was a brutal assault and the nearest Jax had ever come to outright losing a fight. In the most desperate moments, when all strategy and command were lost and it was just everyone all out Jax had seen his own truth. He didn’t want to die in battle. He had a suspicion that Cassie felt otherwise. Maybe she didn’t outright want to die in battle, but she sure expected to. He had seen how the rest of her company had fought. From the outset of the fight they had fought like his company had when they thought all hope was lost. That seemed to Jax to be a dangerous go-to style.
Cassie came toward Jax, “I know what you’re thinking. We lose cover nearer the river. But I think you know that trying to traverse this steep of a hillside will slow us down and possibly make us more noticeable.” Cassie kicked some dirt and pebbles. “We’ll dislodge enough debris that anyone with a sight will know we’re here. At least down by the water we can move from rock to rock and use the shadows to our advantage.” She looked up toward the sky, “the moon will be big, not full but nearly. It will give us light so we don’t need our scopes but also give us shadow.” Cassie looked at Jax, as if asking for confirmation.
Jax stammered, “ya. Ya, I was thinking the same.” He wasn’t, he was thinking more dire things and about his own mortality. Cassie’s assessment had surprised him. She was a competent soldier, not just a proficient fighter.
Their little group moved toward the river, being careful to step on the largest rocks so as to not dislodge to many smaller pebbles and stones. The nine, with their four long limbs and large hands and feet were better at this than Jax and Cassie, who had to do a lot more scrambling.The river was rocky, huge boulder lay surrounded by smaller fellows. This created pools connected but narrow swift moving channels.
At the water’s edge Cassie waded in without hesitation. Holding her gun aloft over her head she went in right up to her chin. The nine on the shore shuffled, dipping only their shoeless feet into the water only briefly. Jax, looked at Cassie and then the nine and then back at Cassie.
“Ah hell,” putting his gun across his shoulders Jax waded in after Cassie. It felt great. The crips water washed over his body cooling his core. He saw swirls of dirt and dried blood float away from him as he moved. He took a deep breath and holding his gun high above him dunked his head. Underwater Jax opened his eyes. Through the light green water lit by the rising moon he saw a small school of fish dart away, Cassie’s legs treading water as she moved to rinse away dirt and blood and the little swirls of sediment that this motion kicked up. He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears. Jax held his breath just until his chest hurt and then kicked up, breaking the surface. Gasping and sputtering Jax let the full weight of his fatigue was over him. He wanted to be a fish, to be able to dart away to the safety of the underside of a rock and to just exist in the cool, calm quiet of the pool. He let out a breath letting himself sink below the surface. But just as his nose went below Cassie gave him a big shove.
“What?,” he sputtered. Cassie pointed with her body toward the shore. The nine were standing close together, shoulder to shoulder staring at them. Jax blinked the water from his eyes, “Do you think they are worried about us? Does this make them nervous?”
“I have no idea,” said Cassie starting to move back toward shore. “But we should get moving all the same”.
Jax moved toward the shore just after Cassie. He had an immense curiosity about the nine. He had spent so many years protecting them and yet knew so little about…about what? The nine were so odd, so mysterious and strange. All there was to do was wonder about them. On shore the nine stayed huddled as Jax and Cassie patted themselves dry with small towels drawn from their packs. Cassie felt refreshed but also now realized that they would be scrambling up river for quite a distance. In a wet uniform she was just going to get caked in dirt all over again. “It was worth it,” she told herself. “Invader guts are worse”.
The scrambling was rugged. Balancing pack and gun while hopping from rock to rock required patience and persistence. With each hope Cassie would have to stop and adjust. This and her one size to large right boot was even a bigger issue on the boulders. Every time she would land at an angle her foot would slide in her wet boot. It didn’t take long for her skin to feel raw and sore. She was right about being wet and hiking too. It was gross. The more they moved the more she heated up. She felt soggy, sweaty and warm and her feet hurt. About two hours into their scramble along the river Cassie jumped a short distance from one rock to another. She landed on the sloping side and had to throw herself forward to keep from falling backward.
“Arrrrrrgh!” Cassie yelled, not caring who or what heard her. Ungracefully and in a huff she rolled over and scrambled to the top of the rock. There she sat, threw offer pack, tossed down her gun and began to unlace her boots.
“I can’t” she grunted as she pulled at the laces. “Wear these…” the laces had were being stubborn having not been united in so long…”stupid, useless pieces of garbage…” Cassie pulled at her right boot almost falling backwards…”anymore!” with a heave she got the second boot off. “Ugh!” she huffed and chucked the boots into the shrubs at the edge of the river.
“Fuck, I’m tired” Cassie lay back on the rock, putting her forearm over her eyes.
Jax, who had been standing on a lower boulder, eyes wide as he watched Cassie’s fit, followed her boots as they flew threw the air. Quickly he jumped the few stones to shore, retrieving the discarded boots.
“You’re going to want these at some point,” Jax approached the still prone Cassie holding the boots out. Cassie let out a long, labored sigh and sat up, reaching for the boots. Jax bent over picked up her pack and gun and laid them beside her. “Here, tie your bots to the pack”. Cassie glumly did as suggested.
At that Jax shrugged off his pack too and laid down his gun. “We should eat something and take a rest.” From his pack he pulled out two green foil ration packs. Weighing them in his hands with a mock serious face he said “Uh, no label. Could be mac n’ cheese, could be pudding.” Cassie was looking down at him, expressionless. “Err, here,” he tossed her a pack deciding she wasn’t in the mood for lightness. Jax mushed up his pack where two boulders met to make a cushion and lay back, stretching out his legs.
“Don’t they eat?” Cassie gestured toward the nine. They were huddled on collecting of large flat boulders looking toward Jax and Cassie.
“Eat?” Jax looked from Cassie to the nine and back again. “The nine don’t eat. Or at least they don’t eat what we eat.” He was puzzled, thinking that everyone must know that.
Cassie had ripped open her ration pack and was sniffing it cautiously. She made a gagging sound and stuck out her tongue. “Fucking tuna casserole” she held the pack away from her nose as she added a bit of water from a canteen.
“Mine is taco salad,” Jax said with a pleased smile. He was shaking this pack up having put in the necessary water to hydrate the ingredients.
For a time they ate in silence. Each taking the moment to simply be. Jax looking around, liking to take in his surroundings. Cassie staring at her food and feet wanting to think about being somewhere else. After a while Jax spoke, “you should put your feet in the water. It will help with the pain and soreness.”
Cassie knew he was right. Crumpling the empty ration foil and shoving it a side pocket of her pack she crouched on her feet, scooting down the rock to where Jax was sitting. There was a small boulder where she could sit and soak her feet. The moon was high in the sky, large and silvery. It was a cloudless starry sky.
Cassie’s mind was blank with fatigue. The cool water did make her feet feel better, but everything else still hurt. She felt Jax shuffle up beside her, “Brownie bite?” He was holding out a small ration foil full of little brown nuggets. “thought we could splurge a little,” he sat beside her legs crossed looking up at the hillside and sky. She took a handful of brownie bites, knowing that while sweet and a little tasty they were nothing like a real, baked brownie. Why did she do that? Why did she always think of the better thing? She ate the bites one at a time thinking about how she had to stop comparing things to their better versions. It just made everything disappointing.
“I have some dry socks. Dirty, but dry,” Jax was looking at her. “You could wear them. It might help with the boots.”
“Ya, thanks.” She ate her last brownie bite and stood up. “We should get moving anyway.”
Standing, she looked to the shore, to the group of nine. They stood, unconcernedly in the same place as when Cassie had first stopped to pull off her boots. “What do they eat?”
“Huh? Oh, I don’t know I guess. I just know they don’t eat our stuff” Jax was getting the socks out of his pack, handing them to Cassie.
“Do you ever think,” she said pulling the socks on “that if the nine never came then the invaders would have never come?”
Jax could tell it was a rhetorical question. Of course he had thought that, everyone had thought that at some point. But it was hateful and selfish thought.
“The wisdom of the nine saved us. Without the nine we would have killed ourselves long before the invaders,” Jax said it, almost to himself. Cassie heard, but made no reply. She knew what the nine were and what they had done. But faith is hard to maintain in the face of seeming unending struggle. She finished lacing up her boots.
Jax jumped a few rocks to the where the nine stood, huddled. “We’re going to keep going now unless the nine need more rest”. The nine with the injured forearm stood in the middle of the huddle. The other nine looked at this one with what Jax thought for certain was concern. But again that felt so unlikely. The nine did not individualize.
Then to the right was the sound of falling stone and rustling bushes. One of the nine began to wave its large head back and forth humming an agitated hum. The others soon followed.
“Cassie,” Jax hissed. Noiselessly he gestured toward the sound. Cassie had heard it too and moved quickly toward the nine. Taking up defensive positions on either side of the nine Jax and Cassie flipped the power switches on their guns. The nine had stopped humming. They were all listening, intently for more sound. It was silent, silent for so long Jax had begun to think the sound had just been a small animal.
Then a crash and rush of grey and brown came out of the brush. Invader scouts, seven of them rushing at the Cassie, Jax and the nine.
“Ahhhhh!” Cassie bellowed and began firing, taking down two invaders within seconds.
Jax was slower to begin pulling his trigger but his aim was good and he took out two more before then had fully emerged from the bushes. The other three were barreling toward Cassie and Jax. Cassie was still yelling, a steady scream of rage as she blasted away blowing up rocks, bushes and dirt. It was infectious and soon Jax was also yelling. Why hadn’t he yelled like this before in a fight? It felt good to scream recklessly while aiming to kill.
The three remaining invaders lept the last bit of ground between them and Cassie took one out while it was still in the air, showering them with invader guts.
“I want you all to die!” Cassie was shouting as one of the last two invaders landed, crashing into her. Its long, claw like fingers pulled at her gun while its powerful legs kicked. They rolled and tumbled on the rocks. The nine scuttled back out of the fight. Cassie was gripping her gun with both hands, ramming it up and down into the invaders face. “Not today you piece of shit!” she yelled. Cassie managed to roll the invader off to one side giving an opening to fire her gun. She pulled the trigger at near point blank range right at the invaders stomach. It swelled red and burst.
Meanwhile opposite Jax was wrestling with the last invader. He was on the ground, invader on top of him. They were wildly kicking and punching each other. In the collision the invader had managed to kick Jax’s gun from his hands. One arm stretched to reach his just out of reach gun while the other arm punched at the invader.
“Help me!” Jax shouted, grunting as the invader got a stiff belly punch in.
“Blast it!” Cassie was yelling and as she did she slipped in the guts and fell hard on her back. She hadn’t seen that Jax was gunless.
“You blast it!” Jax screamed just as he managed to land a disorienting blow to side of the invaders head. They were rolling now, kicking and scraping across the boulders. Once Jax wound up on top he tried to grip the invaders skull and smash it into the rock. But a wild kick by the invader sent them rolling again. “Shoot this thing! Get it off of me!”
Cassie had gotten to her feet again and was pulling her gun free of the pile of melted invader. “I’m coming!” she yelled, slipping again, landing on her ass.
Scrambling to all fours Cassie pulled her gun free and frantically wiped it down. “Work, work. Please work,” she was muttering to the gun.There was slime covering the power switch. Cassie rubbed at it frantically while looking at Jax and the invader wrestling. Flick, the power switch moved, finally. Cassie heard the hum of the guns charger. Bracing herself she fired.
Jax was unprepared for the splatter. His mouth and eyes were open and took a full hit of the exploding invader. “Fuck! Shit!” He screamed. Laying on his back Jax wiped his eyes and mouth, spitting and sputtering. “Oh man. I don’t want to do this anymore.” He got to all fours and made to stand. “Did you see that? It almost killed me!” He stood, breathless, slimy, chest heaving. “This is nuts.”
Cassie was still kneeling, gun in hand, panting. With a heave she stood and let out a puff of air to clear loose hair from her eyes. It didn’t work. The hair was too heavy with melted invader. Cassie took in the scene, checking that the nine were safe. They were huddled backs to a large boulder. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine..” All nine accounted for. And Jax, he was there too.
Cassie started to shuffle toward the jax. “I know. I can’t…” she trailed off looking again at the nine. They seemed fine, unphased almost. “At least we had the humming to tip us off that were invaders.” Cassie said it but a bitter unsaid thought is what she really meant. “Ridiculous… Useless…for all this trouble why can’t the nine actually play a part in their own survival?” She shook the thought from her mind quickly. It was an unhelpful and spiteful thought.
Cassie went to her pack, picking it up she said, “we should keep moving. Those scouts were sent from somewhere and when they don’t report back we’ll have a bigger invader problem on our hands.”
Jax heaved a sigh and bent down for his own pack. “Ya, let’s get going.”
Preface: Ha! Apparently after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens I had some deep thoughts that I blurted out into a google doc. I just forgot about them I guess. I’m so fickle. But here we go! Stumbled upon while searching for a W-9 form for a contracting gig.
I like many thousands of people saw The Force Awakens and enjoyed it immensely. Actually that is an understatement. I fucking lost my shit with how much I enjoyed it. I was oddly emotional and had this feeling of vulnerability throughout. I think partly because of my attachment to the original three episodes of Star Wars runs so deep. I brought to the theater a lot of joy and love for the Star Wars canon. Also, because I love, love, love to be excited and entertained by spaceships and laser fights all set to dashing musical scores.
I took a lot away from The Force Awakens. I was excited to have a female lead, a female superhero. Something that Marvel for example has said time and time again that the world isn’t ready for. Well here is Rey in all her ass kicking, engineering expertise, hurt, flaws and genius. And without any need for conversation about her being a girl. It’s just what it is. Boom. Not that fucking hard. I also took away a lot of joy and contentment. There were clunky parts and awkward moments of dialog. Places the story didn’t really fit. But I didn’t care because I was having fun. These days my standard for a good movie is that it be fun and not offensive. Something simple that is nearly unattainable these days.
Another thing that stuck with me is how unlike past Star Wars films characters in The Force Awakens struggled with the draw of the good side of the Force. Kylo Ren is tormented by feelings drawing him away from the Dark Side and asks to be shown again what the darkness is like (at the altar of his grandfather’s Darth Vader’s melted and charred helmet no less!) Storm trooper Finn, yielding to his conscious and fear, makes a choice to walk away from the First Order, away from the forces of the Dark Side.
There were of course things I didn’t like in the Force Awakens. Mostly little stuff. But Finn’s story perhaps illustrates best the overarching issue I have with the Force. I’ve always had a frustration with this whole idea of a light and dark side. Stories I like best are the ones where the challenge to the protagonists is how they meet in the middle. Wrestle with the good and bad in them the desire to do good by others in existence with the desire to be selfish or spiteful. I think a lot about the writings of MLK about love and forgiveness. In Strides Toward Freedom he wrote about needing to approach hate with love, not to excuse it but to defeat it. Love after all is not born just out of rainbows and kittens. Love can be born from hardship, heartache and struggle. That you would carry from those trials love for freedom and liberation is what I’ve always taken to be the kind of love MLK was speaking of. A tool. Like Dumbledore said, love is a powerful weapon.
Luke never gives up on Vader because he insists there is still good in him. Vader has just done some super messed up stuff. Luke thinks Vader he can come back (I think in the end Vader knew he couldn’t really come back. He could only commit that one last act of good to save Luke). But it’s always like this in Star Wars. Someone is on one side or the other and there are people on each side trying to get them to cross over to the other side.
The future of the Force is not in defeating the dark side. Nor is it building up the light side. The fault of the Force is how it creates this either or scenario. It sets the Jedi up to fail. Any feelings of being drawn to aspects of the dark side feel like failure. But in reality we all live in a spectrum. It is about finding balance in the gray areas.
George Lucas changed the name of the Episode 6 from Revenge of the Jedi to return of the Jedi because revenge is not a something Jedi would do. This is probably true but having feelings of hate or anger is certainly something a Jedi could have and probably healthy to have. The future of the Force is finding the balance so that when darkness creeps in or when the light side becomes so strong that it blinds a person to the starkness of the worlds around them or to the real challenges there is a way to be open about the struggle.
Perhaps in his time away Luke has also realized that to move forward the Jedi’s will have to move away from the chasm of the light or dark and see the truth and possibility of both as a part of a person’s life and existence. It reminds me of the Eduardo Galliano poem Days and Nights of Love and War which closes with the line “Inside my chest–a bull ring–liberty and fear do battle”. As uncomfortable as it may be.
All around us is magic. Not wand and wizard magic. Not that willowy wispy hippy kind either. The magic of everyday is both super complicated and simply manifest in ordinary human interactions. All around us every day itty bitty atoms and all their extraordinarily little parts hold incredibly large and complex systems together. Particles and bits and pieces of this and that work together to give us things like that delicious smell after a refreshing rain shower. Once when I was walking with my seven year old friend Oz he said “Magic isn’t real”. It made me feel sad to think he really believed this. I said that I think there are different types of magic and that some magic is real. I gave the sunset as an example. I said I thought that there are some things in this world that are so unexplainable and inexplicable in their beauty and how they touch us that it is magical. I’ll never forget it, Oz stopped and said “ya, there is illusion and there is magic”.
I have been reading books on quantum mechanics, trying and generally failing to understand it. I get the basics and I get the conflict it has with general relativity. One explores the very, very small, the other explores the very, very large. But they can’t find a way to reconcile their two understandings of how the universe works. It is so much more complicated than that. Complicated in ways I won’t endeavor to pretend to know how to expand upon.
I think this is all, in its way, magical. Tiny whirring particles pulling and pushing off each other forming the foundation of foundations. It is no illusion but it is also not completely real. I mean come on! It’s nuts. It almost seems as if some celestial force spoke a spell a long time ago and we use science to unravel its making. But at the core of it all is something magical.
To me magic is the mechanics of patterns. Nature and the universe are made of patterns and we has humans also create patterns. The finding of and tinkering with patterns to perfect outcomes is magic. I imagine that is what atoms and little bitty neutrons and protons and the like had to do. None of this just came out working. Little by little things had to work themselves out, creating patterns that when repeated created the desired outcome. In Ursual K. LeGuines’ series, the Wizard of Earthsea there is an island called Roke where all the most powerful wizards teach at the school on Roke. Each of the teachers is a master of some area of magic. My favorite is the Master Patterner.
LeGuine never really explains what the Patterner does. He lives in the Imminent Grove and listens to the trees. But one of my favorite bits of the book is in the second in the series when Ged joins the two halves of the ring of Erreth-Akbe. The way it is described is that he didn’t use just a spell of binding or mending but patterning. This is to speak the very order of a things being, the order of its innermost make up. Sound familiar? This is what quantum physics tries to do. In the world of Earthsea it takes some mighty adventures before the wizards begin to realize that there is something larger than the patterns of things and the working of the winds and true names of things or the power of changing. It is found, much to their horror, that the practice of controlling and isolating these arts to just wizards had disrupted a larger natural order of the wind. Without this wind people cannot pass from life to death and the language of the dragons is lost. There are those who have sensed this in their study of these larger things. It is a beautiful story of magic.
I am reminded of a pattern in my life that I think is quite clearly magic. There is a member of the community center where I work, we’ll call him Jeff, who struggles with a hard heroin addiction. He has struggled with this for over 15 years. Sometimes he finds a way out and back to the world where he tries very, very hard to sort himself out. But when he falls back he usually falls hard. It is not uncommon for him to disappear for weeks at a time. We all worry, but especially his family. So the pattern. When Jeff disappears it takes a a few weeks but his brother will eventually call asking if we have seen him around the Center. Without fail, time and time again when Jeff’s brother calls Jeff will show up that very same day. It has become this thing we all recognize is happening but don’t quite know how to talk about. You can’t miss it. His brother calls and Jeff shows up. It’s wild and, yes magical. Some pattern is established and the bits and pieces of our world have found the perfect way to make it keep working. I know it sounds like coincidence. But I’m of the belief that coincidence is just a term people who don’t believe in magic use to explain away magic.
On March 1st a man driving an SUV drove full speed into Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in West Newton, MA, just outside of Boston. It was a one of the fickle weather days in Boston so I checked the forecast on my phone using a local news stations’ app. On the front page was a news alert that the accident had happened. It was a curious and probably somewhat voyeuristic impulse click. All the story said was that a car had plowed into a small pizza place called Sweet Tomatoes in West Newton injuring many, killing two.
Everyday accidents happen that leave people injured or dead and a lot of people sad. The news reports on them, we consume the information, feel emotions and in different ways process what we feel. There was nothing particularly about this story to set it apart. A seemingly ordinary day turned extraordinary for those impacted. It happens all too often.
The following day the Boston Globe had a story about the crash. It identified one of the dead as Eleanor Miele of Watertown. The subtitle of the Globe story read “husband of crash victim, I lost my best friend”. I read with some terrible emotional fascination.
Eleanor and her husband, George had been married for 37 years. Eleanor had been on her way to church to decorate easter eggs. George has to get up at three in the morning for work so they last spoke on the phone before he went to bed at 7pm. By 10pm the police were knocking on his door to tell him what had happened. He had to go with them to pick up his wife’s car.
“I lost my best friend,” said George Miele, whose wife of 37 years, Eleanor, had stopped for pizza before heading to church to volunteer. “I’m all by myself.”
Police took him to a station near the scene of the crash. Later, he drove his wife’s black pickup truck home, and parked it in the driveway. Inside was a green plastic bag filled with plastic Easter eggs that she had planned to decorate at the church.
He reached into the bag and pulled out a plastic egg she had put a ribbon on. The egg would have been filled with a piece of candy or a toy and hung from a tree at the church, Miele said.
“They put them up for people to take one,” Miele said, holding the pink egg in his hand”
Story after story came out. I read them all. Interviews with neighbors and family, statements by police and politicians in Newton, a statement by the owner of Sweet Tomatoes and the pastor at Eleanor and George’s church. I just took it all in.
Then one evening I was in the Copley train station waiting for a B line train home after work when a D line train rolled in. I don’t know why and I hadn’t planned it but I got on that D line train and road it all the way out to the Newton Center station, which is around the corner from Sweet Tomatoes. I had read that a little memorial had sprung up with flowers and candles and pictures. I just wanted to see it. I wanted to see the broken building.
The thought of George holding a little plastic egg his wife was bringing to church and telling a reporter that he had lost his friend felt so terrible to me. The news had reported the contents of George and Eleanor’s last conversation. They had talked about refinancing paperwork for their home. There were complications and George had assured his wife it would be ok. But nothing was ok. Some cosmic forces had already been put in motion because by the time they talked the driver who crashed into Sweet Tomatoes was already on the road and Eleanor had already decided to stop their to get food for the volunteers at church.
The memorial wasn’t large. Bunches of bouquets of flowers, votive candles rested on a box that was wrapped in a clear plastic garbage bag to protect it from the rain. It was sweet though. I little colorful spot amidst a lot of wreckage. The car that hit Sweet Tomatoes must have been going very fast. It’s not a big building but still, it would have taken quite a punch to do that much damage.
I stayed a very short amount of time, just took in the scene and headed back to the station. During my ride back into the city I just sat and looked out the window. I didn’t think too much about the specifics of the accident at Sweet Tomatoes. Rather I thought about my own anxiety and that a lot of it, I think, comes from the worry that any day could go from routine to extraordinary with no predictability.
For 37 years George and Eleanor lived with, at a minimum, the routine expectation that they would see each other everyday. Then one day that expectation just wasn’t there. What a terrible thought. I found myself wondering how George would adjust. Wondering how his family and friends would help him to adjust. I’ll never know. The news cycle won’t follow up like that. But I trust that George will find his way back to some comforting routines that will make him feel safe. But probably those won’t even help with feeling so sad.
I don’t like thinking that people feel sad or afraid. It is one of the harder things for me to accept as a part of our world. In my work, at the end of a day I often lament to myself the number of people who will spend the night feeling afraid and sad. Most often we can’t make wholly better the challenges in a person’s life but we can work to improve the quality of life for a person. To me that means working on things that will reduce fear and sadness. I don’t know why, but maybe it is because those are the two things that I work hardest not to feel myself.
I read Eleanor’s obituary online at Legacy.com. I also read the many tributes people wrote. I looked at the pictures in a local news story of her family, and George leaving the church Eleanor volunteered at and where they were married on the day of her funeral. Then I stopped looking for things or reading anymore news about what had happened.
I don’t know why I felt the need to know as much as I could about this story. Or why I went to the scene of the crash. Who knows why some things come to feel important. In retrospect I wonder if it had something to do with needing to make it real as way to mitigate the sadness I feel about other ordinary days turned horribly extraordinary but are so far away that they somehow feel abstract. I wanted to know that this one was real, had happened and would mend.
For Lent I gave up multi-tasking.
Usually for Lent I would give up things like sugar or caffeine. The giving up of something that causes a physical response, that takes something from the body, that deprives one of something is a large part of Lent. For the religious among us, thaphysical deprivation is a way to grow closer to Christ.
I am not particularly religious. Spiritual, yes. Bits of religious practice have worked their way into my life because of the odd ways religion has been present in my family. Both my parents were tied to religious practices in different ways, tied to their upbringing in different faiths. The way these traditions manifested were more about the importance of sacred ritual and observance than God or religion. My dad in particular pulled out religious practices that have origins in old pagan rituals that mark season and changes in the patterns of the earth, sun, moon and nature. Somehow Lent became a part of this too.
So for years I have practiced Lent. Well except last year. Last I year I had a Lenten lapse. I felt unmoved and disconnected to the practice. Not that it made me feel sad or uncomfortable. It was an almost unnoticeable lapse. That’s fine. Life is full of ebbs and flows.
This year I had no plans for observing Lent. That is until a podcast called Note to Self entered my life. Note to Self is a podcast about how technology influences our lives. It is witty and very interesting. A little while before Lent the show had a series called the Infomagical Challenge. It was a week of daily challenges about changing our relationship to technology. It was a five day challenge but I only got to day one. Because day one was all I needed. Day one was the challenge to do just one thing at a time.
In the episode that posed the challenge interviewed some scientists who talked about the impact of interruptions on our lives. In short, it blew my mind. On average we interrupt ourselves every 45 seconds. What is more, interruptions are self-perpetuating. Say you work in a place that all day while you are at your desk people are dropping in and interrupting you. Not rudely necessarily but just as a function of the culture of where you work. That is my job. But even when those interruptions stop our brain will continue the pattern and we’ll start to self interrupt. At my job from about 11am to 3pm work is a constant interruption and the juggling of a million different inputs. What I learned is that our brain doesn’t recover and refocus easily. In fact it will just keep up the pattern and continue the interruptions.
I don’t know about you, but at my job I never, ever knock off all the items on my to-do list for a day. In fact I probably only knock off about 30% of each task on my to-do list. This is frustrating and unworkable. It is not like I can just accept it and adjust how much I put on my to-do list. I’ve tried that and there just remains this backlog of projects and tasks that just never get done. I need to find a way to get more done, despite the nature of the work environment.
So for the day of the challenge I did one thing at a time. This meant that I would work on one task on my to-do list until it was done. I did this all morning with a complete success. The challenge was my own urge to self interrupt. The desire to periodically minimize one screen on the computer and pull up my email or another screen, to suddenly google something that come to mind. It took a lot of energy to focus, focus, focus and subdue those impulses.
As the morning turned to afternoon and the external interruptions began I had to change tactics. What worked was to say to the interruptor “hold on one second”, finish the moment of my tasks I was in, and then fully turn my attention to the interruption. This changed the interruption into a new task upon which to focus. This changed my relationships to the interaction. Instead of these being interruptions that only got a portion of my attention, they got my full attention. This improved the quality of the interaction but more than that it changed my relationship to the interruption. I stopped minding and started to enjoy the challenge of being fully present in each interaction no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, challenging or unchallenging.
I like this challenge so much I did it the whole week. I realized what I was really doing was giving up the urge to multi-task.. One of the scientists interviewed on Note to Self spoke about how ill adapted the human brain is to multitasking. It takes too much glucose and our natural thought pathways just don’t like it.
I took this practice home with me and started challenging myself to do just one thing at a time. And I was dedicated.
If I were riding the train home from work I was only riding the train home. No reading or looking at my phone or listening to music. If I was watching a TV show I was only watching a TV show. No fiddling with my phone or looking at things on the internet. Just sitting and watching a show. When I cooked I only cooked. I didn’t turn on the radio or a podcast. I also applied the challenge to the time I spent on the internet. For example I needed to get a new vacuum. Instead of getting online and opening a million taps and flitting between vacuum reviews and Facebook or twitter and a funny video and all the other internet distractions I just looked at vacuums. What I found in all of this was a lot. Lots and lots and lots.
If I just rode the train home the ride felt long but I didn’t think about anything. It was just a long boring thing I had to do. If I just watched a TV show I found myself watching less TV because it would get bored. Or I would find myself with the impulse to go doing another task that I knew needed doing. When I cooked and only cooked I found myself enjoy the multi-sensory experience of cooking – smells, sounds, the textures of ingredients. Within two weeks I was getting so much more done. I wasn’t checking off 100% of my to-do list. But I was checking off 50% of the items as 100% done. The lingering worry about those undone fragments of tasks and projects vanished. Because even if a task was only half done. I know that I had worked on it until it was half done and then run out of time or had to move to another thing.
The positive feeling this generated for me gave me the idea to give up multi-tasking for lent.
I knew though that I’d gone a little far. That there do need to be some combinations. Like reading or listening to music on my train ride home is a nice thing. So I get to do that. But I don’t also get to scroll through my phone. I can listen to the radio while I cook or do house chores. But one thing I’ve kept the same is watching TV. With that, I only do that. I’ve discovered it is easier to just shut it off if all I’m doing is watching TV. Because watching TV, especially pointless, bad TV is boring. I’d rather mop, brush the cat or fold the laundry.
It wasn’t always easy, despite the nice feeling focusing on one thing at a time gave me. I had to remind myself all the time to just do that one thing I was doing until it was done or I’d complete the piece of it I’d set out to do. The draw to multi-task is so strong, especially in the internet age. But I think allowing myself to be swept up in distraction disguised as multi-tasking diminished my ability to be wholly present for any one thing. And that meant I missed a lot. I missed out on experiencing how things really made me feel. Especially I missed out on realizing how bored I was by most of what I interrupted myself with. And the things that I called interruptions and resented pulling me away from tasks? Those were actually necessary human interactions made more positive and productive for having my full attention.
Lent is over. Christ has risen like a benevolent zombie. I’m still committed to doing one thing at a time. I’m pretty good at it now, but still have my moments. But the whole exercise has made me more optimistic. I have a lot more control over how crazy and jumbled my days can be than I previously had thought.
Dear fellow space travelers,
It’s been a minute. Time management is not my strong suit. But rather than losing a few hours here and there I lose whole days and weeks. Well, not lose exactly. It’s not like I can’t find these lost hours if I tried. It’s more like they are mixed up in the mash of an average day. And who has the time to go digging through the mash to find those particular lost hours? Not me! Plus, I’m not sure I’d want to be reminded of what I lost them to. Probably a few hours were lost to watching the Gilmore Girls on Netflix. Another few were lost to fiddling with my phone. Still more were lost to trying to unblock my vacuum cleaner. Then there was the several hours lost to researching vacuum cleaners to buy on Amazon. There are probably a few hours that if I went back and did find them I would only be able to look at them, puzzled at what on earth they were lost to. Like that hour I inexplicably lost on Thursday when I suddenly was running late for work. I may have lost that one to petting the cat.
But In this mash of days have been more than a few moments when I thought “oh, I should write about that!” But per tradition, my writing doesn’t work like that. Most of my fully formed writing ideas come out spontaneously. I can’t plan for them. All those things I thought to write about are just tiny little nuggets of potentially larger stories. Despite their small size and misshapen nature I thought I would share these three nuggets all the same. Mostly to make them feel special and loved and worthy. I know if I were a nugget I’d need some affirmation to keep me going.
In my hometown of Spokane, WA is a local grocery chain called Rosauers. When we went shopping we never said we were going to the grocery store. We would always say we were going to Rosauers. There was a location just up the hill from our house in a little shopping mall across from our dentists office. It is the sort of place where on the name tags of the employees is also the years they have worked for the company. It’s not uncommon to see 10, 15 or 25 years on an employee name tag. This is mostly because some years ago, when I was a little kid the employees went out on strike and won their demand to be an employee owned grocery store. Kids would start working there in highschool and just keep on working there until they retired. It’s a good gig. When I think of Rosauers I think of this and the Cookie Credit Card.
Oh the Cookie Credit Card. This little plastic card of wonder lived in my parents wallets and when produced at the bakery resulted in a free cookie. The front of it had two little cookies slightly overlapping to look like the Mastercard logo and entitled the carrier to a free cookie each week. My mom or dad would give me the little card, which I would clutch in both hands and eagerly trot up to the bakery case at the back of the store. The lady at the counter always played it like a legit transaction and even back then I worried that my card would be declined. It was great training for later in life. I would always be given a choice of an oatmeal or chocolate chip cookie. Let us all agree that an oatmeal cookie is a breakfast food and not a proper cookie. It was at the Rosauers bakery counter that I also learned a most important life lesson that grocery store donuts are the best donuts. Always have been. Always will be. My grandpa used to call the pastry’s at Rosauers “bakery dope”. Real good dope.
I remember once on a shopping trip to Rosauers I worked up the courage to sneak something into the shopping cart. I don’t know where I got this idea. From some television show I’m sure. I was so nervous. I guess I thought it was something really terrible to do. So I just grabbed something obscure and tossed it in hoping to trick my mom. It was a can of baked beans or something. My mom didn’t even notice. I should have tossed in a box of Cocoa Pebbles.
This all reminds me of another grocery store memory. On the northside of Spokane was an Albertson’s (they are part of the same company that owns Star Market for you New Englanders). We stopped in to do some grocery shopping and at the checkout just happened to be the 100th shopper at that check out that day. It was all part of a promotion celebrating the store’s anniversary. Maybe a 25th anniversary or something. Our prize was a free bag of groceries filled with the things our mom would never let us buy. We got a jug of Juicy Juice, cans of Spaghetti O’s, a box of honest to god Twinkies and some other things. We actually grew up downwind of a Hostess factory but never got to eat twinkies. But that smell of baking hostess white bread, we called it ‘bunny bread” was always enticing. Next to the factory was a Hostess outlet store. I guess they were a part of any Hostess plant. You could stop in and get discounted confections. Like a misshapen Hostess Sno Ball. One would be nice and round and normal and the other sort of deflated and sad looking. But we so rarely got any of these that having a box of Twinkies in the house was like winning a pot of money off a scratch ticket. My mom let us scarf them all down without restriction just to get them out of the house and hopefully out of our system.
How Boston Sports Club taught me to be a feminist.
I go to the gym behind my house. It’s one of the many in the Boston Sports Club chain. It smells gross, is a little dumpy, definitely impersonal and is full of dudes lifting weights. I come to this gym after years of being a member of Healthworks, a gym just for the ladies. Healthworks is a glorious gym. Gym isn’t actually the word for it. Healthworks was like a retreat center where you could get fit. All the towels you could want. Free shampoo and body wash. They even put out little bowls of hair ties knowing that us gals are always losing our hair ties. It didn’t smell like sweat but rather some combination of scents that reminded me of a sunny day. It also cost $80 a month. At some point I just couldn’t justify that much money a month given my other expenses. the BSC behind my house costs only $20 a month. The legend of the gym dude was something that only lived in stories from friends or in TV shows. I had yet to experience it myself. But just a month at the BSC and I was well versed in gym dude antics. These biffy, sporty fellas use the gym to fully realize their desire to take up as much space as possible. The gym is a space to rebell against the outside world’s assertion that at the very least women exist and can, like be around. I’ve had men just take equipment from me when I put it down between rep’s. I’ve had men leer at me as I work out. On one occasion I had a man start to practice his pitching by throwing a baseball at the wall next to me. Seemingly oblivious to the hostile nature of choosing that place to practice. In the group fitness room where I often find peace and solitude from the general gross of the gym I had a group of men start to play basketball while I and another women were quietly working out. At one point as if to underscore that we (despite being there first) were in their way one of these guys through a basketball at my head. That day I left in tears, it just felt like one of the moments that warrants tears. These experiences sort of helped me to realize what all the fuss about Feminism is. I’ve never gone out of my way to identify as a feminist. Not that I’m not down for gender equality. It just that big F Feminism feels too complicated and problematic to me and doesn’t fit in with my other political identities. But little f feminism is always with me. That idea that throughout all that I work on and explore is the idea that gender identity is a fluid and complex variable in the calculation of injustice. But I’ve always given more weight the variables of misogyny and patriarchy. Big F feminism always struck me as an effort to get a larger piece of the capitalist, patriarchal, misogynistic pie. Nuts to that! I want a different pie. Anyway, my time at the BSC has opened me up a little more to the ideas of more traditional big F feminism. I can’t change the nature of gym life. It is a slice of the that big capitalist, patriarchal, misogynistic pie. But I can mess with it and demand my fair share. So now I go in and take up lots of space. I spread out equipment all over the place even if I’m not using it just to stake a claim. I wonder around the space when I’m taking a rest just to make sure people know I’ve got a territory. I’ve perfected my steely glare that lets the leering types know not to fuck with me. And I take as much time as a I want on the machines and sometimes more than I want, just to make a point. I’m taking a piece of that pie and acting like a dude and it feels great.
I haven’t written or even spoken about my chronic pain much at all. But there you have it, I live with chronic and often debilitating pain and have done so for over a decade. It all stems from neck issues that likely started when I was young and experienced two accidents. One a bicycle crash and the other a car crash. Managing my pain is more than physical therapy and medication. Pain management is also finding a way to coexist with pain. Negotiating to have moments where pain gets a front seat and moments where pain doesn’t. It’s a mental game that often involves some amount of depression and anxiety. I feel like I manage it fairly well and perhaps that is why I don’t talk about it starkly as a chronic condition. I have a chronic pain condition. That feels so blunt and non-descript to me. But I do and it has only gotten worse with age.
At some point in the last two years the level of pain changed and what managed it before failed to do the job. I developed a throbbing pain in my shoulder and down my arm to the tip of my ring finger. I knew it was related to a nerve issue. Something had escalated. I shopped around for new solutions and found my way to a great physical therapist. She helped me to understand the importance of experiencing the pain, assessing it and making choices based on the level of pain. She helped me understand that what I was doing wasn’t managing so much as pushing through. My time working with this PT helped me to understand the power of being in good care. I was able to let go a little and reflect on my pain and its consequences. Instead of asking me what my pain was on a scale of 1-10 she asked me what things I would do if I wasn’t in pain. That really hit me hard. I realized all the things I wasn’t doing because of my pain. I couldn’t wear a backpack, which meant I couldn’t do things like go hiking. I couldn’t ride a bicycle. The arm pain meant I couldn’t type or use a pen for long periods. This meant I wasn’t writing. The PT helped me to understand that pushing through the pain limited me to those things that didn’t require my full attention since part of my focus would always be on keeping the pain in its place. I had just accepted these losses with so little thought that I didn’t even recognize them as losses. She and I created some goals, things like I wanted to be able to wear a backpack, use a keyboard more often than not and to be able to be physically active once more. On the worst days I couldn’t work. I’d have to take the day off. So we also made a goal that I wouldn’t need to take days off because of my pain. But we also said that I would be more mindful of my pain and the limitations it meant. Basically she wanted me coexist with my pain a little more to see how it really was impacting my life. I can’t tell you how helpful just this part of PT was. The exercises and massage and all the physical work were great. But just the prompting of another human to be more aware of my pain was a huge gain. I got to feel the loss associated with not being able to do certain things. I gained awareness of how much I had put on hold or pushed aside because “managing” the pain took up all my energy.
This process of PT led to meeting with another doctor who wanted to take an MRI of my neck. The results showed I have a herniated disk in my neck. For years people had told me that my neck and shoulder pain were related to muscle strain. But this pair knew something more was up. That I wouldn’t be having the arm pain if it were just a muscle issue. It wasn’t until I saw the image of my neck vertebra all nicely lined up except little C4 which was tilted and bulged that I let my pain wash over me. It wasn’t a mystery anymore, it was a thing. This bulge was a thing that caused me pain and it could be mended or at least tended too. Suddenly the pain wasn’t “mine” it was just pain and I don’t want it.
I’ll be getting treatment for my disc and continue with PT. But I’ve also started being vocal about my limitations, saying no to plans, bowing out of things when I feel like I need to in order to limit my pain, telling my friends when I’m in pain and how its effecting my mood. I’ve started taking days off from work when the pain isn’t very bad but I know that if I don’t rest it will get worse. I have reoriented my relationship to fitness knowing that even if all I do is 30 minutes on an elliptical machine my ability to manage my symptoms will increase. Even without treatment, just knowing more about my body and what is going on inside has helped my pain level. The stress of trying to self-manage something I didn’t really understand only made things worse. Now, things aren’t all better yet. Just a few weeks ago I was laid up for a whole day with a bad headache and couldn’t go to work. The after effect was lingering arm pain that made it hard to work and concentrate. But I know more and most importantly have optimism. That belief that I have some measure of control over the outcome. It’s a good feeling to be back in control.