Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Slow days

it isn't all bad, of course. take yesterday morning: sun flooding the kitchen and mo gone to work, leaving me to my quinoa and david gray -- an actual CD played through speakers, not an earbud track: an unformed day brought to you by my new theme song, "life in slow-motion."
while I was watching, you did a slow dissolve...
life in slow motion, somehow it don't seem real
i do seem to be moving so slowly i might dissolve. it's hard to get used to. no one has ever accused me of being a dawdler. one of my graduate students refers to me as "a woman of instant execution." i am fatally attracted to a clean inbox; i honor fordist efficiency; and i always believe there is room to accomplish one more thing before the minute/hour/day/week is up. to take 15 minutes to unload the dishwasher, because every dish is a separate, left-handed trip, is deranging. the 90 minute shower is a new and alien experience. how it can take a person over 20 minutes to dress in the morning i can't fathom, but it does, every day.

for these reasons, i don't find my days long. even when I do nothing, they are full. but it's more than that. i am on good terms with solitude. watching sunshine move across hardwood floors, reading books, thinking, blogging, walking to the neighborhood flower shop -- all of these things make me deeply happy, particularly when they unfold at a junkie's easy pace, on a smooth percocet plane.

one of the unexpected pleasures of convalescing has been music. i walk a lot -- can't drive -- and when I do, i listen to a broad range of music. normally, my tunes are running-trail functional: the scissor sisters, lady gaga, new pornographers, and a Much Music dance album from the 90s keep me working out. when I walk, I listen to fanfarlo, vintage joni mitchell, the new gorillaz album, iTunes impulse buys like chile fuerza, new yorker darling esperanza spalding, eric clapton unplugged. stars, always. the shins, of montréal, conor oberst (all his projects), the mixed tape andrea made me with the BeeGees and fine young cannibals.

i see things when i walk, too.

i have seen odd little houses in my neighborhood:

and houses with cheerful trim:

and artworks' yellow and black display.

i have seen late afternoon sun turn industrial space soft and beautiful:

and i have seen the spring come in this year. it takes place so imperceptibly you can't believe anything is happening, yet winter has dissolved, and the world is different.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Feel better

when i was a little girl, i thought your feelings were located in your armpit. i remember overhearing someone say, in mock distress, "you're hurting my feelings!," and thinking ah, so that's what sensation there is called. feelings.

one of the most mystifying aspects of recovery has been the emotional valence of healing. some things make sense: frustration, fear, anxiety all fall within the predictable emotional range. more difficult to understand has been melancholy. i've felt melancholic a lot over the last week, and I have tried to figure out why: i know that I tend to turn fatigue into sadness, for instance, and it stands to reason that once the shoulder is feeling a little better i would have room to process all the subsidiary effects of the surgery: the trauma to the body, the dependence, the assault on my self-esteem, the self-brutalizing blame for getting myself into this position in the first place, and so on. you don't have to be deeply freudian to figure that's all got to come out sometime.

still, i do expect some connection between what happens in the moment and how i respond. so to feel sad today, after a good weekend, and on my way out of physio, which came after a spell in the hot pool and a ride on a stationary bike with a good book, was surprising. i mean, what i just described -- a little exercise, a good book, some flirtation, my time my own -- is pretty much the ideal life. i couldn't understand why i felt so blue, like everything was dissolving. i wondered if it was dismay over how quickly time is passing while i measure my day in shoulder flexion. i wondered if it was about missing the river valley, wanting to see how all my running trails smell in the spring. i wondered if it was about my job, if i was starting to fret about going back. i wondered if i was doing the right thing with my life, whether i am on the right path. or maybe it's the gray day, or something hormonal, or plain old garden-variety physical pain sublated into an emotional register. i thought about all of these things as i cried my way up the 105th st hill.

my acupuncturist took one look at my tongue and said, "gotcha." she could see weakness in the heart meridian. the heart is the emperor of the body in chinese medicine, and the emperor was not on his throne. as a result, all of the other portfolios were scrambling around, not knowing how to do their business -- like canada under mackenzie king, perhaps. surgery can mix up the meridians themselves: a coup de corps. my acupuncturist said that typically when this happens, people question everything: their jobs, their partners, where they live, how they act, what they want -- everything. you feel lackluster about your work, you wonder about your destiny. i'm not saying it's necessarily like this for you, she said (i continued to say nothing), but you don't have to worry. the cause for how you are feeling is not coming from outside, but from inside. what we need to do, she said, is call the emperor back to his throne.

i was in.

the points were completely different from anything we've done before. she needled heart one, heart three, and heart seven. heart seven, down by the wrist, connects the heart and the head. it allows you to know what you want, and to do it. heart three, inside of the upper arm, is the destiny point. she said, "pay attention to the images that you see while this needle is in." (i have more thinking to do about these images: the green, the water, the books.)

heart one, first point on the heart meridian, is like sticking a needle into the center of your heart, down through the myocardium to the endocardium, between the atria and ventricles, to wake it up. this point will recall the emperor and make you feel like yourself again -- which it did. within a half-hour the melancholy had receded and i was back to myself: curious, competent, outward-looking and vital.

the point is located in your armpit.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to know the body

i keep thinking about the photos my surgeon showed me. they were circular images printed eight-up on a glossy 8.5 x 11 page, two across and four down. showing me these pictures was his answer to my question "what exactly did you do to my shoulder?" i thought he wasn't paying attention to my query, but within a few seconds of shuffling he produced this sheet of photos, stapled to a series of other, narrative documents about the surgery. to him, these pictures were the answer.

the images would have been taken by an autoclavable arthroscopic camera inserted through a small hole in my shoulder at the beginning of the operation, when the team was deciding how to proceed. they have the beautiful precision of a high-resolution digital camera, if the slight blurriness of an extreme close-up. the bones were luminous and white (so, this arthroscopic camera must have a light source?) and there was, oddly, no blood -- in fact, no red at all. flesh, it seems, is putty colored. to me the most startling thing in these photos was amount of space in the shoulder: i had thought it must be densely packed, like an electrical socket with its confusing capped wires, but it appears instead to be hollow, like a mouth. the joint was photographed against a murky and distant-looking background of puce tissue.

the beauty of these photographs to me was almost entirely abstract, like a mona hatoum installation. i could not even begin to orient the images i was seeing with the body i inhabit. the surgeon pointed to one photo after the other and i pretended to understand, but i didn't -- at least, not in the way he did.

my experience of my shoulder has nothing to do with reason or causality. some days it feels good; other days it hurts a lot. some days i make great progress on my exercises; other days I can barely move. i cannot directly connect one day's activities to the next day's sensations. there is only an uncertain connection between painkillers and pain. while i can see a definite improvement over the last four weeks, it is virtually impossible to parse that improvement into shorter periods. healing is an uneven, illogical, and intuitive affair, and i often find myself yearning for the certainties of science.

the certainties of science, expressed with a certain geekiness and large, gentle hands are part of what i fall for in my physiotherapist. (i have written before about my crush on "oliver.") you could call it transference, this belief that if i endow him with preturnatural healing powers, and if i put myself under his spell -- the spell represented by physiotherapy's advanced knowledge of bodily kinetics, together with its mystical language ("med load," "tenodesis," "suture") -- i will be healed, wholly and completely. my role in this transferential relationship is to believe, to adore, and to adhere: to be the best patient possible.

(quick aside: this terminology, borrowed from psychotherapy, is imperfect. i don't recall ever feeling exactly this way about my parents, which is typically taken to be the ur relationship reenacted in psychotherapeutic situations. i have never heard anyone else talk about the relationship between physiotherapists and clients. nonetheless, transference remains the most compelling explanatory framework i have.)

on wednesday, it was hard to play my part. the shoulder hurt a lot. i lay on my narrow PT bed and tried to do my exercises, without much success. oliver stood at the head of my cubicle for a moment. "quiet today, huh?" he watched me struggle with the sixth repetition, and he probably saw me start to cry. then he did the most astonishing thing: he came and sat in the chair next to my bed. he described the surgery for me in the fullest terms i had heard yet. he told me how my body was healing. he said "you have every reason to be in pain."

in the days following our wednesday appointment, i became more and more amazed by his kindness and intuition. on friday i asked him how he came to respect the body so. i told him i understood the seduction of science, the lure of diagnostics, prognoses, crisp pictures, big words -- but that his treatment on wednesday suggested something different, a patience and a gentleness they don't teach in university. so how did he come to possess it?

he smiled and said, "through the science."

Friday, March 26, 2010

A formal feeling?

after a bad day, a sense of relief.

relief is undertheorized. it's good -- the pain has receded, you can think clearly again, moving is possible, life is possible -- but it's not simple. relief is not really the present; it's the fulcrum between a difficult past and a promising future. you could take the experience you've just had and use it to re-create yourself from the ground up. to feel relief is to bargain: i will drive more carefully, i won't drink red wine, i will stretch my muscles religiously. under the terms of relief, you could be anything. if everyday life rehearses st. augustine's plea 'lord, make me good, but not just yet,' relief puts us in the dizzying place where we are ready to be good, now: being better starts this instant, and lasts forever more.

but in addition to a sense of freedom, there is something else, something darker. relief is confusing, disorenting. i'm not surprised that people cry with relief; i'm one of them; i cry with relief. i weep because i can, because i am free enough from pain to focus on something other than the pain itself. i weep at how good it is to live without this pain, for now. pain is difficult; pain is unpleasant; pain is deranging and dismaying. it delimits your world. pain is infantilizing, offering the inchoate frustration of an infant, if also an infant's irresponsibility. pain is trying. and so to feel relief is to be through the trial, to have passed whatever kind of test the excruciation had in mind, to have made it to the next phase, but the complexity of relief has something to do with not knowing what that means, not knowing what the terms of the trial were, not knowing whether you "passed," and, if you did, what that means.

there is also, in relief, a sense of loss. i feel, "thank god that's over. i made it through." but i also feel, "something's missing, it's gone." think of the way you felt at the end of junior high, or when your child exits a difficult phase, or the moment you realize you are well and truly over someone. it's not that i want the pain back, not exactly, not even for the comforting way it grounds me in the moment. perhaps it's that every minor experience of relief puts us in touch with the ultimate sense of relief we know we're heading towards: freedom from these bodies, release from the tedium of human existence, the end of our own and others' suffering. in spite of the 'what's next' excitement, it's impossible to avoid suspecting that this, after all, was living, and there is no going back.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

One month later

now that I finally have my dragon taking dictation properly, i can fill in some of the gaps from the last long month.

the day of the surgery we watched a lot of curling. although the operation was scheduled for 130, I had to get to the grey nuns hospital by 1030 so they could clip on a hospital bracelet, get me changed into a gown, and... well, i'm not really sure what the rest of the time was for. mo was with me, of course, and we sat in the preop room with about five other patients and their partners watching olympic curling. those of us heading into surgery shared dehydration headaches. time passed quite slowly in that room, although as I think back on it it doesn't quite seem like three hours of curling (I did learn a lot about the game, however).

in a way, the surgical experience starts when they call your name. you give up the bathrobe and your eyeglassses, you get into the gurney, and they wheel you to the ER on the lower level. as the elevator descended, i said to the porter, "wow, it's all very symbolic." but he didn't understand what i meant. in the waiting bay, the surgeon stopped by to see me. i told him i had changed my mind about the surgery, that i was too scared to go through with it, that the shoulder hasn't hurt that much lately, and that i'd trade a little pain later for a drink of water now. he put a hand on the bedrail and said, nicely, "right. we want to do this surgery for your 70s."

they did five or six things. first, they sent in an arthroscopic camera and took pictures of the shoulder joint. at my first follow-up appointment, i got to see these pictures, which were stirringly beautiful. i had no idea what I was looking at, exactly, but the luminous white of bone against the milky backdrop of tissue made me understand, immediately, why someone would want to be a surgeon. they trimmed the labrum. at the follow-up appointment, the surgeon pointed to the photo of a fringe made of flesh, then to the after, all clean lines and absences, and said, "see? all tidied up." as I had known they would, they repaired the supra spinatus, which is to say they reattached that torn tendon to its bone. (i always think of chicken.) in addition, they shaved the bones and cartilage in my shoulder; they drained the bursa; and they repaired, repositioned, and stapled down the biceps tendon. i've been led to understand that this is rather a lot of work.

my first sensation back on the ward was in my elbow. i thought, distinctly, i cannot keep my elbow bent like this for 6 to 12 weeks. the second sensation was heat in the shoulder -- the inflammation. mo was there, which was enormously calming, and my parents too. there was a lot of morphine. morphine feels good, but not at first. the best hit is intramuscular, and it burns for the full 90 or so seconds it takes to empty the syringe. i was awake for most of the night, or at least I remember seeing nearly every hour on the clock, though it was difficult to connect those hands on the wall to anything meaningful. it's a strange way to spend time. you're aware of every hour passing, yet the experience has absolutely no narrative form.

everybody tells you to stay ahead of the pain, and this is excellent advice. for the first two or three days at home, I was taking 12 to 14 Percocet a day: an amount that astonishes me now, but which felt barely sufficient at the time.

when you dream about having time away from work, there is a lot of it: days stretch out voluptuously. in fact, i find the days quite short. partly this is because everyday life takes so much time. getting dressed takes the better part of 40 minutes; getting undressed and into bed a good half-hour; and then i have physio exercises that take about 25 minutes per set, and I do three sets a day. add in a walk, an iPhone game or two, and there's your day. i like being alone.

i have good days and bad days. on good days i feel jubilant, excited, triumphant: i am getting the better of this injury. on bad days i feel completely dismayed, convinced that it will never heal. the lesson is that i have good days and i have bad days, and i'm sure there's a wealth of wisdom in that.

there is a lot of frustration. simple things -- like pulling up yoga pants, or putting on a headset, or fixing a bowl of soup -- take astonishing amounts of time, and call on a patience that does not come naturally to me. bathing is extremely awkward and extremely painful. particularly before i got my stitches out, it felt almost impossible. i had to sit in 2 inches of water, and i washed my hair by bending over my knees. i cannot wash my left shoulder very well, i cannot dry my back, and things like hair product and eyeliner are out of the question. if -- heaven forfend -- something like this should happen to you, and you are my friend, here's what I will do for you: i will give you one hour a week in which you can ask me to do anything. i will clean your shower. i will drive you to the river valley and wait for you to walk. i will run errands. i will chop onions so that you can make soup. i will cull your e-mail if that's what you would like.

there is a lot of pain. before the operation we asked how the pain of shoulder surgery might compare to the pain of knee surgery. the guy we were talking to, the hospital's physiotherapist, fumbled for a few seconds and then gave up. "there is no comparison," he said. "it's super painful." i find the pain fatiguing, particularly at the end of the day, and four weeks later it is still hard to sleep.

there is a lot of abjection. i was not prepared for how abject this experience would be. for one thing, it is very dirty. i am clumsy with my left hand, and so routinely spill food -- on me, on the counter, on the floor -- none of which are easy to clean. for another thing, it is hard to feel pretty when you rotate two pairs of yoga pants and can't pluck your eyebrows. the emotional abjection is of course the most difficult. last saturday I had a work party. my responsibility was to bring a course of Spanish cheese; everything else was done by others. buying the cheese was the subject of a specific excursion on friday; indeed, it was last friday's organizing principle, since I can only really do one thing per day. saturday morning I pulled together a serving tray, serving utensils, and laboriously printed little cards to identify the cheeses. (they looked like they were written by a four-year-old.) i planned my shower with enough time for a rest afterwards. mo did the laundry, but together we worked out how to organize the loads so that my best yoga pants would be clean for the event. the party was lovely, but it involved a lot of standing and honestly it was hard to talk to people i work with when i'm not in fact working with them. after one hour I thought I might faint. when i realized i had forgotten the damn cheese, i just lost it: burst into tears and fled out the back door, humiliated.

naturally, i feel guilty. it's a difficult time at the university, with budget woes and layoffs in the offing. i am acutely aware that the work i am not doing is being picked up by others, who are already busy. at the same time, the university is full of workaholics, and the place is redolent with stories about Prof. X., who took no more than a week off, and Prof. Y., who was back at work the day after his operation. i am not immune to the sense of obligation these stories entail, even though my best self scorns them.

whatever difficulties i may have, being insufficiently loved is not among them. friends have been wonderful: solicitous, generous, thoughtful, and attentive. i marvel at my great good fortune.

now my computer battery is running low, and it's time for a nap. believe it or not, composing this post has taken the best part of the day.