Bone: Seasons in True Wilderness
by Mary Sojourner
1. Pure Gold
How will you know your real friends?
Pain is as dear to them as life.
A friend is like gold. Trouble is like fire.
Pure gold delights in the fire.
— Rumi, from Mathnawi
My skeleton has become my prison. A cage of bone and pain. The jailer is arbitrary. There is no time off for good behavior; and yet, the door to the cell will suddenly spring open. For minutes, an hour, sometimes more, I am free — drenched in green morning light or eating toast with orange marmalade.
Every cell in my body, murmuring, “thank you.”
On May 9, 2005, ABC News, USA Today and the Stanford University Medical Center released the results of a poll on pain. Nearly four in 10 American adults suffer from pain on a regular basis. A fifth of them endure chronic pain. Close to a third experience it episodically. Near half are in pain because of injury or accident. “Pain impacts are broad. Sufferers are less likely than other Americans to be very satisfied with their lives overall, and much more likely to say they’re in bad health. About four in 10 Americans say pain interferes with their mood, activities, sleep, ability to do work or enjoyment of life,” according to the report.
I am in good health. However, 26 nights out of the last 30, my sleep has come in quarter hour to hour snatches; I have 10 percent function in my left hand, 80 percent in my right. I cannot drive my 15-year-old truck, whose steering is anything but power, whose transmission is standard.
And I am a writer. I can hold a pen for 10 minutes; work on a computer keyboard for 15. When I stop writing, my hands are numb for half-an-hour.
I brought this on myself. In February, I left a partnership more like all 700 years of the Inquisition than the witchy blessing and brain-dance it had once been. Two months later, I camped in the Kofa Desert with my best friend, Michael. I was there to heal, not my body, but my heart, mind and spirit. By opal twilight, I bathed naked in a rainwater pocket in the warm rock. I asked for full release of the Inquisitor. Beware of that for which you pray.
The next day, my friend and I hiked up a little wash. The sun was just warm enough, the breeze cool. The banks of the wash shimmered with color. Globe-mallow, datura and clusters of tiny magenta and scarlet flowers.
We hiked for an hour, sometimes boulder-hopping, sometimes slogging through ankle-deep sand. A cottonwood arched over a curve in the wash. We dropped into its shade, opened our packs and ate lunch. Michael, true desert saint that he is, brewed strong, dark coffee for both of us.
We talked, as well as we always do. He grew sleepy. I wanted to be alone. I took off down the wash. Five seconds away from his presence, I discovered the Inquisitor in my mind. I told him to leave. I told him he didn’t exist. And then I began to argue with him. As I made a particularly brilliant point, I stubbed my left toe, twisted sideways, fell face down on a web of vines on the wash embankment. The vines broke my fall, but my hips hyper-extended forward. “Right,” I thought. “Pay attention. BE HERE NOW.”
I continued on, watching light and shadows shift, stopping to look into the throat of a datura, congratulating myself on a lesson well learned.
Forty-five minutes later, Michael had joined me. We were 300 feet from camp. The Inquisitor was back. I was fully engaged in vicious discourse. Michael and I started up a slope; a small boulder under my left foot rolled backwards. I crashed onto the ground. Left hand first, right hand next, left elbow, belly and knees. Later, Michael told me he had heard me hit and figured I was broken in 15 places.
“I did it again,” I thought. “And this time, it’s serious.”
Today, three months after the accident, I have a new partner, a teacher whose lessons can neither be forestalled nor fudged. Comrade Pain. Post-injury arthritis in pelvis, both shoulders and arms, is slowly healing. Pure arthritis, a consequence of aging, is in my hands and may be chronic. I live in a new world as completely as if I had fallen onto another planet. A prison, a wilderness — in which survival depends on absolute obedience and absolute grace.
I live both in my old community, in which friends offer tenderness, money, food, a pedicure, transportation and listening with no advice. I live in a new community. My companions move down hospital hallways, braced by walkers; they lean against the bank door, flinch and groan until the door opens. I recognize my kin.
From my journal, June 2, 2005:
Flagstaff Medical Center, He is beautiful, rough dark hair, pale skin, five o’clock shadow along his perfect jaw line. His cheekbones are high and chiseled. His eyes are veiled.
He could have been painted by Goya.
He sits in a wheelchair and holds a pair of artificial feet, ankles and calves in his lap. His left arm is stick-thin. There is a pressure glove on his left hand. He is, perhaps, 28. He does not smile — until the receptionist says, “So, how about it? Same time, same place, next week?” He nods, his smile is radiant. “Hey,” he says, “I got no other plans.”
June 13, 2005: I tape-record these words. “The pain has lessened considerably in my pelvis, resolved somewhat in my shoulders. It has moved into my hands. My hands (the voice breaks) are my tools. My hands … my hands … my hands are the way I bring the beauty and vengeance of words through. My hands are conduits. My hands have become the most beloved part of my body, as it has become so painful to use them. I’m learning what is truly beloved. My body is beloved. Our bodies are beloved. I remember the young man in the wheelchair. I offer my next act to him.”
Journal entry, June 13, 2005: I hold the pen. My right hand could be in some device of the Inquisitors…torque and pressure. So what. I WILL write.
I’ll write for the dark-eyed man in the wheelchair. For him, I name the colors of the tall grass outside the south window. Emerald, peridot…and to make you smile, stranger — parakeet.
July 19: Now, here, on my back deck. It is 8:30 a.m. and I am letting myself feel discouraged. (Despite the banana and fresh-ground peanut butter sandwich on honey-wheat bread I’m making myself eat.) Unwanted, but absolutely crucial break-up, falls, pain…human fallibility, the fact that it can take me five minutes to open a quart of milk.
A hummingbird zings past my head. I look up. The air is alive with layers of birds…as though I look at an illustration on avian flightways in a kids’ nature book. 4-5 hummingbirds strafe each other to gain alpha access to the feeder; fifteen feet above them, a dozen violet-green swallows arc and shimmer in what must be the rush to the buffet; high above the trees, two turkey vultures ride thermals. For ten minutes, I am free of nostalgia and fear. There is room for gratitude written slant.
My youngest son visited from LA this weekend. Two radiant moments: he discovers a humming-bird trapped in my kitchen; as I reach and maneuver to release it, I am 100 percent pain-free, I can feel it’s flight from my numb hands as though I were healed.
Later, my son clips my fingernails, we joke nervously, he is afraid he will hurt me because he has never done this for another person before. He does not hurt me…quite the contrary. He is, the entire weekend, a candle burning with a steady flame.
This from the Persian poet, Rumi: “That dervish who had caught the scent of Reality, used to weave baskets even though his hand had been cut off.”
So, in gratitude this a.m., I tape-record a few images and lines I believe I will someday transcribe…