the possible, the impossible, and some unfortunate potatoes

I got in a fight with my refrigerator the other day.  Right off the bat here I am being dramatic – it wasn’t at all the refrigerator’s fault, any more than any shortcoming in design is the fault of the object, or any incompatibility of a machine with a human organism is the machine’s fault.

I reached down to get a glass container of potatoes from the bottom shelf and a wildfire of pain flew up and down my right side and across my lower back.  My first thought was “Uh, oh, what do I do now, and how do I do it in such a way that it doesn’t alarm the two year-old who’s eating carrots in the nearby highchair?” My second was “This is the beginning of the end of my mobility.”  I have been expecting this kind of seizing, spasm, whatever it was, since I began to have trouble with my lower back when I was thirty-two.  My joints are unstable – they don’t stay where they belong in relation to one another.  Or rather, they don’t stay where I think they should in relation to one another.  They don’t maintain the optimal placement for ease of movement by this organism I call me.  Anne Lamott writes that “our bodies are proving to be a little disappointing.” Indeed.

When I was a teenager and a young adult I was disappointed in how my body looked.  I’ve made some modicum of peace with that now, perhaps because the impact of dissatisfaction with appearance has been overshadowed by diminished functionality. These days, my disappointment waxes and wanes according to what functionality I lose and regain, or don’t. Last fall we went for a long bike ride on a trail built along the gas line through several towns’ worth of southern Maine.  It was so much fun – I love riding a bicycle, but am ever so slightly skittish and don’t fare well on roads with cars.  We live in a relatively densely populated area; we chose the neighborhood we did because there’s a place for me to ride my bike that requires minimal road time, a paved path around the edge of the city.  This other longer path was heaven, stretched for many miles more than my local path.

We were a mile from the end of our route, after fourteen miles of riding, when my elbow started to hurt.  A lot.  It hadn’t hurt at all for fourteen miles, and suddenly hurt so much I couldn’t hold on to the handlebars anymore.  The bits of gravel in the packed dirt had apparently been enough to slowly but thoroughly traumatize my elbow.  It throbbed for days after that, and ever since, it cannot be subjected to much of anything in the way of jostling before it begins to snarl and swell.

So, yes, I have found my body a little disappointing.  Why, though?  Where did I get the idea that there wouldn’t be pain or reduction in function? In the Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elizabeth Bishop writes “I had thought I was indestructible.  But I wasn’t.  If anything did go wrong, I figured modern medicine would fix me. But it didn’t.”  I never had the feeling of immortality that is said to be common in teenagers – I was always cautious, to a fault.  But I thought I knew what Bishop knew, that if something went wrong, modern medicine would fix it.  And if modern medicine couldn’t fix it, some other kind of medicine could.  It could be fixed.  Like a machine.

Turns out it’s not a machine.  Some things can be fixed, or righted, but some things can’t.  No matter how much you’re willing or able to spend.  (Which is not to say that if you have more to spend, you don’t have a better chance of getting something fixed.  But that’s another thing entirely.) The human body is astonishingly complex and sophisticated and capable, but it is not a machine and it is not knowable in its entirety and potentiality for variation.  It is not just a platitude, that every one of us is different.  It’s a truth that means we can do our best at noticing patterns and possibilities for healing and adjusting, but we can’t solve or resolve everything in every person.

For many years now I have strung myself out between resignation about this: this is just how it is and oh, well and determination: I will not give up until I figure out a way to fix my spine/ligaments/joints.  Determination and resignation have worked for others in much worse circumstances, with much worse ailments and anomalies. Neither has worked for me.  From time to time I can wrangle enough perspective out of the relative good fortune I have: my ailments are small, tiny, in fact, in comparison to those that others manage.  But they still impede my ability to get things done – things that bear on my livelihood and ability to participate and contribute. So I’ve had to look for other angles.

One of the frequent topics of conversation in my house is improvisation.  My partner is a dancer with many years of training in various forms, with a special affinity for contact improvisation.  I have always hated contact improvisation, which I attribute to a long-standing aversion to strangers and general lack of enjoyment of flying sweat, but I like it very much as a thought process and model for considering various other realms.  Improvisation in the context of dance (and other art forms, come to think of it) traffics in the immediate and the unexpectable, which is to say, the world as it actually is in any given actual moment.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found it especially easy, all of that you hear about living in the moment, experiencing presence, leaving the past in the past and the future out there where it hasn’t happened yet. Any sort of physical dis-ease makes it harder still, at least for me.  It’s one thing to conjure up a sense of connection with the present when the body’s working reasonably well and quietly.  Another when it’s not.  (I suppose I experience pain and physical discomfort as noise.  The way it might be easier to walk peacefully down the sidewalk if a well-maintained car drove by than if you were passed by a clunker with muffler dragging along the pavement, belts screeching from under the hood.)

One of the things the contact improvisers do is work with a “score,” essentially a collection of constraints within which to move (with others, in the moment, for the moment).  Again, you won’t find me out there mixed up in any of that as a dancer, but as a model for navigating life, now that I’ve accumulated a quorum of bodily constraints, I’m finding that the notion of an improvisational score is a useful one.  And offers some relief from the tug-of-war between determination and resignation to which I otherwise tend to subject myself. When these shortcomings of the ligaments, vertabrae, and other tissues exist for me as problems resisting solution, they’re a constant source of frustration and, truly, despair.  But when they are the constraints of a score, the rest of everything possible and available becomes the raw material for action and engagement:  What can I do around them?  What can I do in spite of them?  What can I do with them?

It works for anything – any disappointment of physicality, ability, capacity. Sometimes.  I have been known to resort to wallowing in disappointment and frustration but it’s a thinking tool worth keeping on hand for moments when the possible is more compelling than the impossible.