We packed up our food, the dog, and a change of shoes. Pulling out of the driveway, we started a podcast on the science of mindfulness recently suggested to me by a friend. We love to dream about living in the mountains. It’s one of our favorite stories about the future. But houses in the mountains are losing their water. It is harder to dream without water.
This January, almost a year ago now, I woke up one morning and my left leg was numb from the back of my thigh to my toes. It didn’t take long to discover the severe herniation in my L5/S1. Not my first time around with this kind of pain. Seven years ago, I had a microdiscectomy on my L4/L5. That time, it took me a year to understand what was happening in my body. I was able to get there quicker now, in part, because I have health insurance. A trainer at my gym told me to get to the doc quick. They don’t mess around with numbness, he said. And he was right. I was in the MRI tube within a week.
At the top of my list of intentions for New Years: Go backpacking with Rik and Sylvia.
Not a chance.
Sylvia flew to Tucson, Arizona to spend a week with her partner over Thanksgiving break. I always cry when I drop her off at the airport—not because I don’t want her to go or because I think something will happen to her out in the world, but because it feels like some part of my body is stretching, the emotional equivalent to your lungs when you’ve run to the edge of your capacity. The tears rise up in my throat at the moment we get to the security check, watching as the other travelers thin from five, to four, to three…and then she’s caught in the circuitry of proving her identity, shoe removal, and as I turn to watch her, she holds her hands above her head in a diamond shape and is off to the gate. Too fast, I think. My heart, I pray.
On my way home, I stop in another town and go into the Goodwill. I stay there for hours, perusing the racks, the crocheted quilts, the tweed coats. I’m boarding, she texts. <3, I text back. An hour or so later, I’m peeling the too-tight pants from my legs in the dressing room and hear the phone chime. I’ve landed. As if waking from a dream, I gather up my treasures and checkout. I can go home now that she is back on solid ground. Thank you, I say to the young woman at the counter.
I imagine the hugs and kisses and tears at their reunion hundreds of miles away. The irrepressible smile that must be breaking across her face. Thank you, I text back.
We see the snow at the same time. Just a thin patch over a shaded hillside. Turning right toward Butte Meadows, we watch as white wins out over the red earth, transforming the landscape into something elemental, forgiving everything it covers. Trucks and SUVs come from the opposite direction with cut trees strapped down, newly exposed trunks jutting forward.
This year of back pain has taken some joy from me. Mostly the simple pleasure I get from walking. A left leg that hesitates, doesn’t lift like the other, and lands blunt back onto the path, sometimes radiating secondary pain through the ankle once broken and repaired with a handful of hardware. I work with my thoughts instead of my legs some days, allowing the imagination of what comes next, the person’s face I will see, the anticipation of teaching, to overpower the discomfort.
When the first crack of ice fractures under my boots, I forget. The dog runs ahead—bounding really—his white fur dirty compared to the pristine drifts. I feel good. I could run up into the blank, glittering trail behind him, but instead I take one step, and then another. Careful.
Another intention from the New Years list: Go to another state.
I think about Alaska every day since teaching there this summer. I wonder about the sunlight and the snow. I think about the Chena River and the beavers working all night. The long table with a butter yellow cloth where we ate three meals a day. Cinnamon darkened oatmeal. The houses we built with words and memory.
At the start of the school year, I was sick. I didn’t know it at first because the main symptom was a kind of darkness that hung on me. I walked around the house unsure of what to do next, weeping intermittently. By the end of the week before classes, I developed a deep cough and a fever. After what I thought was a cursory visit to Immediate Care, I was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia.
Work less. This is an intention I’ve set every year, but this is the first time I’ve actually followed through. After missing the first week of school, sicker than I’ve ever been, I quit one of my jobs. I took my gracious colleagues up on their offers to help. I let go of the fear that I would be behind.
It took five weeks before I felt like myself again, but when I rose out of the profound exhaustion I found a bubble of saneness surrounding me. I felt a sense of possibility and a deep, resounding clarity that I must protect this little pocket of quiet.
The night before Thanksgiving, Rik and I plan to go out dancing. Beforehand, we get pho and grab groceries for the next day. By the time we get home, Rik is tired and falls asleep early, but I am dead set on going out. I kiss him goodnight and head out into the cold.
It’s packed in the bar. I find a friend and order an undrinkably strong cocktail. There are degrees of familiar faces all around me and I easily settle into the music. Light refracts from mirrors into my eyes, so I close them. I take a little square of dance floor where I can move my hips, the bodies of others bumping into me, sometimes carelessly, sometimes along with my beat. I dance until the lights come up, my body singing its aches and pains.
It’s been a good year, I decide, my boots offering their uneven clacking to the empty street. I will soon shimmy into the sheets warmed by my love, the fridge full of the nourishment we will render into feast for my mother and brother, my kid far away finding her own happiness in a place she’s never been before.
I breathe into my scarf, warming the soft fabric, and pull it over my face, inhaling what the body provides.