There are three young men playing with broadswords, fighting knives, two-headed axes and long bamboo sticks. They twirl and wield like drum majorettes below my writing studio on a triangle of grass in the park plaza. Two of the three are dead serious—shirts off, heavy studded belts and strips of leather like loincloths, one has a mask that covers part of his face and a ratty red goatee. The other has long dyed hair with bright crimson rivulets shining in the midday sun. The third doesn’t quite fit. He’s wearing blue jeans, a faded black t-shirt and has close-cropped blonde hair. He’s the one who keeps offering snacks to the other warriors.
The one in the mask and the red-streaked boy pick up weapons. They face off. This is after the masked man has warmed up by spinning and flexing the long sticks over his head, across his body, running in short bursts at an invisible opponent. They come to the center, tap weapons and then recoil, crouching, gripping a combination of blades and blunt instruments in both hands. I expect a great tumult to ensue, but instead, they are timid, gentle almost, rarely making contact with one another’s bodies, halting just before what could’ve been a deathblow.
I can’t stop watching them, so unabashedly given over to their fantasy, their garb and the postures of combat. The mask asks the awkward one into the ring, hands him the most obviously plastic gilded axe. This is going to be a bloodbath, I think, watching the hesitation in his limbs as he reaches to take the handle. They square off, but it’s clear who will prevail. The goateed man lifts his arms up, his muscles ropey and glowing with a fine sheen of sweat, his pants slouch to the edge of his snail trail, a cut of muscle against the band of his boxer briefs. The other boy-man attempts the same pose, but looks as if he’s from the wrong world. His pale, doughy arms begin to swing the axe wildly toward his opponent and with one, bored spin and slash, the masked man disarms him. His weapon clatters to the ground and he grips his arm. He’s been wounded. He bows his head, holding his palms together as if in prayer (a signal, I imagine, for his attacker to cease his approach) and turns away toward his backpack. He pulls earbuds from one of the pockets and turns his back on the whole scene.
What can I borrow from these young soldiers as I settle in to my writing today? I suppose I should first decide who I am most like in the battle I’ve just witnessed. Am I the hard bodied boy with piles of weaponry, so clearly in his skin as he cut through the air, shielding himself against imagined foes? I imagine his preparations and the hours spent carving that wooden broadsword, studying Googled images to get it just right. Imagination demands precision, yes? To bear the full weight of a story we must get our accessories and war chest intact. For his cherry-red headed opponent, the clothes are his main focus. Between each round, he took off one outfit and brought out some new cloak as he transformed into another character, taking some other name if only in his own head. You could almost hear the camera in his brain clicking, capturing each badass movement so he could replay the tape later, watch the curtain of black fabric billow in the small breeze that graced their fighting.
Since the New Year I have been grounded by back pain. The discovery of a herniated disc keeps me on a short tether—home, teaching, home, doctor appointments, home. I fear I am most like the third boy, wincing with him as he gets tagged by his fierce rival. Before this pain, I had been working out three times a week with a trainer. For the first time in my adult life, I was feeling physically strong, as if my body were a reflection of my mind. I looked forward to sweating and reached into my aching muscles to find confidence, stamina—a kind of ferocity I’ve not allowed myself in these years of intellectual pursuit.
Yet, you could say pain requires ferocity as well. The animal self takes over in the moments when breathing causes your whole back to spasm. When you are walking slowly and find an entire leg lit up with the pinch of contraction, you think, Can I continue forward, and somehow, you do. When I watch the soft curl his body becomes when he feels harmed, I am most akin to this young man’s fear. Each day feels like someone is handing me a hollow handled battle axe, which is my current body—the same body that felt like a conduit to the universe just a couple of months ago. And with this impotent weapon, I am afraid. I fear picking up my shoes from the floor because that sent me into a recent stint of weeklong immobility. I fear walking too far, stranding myself somewhere in pain, unable to get back. I fear the grimace I wear when teaching as I catch my own reflection in the long mirrors at the back of the room. But most of all, I fear the ways I have retreated from my life, declining invitations, dodging calls, hesitating to imagine what might happen one week from now. At first, I thought that my injury was the universe’s way of making me cut back on work and busyness, but what fills my time isn’t creativity or connection with people. It is a sad, dark place. It’s where memories of my father exist alongside the worst moments in my marriage. It is a place where hope is its smallest.
Next week, I look forward to an injection in my spine. Those are words I didn’t expect to write this year. A week after that, I can begin physical therapy. I’m both excited to move my body again and anxious about it. Because I don’t know what happened to make my back this way, I am suspicious of everything that came before it. Was it the planking? Was it the squats? The hip bridges? The truth is, what I fear most is what I have always feared—the seemingly random nature of life’s blows. Death, injury, betrayal, abandonment—its all carried and witnessed in the body. Every day since the morning I woke up with this version of my physical self I have sat with the memory of my father, recalling his constant back pain, the way he massaged the knots and spasms from his legs or how he’d suddenly shoot up straight as if struck by lightening, exclaiming, “Charlie horse!” I feel so close to these shadows of my childhood, I am practically inside his body. The suffering one, the one that retreated most often to a darkened bedroom.
And because of this, because of the darkness that is so familiar and so inviting, I find that I am most often battling my own mind. I have to remind myself of what is real, actual. What is real is that I have a loving husband and grown child who reach for things so I don’t have to and hug me often. My mother brought me dinner countless evenings and took me to get an MRI. I have colleagues who have shouldered the work I couldn’t perform, graciously, expertly. I have friends who reach out from all corners of my life. I have health insurance, which allows me to find answers, weigh my decisions, and get various treatments that aren’t available to so many. I cannot allow myself to stay for long in the little room without hope when there are so many beams of pure light pointed in my direction.
These days I walk with a limp. I notice others who do, too. I’ve come to see this as a sign that I am wholly mortal. I may not always walk this way—I hope I don’t, but understand that this might be how it is now. I walk down to the park plaza hoping to ask the young men to pose for a picture. I want them to each hold the weapon of their choice and strike a pose—these magical creatures, audacious and performative in their chosen skins whose strength and imagination I'd like to borrow. By the time I get down to them, they’ve packed up their gear and are about to launch themselves back into the world. In a single motion, they drop their long boards, hop on and glide, their swords and sticks protruding, clacking side-to-side. I turn back, feeling every pull in my leg, the radiating pulses from my lumbar spine. In this moment I’m not afraid. I am curious and pleased and feeling language form toward sentences, toward understanding how to hold all of this in two hands with a strong grip. How to approach each day gentle, readied—no matter the story this pain brings to me. I can recast it, find a way to tell it that fits, and keep myself in the light.