I had to run an inadvisable amount for someone who has refused to exercise since a brief stint of deep-water Aquafit two years ago.
And in the course of this running, I shook myself up. I shook myself up like a 2-Litre bottle of Coke that rolled around the trunk of your car on the ride over to the summer BBQ and subsequently exploded all over your Uncle Bob’s festive Hawaiian shirt.
I SHOOK MYSELF UP.
So, I’m sitting on the bus with my hands folded together like I’m praying and I’m breathing like someone who hasn’t exercised since a brief stint of deep-water Aquafit two years ago when it hits.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with The Rumble. Maybe you are. Maybe you had bad shellfish on that vacation with your parents when you were thirteen. Maybe you’ve made the ill-advised decision to eat McDonalds french fries at 3:30 AM after exclusively consuming Vodka Cranberries for five hours. I DON’T KNOW. I DON’T KNOW YOUR LIFE.
What I do know is that I was sitting on the lower deck of a double-decker bus in the middle of Scotland on my way to work when my large intestine shoved the little Inside Out characters inside my brain away from their control console and bellowed: THIS IS NOT RIGHT.
I tried to think of waterfalls and leaves floating by on a stream. I tried to focus on how the palms of my hands felt, my heels, my earlobes. I tried to listen to the sounds of the traffic and, through the car horns and the engines, the sounds of birds.
But, when my large intestine is leaning on the “THIS IS NOT A DRILL” button (the one that sets off sirens in my ears and sweat behind my knees and the distinct feeling that everyone is watching me), I am not a quiet country road; I am rush hour. I am not a gently-flowing stream; I am rapids.
So when the bus stopped, I barrelled out. And when my internal public bathroom radar (the one installed in every person with an irritable bowel) reminded me that there was a run-down shopping centre near by, I ran.
I ran through a quiet bike path and a sleepy parking lot and long stretch of sad stores decorated with sale signs and tinsel.
I ran to a public bathroom with a flickering fluorescent light that turned everything green and a sound system that was inexplicably playing the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing.”
And here I will stay: listening to the Scissor Sisters and frightening small children until my large intestine is satisfied that will never run for a bus ever again.
I was well into my third therapy session before my therapist brought up Meditation.
“Have you tried Meditation?” she asked. She pressed her pen into her paper, waiting for my reaction.
I sighed. She scribbled.
“Yes,” I said. Because it was true. I had tried. Many times. I’d tried it sitting and standing and lying down. I’d tried it on uncomfortable pillows and comfortable pillows. In jeans and in yoga pants. In a room full of people and by myself.
I’d tried to clear my mind and focus on my breath and Become One With The Universe.
But, my mind always spins and my breath always falters and the Universe absolutely refuses to let me into The Club.
“I find it…difficult.”
“Well,” she said, shifting in her seat. “It’s not meant to be easy.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just folded my hands in my lap. I pressed my thumbs together so hard that the tips went white.
“We could try it together.”
“Yeah.” My voice was high, unconvincing.
“What don’t you like about it?” Pen pressed against paper again, waiting.
“I’m just not very good at it. And my dad and my sister are so good at it. And I always feel like I’m failing.”
She wanted to know more about my dad. I guess that’s a pretty standard therapy subject. Parents, pain, the past. Those are deep wells. The kind of things that make pens run dry and Kleenex boxes empty.
After, she breathed out through her nose and looked at the clock. They always look at the clock. How deep can we go? How far? Then, “It sounds like you have a lot of baggage around the word Meditation. Can you think of another word? Something better for you?”
I tilted my head to the side and scrunched up my mouth in my I-don’t-really-know-what-to-say-so-I’m-going-to-pretend-that-I’m-thinking therapy face.
When I didn’t say anything, she tried again. “What about Mindfulness?”
I let out a breath. “It’s just so…” I pressed my hands into my chest and stared up at the ceiling. “It’s so…capital-M. Like capital-M Meditation and capital-M Mindfulness. They make me think of monks and robes and mantras.”
She laughed. I like it when I make my therapists laugh because I don’t think they’re supposed to. I think they’re taught to nod and press their pens into their paper and look at the clock. Not laugh. Never laugh.
“Okay. What’s a word that would work for you, then?”
She looked at the clock and I looked at the wall. There was a picture of a tree. A willow. Its leaves dipped into the water.
“What about—” I felt my cheeks go hot in the way they always do before I say something true or honest or hard. “Becoming like a tree?”
I could tell she thought that she was getting somewhere. And maybe she was.
“You know,” I said. “Trees bend in the wind and, as far as we know, they don’t sit around and think about their existence. They just exist.” I looked up at the picture of the willow, again. “They’re connected to the Earth and they add to their environments. They’re strong and wise and old.”
My therapist must’ve liked it, because she wrote so much that she had to turn the page.
“How often do you think you could become like a tree?”
“I don’t know. Maybe twice a week?”
“Could you do it on the bus?”
Wheels on the road, hands pressed into fabric, babies crying.
Me: I am a tree.
Snarky Teenager Me: No, you’re not. This is stupid.
Me: Become like a tree.
Snarky Teenager Me: You’re the worst.
Me: I have roots and leaves and birds build nests in my branches.
Snarky Teenager Me: Oh my god.
Me: Would you just get over yourself and BECOME A FREAKING TREE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
Okay, so the becoming a tree thing didn’t really work on the bus. Or in bed. Or under an actual tree.
It only worked when I wasn’t trying to be a tree at all.
Tonight, I brought my book down to the river and tried to read. But, I couldn’t focus on the words. There were too many sounds around me. The night was so full that I put down my book, folded my hands in my lap, and listened.
Birds wings. Quiet footsteps and crunching gravel. The smell of the sidewalk right after the rain. The colour of the sky right after the sunset. My heart, jumping beneath my ribs like a stone skipping across the water. The susurrus of the summer wind moving through the trees.
Sitting in a coffee shop, staring out the window, watching the sky change from blue to white to grey.
“It’s raining,” My sister said at some point.
I nodded in that absentminded way of two people watching the rain together.
We were supposed to go to a park. Some big estate with an art gallery and a river. A compromise. I get Monet. My sister gets the sky. But, now it was raining and people had turned into blurs of colour through the coffee shop’s window and the park seemed like less of a compromise and more of an obligation.
“Should we do something else?” I shifted in my seat, pulled out my phone, typed in: “Things to do in Glasgow.”
Top Ten lists and Top 25 lists and Everything You Need to Know About Glasgow lists, and I couldn’t find anything. There were art galleries, shopping malls, concert halls, museums, coffee shops ,and walking tours, but I shut off my phone, folded my hands into my lap, and started to cry.
I feel like this is the right time to tell you this: I am prone to the existential. I never stop thinking. I spin.
Some of the thoughts that I spin around the most are these: What is there to do in the world? Aren’t we just living out the same stories as everyone who’s lived before us? WHAT IS THE POINT OF THAT?
That’s what I was thinking about while my hands were folded in my lap and the rain was jumping off of Glasgow’s old buildings and new umbrellas. The inevitability of boredom when faced with the unoriginal.
My sister stopped looking out the window and started looking at me and the way I was biting my bottom lip and dabbing my nose with a napkin.
“What’s the matter?” She asked.
“I just don’t know what we’re going to do!” I threw the hand that wasn’t holding the snot-covered napkin up in the air. “You hate going to museums, so that’s out of the question. And we just ate, so we’re not going to do that again. And we can’t afford to shop. And it’s raining, so we can’t go outside. What else is there to do—” I looked up at the ceiling, back down, “—in the world? Really?”
My sister sighed the long slow sigh of someone who’s watched me spin before. “Let’s go to the park! It’s not raining that hard.”
I looked out the window. People were huddled under the café’s awning. Pools of water seeped out from under umbrellas lying on the café’s tiled floor.
I crumpled up my napkin, sighed. “Let’s go.”
Outside, my sister tried to cheer me up by being the single most annoying person on the planet.
“You’re really asking the wrong questions.” A pause, two breaths, a twist in my gut. “It’s raining!” She thrust her hand out from under the umbrella, and I watched as the tip of her glove turned dark brown. “How awesome IS THAT?” She looked at me, back at the wet sidewalk. “Isn’t nature AMAZING?”
And, I mean, yes. Nature is amazing. And rain can be beautiful. But, rain can also make your clothes smell and make your toes wet and drip down the back of your neck in the exact wrong way so that all you do for the rest of the day is shiver.
The whole way to the park, my sister held the beautiful and I held the shiver. I looked up at the sky, and it was a type of grey I’d seen before. The street smelled like rain. The train smelled like wet people. The park looked like a park. Green and leafy and raindrops turning dirt into mud and shoes turning mud into mazes of footprints and skids.
When we got there, the sun was already setting. It was the kind of cold where the tips of your fingers turn red and there’s an ache to bending. In your knees, in your wrists.
Rain dripped down my neck, curled my hair, and I couldn’t help thinking, This has all been done before. Even though I was so far away from home that it made my heart beat a little faster.
The park was deserted. There was no one to ask for directions, so we just walked. Gravel crunching under rain-soaked shoes. Fists stuffed into pockets. The sound of the rain sliding off our umbrella.
We found an estate. One with lions on the front gates, gravel pathways curving around manicured bushes, a room made for books and overstuffed chairs, a waterfall. It fed into a river with a stone bridge crossing.
Naturally, my isn’t-nature-AMAZING-look-at-all-of-the-wonders-around-you sister wanted to see it. She walked across the grass, sliding on the mud, steadying. The great grey river pulsed in front of her.
I shifted on the gravel path. Behind me, a stone slab listed the names of the men and boys who had worked on the estate and died in the war. I read each name and wondered if they’d had time to think of home before they died. If they’d thought of this place, with its stone bridge and its grey sky and its waterfall.
My sister stood still on the banks of the river. I decided to walk to her. To stand beside her and listen to the rushing water.
And that is where it ALL WENT WRONG.
Because, up until this point, I had been walking on gravel. And my soaking wet black Converse had understood the gravel. The crunch, the bite, the traction. But, when I started walking toward the river, I stepped onto the slick wet grass and the deep black mud and my Converse didn’t speak that language.
It took me a moment to realize I was falling.
I have this snapshot in my brain. The moment I knew. The greyness of the sky and the skeletal branches of the leafless trees and the soundless “oh” that my mouth made.
This is happening to me, I thought. This is actually happening. Airborne. Horizontal. Rushing water and wind. Oh, fuck.
I hit the ground with an almighty splat. I lay there, silent, watching a bird streak across the grey sky. And then I started laughing. Gulping, snorting, there’s-mud-in-my-underpants laughing. Because, there was. Mud in my underpants, I mean. And up my shirt, in my socks, on my face.
My sister turned around. “Oh!” She ran toward me, reaching out her hands.
I grabbed onto her fingers, tried to get up, slipped and fell back so that there was mud in my fingernails and on my elbows.
I laughed so hard my stomach hurt and my eyes blurred.
“How bad is it?” I asked, when I was finally standing. Cold mud squished between my toes, dripped off my fingers.
“How bad is it?”
“RG,” My sister said. “I am so, so sorry, but it definitely looks like you shit yourself.”
We laughed, pressing our fingers into each other’s shoulders. Because, 1) We were in a deserted park on the outskirts of Glasgow, 2) The only way back into Glasgow was the rush hour train, and 3) I had just spent over an hour obsessing over the idea that the world is full of unoriginal stories and people and feelings, and there I was, standing in a deserted park just outside of Glasgow with mud dripping down my buttcrack, which is sentence I had never, ever imagined writing about myself.
Later, after hiding in the bicycle car of a packed commuter train and walking through Glasgow Central Station during rush hour and purchasing a new pair of pants at Forever 21 and going home to a bath and a warm house, I thought about the stone slab with the names of the boys who had died in the war. And how, for us, it would always be ‘A’ war, and for them it would always be ‘The.’ How experiences may seem unoriginal and unimportant and boring from the outside, but, when you’re lying there in the mud and staring up at the grey sky, it will never be an ‘A.’ How every beautiful, strange, sad, hilarious, terrifying, devastating moment will always be a ‘The’ to you.
According to Science, whales evolved from land animals that liked the water so much that they were just like: Fuck you, walking. I want to swim.
And so, eventually, these ancestral whales stopped developing legs, because they didn’t need them.
But, they didn’t lose these leg structures completely. If you look at a whale skeleton, you can see little leg bones totally detached from the rest of the skeleton. These are called “vestigial” bones. And they’re the evolutionary remnants of that original land animal that dreamed about being a mermaid and lived that motherfucking dream.
Of course, now that whales are whales, they don’t need these bones anymore.
So, what’s the point of them? Why are they there? To fuck up creationists and look weird in natural science museum displays?
I like to think about this question, a lot. Not just in terms of underdeveloped whale legs. I’m talking big picture, here.
It’s a natural human urge — giving meaning to things, finding some kind of putty to hold all of the broken pieces of ourselves together. A Purpose.
It’s addictive. Meaning. We like the way it feels on our tongues when we tell stories.
So, let me tell you a story:
The other night, I had the most delicious spread of Chinese food known to man. I’m talking vegetable chow mein, I’m talking perfectly seared bean curd, and I’m talking spring rolls. Lots and lots of spring rolls.
It was a reward. A little present to myself after surviving the move into my new apartment.
Five hours later, I woke up with dear-sweet-baby-Jesus-why-have-you-forsaken-me stomach cramps.
An hour after that, I lurched out of my bed, grabbed the garbage can, and christened my new home with some Exorcism-level vomit.
My sister came running into my room and held my hand and tried not to let her voice shake as she asked me if we should go to the doctor. I produced a sound that can only be described as “gurbdddugh,” and returned to the garbage can.
Five hours (and one permanently-scarred garbage can) later, I was in a taxi, pressing my forehead into my sister’s shoulder, and trying not to feel the road move beneath us as the taxi driver sped us to the hospital.
I was poked, prodded, and oogled at in the waiting room (which probably had something to do with the fact that my pants were 75% undone. Because, sickness). I was admitted and carted into a room full of elderly people who were wheezing and staring and, in one instance, screaming every 3-4 seconds. I was informed that I probably had “sketchy Chinese food”-related food poisoning.
I was asked to describe every cringe-inducing detail of my bowel-munching chronic illness to a doctor whom my sister and I both agreed was too attractive to know so many intimate details about my butt. I was threatened with a butt probe (Okay, I wasn’t technically ‘threatened.’ But, you try having Sense-and-Sensibility-era-Hugh-Grant-in-a-lab-coat tell you he’s going to probe you and try not to feel a little bit on edge).
Perhaps the worst moment of all was when another doctor strolled up to my bedside, crossed his arms, frowned, and said, “You know, normally Crohn’s patients are quite thin. But, you’re not thin atall.” A pause. “At all.”
And you want to know what I’m thinking about through this chronological series of fuck? The underdeveloped legs of a baleen whale.
Because, why do they exist? What is the point? Why is this happening to me, right now? What is the lesson here? What is the endgame of me having to have a polite conversation with a doctor who keeps marvelling at my sheer heft!?
Twelve hours later, as I slumped out of the hospital looking like a deflated beige balloon, I did not have the answers. I only had anger and Simple Plan lyrics stuck in my head.
And, you know, I still don’t really have the answers.
But, I do know this: when I was researching whale leg bones for this blog post, I read about some scientists who studied whale pelvic bones for four years and found out that the muscles that control whale penises are attached to these “vestigial” leg bones. (I know. I, too, was surprised by this unexpected penial turn of events). And apparently, the larger the penis, the larger the pelvic bones need to be in order to maintain better “penis control.” (Not something I ever thought I’d write in a blog post. But, okay.)
So, the lesson here is that: 1) the sexiest whales really do need their sea legs, 2) “vestigial” bones may not be as useless as we all thought they were, and 3) just because we don’t know the answer or the point or the purpose of something, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.
Right now, I’m trying not to be angry at the universe — for giving me a chronic illness, for destroying my love of spring rolls, for making me endure butt-probing-threats from dashing English doctors.
Right now, I know that I’m too close to the dirt. I can’t see the forest.
But, I’m looking forward to looking back. To seeing this and all of the other clusterfuck WHY moments as the beginning of things and of lessons and of stories that I care about and value.
I’m holding onto that hope. That natural human need. A purpose, a putty, a whale penis.
There’s a big hole between me and all of the words I want to say. It’s full of water. Dark and deep. I’ve thought about swimming across it, but the water shimmers in a way that seems dangerous. And I’ve thought about flying, but the feathers on my wings haven’t dried. Jumping is absolutely out of the question. I hear that a girl can break her leg that way. I have enough cracks. I don’t need to be worrying about bones, too.
And yet, every day that I decide not to fly or swim or jump, the hole gets a little bigger. Something about erosion. Big rocks becoming sand over time. Crust turning into little crumbs.
You know, I saw a whale the other day. I saw the mist first. One puff of watery air floating over the waves and disappearing into the breeze. I thought I was hallucinating. But I watched the waves until I saw a great grey back, barnacled fins. I heard the whale breathe. One big sigh. I galloped down the beach path after it. Chasing its great gasping breaths.
I feel this great gasping need to create. Like that whale breathing. A big sigh, a puff of air. Do something. Be something. Add something. Instead, I keep subtracting and the earth keeps disappearing and the hole keeps getting bigger and the glue on my wings still hasn’t dried. Maybe I shouldn’t have bought the cheap kind. You know, the one you get at the dollar store that dries up as soon as it hits the air. Sticky white streaks on paper.
Maybe I should’ve invested in something good.
Why did I stop creating? It’s easy to stop, you know. You don’t notice the hole, at first. It’s too small. The science hasn’t set in. The crust is still whole.
And yet, it’s the only thing that keeps me filled. Creating, I mean. It shovels dirt in between my ribs, stops the draft, warms me. Hard packed earth.
I smell like the forest.
Write write write. Once you start, it’s like a hurricane. Staccato beats of rain against the keyboard. Maybe the wind will carry me across the void. Or maybe I’ll get spun into the eye and fall into that dark water. Calmness can do that to you, you know? Make you feel safe and then eat you up.
The only thing I seem to write these days are lists. Lists of little details. This was the one I wrote the other day:
Clean toenails and the way your skin smells after a bath.
2. Ropey veins on arms and crooked fingers pressed into knees.
Is that art? Listing the details that no one else seems to notice.
I don’t have an ending. I just know that I wanted to write something, here, where the erosion started. I wanted to shout into the hole.
Don’t worry. My wings are almost dry. I’ll be back soon.
(I swear I haven’t gone insane. Although, re-reading this I realized that I sound like a bit of a loon. But this is the first thing I’ve written in a long time… so I figured that I should just post it so you’d all know I haven’t died.)
I am the world’s worst vegan. I don’t know what a zucchini is. I talk about my butt too often in a public forum.
But, my most terrible trait is my ability to neglect this blog and you, my lovely readers, for large swathes of time for no good reason.*
So, on this Wednesday evening I come to you with my Monday blog post. It’s about Toy Story and suffering (and I really wanted to call it “What is Suffering? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me, Don’t Hurt Me, No More)” but then agreed with the editors that that choice was ill-advised because I made no further reference to it anywhere else in the blog). And it’s over on the Crohnology website.
I would love if you could go check it out (even if you’re still mad at me about me being terrible most of the time).
*Although my excuse this time is pretty good (and not Nashville related…I promise). I am moving to another continent and must pack all of my possessions into too-small boxes and say goodbye to my friends in too-little time and the whole ordeal is a little overwhelming to my creative process. And internally I’m like…
One of my favourite passages from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, talks about Crater Lake (once known as Mazama). It goes like this:
“This was once Mazama…This was once a mountain that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But, hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.”
And, so, about a year after reading this passage (and aggressively underlining it in pencil), I asked my dad if we could stop at Crater Lake on our way down to Burning Man. I wanted to see that still blue water for myself. I wanted to plunge my fingers into the soil and hold a piece of Mazama in my hands. (I was also hoping for a transformative experience on par with Cheryl Strayed’s in Wild without having to hike across a rattlesnake-infested trail for several weeks).
On the way up the long road to Mazama Village, where we planned to check-in about camping overnight, I clasped and un-clasped my hands in my lap, watching the trees open to wide canyons and close into a blur of green. I was excited. I could feel the pulsing possibility of transformation hovering somewhere nearby. What a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.
“Holy shit,” I thought, shifting in my seat. “This is it.”
The window was down. Cold air rushing in. Blowing my hair across my face in what I could only imagine was a thoroughly romantic road trip way. (But, let’s be real, I probably looked like this:)
My copy of Wild was perched on my thighs. Wrinkled white spine. Tabbed pages. My thumb holding the place of my favourite passage, just in case I needed to read it again.
The engine in my Dad’s 1984 Volkswagon Vanagon growled as we traced the bends up Mazama’s broken back, climbing ever higher. The floor vibrating beneath my feet.
“Wow,” My dad kept saying. “You can really feel the weight.”
And you could. The weight of three people and three bikes and three containers full of Burning Man supplies (including my previously mentioned wig) pulling us backwards. Like it was wondering why we were still going up. Hadn’t we hit the sky yet? Weren’t we in the clouds?
When we eventually pulled into Mazama Village — a parking lot stuffed with cars, a tall brown and white building, a limp American flag dangling from a flag pole — I froze, suddenly afraid that I had built everything up too much in my head. That the mountain, the wasteland, the empty bowl would be, well, empty. And all I would be able to see would be the things I couldn’t see — a lake made more blue by my imagination, trees drawn taller in my mind.
Wild suddenly felt heavier on my thighs, my thumb pinched between the pages. I glared at the dirty boot on the cover, at Cheryl Strayed’s name stamped neatly beneath it.
“Okay,” A stern internal voice took over. Like a poke in the chest with a long pointer finger. “Get your shit together, RG. This is your experience. Not Cheryl Strayed’s. If you hate it, you can hate it. If you love it, you can love it. Let yourself feel whatever there is to be felt.”
Of course, when I finally got out of the car (after shoving my copy of Wild into my backpack and abandoning it in the Vanagon), I discovered that we were no where near the rim yet. There was still more road to climb. More time to clasp and unclasp my hands and stew in anticipation.
And I did. As we drove up that winding road, I still wondered what I would see. If the water could really be so blue and the air so still and the broken heart of a volcano so silent. But, I didn’t look at the book again. I wouldn’t allow it.
I had decided to seize my experience with two hands. Even if that meant standing at the rim and only being able to think about what I wanted for lunch later or how I’d rather be in bed listening to Serial.
That’s not what happened, though. Of course not.
My first sight of the lake was a flicker through the trees. A blue that was really that blue. My imagination blushing at the colour that it had come up with that first time I’d read Wild.
We parked, and I burst out of the car, scrambling up a sloping hill until…there it was. All of it. A great gaping wonder that has swallowed my ability to explain, to describe, to write. All I can say is this: I was made small. An infant. Only blinking and breathing and barely holding my head up. And, yes, crying. Quiet tears. Just for me and for Mazama.
Later, I found a quiet place among the trees. I plunged my fingers into the red-brown soil, holding it in my hand. The hot sun warming my palm. I rubbed the dirt into a white blank page of my journal. Staining it brown.