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Archive for 2009

Little white socks

December 2009

This was the scene two weeks ago: it’s early Sunday morning, George is in Grand Forks, and I am sitting in my usual place, cross legged on the floor in meditation.  My leg goes to sleep, a common occurrence.  The thought crosses my mind that I need to switch positions.  Then comes a second, appealing alternative—just settle more deeply into meditation and you won’t notice the discomfort. I ignore the first thought because I have a hard time respecting my body.  I choose the second because I like to prove how deeply spiritual I am; I choose it because deep down I still believe that gratuitous suffering is good for me.

I’m deep when the phone rings—George calling from Grand Forks.  But my leg is asleep.  First thought: crawl to the phone.  Second, appealing alternative: it might be interesting to walk on this.  What a strange sensation, I think as I stand and fling my leg forward.  Wow.  I am totally without feeling from the hip down.

Two steps later, feeling is instantaneously restored as I fracture my foot.

Now it’s a bright cold day with snow on the ground and sun on the glacier.  But I’m not out walking Rose and I’m not cooking dinner and I’m not even sitting at my desk.  Instead, I am in front of the woodstove, feet on the stool, laptop on my lap.  This is where I’ve been for twelve days, and where I’ll be for several more weeks.  And on my feet—little white socks.

I put these socks on at night, after I rub my feet with anti-inflammatory oil; during the day they’re replaced by a knee-length cast.  These socks, which make my feet look unprotected and vulnerable, have a history: they are an inheritance from my mom. My mother wore these white cotton anklets when the varicose veins—direct result of  carrying so many children—broke open on her ankles. Every few years she’d have a flare-up, would spend weeks or months with her feet up most of the day, would shuffle around on crutches, would be unable to go walking.  After my father’s death, when she lived in an apartment all by herself, these episodes got much more difficult.  She had help from friends and her kids, but mostly she managed on her own.  When I was in town, I would come over and cook and care for her, but I confess that I often found myself nagging her to stay down more, wondering why she chafed so, wondering why she couldn’t just accept that she was an old person and limited.

Right now, I feel like my mom.  It’s not just the white socks.  I am—temporarily, I trust—unable to carry things; I find that it hurts to stand for long periods of time.  I can’t go rambling outside, and I can’t even drive because it’s my right foot where the overstretched tendon tore off a piece of bone.  Also like my mom, I’ve had some lovely help.  Friends have walked Rose, brought groceries, straightened up my house, fixed food.  George cancelled out of a trip to Vancouver to keep the home fires burning (literally) and carry my teapot to the meditation area each morning.

And like my mom, I’ve gotten a lot of well meaning advice in the last while.  I wonder now how she could stand someone like me telling her what to do, interpreting her life for her.

Forgive me for that, Mom.

On Tuesday George took me to the clinic for a short consult, and then we swung by the library so I could snag a few recreational books.  As I hobbled in, I passed an older man in a wheelchair.  I found I could barely look at him; I was struck with horror at aging, at the prospect of permanently losing my veneer of competence.  How do we come to grips with this?  The mind boggles.  No matter how well I plan, it’s likely that I’ll face that time of insufficiency when I am unable to care for myself physically.  And if I’m like a lot of people I’ve known, being unable to care for myself physically may mean that my capacity to care for myself emotionally and spiritually will be precarious.  Who am I if I can’t produce?  What good am I if my body won’t do what I want it to do?

Yesterday, after I’d “done too much”—i.e., gotten ferried downtown for an hour to find Christmas presents for our granddaughter, and then spent another two hours hopping up and down in choir practice—I found myself plummeted into the hell of infirmity. No matter how much I bucked myself up, I couldn’t put strength into my arms, keep my left leg sturdy and painless, stay safely upright to do my usual tasks. “I am a useless old woman,” spoke my mother in my voice.   The whole list of synonyms spilled forth: incompetent, inept, ineffective, incapable, unemployable, inadequate, hopeless, no-account, bad, pathetic.

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I like to find the layers of meaning in my life; that’s what it is to be religious.  Like a student of the Kabbalah, like a monk practicing daily self-examination, I mine the events and feelings of my day to find hidden patterns, to see why.  Sometimes this is an acceptable way to sort out my past behavior: if I’d listened to my body, I wouldn’t have fractured my foot.  But often it’s a way to learn how I should go forward, how to accept what feels unacceptable: I need to slow down.

I resist, however, the notion that all that happens is for some purpose.  This is not to say that I don’t find God in my present frailty: I do.  When I was lying on a massage table Sunday night and six women—three of whom I’d barely met—held me in healing prayer, I found God in their care.  I found God in the generosity of the friend who ironed the tablecloth for Saturday night’s dinner party, in the friend who made healing oil, in the friend who is picking me up for choir tonight. I find God in George’s cooking, and dishwashing, and hauling of ice packs, and in his patience with my ineptness and grief.  I especially find God in the painful experience of asking for, and accepting, help.

But when I say that I don’t think this is for some purpose, I mean that I don’t believe God did this, or planned it, or necessarily wants things this way.  (Well, maybe.  I’m human, so I don’t know, right?)  But the way I understand the Holy these days, my God works in all situations for good but does not, by any stretch of the imagination, desire that all those situations occur.

If I’m going to slap on the bumper sticker that says Grace Happens, I want to stick Shit Happens right beside it.  I think of the news of the past two weeks—not my poor foot, but more importantly the child of my heart who is living on the street, the grandbaby who died before she was born, the friend who has cancer, the other friend who was fired, the two whose parents died suddenly in the midst of vibrant older age.  To me, none of this looks good—none of it, at least on the surface, reads like wholeness or joy or freedom.  It looks more like shit.  I can only call this “God’s will” in that it is the reality of life on earth.

And yet, when suffering occurs, I must believe that grace is never far behind.  Some would say this is self-delusion, protecting myself from the misery of reality.  Maybe.  But since I know that my conceptual frame changes my perception of reality, and since the human brain is constructed so that bad things stick more than good things—they are more accessible in memory and more vivid than nice events—I practice seeing good.  I practice grace.  It’s as a much a spiritual discipline as cross-legged meditation.  So this morning, when I was done weeping and raging about my decrepitude and George said, “We have to find the joy,” I tried.

The other day, a Buddhist friend asked me how I prepare for Christmas.  I told her that usually I would be thinking about how to tell the Christmas story in a way that tired adults could really hear it.  “So how would you do that?” she pressed.  I found myself speaking about the feelings of the last two weeks.  About how it hurts to be powerless.  About the way we humans spend our lives clutching for safety, grabbing food and money and status, but the Divine chose to come in weakness and poverty. About my heart’s softening when I accept my limits.  About the fact that when I give up trying to fix things, trying to make the world conform to my desires, I am able to dwell in the goodness of life. About the hidden holiness of vulnerability.  And finally and most importantly, about how love is the only power worth having.

From the perspective of the coming season, my fracture and its accompanying small tribulations—all that’s represented by these little white socks—are the reminders I need of the essence of the good life.  This good life is not based on what I’m able to own or accomplish, but on my willingness to let go of my expectations, to release my death grip on safety, mastery, competence.  It is God’s will, if you please, for me to be vulnerable.  It is not pleasing to me, this human impotence.  But it appears to be necessary.  Because it is in my poverty—my essential defenselessness against the realities of life—that I most need, and best receive, love.

Copyright © Mary Therese DesCamp 2009