Visual Journal – Connection

I went to a new mental health clinic.  A friend of mine drove me and I used my new light weight wheelchair.

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The clinic takes medicare and medicaid, so there were lots of older people and people with disabilities.  In the middle of the the parking lot, was an older woman in a wheelchair.  Her back was so hunched over that she had to tilt her head sideways to look at anything besides her lap.  She had one leg amputated below the knee.

As far as I could tell, she was by herself, dropped off by one of the non-emergency medical transport companies.  She looked so frail, but was also able to get around in what looked like an extremely heavy wheelchair — up and down the ramp, and over thresholds, into the clinic.  I needed help from with that from the friend who drove me there.

When the older woman saw my wheelchair, she was delighted.

I used to get lots of compliments and questions about my 3 wheel walker, an easily maneuverable thing that didn’t take up much space.  Then I became too unstable for it, so I started using the standard 4 wheel one.  I found that I missed the attention I got with my old walker — I guess I felt I was a cool handicapped person with the 3 wheel one.  None of us are immune to wanting a little attention and compliments.

Now I’m using a wheelchair most of the time.  I have a power chair for everyday use and a manual one for when I need a ride somewhere and can’t take the bus.

So, when this frail, friendly woman started complimenting my chair, it felt really good —  that she noticed me and took time to tell me, in her own way, I was lucky.  And, as often happens, when I go to clinics, I realized how much movement and mobility I still have.

I had a good session with my new psychiatrist, but I think the thing that felt best was my brief connection with this woman, her clothes tattered, her body bent, her eyes a milky blue, her life limited but so alive.  And though it was a short conversation, it lifted my spirits.  What people go through, what they survive — it seems like resentment would cloak us all, but over and over again, I see people find a way to shed bitterness and share their sweetness and light.

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In my journal, I tried to capture her glow as well as the golden autumn light that shone on our brief meeting.

~~~

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The Limits of Gratitude

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I remember the Thanksgiving I began the tradition of asking everyone at the table to tell something they were grateful for.  Before then, we might have said grace or not, depending on who was there.  My extended family’s spiritual practices ranged from out and out atheists to Southern Baptists.

I didn’t have a particular religion, but I was spiritual, whatever that means.  I was in my mid-30s.  My two children were 9 and 10, I believe.  I don’t remember who in the extended family was there, except my younger brother.

He was around 30 and had been dealing with schizophrenia for about a decade, mostly through denial.  We were all in denial.  I’d hoped that the prompt would help him find something inside himself to be grateful for.  He was an incredibly creative and energetic person at times.  I wanted him to see that in himself.  Or to be grateful that he had a place to live, or for the food we were eating.  Something.  Anything.

When we got to him, he scowled and muttered that he had nothing to be thankful for.

“Nothing?” I asked.

“Nothing!” he said.  It broke my heart.

My gregarious and kind husband relieved the tension by talking about being thankful for family and food and some other things.  I’d had lots of experience covering up a broken heart, so it was easy to get on with the festivities.  My brother left after he ate.

I think he only spent one more holiday with the family, but each Thanksgiving, I remember that scowl and statement.  I’ve actually become grateful for it.  It reminds me that gratitude has its limits.  It’s taken me years, but it taught me that I can’t brush away, cure, or repair the darkest parts of life.

Minds, hearts, and bodies are so fragile.  Those who appear strong have invisible cracks and fissures on their souls that no amount of gratitude or denial can repair.  But we keep breathing and moving forward.

Unbearable things happen and we must carry them.  Some of us do it with grace, some of us with anger and despair.  I’ve carried my burdens both ways.  Sometimes I think anger and despair is the more authentic reaction, but the more I intentionally practice gratitude, the more I realize there are an infinite number of invisible forces helping me bear my burdens.

Since that Thanksgiving, my brother died a sad and lonely death, my own health has deteriorated from a disease called Transverse Myelitis that has compromised my strength, energy, ability to walk, and my ability to have a job.   Other loved ones have died, have suffered injuries and losses.  Wars have continued to mar and scar the world.  We rush blindly toward our own destruction.

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And yet, and yet…I’m more and more grateful for the challenges and heartbreaks I’ve experienced.  I’m so much more aware of how one thing carries the other, how we are always in darkness and light, always fully alive but stumbling toward the mystery of death.

The book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford, is the story of the author’s journey to healing after being in a horrific car accident when he was 13.  His family’s car skidded off an overpass, killing his father and sister and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.  A quote from him that I hold close to me is:

“When I ‘left’ my body during my traumatic experiences, it was my body that kept tracking toward living.  It was my body that kept moving blood both to and from my heart.  Often, as we age and can no longer do what we once could, we say that our bodies are failing us.  That is misguided.  In fact, our bodies continue to carry out the processes of life with unwavering devotion.  They will always move toward living for as long as they possibly can.”

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My life seems dark at times and I think I can’t bear another challenge.  I’ve learned enough, thank you very much.  Nevertheless, more challenges are coming for me.  As long as I walk this earth, along with every other human, I’ll struggle with loss and sorrow.

So my work is to not let it blind me to the beauty of nature, the cycle of seasons, the comfort of good friends and the blessing of a roof over my head.  I have to make an effort to balance the light and the dark.

A week ago, I was talking to a child in the neighborhood about being caught out in a rainstorm.  She said, “I saw you!  You were talking to a plant.”

I laughed.  I was actually taking a picture of a maple sapling growing from the center of a rhododendron bush, but I was in fact, talking to a plant.  Or communing with it.  Capturing it, too, treasuring it.  It was a thing of beauty on a cold stormy day.  I’m glad I didn’t keep my head down in the rain and miss these growing things.

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I know one day, my life will be over, and I’ll flit away into the mystery.  While I’m here, I’ll continue to pay attention when I can, and cry when I need to.

I’m mortal.  That’s the thing I’m most grateful for.

 

I’ll end this with a link to a lovely review by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings of a posthumous collection of Oliver Sack’s essays that he wrote while he was dying, aptly titled Gratitude:

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/24/oliver-sacks-gratitude-book/

Thanks, my friends, for reading my post.

Spring Redemption