Because yesterday was going to be a very full day, rather than put off what I consider my daily must-do’s until later, I did them first thing in the morning.
The must-do’s include a very brief practice that passes for meditation or devotions (it’s not exactly either, but that’s the closest summation). And, writing practice. And, the drinking of alkalized water. The putting on of sunscreen. Breakfast.
Then, out for morning walk.
(If the illustrations, all part of this walk, which accompany this post do not make sense, bear with me… they will by the end.)
This spring, I am staying in Nashville for about six weeks at the home of my friends Hugh Moffatt and Mary Vaughan. As I came down Hugh and Mary’s gravel driveway, I slipped on the gravel. Almost losing my footing.
But not quite.
Instead I caught myself, continued walking. As I did, up surfaced that old companion, recall.
Another morning, another driveway, another slip.
I’d been mightily chuffed with myself that August day, 1997. I’d stayed up late, attending to things with the vigorous motivation that often comes before pending travel. I was to fly from Fayetteville, Arkansas, to New Orleans. I was keynoting at the Louisiana Bed-and-Breakfast Association’s annual conference. Thanks to my diligence, I’d leave with desk and conscience clear, emails answered, bills paid, junk mail junked, files filed. Oh, I was pleased with myself, in love with my own competence.
I headed down to the SUV, in which Ned, my then-living husband, to whom I’d been married eighteen years at that point, would drive me from Eureka Springs to the airport in Fayetteville.
Then I slipped. Loose gravel.
And that morning, unlike yesterday, I did go down. Hard. Ankle struck a large rock, audibly. I may have screamed.
Ned, quickly leaving the car and running to me: “Are you all right?”
Blinding instant pain, shocking in its intensity.
Because I had never broken a bone before, I knew only that this was a type of hurting I had not previously experienced. And it shoved every bit of anything else out of my brain. Or should have.
Me: “Yes, yes, just help me get to the car, please.”
And my old instincts (the ones I was to outgrow, in part through this misadventure) kicked in. I resisted.
Resisted that something not-trivial had just happened to my right ankle.
Resisted this undeniable reality in favor of the powerful delusion of my own in-charge-ness.
“Just get me some Advil, please, ” I said to Ned. “And an ice pack from the freezer, if you would. I’m fine. I have to get on that plane, those people are expecting me.”
There is a word for this: hubris.
There is, too, a relevant proverb, quite literal in my case: “Pride goeth before a fall.”
An agonized hour later — why wasn’t the damn Advil kicking in? — we arrived at the Fayetteville airport. I opened the car door, placing one hand on it. I swung my left leg and stood. So far so good. Then, trepidatious yet determined, I swung my right leg out and attempted to stand on it.
Again, I am not sure if I screamed; I do know at that moment my vision was reduced to a flash of white; there was nothing but pain. I collapsed back into the car.
Ned went into the airport to get a wheelchair.
After calls, the emergency room at Washington Regional, X-rays, a wrench of my foot (that time I did scream), a cast, painkillers, and a trip back to Eureka Springs, Ned went to New Orleans instead of me, and delivered the keynote.
I came to believe, later, that this incident was a signal moment: the overture to maturation.
The moment I began to learn that some things are simply not negotiable.
That life does not always go according to plan.
That no matter how great your self-discipline and determination, how positive your thoughts and big your self-confidence, how vast your belief in “If I can dream it, I can do it,” and “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, no matter how much strategic research and planning you do, no matter how powerful your visualizations — there is some stuff that just will not yield.
You must yield to it. Period.
Oh, sure, there’s always your attitude. But that doesn’t exempt you from, at times, ending up flat on your back in the recliner.
You were, after all, in the middle of big important stuff!
And then you broke your leg, and the stuff turned out not to be so important after all. Life, events, turned out to be bigger than you were.
“You” meaning I.
Breaking my ankle, as it turned out, presaged a series of events for that would boldface for me just what a parade of illusions I lived under. Over and over the uncontrollability of life and the inadequacies of strategies to “manage” it, would be brought home, as I tumbled like a rock in a lapidary machine.
This culminated some three years later on the night when Ned went out on his customary bicycle ride, was struck by a pick-up, and died.
My friend Bill Haymes like to say, “Each loss recalls every previous loss.” I think this is true, but it’s not the whole truth.
Loss can also recall knowledge, often hard-won from loss. And wisdom, which is often hard-won from knowledge. And joy, which is often, or at least sometimes, hard-won from wisdom.
As I walked yesterday, recalling that time I had slipped and broken my ankle, and the years which followed it, what I found myself filled with was wonder. Wonder, right in the middle of a spring day in Nashville, in a life utterly different than the one I had imagined for myself back when I was such a know-it-all.
Look, I don’t want to entirely diss the ideas I held then. There are things one can control in a limited fashion, surely. Self-discipline, planning, confidence certainly have their place. I think visualizing probably does help you heal a little faster, and positive thinking will no doubt leave you happier during the process. But bones still must knit back together, it’s still going to hurt, and it will take more time than you thought you had.
Yesterday, as I walked, I was thinking about all this, and that larger question of time: how much we assume we have, versus how much we actually do have, and how unknowable this is. The barrier in between is, mostly, simultaneously thin as a wisp of smoke and opaque as a concrete berm. A slip in which we recover our balance; a slip in which we go down. One breath, one heartbeat, one moment of being in a safe and customary place made suddenly and terribly unsafe by a terrorist attack, a mechanical failure, a tornado, the results of a routine medical test, some loose gravel.
We, and those we love, all of us, are always in a state of unspeakably vast unsafety.
What do we do with such knowledge?
As I turned this over, remember, I was out walking.
Walking the streets of Hugh and Mary’s neighborhood, walking down quiet residential streets that were dead-ends and circling back to the main road, walking past tulip trees and redbuds and flowering Bradford pear trees in a dizzying state of spring blossom (except for one series of trees so severely pruned they looked like hat-racks, in the middle of a divider). Walking under a bright blue sky, towards the branch library and the community garden Mary had told me was near it, sort of behind a school.
Though the world within me was active and provocative, filled not only with these musings about the past but with what-all is present in this life that has turned out to be mine — in particular, the passionate later-life love affair I am now two years into — though all this and more was interior, I was still engaged with the marvels of the exterior world.
The hand-painted signs at the community garden! And — good lord! A chicken house! With a sign that said “God Bless America” ! In suburban Nashville, in the community garden! With fine fat barred rock hens and Rhode Island reds, healthy and talkative and full of themselves…
Daffodils. Pansies. A puff of wind and a shower of petals. Dogs barking. Lawns, transforming from wintered brown-yellow to vivid green.
I drank it all in.
Perhaps I am not only happier than back in the days when I felt I had to control things (and could, and should) but thirstier. Knowing these days will end for me, and those I love, sometimes I feel that every pore is stretched open, porous, wanting to take in more, more, more.
“So what are y’all’s plans?” asked the friendly desk clerk at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had been there alone two days, a couple of weeks back, and my boyfriend was flying in to join me that evening.
“Well, we don’t get to see each other much, and… ” I demurred.
“So are you gonna go out and eat some place nice, or see a show?” he persisted.
I said, “Well, we don’t get to see each other much, and… ”
He got that sudden lights-go-on look, the ah-ha. He said, not unkindly, “Well, we have 24-hour-a-day-suite service,” he said, “If y’all get hungry.”
What I do with my knowledge of our vast unsafety is this: when we are together and in private, I kiss (and am kissed by) my boyfriend, over and over. At other times: I notice the shape of clouds, the shade of the sky. I cook for Hugh and Mary, and I pet their cat, Cameo, and see if I can get her to purr. I take in the peculiar color of the redbuds, the flowers of which cling so delicately to the branches, buds which are not red, nor pink, nor lavender, nor fuchsia, nor rose, but only and ever and always their own hue. And for how many more springs will my eyes be lavished by this shade?
It is exactly the carpe diem of which the poet A.E. Houseman wrote:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Accompanied thus, with both recall and present-tense, the richness of inner and outer worlds, I turned back from the library, school, and community garden, toward Mary and Hugh’s. Because of the placement of the crosswalk, it was necessary for me to step into the island dividing the street, where the painfully-pruned Bradford pear trees stood. Close-up, I noticed something.
I paused to examine the mutilated branches more closely. And … here and there were tiny blossom-covered twigs. Not many but some. They just couldn’t help themselves. It was their nature to blossom, and blossom they would, no matter what!
In our lives, individually and collectively, we are so frequently pruned back. And unlike trees, and other animals, we know that at some point we will be permanently cut down. And I say all this in the middle of the most terrifying election cycle in my lifetime, which at times prunes my heart and hope to within an inch of its life.
May we bloom anyway.
Blooming… feeling this, and deep appreciation, as my true nature. When I stay there, no matter what-all is happening, when I allow experience to transmute to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom and that to joy… there is an ease and equipoise. Whatever happens outside, inside, I no longer slip as much. For me, this is what has replaced certainty, the illusion of controllability, and the over-simplistic bullet-point nostrums (Ten Ways to Change Your Life Permanently! The Eleven Secrets of a 6-Figure Income By Publishing Your E-Book!).
It is a replacement, you could say, I have paid for with my life, almost. But you would also have to say, or I would, it is worth it, for the new life I have been given.
Into which I have, as if by accident, slipped.