I know I need to write about this in order to absorb it more completely. That until I try to wrap words around these events, I won’t know what I think about them. So, I’m coming to this blank screen, and this empty desk to write. I don’t know where it will end up. Or where to begin. But I know what it’s about. That’s what editing is for, right?
It’s easy to only post the beautiful things on social media. It’s easy to post pretty photos of bees on flowers. It’s hard to post things like “I’m having a really hard time, y’all.” or things like “I just witnessed something beyond awful.” Our flat, pretty, personas on media make it impossible to say “Everything is not okay.” But, all of those things are true.
Everything is not okay. I’ve had a rough couple of weeks. And last Monday, I stood 20 feet away from something horrifying.
Despair is not for the weak.
Dale Robert Finn, I don’t know you, but I watched you float through the air past me. I don’t know what your voice sounds like, because you said nothing. You did not call out. You did not tell the man holding your arms to let go. The man who shouted “No, Man!” before you went over the railing. I don’t know you, but I heard the crunching thud of your bones breaking and your life ending on the ground floor below me. I didn’t know you, but I was there when you ended your life.
When my doctor had me contract for safety a few weeks ago, it felt like she needed it before she’d let me leave her office. It was for her, not me. I was okay. When one of my best friends said that she saw that I was “too comfortable with death” and burst into tears, it hit home. People who love me are afraid of this hopelessness they see welling up inside me.
You could have been me, Dale Robert Finn, falling silently like an angel at the airport. You could have been. You are not.
Deaths and Rebirths. Tank’s Eulogy.
Less than 24 hours before witnessing the death of a stranger at the San Francisco Airport, I had gotten a new trailname from my roommate at Pacifica.
I had realized, after months of resisting it, that “Tank” needed to be allowed to die. Tank as an aspect of my identity. Tank as a way of being in the world. I was no longer Tank. I physically was not going to be able to be Tank ever again. It was time to let her go as a part of myself, and to bring something new into being.
Trailnames have to be given and then accepted. They cannot be forced upon you, and you cannot really come up with your own. They have to happen organically.
Tank was dubbed by Jessica. Jess and I have known each other since we were four years old. We were unicorns, princesses, space pirates, and intrepid pioneers together in our backyards, and over the thousands of acres of the state park where we roamed. This is a woman who I’ve waded in quicksand with, among our many adventures. I once watched her lower her hiking pole and run at an adolescent black bear – as if she were a cavewoman about to spear it – in order to shoo it out of our campsite. I trusted her and respected her enough to follow her out on the Appalachian trail for a week with only one overnight to test the gear out beforehand.
I was slower than everyone else in our group. But I was like the eternal Tortoise and the Hare, I was slow and steady. I rumbled and grumbled my way across every terrain without stopping. Without pausing for a moment to think I couldn’t do it.
By the time I had a 40 lb pack saddled on my hips and shoulders, I was already an endurance athlete. I ran a half marathon. I did duathlons. I rode bikes with my husband’s family (who really ride bikes). I knew my body’s limits, and I knew how to ask it to go beyond them. I understood my nutritional needs, and my mental requirements. I knew my demons. I took for granted how strong and powerful my body really was.
After leaving a lousy relationship, I wrote a tiny poem.
I trust me
and my two feet.
Badass, indestructible Tank and her two feet could get out of just about any sticky situation. She could survive with just the stuff in her pack. She was strong, fiercely independent, and brave.
And when I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, the very same day I saw the damage caused my the inflammation on my lower back, I wrote a group chat to the women I go hiking with, and told them I probably wasn’t ever going to be able to go backpacking again. Sobbing over my phone, I faced the fact that even with remission, my back might never let me bear that kind of weight again.
But the PA at my rheumatologist’s office said that I could. She said that when we reached remission, I could do everything I used to do. She dangled that hope in front of me for over a year of trial and error with meds – each taking up to three months to kick in.
Tank lived on, inside me.
I was tanking my way through the illness. I know how to do an endurance race. Slow and steady, strong and brave. I didn’t take the word tank out of my usernames online. Hell, I just wrote a paper about Tank last session for grad school.
And Tank has ferociously fought every step of dealing with chronic pain. Tank is the suck-it-up voice, the just-a-little-farther voice. Tank is the pain-is-in-your-head voice. Tank hated the idea of using a stool in the shower. Tank refused to ask for help, even when I desperately needed it. Tank is why my cane is a hiking pole.
It was Tank’s despair that was taking me over a few weeks ago when I went in to see my rheumo again, and realized after 15 months of grasping for hope, that remission is not in my future. He made it clear that this was about as good as it was going to get, with me and my body via western medicine.
I can’t trust my feet any more. My ankles are tricksy and my wrists are no better.
Rebirths and Deaths. I’m Well.
My roommate at Pacifica is a fourth year. She’s about to launch into the solo world of dissertation writing, and we are lingering over our last few sessions together. I told her that I needed a new trailname, that it was time to let Tank go.
And even though I’m not hiking right now, I’m on a new sort of trail. A journey of a different sort, with a flickering lantern in the darkness instead of a pack full of gear.
She didn’t know the rules. She didn’t know how trailnames worked. But she did some word associations for the word Tank, thinking of a thing that holds water, and she burst out with Well! The more we associated with Well, the more we liked it.
Deep, and tapping into the groundwaters. Stationary, because the movement is below, within, up and down, not across land. Wells are gates to the underworld in Germanic traditions, springs are in many cultures. I think of wishing wells, and Jack and Jill, and Alice’s drop into Wonderland. I think of Eleusis, and wells at the center of every town. I think of the scene at the well in Goonies, and Mimir’s well in Norse myths.
Beyond Well-springs, there is also Well-being. Wellness. Something I’m desperate to achieve.
I spent the day after this renaming repeating the word to myself. A mantra. A wish. Accepting and re-accepting the name. I couldn’t concentrate on class that day. I wanted to sit outside with the bees and let them buzz my new name into my skin.
Well. Well. Well. Well. Well.
The other association – that I wrote in my notes during class that day – was “What is it, Lassie? Did Timmy fall down the well?”
From up to down and back
Perhaps it is the gallows humor of being around Grady people for too long, being too near the mechanics between life and death. There is a macabre part of me that thinks of Dale Robert Finn, and sees him falling from the floor above me to the floor below me, and thinks that he fell down the well.
Wells are healing and life-giving, but they are also dangerous. They need little walls around them to keep the Timmys of the world from falling into them.
You can’t draw from an empty well, and full wells are less dangerous than the empty ones. I was just talking about what my friend Sara and I call “Filling the well” last week. That we need to see more new things and go on more adventures to keep our creative wells topped off. The well has been an image for that life force that I draw inspiration from since I read The Artist’s Way decades ago.
I can’t promise not to despair. But I can see the path forward. I need art, I need beauty, and I need to keep my well full.
I wrote one other really short poem about 13 years ago. I think that’s the one that goes here.
and begin again
only to try