You’d think I finally might have come around to the idea that my body has some limitations. Laid low by a painful, crippling nerve injury involving my neck and right shoulder, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the months leading up to it. And upon sober reflection, I have to admit the shoulder has been a problem for a couple of years now. In fact, it had been cramping up a bit more often in the weeks leading up to the injury. Three days before, it had been troublesome enough for me to break out the heating pad and swallow a handful of ibuprofen to get it to loosen back up. I remember having the fleeting thought, sitting in a hot bath and trying to stretch it, that perhaps I should see someone about it.
But I figured it would go back down on its own and I’d be back to normal again, just like always. I had a big, full life, and I wasn’t about to slow down for a little soreness. I had full slate of classes, sang in two musical ensembles, volunteered in my community, and managed my six-unit apartment building, not to mention the everyday housekeeping tasks. I prided myself on my annotated, color-coded calendars, my spotless apartment, and the fact that I cooked most of my meals myself. That stuff was non-negotiable. You could pry my vacuum out of my cold, dead hands.
It seems like plenty enough, looking back now, but I wasn’t satisfied at the time. I felt under-productive, trapped in a particularly inefficient model of a physical body that refused to perform at the level I thought it should. I was annoyed that I could not function on less than 8 (8 1/2, actually) hours of sleep a night. What about all of those people who managed to do more than me on a mere 5 or 6 hours? Even more frustrating was the fact that by the weekend, I was so exhausted I wanted to curl up and hide in my bed and not poke my head out until Monday. Not that that was ever an option, of course. I had to clean. I had homework. I’d signed on for volunteer work every weekend. I had friends I saw far too seldom. I also wanted to go out on a date every so often, heaven forbid.
My injury completely incapacitated me for several days, but after that, despite the continuous, horrific pain, I clung stubbornly to all of my activities except the swimming. (Even I had to admit defeat there.) When I was forced to start leaving them behind, one by one, I felt as though I was leaving a piece of myself with them. The weeks wore on, and I kept cutting away at the tapestry that was my life, my beautiful, intricate life that I’d worked so hard to develop. Every time I made another cut, I told myself that it was the last one, that it was temporary, that I’d start to get better in a few weeks and then I would be able to start sewing it back together. But as the severity of my condition crept into my consciousness, forcing me to think of my recovery in terms of months, rather than weeks, something else started creeping in with it. At first, I barely recognized what I was feeling; once I did, I dared not admit it to anyone, not even to myself.
It was relief.
Because secretly, there were days when I hated how busy I forced myself to be. It felt like I was caught in a tornado and I would have given anything for an opportunity to step outside of it, even if only for a day or two. Once my injury forced me to do just that, I was so relieved I could have cried. Finally, I had a good reason to say “no” to people, to events, to anything I otherwise would have felt obligated (I would have said privileged) to take on. I had a reason to ask for someone to help carry my groceries or move large boxes in and out of my storage unit. I had a reason to have a cleaning service come and clean my apartment. I had a reason to stay home and watch television, of all things, or, even more decadent, to stay home for no other reason than to simply rest. If it weren’t for the pain, it would have felt like heaven. Even with the pain, some days, it still did.
The weeks stretched into months. Time grew languid, and I watched my friends whiz past me in apologetic blurs. I realized that most of them, with their own overflowing tapestries, were too busy to help me. And I realized that I had been so busy working on my tapestry that I’d never taken a moment to step back and appreciate it. Now, with all of my extra activities stripped away, I suddenly found myself with a surfeit of something I hadn’t had for as long as I could remember. Free time. Sit-around-and-do-nothing time. Sometimes hours of it.
I used to fill time as though it were a ravenous monster I dared not let go hungry. A spare twenty minutes before I leave for book club? I can read a cell biology chapter before I go! Don’t have to be in class until 11 AM? I can hit the gym, the post office, and the grocery store in that time! I lost my bluetooth a while back, and had to wait a few days for the replacement to arrive. It was then that I realized that I made nearly all of my phone calls from my car. I had filled so much of my life that I didn’t even have time to talk to people on the phone unless it was on my way to or from something else.
Now that my pain level has been reduced enough to allow me to drive places again, the engine in my brain that pushes me to do, do, do has roared back to life. I was registering for Fall classes a few days ago and realized that despite already having the requisite twelve-plus credit load, there were some large chunks of unused time on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I spent fifteen minutes surfing through the offered classes to find one I liked before I caught myself and signed off.
I mean, my god, I need to stop. Have I learned nothing from this harrowing experience? I’ve spent the last few years filling every crack and crevice of my life, on sharp lookout for any holes I could jam more things into. I ran my body so hard that I have probably damaged it permanently; it’s possible I won’t ever be able, physically, to do some of the activities I had to leave behind. If I don’t figure out a way to allow myself to be – to learn to want to be – the person I am, instead of the person I think I should be, who knows how much more damage I could do?
Time has slowed so much for me it feels as if it has almost stopped. In the stillness of this pause, I have an opportunity to start over and shape a new life. Before things start spinning up again, I need to think, carefully, about what I want that life to look like, and not just from the inside, but from the outside, to someone paused, like me. I shouldn’t be in such a rush to start cramming my suitcase. I should be picking through my leavings thoughtfully, only keeping the ones that are truly precious.
Life is supposed to be a journey, not a storage unit. I need to learn to meander instead of rush, to enjoy instead of consume, to see instead of do. Moments unobserved are moments lost, and I’ve already missed so much. I don’t want to lose any more.