Walking on Knives

In 2000, I choreographed a piece of dance theatre based on themes and ideas from the story of the Little Mermaid. I called the performance ‘Walking on Knives’, as in the story, when the mermaid gave up her tail to get legs, she experienced terrible pain through her middle, and ‘every step she took was like walking on knives’. Little did I know that a year later I would start experiencing pain in my hips that would make me feel like I was walking on knives, and that this would become my everyday reality. Having lived with increasing pain and lack of mobility for 18 years, I am finally having a double hip replacement on August 8th at the RDE hospital in Exeter.

I feel nervous – not so much about the operation, that’ll be done with an epidural and sedation, and is in the hands of the surgeon. But about afterwards – how will I feel? Will there be pain? Will I be able to move? How long before I stand up? How different will it be? The surgeon is correcting the dysplasia in my hips, and adjusting my legs to be the same length. So when I first stand up, it will be with a new, unfamiliar body. I have no idea what it will be like to live and move in that body. I also have no memory of what it is like to not be in pain. How will it be to have an absence of pain, an absence of stiffness, an absence of limping? What is the experience of absence?

As I move through this experience, I want to try to feel a sense of creativity in the unravelling of the story and my body. So this blog will also be a place to share poetry and other forms of art, perhaps even performance, a little further down the line of healing. For me, as a performer, having spent years tuning into my body, and the relationship of body to mind, this process is not just medical, or social, it is one of identity, and of (re?)discovery. It is also about the experience of time, and how time is experienced differently during the process. Now, in m pre-op life, my sense of time is concerned with how long it takes me to get from one side of the room to the other, or how long the daily struggle of putting on trousers and socks will last. Post-op, time may be experienced differently, as I move differently, think differently.

In anticipation, I’ve written a poem drawing on themes and ideas from the story of the little mermaid, through my interpretation of her experience, and mine. It’s left deliberately unfinished, open, at the end in the last line, because I don’t know what the experience will be after the operation. Will I feel freedom, movement, fluidity, and an absence of pain? Or will it still feel like walking on knives?

Walking on Knives


A glimpse.
It becomes a gaze.
How beautiful he is and moves.
He hears her but cannot see,
Cannot touch.
Yet his eyes beseech her,
Desire her,
Fasten her with a hook
That draws her to the surface
Of another world.
Give up the tail
Give up the voice
Give up the known life.
Pain, pain, pain rips through her middle
As the singular is sliced in two.
A woman is born and emerges to hope.
 
And every step she took
Was like walking on knives.
 
 
Tailless, the unfamiliar feet
Touch the dry texture of stone and wood.
Balance is harder on two than one,
Trying to float in sky, not water,
Chained to the earth.
Singing inside -
Never heard.
Bleeding from the middle –
Never seen.
Dancing and smiling –
Never loved.
A sacrifice formed vainly from vanity,
Hopelessly from desire.
 
And every step she took
Was like walking on knives.
 
 
The story shapes a mirror
That presents my own body and song.
Looking down into and beyond the water’s surface,
Deep into the dark green world beneath
I see her face.
We look at each other,
Reflections
Glimpsed through shadows.
And we still believe
Still hope
Still love.
The water that floats and breathes
Shows glints of the harsh sky above
Which silences and bleeds.
 
And every step we take
Is like walking on knives.
 

I move into the beckoning water,
Feeling its gentle resistance around me.
I can swirl and extend and bend
In a way not possible on the dryness of land.
Who needs two legs, anyway.
Fusion of limbs forms a tail
Which swishes and guides
And moves with pleasure
As I sing sweetly of freedom.
 
And every step I take

Tomorrow…

The second hip replacement is scheduled to happen tomorrow. As it’s been postponed several times, I’m going to hold out believing it’ll happen until they’re doing the spinal anaesthetic! The thought of going through it all again makes me feel anxious, but also I’m just keen for it to be done. The other thought is that this hip has been bad now for 18 years. It’s become part of who I am. I had to make a huge adjustment not just physically, but also in terms of my identity, when the arthritis first started, and I had to stop doing dance and martial arts. Since then the pain, lack of mobility, and limping have become part of my daily life, of who I am. The operation tomorrow will change that again, into who/what I don’t know, but I’ll need to absorb and deal with the transformation mentally as well as physically.

This absorption, acceptance, made me think about a Zen garden in Kyoto which I visited when I was in Japan in 2005. Ryoanji is a famous temple in Kyoto which has a garden made of gravel with fifteen stones placed within it. There’s a viewing verandah along one side. Wherever you are on that verandah, it’s only possible to see fourteen of the stones at a time – nowhere can all fifteen be seen at once. Perhaps our lives are like this – we can never see the whole picture when living it, never know the complete story. And so have to be content with what we can see, experience, and know in each moment.

Garden in Ryoanji, photo by Jerri, 2005
Garden in Ryoanji, photo by Jerri, 2005

Behind the garden is a stone basin, or tsukubai, with flowing water. The cover consists of four kanji, “ware, tada taru (wo) shiru”, which can be translated as ‘I learn only to be content’. I spent a long time sitting in front of the stones in the garden (I arrived very early when the temple opened, and so was fortunate to have a quiet time there on my own before other visitors arrived), and still remember the feeling of space and contentment I experienced. The kanji on the tsukubai and what they mean also affected me, and I bought a keyring from the temple shop which is a replica of the cover, which I use for my house keys, and so see on a daily basis, to remind me of this. So as I go into the operation tomorrow, without being able to see and know the full picture of fifteen stones, of what my life and body will be afterwards, I shall try to keep in mind (and body!) the mantra of ‘I learn only to be content’.

Tsukubai basin behind the garden in Ryoanji with the kanji. Photo by Jerri, 2005.

Delays and Dreams

The second operation was due on 29th November, but a few days before the hospital phoned to say it had been postponed to 10th December. This couldn’t be helped, and they’ve tried to do their best to fit me in on the next soonest date. But I still found it hard to deal with this. I’d prepared for the date mentally, as well as practically, and the delay has meant that all the preparations have had to be changed. As it’s getting closer to Christmas, it’s also making it difficult to find someone to stay with me afterwards. I’m trying not to get too anxious about this, but I do feel I’ll need to have someone stay overnight even if just for the first few days for reassurance that there’s someone in the house if something happens. I usually feel I can take things in my stride and be fairly strong, but something like this makes me feel very vulnerable. Being independent is fine, however the reality of being human is that we’re interdependent, and need each other, rely on each other, and have to ‘be’ together in order to ‘be’. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says: ‘‘“To be” is to inter-be. You cannot be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing.’ (The Heart of Understanding, Parallax Press, 1988: 4). This is really brought home at times of physical and mental vulnerability, and also of course relates to our collective action in addressing pressing world concerns of the environment and social justice.

On another thought, perhaps because I haven’t been able to travel outside my home town for the past three months since the operation, I’ve been having vivid dreams about travelling to other places. . A few nights ago I dreamed I was going up a mountain in a train. I’ve dreamt about this mountain before, the same one, many times, with different stories and people. Last night my father was there, and we were talking about the mountain, and taking photographs. The mountain journey is vivid, and stays with me in the waking world – I can conjure it now, while other dream places and stories vanish on waking and can’t be grasped or remembered. There are a few places like this that I dream about over and over, and feel real to me in the waking world, though I’ve never seen them other than in dreams. Are they ‘real’? Do they exist somewhere, and maybe one day I’ll turn a corner, and there they’ll be? Or are they purely neurons firing and re-firing in patterns that have created stones, landscapes, people, countries, that have no substance outside my head? I wrote this poem about a house and streets I dream about many times. The house is somewhere I’d like to live, though have no idea where it actually is. Or even if it actually is. But I know it when I’m there in the dreams. Does that make it ‘not real’?

 Do dreams create places?
I’ve been to the same house many times,
Walked the same three streets of a town.
I know the colours of the walls
And the fronts of the shops.
 
I’ve lived many lives and stories in those walls and streets.
In dreams they’re named as being in real places
Yet aren’t part of them in the waking world.
 
The things that have happened there,
Marches, songs, shopping, encounters with friends, family, strangers, ghosts.
Stories played out that happened somewhere not-here.
Or even not there, really.
 
But I know those streets,
The gradient of the slope, the way they connect at the top.
 
The house is not on those streets;
It has no surroundings or location.
 
But in the middle is a courtyard, surrounded by a high open verandah upstairs
Leading to rooms with heavy wooden doors.
In the courtyard is a garden, open to the air.
 
This house is somewhere I’ve lived, visited, loved, and escaped to
Over and over, with people known and imagined.
 
These places are not real, but they are created;
And being creations, they exist.
 

The Spaces Inbetween…

It’s been 95 days since my first operation, the right hip, and in 19 days time on 29th November, I’ll have the second one to replace the left hip, and become symmetrical in my bionic-ness. The space inbetween the two operations has been a strange time of limbo, of waiting. I’ve been doing my exercises, trying to make my right leg as strong as possible to be helpful to the left after the next op. But because the left hip is still so bad, I’ve needed to stay on crutches all this time, when I’d have expected to be walking without them by now if the other side was all right. Also, as the surgeon made the right leg longer in anticipation of evening them out in the second op, I’m lopsided in my walk which affected my back pretty badly. I visited the physios in the hospital where they gave me an insert for my shoe, but also said they couldn’t really do anything until I have the second operation. So I had just had to wait. Be patient. Live between the spaces of the two surgeries.

The reason I haven’t been writing this blog for quite a few weeks is that I’ve officially been back at work, though on research leave, so working from home. The reading and writing I’ve been doing, trying to finish an article before I go on sick leave again after the next operation, has filled my head with thoughts and words, leaving little space for reflection on my experience. This is the nature of work – it fills the spaces, until it feels that there’s little left for breathing, thinking, living. This blog has been a place for me to create space, and so seeing how squashed this gets by my ‘work writing’ and thinking makes me realise that I must find a way to make more space in work, to find life and breath in the flurry of words I’m expected to ‘produce’, the crazy number of emails I have to answer, and the needs of students whose anxiety spills over into the space and time of those that teach them.

Writing and crafting words has made me think about the first article I published when I was writing my PhD on Buddhism and performance, ‘Removing The Writing From The Wall, And Then Removing The Wall’ (Studies in Theatre and Performance, 23.2 (2003)). Written as a musing on writing, on performing, on breathing, I was thinking about the large number of words I was using to discuss the experience of acting in my thesis. How we can talk about experience? To use words to describe something that is not connected to words, but to being? Using ideas from Buddhism I suggested that we need to look at the space between things rather than the things themselves to understand and live the experience: the spaces between gestures and movements in acting, between the notes in music, between the lines on a piece of Japanese calligraphy, and between the words in poetry. It’s in the inbetween that who we are is revealed and lived.

Today I decided to re-watch Laurie Anderson’s film ‘Heart Of A Dog’ (2015). I got the DVD after watching the film in the cinema. It’s a sad and beautiful meditation on love, grief, loss, and life. She’s a creative artist I’ve admired for many years, and in this film she lays bare her experience of living, loving, and losing her dog in a rich use of imagery and text. Knowing that not long after this she also lost her partner, singer Lou Reed, and that they’d only found each other as life partners a short time before this, makes this into a filmic space of trying to understand the experience of being and letting go. Using Kierkegaard’s ideas on life being understood backwards but must be lived forwards, as well as Wittgenstein on the power of language, and David Foster Wallce’s idea ‘Every love story is a ghost story’, she moves backwards and forwards through time, through the remembered film strip of her life, piecing together a narrative of experience. As we all do. Even writing this blog, the blog entries on the feed on the website start with the most recent, and then scroll through previous posts in reverse order, so reading my life happens backwards, piecing together the puzzle in reverse, seeing the experience first, and the understanding of how it came to be afterwards.

Thinking about my article I wrote about using words to discuss what couldn’t be spoken, the space inbetween, I suggested that in my PhD an experience could be expanded to be talked about in 100,000 words, and simultaneously contracted into the seventeen syllables of haiku. At the start of the article, in place of a traditional academic abstract, I wrote:

To speak of a moment is to lose it. 
If seventeen syllables seem too many,
How much more so the 100,000 words of an un-emptied mind.
So how do I write my thesis?

At the end of the article I suggested that perhaps I could write both a 100,000 thesis and a haiku, and that was ok. Both are expressions of the experience, so neither can be the experience, but both can describe it in different ways. Several years later I completed the 100,000 words of my PhD and wrote a short poem which I printed and placed on its own page at the very end of the hard copy. I didn’t quite have the nerve to say to my examiners that they could just read the three lines rather than the 100,000 words, though to me it does capture the years of practice, thinking, and writing that went into it. But perhaps what I really wanted to say is in the spaces inbetween the words.

No mind, no self,
No one, nor many.
Blossoms falling in the sky.

“I’m Gonna Swing From The Chandelier”

A few days ago singer and songwriter Sia stated publicly that she suffers from Ehlers Danloss, and lives in chronic pain. I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Whenever I’ve seen videos of her dancing, I’ve thought that she might have EDS – there’s a difference in how someone moves if they’re flexible, and how they move if they’re hypermobile. I really appreciated her honesty in naming her condition (along with others including neuralgia and herniated discs – EDS is often part of a series of conditions) as it brings greater awareness, and acknowledges the difficulties of living with constant pain, physically, mentally and emotionally. As I mentioned previously some dancers and gymnasts have hypermobility, and can be applauded for their extreme flexibility, whilst they’re actually damaging their joints and experiencing great pain, leading to problems in later life. But also there’s a desire to stretch the joint beyond the ‘norm’, to feel the full extent it can reach: it’s like a satisfying yawn. And every time this happens, it damages the joints more. And every step she took was like walking on knives.

One of Sia’s most famous songs is “Chandelier” (2010). Its sweeping melody in the chorus and relentless rhythm can make this feel like an exhilarating expression of the joy of dance and life. But the lyrics tell the story of pain, addiction, guilt and depression: ‘Can’t feel anything, when will I learn’; ‘ I’m gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry’; ‘And I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes’. The video of the song shows the desperate relentless nature of trying to live with this through her non-stop, agitated movements, needing to escape from the inner pain. Knowing now, officially, that she suffers from chronic physical pain and how this affects her mentally, during Mental Illness Awareness Week in the United States, reinforces the bodymind relationship of pain in different forms, and that people often live with this in silence and invisibility.

Reading about Sia’s experience helped me this week, when I’ve been coping with quite bad back pain, which I think was brought on by the difference in leg length as a result of the operation. Even though I try to stand straight and evenly, it’s inevitable in walking that I’m lopsided, and this has been putting strain on my back muscles. As a result of this pain, I haven’t been able to do the level of exercises and walking that I’ve been doing previously, which has pushed my recovery back, and made me frustrated and anxious. It’s getting better now, but I’m accepting that I may not recover as well from this first operation as I might have done if I didn’t have the other hip being so bad, and that I’ll need to wait until the second one is done to work towards an overall improvement. The worry is that I’m damaging the effects of the first op by not being able to strengthen it as much. I could now walk with just one crutch (ironically supporting the un-operated leg), but I still need to rely on two in order to help my back stay straight. Every movement is a compromise. Last night I dreamed that I was walking without crutches – I often have this dream. In the subconscious world, no crutches are needed.

This week is the celebration of Dusshera, marking the end of Navaratri, and in some regions of India, particularly celebrating the victory of the goddess Durga. She is the embodiment of the divine mother, a fierce protector of her children, fighting for the triumph of good over evil. She’s certainly not a quiet, patient, ‘good girl’, but radiates female power and strength, riding a tiger or lion, wielding weapons, battling demons. And with Sia battling her inner demons in ‘Chandelier’, let’s not forget she also sang of strength and resilience in David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’ and wrote ‘Diamonds’, sung by Rhianna.

Statue of the goddess Durga

Thinking about when I danced Mohiniyattam, a form of classical dance from South India, as well as Sia’s experience of pain, Durga’s ferocity, and my own memories of dancing, of ‘being a dancer’, and reconciling this with my body as it is today, I’ve written a poem. I’m always wary of sounding self-pitying in writing, but sometimes it’s also important to express the reality of the experience. The memory of dancing is still strong in my body – I feel every move that I write below, even if there’s still a way to go yet before I can re-perform the movements. Here’s to swinging on chandeliers!


accept -
 
Breathe in – release – stamp – flick – rotate – extend –
shift weight – right-left – place – curl out to side –

head up – arch back –
 
 
pulse beats through floor, vibrates on naked soles,
transmits to nerves, blood, ligaments;
muscles tense and flex,
eyes light with presence

 
 
Bend – sway – heel out – shift weight –
extend leg – leap high –

arm out to side and up – look at back of hand –
 
 
visualise, imagine, see, feel,
hold it inside, let the inside come out,
the image feeds the movement, lets the body
sing the song, beat the rhythm;
see the flame, become the image,
staccato, legato, pace, timing, sync

 
 
Ta – te - ta - - te-ta-te – tum -
Ta – tey-am – dimme – tum –
 
Bend – touch – up – arms stretch –
hands meet – neck curls –
eyes down – eyes up –
pause –
Breathe out
 
 
accept –
applause transform perform strength life   breath   –
accept
 
accept –
pain    tears   stiffness  strength  life   breath –
accept – don’t - accept

To Be Upright, To Be Fallen

Six weeks since the operation! According to all the info leaflets, this is a landmark for hip replacements. The risk for dislocation is reduced, the joint should be more stable leading to resuming everyday activities (including driving), and it’s possible to use one stick rather than two crutches. I feel that I have ‘achieved’ some of this (why ‘achieve’?). I’m managing stairs, being in the house on my own (with the help of my trolley and grab sticks), going out for a walk every day, having a shower, doing more exercises. So this is all good. And yet I’m still having to use two crutches, as the other hip, the un-operated one which was the worse one to begin with, is still very painful and stiff, so I need support for both sides. And I get some pain in the operated hip, particularly in the mornings, and if I’ve been sitting for a long time. Hopefully this is ‘normal’, recovery pain. I’m seeing the surgeon again in a few days, so will find out how he sees my progress then.

One of the reasons I’m stiff in the morning is due to still not sleeping well at night. I can lie on my left (un-operated) side for a while, but then feel a pull in the operated hip, so need to move onto my back again. I’ve become aware that my mattress feels a bit lumpy (I hadn’t noticed this before), and a combination of this and the movements has meant that my lower and mid back have become quite stiff, leading to a pulling in the groin on both sides, and a stoop in the morning that takes a bit of exercising to sort out. This stoop is putting extra strain on the hips until I’m able to stand upright properly. I’m thinking of ways to do deal with this. Getting a new mattress is tricky at the moment, so maybe a mattress topper would help.

Reflecting on the embodied experience of ‘healing’. of trying to become ‘normal’, I’m thinking about language, the embodied nature of language, and how this relates to our physical experiences in way that connects to mental states, ideas, and our sense of morality. Philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have talked about this in their book Philosophy In The Flesh:

‘Reason is not disembodied… but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies and bodily experience. … It is the striking claim that the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment. The same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason. Reason is not, in any way, a transcendent feature of the universe or disembodied mind.’ (Lakoff & Johnson: 1999, 4)

Based on this view, they have explored the way we conceptualise, perceive, and understand the world, and how this is shaped by our bodymind experiences, ‘[b]ecause our conceptual systems grow out of our bodies, [therefore] meaning is grounded in and through our bodies’ (Lakoff & Johnson: 1999, 6). The embodied mind, in attempting to make sense of the world, creates metaphors that are inherently linked to the experience of the sensorimotor system. Lakoff and Johnson offer the example of the metaphor ‘More is Up, as in “Prices rose” and “Stocks Plummeted”. In the More is Up, a subjective judgement of quantity is conceptualised in terms of the sensorimotor experience of verticality’ (Lakoff & Johnson: 47) Similarly, a physical experience, such as the difficulty in lifting a heavy object, is related cognitively in the mind to the experience of the difficulty of coping with responsibilities and problems. This cognitive connection is repeated until it becomes established as a pattern, and the conceptual metaphor arises:

  Difficulties are Burdens
Subjective judgement: Difficulty
Sensorimotor Domain: Muscular exertion
Example: “She’s weighed down by responsibilities.
Primary Experience: The discomfort or disabling effect of lifting or carrying heavy objects. (Lakoff & Johnson: 50)

In this way, the physical experience of being ‘upright’ equates to a moral sense of character: ‘she’s an upright person’, ‘stand tall and proud’, ‘be an upstanding citizen’. The other side of this is to be non-upright, to be physically affected in a way that results in being bent, curved, stooped, crippled, ‘weighed down with responsibility’, limping, stumbling, and ultimately, falling and fallen. All these terms have ‘negative’ connotations in our language relating to character: ‘she stumbled into a life of crime’, ‘she stooped so low’, ‘limping through life’, ‘falling into despair’, and, of course, being a ‘fallen woman’. Language we use to describe physical disabilities and ‘abnormalities’ are cognitively linked to being a person of alterity – not the ‘norm’, not ‘proper’, not ‘whole’ and moral. It’s no wonder this is reflected in attitudes in society, when people with disabilities have been hidden away, a source of shame, marked with some form of sin they must have committed to lead to a deformed body. And reflected in works of art, where such a figure is often isolated, morally questionable, afflicted in body, mind, and soul. And even if not physically, they can be morally disabled, hence the ‘fallen woman’. The embodiment of the sinful, immoral woman who does not stand upright, who trips and falls into a life of deprivation and promiscuity. These women need to be redeemed, reformed,, to feel penitence and rehabilitated through being purged of their immorality, to stand upright again. If they’re lucky enough to survive this – I come back to Hans Anderson’s versions of the stories of the Little Mermaid and Red Shoes again, in which both women characters have their moment of realising their sins, a blast of redemption – and then die. There’s no happy ending for the Fallen Woman.

How do we decouple language relating to a ‘disabled’ body and embodied experience from being cognitively connected to these kinds of judgements about the person? To reclaim stooping, limping, tripping, and falling as being ‘normal’, a result of a physical condition rather than some form of reflection of an inferior character? Positive images of disability are hugely important, and yet often so lacking. Perhaps the increased interest and viewing of the Paralympics is leading a greater understanding of the able-ness of supposedly non-able bodies. But theatre, film, television, visual arts, and literature still abound with reinforcing images of physical ‘impairments’ leading to a character being pitied or despised.

I want to be free of pain, to walk upright, without a limp, to not be looked at by people when they walk past, to not feel like the ‘other’ due to being born with a set of conditions that have led to the current state of my body. But how do I embrace all this without the operation being seen as ‘correcting’ the deformity? Of ‘achieving’ an upright stance and being more ‘normal’? I still don’t know how much the operations will really work to enable me to be pain-free and walk without a stick – I guess I’ll find out over the next number of months. But the experience I’ve had of feeling pain, limping, falling, being ‘disabled’ is now part of my life story, and has made me think about the language we use to describe these experiences, and how this connects to how we perceive and relate to people with ‘disabilities’, ‘impairments’, ‘abnormalities’.

Scars, Pain, and Duende

Cristina Hoyos in Carlos Saura’s film of El Amor Brujo (1986)

Just over five weeks since the operation. I’ve been going out for a walk every day, making the most of the sun while I can – it’s officially the start of Autumn next week, though I’m trying to deny that colder weather is coming! Having been able to manage walking for 20 minutes without too much of a problem, I decided to change my route a couple of days ago in order to make it up to 30 minutes, and see how that felt. What I hadn’t bargained for was that this new route involved some quite steep uphill walking so I had to go much slower than on the flat. This meant that the route actually took me 40 minutes to walk instead. Even though going at a fairly slow pace, I was really tired when I got back home. But in a good way. The muscles in my operated leg were a little sore, though not feeling damaged, just that they had been used. After sitting down for a while afterwards I got got up, and my un-operated hip was very stiff and painful, whereas the operated one felt fine. This was good to be aware of the change. And also, I wouldn’t have even contemplated being able to do a 40 minute walk before the operation. So even though I needed to rest the next day, and been doing my original route with a bit added to make it up to 30 minutes, it does all feel a sense of progress.

The other thing I did this week was to look at my scar for the first time. I haven’t felt able to do this before. To be honest, the thought of having two large scars, one on each leg, was one of the reasons I kept putting off the operation(s). This wasn’t just about vanity, but tied into the reality that once the replacement is done, there’s no going back – you can’t have the original hip put back in. So whatever the result of the operation is the reality of how I’d have to live, and this thought was quite scary. It was only when the pain got so bad that I felt that whatever the outcome of the operation would be better than living with the pain, that I was able to face both the operation, and the scars afterwards. In fact, looking at the scar in the mirror, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It’s 15 cm long, and a visible indentation in the skin, but the colour and texture don’t stand out as much as I thought they might. I can live with this scar, it’s now part of me, inscribing a chapter in my life experience. I have another much bigger scar on my back from when I had a patent ductus operation when I was five. Nowadays, that operation is quite standard, and I think even done through keyhole. In 1973 it was a very big open heart surgery, leaving me with a large and visible scar that I was very self-conscious about all through my childhood and teenage years. Going swimming meant I had to explain what it was, and I never wore strappy dresses. As I grew older, I changed my view of the scar, knowing that I wouldn’t be alive now without the operation, so the scar is a marker of that. Similarly, the scar on the side of my leg is a permanent marker of this process of accepting and living with a new body designed to make my life better. Scottish poet Alasdair Paterson wrote two lines in his poem ‘Age of Bronze’ that I think about in relation to this:

the wound your survive
is the scar you can live with

Yes, I’ve survived, am learning to survive, so I can live with the scar. And the second one I’ll have after the next operation. At least they’ll be symmetrical! I took a photo of my leg pre-op as a reminder of how my skin looked: unblemished, whole, smooth. At some point I’ll take one of the scar, and know that I can live with the changed skin, changed body, changed mind.

Having been living with ‘pain’ for a long time, I also think about what pain is, and how we experience it. It’s a word that can encompass many things, many ways of feeling and being. And it can also be culturally-determined in different forms. Spanish playwright and poet Frederico Garcia Lorca used the word ‘duende‘ to describe an intense physical and emotional reaction to a performance or work of art that can feel like a form of pain. He related this particularly to the performance of flamenco music and dance. I love listening to flamenco, and watching the intensity of both musicians and dancers being so absorbed in the deep expression of the rhythms, melodies, words, and movements. I was thinking this morning of the voice of Cameron de la Isla, a flamenco singer who often performed with the wonderful guitarist Paco de Lucia. Cameron’s deep, rasping, emotional voice immediately gives me a visceral reaction, a deep yearning pain that vibrates through my whole being. It may not leave a visible scar, but the sounds feel like beautiful wounds expressing a depth of emotional experience. Here’s Cameron singing the lullaby, ‘Nana Del Caballo Grande‘, from Lorca’s play ‘Blood Wedding‘. I particularly like this version as he’s accompanied by a sitar rather than a guitar, linking together flamenco and Indian music (that’s another story to do with the possible connection between these).

The experience of love, and the loss of love, certainly also causes pain, and singing of this can expose those inner, invisible wounds and scars that we live with. Violeta Parra was a songwriter and singer from Chile, and the instigator of the revival and reinvention of Chilean folk music. One of her most famous songs is ‘Gracias a la Vida’, made all the more poignant by the fact of her suicide in 1967, Here’s the original lyrics and translation, courtesy of wikipedia:

 Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco
Y en el alto cielo su fondo estrellado
Y en las multitudes el hombre que yo amo

Translated into English:
Thanks to life, which has given me so much
It gave me two bright stars that when I open them,
I perfectly distinguish the black from white
And in the sky above, her starry backdrop
And within the multitudes the man I love

One of my favourite of her songs is ‘Que He Sacado Con Quererte‘. I first heard this on a cassette tape in 1989, performed by the wonderful late Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. I was listening to her singing it this morning, thinking of the wounds we survive, and the scars we live with.

These are the lyrics with a translation done for me by the mother of my friend Lorraine:

 que he sacado con la luna, ayayai
What did I get from the moon,
que los dos miramos juntos, ayayai
that we both looked at together?
que he sacado con los nombres, ayayai
What did I get from the names,
estampados en el muro, ayayai
imprinted on the wall?
como cambia el calendario ,ayayai
Just as the calender changes,
cambia todo en este mundo, ayayai
everything in this world changes.
ayayai ay
 
que he sacado con el lirio, ayayai
What did I get from the lily,
que plantamos en le patio, ayayayi
that we planted in the patio?
no era uno el que plantamos , ayayai
It wasn't one that we planted,
eran dos enamorados, ayayai
they were two in love.
hortelando, tu plantio, ayayai
Gardener, your plot of land
con el tiempo no ha cambiado, ayayai
has not changed over time.

que he sacado con la sombra, ayayai
What did I get from the shadow,
del aromo por testigo ayayai,
of the witness-like myrrh tree,
y los cuatro pies marcados, ayayai
and the four footprints marked,
en la orilla del camino, ayayai
at the border of the path?
¿que he sacado con quererte, ayayai?
What did I get from loving you?
clavelito florecido ,ayayai
blossomed little carnation.
ayayai ay.

Aqui esta la misma luna, ayayai
The same moon is here,
en el patio el blanco lirio, ayayai
in the patio  -  the white lily.
los dos nombres en el muro, ayayai
The two names on the wall,
y tu rostro e(n?) el camino, ayayai
and your face on the path.
pero tu palomo ingrato, ayayai
But you, ungrateful dove
ya no arrullas en mi nido, ayayai
no longer coo/whisper sweet nothings in my nest.
ayayai ay.

Pain, wounds, and scars are caused by many things in our lives, and mark us, whether visibly or not, telling the story of what we have experienced. And what we have survived.

Four Weeks Later… reflections and shadow walking

It’s been four weeks since the operation – I can’t quite believe it. Because each day has roughly the same routine, time feels like it’s both going slowly, yet the days are going past quickly. A strange phenomenological displacement of the usual experience of time when I’m busy, and the day is filled with activities mostly to do with work and thinking. So to be so focused on body, and a body that is functioning differently, changing slowly, creates a new dis- and re-location of the inner body clock.

Going back through my previous blog posts, I was looking at the one I posted just before the operation Getting Up, Walking Slow. I’m really glad I did this, as it’s showing the progress I’m already making. As it’s a slow process, and healing is happening in small degrees, it’s hard to step back and see the overall difference. But watching the video of how slowly I was walking then, and the struggles to get up from the sofa, I really see that already things have changed. Using two crutches, I’m able to walk much faster and with more ease than before. And getting out of the chair (higher than the sofa so easier anyway), is happening much swifter and in one movement, rather than the extravagant series of micro-movements I was doing before. Certainly the crutches make a difference, but it’s also the case that the right hip is feeling much less stiff and painful from before. There’s still some of this, but it’s in a different place. As I’ve been doing more walking and exercising, I’m aware of the difference between the right (operated) hip and the left. The left was the worse one, and has been bad for a much longer time than the right, but now after a 20 minute walk, I feel the pain around the whole area of that hip, and getting up after sitting for a while leads to stiffness. Whilst the right leg feels much freer, without the same pain as before. When the pain is there, it’s situated in the muscles, particularly the gluts, which is where the surgeon cut through to do the replacement. Whilst there is still some pulling in the groin, it’s much less than before. I can also lift the right leg higher, and certainly higher and with more ease than the left (though it was better than the left before the op). This means that when I’m walking up and down the stairs, my right leg is my ‘good’ leg, and leads, even though it’s the one that was operated on.

What I’m aware of is the need to build up my muscles more than has been happening. This is partly because of relative inactivity since the operation, but also that these muscles weren’t being engaged properly before, as adjustments were made to to cope with the arthritis, and also with the other hip. In particular, I’m aware that my hamstrings are very underused. I can feel this in the exercise of sitting, and lifting my foot up so the thigh comes off the chair. I’m still doing this by pulling from the groin, rather than pushing from the hamstrings. So I’m going to have to work at locating and engaging these muscles further in order to strengthen the leg. This is very important as when I have the other operation, which will be bigger as more needs to be done to the left side, I need the right to be as strong as possible to support it in the post-op recovery period.

I was a bit disappointed with the amount of physiotherapy we had in the hospital. This had nothing to do with the physios themselves who were brilliant, but I guess with the cuts to the NHS, they were very over-stretched and could only spend a short time with each of us every day, and the main goal of this seemed to be to ensure we could walk and climb stairs in order to be discharged. We weren’t given much in the way of exercises to do at home beyond this, and no follow-up physio sessions. So I was feeling a bit lost as to what the best things to do to strengthen the muscles. Luckily, my friend Sandra Reeve, who’s a wonderful movement artist and teacher who’d had a hip replacement a couple of years ago, sent me through a very leaflet with exercises that also work on strengthening the core muscles, drawing on aspects of Pilates. This has been very helpful, and given me a system of exercises to do each day. I’ve also been finding other suggestions for exercises on the internet. Having a structure of exercises, eg do 5 of these 3 times a day, is very useful, and has been helping to focus on particular muscle groups.

A big leap came yesterday, when I went out of the house for the first time on my own. The sun was shining, and I really felt the need to be outside. With some trepidation, I made it out of the door, and down the steps. These steps had been a problem, as one of them is very steep, and meant I couldn’t manage to get in or out on my own. But then I found these half steps and have two of them next to each other, which means I can get in and out myself, though it’s on a slope, so still have to be careful. I just need to get a grab rail put on the wall as well, and will feel feel pretty secure. But going outside on my own, and walking down the road and back again, felt such freedom. It was sunny and hot, and I bumped into several neighbours to have a chat. I walked about 10 minutes, and sat down on a bench for 10 minutes in the sun, before walking back. So not too far or long, but it was great, and I’ll try to do a little more every day. I felt every little uneven surface in the pavement, each small area of slope, which needed adjustment to walking and use of crutches. Again, satipatthana (mindfulness) helped with staying aware and engaged with each step, whilst also experiencing sky and fresh air.

Thinking of the previous post Getting Up, Walking Slow https://bodystory.art.blog/2019/08/04/getting-up-walking-slow/ with an image of ‘my three feet’ using the walking stick, I took this shadow selfie of me with ‘my four feet’ using the two crutches. I like this image, thinking about reflections, of the doubled body displayed on the street, standing straighter, walking faster, enjoying the sun, four weeks after the operation. Although I think I’ll need both crutches longer than others (in the leaflets, it seems that most people go down to to one stick by four weeks, but I can’t yet because of the other hip being so bad), I’ll need to hang on to being patient for a while longer, and let the muscles get stronger. So one month down, and just two more to go before the second op!