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.

On My Own … breathe out as you go down the mountain

25 days after the operation, and I’m in the house on my own. My friend Rebecca, who’d been staying with me for a week, left yesterday afternoon. At the time I felt fine – I can manage on my own, I can climb stairs, get in and out of the house, sort myself out. But after she left, I was in the house and would be spending the night alone for the first time since I got back from hospital. I had a sudden wobble of vulnerability. Will I really be all right? Can I actually manage? How will I cook and wash up? What happens if I fall over? I wanted to go upstairs and hide under the duvet. So I did some breathing and visualisation, and felt better. There’s always a way of coping, and I would have to manage at some point on my own, so now is as good a time as any.

A little later in the evening, my friend and colleague Jane came round, having kindly gone to a shop selling equipment for people with disabilities and the elderly, and got me a trolley with trays on it. This is because being on two crutches, I can’t carry anything, so this is to help me be able to cook, move plates to the living room (the dining room chairs are too hard to sit on), and carry things back to wash up. This was really important – I couldn’t think of even how to boil some pasta, and then carry the pot to the sink a few feet away to drain it. So this trolley is making it possible for me to be on my own, even though I’m still figuring out how to push it whilst also having my crutches.

This is the trolley in my living room with my breakfast things on – mug which had coffee, and a bowl which had museli. The process of making breakfast and bringing it into the living room made me grateful for those years of practising sequences as part of training in satipatthana, or mindfulness. Make the coffee in the machine. Put empty bowl and spoon on the trolley, and move trolley to where the museli packet is. Put museli in the bowl. Move the trolley to the fridge. Open fridge and take out milk. Pour milk on the museli. Move the trolley to where the coffee machine is. Put mug with coffee on the trolley. Move trolley to the fridge. Put milk in the coffee, and milk back in fridge. Put crutches on trolley, and push through to living room, lifting over a couple of raised bits between rooms. Put trolley near chair. Take crutches off trolley, sit in chair, put crutches aside. Take mug and bowl off trolley and put on table. Have breakfast. Then reverse, putting things on the trolley, taking back to the kitchen, near the sink. Put mug, bowl and spoon in sink. Balance on the edge of the sink while washing items. Take crutches, walk back to living room, and sit in chair.

Phew! When I was doing this, and pushing the trolley, all I could think of was Julie Walters doing the two soups, or Waitress, sketch as part of the Victoria Wood television programme. If you haven’t seen it, do a search. This was me – how long does it take to make, eat, and wash up after breakfast?! Pushing the trolley makes me feel like I’m thirty years older, but it does mean I can find a way to manage on my own.

Having to think so carefully and plan every movement to do the simplest tasks does remind me of the years spent training in satipatthana, with a focus on every-moment mindfulness. How unthinking we usually are about what we do, particularly when it’s a habitual action. Walking up the stairs is something that happens without us thinking about it – we just go up the stairs. At the moment, I’m having to focus on every step up, making sure I put my feet and crutches in the right order, and using breathing to help with the movement. Needing to work at such a level of minutiae of everything certainly helps focus the bodymind, and brings me back to a sense of simplicity (not simpleness) in just doing the next thing. John Garrie Roshi used to tell us Zen stories. One I’m thinking of at the moment is of a monk who went to a monastery to meet a great master. The monk was given a bowl of rice when he arrived. He was told the master would see him, and ran to greet him, saying: ‘Master, tell me the secret to enlightenment!’. The master asked: ‘Were you given something to eat when you arrived?’. ‘Yes,’ replied the monk, to which the master responded: ‘Then go and wash your bowl’. That’s it – enlightenment is just doing the next thing. After the sequence I needed to figure out to eat breakfast this morning, I then needed to wash my bowl. I don’t think this has made me enlightened, but it has helped to reassure me I can be on my own in the house. Another favourite story Garrie Roshi used to tell us was of a monk who ran up a mountain to meet a famous teacher. ‘Master!’, he said breathlessly, ‘please tell me the secret of enlightenment!’. The answer came: ‘Breathe out as you go down the mountain’. So I’ll be doing a lot of breathing out as I go about everyday activities and figure out new ways to do them. I’m sure there’ll be the occasional stumble, but hopefully the experience of the mountain will help to just put one foot in front of the other, and remember to breathe.

An image from ‘Zen Comics’ by Ionna Salajam

Getting Up, Walking Slow

My three feet

Place hands, palms flat, either side of thighs on sofa. Push down on hands, moving body to the edge of the sofa. Move the right arm over to the left side of body, just beyond left hand, beginning to twist to left. Continue turning to the left, lifting right buttock off the sofa. Continue turning to left, using hands to gradually lift body up, until facing the back of the sofa. Move the left hand to the back of the sofa, while the right hand grabs the stick. Slowly push down on the stick, while pushing back from the sofa, as body unfurls to standing.

This is the sequence of movements I’ve developed in order to stand up from my sofa. It takes about two minutes on average. Time has taken on a new experience since dealing with the physical changes. What was once an action done swiftly and without thinking – get up off the sofa – has now become a choreography of shifting weight, finding support, turning, and unravelling, each step needing full attention and slowness in order to avoid injury or falling. I’m not sure if the time spent directing theatre and choreographing dance has helped me to develop this. Certainly improvisation has been key – I’ve found novel ways of picking things up, carrying things, going up and down stairs, balancing things, that I probably wouldn’t have explored if if were not necessary in order to undertake everyday activities.

Along with the years of training in movement, dance, and martial arts, there’s also the years I spent working with teachers in Buddhism, particularly John Garrie Roshi, who worked within the Theravada Buddhist form of satipatthana, usually translated as mindfulness. Garrie Roshi himself had been an actor and performer, and developed a unique series of exercises starting from the body and breath. Performing repetitive sequences of activities – pacing, sitting, standing, slow walking – for days at time instils a discipline, as well as deep levels of attention to the minutiae of all aspects of bodymind. And in my case, often, huge resentment and frustration at having to follow a tight structure over and over. But this intense training is coming back to me now, in having to move so slowly and carefully in everything I do. Often still wtih resentment and frustration, but in having little choice, it has also been a time of exploration of living at a very different pace, different time, than was my usual rhythm before. Working with Garrie Roshi, and later with Namgyal Rimpoche, we would spend hours doing a slow walk. Moving each foot very slowly, feeling each part of the body required to shift in order to do the movement, sensing the changing textures under the feet, keeping the breathing steady, and tethering the mind to stay with focused attention on each moment. The exercise highlights the connection between body and mind, and how easily the mind can fly away from the physical base. Mindfulness has become quite a buzz term in recent years, but often this has tended to focus on an initial stage of achieving calm and relaxation. This is fine, but within Buddhist practice, this is just a first stage. The calm is established in order to lead to the next stage – vipassana, or insight. This is where realisation can happen, an embodied understanding of impermanence and non-self with each breath and step.

I certainly don’t achieve this level of experience with each step I take, but having to move slowly, and needing to focus so strongly on posture and balance in every moment, has helped to develop concentration over longer periods of time. This also helps dealing with the pain – I have to focus all the time on breathing and visualisation to help cope with the pain. This can be a very internal process – people have walked past me saying ‘hello’ and I haven’t heard or seen them as I’ve been so focused simply on the experience of walking to enable me to put one foot in front of the other.

Stand with both feet parallel, stick in right hand. Shift weight to left foot and stick. Slowly move right foot forward. Shift weight to right foot and stick. Slide left foot until both feet are parallel. Repeat.

This is my continuous experience of walking, a sequence of actions, performed in slow time, while the rest of the world seems to move past in a faster rhythm. I feel that I exist in a separate time zone to everyone else. After the operation, will I change my time zone to the same as others? Will it be a gradual shift, travelling through different zones until I catch up? Will I always feel slightly behind? Can time be changed, learned, re-learned?

In his book The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra stated that ‘over time each organism forms its unique, individual pathway of structural changes in the process of development. Since the structural changes are acts of cognition, development is always associated with learning’ (Capra: 1997, 261). I will be having major structural changes with the hip replacements, so will this lead to changes in cognition, development, learning? Biological scientist and philosopher Francisco Varela said that ‘mind and world arise together’ (in Capra: 1997, 262). So we are not separate from the environment around us, but rather are formed by and with this environment. As I change, so will my world, and vice versa. Varela himself experienced this directly when he had a liver transplant. He kept a phenomenological record of his experiences through this (‘Intimate Distances’, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol 8, Nos 5-7, 2001). He describes his reflection on having the transplanted liver inside him after the operation:

I’ve got a foreign liver inside me. Again the question: Which me? Foreign to what? We change all the cells and molecules of a liver every few weeks. It is new again, but not foreign. The foreignness is the unsettledness of the belonging with other organs in the ongoing definition that is an organism. In that sense my old liver was already foreign; it was gradually becoming alien as it ceased to function, corroded by cirrhosis, with no other than a suspended irrigation of islands of cells, which are then left to decay and wither away.

This makes me think how I’ll feel having a non-human joint inside me, made from metal and ceramic, nothing organic. Does this make me less-than-human? Or human-hybrid? Or more-than-human? I grew up watching the 1970s version of ‘The Bionic Woman’ with Lindsay Wagner as Jamie Summers. Will I, too, become bionic, with human-made non-human parts inside me? These parts should do a better job than the bones and cartilage I have in my current body. But what will this make me? A Dr Who cyberman? Upgraded from human to better-than-human with an artificial component to enhance function? In my fantasy, being a bionic woman will enable me to run as fast and jump as high as Jamie was able to do (pre-CGI). I wish! So what else might being a bionic woman mean? I feel that the experience of satipatthana will help me explore this after the operation, with the new body leading to a new mind and world. Meanwhile, here’s a little montage of Jamie doing her bionic leaping as an incentive as I look forward to the move into a new time zone (and hope my hair will always stay as well groomed as hers in the act of jumping!):