Lockdown, Isolation, Distancing

I haven’t written a post here for three months, and what a strange three months it’s been. After the last entry, when the second operation was postponed due to a test that told me I was pregnant, but after more tests showed I am actually in menopause (how the same result leads to opposite outcomes), I’ve been back at work, and preparing for my trip to India, due to fly there tomorrow for two weeks for a research project. And then after coming back, the operation is rescheduled for 28th April. All planned well and sorted.

Or so I thought.

Now, I’m in isolation in my house, looking at a quiet, frightened world outside. The trip to India is cancelled, and the operation postponed, until… whenever. The university has closed, the students have left, and we’re teaching and meeting through screens, substituting two-dimensional flickering for three=dimensional feeling. As I have asthma, I’m trying to avoid going out as much as possible, grateful for my garden, but also wondering about the nature of contact, and how to live without it.

Perhaps because all my travel plans are on hold, and I’m living within a series of walls with only the views of front and back outside to sustain me, I’ve been thinking about travel, journeying to other countries, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the things I’ve done elsewhere than this house and city. I wrote two poems a couple of nights ago. This first one is about Bombay, where I was due to be in a week’s time after working in Bangalore. I was remembering the first time I went there when I was three years old. I have a very vivid memory of watching the colours of the sunset over the sea – it’s one of the clearest memories that’s stayed with me throughout all these years since. Maybe the colours, sounds, smells were so different to my three year-old self’s experience up to then, that this moment imprinted itself in my mind and continued with me. Whenever I go back to Bombay now I need to sit by the sea to watch the sunset, to relive that moment, to connect with the story of my life and family. I usually stay in the south of the city, in Colaba. When travelling from the airport through the traffic-filled streets, there’s one particular moment when turning left onto the seafront at Chowpatty beach and going along Marine Drive. When I sea that view opening up in front of me, I think ‘I’m home’. My other home. So here’s a poem thinking about that, with a photograph I took in 2012 of the sunset over the sea from Marine Drive.

The first time, I was three years old.
My oldest memory.
Colour, colour, colour like I’d never seen before,
And wouldn’t again for nine years.
Many memories still linger from that time,
The otherness of the world imprinting my
Three year-old mind forever to today.
An elderly aunt seating me on her lap
And showing me how to play the keys of a piano.
The horrors of the flight over –
My ears suffering, as they still do now.
People who were family and yet not known.
Smells, sounds, tastes, all overwhelming,
Senses pushed overboard.
A foreign world that over visits, through the years,
Became my other home.
I know I’m home when
Driving from the airport I turn the corner
And head down the wide road with the
Queen’s Necklace of lights,
The art deco verandas,
And the sea filling the bay.
And whenever I go back
I need to sit there again
To see the colours,
To reconnect with the earliest memory.
Marine Drive. Sunset. Home.

One of my other favourite moments on Marine Drive is that as the sun goes down, the promenade fills with people come to watch the sunset, as well as go jogging, eat snacks, chat with friends, and walk. I think of this as the Indian passiagata, the tradition of walking through the city in the evening that also happens in Italy, France, and Spain, as well as other places. It’s one of my favourite way of walking in the city, feeling the difference in the way of being at these times compared to the day. Above all, the passiagata for me is a time of being sociable, of being in contact with people through walking, talking, drinking, watching. Strange to think that all those places are now also in lockdown, empty, quiet. In this time of ‘social distancing’, the yearning to be anything other than socially distant is very strong, so the memory of passiagata is in my mind and body as I sit in my house, surrounded by unseen others also in solitude, sharing yet separate, waiting and hoping.

Photos below of passiagata in different cities that I’ve taken, followed by a poem.

Passiagata on Marine Drive, Bombay, 2014
Lecce, 2011
Nice, 2009
Passiagata, passiagata!
My favourite kind of walk.
In Italy, Spain, France, India,
(Lecce, Madrid, Nice, Bombay)
Walking through dusk- to dark- covered skies
With the brightest of lights in
Shops, cafes, bars.
Strolling along by joggers, talkers, drinkers, lovers,
And sellers of balloons, ice-cream, toys, snacks.
Andante meanderings through the changed city landscape,
Sipping cerveza, licking gelato, munching olives, drooling over mangoes,
Sharing evening air and gossip
Accompanied by musics of many sorts.
Crowded yet spacious, occupying time and place
With many others also pacing away the few hours,
Promenading through a liminal life in measured breaths.

All Is In Change – Solstice Reflections

Today is the Winter Solstice, a time of change, shift, turning, as the planet tips on its axis, affecting light, heralding return of the sun. On the longest night of the shortest day, people in Iran celebrate the festival of Shab-e Yalda, where family and friends come together to share food, and read poetry. In the depths of winter, the heart of the long dark hours of night, there is a reminder of a birth, a seed, that is germinating and will continue to grow through the winter months to emerge in Spring.

Sun over the sea in Nice, France, taken by Jerri a few years ago.

Still, the dark months are a time of reflection, and it’s certainly been that way for me over the past few weeks. My previous post talked of my impending operation the next day, and finished with the Zen phrase: ‘I learn only to be content’. This has been tested in me in what happened when I went into hospital for the operation. I had prepared, mentally and physically, packed my bag, turned up at 7am. I was last on the list. Everything was going well, and I was waiting for my turn, when a nurse turned up to say that there’d been an abnormal result from a blood test they’d taken that day. Eventually, the anaesthetist and surgeon came to talk to me, and said that as this represented an undiagnosed condition, they didn’t want to operate until they find out what’s going on. I was devastated – all my preparations, plannings, readiness, had suddenly fallen apart, and I was left with uncertainly of a new physical issue, and not knowing when I could have the operation. I have to go to India in April for a research project, and as I can’t fly for three months after the operation, this means I’ll now have to wait until after I come back in April to have it done, so will need to live in pain and with uneven leg lengths for months to come. And I’m having scans and tests to try to find out what this new condition might be. It’s been very difficult to deal with this, and have to readjust to the new situation. Trying to stay content is challenging in the face of shifting expectations of the body and healing. So I’ll try to take strength from the Solstice today, from the idea that all is in change, that the earth is still rotating, the sun is still there, and even if climate change is causing turbulence around the planet, there’s still a pattern that I need to trust, and know that all will be well. Even if this is made even harder by recent political events that will have ramifications for the state of the country for years to come, it’s important to try to stay positive with the idea of the return of the sun, of the seed giving birth to something new.

A year ago, this time in December, I was in Kerala in India, a place where the sun and warmth is so different from England at this time of year. As part of the research project we were doing, we visited the festival of Vrschika in the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple in Tripunithura, near Kochi. Here, processions of elephants carry the temple’s deity around the courtyard to the accompaniment of loud drums and wind instruments. It’s a spectacle that draws many thousands of visitors. We were there to study and consider the welfare of the elephants, and the changing history of their use in these types of events. But we were also observing the different kinds of performances that were happening. One of these, taking place overnight, were performances of Kathakali, a classical form of dance-drama from Kerala. I love Kathakali – it’s been one of my favourite forms, and learning a little bit of it in 1987 was the instigator of my coming back in contact with my Indian heritage, including travelling to Kerala to learn and practice it, and watch performances. The moment of the reveal of the characters from behind the multi-coloured curtain is one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences.

Before the performance in the temple last year, we were fortunate to be invited back-stage to observe the actors being made up, and putting on their costumes. This was amazing to watch, with the dark room lit by oil lamps, and packed with people helping the preparations. And the actors – watching the transformation from man to mythological figure, the human obscured as the character is born, emerges in the process. I was fascinated to watch how the actors would look at their made-up face in a mirror in order to absorb, become, the new being they were going to portray for hours on the small stage. The point of transformation into that new, elevated being comes when they put on the crown headdress, and then become more-than-human, ‘other’ to the world. I took the photograph below of the moment of the actor looking in the mirror, reflecting on himself and the character. It’s a moment of quiet privacy amidst the flurry happening around. I wrote a poem about this a few days ago. Stepping back, I’ve noticed that many of the poems I’ve been writing have themes and images of reflection and reflecting, perhaps indicative of the state of bodymind I’m in at the moment. This one is thinking about the process of shifting from actor to character, as well as the magic of the performance, and then of us going outside after the all-night performance, shortly before dawn, and watching a solo elephant being led by its mahout, walking in circles around the temple to the accompaniment of a bell, as it had been doing during the night. The turning of time, of nature, of stories, of seasons, reflected now in the shift of the solstice to a new season, a new life, a new moment.

Photograph taken by Jerri in Tripunithura, 2018,


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.

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.

My Pink Feet – Part One

I’m spending a lot of time looking looking at my feet. Lying or sitting up in bed, with my legs stretched out in front of me, my feet are the part of my body most in my line of vision. It’s been interesting watching them change in colour and shape since the op. At first, they were swollen and very pink, encased in foot pumps that were to stop blood clots by exercising the calves.

These pumps were quite strange. They operated by filling slowly with air, putting a little pressure on the legs, then with a sudden snap they’d grip the legs, and release. They did each leg in turn, in a regular rhythm. The other feature of them is the sound they make. As they fill with air, there’s a building up of a hissing, rushing noise, before a sudden snap loud as a firework and release of air. It could be almost like breathing – a drawing in of air followed by sudden release.

But these things were loud, and as I lay awake at night I could hear mine, and those of three or four others on the ward pumping away at different times, a syncopated soundscape of air and snap. Sometimes the final snap was like a firecracker, and would wake me up if I’d drifted off. Listening to them, rather than thinking of the sounds as being like breathing, I had the image of a milking parlour. We were all attached to pumps that were acting as mechanical proxies for our bodily functions, in our individual stall beds, waiting patiently as the pumps worked until they could be taken off in the morning, and we could take back our bodies and move them ourself.

Legs being pumped and milked. Very strange. But I became so used to the sound that I listened for it the first night I was home. Its absence is now part of the night’s experience.

Feet in foot pumps

Over time, the swelling has been going down, and the feet returning to a more usual colour. Except for the pink bits. The pink is there for a very particular reason which will be the focus of the next blog post.