22 months, almost 2 years now. As always, I am befuddled by the elasticity of time passing. It feels like forever ago that I was in Pittsburgh unable to move my body other than head and shoulders. It also feels like it was just yesterday I was using a forearm walker to relearn how to make my legs take one step and then another. However confused my perception of how the time has passed, what is certain, is that I am more alive as a result of this spinal cord injury and my healing process.
As I sit here in a chair in my sweet room in France, forming my thoughts into words by tapping my two best working fingers on letters of my keyboard, I ask myself about the thread that carries through these 22 months. The loudest answer is 'effort'. Then I feel-hear 'acceptance'. When I keep listening patiently I hear other words like grace, support, celebration and gratitude. And if I am willing to stay a bit longer, to keep listening to the whispers of my interior landscape, then I also hear-feel grief, pain, sadness and shame as major players in the experience of this healing journey.
My spinal cord injury healing journey experience has been and continues to be broad and wide. It is filled by a veritable kaleidoscope of feelings and truths that flow and shift through my days. It feels true to say its base has been created and supported by an enormous amount of effort. In the beginning intense effort didn't feel like a choice. It was simply what I did, apply the best effort I could toward mobility each day.
At the beginning of my healing journey, there was so much clarity. There was a part of me that was relieved to feel like I had a clear purpose in life. My whole existence united to put in the effort required to regain mobility and agency in the world. My goal was clear and unquestioned, I wanted to move again. It was challenging of course. There was enormous frustration in trying to do basic life activities. There was plenty of bewilderment by the level of motor skills and strength required, and previously taken for granted, to do things like pick up objects, open containers, brush teeth, get dressed etc. But the frustration was nothing in comparison the sense of accomplishment when I was able to do something new. What a gift that was, to be able to celebrate the very smallest acts as huge wins in life.
In my early days of healing there was no internal dialogue other than gentle reassurance. I never once said to myself, "Ok girl you gotta try to walk again." or "You need to work to use your arms and hands." I just did it. There was no internal dialogue riddled with questions or analysis. I have no memory of ever thinking that I needed to try harder or do better. As I dip deeper into this reflection I recall that in those early days I never judged myself as not doing well enough or not trying hard enough. When I look back at myself in those early days of the injury, I am impressed. That is the version of myself I want to get to know better. I want her to continue to shine into this life more often, not just in a time of crisis.
As I reflect on the entirety of this experience, the earliest days are those I am the most proud of. They were somehow the most straightforward and simplest of this whole journey. Kind of like my perception of time, my perception of challenge feels elastic. Was it more or less challenging to receive the news that I was paralyzed or to feel almost 'normal' but not quite? Was it more or less challenging to learn to take those first steps or to try to fix my stride now? Was it more or less challenging to not be able to use my hands at all or to use them with uncertainty and trepidation? More or less, it all feels the same, and continues to require effort and acceptance.
I went for a hike in the hills of the Provence region of France today. As I was getting ready to leave the house the four-year old who lives here asked me, "Are you going to see Haiti?" My instinctive immediate response started out, "N..." but before I finished my word I remember her mom telling me that one day this precocious 4 year old said to her, "Momma, I can see the hills of Haiti, Sudan and France - they are all my home." So in this spirit, of knowing our home is everywhere, and my powerful mind can take me anywhere I dream to go, I told her I wasn't sure if I would see Haiti on my walk, but I'd let her know when I got back.
With my feet in the shoes that have in the past 6 months walked the dirt roads of southern India, the foothills of the Himalayas, and the gritty streets of Athens, I walked down the driveway to a recently discovered footpath through the nearby hills of the Provence region of France. I did a reconnaissance walk yesterday for the first on foot outing during my two weeks here. I gave my body some quality rest when I first arrived and it felt amazing to get moving outside again. My friends mother loaned me some hiking poles and they add a lovely level of comfort to longer hikes in unknown terrain.
Compared to my hikes in the Himalayan foothills todays walk was gentle and easy. Compared to those hikes and the walks in Athens, Greece today was incredibly serene. I walked about ten minutes down our long driveway and single lane paved road, then turned onto smaller road that took me to the footpath I had found yesterday. my favorite part of the early footpath are old stone walls tucked around the way of the path. With no historical type markers like I had for the ancient stones in Athens, Greece or the religious indicators of tucked away temples of India, still I could feel the deep history of the place through these stone walls. As I walked I could well imagine the people from centuries ago walking these paths to get to market and tilling the stone terraced land. The stones felt like they had a story to tell and I did my best to listen as I walked.
In my four hour outing, the only people I saw were three loud talking cyclists on a paved backroad that my footpath crossed. The moment I heard them was a funny one. I had just seen horse droppings, so I guessed I would see them come my way on horse. Then I looked ahead, and I saw a bathtub. Yes, in the middle of nowhere rural Provence, France, there was a white ceramic bathtub, that I happened to see at the same moment I heard a loud voice. So then I figured I was coming into their land or a campsite. As I walked a bit more, I saw them whizzing by on bicycles above me on a road, nothing to do with the bathtub. I said "Bonjour", they didn't acknowledge me or the bathtub. As I walked toward the bathtub, wondering what on earth it was doing there, I saw a baby snail perched high on a tall piece of grass. I slowly realized that in the area around this mystery bathtub, each of the tall grass blades had one to three little white shelled tiny snails perched on them. I haven't seen this before and felt like I was in a patch of the Twilight Zone.
As I left the Twilight Zone, I came to the road the cyclists had been on. I walked on the road for a bit, and was pleased to see another footpath so I could continue with what felt like more of a deep nature hike. The path was more narrow and rocky than it had been on the other side, I was happy for the lent trekking poles. The land smelled of arid Mediterranean earth in August, desert like dusty aliveness The cicadas were the loudest sound, as I tuned in, I could also hear the dry leaves of oak and olive trees rustling, whispering pine needles, birds chirping, and flies buzzing, As I walked slowly step by careful not-so-paralyzed-anymore-but-still-tentative step, my thoughts moved at a meteoric speed. They jumped between attending to the act of walking, observing my surroundings, feeling the stories of the stones and the trees, coming up with poem titles and first lines to a book, and of course drifting away into my stories from past and into the future.
Being an observer of my thoughts is one skill I am proud of being on the scent of mastering. My observer mind is getting stronger and stronger with practice. Today I felt it and enjoyed it. As I walked and thought, I observed how much I was thinking. As I spend more time alone on the Healing journey, talking less to others, I realize just how much I talk in my head about this, that, and the other thing. The Yoga Sutras say that true yoga is a "cessation of mind activity" in this pursuit I can often feel judgmental of how active my mind is and how challenging it is to quiet it any place other than a meditation cushion.
Sinking into the power of narrative, "the stories I tell myself create my world", I am now choosing to revel in my powerfully imaginative and busy mind instead of judging it. As I revel in it, observe and appreciate it - I can feel this befriending as an important step toward quieting it. Like a child who needs to be seen before she can be quiet. My mind longs to feel seen and appreciated instead of taken for granted or shamed. As I observed it today, and reflected on the question of my sweet little four year old friend, I felt gratitude for a mind that can take me anywhere I want to go.
I walked for about an hour, and then following the guidance of a butterfly, I made a little nest for myself at Noon. Yesterday, I was reminded that in Haiti they do voodoo rituals at Noon and midnight. It was (not) by happenstance that the butterfly guided me to sit down on a pine needle bed nestled among the trees just along the path just as Noon came. I sat down in a meditative seat. closed my eyes and let my mind wander wherever it wanted to go. Me, I just watched it dance through time and space, places and people, feelings and stories. After a while, I felt tired, so I lay down on my side. I felt so safe and secure tucked away in a little nest for rest among the pines. My mind it drifted softly here and there and my heart felt at complete peace.
It was a little cloudy and it felt like the clouds were there to help create a container for my sadness. Because even as I feel into being at peace and celebrate the joy of living in a dream existence of open time and space connecting in nature, when I look deep inside it is almost always a sense of sadness and discomfort that I find. Today I felt a genuine willingness to befriend these feelings. To accept them as welcome guests as Rumi has suggested.
by Mary Oliver
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."
Lizandra Vidal is a poet, writer, and wellness expert. In 2015 she suffered a spinal cord injury and this blog is a space where she shares the story of her experience.