Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Speed of Blood

I'd been avoiding looking at my arm since they put the needle in. Hanging over the side of the bed, it felt alien, cold and creaking, almost mechanical--the needle pinched, white strips of tape strapped plastic tubes snaking along the inside of my elbow, and even without looking I had felt them drawing out the blood, like fluid ice creeping slowly upward from my fingertips. The absence, like cold water, water in my veins, water on the inside. I didn't turn my head.

I joked with the nurse, a pleasant, practical man named Andrew, about my blue spiraling tattoo wrapping the same arm. A little IV needle was nothing compared to four hours under the artist's razored, buzzing brush. But somehow, it was worse. Someone had told me once tribal peoples never closed the circle of an armband tattoo, always left a space between, for fear that it would cut the life force off and the limb would die. My own tattoo was like a Celtic torc, an interweaving, twisting semicircle of color that curled up at each end, leaving the underside of my upper arm pale and bare, unmarked.

Andrew leaned over my half-deadened arm and slipped a second needle into the IV's side valve, squeezing a half-mililiter dose of "Vitamin D" painkiller into my veins. Within seconds, a wave of nausea swept over me, a swelling tide that climbed up the back of my throat and subsided in a rippling flush of heat down through the rest of my body. "This stuff can make you pretty groggy," he warned, "and I've only given you half the normal dose, since you're not used to it." I smiled weakly at him. With the piercing of a single, long needle my body was laid exposed to the world, a wound leaking life force, a door wedged open through which any hot wind or rising flood could force its way inside. A threshold violated. The scraping, skin-deep stinging of the tattoo artist's craft was nothing compared to this.

Something happens to me when I get into a dangerous situation.

The time I was pulled a mile out to sea by a riptide, I gently tread water for half an hour waiting for the lifeguard to reach me, watching my body with interest as my limbs grew heavy and sore with the effort. Once, I tripped on a loose bit of carpet and fell down a flight of stairs, a tumbling mass of bones and flesh smacking together against the hard edges of steps and hand-railing; at the bottom, I lay crumpled and unmoving for a moment, calmly observing my breathing and the curious sensation of pain. When I was younger, I dug patiently into the layers of skin on my upper calf with a pair of dull tweezers, seeking out the black, squirming body of a tick that had burrowed there. In a theater, I stepped between an older woman and the tall man who was threatening her with an angry voice and clenched fists.

When I find myself in situations of potential bodily harm, everything else falls away; I find myself there, with an odd feeling of discovery and even curiosity. Sometimes I catch myself musing, What an interesting sensation this is.

Are such experiences evidence of a basic duality between the body and the spirit? It would make sense to believe that in those times of danger, some Higher Self responds, taking over with a centered calm and guiding the actions of the body--a Higher Self that is otherwise only tangential to the everyday self dwelling within my material form like a snail in her shell or a captain in her ship. Perhaps the body is the vehicle of the soul. Or the Higher Self like some kite that the soul is flying, shivering on the end of a string much closer to the heavens, able to give lift and strength, to run lightning down the line, and eventually the soul will kick off the body like a pair of worn-out sneakers and drift away into the Abyss trailing its colored ribbons behind.

Anonymous nurses had helped me onto the narrow, plastic tray of the CT machine and rigged me up to another time-release IV drip before retreating behind a wall I couldn't see. They spoke to me over an intercom as the machine churned into life and the tray jolted, guiding my prone body back and forth through a round portal labeled with a sign warning, Do Not Look Directly Into Laser. I closed my eyes. "Now we're going to inject the contrast solution--you may feel flushed, or the urge to relieve yourself. You may even feel as though you've had an accident, but you haven't. All right?" I managed a "yes" and breathed deeply once or twice, seeking the still center of my being as I do in meditation. The part of myself that draws back as observer braced and murmured, I know my body better than that, I know what it feels like, we'll just see....

No bing sounded, no light flicked on or off--but in a moment, thin hot liquid was trickling down my arm, on the inside of my skin, and pooling in my chest cavity where it sloshed in rhythm with my shallow respiration. In another moment, the warm watery sensation had seeped into my gut, where it met the preparatory chemicals I'd drunk with water an hour earlier and spread with unexpected quickness through my abdomen, down through my thighs and lower legs. This was not "feeling flushed"--this was something alien speeding through the crevices in between muscle and bone, something uneasy riding in my own familiar blood.

I found myself wondering, "Is this how fast blood moves? Is there a viscous, dark ocean pouring through my body all the time?"

I did not feel the urge to urinate--not a pressure on the bladder--but a building panicked wish to wash the stuff out of me, to release it with the warmth soaking the place where my butt and lower back rested on the cold plastic tray. I sought the smooth river stone sunk in the pool of stars that I had seen glistening so often in my centering prayers for peace, I reached to ground in that stone, in my own real body--and I quieted the wish. I breathed in, then out, as the computerized voice of the CT machine instructed. Then, the scan was over, and the same anonymous nurses were helping me back into the wheelchair, careening through the bright polished halls back to the ER, Room 7, where my boyfriend and Andrew were waiting.

This is not the view I hold, of spirit held tremulously to the body by a bit of string. The duality is just fundamentally dissatisfying to me. Not because I deny the validity of experiences like that of a Higher Self and the purely spiritual planes it seems to imply, but because those experiences have almost always been, at least in my case, fleeting. Yet so much else in this world, and in my own life, prompts me to understand matter and spirit as intimately interconnected, so tangled up and intermingled that you just cannot sift through and separate one from another.

In my ordinary life, if it weren't for these strange experiences of transcendence, I might be a pure animist. When I feel the wind caress my skin and it seems to me to be living and animate, filled with purpose and awareness--I cannot divide that sense of Presence from the wind itself. I can't separate the presence of the ocean from the reality of its waves, salted and slamming against the rocks, or the spirit of fire or sunlight from the physical heat and shifting illumination and shadows they create. Sometimes, the ocean's presence seems to follow me into dream when I am home again in my landlocked state. Sometimes the sunlight lingers in memory even during long winter nights. But it seems to me that it is not the spirit of these things at all, not in the way we commonly think of spirit or soul as something that just happens to be living here for the moment.

When I feel this Presence of ocean miles from its shore, what is it I feel? A familiar memory belonging to and arising in my own material form, I think, the knowledge that my body has within itself of the concrete, sensory details of the world. My body remembers. And because my body remembers, it reaches out for connection with these things even when they are absent. If there is a Presence, a god or goddess of the sea, it arises from the body of the ocean as my sense of self and spirit arises from my own body. (Perhaps it, too, can reach out towards me, and I can feel that stretching entering in.) The physical memory my body has of the ocean or the sunlight re-creates them in their fullness and power, manifests their presence again. And that is where their spirit exists: not hovering half-bored like a slick film over the material world, but in the places where our two bodies meet, and respond, and remember.

I'd been home from the hospital for two days, and in those two days I'd barely been able to drink. Food was out of the question. There seemed to be a vast whirlpool churning in my stomach, and any solid thing thrown in rebounded against its walls, reverberating and tipping like some nightmarish flotsam until my reflexes took over and vomited it up again. Drinking only added to this inner maelstrom, so that it threatened to overflow and drown me--even in sleep, it raged. I had been eating only sporadically for a day or two before my trip to the ER, and by eight o'clock on the second night after my visit I couldn't sit up in bed. In another hour, it would be time for another dose of antibiotics. The thought sickened me, and I began to suspect it was the medication, and not the infection, causing my nausea.

I was weak with dehydration. Jeff finished the chapter of the book he had been reading aloud and stopped, looking at me with concern. I could barely raise my hand to gesture at him. "We're setting the timer to go off every seven minutes," he said decidedly. "Every seven minutes, you're going to take a sip of gatorade. Just one sip--do you think you can hold that much down?" I nodded. My heart was pounding in my chest and my body felt pressed to the bed with a dry heat. It was as if a heavy hand of stone lay on my breastbone, though when I shifted it seemed to me that it must be the weight of my bones themselves that my body no longer had strength to support. "If you can't finish this whole bottle by midnight, I'm taking you back to the emergency room." Memories of the piercing needles and humming plastic machines worked into my hot, aching mind. I lifted the full, cool bottle shakily and took the first sip.

A few hours later, I was able to sit up in the bed and hold down not just some gatorade, but a mouthful or two of vegetable broth Jeff had heated on the stove downstairs. My last dose of antibiotics had been over twelve hours ago. The side-effects seemed to be subsiding, but the thought of taking my next dose brought me almost to tears with frustration and fear that the nausea would wash over me again. I couldn't bare the boiling, swirling motions of the chemicals making a desert of my body. I decided to stop the medication.

It's been almost two weeks since the start of all this. For all I know, the infection is completely gone, but the new antibiotics my doctor prescribed at the follow-up appointment leave me feeling dizzy, weak and with a disconcerting tightness of breath for several hours after each dose. Sometimes, I think I can't remember what good health even feels like. I cannot read my body anymore--I feel cut off and alone, uncertain what sensations to respond to and which to let pass as side-effects or passing urges. It has taken me all day to write this, a few paragraphs at a time interrupted by hours of lying in bed, trying to read or sleep, mostly feeling too warm or too chilled, rough and uncomfortable. And now, I'm angry.

The body is not a mere machine, the spirit not a ghost working the gearshift and pressing the right buttons. I have had only limited experience with modern medicine, having been blessed with good health for much of my life. But these last two weeks have only reinforced my opinion that there is something unbalanced--something crude and insensitive, something unhealthy--about the way modern medicine is practiced. Don't get me wrong--the nurses and doctors were all quite competent and kind. But it is the practice--the attitude of fixing the body in pieces and parts, treating first one symptom then another, relieving first the real pain and then prescribing something else to counteract the side-effects of treatment... this whole process itself, I have a problem with.

I respond to immediate danger with a kind of leap-up in perspective, but constant illness wears my spirit down as it wears on the body. The Higher Self isn't missing, it arises from the physical and depends on it as a foundation, as a root in the world. That is why I am not a pure animist; I believe in panentheism. Spirit infuses but transcends the material world, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Words for breath and life force--the moving essence shared among all of us--evoke spirit in almost every language. And so there are times when I invoke that transcendence, that Higher Self I have sometimes met in danger and distress. I take a deep breath, and reach up--and I touch the memory of health and power and wholeness I've known before.

I'm angry as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore. The anger lifts me above my fatigue and discomfort and--after two long weeks--I begin to feel my body again, feel it thrilling to life in touch with the earth, longing for sunlight, thirsty for the ocean, aching for the smell of bark and fresh grass in the fields. I will make my own way back to health and balance, listening carefully to the promptings of my grounding in the world--because I know what these things are, my spirit knows, my body remembers.


  1. You're on your way to recovering. I hope that the journey is not too unpleasant for you. I'm glad you're used to good health and have not been long without it - you'll recognize it when it returns and before long won't fear it fleeing again with one wrong move.

    My thoughts are with you.

  2. Thank you, Pom. I'm already feeling much better and much more like myself, after only a day off the antibiotics. It really is amazing to me how harsh, I might even say callous the medication was--and how it knocked my body out from under me, so to speak, so that I felt ill without any definite reason why and with no recourse (like rest or tea) that would normally make me feel better. It really did feel like my body wasn't mine anymore, but just an out-of-balance machine. Ugh.

    But last night Jeff and I went out to the park after dark and sat in meditation with a candle lit, and I felt myself reaching down into the earth and up into the sky, and re-centering. Now, I'm just in the mood for some good solid rest. And maybe a nice cup of tea. ;)

  3. I hope this passes soon, so that you may connect with your body more fully again. I've been in hospital myself and felt the invasion of IVs and tests, and it made me fear the loss of my spirit, the onset of madness.

    Your body is recovering, and with its strength, so its ability to heal itself returns.
    Sending you thoughts and energy,