Thursday, November 29, 2012

Good knee, bad knee

For the past year I have been living with a “good knee” and a “bad knee.” The good knee, the left one, has served diligently without complaint. The bad right knee has buckled under me. The good knee left me free to have conversations while I walk upstairs. The bad knee begged for attention so I couldn't  think about anything else. The good knee has been quiet, well-behaved, and admirably flexible. The bad knee woke me every night like a cat who thinks breakfast comes before sunrise.

The bad knee has kept me from doing all kinds of things I like in the last year. No biking, no hiking. I've meditated in a chair while the cooler, hipper yogis balance on their zafus on the floor. I wore flat shoes to parties and I rode the elevator to go up just one flight. At the library where I work, when I would get down on the floor to talk to little kids, my grimaces made them hide behind their mother’s legs. 

Ten days ago I had surgery to fix the bad knee. A doctor took about twenty minutes to open up my knee, stick a camera inside, find the raggedy piece of torn cartilage, and trim it back into a neat shape with no frayed edges to flap around and make me squinch my face in pain. “Minor procedure,” the doctor said. I guess it was minor for him, since it only took twenty minutes out of his day. 

For me it’s been more like a two-week vacation on a cruise ship you really, really want to get off of. On this ship, the post-surgery cruise ship, the bed is uncomfortable, the food has no appeal, the bar is locked up and the entertainment is basic cable. I understand I’m getting better, and I can see progress day to day, but – allow me to say something breathtakingly obvious here – pain is exhausting, and pain pills make you blotto.

As an aside, how many of the Seven Dwarfs could be my avatar right now?

Sleepy – check.
Dopey – check.
Grumpy– doublecheck.
Sneezy -- I'm not Sneezy, thank goodness, but I have a strong resemblance to Sneezy's cousins from the wrong side of the tracks, Itchy and Scratchy. 
That leaves Bashful, Happy, and Doc.  I'm usually quite Bashful, really, but the pills I’m taking make me talk without constraint about anything that comes into my head. Junior high school crushes, constipation, everything. Happy hasn’t been around here much lately. either As for Doc, the opioid pain pills have been giving me kind of crazy dreams that sometimes feature my knee surgeon. But on the other hand, the surgeon really did have an uncanny resemblance to Mitt Romney, so who's to say what those nightmares are about.

This morning I woke up and realized that for the first time since the surgery I had slept all the way through the night without waking up in pain. I went to the dentist and had my teeth cleaned, and the effort neither made me sweaty nor did it make me cry. So yes, progress. I found myself thinking kindly towards my bad knee. I told it, “You’re not going to be the bad knee very much longer, are you. You are really shaping up. Thanks, I appreciate it.” 

And then – I distinctly heard the voice of my bad knee speaking up, like a voice-over in a documentary called The Knee Whisperer.

My bad knee said, “HEY! I am your right knee. I am the strong side of your body. I am the one who has been doing more of the work, carrying more of the load. I take longer steps, I push harder on the bike pedal, I go first up the stairs. I have been compensating for the left knee – and the rest of your ungrateful carcass – for years. I have been the GOOD KNEE your whole friggin' life and I deserve a little more respect and care. You better take notes on this, chickie, or we are in for a whole bunch of a painful and broken-down decades."

That took me back a little bit. My broken-down knee thought it was the good knee. Who does that remind me of? Oh, me, the good volunteer, daughter, librarian, and friend, the person who tries to fix the world’s problems between migraines. And look what happens to the ones who try to carry more than their share, so they can acquire a lovely row of gold stars next to their name. We break down. And funnily enough, the very people who are pushing us the most may not be that sympathetic when we fall. We have to be kind to ourselves first and not wait for other people to do that for us.

I said that my knee told me this. More realistically, maybe the narcotics I've been taking had something to do with it. But just because it might be opiate-induced doesn’t mean it isn't true.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Only connect

My friend Nicole Birkholzer is like a family therapist for people and horses. She writes a fascinating blog at  When I met a horse on my recent vacation in Pennsylvania, I had to reflect how much I've learned from her, just by listening to her read out loud from her forthcoming book in our weekly writers' group.

On a recent trip across northern Pennsylvania my husband and I took a day to go down into the heart of a dramatic river gorge, Pine Creek Gorge. We would be traveling in a wagon drawn by a team of Belgian draft horses.

Now, I was never a girl who liked horses, and my adult level of interest in horses has hovered on the dial between "low attraction" and "mild anxiety." But over the last year, I've attended a weekly writers' group and heard Nicole Birkholzer  read from the early drafts of her book about working with horses. Nicole coaches people to understand horses with greater awareness, with a "mindful connection." The close relationships she talks about between people and animals sounded to me like practical magic -- hard to believe at first, but proven real again and again.

Listening to Nicole made me feel that I felt that if I had the chance to spend time with a horse, I could be open to making a "mindful connection," or at least giving it a try.

That morning in Pine Creek Gorge, I wondered whether I would have any chance to get to know the horses who would be pulling our wagon as a team. That certainly wasn't on the agenda of the tour operators, but I thought I'd keep my eyes open and be patient.

We got to the farm where our tour would start quite early, so I had a lot of time to walk around. There were a couple of vigorous-looking draft horses in one pasture. They had a barely contained adolescent energy, like teenaged football players in a locker room before a game.

Off in another enclosure I saw another horse who seemed quite different, older perhaps. He was also a Belgian draft horse, massive and reddish blond. His coat looked patchy and even scruffy, with a balding muzzle and hair that had thinned on his back. He was calmly eating hay about twenty feet from the fence. The woman who ran the place told me his name was Buddy.

I decided to try to "connect" to Buddy, since the two jocks in the farther field seemed like more than I could handle. I was prepared for Buddy to have no interest in me whatsoever. After all, he must be approached by tourists every day, and people being people, some of those visitors must be annoying. "It's just an experiment," I thought. "I'll try to practice what Nicole talks about. I'll listen to the horse, let him know what my intentions are, and see if he's open to meeting me."

I watched Buddy eating for a while and tried to sense his energy. He seemed absorbed in chewing on hay, sticking his nose deep into the bale as if the yummy stuff was way inside. After a while I began to "broadcast" my intention by thinking, "Hello, if you want me to scratch your back or anything, I'm available."

He kept eating with concentration, as if he were unaware of my presence. I continued to think, "You look like you're enjoying your food, but I'm just saying, I'm here, I could scratch you...."

Then I really did feel something bounce between me and the horse: a distinct "brush-off" feeling. It seemed like Buddy was telling me "Okay! I heard you! And I'm eating! This is what I want to do right now! Stop nudging me!"

I mentally acknowledged the message and told him I'd be around if he changed his mind. I went to sit on a bench in the sunshine fifty feet away. After ten minutes, he came right up to the fence and made eye contact with me across the open space. Oh, okay, I thought, lunch is over, now he may be taking me up on my offer.

I walked back to the fence and began to scratch his side, moving to his neck and the space between his ears as he stepped nearer. When he seemed squirmy, I moved to another spot until he settled down again, just like you would with a cat.

As I scratched and rubbed him, Buddy moved in closer and closer to me, all 2000 pounds of warm horse muscle and rough hair.  Finally his enormous nostrils were pressed right up against my face as my arms were draped along his sides scratching. Like the tip of an elephant's trunk, the edges of Buddy's nose explored my face with an elastic, moist, whiffling delicacy.

I felt entirely absorbed in this big creature. I felt I'd been given a huge gift:  this being was sharing his self with me, his weight, his smell, his breath, his gaze. It seemed like a long time we stood this way, but really, I wasn't aware of time going by. There was still a wooden fence between us, but Buddy's trust in me erased any fences in my mind.