Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Soul in the Machine

Pinned face-down in a tiny tunnel, hands bound, lower body covered in a heavy blanket, immobilized. I could feel drugs move hot across my back, up my neck. My face flushed red, my nose itched, but breathing deeply just made me more aware of the weight pressing on my back.

I have nightmares like this, but this was real. This was for my own good. People do this every day, and they don’t break down. They don’t freak out. Just breathe softly, I told myself. Close your eyes.

If I wanted to keep breathing, I had to be perfectly still. If I wanted this to end, I could not move.
The noise started, ticks and thumps, then a steady beat.

Holy holy holy Lord God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest

It was set to go on for 20 minutes. I didn’t know if I would last that long.  I had to.

Early today I had a Magnetic Resonance Image experience at Hospital Rio Carrion in Palencia. I had an MRI before, but it was just my face, my sinuses. This was the whole chest, the whole body-inside business. 

I was not prepared for the panic. I was not ready to be overwhelmed by irrational fear.  I thought I’d outgrown claustrophobia. But now I see I’ve just developed ways to avoid small, tight spots. I use coping strategies to handle booths and crowded elevators, and crowds in general. They are excuses, dodges.

The MRI dropped me face-down and head-first into the horror I keep deep down. 
Starting out was the worst. Settling into the bonds. Feeling just how deep a breath I could take without bumping against the arc above my shoulder blades. Feeling things shift in my sinuses, hoping nothing moved in there to block my breathing.

These people are professionals, I told myself. They know what to do if you can’t breathe. Stop. Noble thoughts. Prayers. 

Padre nuestro que estas en el cielo
Sanctificada sea tu nombre

Soon time stopped meaning anything. I had to stop thinking about when it would end, because it might just be starting. If I was going to get through this, I had to stop thinking.

I relived the drive down to Palencia, the dawn breaking red and orange over a hillside studded with windmills. There was a pilgrim out there already, hunched in the cold, dark on the path, moving fast. Just at Calzadilla I saw a dog running alongside the road, down on the camino – it leaped and twisted like something joyful. I slowed, hoping it didn’t dart into the road. I looked down and into its face. It was not a dog. It was a fox, with a mouse in its mouth. Its fox-tail was thick and lush, its eyes looked through their white mask and right into mine.

Where can I go from your presence?
Where can I flee from your spirit?
If I go up to the heavens you are there, 
If I lie down in the depths, you are there
You have searched me and you know me
You are with me always, even unto the ends of the Earth

I thought of my sister Beth, who reassured me this week that this problem is common, she went through this before herself, it hurts but it’s not cancer.

Not cancer. Not cancer. That means a lot to ­­­­me, it’s why I am in this machine, so I can find out. So many of our family get cancer, and so many of us are dead now. I don’t want to be dead. I don’t want to be sick, even. I don’t want to hurt. I want to breathe.  I want to walk in big broad steps and wave my arms around and shout at bad dogs, and laugh out loud.

I thought of the low bright sun outside, and Paddy probably out on the campo with all the dogs at that very moment, throwing ridiculous long shadows down into the fields. The walk up to the tumberon, all that sky and air and space ahead and behind and above. The music in the house, the morning music, ridiculous witty Cole Porter music

While tearing off
A game of golf
I might make a play for the caddy
But if I do I don’t follow through
Cause my heart belongs to Paddy

The music started moving to the pulsing deep rhythm of the machine, and I saw myself dancing to that, like I danced many times in the past, arms and legs, hips and fingers, all in motion all at once, to that music. Techno. Deep house. In my head I boogied down, while my body stayed utterly, perfectly still, while the magnets whirled round my carcass and somehow shot dozens of photos of what’s inside.    

Here am I, sitting in a tin can
High above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

And then it stopped.
And I was freed.
And I went home.  
On Tuesday afternoon I will know what they saw.

Meantime, I will celebrate Thanksgiving. I will walk under the big sky and take great deep breaths.   

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A Wednesday in November

The brown-eyed girl came first, a Navajo called Annalise. From New Mexico, a dental hygienist, a bad ankle, a chipper little talk talk talker. I was baking bread. She watched carefully.
I put her to work, helping trim the buds on some dried stalks. A big job for people who are sitting down. A great thing to do while someone talks, while The Eagles sing on the stereo, while a storm gathers up in the sky outside.
Autumn blew in overnight over the weekend. Now it's blustery and chilly, and the sky can't decide on sun or clouds or overcast, snow or cold or wind. I took the screens and the canvas roof off the little gazebo out on the patio, I pulled the orange tree and ficus and pony-tail palm inside, just in time. When the ugly storm broke, the patio was waiting for it, stripped half naked and ready for the worst.
Annalise said she'd left a note for her friend in the bar in Calzadilla, that the guy was sure to stop there for his 10 a.m. beer, sure to get the note, sure to get here before nightfall. He's a chef in a restaurant, she said -- he can cook our dinner when he arrives! Him and maybe a couple of other people. Maybe a couple or more people, she said. It depends.
And so yes, they showed up. Michael, the Belgian beer-lover, tattooed and pierced and carrying a flute and drum and juggling sticks in his 25-kilo pack -- a classic Camino character. (these are the kind of guys who built our house, matter of fact.)  
Then came Joseph, an older man whose face shone with the gentle severity of San Ignacio -- and yes, he was a Basque, a doctor just back from years of service in Gambia. His ankle was very bad, there was a hole torn in the heel. His Achilles tendon was about half-ruptured. I did some healing juju on it, even though he is a doctor. He closed his eyes and breathed as I did it, just they way you ought to. A real doctor, a real healer, knows how to be healed himself, just as well as he knows how to heal others. He learned that in Africa, he said.
With him was Will, a mild-mannered man from Charleston, S.C., who immediately fell in with the dogs and cat. With him was Santiago, a dark-eyed Murcian who works in Mexico, "moving merchandise." His hair was black and wild, he had prison tattoos, but a toothy smile full of sunshine. There were three more, but we had no room for them. They went to Bruno's place.
Oh, and there's Coco, a shiny black Podenco hound who we are babysitting while his master finishes the Camino. Tim and Rosie tolerate him. Momo Cat kinda likes him, I think. He follows me around like a puppy dog. He likes to eat everyone else's dog food.
All the pilgrims were inordinately happy to see one another, even though they'd seen each other only hours before, they exulted, hugged and kissed, even with packs still strapped on and walking poles in hand, with dogs barking and laundry going up onto the lines. A hunk of veal shoulder for four was sliced with carrots and potatoes into a ragout for seven. Potatoes peeled, buds put into jars and stowed away, writing projects despaired-of and abandoned, Someone produced wine, another pulled out some eggs, some lettuce, a tomato... which quickly combined with some other leftovers into a pan of fried rice and a salad with honey-mustard dressing. The sun went down suddenly.
In the middle of it all, after a wait of three weeks, Tino the Electrician arrived to fix the lights in the salon. The salon by then was stacked with pack-covers and gloves, draped with drying socks and dozing blokes. He pulled some wires out of the wall, climbed up on a chair.
All the lights in the house went out. Someone actually screamed a little scream, which made all the dogs bark madly. The lights came back on right away, and the dogs thought they'd done it.  
We set the table with plates of different colors, backup silverware, four bottles of less-than-wonderful vino. Tino fled. We pulled a lawn chair in from outside and everyone sat down to a lovely communal feast, conducted in English, Spanish, and German.
There was just enough of everything. Everyone helped to wash up dishes and wipe down the kitchen.
Everyone went to bed by 10:30. Every bed was full, and Will shared the mattress on the living room floor with Tim, Coco, Momo, and Rosie, who are not allowed to climb on beds.
I retreated to my office, which was very chilly.
I thought I might write.
I fell asleep instead.