In late spring, I was in a bad car accident: A driver who had her license less than a week ran a stop sign and T-boned my car, smashing in the driver’s side door, shattering glass all over the inside of the car and our hair, turning the car sideways so that we careened down a side street.
My two children, aged two and six, were in the backseat, and as the car slid to the curb, I looked in the rearview mirror, panicking: Luckily, there was no blood – my son’s hands and face were covered in chocolate and he was crying about his cookie in pieces on the floor. The only other sound was my daughter screaming that she had seen the SUV coming at her window and was waiting for it to hit.The paramedics took us into the ambulance––I told them I was fine, but to examine my children, who thankfully weren’t hurt. By the time my husband arrived to pick us up, I was shaking and could feel tiny pieces of glass against my neck and back.
By the time I got home, I knew something was off – I was starting to slur my speech and the room was spinning. My husband took me to the emergency room where I had a CAT-scan and I was diagnosed with a concussion, which was a challenge to overcome, since I couldn’t stop working, taking care of my children or doing all the other things I needed to do.
I was seeing a therapist after the accident since I experienced an uptick in anxiety over seemingly mundane things. I’d start thinking about getting breakfast ready for my children, feeding the cat, putting a sandwich in my daughter’s lunchbox, looking for their shoes thrown to the back of the closet the night before––then I’d feel my heart knocking against my ribs with a frantic ferocity.
These episodes accompanied by palpitations, feeling physically off-kilter from the anxiety, feeling like I was about to experience tunnel vision were originating from within me––and so would have to be stopped at the source.
My therapist talked a lot about mindfulness, what many often stereotype as focusing on your breathing to center yourself and distract from the thoughts causing the anxiety. Frankly, my thoughts have a sneaky way of breaking through those exercises so that while I’m taking deep breaths, my heartbeats drum through the smooth breath.
Perhaps with practice I could defeat those palpitations. But, no. That’s just another task, another stone I need throw into the pack I’m carrying.
Then, I did a Google search for “poetry” and “mindfulness,” and found the poetry blog: A Year of Being Here, which has been doing a mindfulness project, posting poems to root oneself in at the moment and to meditate on. The site displays a quote from poet Muriel Ruckeyser, which did a lot to convince me that trying to quiet the anxiety by reading poetry could work:
This moment is real, this moment is what we have, this moment in which we face each other and if a poem is any damn good at all, it invites you to bring your whole life to that moment, and we are good poets inasmuch as we bring that invitation to you, and you are good readers inasmuch as you bring your whole life to the reading of the poem.
Lesson learned: My heart doesn’t race when I read poetry. So maybe this mindfulness thing could work if I go to what’s home for me: reading poetry. The first poem I randomly read was “What’s Left”by Kerry Hardie; these lines hit me hard:
Perhaps this is middle age. Untidy, unfinished,
knowing there’ll never be time now to finish,
liking the plants—their strong lives—
My to-do lists are miles long and I can never get ahead enough on them. What if I could just accept that I’ll never really be done, and that maybe it doesn’t matter if I never totally finish. The poem’s ending sums up what’s important to the narrator:
But I want to know how to live what’s left
with my eyes open and my hands open;
I want to stand at the door in the rain
listening, sniffing, gaping.
Fearful and joyous,
like an idiot before God.
If I could absorb this for a moment, and then carry some of that idea forward, that what matters isn’t finishing every task on my self-imposed list, but living in the present with my eyes and hands open––perhaps my life would be more peaceful and fulfilling.
During the first weeks after the accident, my inner balance was off. I walked as if on water, but I was far from holy. I was tired, so bone-achingly tired all the time, and no amount of sleep could fix that.
In every picture of myself I had (have) what I started calling concussion eye: the eyes of the perpetually tired, a woman wizened way before her time. The eyes of someone pushed against a stone wall, held there, and is tired of fighting back.
Recently, I was talking to Deacon Mike from our church. He’s been married for 46 years and has five grown daughters. He understands what it means to work, be a spouse and raise children among all their cacophony. I asked him for his best advice to make it through the grind: “Sleep,” he said. “Sleep. That’s the main thing, really the only thing, besides prayer, that will buoy you.”
I did regain my physical equilibrium, but the tiredness lingered and lingers. It has spread to my psyche, and my mind is also tired. With a head injury, my neurologist said it would take longer to do things; I would be frustrated that way. But I wasn’t. My mental acuity, my mental racing horses were thundering around the track still––but the tiredness is what brought my body-house down.
The second lesson I’ve learned: Sleep matters for all people in every station of life. Gone are the days when I’d work all day, spend time with my children and then clean the house till 1 a.m. I probably should have never been living that burn myself-to-the-bone lifestyle, but I did it for years and told myself I had to do it. That’s my role. But it’s not. So now I lay my head down on the pillow at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., and while I don’t always sleep much or soundly, I feel my body sinking against the mattress. I try to unmoor my mind and let it float somewhere other than here, where my teeth grind in sleep, where my hands tighten around an invisible broom handle.
My neurologist also told me that it’s likely that I’d feel depressed after the accident––and how right he was. This mopey, I’m-so-worthless, poor me attitude settled deep in my gut, and it’s been hard to break.
When you’re so tired mentally and physically, it’s easy to believe that the depression is right. I did start to realize though that unless I took care of myself and was kind to my body, no one else would be. That’s been hard for me to do. When I try to be kind to myself, I feel angry––that I should be able to march forward machine-like, without breaks and without help from others. I’m still struggling with it, but I’m getting better at taking power naps, hiring a babysitter, getting a massage, standing near a lake and just watching/smelling/existing/being OK with not doing anything else at that moment.
Lesson learned: I’ve written a lot since the accident, despite being told not to sit in front of a computer. But there was a reason: I wanted to say, “I’m still here. I’m not gone. I’m important. I’m alive.”
It felt necessary to feel this way, to fight against the injury and the post-concussive side effects. I wrote a micro-chapbook called Ghost Tongue, which will be published by Porkbelly Press in early 2016. The following is one of the poems I wrote about being present in the moment, and also about what impression we leave on the world around us:
WHAT I WANT TO EXPLAIN IS THAT I’M HERE
so short a time with you:
your hand on my back,
unfurling chrysanthemums, omens,
rising my grandmother again
within my body. Her ashes, her first
from a hundred years.
A blackbird outside breaks into chatter,
as if to assert, Every life shatters. Every
bone, darling, will be washed clean.
This remaining touch, this word,
wish – so fragile,
and yet, here we are. Here, my hands
pushing yours into the dirt where I buried a poem
about how I finally tired of life, felt water freezing
my bones, a horse in my heart galloping
back to the beginning when my father first
kissed my mother, when I was the thing they called beloved,
the one wished for, rocked in a cradle
on the city’s indefinite edge. When my mother’s womb
was a haven, when I was survival.
When eventually my father would find me covered in blood.
And he would remember how the first flutter of me
was beautiful. And how the glorious also is what slays us.
My car was nearly totaled, but we were able to convince the insurance company to fix it, and because of the extensive damage, it was nearly seven weeks before I got it back.
The mechanic told my husband that after they replaced the glass, the door, the smashed-in quarter panel, that they cleaned the inside of the car. “However,” he said, “there’s always going to be what we call ‘ghost glass,’” tiny, iridescent pieces of the shattered window that will appear like tiny stars on the floor mats and seats.
I think it’ll be that way for me too—this one moment in time will recede from my daily life, but the anxiety, the depression, the tiredness, they’ll pop up, ghostly, and I’ll have to cope with them. I’ll have to keep remembering the lessons I’ve learned—I am here and I am important.
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