Two years later

September 21, 2014, marked two years of recovery from my accident. Looking back at my last major update, about a year ago, I see that, although the healing process continues, not a lot is changing on the surface. My appearance has improved a little more since my February surgery. The left eye now looks normal enough for people to feel comfortable asking why it’s so red—which the rim of the lower lid always is, to varying degrees. I don’t know if that will ever quite go away. My eye is still easily irritated, which can increase the redness. And it still waters a lot, as the cornea continues to dry out and overproduce tears. The eye still hurts at random moments, especially later in the day, sometimes sharply, sometimes deeply. The nerves in my cheek have almost fully regenerated. My eye crinkles almost normally when I smile.

The central vision in my left eye is still gone, though I hold out hope for future medical developments that may reverse the damage (come on, stem cells!). In the meantime, I use my peripheral vision as much as I can to keep my optic nerve active: I sometimes walk around with my right eye shut just for the practice. I still forget sometimes why I can’t see clearly, especially when I first wake up. I have recently been experiencing a fresh bout of grief about the impairment of my sight. I still often bump into things on my left and lose my balance easily. I continue to have trouble concentrating and thinking clearly. I am still trying to figure out how to see as well as I can while I work; my vision varies a lot, and magnifiers and lights only help so far.

I have not entirely recovered my turning skills. I got tendonitis in my right elbow (my dominant arm) in the spring and wasn’t able to work for several months. Add this to the many gaps in work caused by my surgeries and I guess my rustiness is understandable, if frustrating. It has been hard this time to get back into a creative flow, but I am working to hold a steady course through the latest challenges by remembering every day what I haven’t lost (family and friends, my sense of humor, my curiosity, a damn good life) and what I’ve gained (more love, gratitude, a greater sense of connectedness to everything).

Healing aids

Over the course of my recovery, I have received a number of things from well-wishers to help me with my healing.

One of the first was a small jar of dirt from the chapel in Chimayó, New Mexico, el Santuario de Chimayó, where a miracle is believed to have happened some 200 years ago and where pilgrims continue to visit seeking healing. Karen and I visited it ourselves some years ago. The little jar, shared by someone who has also made me wonderful soup several times over the last few months, sat on the table next to me during the long weeks when I had to remain upright and remains close at hand. I will pass it on when my recovery is complete.

On loan since before Halloween is a small mascot, a stuffed zombie kitten made by a librarian colleague of Karen. I call it Cyclops. You cannot quite tell from the photo below, but its right eye is hanging out of its head. It is at once adorable, pitiful, and funny. It has helped me keep a balanced perspective throughout the ups and downs of this process.

Zombie kitten mascot, posed on the mesquite chunk that hit me.

Zombie kitten mascot, posed on the mesquite chunk that hit me. Notice how little solid wood was holding the vessel together.

One of my collectors gave me a turquoise Zuni fetish of a dancing bear. I call her Ursalyn. Bears are symbolic of vigor and health, and her smile and dancing make me smile. She reminds me of me. Turquoise is a healing stone and also happens to be my birthstone. She dances next to me while I watch TV or eat or work on the computer.

Ursalyn, view 1. Ursalyn, view 2.

Ursalyn, view 3.

Ursalyn, three views.

Another customer gave me a poem by Jane Hirshfield called “For What Binds Us,” written out by hand. It reads in part:

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

Read the full text of the poem here. More than scars, it is about love. I reread it often.

The most recent healing aid is from my dear friends Pat and Darcey, who have been present at every step of my recovery. At my birthday, they put together a medicine bag for me, a small leather bag that contains a chunk of turquoise, a shell, a small bundle of sage, a shell, a feather, a sandstone rock, and a slice of mesquite. I wear it around my neck or keep it on the table next to me. Sometimes I unpack it to contemplate its contents.

These things all help. Beyond their respective healing powers, each reminds me that people care. They are my steady companions on an unsteady road.

Gratitude

I don’t know why I sent out the original email blast announcing my accident. It was uncharacteristic: I have become, over the last couple of decades, reflexively private, tending to answer personal questions, however friendly, with a vague word or three, and an edge of “Why do you ask?” underlying my tone. So why share something so personal—and continue to share, through my blog—without even being asked? What impulse led me to this uncharacteristic act?

I don’t know. At the time, it was beyond question, just something I should do. Whatever the reason, the repercussions of following that impulse have the potential to change me radically, if I can allow it.

The flood of good will I received in response to my email astonished me. I figured I would hear from friends, but acquaintances and strangers alike have taken the time (!) to write me, sending messages of sympathy and solicitude, sincerely wishing me well. Some have forwarded the news to others, who have also responded. People have prayed for me, in all the various forms of action and energy prayer can take, and many continue, months later, to keep me in their thoughts. Some have opened up and shared their own encouraging stories of injury and healing. Some have thanked me (!) for sharing my story, for motivating them to work more safely. Some have offered help—real, genuine help. I am not accustomed to letting people help me.

My beloved, traumatized partner stepped up to take care of me in a way neither of us knew she could, setting aside her fears to tend daily to my ugly injured eye. My sisters dropped everything and came straightaway. My older sister, Amaranth, stayed for four full weeks, taking over my care during the day so that Karen could get back to work and applying homeopathy to help me heal. My younger sister, Angie, could only stay a week but remained on call to fly back if she was needed; she tracked my recovery faithfully and enlisted practically everyone she knows to pray for me. My mother lovingly cooked for me, foods soft enough for me to eat without chewing, comfort foods that nourished me body and soul. Sharon, a friend from long ago who had no reason to care so much in the present, wrote beautiful visualizations that showed me how to heal even when I lost my bearings. My friends Pat and Darcey stayed with Karen at the emergency room and during my retina surgery and have been constant sources of humor, support, treats, and substantial help (it was they who just enabled me to participate in the open-studio tour). My friend Art rigged a remote control for my fan so that I could stay comfortable tucked upright in my chair, and brought bags of DVDs and audio books to entertain me. Karen’s family continues to provide long-distance support for both Karen and me. Many more friends have offered help that we haven’t yet needed to call upon (but may still).

And gifts. Flowers and food baskets. A Zuni fetish dancing bear. A lovely poem. Money. The local woodturning club (which I helped found, back when I had just learned to turn) voted to give me a substantial donation toward my medical expenses. I cried when I received the check. My collectors all bought work, as did some friends who I’m pretty sure didn’t need it. Someone who doesn’t want to acquire any more stuff slipped me a check in a card. Someone else paid twice the amount for an item and wouldn’t take change. Another person quietly handed me an envelope containing a lovely note—and another check.

Such kindness is a revelation. I had not realized how cynical I had become.

I don’t know how to take in all this goodness. I am utterly humbled by this generosity.

What have I ever done to deserve all this?

Amaranth says I don’t have to have earned all this; that it is enough for me to just be who I am. I believe that is true for the rest of the world; I even occasionally feel it is true for me; but something in my heart persists in crying out, “I am not worthy!”

If I can answer this cry, how different might I be?

When my friend Art, ready to take umbrage on my behalf, mentioned recently that a prominent Buddhist teacher had just declared flatly that all bad experiences are due to karma, I realized that I haven’t been experiencing this injury as “bad” (not that my karma might not justify a bad experience). Day after day, what I have been experiencing is goodness, gratitude, grace.

Perhaps this feeling won’t last, but perhaps it will: perhaps in the end this will have been not an injury but a blessing.

And should I prove unable to fully accept this blessing and its deeper healing, I will, at the very least, endeavor quietly to be worthy of it.

Three rules

The day that the Daily Star article on me came out, this happened to be the poem of the day on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac web site: “Whittling: The Last Class,” by John Stone. Here is an excerpt of my favorite part, which summarizes my own philosophy beautifully:

Three rules he thinks
have helped
Make small cuts

In this way

you may be able to stop before
what was to be an arm
has to be something else

Always whittle away from yourself

and toward something.
For God’s sake
and your own
know when to stop

—John Stone, “Whittling: The Last Class”

Thanks to my friend Suzanne for sharing this with me. By the way, the Writer’s Almanac site is a great one to browse.

Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day”

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

(Copyright 1992 by Mary Oliver. From New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992); originally from House of Light.)

A quotation of the last two lines brought this poem to my attention. Oliver is one of my favorite poets, and this poem is timely for me. I have been thinking a lot about attention and prayer and wildness and preciousness and courage.

“Trees, Wood, and People”

Check out this article written by UK woodturner Brian Clifford, called “Trees, Wood, and People”: http://www.turningtools.co.uk/trees/trees2.html. He examines the role of trees in the development of human culture—from the very evolution of Homo sapiens—and the close relationship humanity has to trees, perhaps grounded in genetic memory. Stimulating ideas, even germinative.

Thanks to Karen Dombrowski-Sobel for sharing this discovery with me.

YouTube surprise

Look what my sister found on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbp2_0huciE! Apparently, someone I’ve never heard of, a California artist named Brandon Teris, found my “Imagine a World without Art” essay and made a video of it. It’s fascinating for me to see someone else’s interpretation of my words. (You can read my original essay here on my blog).

Beauty

I have quoted from Joan Chittister in my blog before. She writes evocatively about beauty and artmaking. The following is from “Thirst for Beauty, Thirst for Soul,” the essay that introduces the book Creation out of Clay: The Ceramic Art and Writings of Brother Thomas (Pucker Gallery, 1999):

Beauty . . . lifts life out of the anesthetizing effects of the pedestrian and gives us a reason for going on, for being, for ranging beyond our boundaries, for endeavoring always to be more than we are. It enables us to pause in time long enough to remember that some things are worth striving for, that some things are worth doing over and over again until they become their breathless selves, that some things are beyond our grasp yet within our reach. Beauty brings with it the realization in the midst of struggle, in the depths of darkness, in the throes of ugliness, that the best in life is, whatever the cost, really possible.

It is the artist’s task, then, to take us beyond the invisible to the height of consciousness, past the humdrum to the mystical, away from the expedient to the endlessly true. The artist shows us what we thought we could never, perhaps should never, see: the soul of a tree, the suffering of the helpless, the bowels of a color, the brilliance of a darkness that reveals the unconquerable light, a form without failing. The artist takes a piece of life and turns it inside out for us and, in the doing, turns us inside out over it, as well. We look at something for which we have no words and we ache for the voice that can make beauty tangible. We touch the beautiful and reframe our own vision of the world. We see something which we have looked at many times but never really seen before and find ourselves less alone in the universe because someone else has touched what we have touched, felt what we have felt, known what we have known. Then, we are never the same again because we have seen a rent in the fabric of eternity, gotten an insight into timelessness, come face to face with the ultimate. Then, we have seen a bit of the Beauty out of which beauty comes. . . .