A scene from several days ago. Morning sun floats into the kitchen. I stand, hips against the counter, hands immersed in warm, soapy water. It’s mostly quiet now; the silence that follows Caren and Samantha’s departing. I can feel it elsewhere, too. A sense of stillness outside after the hurry of others to school, to work - to somewhere, always. To somewhere.
I’m washing dishes left by the last fourteen hours of family life. Cups, bowls, and cutlery, mostly. But the pot from breakfast oatmeal. The blender not dealt with after dinner. Without thinking I reach across my body for this last. A dripping left hand extends over a pair of open-mouthed mugs, descends toward an oily, glass handle.
When I close my fingers around this, a flinch. There is sudden pain in that shoulder. Sudden and sharp as if someone has just knuckled the swell of flesh and muscle covering that joint. Someone who knows the sore point. Breath hisses between taut lips. “Damn,” I say, making a note to take some ibuprofen later. With some difficulty I grab the handle, lift the blender, and let it disappear beneath the waiting suds. Air bubbles glug to the surface as it sinks.
One day later that same arm hangs limp at one side. The sudden pain has become a pulsing, lasting ache. Too powerful to incite with movement and effort, I have adjusted. I am sweeping the floor with one hand. My use of the dust pan, I’m sure, nears comical. It’s also pretty near useless.
It’s while I am tossing the little flotsam I’ve gathered into the trash that I hear the voice. “What does meditation teach you?” it asks. A large fire suddenly appears to one side. Flames lick and dance upward. Sparks fly and crackle in the air. Grandfather sits on a log before this, forearms resting on thighs. His attention is, for the moment, upon the hot, colored movement. It is, to be more precise, in this movement.
He looks up and smiles. “To listen,” he says matter of factly. “It teaches you to listen.” The fire voices agreement. Grandfather bends until one hand touches the earth. The ground is largely dry soil here. Beneath his booted feet, however, smooth, bare rock. A fissure runs near his left foot. He touches this gently with thick fingertips, lingers there, caressing. He glances up. “No,” he corrects, “listening.” His eyes drop again.
After several minutes his head begins a slow nod. Words I cannot hear emerge between barely moving lips. These come as warm, deep sounds - the sounds of the earth speaking to itself. They are directed toward that crack. Dark eyes moisten. When he sits up a lonely tear runs over one cheek. It’s trail reveals dust-covered features. His look seems to hold me forever. Then he gestures toward the exposed rock. “There is history here.”
My shoulder groans. Plates shift; tectonic ache.
It takes another day but eventually I lay down. I close my eyes and guide attention to where that moan arose. Tears rise like a tide. My throat clogs with debris. There is history here.
I still, to this day, remember the sound. More than the feeling across the knuckles of my right hand, it is the sickening crack I recall. Like the meat locker scenes in Rocky. It was Monday morning after a big swim meet. Four or five teams were using the pool for an early workout before racing off to the airport and dispersing to different parts of the country.
I was swimming in one of the wall lanes, the right side of my body gliding beside the low deck, moving past a big yellow slide. Years later some who were there would retrieve the moment. “Sounded like a fucking gun when you hit that thing,” a friend observed. “Freaked me out.”
My coach wandered to meet me at the other end. “Hand okay?” he asked.
“Not bad,” I answered. “But the shoulder hurts like hell.”
Hindsight, they rightly say, is 20/20 - perfectly perceptive with the wisdom of experience and the safety of distance. But I have to wonder what might have happened if I stopped right there. If I had taken that day, a week perhaps, to let that hurt subside and allow my shoulder the chance to heal. Would this still have grown into the shadow that tracked me the rest of my days in the water, eventually ending this part of my life?
What might have happened? In many ways such speculation is pointless. For I could no more crawl out of that pool and rest than I could will an end to my own breathing. I, instead, swam single-armed for a couple of days. Until my other shoulder joint - the left one, the one that today brings tears to my eyes - exploded. Then I kicked two weeks worth of workouts on my back.
Every time I move to rise, Grandfather leans forward. A quick glance my way. A couple fingertips graze the bared rock underfoot. ‘There is history here.’ He nods and returns upright.
Images, shards of a life, rise and pass. Sitting in the car after a physiotherapy session, unable to move either arm, unable to drive. Other vehicles come and go; I lean my forehead against the wheel and weep. A coach asks, “How do you feel?” and I nod the answer I know he wants to hear - anything to get back in that water. “Good,” I say, not wanting to overdo it. Knowing from the very first stroke I’d made a mistake. “You used to be fast,” someone saying. “What happened?” Even this better than the eventual silence of no one saying anything.
At a certain point I have had enough. I push quickly upward. Grandfather meets this with speed of his own. While still on my elbows he presses five fingers into my chest. The contact is difficult, insistent. I lay back down. Fire smolders in his eyes before he speaks. “There is history here,” he repeats.
A year ago I assumed the role of Assistant Teacher at a month-long meditation retreat. Toward the end there was a celebration. Toasts were made. A good friend offered one in my direction, a touching nod. “And he works so hard,” he said. I felt these words enter and lodge in my body. Between two ribs on the right side, a little lower than the heart. “He works so hard.”
I remember reading an interview with Bruce Springsteen. This was post-Born in the USA Springsteen, all Bossed out and living in California trying to escape the weight of his own myth. He went into therapy. “I started wondering why so many of my songs were about driving,” he said. “I started wondering why all my shows were such events. I started wondering why I was always working so hard.”
I open one eye where I lay.
From his place by the fire, Grandfather nods.
A day later I try to return to that shoulder but cannot. The ache remains but something is different. I am slumped on the couch when I hear Chogyam Trungpa. “Ego,” he says, “can turn anything to its will.” ‘Spiritual materialism’ he calls this - using spirituality to build rather than open one’s sense of self. ‘Spiritual bypassing’ is John Welwood’s term - using spirituality to bypass tasks essential to our psychological development.
The spot on the floor where I laid only minutes ago seems suspicious to me now. I see myself there, little barricades and coils of wire protecting the body. Outside the rain has, for a moment, stopped. Blue sky peeks through cloud cover. Sunshine. Yesterday my therapist looked at me. “Sounds lonely,” he observed. For the first time in that room, I cried.
This afternoon I sit on our couch. From the moment I assume this position I am struck by how foreign it feels. Strange. ‘Have I ever done this?‘ I wonder. Whatever the answer, I am afraid something bad is going to happen. If I don’t keep moving, keep working so hard this world will finally get me. And then what?
I am reading poems by Gary Snyder. “We always made love in the dark.“ From the kitchen, Sarah Harmer sings. “Ah come on, these streams of light are not so subtle / All along the ditch the signs of life in sinking puddles.”
Hot tea rich with milk.
Shoulder throbbing, alive.
Still I have not meditated.
NEIL MCKINLAY - MEDITATION | COACHING | INTUITION - WWW.NEILMCKINLAY.COM