Headaches and Hope in Tomorrow

First-person nonfiction often relies on the premise that something extraordinary has to happen to someone in order for them to be ‘qualified’ to write or to be read. In many cases, these happenings are utterly undesirable—people survive grotesque events or experience extreme loss or spend years as politicians or rock stars—and sell readers on the premise that their perspective is enlightened.

Brain Time

Over the weekend, one of my worst fears came true in dramatic fashion. Two miles from the end of my Saturday team bike ride, I got T-boned by a car. I spent what was probably less than a second but felt like an hour flying through the air, wondering where and when I would hit the ground and what would happen afterwards. It unfolded in the type of slow motion reserved for events so extreme and traumatic that our brains enter that mythical space known as “brain time,” where they act on so many chemicals and hormones that they can literally feel a bullet as it passes through them. In that time, I wondered how long it would be until I could ride my bike again, how much fitness I’d lose, if I’d told all the people who needed to know how much I love them, if I’d even know whether I was dead or not, if there was anything in my personal belongings that would require an explanation that I wouldn’t be present to give. Whether I’d taken out the trash. And a myriad of other things. It’s amazing how quickly our brains will work when they think they won’t have to anymore.

And then, I stood up. Beyond a certain threshold of pain and severity, our bodies dump chemicals that make it easier to move than it would’ve been in a less traumatic fall, to the point that you think everything is ok and start worrying about things like whether this guy is going to run over your bike wheel as he attempts to flee the scene (he was, if I didn’t move it first). After that, things became a blur of whispered expletives and concerned inquiries until I found myself collapsing while holding hands with a firefighter. As the world got dark against my strongest will, I thought I had one of those brain injuries where everything seems ok and then five minutes later you drop dead. I was sinking and I couldn’t stop it.

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Balancing Acts

But today I am sitting in my house writing about being hit by a car and wondering how long my wrists and ribs and neck will hurt and mostly wondering how and why I am so fundamentally ok when so many people in very similar situations end up much, much worse.

Lately I have been trying to reclaim balance in my life, to water and weed the garden that I walk by every day and neglect as often, to see and speak to people I care about more and tell myself that I will find the time next week less, to fold my clean laundry before I wear it all again one clean, unfolded piece at a time.

We as humans pursue single-minded achievement over holistic progress. We identify Strava segments and social media metrics, job titles and new hobbies and we go all-in. These carrots dangle in front of us until they wither, causing us to leave others by the wayside in the process. There will always be a fresher carrot, but we could also keep our gardens and our friendships a lot healthier if we didn’t ignore them every time something new and shiny caught our eyes. And as I laid in the ambulance in a neck brace, strapped to a board and wondering what was about to happen, I started to think about things I previously considered settled.

It’s Rip, not R.I.P.

The morbid, poignancy-obsessed writer in me often wonders at our collective tendency to mourn people we never knew and to remember people more fondly than we might expect. But the rest of me hopes for better and knows it’s out there. Every day that I get better, I am able to be better and do better, and the world notices.

In the era of Moore’s Law and bandwagon mourning, we all long for connections and all still care about one another profoundly. I could not be more glad that I never published the snarky piece I wrote about people faux-mourning David Bowie then Prince then Mohammad Ali. I could impress snooty people with my sardonic writerly witticisms or I could strive to channel my desire to observe and comment and direct it towards something wholly better, which encourages us to be nice to one another and use our energy and our days well. We should not require trauma to shift our mindsets or catch up with people, but we also shouldn’t let our plants get overgrown and underwatered or forget to sit down and write for pleasure because we’re too busy writing for work.

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I Come to the Garden

In some seriously uncanny timing, I spent time in my garden the day before I was hit for the first time in far too long. And at the end of my very long Saturday, I was reminded of a quote (from Audrey Hepburn of all people) that I’ve often kept in my back pocket as the guiding premise of a chapter or three in that book I still haven’t written:

To keep a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

I believe this wholeheartedly, and yet I neglect my garden and my terrarium with frequency, in search of something that might satisfy me more than the slow, seasonal proceedings that mimic God’s timing more than man’s. This is the age of the internet and the 3D printer, where if we want something we can have it immediately. But we cannot rush the flower’s bloom or the butterfly’s visit. Sowing the seeds of tomorrow is much easier than waiting for it to actually get here.

Repeatable Phrases

Being forced to contemplate fragility and imminence is a strange double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reminds us that we shouldn’t become so narrow-minded and rushed that we forget to enjoy everything and deeply engage across our worlds instead of in single isolated corners of them. On the other, it forces upon us a certain urgent and revelational honesty. There are often actions we know we must take but put them off for now because they always can wait. Sometimes we know when it’s time for a change but nothing is forcing us to make one. And so we don’t. Learning that balance is a massive part of the human experience.

Tropes and clichés are almost always rooted in truth, and two have continued to resonate here:

  • Near-death experiences always force a clarity and perspective that probably wouldn’t have come from anywhere else.
  • When your entire body hurts in a deep and profound way, the most apropos phrase will always be “It feels like I got hit by a bus.”

In stressful moments, all of us are capable of getting buried beneath the situational rubble, of believing that a temporary circumstance or decision is overwhelming or absolute in a way that consumes us. I can’t even count on two hands the amount of times in my life that I’ve believed I was profoundly doomed by things that I can’t even clearly recall now. Temporary grudges and outstanding toll bills fizzle when we hear or fear the worst.

Also:

  • We find people unqualified to write honestly unless they’ve been struck by lightning.
  • We find debts easy to collect until the debtor has been struck by lightning.

Maybe we should just treat everyone as if they’ve been struck by lightning and hope that nobody ever has to endure that.

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Footie Socks

Since I left the hospital under my own power, in double-sided footie socks and a papery smock, I have spent the last few days having conversations with people I don’t talk to enough. I have received tacos and concern from local friends and phone calls and text messages and notes on Instagram from friends far and wide, including people I’ve never met outside of a mutual admiration for each other’s photos and captions.

It is far too easy to zoom in on the parody-worthy negativity of the cultures and sub-cultures that surround us, to find fault in self-unaware narcissists and believe that the present place isn’t the best place because there are some negatives that complement the positives. I can spiral down the old lines of thinking that used to drive me toward rock bottom, observing the dark underbelly of anything and everything until I am staring my old mindset in its ugly eyes. I can think that being hit by a car is cause for feeling sorry for myself or I can be overwhelmed by the outpouring of positivity and celebration I have received and take that as a challenge to constantly give it back. Mostly, I can be so grateful that people took the time to zoom in on the picture I posted and make lighthearted jokes about my new outfit or the fact that I had my socks on upside down. (They’re actually double-sided, thank you very much).

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Proceed With Caution

I took my bike in to the shop I was riding back to yesterday to have the damage evaluated. The handle bars are bent and cracked in the very places my hands were holding them as we hit the ground once, then twice, before me and my ride were separated. That explains the sharp aching I feel in the tops of my hands and the swelling in my left wrist. But, like me, it looks remarkably alright, all things considered. The damages can be measured in dollars instead of body tags.

As I was leaving the shop, a personal injury lawyer happened to be there getting a flat tire changed. He gave me much practical advice on how to ensure I am properly cared for and compensated. He gave me precious little insight into how to act in light of such a life-altering day in the life.

Because I am sitting here writing today like I would be any other day, it’s easy to act and think like nothing has changed. I may not be able to do some things as easily or comfortably as normal, but the same could be said if I slipped on my clean laundry on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But I also haven’t sat down to write for the joy of the craft or the desire to share in uncountable weeks or months, so something is already different. I spent the morning pulling my Nepenthes out of their terrarium to give them some TLC and much of the afternoon talking to people I needed to talk to about things I definitely wouldn’t have otherwise.

The More Things Change

The more they stay the same. I will stubbornly continue to probably do way too much, which I’d be doing anyways. But I will try to focus less on arbitrary benchmarks and “urgent” deadlines for decidedly non-urgent things. I will try to cook and clean and create and converse more and with more appreciation for those tasks’ innate beauty. There are so many random, simple things that we get really annoyed by until we realize how narrowly we avoided never being able to do them again.

 NB: Doing the dishes is a bizarre joy when you spent much of the day before in a neck brace. And that’s coming from someone who believes inventing the dishwasher is one of man’s single greatest accomplishments.

PS: All of this talk really reminds me of an Andrew Bird song from my favorite album of his. Music has never sounded so sweet.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi John, So sorry to hear about your accident (or was it?) But it sounds like you have learned some invaluable lessons from it! It has been my experience that we all need a life changing experience to truly be transformed. I would like to recommend reading Falling Upward by Father Richard Rohr. Continued healing and good health! Tyler Kuelbs

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