Published in Blood and Thunder, November, 2011
My Catholic friend persuaded me to walk the labyrinth in Grace Cathedral, a purple line on the ground spiraling inward that focuses the energy of prayers, that clears the mind so one can be closer to God. I’m as close as I’m going to get, I said, but took my shoes off nevertheless. It was evening. Outside on Nob Hill there were children on swings who pumped as high as they could and leaped off at the apex of clumsy arcs that terminated in the sand. I put one foot in front of the other on the purple path. I went slowly. The line wound its way inward, took its time. I expected to be somehow lifted outside of myself, up past the vaulted ceiling. But every step rooted me more firmly in my own body. I felt the weight of myself on my bones, my feet, my hips. Muscles gently became aware of themselves and realized they were tight. They were tighter than tight; they were twisted into unnatural postures to hold weight off the joints. And the joints themselves, more specifically the knees, were hot centers of pain. It was sharp and spicy and changed subtly as the knees moved. The knees were connected to a body, mine, and the pain was a new thing. Or let me say: the pain was in my knees so constantly that I had long ceased to be aware of it. I remembered this as I walked: whenever I saw the rheumatologist as a child, I told him that I had no pain and was never stiff in the morning. These were lies. If I said I felt fine, I reasoned, maybe he would tell me I could stop taking the medicine. Maybe I could stop going to physical therapy. Maybe I could stop the splints at night, the blood tests, the doctor’s appointments.
There is a wall longer than the Great Wall and more sturdy between me and my body’s pain. It is constructed with books, songs, poems, discourses: the consolations of the exile. I had been away from my homeland for so long that I had forgotten how I missed it. There is no other word for the pain. It was beautiful. It showed me the shores of that abandoned country from the deck of a long ship. I reached the center. I would have dropped to my knees, but my knees are too fragile to do that.