The Pain Equation

When I had fibromyalgia, my family and friends did their best to understand how I felt, and what my body was feeling. It was difficult for them, and not their fault their efforts to do this fell short.

It’s hard to imagine chronic pain if you’ve never experienced long pain.  When I say long, I don’t mean days or even weeks.  I mean at least one year of it, and I mean pain that gets in your way.

I’d always been a math kid, and even as an adult I understood best when I could turn something into a kind of equation.  The equation didn’t have to be numbers.  Words worked too.

I decided to invent a pain equation for fibromyalgia.

Fibro affects muscles, and every kind of muscle is vulnerable to this illness. This meant I needed to know how many muscles are in the human body.  Turns out, that’s a debatable point.  It depends on how you define muscle.  I decided to go with 700, since that is roughly the number of named muscles. 

There are also uncounted, un-named muscles in the body, but if I added those into the equation, the numbers moved beyond something imaginable.  I wanted to stick with numbers someone else could imagine into an experience.

Everyone who has experienced pain knows it’s not so much about the physical sensation as it is about time.  Pain is about how long will this pain last and can I outlast it.  Pain is about endurance.  Therefore the equation I was building needed to include time.

Fibro pain is always present, and the pain is always everywhere in every muscle, the named and the anonymous.  24/7, as my son Bryan would say.  Bryan understands pain; he is disabled because of chronic pain, the end result of an accident.  He likes the idea of a pain equation.  Pain is concrete to the person enduring it, but not always understood by someone outside of it.  An equation is both concrete and graspable, possible for someone else to understand and imagine beyond.

So, here is the pain equation, configured to be an aid to understanding for someone who has never experienced chronic pain.

700 muscles, multiplied by 24 hours, multiplied by 365 days in a year.

Six million, one hundred thirty-two thousand hours of pain endured during one year of life.

Overwhelmingly imaginable.

Recalling Love

pastel drawing 'Love, Joy, Friendship, and Other Complications' by Cat Fink

I have, on my studio couch, a teddy bear.  He is small, about the size of my two hands laid side by side.  He smells like dust, and he is old, older than me.

I don’t know who gave him to me.  All I know is he has always been with me.

I used to think he was my sister’s bear, her toy that had somehow ended up in my collection of childhood memories.  One day I mentioned him to my Mom, and she told me with certainty that the small fuzzy purple teddy who now smells like dust was absolutely, definitely mine, a gift at my birth.

Here is a memory I do not remember, yet it exists.  The physical proof sits here in my studio, this bear who I should know.

How strange that I can have memories I do not recall.  Do I remember this tiny bear on my bed in our home, when I was not yet old enough to go to school?  Sort of, yet I am not sure if this is a manufactured memory, or something true.  I know his feel against my hands and face, and I know he did not always smell like dust.  He smelled like someone’s perfume at one point in my childhood.  I can smell it now, as I write.

Yes, my Nana’s perfume.  I feel like this bear was with me at my Nana and Papa’s house, when I was very young.  I was staying with them.  I don’t know where my Mom and Dad were.  Maybe visiting friends, maybe at a dance and coming home very late.  My parents loved to dance.

The only thing I am completely sure of here is this bear, who I didn’t remember was mine, smelled like my Nana’s perfume.  How odd.

Memories are such strange things.  That I can recall with clarity this one small detail out of what must have been a thousand details lost to me.

This bear is now faded to the colour of lilacs at the end of their life.  I can see in the creases of his arms and legs and neck that his fur was once bright, more like the colour of the amethyst I have on the shelf behind me.  A colour carrying light and love.  Bright, deep, true purple, a joy to behold.

Why can I not recall anything else about my purple teddy?

He must have been precious to me once, if he came with me to my grandparents’ home to stay overnight.  I must have taken him to bed with me, slept with him at my side or in the bend of my arm, warm under the blankets.

My Mom must have packed him carefully in my bag.  Or maybe he stayed in my arms, or sat next to me, or on my lap as we travelled to Nana and Papa’s house.

I am imagining this ride in the car to my grandparents, imagining staying overnight.  Imagining the smell of my Nana’s perfume, which I know was Chanel No. 5, ending up on my teddy bear.  Did my Nana hold him, hug him, and her perfume moved from her body to his?  Or maybe we dabbed a little on him because I told my Nana she smelled good and I liked how she smelled.

It always made me feel good, the smell of my Nana’s perfume.  It makes me feel good now as I recall it, smelling her presence even though she does not stand before me here in my studio.

Maybe this wondrous, mysterious old bear was a gift from my Nana and Papa.  Likely my Nana who loved to shop and find perfect, joyful things for herself and those she loved.  She loved me, unconditionally.  I remember this with certainty.

There is joy in playing with this fraction of a memory about my old, small, purple bear.  There is love in this imagining, too.

I see now I have claimed teddy as my own.  He is no longer the bear, he is my bear.

With one word, I shift this fraction of a memory and, with love, claim it as mine.

It is a gift, taking this piece of memory and the physical object that began it, and making something whole and perfect.  Something that feels like love.

It is love, no doubt of it.  As real as my bear who sits on the studio couch.

Feeling What I Write

mixed media pastel drawing 'All The Other Angels Fled' by Cat Fink

My book’s third draft requires what I call bridges, written pieces to fill the gaps that exist in the second draft. 

Right now I am writing a series of bridges showing an emotional shift from denial into curiosity and the beginning of a willingness to look at a long, traumatic experience of illness.  Because this third draft is all about adding the emotional layer, I need to move deep into my emotions every time I write.

Yesterday I wrote about numbing out.  Numbing out is an emotion.  It’s a way of coping with and surviving other emotions which threaten to overwhelm. I know it intimately. It was my primary emotion for a very long time when I was ill.

Writing about a denial of emotion and, at the same time, providing the emotional connection for the reader is tricky.  I struggled with the words, I persevered, but by the time I was done I was numbed out to my writing.  I left my studio in doubt of any success.

This morning I realized what had happened.  I’d not only written about the emotional wall I lived behind when I was ill with fibromyalgia, I’d recreated it.

My mind, body, and heart don’t register a difference between an emotion felt via memory and an emotion felt via a current experience.  When I feel something, I feel the experience right now.  Present.  Immediate.

I’ve learned things today.  Trust my mind and body and heart to know what needs to be written, to feel the emotions truly, and to write that truth.  Remember that the emotions I am expressing on the page colour how I feel after the writing is done; bless them, and let them go. Trust my readers and their emotional experiences to understand and complete the emotional connection I’m offering.

The shorter version—trust and write what feels true.

The Library In My Home

I’ve heard it said the kitchen is the heart of the home.

I understand that.  When my family gathers, no matter how inviting and comfortable the living room couches and chairs, we always gravitate to the kitchen.  Here we find nourishment for both body and heart.

However, my home has a secret.  It has a second heart, a library.  In my home, these two places feed us whole—body, heart, mind, and spirit.

I am in love with libraries, and having one of my very own tickles me completely.  I take great delight in saying, “I have a library in my home.”

My library is a small room, no more than ten feet by ten feet square.  Three walls of books and a window in the fourth wall.  The light coming in is gold and green, the result of summer sun filtering through layers of grape leaves.  It’s cool in here right now, despite the noon heat outside.

Besides books, my library holds an old couch, extra pillows, and an afghan.  There’s a narrow, wood table with two leaves that fold out if you need more space for important things like mugs of tea and a teapot, paper to write on, and pencils. 

My library might be small but, like all libraries, it contains worlds, immense and uncountable, in each book that stands on the shelves around me.  Here is treasure, beyond abundant, as endless as every imagination of every writer whose name shines on these beloved books.

My heart thrives in my library, just as surely as it thrives in my family kitchen.  If home is where the heart is, I am doubly blessed and doubly home.

_____________________

In this post:

The image at the top of this post is from the accordion fold sketchbook I created for the Brooklyn Art Library. The sketchbook is a secret garden, rather like my library, and if you’re curious about it you can find all the images at my art site. https://www.walkingowlstudio.ca/gallery/the_sketchbook_project_the_secre/

Summer Mode

emma.fixed.large
I Dreamed I Was Water (Emma) – Cat Fink

I’m on summer vacation time this past week.  My internal clock finally adjusted itself.  It looked around, said ‘oh it’s July’, switched into slower, and then into slowwwww.  I am now in summer mode.  Hooray!

Summer mode means my time stretches.  Becomes casual and bendy.  I start tacking ‘ish’ onto my times for meeting friends and family.  Six-ish.  Noon-ish.  Eleven-ish.

I like ish-time.

I worked with a fellow who taught me about summer mode and ish-time.  Every year he would take his vacation, six weeks of it, as one piece.  On the morning of his first day off, he would pick up his watch, put it at the back of a drawer, and leave it there.  He moved through his vacation to the feel of each day in his body, to the rhythm of the sun rising and setting, to long conversations with friends, to the stars appearing at night.  Eating, moving, resting as the mood took him.

On the evening of the last day of his vacation he would go back to the drawer, pull out his watch, and return to the world of time and appointments set without ish on the end.

This summer it took me until mid-July to remember to take off my watch and put it away.  After an intense twelve months, it is time to play, to re-balance and recharge.  To wander through summer.  Let my days stretch.  Let my body and the sun tell me what time it is.  Let ish-time lead me where it will.

Thank you, David, wherever you are, for showing me this so many years ago.  Thank you for the gift.