Falling into Loss

View from Olympic Sculpture Park

Is our capacity to endure grief fixed at birth–like temperament? Is it a limited resource?

Or is it a skill? A muscle that must be developed?

And if we only have so much strength in us, what happens once we use it up?

For nearly 16 months, I’ve experienced pain in my lower back, pain in my right hip, pain if I turned my head over my shoulder.

I told myself it’s just a crick in my back. No big deal. It’ll all go away. I just needed to keep dancing. Lifting weights. Running.

All good.

No problem here.

But then I enrolled in three weeks of dance intensives this month. I took classes with two incredible Seattle choreographers at Velocity Dance Center, Mark Haim and Ellie Sandstrom. And in Mark’s studio, you had to get comfortable with the floor. You had to get comfortable falling.

“You have to trust yourself,” one of my classmates told me.

It wasn’t easy. The vulnerability of pitching the shoulder toward the floor. Kneeling. Then tumbling earthward.

And the pain.

It unwound from my back and shrouded me. Fluttered over my face and closed out all thought. Elaborately carved out of bone like a Turkish screen.

I finally went to the doctor.

Arthritis in the lumbar region of your spine, she said. We need to do more imaging.

You need to start seeing a physiatrist.

A specialist who can teach me to live with chronic pain.

It means it’s only going to get worse from here.

And that elaborately carved screen? Just part of the view now.

I’m 32, and only dance gives me such a feeling of aliveness. Of joy. And though I will continue dancing as my vertebrae go on collapsing, like so many horned dominoes, the range of what I can do is gradually drying up. Going down stairs is already difficult.

I watched my mother and grandmother–hypochondriacs who also had serious health issues–fret themselves into mental oblivion.

I’m not going that route.

And as the pain becomes more familiar, as I begin to understand it’s not going away, Mark’s lessons come back to me.

You have to give into it. Fold inward and give into it. Go down with it.

And just trust that you will rise again.

That’s how to go into the pain. The fall. I’m losing the body that has been my companion for the last 32 years. It happens to everyone eventually. Some of my friends know all about chronic pain, and they lift a lantern for me.

But it occurs to me that there is no contract. Life extends no agreements and no warranties. You can go on losing. Indefinitely. Family. Loved ones. Homes. Even your body.

And surviving all that grief–what happens when you get tired of it?

Or, like any skill, is it best learned young?

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