Body My House

How will it be

to lie in the sky

without roof or door  

and wind for an eye

-May Swenson


Here’s a story of what I did today, the whole while with varying degrees of a chronic tension headache, which is how I live most days of my life:

I stay in bed for too long. It’s a Saturday. I have only lived in Richmond for three weeks and I still have no job to speak of. My mother texts me to ask if I still have my wisdom teeth. I write I think I have one left. She’s read something about a man who had his removed and as a result, his migraines improved or maybe disappeared, I don’t know.

I don’t have anywhere I have to be and the truth is, I love lying in bed reading in the mornings for as long as I can because I don’t tend to fall asleep in my book like I do at night. I let the dogs out and Hank and I promptly get back in bed, opening the blinds first to let in natural light. I prop myself up and we read. I slept like shit the night before. Too hot from layers of wool blankets and the air blowing all night. Too stressed from restaurant dreams and the constant running, stumbling, not knowing. Too worried (who worries in their sleep?) about climate change like always and how much power we use, when it will run out. It’s insane. Without coffee, without brushing my teeth, I read. I look at my phone for a bit. The usual stuff. Except the government is shut down. Women’s marches are scheduled all over the country. I read. I notice my headache.

I eventually get up, but I only sort of have to. The boys want to go to the climbing gym. I make a cup of instant coffee, slather wheat toast with peanut butter and honey, and cut an orange into quartered segments like my mother would do. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is a little too loud but I leave it. I stand in the kitchen and eat and fuss around which is my usual manner of eating and doing morning coffee stuff. This house is tiny and the kitchen is a little galley and I love pivoting from one counter to the other without much movement. It feels safe and familiar already. We will probably leave this house in a year because it is only a rental, but we won’t leave Richmond. I can’t move anymore. I want this to be home.

I don’t tell people I have headaches. I don’t talk about it much, only to certain people and maybe only in passing. Occasionally I do because I want someone to know something about me that’s intimate and almost taboo. Sometimes it’s just to feel a shred of relief, just in the saying of it. It’s true that sometimes I say it to be comforted. To relieve myself a bit. But you must understand that I never tell people I have headaches in order to incur pity or even sympathy. Quite honestly it’s sort of the opposite that prevents me from mentioning it most of the time. I don’t want suggested remedies or advice or sorrow. I don’t want a million questions about why or where or how often. I don’t want to explain the difference between migraines and tension headaches. I don’t want to talk about the fact that I believe my headaches are caused by emotional pain in my body, a long history of grief and stress held in my muscles, because most people look a little puzzled by that or even roll their eyes a bit.

Still, sometimes I do say it, and sometimes the telling feels good. And I’m writing this now because I realize that I’m changing, I feel a shift in the way I relate to and experience my headaches, in the way I talk about them, or don’t. I realize my silence around them is laced with a complexity of feeling that includes pride, shame, embarrassment, confusion, grief, and plenty more. I realize, with some recent therapy that gifted me true emotional intelligence, that my pain isn’t my fault. And these days I’m feeling really committed to the power of voice and narrative and the capacity women have for sharing the breadth of our experiences, be it traumatic, joyful, curious, unsure, angry, demanding, you name it. I want to hear it. I want to encourage it. I can’t exclude myself from this. I won’t. I will never accept that some stories are worth telling and others aren’t. God who the hell gets to decide such a thing anyway? This week I was lucky enough to take a writing workshop with a local woman who champions story and voice and writing for everyone. She teaches these beautiful classes where everyone writes and everyone shares and she listened to each one of us and then looked us directly in the eye and said supportive and encouraging things about every piece of writing she heard. And we all heard each other. The writing was outrageous in its honesty and emotion. Every piece. My skepticism fell away in an instant. It made me want to forget everything I know about criticism and commentary. It also made me want to listen to others more and stay open. Really open. I knew in those three hours that I was home, that writing could be whatever I want it to be, but it must be shared and it must feel supported. In me, first.

We rock climb today. Walk dogs. Eat sandwiches at the coffee shop. Talk to strangers. Play in the muddy backyard of our little rental house with my brother and his son and my husband and his son and all of the dogs run wild and eat sticks. The sun is warm and the snow is mostly gone. The boys sweat and get dirty and I watch and talk and my brother tells me we have all these dogwood trees in our yard that I didn’t recognize because of the bare branches but god I hope they will bloom in the spring. I want to witness the white blossoms and bury my face in them. I have a headache through all of this, the whole day. I am not in staggering pain and there are moments when I forget it altogether, but it rarely leaves me. You must understand that comparing this pain to the pain other people feel is foolish and impossible. I know others hurt more, and others hurt less. I know it pains my mother deeply to know I feel physical discomfort on a regular basis. She wants to fix it for me, and I understand that’s her instinct. But what if this pain isn’t easily fixable? I have to live with it. I am learning to befriend it. When I refuse pain reliever she chides me and says I don’t know why you want to suffer. Which is a fascinating and complicated question, too. You must understand that the easy and obvious answer is of course I don’t want to suffer. Of course I don’t want to have pain, but my acceptance of it, my surrendering of the fight against it, has been an integral part of my healing. I have learned to acknowledge my pain and even cultivate a curiosity around it that feels less rooted in judgment and fear, and this is less of a cure and more of a balm for me. A sort of antidote that I can’t and don’t necessarily want to explain. Sometimes my silence around it is driven by this internal work, which is just the nature of the thing. But I also know I don’t have to hold it all in and keep quiet. It’s a choice really, and it changes day to day. But underneath that there is also a strange and somewhat addicting identification with one’s pain. I’m not sure if that’s me or not, but I’m also not so foolish to suggest that no one wants to feel pain. I can’t say that for sure, certainly not for other people.

What I do know is that I don’t want to prevent myself from living my life and having a good day like I did today. I had a gorgeous vegan dinner tonight with my cousin and we ate from tiny little plates heaped with hummus and winter slaw and turnips and oyster mushroom and yam and sunchoke pudding. After, I drove the streets slowly so I could peer into restaurant and apartment windows of my new old city and felt at home. Again. Like I had several times today already. I had a headache during most of these moments, and while I don’t feel sorry for myself, I will neither romanticize nor diminish this pain anymore. A long time ago, probably while studying yoga, I learned the phrase: I am not this body, I am not this pain. That’s so damn helpful. And so I’m expanding my thinking now to include silence. I am not my shame, I am not my silence. Sharing story is not self-serving (like I sometimes convince myself). Story doesn’t have to be trauma-filled in order to be shared. Story doesn’t have to be polished, finished, or logical. Story doesn’t have to have a cure or a moral. Story doesn’t have to be exceptional, and it doesn’t have to be interesting to everybody at every moment. I like ordinary stories best. Ordinary bodies in ordinary time, paying attention to what ails us, and what allows us to feel free.