Just Stay in the Car

Photo by Emerson Gunning, who stayed in the car

(c) 2014 by Emerson Gunning, taken from inside the car

My daughter, Emerson, is visiting my parents in Miami this week. While the annual pilgrimage to visit grandparents in Florida is an ancient tradition among my people – those people being New York Jews – this is Emmy’s first time making the trip. My parents moved to Florida in October of last year, after a lifetime in New York City and Westchester, and we are all still adjusting to the new distance.

For Jonathan and me, it’s been a lazy week of sleeping in, Netflix binging, and take out. A delicious reenactment of the first six months of our relationship, when we put on pants only long enough to go get another pizza and rent more movies. It’s also an odd sort of return to my teenage years, those idyllic days when my parents would go out of town and my 17-year-old, green-eyed, James Dean lookalike boyfriend would all but move into my house.

Yesterday was Jonathan’s birthday, and we were awakened by a phone call from Emmy, who warbled an early-morning rendition of Happy Birthday and enthusiastically informed us that she was going on SAFARI today, to a place where the ANIMALS WALKED AROUND but you were perfectly safe, because you STAY IN THE CAR. There could be lions, or tigers, or monkeys, and maybe you will want to touch them and maybe they are dangerous but you STAY IN THE CAR and you will be fine.

Emerson is often a pint-sized guru, dropping wisdom about forgiveness, friendship, admitting when you’re wrong, and self-reliance (she is well named, this independent, imaginative, dragon-loving cherub of mine). But this particular bit of advice has been traveling with me, working its way into my thinking, the way poetry will.

I have a habit of getting out of the car, metaphorically speaking. Of wanting to run my hands over the tiger’s hot fur, feel his rough tongue on my skin, because he is exciting and beautiful, even though I know he is dangerous. Wanting to mediate the chattering drama of the monkeys. Wanting to help the giraffe figure out how to safely walk under the low-hanging bridge. Sometimes this works out fine – the tiger is growly but playful, the monkeys’ disagreement is resolved, the giraffe is rescued. Other times, more often than I’d like to admit, my good intentions end in troubled feelings, and I am reminded again that it is wise, good even, to empathize, to hold compassion, to listen, even to offer an opinion or perspective, if it’s asked for, if it can be received, but ultimately, you have to stay in the car.

Stay in the car.

Let the tiger slink by, let the monkeys sling it out, let the giraffe find her own way. You stay in the car, and you root for them, you send them your kindness and your care. But your business is in the car, behind the wheel, driving through soft summer air or under a brilliant winter sky, into the soft grey where morning arrives. You stay in the car, fiddling with the radio, keeping the temperature right. You plot the best route to wherever you’re going, get lost, find your way again.

None of which is to imply you can’t invite a fascinating gazelle or rumble-throated golden lion into the car with you, or that you can’t climb out now and then to ride a buffalo. I’m not talking about coldness, or a lack of adventurousness. I’m talking about cheerful participation from a secure place of your own.

Stay in the car. Drive your own safari. Let the tigers and the monkeys and the giraffes figure it out for themselves.

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In which I am anally probed by a chiropractor and fitted for a truss, also, some thoughts on love

I was diagnosed with scoliosis during a routine visit to my pediatrician when I was around 12 years old, and immediately burst into hysterical tears. I had just finished reading Deenie, Judy Blume’s novel about a beautiful girl with a twisty spine, and I was certain I’d be in a full body brace before sunset. In fact, my curvature is relatively minor, and required nothing more than monitoring until I’d finished growing. I look perfectly normal in clothes, but I am imbalanced — one hip is a little higher than the other, my waist is a little more concave on one side — and as a result I have overworked muscles in my right shoulder and left lower back, and corresponding weak muscles in my left shoulder and right lower back. I’m a bit of a Picasso, but none of it was a problem until I was 18, when I slipped on some ice, fell on concrete, and did something terrible to my crooked musculature that made it painful to sit, stand, lie down, and walk. Those being all the options, I was in big trouble, and was saved by a local chiropractor, who crunched me back into my version of alignment and got me back on my feet.

Since then, I have struggled with back pain, sometimes just a little stiff and twingy, other times in spasm so terrible I was essentially immobile for days, alternating heat and ice, abusing anti-inflammatory drugs, and crawling to the bathroom because I couldn’t stand. In my 30s, I found a chiropractor who truly helped me, with an extraordinarily expensive weekly regimen of electrical stim, massage, chiropractic adjustments, abdominal exercises, weight lifting and stretching. After years of this, she retired, and because I felt so well, and it had been so long since I’d had an episode, I figured myself cured and never bothered to find another doctor.

I am so dumb, sometimes.

The past few months have been a strange time, demanding and emotionally draining, with work eating up much of my life, a great deal of travel, and an unusual level of stress to do with family dynamics and the unexpected death of an old friend of a friend, a man my age. I’ve been letting some things slip, important things, like my morning run, daily meditation, dinner with my family, going to the movies, reading for pleasure, and time to pursue my own creative work. I’ve been letting life slip, is the thing. 

So of course, my back went out on Monday.

It was just like the bad old days, the immediate seizure of all the muscles in my lower back, my left hip pulled up, my torso pushed to the side, what I think of as my Elephant Man posture, the searing, blinding, nauseating pain, the inability to look down, to bend, the fear that this time I’ve done it, this time it won’t get better, this time the brace, the surgery, the pain that won’t stop, the never dancing again or horsing around with my daughter. This time I’m really broken.

Experience has taught me that the only thing to do when this happens is to keep moving. Stand instead of sit. Walk instead of stand. Crawl if I have to. Movement is the key. To give in to the pain, to the spasm, to the crazy-making swirl of fear, is worse than useless. When life clamps down, you move. So I double dosed on Tylenol and Motrin, counted out exactly how many I could take over the next 24 hours without poisoning myself, had Jonathan help me dress, and went to work. 

My crooked posture and obvious distress were met with compassion and care, because I work with people who are as kind as they are talented. I was given the names of many doctors — sports medicine, orthopedists, acupuncturists, and chiropractors (this is New York City, after all, everyone’s got a specialist for everything). And so it was that I found myself on Wednesday afternoon in the beautiful office of a chiropractor who is named for an Egyptian goddess, has been interviewed by O magazine, and uses a technique called Directional Non Force, which is extremely gentle and nothing like the twisting, cracking, popping chiropractic care I’ve had in the past.

I mean honestly, she had me at Oprah. 

She is lovely, this doctor, warm and kind, with a healing touch and a deep wisdom about the body. She talked to me, examined me, and worked on me extensively. She detailed my curvature to me, identifying L5 as the vertebrae to blame for my troubles, and then she told me that my coccyx was out of alignment, and she thought adjusting it would help me feel much better.

Funny thing about having your coccyx adjusted. It’s an internal procedure. And she didn’t even want to cuddle afterwards.

And then, because the afternoon had not been horizon expanding enough, she fitted me for a support belt. It’s a wide, multi-Velcroed garment that wraps around one’s hips and waist, providing support to newly aligned tailbones and exhausted muscles. It is my Deenie nightmare come true.

And so home I went, where I explained my day to Jonathan, and showed him my truss. Then I took a large dose of Oxycontin (they should put this stuff in the water, I swear), and went to bed.

The next day I was feeling better, but on doctor’s orders needed to wear my belt anyway, to help preserve my adjustment and not send my muscles back into spasm. After trying to get it placed properly on my own, and failing, I finally asked Jonathan for help. 

I think often about what it is to love another person, the comforts of it, the surprise of being charmed anew after years of familiarity, the chasm of rage you fall into sometimes. And to be sure, love is silk stockings and French bras and nursing a sick child, it’s dirty texts and harsh words, buying groceries and who is going to empty the dishwasher. And if you are lucky, love is a partner who will rub your aching, crooked ass with anti-inflammatory gel, and then wrap you in a truss while talking dirty to you about how you’re a sexy nurse and he’s going to straighten you out, you saucy little minx. 

The moral of this story, I guess, is that sometimes all we need is anal from a chiropractor and a truss to remember what’s truly important in life.