Messages from Pigeons, and Three Days of Collapse…

Messages from Pigeons

{image description: A five-foot tall watercolour painting of a pigeon, cut-out in the shape of the bird and laminated to protect the image. The happy pigeon is ziptied to the outside of a chainlink schoolyard fence and has four speech bubbles around their smiling face. They read: “THANK YOU GROCERY STORE WORKERS.” “THANK YOU DELIVERY DRIVERS.” “THANK YOU SANITATION WORKERS.” “PLEASE PROTECT THEM AND PAY THEM WELL.” Each message has a pink heart at the end of the sentence. In the background, a concrete schoolyard with a few pigeons walking about, a red brick school in the distance, some dark trees and hydro wires, and grey clouds gathering in the sky. The art is displayed on a corner well-known for its dozens of pigeons gathering everyday, unafraid of passersby, and a set of benches where people often feed them as they sit and watch the busy street by the subway station. Also on this corner: the beauty supply shop with the hot pink sign where I buy my colourful hairdye, which was also the first place I went when businesses started to slowly re-open in Toronto. I hadn’t realized until recently that the two colours I choose the most, deep violet and forest green, are the two jewel-like colours of pigeon plumage, amethyst and emerald.}

On Monday the 13th, I went for a rare walk. I’ve been less mobile these days, pandemic-times, and I’ve come back to one of those points where I will try anything to manage my pain (anything that doesn’t involve an appointment at the doctor’s office, referrals to other doctors and more doctors and specialists and more hospitals and medical environments and all the indifference disbelief belittling dismissiveness, and reminders of past traumas that would entail). Digging out books on bodies movement yoga trauma pain I read years ago, and finding more. Re-visiting works on herbalism and aromatherapy and Ayurvedic medicine, notes I’ve taken in classes and workshops… Monday I mention because it’s resulted in, (at the time of writing, mid-July), three days in bed to recuperate.

What I carry in my backpack when I go out: A book to read, my diary, my planner, a thermos of water, various pens in black and purple, my wallet, a travel-size deck of Tarot cards, a zippered pouch with a whole bunch of meds, hand sanitizer, a smaller notepad, essential oils, a handkerchief, moisturizer, etc. I’m using my debit card as much as possible, unusual for me as I prefer cash, it can’t be declined, but I’m still trying my best to keep cash on me to give to people who need it. I’ve been reading a big book about aromatherapy, The Complete Book of Essential Oils & Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood, used bookstore find, and wanting to get back into making my own recipes. I have at least thirty bottles of essential oils here at home, but there were a few I wanted to gather for my collection, specifically for easing pain, digestive issues, and insomnia, plus I needed carrier oils for my concoctions. Also, an excuse for (masked) fresh air. It was one of few days that wasn’t a heat wave. And I had a list of dried herbs and a lil tincture to pick-up and drop-off for some friends, too. It still makes me feel useful to be able to do a small task like that.

As I wrote, I had a floral blend in the diffuser at my bedside: ylang ylang, orange, and patchouli. All my writing done in bed that week, laptop on a wooden tray purchased two Summers ago for this purpose. The pain was: the usual places, hips and pelvic region and thighs, which I won’t elaborate on, and lately it’s spread to places that didn’t used to bother me: shins, ankles, and tops of my feet. As I wrote, it was also: the finger joints of my right hand, pricks on my right wrist, inner and outer right elbow; general soreness of the muscles of my upper arm, and the tendons and muscles where my right shoulder connects to my neck. The vertebrae of my lower neck have been bothering me for at least a month, to a point where I would often wake up unable to move that area of my body. My lower back burns.

Two pinched nerves have been aggravated this Summer: the first, my right shoulder, which was pinched back in December or January, as I carried five bananas in a totebag for three blocks (I can’t ever know when the tiniest most ordinary task is gonna continue debilitating my body eight fucking months later), and the other, my neck, middle of March, shortly after the shutdown, when I scrubbed my stove while medicated, not realizing in my painkiller haze how roughly I was treating my body until I woke up the next day unable to turn my head. Again, five fucking months later, debilitating pain due to a task that I wish could be ordinary, even thoughtless.

For three days after my walk, pain like this, as well as full-body fatigue rendering me barely able to move, definitely not able to get out of bed, weighed down by heavy feelings in the flesh, muscles, tissues, a feeling of feet and legs too heavy to lift, arms too heavy even to scribble at my bedside with my head on my pillow. After nearly a decade of this, it still sometimes surprises me, infuriates me.

I gathered the ingredients I needed for myself and two friends at one place, and then I walked toward their apartment, observing changes in the city streets, empty storefronts, stickers on the ground indicating six-feet, which addresses have recently become new franchises of chain businesses, who keeps their distance and who pretends this isn’t happening.

{image description: I took a picture of this do-your-part-stay-apart sign because of all the variations, and all the alterations I’ve seen to those variations, this is the only one I’ve seen that a) portrays the presence of disabled people, and b) uses the more recently created and more accurate portrayal of a disabled person moving of their own accord, controlling their own wheelchair, not sitting static in place, not waiting for help (I have stickers of this symbol at home, to cover up the old design). Image is a laminated white sheet of paper on a white-washed wall, which says, MAINTAIN PHYSICAL DISTANCE, and has symbols of people in the classic (groan) bathroom-door format, a “man”, a red arrow indicating two metres between one figure and the next, a “woman”, a red arrow indicating two metres again, and a disabled person. Beneath these figures reads: STAY AT LEAST 2 METRES APART, and “Prevent the spread of COVID-19 to our employees and our community.” There are more laminated sheets on the wall around this one, with similar messages about hand sanitizer, physical distance, masks, etc.}

If you’ve entered any businesses this Spring and Summer, you’ve noticed changes. A staff member at the door to limit the amount of people who enter, hand sanitizer (sometimes gloves and masks, too) offered/required at the entrance, etc. At Herbs & Nutrition, the place where I made my Monday walk, one noticeable difference is the now-empty wall of testers where essential oils used to be displayed. I wish I had taken a photo. The customized wooden shelves with curved spots at measured intervals that hold each bottle, hundreds of them, so you can sniff before you buy, or sniff just for fun, for respite from the city streets. Testers of lotions, etc., are gone now, too, of course. But the empty essential oil shelves are still labeled with brand, plant, size, and price, and the closed bottles were always kept behind the counter anyway… Now you just ask for the bottle you want, no sniffing beforehand.

I chose white thyme, clary sage, and clove. The one at the top of my list, chamomile, I had to leave behind. I understand the hows and whys of price differences between different essential oils, but I didn’t know just how much that varies… Where most 30ml bottles cost between $7.99 to 19.99, a 30ml bottle of chamomile costs… SEVENTY DOLLARS. Also, tea tree oil is recommended in many recipes, but my skin has painful reactions. Red, burning patches that feel like scalding.

I dropped off the dried herbs at my friends’ place, and while I thought I wouldn’t see them – I’ve done multiple drop-offs to their place during the pandemic, but hadn’t seen them since a couple weeks before the shutdown, and I’d been a crying mess for unrelated reasons – we had a short conversation at the door anyway, each of us masked, them standing by the open door, and me sitting on the outdoor stairs. Sometimes we couldn’t hear each other over the traffic, but we got by.

Afterward, I sat down at a nearby parkette and wrote a short letter to my nana and a short postcard to a friend. Then I walked home and began my three-day collapse.

{image description: A billboard in a large field along a highway, portraying a painting of a natural landscape, coniferous trees lining each side of a long, wide river, a river that reflects the sky. The image is taken at such an angle that the painting is shown against the sky, one sky blending into another.}

When I asked on my Patreon if anyone knew that these billboards are about – I’ve noticed them around the city and on rural drives – somebody sent me this link.

The paintings are by the national creative director of the company who owns the billboards, which they rent to advertisers – billboards with unpurchased ad space were printed with paintings instead, and as less companies advertise/d during COVID-19, there was that much more space. I find most ads to be depressive eyesores at best, and the cynic in me was glad to learn that the painting weren’t part of a mysterious campaign; it makes me wonder what else could be done with billboards in the meantime… DIY-style.

After my three-day collapse…

{image description: A pink poster with purple screenprint ink pasted to a shopfront window. In a psychedelic, allcaps font, the poster reads: END POLICE BRUTALITY. NO JUSTICE NO PEACE. BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER. To the left, the shop window displays vintage cowboy boots with steel toes, a pink scarf, a black leather bag, and a pink leather bag.}

After my three day collapse, I wanted to be outside again. Once again, I’ve been trying to think of different words and different concepts for “pain.” One term I’ve been using is “strong sensations.” I’m in pain and this hurts might still be true, but they’re also limiting. Pain itself is limiting (and being limited is not necessarily wrong or bad), of course, but language and visions let me be more playful and imaginative with it.

I haven’t been sleeping well the last couple weeks (scratch that – months), which obviously impacts my body and my mental health. Often, when I do sleep, I dream about my grandparents and/or their old house that they sold last Summer. In at least two recent dreams, my poppa, who died last December, is alive again. I say ‘again’ because even in the dreams, we’re aware that he died last Winter, that it’s unusual for him to have returned, to be present, but at the same time, it feels like a normal, natural thing to occur, for us to be hanging out.

In one dream, he asked me if there are any clothes of his that I’d like to keep now that he doesn’t need them anymore. When I visited my nana in June, she asked me the same thing, so that must be why it was on my mind. In another dream, I cooked him a pancake breakfast as a surprise. I was sitting on a couch in an old Victorian house, waiting for him to come home. I’d arranged the breakfast on a vintage plate only used on special occasions, and placed it on the porch so it’d be the first thing he saw when he returned. But I heard a noise and a clatter, and found that somebody had stolen most of the breakfast, as well as the plate. A single cold pancake remained, soaked in his favourite kind of maple syrup, which I ate myself, disappointed.

When I can’t sleep, I lay in bed feeling pain, thinking about pain, and wishing I didn’t need to have a body to be alive. In my three days of collapse, I wished I could enjoy the rest – instead I felt frustrated, half-dead, despondent. One night, in a daze, I murmured to my half-asleep partner, “What if I could cut out my hips and replace them with a bowl of goldfish?”

Over the years, when the pain rises in intensity, I’ve had a series of dreams where I am not-at-home, and I’ve misplaced my cane, forgotten it somewhere. My body freezes, and then I cling to whatever’s around me – a wall, a countertop, a tree – afraid to take a step forward, afraid of falling. I once dreamt I was in Montréal, lost, past midnight, and forgot my cane on a subway car, where a creepy man laughed at my folly. In many of my dreams now, I’m attempting to reclaim my grandparents’ old house, but I’m being kicked off the property.

{image description: A small, temporary art installment, one of many around the city. A wooden box, approximately one and a half feet tall and one and a half feet wide stands at eye-level, painted turquoise. The front of the box is a Plexiglas window, and inside, the words I AM SECRETLY SUCCEEDING are affixed in silver glitter. Old maple trees and brick houses are behind the box as well as reflected in the window.}

{image description: A yellow poster wheatpasted to a grey electric box on a street corner. Screenprinted in red ink: A classic anarchist cat, back arched, fanged mouth overturning cop cars. To the left of the car, silhouettes of people holding protest signs and cheering. Poster reads: COPS AREN’T WORKERS. NO POLICE UNIONS. NO COPS IN LABOUR. In the background, a red TTC streetcar goes by, and the wheels of a couple of locked up bikes are seen.}

{image description: A further back shot of the shop window shown in the first image. A white banner with black letters is a backdrop to the window display of vintage boots, purses, and other items. It reads: TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER. Sky, clouds, and three-story brick buildings are reflected in the window. A snake plant and other potted plants with large, long green leaves are sitting in the left corner of the window display.}

Laying in bed, thinking about pain, feeling pain, I was also observing pain. When I was observing, I could ask myself questions like: Is this pain? Is this pain? Are there other ways it can be described, be felt? Strong sensations. Pressure. Pinching, poking, bruising, twisting. Sometimes I had a feeling of wanting to cry. And maybe that’s what makes me tired – or moreso fatigued than tired. The need to cry. I know that I suppress my emotions, and I know that one way that suppression shows up is through strong sensations in my body, and a sense of detachment in my psyche and my heart. I cope day-to-day, I lose time, I lose creativity. I have tough feelings that have been stifled and smothered.

I recently wrote “commitment to healing” in my diary. But I haven’t felt committed at all. At the same time, I know that resting or sleeping means I’m healing. Even pain indicates change indicates healing. I know all too well that healing is not linear and it never will be, and that my illness is not from which I can seek a ‘cure’.

.After three days in bed, I had one short day of less pain. I walked some more and I wrote. I made all kinds of lists in my journal, and I pressed more flowers between the pages. I wrote about reading some of my childhood books to my partner’s kid, and I wrote a list named “The Need to Retreat, Which Cannot Happen, But What Would You Do Instead? ie What Compromises Can You Make as a Poor Disabled Person at Home and Sick During a Pandemic?” I wrote a list of how to prepare for another possible shutdown. I wrote about the possibility of keeping another pain diary, and a list of everything each documented day would contain – eighteen items on the list, meaning the pain diary would take a lot of time and energy each day. Is that part of a commitment to healing? I drew the Nine of Wands.

{image description: Selfie taken outside. Left corner shows glare of the sun. I’m standing in front of a mural of clear quartz crystal points and monarch butterflies at an angle such that I appear as if I have my own set of wings. I’m wearing a sleeveless black dress, round glasses, and purple lipstick, slightly smiling. My long green hair is pulled back in pigtails and I’m wearing purple plastic barrettes. Graffiti font on the mural to my left reads: ART.}

And after the one short day of less pain, I woke up unable to move my right arm or hand, my dominant side. As I was getting out of bed, I bent my arm and it locked at the elbow, sending quick waves of pain upward through the tendons toward my shoulder. I couldn’t hold onto a cup or a book, and I couldn’t write, which was my only plan that day. I cried, frustrated. My partner made my breakfast smoothie for me, which I usually do on my own, and gave me a straw instead of a spoon. Once again, I stayed in bed all day. Labeled my feelings as exhausted, despondent. I tried to describe the pain to Dean when he asked: This is what it feels like when my elbow locks, this is where it spasms through my shoulder, up my neck, and through my right side ribs, this is what each finger feels like, and this spot on my wrist, and this spot, too, and this is where my fingertips are tingling and numb.

Later, he told he worried that his own depression and anger were showing up in my body. I also learned that my nana had the lost the use of her dominant arm and hand at the same time I did. A few weeks later, during another two and a half day migraine, I also learned that my mom had a migraine the same time and duration as mine.

{image description: Two alleyway garages, side-by-side, each with a portrait painted on them. Left garage shows a Black femme with long, wavy turquoise hair, frizzy sides pulled up and back into symmetrical buns above the temples, decorated with pink hearts. Figure wears pink and purple eye shadow. Their smooth brown face is shaded with deep orange, and their pupils are heart-shaped. Background is hot pink. Right garage shows a woman of colour from bare shoulders upward, wearing fuchsia lipstick, her dark, wide eyes glittering, mascara thick. Figure’s head is tilted, and in her middle-parted black hair, she wears a glowing golden-orange sun and moon on one side, painted with its eyes closed, restful; on the other side, the earth resides, held by two flowers the same colour as her lipstick. Background is blue with orange rays of light.}

A question I come back to now and then is:

How much pain must be endured? How much discomfort must be tolerated?

This is a conversation I have with myself everyday. When is the right moment to allow myself to take a painkiller? Which one should I take? How long will I have access to this prescription? What alternatives are available to me? Can I wait another fifteen minutes? Half an hour? Would pausing and making time to stretch be helpful? When was the last time I took this pill? What have I done to relieve pain and anxiety in the meantime? How much more can I tolerate?

Also: How much pain do others with similar diagnoses endure? How do they navigate their own levels of tolerance, discomfort?

If this prescription label says take once every four hours, do I need to try so hard to only take that pill once every two or three or four days?

Do I wait until I’m unable to walk to take this pill, or do I take it earlier to prevent an inability to walk? How much activity can I do while medicated without destroying my body and becoming bedbound anyway?

{image description: Camera aims down at my feet, concrete sidewalk. Lavender cane held in my left hand, seam of my purple shorts barely seen at the bottom of the frame. Hairy, tattooed legs, black sandals, toenails painted a shade of hot pink called Toying with Trouble. I’m standing by a dark blue circle-shaped sticker on the ground that reads PLEASE WAIT HERE above an outline of footprints, and 2M/6FT APART below.}

And each time I ask myself these questions, I vacillate between: Not yet. It’s not that bad. Not yet. I’ve survived worse. It’s not awful. It’s not quite debilitating, not quite intolerable. Not yet. Versus. I don’t need to test my endurance of pain, of immobility. I don’t need to hurt this much. I will take this pill right now, regardless of urgency. I am allowed to feel okay, I am allowed to feel comfortable. I am allowed to not be in pain each and every moment.

Exhaustedly Yours,

P.S.: If you’ve benefited from my writing in any way – if my words have inspired you, helped you feel less alone, or sparked some weird feeling within you; if you’ve felt encouraged, or curious, or comforted – please consider compensating me by offering a donation of any amount. Whether you’ve been reading my writing for years, or just stumbled into me this afternoon, I invite you to help me sustain the process! ALSO! I have a Patreon now! Please join me.

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