In the past six months, I’ve tried probably just as many strategies to relieve the pain in my head and neck. One of them is acupuncture, recommended by many people who haven’t actually tried it themselves. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with it: I do feel like it helps uncoil some of my muscles, but I’m extremely uncomfortable having needles poking into the base of my skull and back of my neck. Whoever says it’s painless or relaxing must be pretty free of tension to begin with, because my muscles are tight, and I definitely feel it. I wrote this poem after one of my sessions to try to capture my feelings about it.
SESSION THREE The lights are dim. The filmy white curtains blow in the breeze from the open window. I wouldn’t mind some soft music, but there’s only the honk of cars on the street below and the whine of construction tools—the sound calls to mind an ancient torture device, all sharp spikes and grinding metal plates. I’m laying still on my stomach, arms splayed, a pillow under my shins, holding myself r i g i d like a domino waiting to topple. His hands go first to my neck, kneading the skin, finding all the tender spaces where I stash both my hope and my fear—at the base of my skull, in the bony ridge of my shoulder blade. I trust him, but it’s hard to let myself go limp in his arms. At the point of entry, my body v i b r a t e s. My muscles tense and spasm beneath my skin. I cry out involuntarily. But then it’s over, and he leaves. I focus on breathing through my belly to bring my nervous system back into some semblance of operating order. I lose track of time. I slip into not-thinking, where pain is just a construct and the universe gleams in color and good intentions can save us. After minutes (hours? eons?) he finally returns. I pull myself back to myself. He extracts the needles, one by one; for a moment I still feel a phantom pressure, a whisper of a thought half-formed then lost as I stand, stretch out, put on my clothes, and walk outside to skyscrapers and traffic and real life.
I string together lists of things I’m grateful for— a kind deed and sunshine and support a moment of stillness or peace or love. Each is a pinprick of light; I am a city slowly regaining power after a blackout.
I stack letters into words into stories into prayers— give me strength, help me accept, show me how to heal and grow. Each is a voice in a choir; I am a hymn erupting with melody after silence.
I breathe into the empty spaces and I fill them with hope.
As some of you know, I self-published a poetry book, “An Unfamiliar Ache,” in late 2010. It collects together material spanning the three or four years prior, and I have to admit that it includes much more teenage angst than I remember. As I flip back through its pages, I realize that most of the poems need work. Some of them need to be trashed altogether. They only represent a small sliver of the work I created during that time, and it reminds me of how much and how often I used to write.
I used to know how to write
a poem about anything
rain patter on the window, lanterns
strung up in the garden, breathing
and listening and
inside there is a space
that longs to be filled
miles logged on hot asphalt
will take you far away
from that stark void
that glimpse into the Real
but eventually you have to come
back home and I will be here