I hit the hard streets of Chicago running. They were literally hard. I was literally running. The mountain community that had been my running grounds until that point is covered with a layer of fine red clay. But Chicago’s cement sidewalks and paved streets offered no resilience. All shock, no absorption.
I was fast. I could get away from trouble as quickly as I encountered it, dodging through streets and alleys and through empty lots. In school I was one of the fastest kids in track. Soccer was good, too. My peers had all grown up steeped in baseball and basketball. I didn’t even know the rules. But soccer was new to everyone.
My feet felt the impact first. Running as I did, on the flats of my feet, worked fine in the mountains but exacted a price in cement-land. Immigration was jarring. The sharp pain started in the bottoms of my feet. I began walking on the outer edges, much to the chagrin of my ankles. Soon my knees were centers of excruciating pain. Each adjustment I made moved the stress point up my skeleton but didn’t provide relieve for points below. The pain in my hips, when it reached them, was dull and unrelenting.
By now I had moved out of home and dropped out of school. When I joined some other teens and moved into an apartment, I found a bamboo pole in the closet. It had probably been a curtain rod. Now I had me a walking staff. The bamboo reminded me of home. It was something to lean on. I was never mugged again. I learned later that word on the street had it that I was some kind of martial arts guy. With lots of easier prey around no one felt the need to find out what kind. The only harassment came from the dashiki nationalists near Harper Square who howled in frustration when they saw me, begging me to sell them my fine, straight bamboo to carve into flutes.
Friends got used to my stopping often to re-tie my disintegrating tennies so as to hold my disintegrating feet together. Nighttime was dreaded. My sciatic nerves were permanently inflamed. I had no language for that. Not that I talked much anyway. No wonder alcohol and pot were welcomed discoveries.
I was reading The Price of My Soul, Bernadette Devlin’s autobiography of life in the Irish freedom struggle when one sentence leapt off the page at me. “And then began the ordeal of the fallen arches,” she wrote. Fallen arches! This shit had a name?! By the time the fire reached my neck I was working in a furniture factory in New Hampshire. They told me – once I’d been there three months – that no one had lasted more than a few weeks in that job. I had become used to putting up with whatever conditions life handed me. I figured everyone had their aches and pains, everyone wrestled with secret challenges. I suppose they do. Friends gave me advice: aim low; prepare for continued decline; expect to spend a lot of time in a wheelchair before I graduated from my twenties. They meant well.
Now I was working at a textile mill in a town up the road. There was a tiny building on the edge of Exeter, out by the road, that said “Chiropractor” on the roof. I walked in one day, a couple of weeks before I was planning to leave the area. The guy took some x-rays and said to come back in two days. “You are in bad shape!” he exclaimed when I returned. “Your skeleton looks like a pretzel, your pelvis is tilted and rotated and your neck…” It was the nicest thing anyone could have said to me. I grinned all the way home. I was real!
An apprentice job in Minneapolis got me onto the Carpenters Union health plan. Carpenters believe in chiropractic, so I was could get treatment. Nothing fancy, mind you – just your basic, mechanical bone and muscle adjustments. That was what I needed. Bone by bone my structural integrity was restored. I learned that one can sleep without pain; work without ice wrapped around my knee; clear a loading dock without wincing and even walk without a limp. Dang!
I don’t think about that whole ordeal very often. When I do it’s in shorthand, not like a decade of my life. I’m sure I’ve gained both wisdom and foolishness from it all. One does. I learned that it’s possible to live in a kind of isolation and keep my travails to myself. I’ve learned that doing so sucks. The injuries we hide out of shame or shyness or to not burden others are often monsters only to ourselves. Sunlight helps. Isolation lets them grow and cause too much damage. It causes all kinds of damage. I’ve noted the irony that my activism was all about helping people challenge, not just accept, the harsh conditions they faced in life. While at the same time… Yeah, ironic.
It’s also helped me realize that what we see of each other is just the small tip of a large iceberg. A vast territory exists beneath the waves that contains the real secrets of why we act and feel the way we do. It has helped me see activism, not as a process of confronting evil but rather of diagnosing trauma.
Of course experience doesn’t come wrapped in a box with the lessons neatly listed on the label. These are just things I think I’ve learned… Or hope to… Someday… When I grow up.
One thing I’m pretty sure of. As humans we have to tell each other stories. That’s how we create human space. It encourages more of us to tell more stories. To reveal the landscapes beneath the waves.