The Broken Ankle Renaissance

In January, in Arizona, while living in a minivan and engaged in the most menial of labors in order to build funds for bigger and bolder ideas, I took a fall on a bouldering problem at the climbing gym and badly injured my ankle. The emergency room sent me away with essentially a dinosaur band-aid and a pair of crutches. Soon after, I drifted east to visit my family in Virginia and prepare for the summer’s journey: the old RV idea, outlined previously, for the purpose of making time and space for creative work. A slow recovery and continued inability to walk kept pushing plans back, and my visit home gradually became a more and more extended stay. Finally an MRI revealed a fractured talus and multiple torn ligaments. My orthopedist put me in a walking boot for another six weeks, but what neither the MRI, nor the X-rays, nor the CT scan showed was the cartilage that had been damaged in the impact and floated in the center of the joint. After three months of growing more and more impatient and anxious to get healed and hit the road, it became clear that I would require ankle surgery. Estimated post-surgical healing time was three to six months.

That night, I rapidly descended into intense despair. Restless and bitter, I spent several hours fervently engaged in the act of Feeling Sorry for Myself. Then I went outside and interrogated the sky. Why is this happening to me? I asked. “You have learned nothing,” said the moon. Then the strangest thing occurred. Suddenly, I caught a faint glimpse, and the pieces came into fleeting alignment; I could perceive how each distinct chapter of my life, stitched of tiny individual moments, was connected to every other chapter, and how my entire life was but a thread intertwined with all lives across geography and generation, all woven together into the great tapestry of humanity. And I realized that if the human story is made up of individual lives, and individual lives are made up of moments, then at each and every moment of our lives—with every word uttered, every heartbeat and every inhalation—we shape the very course of human history.

So I went inside and I did the only thing I could do, which was accept what life had given me. I thought of how deeply I once trusted the universe; for years I believed in a world that provides us with what we need, and now nothing had changed except me; where did this idea come from that my injury was a distraction from my journey rather than an essential part of it? It was quite a symbolic injury for a traveler, after all. I felt a growing sense of peace, followed by an overwhelming feeling of loss. Loss of what? I wondered, looking out my window. “You have learned nothing,” said the moon.

In the week before the surgery I made preparations. My parents welcomed me to stay for as long as necessary. I cleaned out my inboxes and handled other half-finished tasks. In a few whirlwind days I tackled the monumental project of my old bedroom, still cluttered with relics of my adolescence and essentially untouched since I first left home to go away to college. Excavating the room made it start to feel more like my own space and less like an archaeological dig site. In one corner I set up a shrine & meditation cushion. I cleared everything from my desk. I ordered a few books and reorganized my shelves. Amazingly, a job I had applied for months earlier—a work-from-home podcast transcription gig—reached out to ask if by any chance I would still be interested in a little bit of work. Finally, I stocked up on legal pads and Pilot 0.7mm black pens (and a well-traveled blue uni-ball), extra sets of guitar strings, etc., still not sure exactly what I was preparing for, but knowing it felt significant.

Two nights before the surgery, I spoke with Dr. No on the phone. I mentioned to her that about a month before the injury, still out in Arizona, I had tripped on some loose rocks while coming off the mountain one evening at dusk, and rolled my other ankle. I paused. “I can’t help wondering if there was some lesson I was supposed to learn the first time that I missed….” I could hear her smiling into the phone. “You want to be traveling.” “Right.” “And you can’t move.” “Right.” “Maybe you need to be okay with where you are.”

*             *             *

The surgery took place on the morning of April 22nd. Everything went well; during the arthroscopic procedure, my doc discovered and repaired the damaged cartilage. Those first few recovery days were a blur of sleep and pain medication and spring coming through open windows, morning and light, stacks of books nearby. Instead of a Twilight marathon or whatever else people do these days when bedridden, I read. It began with an illustrated hardcover copy of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, and the brilliant collected essays of W.H. Auden, and some of Alice Walker’s poems. And also, finally out of excuses, I began to write again.

In the coming days I slowly moved from bed to desk, still wobbly on the crutches. I was beginning to order books more frequently and write every morning with a vague sense of regularity. One might expect, during a period of convalescence that unfolds within the walls of a single room, for time to blur into a muddled mass of indistinguishable days. But in fact, time moved slowly, and the days emerged individually, each unique and distinct from one another. There was a morning of reading Paris Review interviews with writers I admire, and studying their various creative processes. Then there was Poland History & Poetry Day, kicked off spontaneously when the World Poetry Anthology fell open to a poem by Wislawa Szymborska entitled Hitler’s First Photograph. There was Childhood Memory Day, when I cracked the ancient notebooks I had unearthed during the excavation and discovered some surprisingly coherent threads that ran back farther than I realized. Then there were the two days of revision following the poem that woke me in the middle of the night and demanded I drag myself from bed to liberate it from my consciousness.

It was exciting to be immersed in creative work again, yet it all felt somehow more significant than simply a period of glorified efficiency. What was really happening? I realized it was the process itself, the full embrace of whatever each moment suggested, a total reversal of my old habit of making huge to-do lists and then appointing my future self the caretaker of a massive volume of bullshit. In addition to this unpredictable diversity of daily life, acting on creative impulses also sparked experiments with various writing styles—political & polemical, sonnets & science fiction—and promiscuity of reading habits—Annie Dillard to get me up in the morning, Billy Collins and Borges for breakfast, London after lunch, an Emerson essay in the evening, a Chekhov story before bed. But this spontaneous approach intermingled with the discipline of a daily meditation practice and intention to produce finished pieces of writing instead of merely scattered journaling. So, strangely enough, as I let go of the need to design and construct my own daily life, a fairly beautiful reconciliation of discipline and spontaneity arose organically.

*             *             *

In early May I took stock of the summer’s adventure that was underway: creative work and endless reading, meditation and prayer, bits of transcription work to gradually build funds for a future purpose, the engagement of projects I had long envisioned, a deep look into my own past in search of the seeds of who I have become, a minor study of world literature and human history, etc. Despite how hard I had been trying to organize a life around getting my work done ever since leaving the road and moving to Boulder two years ago, I’d never quite managed to find a rhythm like this before. And it had all come just from letting go and doing whatever each individual moment asked of me. I realized that, despite this injury, and actually because of it, I had somehow stumbled into precisely the situation I’d been struggling for so long to build. This period of explosive creative production and deepening life practice I began to refer to as the Broken Ankle Renaissance.

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7 Responses to The Broken Ankle Renaissance

  1. Anomole says:

    Beautiful my love!

  2. LadyTrvlr says:

    I was just thinking about you wondering, how are, where are? There’s been silence. So much to catch up on. Email, call, let’s reconnect.

    Happy Trvls, LadyTrvlr

    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain


  3. bearly says:

    Everything happens for a reason.

  4. mbaril says:

    I always love when you resurface 🙂 There’s a city to the north that misses you, plus it’s almost pumpkin beer season!

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