Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What We Are Made Of

"Perhaps I am stronger than I think."
-Thomas Merton, Trappist Monk

When I was nineteen I decided one day that I needed a new bed, the one I slept in being more than twenty years my senior.
I ordered my choice from the store in the city and paid for it with my simple waitress salary. It was, my recent trip to the United States not withstanding, the most expensive thing I had ever bought.
I happened to be alone on the afternoon that it was delivered to our house. I think perhaps the truck drivers had arrived a little early. Anyhow, I stood in the living room and admired my new plastic-wrapped bed, and waited for everybody to return so we could make a start on installing it.
A little note about my bedroom: it was in a loft, and the only access was by way of a metal ladder and through a space with a low ceiling and wooden beams.
I wanted the old bed away more than anything. I was not very patient at all and was annoyed that nobody was there to assist me.
The very next thing I remember is standing in the field behind our house having just dragged my old bed into the grass, and feeling jubilant and exhausted.
I had managed to carry the thing out of my bedroom and down the ladder, across the living room, out of the kitchen and into the back garden for disposal.
My mother came home and turned pale when she saw the familiar lump in the field.
She asked me how in the world I accomplished it.
I said, "I just really wanted to."
To this day I imagine I needed no more than to desire the bed gone, and that is how I mustered the strength to somehow carry the weighty object down a ladder without injuring myself.
The new bed of course was another matter- I would never have attempted to get that up to my bedroom alone. A very good thing, too, since we later found out it was very much the wrong size for my meager bedroom space and I had to donate it bitterly to my brother whose bed was also of an age suitable for disposal. But I digress.
Strength moved that bed: strength from thin air, conjured in a moment of frustration and impatience. I try now to define strength in ordinary terms and suddenly am at a loss.
I am these days reading a certain memoir; it happens to be one of the finest I have ever picked up.
It is called 'A Three Dog Life' and it is Abigail Thomas' account of the period following an accident that cruelly robbed her of a husband. A brain injury snatched his personality away except for occasional tormenting glimpses, and left both he and his wife struggling tragically to find reason in a broken life.
Abigail Thomas strikes the reader as a profoundly strong woman. Quiet and dignified, she tells of her feverish nightmare, one which she could never quite share with the man she loved.
The book opens with: "This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt."
Such writing both haunts and heals the reader and makes one deeply grateful for the enchantment of words and for those things which have been taken for granted.
I think of the ferocious courage it must have taken Abigail Thomas to witness her husband fall apart with numbing slowness and to not crumble along with him.
I think of the insight she must have possessed in order to write beautiful, aching words that extend far beyond the circle of people who knew her husband to tinge the most distant reader with a deep sadness.
I almost cut myself on some glass earlier this month. The thought of What Might Have Been troubled me for days. I told my friend about it over the telephone and I said miserably that I did not know how I would have fetched help in such a situation.
She said to me, "you would just do it. If you had to, you'd find a way."
While it might seem that there is a literal gulf between my singular tale of physical strength in transporting a bed, and the devastating story of a lost husband and companion, they serve to prove my friend correct: one does what one can whenever necessary. Basic human instinct negates a lot of conscious decision making and allows no room for the luxury of wondering.
Humans have a stunning capacity for strength. Whether it is of the mind or the body we do not at all know the possibilities until the very moment we are called to use them.
We hardly know what we are made of, or what we are capable of achieving.
'A Three Dog Life' is most highly recommended for those who love powerful and graceful memoirs.


Anonymous said...

This post reminded me of the hiker in Utah's Canyonlands who got caught in a rock crevace a couple of years ago and was going to die if he couldn't get free. He took his pocket knife and amputated his own arm, then walked and crawled back to civilization.

There is no doubt humans have strengths they don't even know about.


Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

Oh goodness, I remember that. We all say we could never do it, but if we're trapped under a rock, in perfect shape apart from a crushed arm, we're not, if we can help it, going to give up. Hard to imagine though, unless you're in the situation. You'd have to be fully conscious, and aware of cutting off your own arm. In other words you'd have to be desperate to stay alive.
Thanks for the great example.

Jaime said...

Wonderful story. Yours, and Abigale's. I will have to check that one out the next time I'm at the bookstore.

Really does make you wonder how much strength we have that we don't think we have...until it really matters.

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

do check it out, it's worth it. Sad but essential.
'until it really matters'- I like that. So true. It's a good thing we don't know what's ahead of us in life, because we'd be terrified at times. When it happens, you're usually ready in one way or another. I think so, anyway.

hele said...


Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

it's a lovely book- I can't recommend it enough!

Please look around, explore my writing, leave a crumb:
I welcome comments and thoughts.