Strange Signals Which I Take for Language
My mother has not caused the pain in my elbows and forearms as far as I can tell. Still, to understand the pain, I start with her. My mother has a bird's chest, thick hips, and wispy black hair pushed out of her eyes. She is a small woman and difficult to speak of. But what else is there to speak of? Her waves of depression and her gifts of intimate worry. The whites of her eyes and her smile as my father swings her in an English Country dance. For thirty years my mother has taught fourth grade and filled journals which she tells me I should burn when she dies. After my sister and I left for college, she took a sabbatical to write. For Hanukkah she gave me a binder of poems, placing this one last:
Who speaks when I speak?
It seems I have always known this: a spider caught my mother and sucked out her self. I am a strand in the spider's web. I want to cut myself or make her something gauzy out of the sadness. For a long time I have had a mission: I will write a self for us both.
What does skin hold
but a multitude?
still hoping for the life
they were promised,
whispers of longing,
scattered among us.
husbands, children, parents,
all that is left of us
Who speaks when I speak?
Who speaks now?
The week I discover my Repetitive Strain Injury, I am supposed to help a friend move. Instead, I sit on the back of the truck, watching for passing thieves. I carry lampshades, posters, and lightweight boxes up and down the stairs, walking faster because I am not sure I am useful. With a furrowed brow I explain to her friends that my arms have started hurting all of a sudden. Dimly, I understand that if I ignore this, I may be punished with constant pain and the inability to write a check, chop onions, or type. On Monday when I still get a twinge in my wrist with each mouse-click, I call in sick and curl up next to the phone. My mother feeds me a list of doctors from a local magazine, and I scout for appointments. I will be good. I will not sin like the ones marked by stubbornness.
Sensations change daily. At the base of my wrists, I feel a constant prick. Pins and needles dance up my arm under the long hairs. Sometimes I mistake an itch for a new warning. I explore a tender spot between two bones in my elbow - it burns as if cupped by ice.
Suddenly, I can't write. No more query letters, overdue book reviews, redemptive personal essays, or sessions worshipping the monitor. No more chicken-scratch journals. I have written for twenty years and made it my life for five. I scrape by on half a job in order to write. RSI feels like the morning after an interminable blizzard when you gaze out on the smooth world. I think of the fox I once saw slip into a crevice under a cliff to watch the rain. One evening after a month of this, I come home and lower myself onto the bed, where I put my palms together under my chin. A normal writing night seems about to begin.
The corner store hasn't closed yet, so I buy caramels, tootsie rolls, and Sour Skittles coated in citric acid that burns your mouth. I arrange the treats between scanner and monitor, hoping now the piece will emerge. For the past week I sat at the desk and didn't write, sat and didn't write and didn't go to bed. I know what I want to say. I am so fucking slow. The sections present themselves in blocks; they do not cohere. My face scrunches up. The phone has been silent all these hours. What a spinster. I don't touch the keyboard; I just swivel my chair from side to side. Where are the shining details? I open the Skittles and worry that they will crack the corners of my lips. Pretend you are writing to a friend, I tell myself. What do you need her to know before you die?
On a perfect night, a switch flips, and I type. The writing is not good. Some of it is good. The candy wrappers are empty. I have a plan for the structure: I will write a section an hour easy. I will go to bed by midnight and do a little reading. By two AM. By three thirty. I scratch my head every five minutes, digging into my scalp. At four fifteen, I realize that the skeleton of a draft has appeared. A glow comes over me; I don't feel sad about anything. As I drift off, I wonder if writing requires this anxiety and self-hatred. But what if the piece sings? A violent process is a small price.
RSI makes me feel like a princess. It is an unusual gift: a chance to hide without shame. No mouse, keyboard, or pen. My hands pass over wrists and forearms softly, honoring their otherness. This is the way I touch my lovers, a caress that follows after loss. It comes too close; it swallows the body.
"RSI" is a euphemism for ignorance, an umbrella term for a constellation of vague, shifting disorders of the tendons, nerves, muscles, and ligaments. Supposedly, it results from fine repetitive motions like typing and mouse clicking, which our coarse primate bodies cannot handle in large doses. As I cast around for information and referrals, my doctor and knowledgeable acquaintances suggest biofeedback, physical therapy, massage, relaxation exercises, chiropractic, yoga, Feldenkreis and Pilates. I run from appointment to appointment like a gerbil. I must become aware of my posture and train my shoulders not to hunch. Women lean their elbows into "trigger points" in my back. They adjust my ergonomic chair and prescribe mouse and keyboard substitutes. They record meditation tapes directing me to breathe deeply as I clench and release my muscles.
Each theory makes sense. Yet if the symptoms respond to any particular activity, the correlation escapes me. At intervals my doctor asks, "What have you found to help?" The pain arrives just as often when I am blissed out from a full complement of therapies as when I shirk appointments and start to type. Still, I love massage. "Definitely massage," I answer.
The only way I can talk about RSI is to make things up. "What are your symptoms?" the doctor holds his pen over a form. I see a chart of my body with a code beside it: plusses mean pain; dashes, tension; wavy lines, tingling; and stars, burning.
"I've had a burning and tingling feeling in my elbow and my forearms." I do remember a sharp radiating sensation in my elbow, and I know "burning" is common. What is "tingling"? Do I get RSI tingling or regular pins and needles like the ones that sometimes cover my knee for no reason?
The doctor presses my shoulder, which hurts. "Nerve pain or muscle pain?"
"Umm... maybe muscle." Nerve pain sounds too serious. He never comments on my hesitations, just scribbles and lets me walk out of the office. I suspect that I don't have RSI or anything nameable, just a devious spirit in my nerves and tendons. It spits out strange signals, which I take for language.
A tickle of pain feels like a silver bracelet against my skin, an impermanent mark, a whisper:
You did it again.
You thought you were good.
Close your mouth.
Soon after I get RSI, a friend sends me the premier voice recognition software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking. I hold myself erect, don the headset, and position the microphone a half-inch from my lips. No sooner do I begin to speak but the computer fouls up my sentences. Even after I train the software, errors appear every fourth word. I am used to translating from my thoughts with my sweetheart, friends, and family, the calculations whir through my head, conscious and unconscious: What can they hear? What will be too much? Only in writing have I spoken my own tongue. Now, the computer blocks each phrase. My voice grows stern and drops at the end of a sentence. I have always mimicked the accent of the people I talk to; perhaps I imagine Dragon as a listening robot. Soon I recognize the voice as my mother's. She calls for order in a chaos of fourth graders, knowing they will always slip out of her grasp. In a tight voice, she asks my father to help her, expecting him to stay in his study.
Dictating makes it difficult to breathe. I suck in air before commanding, "Click File. Save." When the phone rings, I start. "Go to sleep," I stammer. "Grossly" inserts itself into a sentence. The microphone icon remains erect in the listening position, ready to add my garbled phone conversation to the text. "Go to sleep," I growl. No dice. "Go to sleep," I spit. "All of its way," the computer writes. Spite, just because I am yelling. I fumble with my feet for the mouse and finally click the microphone off.
Sometimes the mix-ups are quaint. A perplexed cry comes out, "It doesn't make any fucking sentence." Instead of the pretentious, "quasi-religion of liberatory identity politics," Dragon writes, "the Kwanzaa religion of liver authority identity politics." My writer's group gets a kick out of reading about my adolescent "meeting disorder." When I reach for lyricism, Dragon trips me. It gets the first part of my sentence, "It is in pursuit of the new insight, the startling face of my fuller human self," then blows me a raspberry with, "but I practice my face" (not "that I practice my faith"). When I get worked up enough to curse, Dragon trots out nonsense, like a girl singing and doodling as her father shouts. In response to my earnest, "Fuck you, you fucking Dragon NaturallySpeaking," it prattles back, "For few you foxing Dragon NaturallySpeaking." It gets its own name right.
What if I could never type again? I would be a teacher or a social worker and end up translating as my career. These are women's roles, holy but undervalued. Their essence is to listen and reflect back, not to speak. Every female in my family has nurtured others' development. I lean towards this anyway with my nonprofit day jobs, long hours listening to friends' problems, and my wide, absorbing eyes. "All that is left of us is ghostly, rising...," my mother's poem warns. Mom, I wanted your voice back. I fucked up my arms and stopped my own speech.
Often when I get her on the phone, my mother seems tired and reluctant to talk. All she wants to do is meditate and go dancing. She tells me she doesn't regret teaching or mothering and that she didn't want to be a full-time writer. "If I had," she says, "I would have found a way, like Barbara Kingsolver." Will my writing make up for her silence? Will self-punishment absolve me of guilt? No. I know that repetitive symbolic acts do not accomplish their goal. Still, the myth grips me.
I walk to work through an industrial wasteland of crack addicts, chic cafés, and high tech billboards. I imagine kicking restaurant windows. Glass would splinter and an ache radiate through my foot. I would like to twist the dictation headset until the plastic snaps. Sometimes I imagine carving lines into my arm, a spiral from my elbow. Blood would make me a substance like leaves and dirt and the ocean. Blood is its own answer, not a silence like skin.
After work one day, I stop by my ex-girlfriend's house for tea. I want to put my head down on her table and weep. Instead, I wash dishes and announce, "My arms hurt a lot for no reason. So I'll just keep doing everything that makes it worse."
"Okay," her voice rises in mock cheerfulness. She fixes the tea.
It is fine to be hopeless at self-care when the only consequences are stress, exhaustion, and emotional upheaval. Now, the doctor asks if pain wakes me up at night. Not yet. I'd like to stay lucky.
Protein. Sleep. Warmth. Relaxation. Exercise. My therapists agree that if I lack any of these, RSI will flare up. I remember my awe at the two cross-country runners in my freshman dorm who got good grades and went to bed at ten. Why did I feel like a different species, eating bowl after bowl of ice cream as I jotted notes in the dorm common room at two in the morning? I had tried to reform. As a teenager and a college student, I learned to calm my habit of compulsive eating with counseling and self-care. Even that recovery, however, did not teach me to breathe deep or get adequate sleep. In spare moments, I still dug my fingernails into the valleys between fingers until I left permanent raised marks. A few months before I got RSI, my yoga-athlete officemate rolled her eyes at my contorted posture. "You're so not in your body when you work!" I stayed hunched over the mouse. Tell me something I haven't been analyzing for a decade.
In John Donne's sonnet "Batter My Heart," the speaker pleads with God to break his will. He cries, "Take me to you, imprison me," and then explains, "for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free, nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." Only force can help he anticipates a delicious if painful surrender. I was not praying for a defeat, but RSI imposes it, working a ruthless magic.
Ten-thirty. I have to go to bed because lack of sleep could land me in constant pain. As if stepping into a parallel world, I turn off the computer. I read an article about a desert luxury resort. Then I slip on my nighttime wrist braces and play Iroquois chants. I notice that I am not worrying. Before long, I do fall asleep. I do wake up rested.
The treadmill of appointments eases my movements even if it does not stop the pain. I walk to work forty-five minutes every day, and I plan my to-do list with more padding. A year after the initial flare-up, my life includes infrequent sessions when I can wield a pen for an hour or type a two-paragraph email. I feel as if I have gotten away with something, as if I have slipped under a fence and begun to explore a meadow. I stop every half-hour to pump up my circulation by dancing to a wailing Ani DiFranco. Then I bend my head in a familiar stretch. I do an hour of writing and then walk to the produce stand for bread, cheese, and tomatoes. Another hour and then I call a friend to gossip. A draft takes a month, not ten days, to finish, but I continue to bow my head so that pride will not chase away this grace. I face the screen and relax the trapezius muscles in my shoulders. "Just write. Even if it's stupid."
As the pain lessens, I dream about heat, warming and flushing the blood through my arms. I dream about Tucson in summer, the hot tub at the women's bathhouse, and the sweat dripping off my knees in Bikram yoga class, where they keep the studio at a hundred degrees. The chiropractor lays a heating pad on my back and then leaves the room. The heat holds me like a grandmother's arms, asking nothing.
"I'm so glad I had you." My mother and I are driving the green station wagon Doris towards the end of the block where I grew up. We pass the mulberry tree where I used to haul up a book in a bucket and read. My mother says again, her hands curling around the steering wheel, "I'm so glad I had you and your sister. It's the best thing I did with my life, my greatest accomplishment."
My chest stops rising for a moment. How can she say that if she feels silenced by "husbands, children, parents"? She offers me the perfect blessing as if I could simply absorb it. If I believed my mother, there would be nothing left for me to do. I would not feel compelled to make an endless stream of marks across paper. I wouldn't need my arms to hurt and my voice to go quiet. Or maybe the opposite is true - if I believed her, I would never stop scrambling to fulfill her vision. I would have to become the first voice-software novelist.
My mother waves at people on our street and knows their names, from the fearful Polish woman who tends roses to the oddball who patrols the block in a helmet. I sit in the front seat, where I used to sit in junior high when she played the bluegrass music that seemed so repulsive. I would press my forehead into the window in disgust. When my mother says she is glad she had me, she does not look over because she is driving. She warns herself about absentmindedness every time she gets in the car: "Concentrate, or else somebody could die."
When she talks about my birth, my mother uses the voice in which she read from A Treasury of the Familiar when I was little. She would intone, "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with fruit from bough to bough," and, "Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone." Sometimes her voice seemed enchanted, and sometimes I cringed at the way she exposed herself, as if she were wrapping herself up in her own arms and rocking.
My mother believes what she says. But the fact of the words spoken sound waves announcing that my birth was not an error chills me. We keep rolling forward in the car, going to a Hanukkah party where everyone will admire her lentil soup. Later, when she takes my hand, sitting on the couch, her yellow-white skin is oiled with lotion. Her hand feels plumper than her body. It pats my wrist and then presses my palm, cold. The blood has always had trouble reaching her fingers.
If I am a mistake, there is no knowing it. We are two skeletons under God, indivisible.
Anna Mills has written creative nonfiction and poetry for SoMa Literary Review, Lodestar Quarterly, Long Story Short, Rain and Thunder, Moxie Magazine, and the anthology Escaping the Yellow Wallpaper from Haworth Press. She is working towards an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College.