The Worst Kind of Natural Disaster

With Japan’s ongoing crisis very much on my mind right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about natural disasters in general.  Most regions are vulnerable to some kind of disaster and, usually depending on how recent the last one was, the people who live in them wind up developing both a deep-seated fear about theirs and an emergency plan to help them survive it when it comes.

When I lived in Iowa I always had an ear cocked for the wailing of tornado sirens at the onset of a violent storm.  In Southern California I dutifully bolted bookcases and water heaters to the wall in case of a possible earthquake.  In Hawaii as a youngster I learned all the warning signs and action steps for surviving a tsunami, and living in Idaho today the hubster and I have supplies and an evacuation plan set up in case a catastrophic fire ever sweeps through our neighborhood (as one nearly did last summer.)

This basic disaster reality is everywhere.  The Gulf coast has hurricanes, the communities along the Mississippi river are prone to floods, Boonville, New York gets buried under record snowfall every year…

a bad year

and North Dakota see wind chills in winter that can equal the flanks of Mt. Everest.

But in Quinault, Washington, where we just spent a week at the southern end of Olympic National Park, I witnessed the residents living with a niche type of natural disaster that’s particularly unique.  These people live with the ever present danger of falling trees.

No.  Wait.  Let me rephrase.  Falling big trees.  Huge.

The tiny community is nestled in the Valley of the Giants, so named for the towering Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars and sitka spruces that fill the valley.  These behemoths are spawned by the twelve to fifteen feet of precipitation the area gets each year.  (That’s right.  I said feet.)  In fact, the Quinault Valley is home to six of the largest living trees of their species on record.  Short of the sequoias and redwoods farther south, trees just don’t get a lot bigger than this.

Me in the middle, standing on the root of a Sitka spruce that’s over 1,000 years old.

In other, dryer places trees are considered large if they reach a hundred feet.  But around Quinault, a hundred feet is just the point where branches start on the older Douglas Firs.

What it felt like in there.

It was like time traveling, walking around under a fern-laced, moss-draped canopy like that.  The light is filtered, soft, green, and primeval.  If you ever doubted that water is indeed life I highly recommend a visit to this place because wandering around the area was like watching the life cycle in hyper-drive—bursting, spurting, reckless growth delicately balanced with every conceivable form of sagging, creeping, bulbous decay.  It was heady stuff, and fascinating.  A wee bit unnerving at times but utterly breathtaking, too.

It changes one, being underneath it for a while.  I’m not quite sure how, it just does.

Anyway, apart from their staggering beauty these giant trees have a lesser known, scarier quality.  Because most of the ground water in the rain forest is contained in the top three feet of the land, that’s as deep as their root systems grow.  Horizontally, they spread out over mind boggling distances, but vertically, they don’t bother because there isn’t anything they need down there.

But wait, you might think.  What about stability?  Don’t they need deeper roots to keep them from falling over? Well, that seems logical enough if you’re thinking like a human.  Our species lives by the belief that surviving to the oldest possible age is a valuable goal.  But the rainforest trees of the Quinault Valley have a completely different agenda which includes eventually toppling over while they’re still alive and relatively resource rich.  Because if they don’t, new, baby trees won’t be able to grow down on the forest floor.

You see, the reason most of the ground water is held at the top is because there’s a three-foot thick layer of moss and fungus lying between the air and the earth.  This layer serves as a sponge and can hold a tremendous amount of water (which, trust me, is necessary in a place that gets twelve plus feet of it a year.) But there isn’t as much in the way of dirt and nutrients available in this layer so seeds falling to the ground have little chance of putting on significant growth without some kind of additional support.

This is where the falling trees come in.  Not only do they provide an elevated surface, but as they settle and begin to decompose all the nutrients and other resources stored in their wood become available, so seeds falling on their trunks and branches have everything they need to get a good start in life.  These fallen trees are called nurse logs because they literally become giant nurseries for the future generations of forest life.

A fairly new mom.

Below is a picture of what the middle stage of a tree’s growth looks like.  This is an initially successful Douglas fir with roots working down the sides (of a nurse stump in this case) to establish themselves permanently in the forest floor.  I’m not sure why all the moss and other growth was stripped off here…kind of disturbing actually…but it reveals the process.   Sorry the photo’s a little fuzzy but this was taken with a camera phone.

And finally, here’s a photo of the bottom of an older tree after the original nurse log has completely disintegrated.  It was fascinating to see how all the big trees had multiple “legs” at the bottom like this.  This is what those skinny, snaking little roots grow to look like years later.

I admit, the generosity built into this kind of life cycle takes my breath away.  I love the idea of elders giving back everything they’ve managed to collect and contain over the years to nourish the younger life just getting started.  It makes more sense to me than the way it’s so often done in the human world, where increasingly our resources are directed toward the aging and children are left to bear the brunt of the resulting scarcity.

So, getting back to the original narrative of a falling-trees-natural-disaster, what is it that eventually knocks these gigantic puppies over?  Well, there are hurricanes that come in off the Pacific ocean periodically and the winds they generate knock down trees.  Small hurricanes take out smaller trees.  Medium hurricanes take out medium ones.  Big hurricanes knock over some of the big ones.  And then every hundred years or so you get a monster hurricane, and that’s when the giants can start coming down.

The last monster hurricane hit in December of 2007 and it just so happened that the hubster and I showed up in Quinault a scant three months later for our first-ever visit to the rain forest.  Driving into the area we had no idea what had just happened.  Strangely, there was almost no mention of the local impact of the gale in regional news coverage at the time, which seemed really strange considering the extent of the devastation both to the forests and the human communities along this stretch of coast.  (I imagine that, because it’s a rural area, there weren’t enough people impacted to be considered newsworthy.)

We couldn’t figure it out at first.  Driving up the coast from Oregon on our way to Quinault we noticed that a significant number of houses and buildings in every coastal town we drove through had extensive roof damage.  Blue tarps covering big holes were everywhere.  Then, as we turned inland, we drove past entire hillsides that looked like some kind of huge buzz saw had gone through.  In these places, literally all the trees were snapped off midway, like matchsticks, every single one, but we just figured the timber industry had come through and done a really shitty job of clear cutting.  (Sorry guys.) It wasn’t until we checked in at the Lake Quinault Lodge and started chatting up the locals that we learned about the real nightmare.

Evidently they’d had no warning in Quinault.  The local Forest Service had mistakenly forecast 50 mph winds for their area so everyone assumed they were looking at an ordinary storm.  They made no additional efforts to prepare for what was actually coming.  When the strongest winds hit, (sustained 100+ winds for about twenty minutes or so) some said it sounded like a fleet of jet airliners were all coming in to land simultaneously.  Others just described the sound as deafening. They all remembered that you could hear the trees crashing down through the forest like explosions, and that there wasn’t a house in the area that escaped unscathed.

Before the winds had gotten really bad, when the locals still believed they were dealing with an ordinary storm, there was a small crew of men who set off in a truck with chainsaws to clear the two mile stretch of road out to the main highway.  Six trees had fallen across the road early in the storm and the locals hopped in the truck thinking it was road-clearing business as usual.  But once they finally cleared the road all the way to the highway, they turned around to discover eight more big trees had fallen behind them that they had to clear to get home again.  They made it back safely, but with more trees falling behind them the whole way.

On that trip we talked a lot with the brand new owners of the little local mercantile (built back in the 1920’s) across the street who told us their story.  They said that once they realized how dangerous the storm had become, they decided to evacuate  over to the Lodge for more protection.  The wife had run upstairs to their apartment over the store to grab a few things when the 200 foot Sitka Spruce on the hillside behind them gave way, crashing down right on top of her.  The only thing that saved her life was the old, stone chimney running up the back of the building.  The tree hit it dead center, miraculously stopping it from completely crushing the store, but a large branch broke through the roof striking her in the head and knocking her out temporarily.  When she came to she discovered she was trapped and had to wait for her panicked husband and a few other men to cut her out.

During that first visit we stayed for two weeks and the hubster and I had ample time to wander around and soak in the aftermath.  A lot of the trails were either partially or completely closed.  Indeed, sometimes the forest had just collapsed on top of them.

There was one section in particular where a microburst had ripped about a mile long path of devastation through the trees.  Here’s what one section looked like in 2007.  A few months earlier this was dense, lush rain forest.

And here’s what another part of the area looked like last week:

A lot of the debris that originally buried the creek was washed away by successive spring run-offs in this spot, but there were other areas where we still couldn’t see the creek for all the fallen trees.  We could hear it though, and then watch where it reemerged later downstream.

And here’s a picture from 2008 of what it looks like when one of the big trees gets snapped off near the base.

Fast forward to 2011 and it was fascinating to return and see all the ways the forest has been healing itself from the carnage.  We took the same trails we’d taken before and there is now a layer of moss, algae, fungi and ferns softening all the ragged, shattered edges that were so fresh on our last visit.  There are new trees sprouting out of the many fallen trunks, and all the giant root systems that were ripped out of the ground and left exposed (some of them fifteen feet tall) are slowly transforming into beautiful, vertical walls of moss, trapped stones, and epiphytes.

I’m happy to say there’s also some healing taking place among the human population, but it’s gradual.  The wife trapped by the falling Sitka Spruce was the only person to sustain any physical injuries during the hurricane, but the deep mental and emotional scarring that took place was distributed more evenly.  Everybody who went through it has PTSD.   Everyone.  You can see it in their eyes whenever they hear a strong gust of wind, the uneasy way they turn to look out a window or peer up into the swaying tree tops.  The man who was supposed to lead a group of us on a guided tour around the lake canceled it an hour beforehand because the forecast was calling for possible high winds and nobody there likes to take chances anymore.  Honestly, by the end of this trip I was starting to feel a little nervous myself as a big storm rolled in off the ocean the day before we left.  I caught myself glancing up into the canopy to gauge the strength of the wind as my pace picked up on the way to the car.

I think we’re designed to learn from one another like that.  I think it’s hard-wired into our brains to listen and observe the people we meet when we travel, especially in new, unfamiliar zones that lie outside our ordinary range of experience.  A couple days after the Japanese tsunami struck I heard a professor being interviewed on the news about everyone’s horrified fascination with all the images being broadcast.  He said we do it, at least in part, because there’s an enormous amount of information encoded in those kinds of images.  Biologically we’re all deeply wired to survive and that’s why, unconsciously, we’re always scanning the horizon for possible threats and any information we can glean about how to survive them.

There have been a few times since we returned home, as I’ve watched the tsunami coverage, that my mind has gone back to the two days we spent strolling along the beaches of the Washington coastline.  We’d discovered rare pathways down the cliffs and then walked along the shoreline for hours, enjoying the sand and rocks, playing in the swell of water as it rushed up to our feet and then retreated again.  Even though there are signs along every coastal highway indicating tsunami evacuation routes, we never once seriously considered that such a monster wave might come while we were there ourselves.  That it might catch us unaware, rolling up while we were lost in our long, relaxing reverie of salt spray and sea gull cries, sweeping us right off the narrow, exposed stretch of beach we were exploring between water and cliff.

I’ve considered it since though, as I’ve watched the footage from Japan, and that professor is right.  I’ve gleaned enough information from the images to realize that if a 9.0 earthquake had happened off the coast of Washington instead, a few days earlier while we were there, the resulting tsunami would have swept us away.  The hubster and I would have vanished and no one would ever have known for sure what happened to us.

Looking into the face of that kind of stark reality is sobering.  I’ve had the wild, frightened thought a couple of times that, on our next trip, I won’t return to the beaches at all.  Just in case.  It’s in those moments that I have to make myself remember.  Make myself step back and say, Wait a second, Dia.  How much are you willing to sacrifice  here to be safe? Am I really going to give up the ocean, or hiking through rain forests, just to be safe from tsunamis and falling trees?  And if I’m willing to give those up, where else won’t I go?  Anywhere where there might be an earthquake?  A hurricane?  A typhoon?  Anywhere where I might fall or freeze or burn or be eaten by wild animals?  Anywhere where I could possibly be mugged or raped or otherwise terrorized?  Just how small am I willing to allow my world to get before the ensuing suffocation makes my life not worth living anymore?


And that, my friends, is the real kicker.  I’ve already been to that place.  I’ve already lived in the weird, terrifying world of phobia and creeping paralysis and, between you and me, I think falling into that abyss is the worst kind of natural disaster that can happen to somebody.  The fact that it’s internal doesn’t make it any less real or devastating, and the fact that nobody else can see the destruction doesn’t make the struggle to recover from it easier or less necessary.

The Great Gale of 2007 is long over but even so, during each subsequent storm, those who survived it are experiencing another sliver of it again.  For them, that storm is still real and, inside them, aftershocks are still happening.  Its ghost is alive and well.  The great tsunami that just devastated northern Japan is now over, too, but the ghost wave it left in its wake will be alive and haunting that land for a long time to come.   That’s just the way an internal disaster works.  They’re longer and slower and more ephemeral.  They can also be trickier to rebuild from, than the ones that happen on the outside.

But it can be done.  For me, over time as the fears have receded and I’ve started to recover, I’ve discovered a lot of nurse log-type activity going on inside.  The years of depression and agoraphobia were unquestionably destructive, and a lot of my old life was toppled over and swept away during the worst of that illness.  But even so, these days there’s some fascinating new growth coming up out of the hopeless, twisted, tangle of what my world used to be.  I’m considering things, experiencing little sprouts of hope and ingenuity that, during the worst, I believed would never be possible again.  Maybe these little sprouts will someday grow up to be big trees of their own or maybe they won’t.  I know that another wave of depression could always come along and sweep me out to sea again because that’s the risk of the region I live in now, but deep down inside me I’m not sure that would really matter anyway.  I’m beginning to suspect what’s most important is the fact that I’ve been able to endure, survive, and live at all.  For however long it lasts.

Because isn’t that just the thing about life?  Whatever winds up happening with me, with any of us individually for that matter, Life itself will never stop because it has an endless capacity to reroute.   Sure, accepting the details of that rerouting sometimes involves my having to step back and expand my view a lot, having to accept that life is something far bigger than just my life.  Life is actually our life, something we all get to participate in for a little while together, and something we all still continue contributing to after we’re gone.

It’s like how the pattern of old growth tree roots reveal the place where the nurse log that gave them life once lay.  In a thousand, million different ways, large and small, we all wind up as nurse logs for this world and for each other; each of us profoundly effecting and altering what’s around us during the brief but blazing time we’re here.  I think the magnitude of our impact is far, far greater than we’ll probably ever understand, and that our gifts to this world will never be wiped away because they’re far too necessary to ever waste like that.  On the contrary they’re transformed; reabsorbed and used to nourish all the generations of life that follow, life that wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t existed here for a little while ourselves.

My prayers go out for everyone who died–everyone who is still dying–in Japan, and I send my wishes for deepening strength, resilience, and healing for all those who ultimately survive them.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

When Not Quitting Is The Miracle

Thought I’d post a quick update on my mini-triathlon quest.  There’s good news.  Progress is now detectable.  The trainer who adopted me at the YMCA is terrific, enthusiastic, and more importantly has learned to scale back her ambitions where I’m concerned.  Her early training schedule with six days of alternating weights, running, bicycling, swimming, and stretching with a seventh of optional hiking has been revamped to three days of weights and running.

And I’m consistently hitting two of them!  To the outside observer that may not sound like much…and the trained athlete of bygone days in my head would emphatically agree…but to the shell shocked depressive inside who’s spent the last six years floundering between seclusion and creeping paralysis, two days of successful sports training is definitely cause for celebration!

Honestly, I’m a little breathless at my biggest achievement to date…I haven’t quit.  It hasn’t been easy.  This whole thing has felt a lot like sailing along a treacherous coastline littered with underwater rocks.  Each time I start to pick up speed, working out two or three times in a row on schedule, I think Aha!  NOW I’ve got it.  Now I can unfurl the sails and really fly! Then I hear that damn thud and scraping on my internal hull and suddenly, for the rest of the day, I can’t even leave the house.

Which means I have to keep starting all over again and it’s frustrating.  Early on these frequent stumbles really scared me because I thought if they kept up, they’d eventually make me stop.  But two months into the whole thing now and my confidence is starting to build.  I wonder if this is what it’s like for an athlete who suffers a big injury and has to learn how to perform all over again with a new and different body.  Only in my case, the injury was to my mind.  Everything I used to take for granted…simple emotional discipline, mental focus, and freedom from chronic fear and occasional panic…is kaput, so I’m having to learn a whole different set of mental skills and strengths to compensate for it.

It feels good though, even if it’s producing some additional anxiety.  The hardest thing by far is making myself go to the gym.  You may not know this but gyms are very social places.  Lots of active, purposeful, energetic people all striding and pumping and pulling on complicated, noisy, bewildering equipment.  It’s like a ten freeway interchange with heavy traffic flows and well-orchestrated on and off ramps.  Everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing and then here I am, an outed hermit dressed in frumpy, old activewear, newly sucked out of my hole and doing my best not to trip and fall off the treadmill (yes…I’ve done it once so far) or hold up the line of nice but impatient people waiting to work on the weight machine I’m currently tangled in.

So much for dignity.  But in spite of everything I’m actually starting to feel individual muscles once in a while instead of the more generalized trembling and collapse I started out with, and the length of time I can run without walking is definitely growing.  I even tried my hand at running on the track yesterday, instead of the treadmill, and I’m happy to report that I didn’t trip, run into anybody, or attract undue attention with all the extraordinary bouncing going on around my chest, hips, and behind.  (The complex physics involved with fat on a jogging person is really something to experience firsthand, let me tell you.) I’m still trying to get a handle on the whole fashion element involved and have yet to figure out how all these women are wearing what amounts to tights with no…I repeat no…visible signs of underwear.  Surreptitious observation in the locker room has only revealed one thong so far, so something else must be going on.  The anthropologist in me is intrigued.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you’ve got an extra ten minutes, here’s an ESPN awards video telling the stories of two, physically-disabled athletes who have been changing the world.  Jim MacLaren, who endured two catastrophic accidents that successively stripped him of his athletic gifts, but who went on to make his miracles anyway, died in August last year.  But his inspiring legacy continues to grow through extraordinary disabled athletes like Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboa of Ghana.  Seriously, if you want something that both puts life in perspective and inspires you to keep hoping, watch this.

Because sometimes just not quitting is the most amazing miracle of all.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

Agoraphobia, Sea Legs, and Life with the Red Pill

Taken by the hubster on the Maine coast

Intense cold is scary to me, but then so many things are.  Over the last couple of decades, one of agoraphobia’s many little gifts has been to heighten my awareness of much of the danger out there that I never would have noticed before.

It’s made me conscious (sometimes paralyzingly so) of how unbelievably fragile all this is.

Before the fear came I used to live in a luxurious world where I could still take what I have and love for granted by just assuming that everything would last.  But that sense of safety is long gone.  In it’s place came the (existential and largely useless) knowledge that every breath, every desire, every heartbeat, every moment of touch or warmth or joy is actually teetering on a razor’s edge above a chasm of eventual loss, and the sheer size of the realization started causing a kind of perpetual, emotional vertigo.

On the inside I started dropping to the ground, squeezing my eyes shut, and white-knuckling onto anything that felt even remotely stable.  On the outside it became increasingly difficult to leave the house.  Needless to say, the change wreaked some widespread havoc on my daily routines and commitments, but life has a way of incorporating even the more difficult things and, with enough time and practice, I eventually began to get the hang of the swings.

On our recent trip up to the cabin during a winter storm and cold snap, as usual, I was obsessively clear on how vulnerable we were.  There the hubster and I were, driving along through the mountains, nothing but the thin walls of the car and a working engine standing between us and exposure, hypothermia, or worse.  I was acutely aware of what a flimsy, fragile bubble it was, carrying us along through a hundred miles of frigid landscape, and in all honesty even once we got up to the cabin I didn’t feel that much more secure.

All the necessities were laid in of course (because being afraid all the time makes one a stellar planner.)  We had water, food, firewood, tools and supplies, warm clothing, everything we needed to secure our survival.  But even so I knew that if something went wrong, something as simple as a power outage coupled with a broken window during a storm, a whoops! moment with the axe, a snowshoeing misstep, or some bad food, things could get complicated in a hurry.

Ordinarily, there’s a fantastic and really helpful illusion that says, given enough effort and planning and control, life can somehow be made secure.  Unfortunately, I can’t access that illusion any more. 

(Why oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?)

While even I know that some activities are less dangerous than others, still, I can’t shake the reality that there will never be such a thing as completely harm-proof or hurt-proof or loss-proof or safe.

Knowing this mostly scares the bejeezus out of me and make me want to withdraw.  But then I remember this quote from Helen Keller:

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature…Avoiding danger is not safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.  I love that.  I love that Helen Keller said it, this other woman who also lived with a challenge that made it harder to navigate life.  It’s like a mantra that helps me find a way out of the holes I fall into, a rope tied around my waist so I can never completely disappear.  Living with the perennial tug of agoraphobia as I do, it’s so easy to get sucked down into the creeping paralysis of chronic fear again, to wind up curled in a ball back in the bedroom, or frozen for hours at the front door just staring at the handle.

It just seems so weird sometimes, how somebody as naturally adventurous as I am could wind up grappling with such an odd and opposite kind of illness.

For me, learning how to live with chronic fear has felt like learning how to live on a schooner.  It’s different from living on land.  The surface beneath my feet heaves and plunges and rolls now in a way it never did before, and I’ve had to develop my sea legs in order to keep from being tossed off and battered and drowned.  But over time I’ve gotten better at the shifting balance, learned how to read a horizon that’s constantly rising and falling, rhythmic and grinding, as the level of my daily fear ebbs and flows.  Gotten better at reminding myself every day, every hour…every minute sometimes…to try to relax and just roll with it.  To take a deep breath, then stand up next to my fear and hang onto it’s hand for dear life, rather than letting it run around crazy consuming everything I love.

I’ve gotten better (while I’m oh-so busily preparing for the the end of the world) at remembering, oh yeah!  Of course it’s terrifying.  Life is a daring adventure or nothing.

Which makes it a little easier, each time, to face forward, lean into the wind, and let myself either fall or fly.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

So What Happened to David?

When we left him last week, David was dangling from the top of a telephone pole while the wild cat that chased him there clung halfway up the side, ferociously guarding the only escape route.  I, in the meantime, was trying to drive the demon off by wildly throwing rocks into the cattails, the nearby trees, the air, and one that even went a full forty-five degrees down the road to my left.   I was considering trying to shimmy up the pole myself when, for no discernible reason, Wild Cat suddenly decided to call it quits.  It went silent for a few seconds before backing down the pole and disappearing into the surrounding brush and then poof.  It was gone.  That fast.

Initially I was relieved.  Elated.  Jubilant.  But then I looked back up at David still hanging from the crossbar and realized he probably didn’t know how to climb back down.  Of course he hadn’t really known how to climb up either but he’d had the benefit of adrenaline-fueled terror moving in that direction.  Now that it had worn off he was just uncomfortable, limp, and fat.  The thought occurred to me it might be time to see if firemen really do rescue cats from high places.

In the end that wasn’t necessary.  It took close to twenty minutes of cajoling but David finally decided to come down on his own.  He scooched back along the crossbar, transferred to the pole, and worked his way down to the ground backwards.  Once there, no amount of coaxing could lure him back up onto the exposed vulnerability of the road, but he followed me on a parallel path through the brush as I turned and beat a hasty retreat back to the apartment.  At the last he had to break from cover and make a wild dash across the road to the door where he bunched himself into a corner, casting panicked glances over his shoulder for the few seconds it took me to unlock it and let him inside.

Needless to say, David refused to ever step outside the apartment again and I no longer invited him to even accompany me to the door.  We were both pretty shaken up.  Color me superstitious but I found myself wondering if  his agoraphobia might not have been due to some kind of premonition on his part.  What if he actually knew what was waiting for him out there?  Maybe he’d had wild cat nightmares from kitten-hood, warnings sent from the future to Stay!  Stay inside for godsakes! no matter who beckons–no matter how friendly or safe the girl who eventually opens the door might seem.

The good news is that, after things settled back down, as long as he didn’t have to go outside David was the same bloated, happy, affectionate cat he’d always been.  Aside from a new tendency to give the front entryway a wide berth, he seemed basically unchanged by the whole experience.  His world  returned to the small, cramped space it had been before, the one which constricted his geographical range but in no way limited his level of contentment.  That was what particularly struck me.  In spite of his phobia David the Scaredy Cat remained one of the sunniest, most upbeat creatures I have ever, to this day, encountered.

I thought about him a lot, years later, as I spiraled down into the collapsing world of agoraphobia myself.  My first instinct was to fight against the overwhelming tendency to withdraw, to try and force myself to go out anyway and do all the things I’d always done, but it was like trying to swim out of the gravitational pull of a black hole.  I could spend hours in paralyzed terror contemplating the front door, trying to work up the nerve to grab the knob and turn it, but the harder I pushed myself the more extensive my internal collapse became.  Eventually, not only was I unable to go outside the house most of the time, I could barely function inside it either.

So finally, in desperation, I decided to try David’s trick.  I surrendered.  I shaved down my life to the bare essentials, outlining the few critical commitments I had to at least try to meet–getting out of bed in the morning, taking a shower, feeding my family–and then deliberately cut the rope that tied me to all the rest.  I redefined my basic world as the one that existed within the four walls of our home, accepted it, and–surprise, surprise–experienced an immediate rebound.

This is not to say I instantly attained David’s zen-like level of perfect bliss by any means.  Not hardly.  My agoraphobia was only a beginning symptom of something far bigger that would take me years to learn how to navigate.

But the immediate paralysis ebbed somewhat.  As soon as I stopped demanding a full return to my previous, now impossible life schedule, something frozen in me started to thaw again.  It wiggled its fingers and toes.  It drew breath.  It tentatively started to work again on the now drastically scaled down version of my life.

I discovered that–for me–in spite of the fear, in spite of the sluggishness, in spite of the overwhelming sense of heaviness that kept dragging me down towards lethargy and despair, I still somehow retained the capacity to both love and navigate.  That was my miracle during those years, the transcendent thing I could still create even in an incredibly shrinking world.   My territory got a whole lot smaller, yes, but my heart and willingness to explore it didn’t.  And that’s what David’s example taught me.

That’s also why David is, along with Cerebral Palsy Man, one of my biggest heroes.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn

More Role Models and Superheroes

Cerebral Palsy Man was not the only role model that helped me see how happiness can prevail in spite of having every reason in the world not to.  There were two others who illustrated the mechanics of this for me–Maggie Full of Grace and David the Scaredy Cat.

Maggie, a victim of one of the final polio epidemics to sweep across the U.S., lived out the following fifty some-odd years from a wheelchair as a near quadriplegic.  Shortly before she died, she shared one of her keys to maintaining freedom in a low-functioning body with me, which I’ll cover in a following post.   But for now I’d like to talk about David.

David was a cat, literally, and an important part of the apartment package I agreed to house-sit for, one summer during college.  I’m not generally a  cat person–god help me I’ve tried but I just don’t understand a creature that blows hot and cold like that.  However, David was one of those strange cats that behave a lot like a dog and was therefore, to me, one of the more engaging members of the species.  He was both affectionate and hugely fat and loved nothing better than curling up in a nice, warm lap to sleep, thereby numbing the attached legs into a kind of appendage coma.

He was also agoraphobic.   I never heard the details of how or when it all began, but evidently once David developed a terror of leaving the apartment he never did so again except for a yearly trip to the vet during which he was heavily sedated.  Years had passed since he’d experienced the outdoors in a conscious state.

I had no problem with this.  David was content to live inside and seemed no worse the wear for his annual drug-induced stupor, so far be it from me to pressure him to change.  But as the summer progressed he and I developed a little game around his condition.  He would accompany me to the door whenever I left to go anywhere.  I would then open the door, pause for a moment and invite him to step outside with me.  He would then carefully consider the invitation, stick his nose over the threshold and take a few sniffs.  But then he’d always pull his head in, step back, and look up at me as if to say, Y’know?  Thanks awfully, but I think I’m gonna pass today.  You go ahead.  Knock your socks off.  Have a great time out there.

We did this every day, every time I left, for two months.  It became our little joke.  He never intended to go and I never expected him to, but we’d pretend like it was a possibility anyway because we both got such a kick out of it.  But then one day, out of the blue, David changed his mind and with no warning at all, stepped through the door and down onto the sidewalk.

I was floored and just stood there staring at him, slack jawed and goggling.  I had no idea what was going on and wasn’t at all sure how to proceed.  But he looked so confident there at my feet, jaunty and gazing around him, surveying his new domain,  that I quelled the scream of excitement rising inside me and tried to assume an equally casual attitude.  I walked forward slowly, testing him, and he kept pace with me step for step, calm and curious.  There wasn’t a trace of fear in him so eventually we strolled off down the street together, nonchalant, as though we did this all the time.  As though we were heading to the club for martinis, arm in arm, top hats tilted at rakish angles.

Eventually, David grew so bold that he even stepped off the street to explore some of the low brush growing alongside.  The road bordered a large pond full of cattails and nesting, red-winged blackbirds who instantly and strenuously objected to his presence.  He ignored their dive bombing (you vulgar birds…we do not notice you) and proceeded to thread his way through the vegetation like a pro.  He looked like such a cat all of a sudden.  Stealthy and smooth, feline and graceful, all signs of the fat and dumpy slug he was at home gone.  I was proud of him.  Happy for him.  Intoxicated with his success.

And then came the wild cat.

It showed up out of nowhere.  No.  Out of  nightmare.  It was tiny in size but mighty in ferocity and it hurtled straight at David, spitting and hissing like some writhing, poisonous, pit creature.  It scared the living shit out of both of us and David immediately panicked, bolting for a telephone pole sticking up out of the brush about fifteen feet away.  The other cat took off after him and  I started chasing them both, waving my arms (threateningly I thought) in the air over my head and shrieking unintelligibly.

There was a brief moment, as David scaled twenty feet of pole in an adrenaline fueled blaze of lightning speed, that the wild cat and I both paused in surprise and grudging respect.  But then he scooched over and hung himself by the armpits from a crossbar, dangling there like some weirdly displaced flour sack, and chaos erupted again.   The wild cat pursued him about halfway up the pole then stopped, clinging and spitting curses there like the demon spawn of hell it was, threatening him with god-only-knows-what kind of cat horrors while sticking all its fur straight out as if it was being electrocuted.  I, in the meantime, was on the ground spitting curses of my own and clumsily throwing rocks, broken glass, and any other debris I could pry out of the dirt at the impossibly small target hanging off the side of the pole.

And here I apologize but I’m going to have to leave you hanging for a while longer with David.  This post has totally gotten away from me and I’ll have to finish it next week.  Stay tuned.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn