Small, Unsteady Steps

Small, Unsteady Steps

Well, I made it to the end of term.

This is not an insignificant achievement, since this time last year I had to take time out of uni before the end of term and so this is my second attempt at getting to the end of Lent Term of second year, and the first time I’ve managed it. In some ways, this term has seen me with just as many problems (health-related and otherwise) as last year, especially with the sprained ankle in the middle of it which was disproportionately incapacitating. However, somehow I got to the end of it and I’m only a little bit behind on work, which is not something that seemed possible at times.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to motivate myself and make things more enjoyable by taking advantage of a few of Cambridge’s opportunities, particularly things that I’m not able to do when I’m at home. It’s been frustrating because my health has been too poor for me to go to ballet or do much of anything else, meaning that sometimes it feels like I’m either working or I’m in bed — which doesn’t seem worth the amount of money I’m paying to be at university. However, I’ve managed to go to a few things as a spectator, which was good because it didn’t use as much energy as actually participating.

Mainly, this has taken the form of going to a few free recitals and concerts that have been happening nearby. A concert that is not only within easy walking distance (even with a sprained ankle) but also free is a rare thing, and something I regret not taking advantage of more often in Cambridge, since they happen often.

The first was a modern one by Una Monaghan, combining harp with computer-generated soundscapes, and to be honest, it was quite weird. I like the harp, particularly the folk stuff she played at the beginning, but I’ve never really understood modern and experimental compositions, so some of it went over my head. The second was another harp concert, this time by Anne Denholm and a lot more classical. I found this extremely inspiring — I didn’t actually realise the harp was capable of the kinds of things she did, and it really opened my eyes to the versatility of the instrument. Then finally I went to a recital by ‘Something Extra’, a visiting all-female a cappella group from Yale.

I also made a point of going to a St Patrick’s Day session in a nearby pub yesterday with some members of the university Ceilidh Band. While I haven’t made it to rehearsals most of this term (due to pain and fatigue and the effort of walking there on a sprained ankle), I’ve been hankering after doing a bit of playing, and it seemed appropriate to join a St Patrick’s Day session. It was a Friday night at the end of term — I figured even if it caused me substantial pain the next day, it wouldn’t matter, because I have nothing desperately urgent to do besides dissertation stuff, and that’s painful in its own right (heh).

Also, since my dissertation is partially on a text that features St Patrick as a major character, it’s the one day of the year when my degree feels relevant to the rest of the world. I thought I should make the most of that and celebrate it.

Celebrating St Patrick’s Day with my whistle, my dissertation, and the book responsible for both of them.

The session ended up being a lot of fun, even though I’m extremely rusty on the whistle and have forgotten most of the tunes that people played. I resorted to playing the shaky egg and other small percussion because that way I don’t need to know the tunes. (A friend of mine who also suffers from chronic pain and fatigue was there, playing the spoons. We decided to start a group of disabled musicians playing small percussion and call it ‘The Spoonies’.1)

Normally, after a couple of sets, my arm is killing me — the shaky egg is deceptively hard work, especially when you’re out of practice the way I am, and when you have no upper body muscles, the way I do. But I made it through the whole session with very little aching in my arm, and even though I’m a little bit sore today, it’s nothing compared to what I would have expected. Which is to me the final proof of something I’ve been suspecting for a while: I’m getting stronger.

So far, only in my right arm (my right leg, for example, is still a useless piece of crap that can’t hold my weight). But I began to suspect it when I found that my watch didn’t fit anymore. It seemed unlikely I would’ve put on weight only on my wrist and nowhere else, but I got that watch and had it adjusted at a time when I had no arm muscles whatsoever because they’d wasted away due to injury and inactivity. Maybe the fact that it was too tight was a sign that my wrists are now a healthy kind of skinny and not a wasted, weak kind like they used to be.

I’m not sure what has caused this — perhaps walking with a cane has helped, since it forces me to put weight on my arms and it definitely ached a lot more at first than it does now, suggesting I’ve got stronger; perhaps it’s all the stress-knitting I’ve been doing. But it’s small victory in the ongoing saga of my health problems, and if this is the first step towards having functional wrists again, I’m not going to question it too closely, because I’m just too grateful that it’s happening.

An unusually feminine outfit for this selfie (complete with cane because that journey required lots of stairs and I can’t do them without it at the moment).

Of course, this by no means solves all my hand problems, since they’re not limited to my wrists and arms and some of them aren’t muscular (itchy tendon feelings aren’t really affected by strength, it seems). But it’s progress, and while being able to play small percussion for an entire session isn’t the same as being able to resume playing violin and flute and so on, it’s better than nothing.

Also, my friend’s going to teach me to play the spoons, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t mostly because of the symbolism there.

1 This joke will make very little sense if you’re not aware of the ‘Spoon Theory‘, which many chronically ill and disabled people use. We often refer to ourselves as ‘spoonies’ and talk about not having enough spoons to participate in something — which is why it seemed appropriate as an instrument for returning to music after my health has robbed me of the spoons to do it for four years now!

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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