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Rules of the Smithy

Hi all, and welcome to my first post in the Wordsmithery. In my earlier imaginings, I pictured this blog as a space for discussing writing issues exclusively – focusing on those that affect nonprofit communications and fundraising and/or that I repeatedly encounter as a reader, writer, and editor. However, an injury in late October provided me the respite to reconsider just about everything – including the extent to which I wish to separate my professional writing and identity from the (probably more interesting) other stuff.

And so, I have decided to take a more daring and less focused approach to what I write here and how I write it. I shall be using this Wordsmithery as a laboratory, a playground, perhaps even a circus – and I shall include content that is relevant and interesting, but also broad, sometimes personal, often cynical, mostly entertaining. After all, the smithy is where the creative stuff happens. You are forewarned.

I’m hoping for responses and criticism! (Here I mean “criticism” as it is used in “literary criticism”: thoughtful assessment of a piece of writing or art, analyzing both virtues and flaws.) I am interested in your knowledge and experience, I’d like to know where I’ve gone wrong, and I’d like to be shared.

With that, this post is an account of the above-mentioned injury: a story about my neck, hints at sequelae, and a thought or two.

I am a species of adrenaline junkie. Not the most extreme sort – I hated bungee jumping; I will never skydive; I could not travel internationally without a suitcase. But I’ve run an awful lot of marathons and ultras, some of them while injured; I’ve done some tremendously foolish things on bicycles; and in playgrounds I am repeatedly told off by my six year-old.

In May 2018 I found a new source of thrills when I started taking aerial arts classes with the wonderful instructors at Iron City Circus Arts. I became immediately an acolyte and an obsessive, with my passions focused on the static trapeze.

Pendlebury upside-down
The author in her previous state

For a few months Coronavirus deprived my aerial friends and me of access to the circus gym. And so, to make quarantine more tolerable, I bought a trapeze and a small yoga rig – small enough to fit in my yard and my budget; barely large enough for anything fun. The bar was never more than five feet above ground, usually more like three-and-a-half. Ample reason to not even think about such a thing as a crash mat.

By mid-October, the ICCA gym had been open for some time, and I was at my peak strength and fitness, and in strength and fitness, finding relief from various quarantine afflictions (most notably that of being held captive to a small child).

I fell off my trapeze on a Wednesday afternoon – as it happens, the final week before in-person kindergarten was to alleviate the cardinal burden of quarantine parenting. But it was a long week, a long Wednesday, a long Wednesday afternoon. And after an especially arduous few hours attempting to strong-arm my progeny into computer school, I plugged her into her child-quietening device, hung the trapeze, and played, lethargically, for not for very long – before deciding that the best way to improve my humor was to fall.

Not in the way I actually fell, but rather a quasi-fall, more commonly known as a drop – of the sort that, if performed correctly, by an individual with a functional sense of danger, is perfectly safe. Instead of behaving correctly, in a perfectly safe manner, however, I began my drop from a position that made it mechanically impossible to execute the part that would have made it safe: the catch. Without going into superfluous technical detail, I needed to begin the move with one hand on the bar instead of none. The drop was so familiar to me that I ought, really deeply truly, to have considered this. I blundered. Since chess analogies are currently accessible, I shall say I sacrificed my queen to a pawn.

Hence, instead of quasi-falling, I fell de facto, landing plumb on the top of my head, fracturing my first cervical vertebra in three of its four arches – an injury called a burst fracture, which, though it sounds dreadful, is not on its own a terrible or life-threatening injury. Rather, it is damage to the ligaments that maintain the integrity of the C1-C2 joint that yields the greatest risk. There’s a spinal cord running through there, and some arteries nearby – all right up under one’s brain – an organ in which I have a deep, although not untroubled investment.

I landed wide awake, with full sensation in my extremities, and no loss of strength or motor control. The feeling of the impact was monumental – hard meeting hard, flat meeting flat – and my neck felt astonishingly strange, like it had scooped into my skull as if to dish up a quenelle of grey matter. Yet, I was confident that I was fine. (Fine, like the exemplary meme of 2020, “this is fine.”)

Though fine, I called for help – and made not a dent in the quiet of the afternoon. So I stood up, and with my fists curled up under my jaw, as seemed appropriate, walked into my house to extricate my child and send her to call our neighbor. I had no sense of the danger of walking – no sense why, or even that I was holding up my head.

The anatomy of C1 is unique: it is ring-shaped and lacks the thick vertebral body that makes up the main load-bearing part of a typical vertebra. As a result, the vertebral canal is comparatively spacious, and although a C1-C2 dislocation can have devastating consequences (walking is proscribed), they are seldom preceded by neurological symptoms. I could feel my fingers and toes; I was strong, reasonably well-coordinated, and wide awake.

The author now; inside view

Through good fortune, I still am. Within 24 hours, C1 and C2 were surgically fused with a pair of screws and rods and a set of intervertebral titanium grafts. I spent five days in hospital agitating for adequate pain management before coming home to do nothing but lie on my back for a few weeks – an activity facilitated by the prompt arrival of my mother-in-law from Arizona. My recovery has been untroubled, and I am to regain almost all of my former capacities, with limitations on my ability to turn my head and my desire to hang upside-down.

The experience is curious in that, although my injury was entirely – and easily – preventable, I am strangely free of regret. As someone who has been inclined to operate under the assumption that I am unbreakable (in my defense, the C1 vertebra is the only bone I have ever broken), it is remarkable to discover that a fall of say, six or seven feet from head to ground, could be so consequential.

How odd it is to find that inside me is this fragile thing – a spine – and to realize that within that spine is a thing more fragile still, the spinal cord.