I returned from my first Wilderness First Responder course in Santa Cruz just a couple weeks ago and loved it. The WFR is an 80 hour course that prepares people to assess and treat folks who are injured or ill and located more than an hour from advanced medical care. I expected the course to be mind-numbing, as past CPR/FA trainings and their rote learning style had darkly nudged me to gnaw my arm off and run away without even cleaning the wound or applying an appropriate bandage. But this course was actually fun, engaging, and inspiring. I’ve since been recommending it to everyone, including you (yeah you bud).
On the morning the course began I woke at 4am, showered, packed, loaded the car and left the house at 5:30. I stopped in at work and after the typical printer malfunctions, threats of physical harm “Office Space” style, deep breathing exercises, stymied seething rage, I finally had my directions and forms printed. Ready with clothes, blankets, my bike, and computer, I drove an hour and 20 minutes and began a new and abbreviated life with half of my shit in tow. I had always thought of Santa Cruz as a slow college town with lots of homeless people. That’s true, but Santa Cruz is also far more than that. Surrounded by mountains, farm land, and the ocean, Santa Cruz is insulated from the buzz of the Bay Area and has created it’s own unique northern California je ne sais quoi. I drifted through the streets on my bike in the gray early mornings and in the sparkling sunny afternoons and felt curious and fresh, peaceful and expansive.
For those who have never heard of the WFR, or a first responder for that matter, it’s a medical training that teaches the nest steps beyond CPR and first aid. The First Responder course helps cultivate a deeper understanding of how the human body and its systems operate. The Wilderness First Responder focuses on the kinds of illnesses and mishaps that one is likely to come across in backcountry circumstances.
8am classes in college were not good for me, but I found myself loving this schedule. When the day ended at 5 I felt awake, alert, engaged, happy, and all kinds of enthused from what we had learned how to do. It’s also possible that this was partially due to my caffeine relapse.
One of the more difficult parts of the course for me was playing a patient. Each day included several scenarios in which we traded off being made up with bruises and blood and enacting horrible accidents and illnesses. At first it was a welcome respite from the pressure of playing rescuer, but somewhere along about my terrible appendicitis, or maybe it was my amputated pinky, I started to suffer from the well-documented syndrome known as “scenario fatigue.” Screaming and hyperventilating for and hour and half is hard f***ing work. Much harder than building a traction splint with improvised materials. Remembering to groan or squeal each time someone moves your leg because you’re faking an open tibia/fibula fracture really isn’t easy. I literally feigned passing out from hyperventilating so I could rest. That was sweet.
There’s something about learning about going to school to learn how the body works that feels empowering and incredibly vital. For the first few days I found myself marveling at the different awareness of my body that was developing. I fell more deeply in love with life; my life and the life all around me, as my appreciation for the subtlety and fragility of all living systems deepened.
In the mornings as I walked to school the streets were filled with bird sounds, quiet, and the chill of morning overcast. The river opened up as I crossed the bridge and ducks with their ducklings swam down stream. Though this small river ecosystem has been heavily impacted by the human city around it, life was there, there was compensation happening, and through the flux there was enough of a stasis for some animals to continue in their own ways.
For better or for worse, in this I saw a mirror reflection of the processes in my own body. Without my attention or effort, 24 hours a day the systems of my body are working to balance the needs of the life flowing through me. This swirling body of matter, of living cells, this physical expression of spirit, is driven forward in life. It all conspires to live for now.
Still one morning on my walk I felt melancholy, and these words repeated themselves in my mind “take it as granted that we are soft sacks of blood and tissue. Take it as true that you will see the people you love die. Take it as granted that terrible things will happen, things that you don’t want to happen, things that will shake you violently to your core, rearrange your life, and destroy any sense of peace you’ve built upon needing things to stay the same.”
As my life continues to show me this aspect of reality it has become more and more familiar to me. I know it sounds dark, but for me it’s been the opposite. As I’ve come to experience death as a part of our lives here, its occurrence also brings the association of life. All that is beautiful, and amazing, and exhilarating in this world, in our lives, all of that- it all comes with death. Grief, loss, sadness, we can only have those experiences with the same faculties that allow us to experience peace, joy, laughter, and love. As I feel the pang of loss in my life another sensation comes quickly on its heels, the feeling of gratitude for my life and my ability, for today, to experience all of the flavors and nuances of life in this body.
I’ve heard people say each day is a gift and I know it to be a trite saying that means little to most of us. But I also know how that same feeling of overwhelmed gratitude rises in me some mornings, or on days where I’ve accomplished something important. That same feeling arrives after a love one has died, and when I lose myself in dancing. Whenever a moment wakes me, jolts me, touches me, or spreads across my body as a wave of elation or devastation. I know with my full body awareness now that no one is owed or promised a long perfect life and a quiet death in their sleep. A long life is a grace that we neither deserve nor do not deserve. But then a short life can be a grace too. Life is grace.
I’m home now and I notice the little stories I left behind- watering the air plants before leaving and leaving the watering can on the floor, the sheets still crumpled from taking the blanket my mother crocheted off the bed to have with me in Santa Cruz, the random boxes with broken blender parts and gnarled wire that were displaced from my car at 5:30 am on the day this latest adventure began.
Back to my life here I notice how differently I respond to information about the human body. Somebody’s talking about pain in his or her left side, someone is talking about lung cancer. I laugh to myself as I see two men suffering from “testosterone poisoning.” They’re sticking their jaws out, they’re slowly leaning from side to side in the posture of confrontation, their gently shoving each other as if to say “seriously, I’m willing to cross this boundary and hurt you.”
Watching drunk people pick fights with each other is both funny and upsetting. Funny because their body language is so automatically stereotypical and ridiculous. Upsetting because people are killed in stupid drunken fights and I have an incredibly strong aversion to seeing people maliciously hurt each other. Literally for my whole life, since I was four or five, I have found myself in the middle of fights trying to break them up. I’m kind of small so this doesn’t always work out so well, but I’ve never been able to just stand by. Anyway, these guys have progressed to spilling beer on each other now and I’m noticing the broken glass on the ground, the metal pole one would hit his head on if punched from one side, I consider the MOI (mechanism of injury), and prepare myself for makeshift BSI (body substance isolation) since I don’t have any supplies with me. Every time someone complains of something I begin detective work in my mind….
The same happened when a very close family friend died on the Friday evening immediately after I returned from the course. Through my grief and confusion I found myself seeking to understand what exactly had gone wrong in her body.
Julie Elliott had had a heart attack on Monday night. I heard about it from my mom and assumed that because she was in surgery, in a hospital, that she would recover and I would hear about her progress soon. But after the surgery she was still in a coma. They ran tests only to find no neurological activity.
The attack had come in the night and who knows for how long before her partner realized it and began to do CPR. I thought of how healthy her body had been, how she exercised, ate well, loved deeply, and had such meaning in her life. I literally felt blown away, wounded, hurt, almost offended, and in a panicked denial… crying on my phone almost arguing with her about how this could have happened.
But these things have a way of settling in deep quickly. I wrestled with how unfair it felt that she was gone so quickly and still a part of me was already exploring this new reality, one in which she would not be there when I returned home to visit. She wouldn’t he at Christmas this year or at the next happy hour. I wouldn’t hear her voice again or get to talk with her about our mutual endeavors to save the world. Imagining her gone… uggh. It makes me…. so, so, sad.
As I listened I also found myself thinking of ToSTOP (toxins, sugar, temperature, oxygen, and pressure, the list of causes that the brain may stop functioning), and how the lack of oxygen to her brain had gone on for too long. It almost had nothing to do with her body or her health. Had the attack been caught quickly enough she might have survived, but the brain needs oxygen and without it it dies. Even though she now had a functioning heart, she was never going to wake up and be Julie.
While there is something detached and almost cold about these thoughts, I also feel comforted by the understanding that emerged from the medical explanation. Though my heart feels confused about how this could happen because I had expected her to outlive my grandparents (who are 93 and 89), my mind understands perfectly.
Humans, and other life forms for that matter, don’t receive guarantees of long life at birth. Today I watched these children run around, children are these magical things that emerge out of the intelligence of just two cells. And then I thought about children who die of leukemia or SIDS. Even these little beings who could not possibly be more expressive of life spirit, not even they have guarantees of life. What boggles my mind and humbles me most deeply is that in and of itself that is not a bad thing. Of course no ones wants these things to happen, and they are some of the more profoundly painful experiences humans can live through. And still, it just is. The song “All the way” by MaMuse comes to mind:
“It’s just the way that it is
Nothin’ more, nothin’ less
All these stories, tears, and laughter
No more happy ever after all
What you get is what you make of it
In the end a new beginning
One for life,
A life worth living”
What has made me so painfully sad these last days is thinking about how hard this is going to be for my grandparents who not only loved her like a daughter, but depended on her as a neighbor and dear, dear friend. I thought of how relationships like that simply cannot be replaced. Their loss blows enormous holes in your universe, and though we move on, love others, and live beautiful lives- some holes simply gape for a long while. I worry that this loss will not be as easy for them to recover from at their age…Julie had been a neighbor and friend since before my parents had even met, she was at their wedding, gave me one of my first jobs, testified at my dad’s trial, and a million other things that I may never know. These moments accumulate over years when in good friendship someone becomes so much a part of our lives that we don’t even dare try to remember all that we’ve shared. Lives intertwined.
And again I thought of heart muscle, the tissue death, her otherwise incredibly healthy body wanting to live, and her brain crying out for oxygen in quiet late night hours while she and her partner slept.
I sit in front of a fire all night, trying to keep my eyes open, and trying to keep my back straight, as is the tradition. We’re here to pray about family and about choosing to make spirit family relationships with the people who support us in our lives. In the perfectly choreographed chaos of this universe I had planned to attend this tipi gathering six months ago not knowing that it was being held for these specific prayers about family, life and death and of course not knowing that a dear friend, a spirit mom or aunt to me, would pass just the night before.
So I sat in front of that fire so many miles from my birth family and wondered if Julie knew how brilliant she was, if Julie knew how important she was to us, if Julie knew that she was a spirit relation to me. I didn’t even know she was a member of my family until she was gone. But she was an unfailing support and source of love to my grandparents, my parents, and to me in my life too. As I sit up through the evening and into the dawn light I keep hearing her laugh and starting to cry, and then the tears dry up and I am drawn into the dark still air and the smell of burning cedar and tobacco. It’s sweet and fills me like something warm, loving and sincere. I see the sparks fly up into the dark.
In bursts bright and fluid, these universes of sparks float up…Some fly straight up, higher than all the rest, others extinguish just a few inches from the flames from whence they came- some pattern is borne out, but as I sit watching them I realize I’ll never know how to predict which ones will hit the top of the tipi poles, and which ones will flash out quickly. I like the orange flecks swirling softly and magically. I keep hearing the lines of this song and feeling comforted by the questions “What star am I circling, what’s circling mean? Am I ebb, am I flow? My life out of control. Turn it on, turn it up.”
Rilke says “Live the questions and maybe someday you’ll find that you’ve begun to live the answers.” These questions are in me tonight… moving inside me they are friendly whispers that want us all to live the lives we are supposed to live …they speak themselves on my lips, echo quietly to my bones. The answers are comfortably some other many years in a future that isn’t mine yet.
So last Friday at the hospital my friends and family raised a toast to her life and let her body do what it was trying to do, shut down and let go. It’s still too early to know what forever means, but somehow today I feel like the world still makes sense. Like that was when her story was supposed to end. Like her life should be celebrated and not mourned. Maybe mourning is a part of celebrating. And I remember that the moments we shared are not erased or changed.
There was light filtering through the prisms hanging in the bathroom window this morning and I saw it in a way I hadn’t before. I wondered how that sparkling and lovely light could be there, my head cocked like a little dog that’s not quite able to comprehend what’s happening. I suppose with the death on my mind it seemed incongruous to me that something should sparkle so lightly and delicately. Shouldn’t everything have finality to it today? Yet the thought crossed my mind that light would sparkle brilliantly across the water for some other human to admire on the day after I died as well, and that this is how it should be. How long has that sun shown? Since before there was consciousness to admire it. And how long after we are gone will it shine? The infinite answer humbles and centers me.
Now I’ve returned from my first trip as a guide in Yosemite and I won’t go into details except for to say that the beautiful highs I felt were in contrast to the sadness I’ve recently had with Julie’s passing and that life continues to reveal itself in both mundane and brilliant ways. There was no shortage of hot spots, scrapes, bruises, aches and poop-oriented discomforts. I taped hotspots, removed splinters, cleaned minor abrasions, cuts, scrapes, etc, and felt so pleased and satisfied to be able to put the training to use so quickly and in a way that so directly affected the quality of these people’s experiences. Arnica gel went around the fire every night and I think I managed a few converts to my evil arnica cult. You’d think with a trip centered around yoga, meditation, and massage that the strain of the trail and the packs would work itself out- but AcroYoga introduces its own set of injuries, soreness and body issues.
The rivers were roaring higher and faster than I’ve ever seen them and Sierra sunsets never fail to elicit in me a childlike excitement, wonder, joy and giddiness. I expected and knew that everything would flow wonderfully, yet I’m still proud to say that 12 people came through 5 days of backcountry travel safely and with deep gratitude for the experience. I returned to the Bay on the 4th of July and it was like a war zone with fire crackers and smoke in all the streets and the loud sounds always on the air. After Yosemite and the serenity it was surreal and I crashed out to the sounds of bottle rockets exploding in the street in front of my house.
I just wanted to thank each of the students in my WFR course, and the instructors as well, for being a part of it, for bringing themselves so fully, and for making a priority of being prepared in their own lives and endeavors, that we are all that much more safe. Lot’s of love, Dashielle