Body Cards: Insight From the Body, Wisdom for the Soul by Courtney Putnam appeared in my mailbox during a time when I would rather do anything than think about my body.
Last May, one month after signing a lease on a new apartment in a new state, my neurologist ordered a c-spine MRI after she witnessed drastic changes in my gait.
Ataxia, she called it. From the Greek: a/”without” + taxia/”order.”
Without order. Disordered.
I showed her my balance test results, ordered by an ENT when he saw how I walked. Diagnosis: abnormal smooth pursuit.
“Follow my finger with your eyes,” she said.
I did as told.
“Yep. Not normal.”
The month before that: seizures when a new epilepsy med failed. Banged my head hard. “They weren’t like my normal seizures,” I told her. “No aura. Just BAM, down.”
I showed her my dental x-rays, tooth 19 shoved out of place. Told her we got me plastic dinosaur dishes because:
We expected another traumatic brain injury. Instead, the MRI found this:
My first syrinx, a hole in my spinal cord. Diagnosis: syringomyelia.
These days, I walk like I am drunk. People think I am drunk. If a cop wanted me to follow his finger with my eyes, he would think I was drunk, too.
My shoulders, scapula, and neck burn. I wake up panicked the bed is on fire. My spinal cord is a lit fuse, tick tick tick to paralysis.
Which at first made Body Cards a scary proposition. I am never not thinking about my body. I have to breakdown the kinetics of every step, like a Muybridge series in my mind.
But — full disclosure — I know Courtney from my MFA program in creative writing. I love her art. I trust her heart. I knew I was in good hands when she sent me the cards to try (also full disclosure: I loved them so much that after I left the accompanying book at a hotel, I bought a second deck for myself!).
For Body Cards, Courtney gleans wisdom from years of working with clients as a massage therapist and Reiki Master. Her poetic imagination and deep connection to the body emanate from her colorful collages. The cards are large with rounded corners, printed on a slick, high-quality card stock that is durable and easy to shuffle. Holding them, I sense the care that went into their design.
As Courtney writes in the book, the cards “draw upon the idea that the human body is not a complex organism complete with the powerful ability to heal, but also a tremendous resource for us in terms of understanding our very lives.”
“Your body is your map your muse and your medicine,” she writes.
Cerebrospinal fluid is 99% water, I thought, when I flipped opened the book and discovered those words. Water extinguishes fire. Let’s see what these cards can do.
I. (No Spread – A test of sorts.)
For my first reading, I went straight to the cerebellum card. I wanted to see what it brought up, how I connected to it. I have Chiari malformation, a neural tube birth defect that means my skull is too small for my cerebellum, can’t hold it in. My cerebellum has nowhere to go but down down down through the foramen magnum, spilling into my spinal canal. The compression makes me dizzy, makes me stumble, sends me into word-finding spirals, gives me pressure headaches at the back of my skull.
It gave me syringomyelia, too, clogging the flow of my cerebrospinal fluid until it formed little whirlpools inside my spinal cord.
If I could connect to this card, I could connect to the whole deck.
From the book:
Without a well-functioning cerebellum, we could struggle with our balance and coordination … On a metaphorical level, embracing grace means to embrace beauty, love, and forgiveness. What in your life is in need of this humble cerebellum energy?
When the cerebellum card waltzed into your reading, it’s time to seek out grace. First take stock of your actions toward yourself and others. What could use some softening, some lightness, some love?
The cerebellum card asks you to forgive yourself for the times in which you have been a little clumsy.
I forgive my childhood neurologists 100 times a day for never catching my birth defect even though they did a million MRIs for my epilepsy. For calling me hysterical. Which is to say: I haven’t really forgiven, because I have to keep doing it.
Abnormal smooth pursuit of forgiveness.
How do I forgive a whole city? I came here for a fresh start, an education, a chance to show my childhood neurologists they lacked imagination when they said I may lack realism in my aspirations. Every path out of my apartment complex ends like this:
Abnormal smooth pursuit of a way to reach the cafes, the bookstores, the library, the health food shop: people. Humanity.
Every morning, I circle the hospital next door.
two laps=one hour
My walking cane taps taps taps. From a drone, I am the minute hand tick tick tick.
I am restless as a clock face.
The first thing I said as the moving truck pulled into my new neighborhood: “It looks like my childhood.”
We didn’t have sidewalks leading out. We didn’t have a bus stop. I walked alone on the shoulders of four-lane roads in the dark. I balanced on railroad tracks (I could do that then). I spent a lot of time alone.
Twenty-seven years post-ADA. Twenty-seven years post-ADA. I forgive 100 times a day.
I need some kind of prosthetic grace, the grace of a sidewalk. The grace of a car, but I cannot drive. The grace of a bus, but transit is not accessible. The grace of friends who drive in for a visit.
I start to mark off days alone.
By December, it looks like a DNA test. My DNA test. Bisulfite mapping of my methylation marks would look like this. Isolation methylates DNA. Obliterates genes. Marks people.
[I forgive 100 times a day.]
Tinnitus like air raid sirens. I Bluetooth rain recordings into my hearing aids, drown out the alarms.
Recordings are not like real sound, 3d sound, the intonations in human voices. People who get out don’t know that. They think sound is sound, voices on TV are just like real life, but they are not. I am starved for human voices.
“You need to get out. Listen to people. Talk. Hear birds chirping. Airplanes. Car horns. All of it,” my audiologist told me after my hearing tests. “Isolation makes tinnitus worse.”
Can’t think. Can’t focus. I lost the prosthetic grace of my epilepsy medication when we moved here. Traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord like Swiss cheese, the terror of the holes expanding every time I fall fall fall like my brain through the foramen magnum. I lose books and find them again and lose them again. I get voice mails purr purr purr of my vibrating phone and forget until weeks later oh I gotta call them back.
“You need to get out,” my neurologists say. “Join groups. Go to lunch. You need to stimulate your brain. You need to be in novel situations.”
Get out. Get out. Get out. Everyone told me that in Utah because of the air: smog so toxic it was like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. Come to Colorado. Come to Colorado. We have clean air.
I am here. I am breathing your air. Did you know isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes every day?
[Driving pollutes, but so does not driving. Catch-22.]
Did you know isolation can make you hear things? Make you forget things? Make you doubt things? Make you dead?
I post on Facebook. I sound too sad.
[I delete 100x a day.]
April sun and medication changes bring mixed mania, mixed mania, mixed mania on rapid cycle. I lash out on Facebook. I fuck up.
“But Karrie,” a friend texts after witnessing it. “You know isolation is illegal in animal experiments, right? Because the animals lose it.”
I have to forgive myself for breaking. Breaking is normal.
[Which means I am not broken. Not yet.]
I circle the hospital in the morning. I circle the hospital in the afternoon. I circle the hospital all day long.
I am my own metaphor. I think that’s a kind of grace.
I don’t know about forgiveness yet [100x a day].
Thoughts after my Cerebellum card test: At first, the connection between the cerebellum and forgiveness frightened me. If my cerebellum is compressed, is my capacity for forgiveness, too? But it wasn’t like that! The cards do not “diagnose” “deficiencies”; they inspire personal journeys. As with many divination decks, they are what you make them. I made them into disability poetics because that’s who I am and what I do.
Courtney suggests wearing magenta or white and using rosewood and ylang ylang oils to stimulate the crown Chakra. Rosewood and ylang ylang! I want to make a hair powder with them so I can catch the scent throughout the day and remind myself of what I wrote. Maybe even to forgive myself.
“Elevate an activity or thing with purpose, meaning, significance and beauty!” She writes. “How might brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, buying groceries, or changing the oil in your car become mindful and enlightening?
Every movement is mindful for me right now, but not in the way she means. My mindfulness is locomotive, automatic, unintentional and sometimes, fear-based. And yet, it has changed how I think about everyday moments. I have started to see the staircase outside my door as my backbone. I was doing that before Body Cards, but now, I am turning it into a conscious meditation on forgiveness. How can I hate this inaccessible apartment, how can I fear those stairs, when they are me? I can forgive this building for being disabled, missing an elevator. (It is disabled like me!) I am it, and it is me. Not sure how I feel about it yet, but it’s a start.
Body Cards offers several spreads of varying complexity: Present Moment, Letting Go, Transformation and Chakra. I decided to try “Letting Go.” It’s simple and tells a story.
II: “Letting Go” Spread
1st card= “The Issue”
2nd card = “What’s holding you back?”
3rd card = “What will help you move forward?”
THE ISSUE: SKIN/RENEWAL: “If the skin has sloughed its way into your cards today, it may signal a time of shedding your attachment to the past.”
Pink! I am the woman with the pink hair, pink tennis shoes, pink cane, pink coat, pink suitcase, pink purse. One doctor at NIH, where I am enrolled in a syringomyelia study, even called me the Pink Lady because of all_that_pink.
I told my husband the first time I bleached my hair to go full-on unicorn since high school, “If I’m going to use a cane, I am going to be sparkly and unicorn-y.” I searched for canes in pastels far and wide. I embraced them as fashion and mobility aids. I never had a moment of oh this is sad. I shed my old skin.
Or did I? I’ve always been disabled — epilepsy, auditory processing disorder (undiagnosed until adulthood), partial deafness, migraines, chronic pain, a birth defect not diagnosed until I was 39– but it’s always been invisible. People couldn’t see it unless I had a seizure, so they didn’t believe it. “You don’t look sick.”
Was I shedding an old skin or flipping mine inside out, demanding SEE ME.
Pink: heart chakra. Was all that pink because I loved myself or because I wanted to? An armor that said I love me, so you should, too?
WHAT IS HOLDING ME BACK? LIVER/REGENERATION: “If the liver card is speaking to you today, it is important to listen, for the liver offers an important message about the power of our bodies to heal.”
How can regeneration and healing hold me back from renewal?
1. verb (of a living organism) regrow (new tissue) to replace lost or injured tissue.
2. Adjective reformed or reborn, especially in a spiritual or moral sense.
1. resume (an activity) after an interruption.
2. re-establish (a relationship).
3. repeat (an action or statement).
4. extend for a further period the validity of (a license, subscription, or contract).
5. replace (something that is broken or worn out).
The first time I saw the hole in my spinal cord, I thought, I did that. I made it. Not my Chiari malformation. Not my neural tube birth defect. Me. Not my DNA. I did. Consciously.
For years, I have been working on a magic spell to resurrect my oldest brother. I call it intentional epigenetics. I am stealing his memories — learning what he knew, doing what he did. Memories have epigenetic mechanisms, which means I am physically becoming him. When I saw my syringomyelia for the first time on an MRI, I knew my magic spell had worked.
My brother had a spine like mine, fused with titanium in the same location as my cervical syrinx, injuries all the way down to where my second syrinx, later discovered at NIH, ends. My brother used a walking cane. My brother’s nerves burned.
Resurrecting my brother, though, means I cannot regenerate my own tissue, cannot heal. A healed body is fundamentally incompatible with his.
[Resurrection has consequences.]
And yet, there is no cure for Chiari-syringomyelia (surgery is not a “cure”), or epilepsy, or central auditory processing disorder, or Bipolar, or migraines, or on & on. Meaning: I cannot hope for regeneration, anyway.
[I circle the hospital in the morning. I circle the hospital in the afternoon. I circle the hospital all day long.]
WHAT WILL HELP ME MOVE FORWARD FINGERS/SELF ASSURANCE:
The first time I visited NIH, a neurologist told me I had thenar wasting. She meant the thenar eminence, muscles responsible for bringing thumb and fingers together: opposable thumbs, the thing that set early humans apart. No more walking on hands.
Thenar: Greek for palm of the hand, sole of the foot.
[Is my cane a leg or an arm?]
One of my syrinxes sits at the spot that innervates the thenar eminence. The signals are cut off, like me where the sidewalks end. [I am my own metaphor.]
The inner “C” between my index finger and thumb burns. Goes numb.
“When you start getting numb there, you know you are in trouble,” my old neurologist said. “That’s your warning signal.”
How can losing my opposable thumbs propel me forward?
I used to hang from gymnast hoops like the figure in the card. I used to pump out chin-ups. Now, I am losing my grip–literally and metaphorically.
This card also signals undue influence from society or family. I wonder about it sometimes, if I am under hypnosis of a kind: you are less than human because you walk on your hand.
I need to shed attachment to the past; my connection to my brother is holding me back, and shedding undue influence will propel me forward. There is something here. I don’t see it all yet. That’s OK.
Courtney suggests rose essential oil and pink clothing to stimulate the heart chakra. I wear pink every day. Drink rose petal tea. Mix rose petal infused homemade lotions. Make rose petal jellies and syrups. Grind rose petals into powder for my hair. Fairy dust. I have always done this. Prosthetic heart.
She also provides a meditation: sit in prayer pose and repeat, I trust my heart, I trust my heart, I trust my heart.
Today, I don’t trust my heart. It is filled with the undue influence of blotted out calendar days and missing sidewalks.
I will try it, though. Not today. Maybe next time the tinnitus gets too loud. Instead of water, I can listen to my voice.
Did you know the word syrinx also means a set of pan pipes, or the vocal organs of birds?
Body Cards by Courtney Putnam have helped me process a difficult time in my life. Looking back, I think my apprehension was whether cards like this could apply to my disabled body. So many things are made for abled bodies — streets with no sidewalks, sidewalks with no curb cuts, apartments with no elevators — that I get wary of anything “body” related. In a way, though, Body Cards were made for me (or someone like me). After all, Courtney was inspired by her healing work with “disordered,” “ungraceful,” hurting bodies – just like mine. And the cards aren’t the oracle, not all by themselves. The body is, too — my body. An oracle of flesh and bone.
Buy your deck here.
[Full disclosure again: Courtney was kind enough to send me a deck to review as I had been eagerly anticipating Body Cards for a long time, and I loved it so much I also bought a second one when I lost the book!]