Rhythms of Grace

When I woke this morning, again I marveled at starting my day without impending dread of my foot touching the floor. Then I realized the date: February 1. Five years ago today I destroyed my ankle, had my lower leg flopping to the east. In an instant, everything changed. And then, about two months ago, when my talus and tibia were bolted together – my fifth ankle surgery – the pain (in my ankle; I’m still a bit of a wreck in other areas) lifted like a disappearing fog, a fog that had crept into my life and infused my every waking moment. I’ve always wanted to be strong, and I’ve tried to be tough. It was important when my sport was boxing, it’s important in climbing, and it’s important in life. But some things, some times, can be too much.

Tomorrow I’ll get an update from my surgeon after we take Xrays, and if all is as it should, I’ll continue my return to living the life I love. It’s a feeling that was slowly flickering and fading in the face of chronic pain, yet for the first time in years I’m optimistic, even eager. Though maybe a little bit afraid to feel too excited.

I’d meant to reply to all of the kind comments on my recent surgery post, but damn, time flies when you’re having fun. So, with complete sincerity: Thank you.

As I type this, I’m aware that a bunch of grown men are having fun doing similarly pointless things as we climbers do. They’re chasing around a funny shaped ball and knocking the hell out of one another. I’m not into it, go figure. But they love it, and most of the country does, too. I don’t follow most mainstream sports, and I mostly find TV to be a mind-numbing waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, I know all about wasting time. I just have far superior means of wasting mine. Ahem. Anyway, maybe the Super Bowl will go into extra innings – I’ve heard that’s never happened. As with any aspect of human performance, mainstream sports, despite their many problems, have moments that can lend us great inspiration.

One of the best broadcasters of mainstream sports is a man named Al Michaels. I mostly know that because I love audio, and I found the recent Fresh Air interview with Michaels tremendous on several levels. He’s probably best known for his call of the U.S. vs. Soviet 1980 Olympic gold medal ice hockey game, a call that, when replayed during the interview, still gave me chills. The interview gives insight to story, emotion, the value of silence amid crazy moments, and includes some priceless, laugh out loud Howard Cosell stories. The one that starts just before minute 22 is all-time. Hint: Cosell, with his cigar and his canary yellow blazer, hops out of his limo to intervene in an inner city street fight.

I’ve written before of my affinity for good audio stories and interviews – like Terry Gross’s interview with Maurice Sendak near the end of his life. I have to be ready whenever I return to pieces like that, as they leave me in tears. Two of my other favorites include her interview with Jay-Z and her interview with Trent Reznor.

Not since the Sendak interview, however, have I been so moved by audio as with Gross’s 2014 interview with Sam Baker. Baker was like so many of us who are reading this, a traveler and adventurer – including climbing – until one day in 1986 as he sat on a train in Peru, and a bomb set by the terrorist group the Shining Path exploded overhead. Seated beside Baker were a young boy and the boy’s parents. All three were killed, and Baker, too, was blown apart. Somehow he survived, but with severe, lasting damage. He became a musician, and his songs are stories, often like hymns with qualities both elegant and haunting. One critic aptly described his music as “Simultaneously beautiful and broken.”

Toward the end of the interview, before playing his song Pretty World, Baker spoke of his attempts to live a simple, structured life, even as he struggles with post-traumatic stress and chronic pain. He said, “In those days, once I was kind of getting through the worst parts of the surgeries, there were moments that were exquisitely beautiful. One of the things about seeing so much sorrow and so much suffering is that when there is an absence of suffering, sunlight off a rose is incredible.”

I’ve probably listened to Baker’s most recent album, Say Grace, more than a hundred times. It plays in my head daily, for which I’m grateful. I’m reminded of Terry Gross’s words toward the end of the interview. She’s interviewed hundreds of people, yet her tone carried original sincerity as she told him, “Sam Baker, I’m just so happy I know your music now. I found out about it pretty recently and I’m so glad it’s a part of what I know. It’s so good. Thank you so much.”

Guess I don’t have an overriding point to this post, or much more to say. I hope your team is playing well, and you’re inspired. I feel the same. I think I’ll listen to some music, read, and patiently, gratefully await tomorrow morning.


8 thoughts on “Rhythms of Grace

  1. Geez, even when you think you are at your most pedestrian , you conjure up a thing that is touching and beautiful. Thank you!

    I appreciate your dual climber/boxer perspectives. One of my all time favorites is that piece telling parallel climbing and boxing takes for the Dirtbag Diaries. I need to hear that again.

    And thanks for the Fresh Air recommendations… It’s all good stuff!

  2. Great post man. I just finished your book and it was great as well. Hope this post means you’ll be heading back down to Patagonia next year.

  3. Hey Kelly, I blew my ankle out 25 days after you did in a paragliding accident. Your blog provided some interesting juxtaposition to my experience back then, and I randomly thought of ‘that margarita, climber guy who also had a pilon fracture’ tonight so found your blog again. It is interesting that its close to the 5 year anniversary for both of us. It would be interesting to connect via email some time to discuss specifics. I’ve had 8 surgeries, but I had the complication of compartment syndrome. I haven’t had anything fused (yet) but my ROM is very poor. I continue to do some hiking, mild mountaineering, and tried some sprint triathlons i.e. baby triathlons this summer. Good luck with your recover from this latest surgery! I’d love to hear how things go.

  4. I found your blog 5 months ago when my husband had a hunting accident and fell and shattered his tib/fib in addition to a bad pilon fracture. He’s 2 surgeries in, and in so much pain still. It’s going to be a long road. He’s a young fit guy, and I hate seeing how this pain is taking a toll on him, physically and mentally. Thank you for your blog- I check back in once and a while to see if you post an update on your injury!

    • so sorry to hear about your husband, along with anyone else who’s hurt themselves (such as an6u5’s comment, above) or is suffering. damn, so it goes sometimes. and, sometime, i’ll try to get around to posting a post-fusion update. the quick version: everything is terrific. at my feb 2 follow-up, the bone healing (fusion) looked great. my surgeon told me to return to regular activities, so i went straight from his office to the climbing gym, then ski toured the next day, practiced walking, and have been building up consistently since. it’s truly amazing to have that bone-on-bone grinding lifted, to feel just fine when my leg touches the ground, and to enjoy movement without the internal battle that constant pain brings. adapting to slightly less ankle motion has been a piece of cake. so far, so good. best wishes to you and your husband.

  5. Kelly I’ve been periodically reading about your recovery and your set backs for several years now, and your struggles are very encouraging! I had a bad fall in 2012 resulting in a pilon fracture of my right ankle with breaks extending all the way to my hip, and breaking through the skin in about 6 places. 3 years and 12 surgeries later I’m still not really walking as I’ve got a non union going on. Unlike many with a pilon fracture I’m not in a tremendous amount of pain, and never have been, but with the non union, if I’m not careful when weight bearing I rebreak the ankle which causes the leg to telescope in on itself and I lose a little more length in my leg. My right leg is now approximately 3 inches shorter than my left leg (yikes!). I’ve been resisting fusion as I’m not in a lot of pain and I’m really unenthusiastic about needing a gigantic lift on my shoe in order to walk without hurting my back, knees, and hip.

    It seems as though with such a severe injury there should be a lot of pain associated with it which is what usually drives folks to fusion. In the absence of pain (I take a single regular strength advil about once a week now) and with a poor healing prognosis even with a fusion, I’m starting to seriously consider amputation. I’m ready to be out of a wheelchair even though I have a spiffy speedy one with rough terrain tires so it doesn’t slow me down a whole lot. Who knew I’d ever look forward to cutting the grass…..

    I love your attitude toward your injury and recovery!

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