If I were writing a 19th-century account of recent days, I might begin something like this:
For the past month I have suffered an injury to my shoulder that has restricted my movement most awfully and, worse still dear reader, afflicted my very ability to write.
Or, in 21st-century parlance, I have tendinitis in my shoulder. And it sucks.
I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t fall down the stairs or pick up a bowling ball or pitch a softball game. Two out of three of those things are quite unlikely, anyway.
All I know is that sometime before Easter, my right arm started to ache. I was whipping up some blueberry muffins and it hurt to stir the batter. Then I had trouble lifting my arm over my head. Eventually I noticed a golf ball-sized lump on my shoulder.
Nineteenth-century digression: Why are bodily swellings always compared to the circular equipment of athletes? Why isn’t the lump the size of poor Yorick’s skull? Or Oliver Twist’s empty bowl of porridge? Or Amy March’s pickled limes?
No, there was no inciting incident. The truth is that my neck, back, and arms have not been well since I started teaching a decade ago. As an adjunct, with no real office, I was always schlepping around campus with my valise, crammed with books and student papers, slung over my arm. What I thought would make me stronger had the opposite effect. For the past three years I’ve used a rolling bag, but undoing the damage of all that toting and lifting has been difficult. Visits to the chiropractor and physical therapy helped, until this latest episode, that is.
The pain and lack of mobility worsened as the semester crawled to a close. I took the precaution of emptying my rolling bag before removing it from or returning it to the car. I began to use my left arm to open doors, pick up plates, empty the washing machine. My husband became my de facto servant, buttoning buttons and picking up dropped pens and carrying books out to my car.
Nineteenth-century digression: But no ladies maid to dress oneself – no cook or housemaid – no gardener even!
None of that, the housework or gardening or wardrobe challenges, bothers me as much as the difficulty of writing.
Why does it have to be my right arm? So that holding a pen sends shooting pains to my shoulder, and using the mouse pulls on the swollen tendon.
Because as all you writers out there know, this has not stopped me from writing.
I can type fairly well – the shoulder remains locked into place next to the body. It’s using the mouse that proves difficult. Writing by hand can be excruciating. I weigh every word. Some days I simply stop in mid-sentence. All of that is the antithesis of journal writing, which should be free, expansive, even rushed as the hand tries to keep up with the brain.
And I know I shouldn’t complain. Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and beloved children’s writer Louisa May Alcott both wrote through the debilitating symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Alcott, nursing Civil War soldiers in Washington, D.C., came down with typhoid fever. The remedy of the day was calomel, which contained mercury. For the rest of her life she would suffer intermittent symptoms of this poison.
Alcott wrote “The Old-Fashioned Girl,” she reported, “with left hand in a sling, one foot up, head aching, and no voice.”
Beecher Stowe also suffered myriad symptoms, including chills, a cough, vomiting and what she described as rheumatism. Some of this was probably caused by her treatment. Visiting her brother in Indianapolis in 1844, she wrote to her husband that she was “reduced to calomel & gruel.”
Depressed and worn out from having four children in seven years, in 1846 she moved to Brattleboro, Vt., for nearly a year, to take the “water cure.” This may have had the unintended effect of flushing the mercury from her system.
Both women wrote their greatest works after the onset of their symptoms. So I soldier on: It could be worse.