Wednesday, June 3, 2009


The transition between School and Not is a greasy business. Even when it's over it sticks around, coating your hands and not wiping off. It stays under your fingernails even when you use that shower brush you're not sure is for fingernails or grout cleaning. You're contaminated, tainted for who knows how long.

I sometimes wonder if the Bodhidharma began to see a world of walls like I see a world of medicine. This 5th century Buddhist monk spent nine years staring at a single wall in a cave in Southern China. He spoke to no one. After 7 years the Bodhidharma is said to have fallen asleep. Enraged at his own behavior, he cut off both of his eyelids to ensure it would never happen again. He stared and he stared, letting the seasons pass him by until one day he was finished. When he finally stood on those wobbly, atrophied, legs and hobbled out of the cave, what did he see?

The Bodhidharma probably did see a world of walls thanks to the thickened and scarred corneas that come with eyelid removal. Still, he had trained his mind to find meaning in this absurdly finite sliver of reality: a single wall of a single cave. As I begin to reclaim bits of the life I left to pursue medicine, I feel like I'm rewriting my narrative in terms my own small sliver of focus.

Sometimes I sit with my Someone and reminisce about our travels. There is a curious phenomenon that often happens when we picture past events. I will recall, for instance, a small greasy taxi driver chatting us up as we careened down dirt roads on a mountainside in Peru. Someone will remind me of a particular town we passed, and I tell her, “Yes, and that's when the guy said, 'if we don't tip kids who fix roads, they are much much worse.'” I can picture the driver, his thick accent and pigeon English, and the little boy we passed filling in the potholes with rocks. It's about here in our recollecting that Someone laughs at my impersonation, reminding me that the driver spoke only Spanish. This happens all the time. I can remember whole conversations in English I've had with poor Ecuadorian children who've never spoken a word of English in their lives. Not having spoken Spanish in a while, my brain has rewritten my experiences in light of my current linguistic priorities.

As I retrace my steps from a year ago, I wonder how my cave will have shaped my recollection and experiences. Even as I picture old friends, I can't help but label them: Marfan, foot-drop, Fragile X. Last night as I walked by the house where a neighbor with Down Syndrome used to live, I picture ligamentous laxity and the danger of dislocating his odontoid process. After only 10 months I've already begun to rewrite my reality in this new language. After nine years will it be all I can see?


  1. I can't answer your question, but this is by far the smoothest, most linear post you've ever written (introsepctive without being sad, curious but not demanding) and frankly lacks your normally over-stimulated, sleep-deprived tone. Back to the books, dammit!

  2. Ojala, baby, ojala. We don't have to retranslate all of it.

  3. Anonymous04 June, 2009

    Wow, i liked it, nicely written, made me think.

  4. Anonymous06 June, 2009

    Memories....When i look at spring flowers and trees, i remember and 'feel' many happy times in the past, cool wet grass and lillies of the valley in the home where i grew up, apple trees in Londonderry, gardens in Beverly. I admire your determination to keep language, but memories will remain however you store and retrieve them. Perhaps new knowledge just adds depth to your understanding. Kay