Ever tried peeling a banana with one hand? Flossing your teeth? What about untying a knot? In the past two weeks, I have attempted all of these mundane motions with my left hand (along with my teeth and my right elbow) only to realize they are impossible and require both. For now, an unknown time frame, I only have one.
A year ago August, a few days before our departure for Israel, my girlfriend Cathleen took me out for a combined farewell/birthday lunch. After a great meal, she handed me a present, a rubber duck tea strainer and a book called How to Train a Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulness by Jan Chozen Bays. An avid tea drinker and yogi who talks mindfulness, I deemed her the most perfect present giver.
A year passed, and I still hadn’t read it. Every time I went to read, I craved a love story to sweep me away or stories of family infidelity and complex friendships. While packing for my summer travels to New York and France, I decided it was time to delve into mindfulness and took it as my only hard copy book. Yet, night after night during my month-long trip, I crawled into bed too tired to read anything.
A little over two weeks ago, Philippe and I were walking from St. Jean de Luz, France toward Hendaye, a frontier town with Spain and confined on the edge of both the Atlantic Ocean and Pyrenees Mountains. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and all we were carrying on us were a picnic lunch, camera and sunscreen. The views of the ocean were stunning from our path above and the tide pools below beckoned us. When we finally reached a place where we could easily access them, we agreed to explore. We joined other people who were searching for crabs and fish and signs of marine life. At one point, we passed a family with kids swimming in one of the bigger tide pools.
As we inched our way closer toward the water, the rocks were greener and greener, covered in thick, slimy algae. Philippe warned me to walk carefully and then crouched low, almost on his buttocks, onto the next rock. Extending my left hand to his, I placed my left foot down first and, before I knew it, slipped, putting my right hand down to catch the fall.
I cannot remember what happened next, whether I heard or felt something, but when I lifted my hand up to assess the damage an intense wave of pain overtook me. With my knees folded into my chest, I buried my head and breathed. Nausea and wooziness swept through me. Philippe stroked my head and arm, gently coaxing me to turn around and walk carefully toward the road. I turned around, putting my back to the water, but couldn’t move and beseeched him to get help. A few minutes later, he returned with a young man who called the local emergency services, directing them to the nearest parking lot. Once my breath was steady, Philippe took me under my right armpit and the kind stranger took me under my left. My injured arm dangled lifelessly by my side. Together, they escorted me up to the road, where, minutes later, an ambulance with three paramedics met us. We thanked the stranger while one of the paramedics put ice on my wrist and a support to stabilize it. I climbed into the back of the vehicle and lay down on the stretcher, grateful for the chance to close my eyes and breathe. The terrible “naa-na, naa-na” whine of the siren made me feel like a vedette de cinéma in a World War Two movie.
Almost 24 hours later, after surgery to insert two 15-millimeter pins and put the joint back in place, I was lying in my hospital bed waiting for Philippe to arrive. He had to pack up our hotel room and car alone so that we could check out of the hospital and start driving north toward the Bordeaux airport. That evening, we were flying to Strasbourg to reunite with our girls.
“You’re never going to believe this,” my husband said as soon as he sat down in the chair next to my bed. He removed the mindfulness book from his backpack and told me that after leaving me at the hospital and lying alone in bed the night before he had started to read. The book, he explained, began with the introduction, which defined mindfulness and its importance, and then offered exercises. “This was written for you,” he said with a hint of a smile, opening it to the first one.
He lifted up the book to show me and read aloud: “Use Your Nondominant Hand. The Exercise: Use your nondominant hand for some ordinary tasks each day. These could include brushing your teeth, combing your hair or eating with the nondominant hand for at least part of each meal. If you’re up for a big challenge, try using the nondominant hand when writing or when eating with chopsticks.”
Despite the IV still attached to my left arm, the painkillers and anti-inflammatory medicine I had just swallowed and the dull ache in my right wrist, I had to laugh. “You’ll be an expert!” he said. Was that why I had put off reading the book the past year, or why I had chosen it as my one summer read? Was someone somewhere sending me a message?
After I was released from the two-story polyclinique of St. Jean de Luz, Philippe and I drove north to Biarritz in search of a pharmacy to fill my prescriptions and a parking place so we could get out and explore. A haven for surfers, Biarritz was the perfect antidote with its jutting rock formations, topless bathers and outdoor market. Dressed in one of Philippe’s old button-down shirts (the easiest thing to get over my soft cast) and yoga pants (easiest for me to manage), I admired the wild scenery and colorful striped cabanas people rent on the beach. Slowly, we walked toward the lighthouse and then wound our way down through city streets in search of a good meal. I was tired and drained but happy to be outside.
Sixteen days have passed, and I am trying to be patient, recalling the sweet surgeon’s last words in the OR. After hearing that I taught yoga, he said, “Il faut que vous soyez tres Zen.” Patience, being kind to myself, lowering my expectations are not my forte. Zen is not a word I would use to describe myself. Unable to drive (for I don’t know how long) or to cook (Philippe and the girls have risen to the occasion), I spend a lot of time at home and try to get on my mat as much as I can. Surprisingly, there are a lot of poses I can do.
“Injury is our best teacher,” I always tell my yoga students who come to class complaining of slipped discs or sledding accidents. And now, I have to practice what I preach—and be thankful for everything I will learn.
The message about the book, I later decided, was that year one in Israel was about me striving to be positive and stay open, what I often had referred to as yoga off the mat. And now, as we start our second year, it is time to deepen my practice, to move from openness to mindfulness. To slow down, stop and look, listen, feel; to become more grateful for the things we take for granted, like having two hands and being able to peel a banana.