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It's Nelly's World

Endurance

alec vanderboom

There she is, through the window, my dear companion, her head bobbing up and down in the field: she is supping on deer shit. Ah. My son says, "Nelly the barbarian." She is that, oh yes, though she is also the closest thing to civilization I have in the middle of the night, pressed close against my leg as I wake in a literal cold sweat, numb and in pain at the same time (she, like me, specializes in encompassing opposite poles at once).

It was she alone who prevented me from making a panicked run to the emergency room at 2 a.m. -- But I can't leave Nelly here by herself! -- though there was also the unsavory aspect of a thirty-minute drive when I was so exhausted it might as well have been driving drunk. It seemed safer to use denial, cue up The Thirty-Nine Steps and sing mantras to myself (It's probably nothing you'll die from . . . ) while breathing deep, and fall back into fitful sleep, to assess the situation in daylight.

It was a good thing that the results of the second blood test later revealed that the cost of such a dark quest would have been paid in vain: it was simply a continuation in new symptomatology of the same virus that for six weeks had stretched me on the rack, toyed diabolically with my senses, and made me recall for the first time in decades the movie scene that had spooked me so completely as a child that it erased everything else, including the film's name, from my memory: a convicted witch, laid beneath a wooden raft on which
was heaped rock after rock by a mirthful populace until she was crushed to death.

This illness has caused the physical strength to seep out of me, at the same time that psychic confidence has also sprung a slow leak. I try to recall if it was ever thus with me--the heaping on of circumstance and emotional reaction until I am like that pancake witch, in a cycle of boom and bust that has me up in the clouds of hope one week, plodding through an earth-hugging gray fog the next. No, I realize, the cycles are much shorter these days --and sometimes they occur so rapidly that they are almost simultaneous, so that I take on the quality of the many-armed Kali, a statue of whom sits on the sill in the yoga studio. I look at it and see a mirror. Destroyer and giver of life, all inside my one little brain.

The source of one great hope lately is simply an idea--one that came on me gradually, a dawn whose sun soon blazed hot and huge overhead -- and ideas excite me more than anything else in this world, even chocolate, money, or the prospect of not having to decide alone at 3 a.m. whether to get out of bed and drive to the ER.

This idea has to do with something I once deemed peripheral, but now see as central to the whole shebang. It arises from the top echelon of a top echelon organization, the Iron Butt Association, whose membership has cornered the market on what is essential in life: single-minded purpose that can blast to powder the
notion of impossibility. A few of these people see something that cannot, should not, be done (say, ride through all forty-eight contiguous states in eleven days; sleep is for wimps, or people of little determination) and then do it. Simply do it. The idea is a window into not only a particular psychology -- one may say pathology, but then, like Kali, sanity and insanity may be encompassed by one and the same act -- but into the nature of purpose itself. This is an amazement to me. And a lesson, at this particular juncture in life.

The friend whose pronouncements about the import of recent events have never yet been found untrue, paradoxical as they are, has given another. In order to not be alone, I must first learn to be alone.

So Nelly and I once more climb the familiar trail in the Shawangunks, my ailing bones protesting at every step (and even worse when we get home, giving me a presentiment of life at age ninety). The endurance of this virus is arm-wrestling me now, and both of us tremble in the stillness of the effort. My dog, civilized barbarian, turns back to look at me with adamantine eyes from her advance position on the trail. The slant of the sun reveals her eyes to be both brown and blue. She is with me, except when she is not. My mind is the destroyer and it is the creator. The man who wills himself to stay within the funnel of light his auxiliary headlights throws always ahead of his machine into the long night of a thousand miles just to prove it can be done is at once unhinged and the most rooted of all. That is what this means.