Many years ago, during that time when I somehow managed a heavy courseload, worked 40-hours in a weekend, and maintained a fanatic interest in tennis -- oh, yes, and when I was quite busy dealing with an ex-boyfriend turned stalker -- I discovered and put into frequent practice some basic biofeedback techniques to fight the stress of exams, lack of sleep, and being held off the floor, against the wall, by a hand around my neck.
Success is a mighty antedote for stress and worry. During the period when I ruled the Literary and Academic world with an iron hand in a velveteen glove, being overwrought with nervous energy was something of a boon, and certainly to be expected when living on Diet Coke and Gitanes Brunes.
Okay, so my rise up the Ivory Tower might actually more resemble the route taken by Window Washers and professional Masonry Weeders.
But the part about the Diet Coke and the Gitanes is true.
I rediscovered and returned to relaxation techniques when I left hoity-toity academia for the urban trenches of educational warfare: high school teaching. At the time, we also volunteered many hours a week at a homeless shelter for elderly, disabled, and actively ill men. There was a lot of slow, deep breathing going on, let me tell you!
When did these tools morph into a ladder, a challenge ladder? Precisely when I realized that certain situations, if not all, depended on my ability to transcend my circumstances and, almost literally, to rise above them.
"To rise" is an inadequate verb. "To scramble in a generally positive, vertical direction, spewing caramel-colored cola and spitting scraps of nicotine hay" -- that is the more apt verbal expression.
I dreamed the ladder up.
In preparation for a transesophageal echocardiogram, a nurse began spraying my throat with a topical analgesic called Cetacaine. My throat promptly swelled up, and about a minute later, I coded. Somewhere in my head, I could hear the stylings of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi, trapped in the wrong episode, yelling "No echo for you!"
The couple of hours I spent circling the drain were marked by brief excursions into consciousness and the subsequent awareness of pain. Extreme pain. It hurt bad enough that I preferred being comatose to the option of fully-sentient existence.
And yet, even then, I grew tired of myself.
"Self," said I, "We're in quite a pickle,* a real jam."
I don't know why so much pain set in following this incident. There was no reason for such a worsening, no reasoning, either, that I should face such a reckoning.'
In my mind, the fog of confusion began to clear. I saw myself -- no, that is not right.
Before I saw anything, I felt. I felt a pleasant warmth on my face and arms, felt a soft breeze.
I heard the breeze, too, and that through which it blew, the leaves, mostly, rustling, rustling.
I was on a tall ladder that was leaning against the second story of a three-story house, a well-kept wooden home, painted a cheerful yellow with white trim. The sun was shining, but gently. I don't recall ever breathing such pure air -- better even than beach air, with its hints of sea bird and salt.
Were I concise and reductive in nature, I would say I experienced an incredible sense of well being.
There was no cogent sense of time in this illusion I was hosting, but after a while, the pain in my legs, hips, and shoulders reasserted itself, the sun slid behind clouds, the breeze turned stale.
Clearly, I needed to climb higher on the ladder. That looks like a patch of sunlight up there, and over there, there is almost a shimmer to the air...
I "remembered" how once I marshalled my resources to survive a lover's grip, an examiner's query, a student's quarrel. I remembered being the real eye of an imaginary hurricane.
My feet found the next rung, tested it, my hands reached for the warmth of yellow, and I climbed the ladder from pain into no-pain, my chest fairly bursting with the effort to breathe right, breathe slow, measured.
[Do you remember when you first understood the how and why of Prufrock, who "measured out [his] life with coffee spoons"?]
I never said a mumblin' word to Fred, to the doctors or the nurses, never divulged even the existence of my clapboard house, held cupped in the bottom of a balsam-scented valley, never shared the function of my rickety, trusted ladder.
Unfortunately, I visited often. The owners have added a few stories -- the ladder, likewise, has magically grown extensions.
Every time that I get a weepy, sad-faced doctor, every time I hear "there is nothing more blahblahblah..."? Sure, I sink deep into the blues, and sometimes for an embarrassing length of time, but then, one day, twisted from no sleep, unable to stand, dropping coffee cups left and right...
I feel the breeze tease my face, smell the pine...and I climb.
*The earliest pickles were spicy sauces made to accompany meat dishes. Later, in the 16th century, the name pickle was also given to a mixture of spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative. The word comes from the Dutch or Low German pekel, with the meaning of 'something piquant'. Later still, in the 17th century, the vegetables that were preserved, for example cucumbers and gherkins, also came to be called pickles.
The 'in trouble' meaning of 'in a pickle' was an allusion to being as disoriented and mixed up as the stewed vegetables that made up pickles. This was partway to being a literal allusion, as fanciful stories of the day related to hapless people who found themselves on the menu. The earliest known use of pickle in English contains such an citation. The Morte Arthure, circa 1440, relates the gory imagined ingredients of King Arthur's diet:
He soupes all this sesoun with seuen knaue childre, Choppid in a chargour of chalke-whytt syluer, With pekill & powdyre of precious spycez.
[He dines all season on seven rascal children, chopped, in a bowl of white silver, with pickle and precious spices]
The figurative version of the phrase, meaning simply 'in a fix' or, in the almost identical 19th century phrase 'in a stew', arrives during the next century. Thomas Tusser's Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, 1573, contains this useful advice:
Reape barlie with sickle, that lies in ill pickle.
Presumably, barley that wasn't in ill pickle, i.e. the corn that was standing up straight, would be cut with the larger and more efficient scythe.
There are a few references to ill pickles and this pickle etc. in print in the late 16th century, and Shakespeare was one of the first to use in a pickle, in The Tempest, 1610:
And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they
Find this grand liquor that hath gilded 'em?
How camest thou in this pickle?
I have been in such a pickle since I
saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of
my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.
A return to the more literal interpretation of the phrase came about in the late 1700s. The Duke of Rutland had toured Britain and wrote up his experiences in a travelogue - Journal of a Tour to the Northern Parts of Great Britain, 1796. He was present at the disinterment of the 350 year-old body of Thomas Beaufort, which he claimed to have been pickled and 'as perfect as when living':
The corpse was done up in a pickle, and the face wrapped up in a sear cloth.
Just nine years later the most celebrated personage ever to have been literally in a pickle - Admiral Horatio Nelson, met his end, although some pedants might argue that, being preserved in brandy, he found himself in more of a liquor than a pickle.