Nighttime is the right time, says the neighborhood Great Horned Owl with the hoo hoo hoo call. On still, cold nights its call travels quickly through the air, with a clarity only possible when the air is dense, the trees bare, and human traffic at its nightly ebb. The owl seems at once near and far. Distances collapse. Winter ether renders live sound an expansion of itself, an aesthetic of season, weather, and time of day.
For me the most spook-inducing sounds are to be found on frozen Lake Mendota. On nights with no breeze to whistle, the energy of ice more than a foot thick bowing according to the push and pull of late winter temperatures fills the aural void. Echo-ey pops and deep groans traveling along fissures supply moonlit ice strolls an abstract soundscape, without meaning, except that you are walking on this ice that is momentarily contained in an unbelievable tension.
Tonight I’m not worried about that, ice creaks and all. This time my stroll is interrupted by an intruder from within. Specifically, a toenail grown just long enough to irritate. The sharp corner of the nail (always trim toenails straight across, I was told growing up) digs painfully into the soft side of its neighboring digit with each push off the right foot. Each step is a wince. We have high quality of life expectations here in Madison, so this is a real downer.
Then I thought about Andy Murray. I watched him a couple weeks earlier in the Australian Open final. The cameras caught him changing socks between sets. His toes were taped, having blistered in a five-set match against Roger Federer only about forty-eight hours earlier. Ouch. I thought about my daughter, whose first injury as a dancer was a hurt toe at camp last summer. I thought about my own foot rot episode from when I was younger, on a long canoe trip. Once it set in it consistently worsened, going in a few days from nusiance to a jaw-clenching torture.
But the end of that trip was in sight. What is more, I was at an age when the pain provided a focus, lifted clouds of teenage confusion, and actually felt good because that. Enjoying acute pain is a young person’s sport.
Then I thought about my grandmother. And then my other grandmother. And my great aunts. They knew about pain around the toes, and for them there was no end in sight. They had small feet, the kind that come from binding. They were members of the last generation of women, already elderly in my childhood, to experience the binding; their daughters were not put through it. When I read mention of the foot binding process, it is usually described as a breaking of the arch. But the toenails also were sometimes left to grow, curled into their own flesh, after horrible pain to be finally crushed as well, or for the lucky, to be simply pulled out. Imagining the actual experience generations of Chinese women went through, “bound feet” seems too cozy an expression. It is one of those terms that sounds better than what the practice is in fact. Kind of like “extraordinary rendition.”
I wonder, did my grandmothers, as the lively girls they must have been, at times relish the pain? Men serving hard prison time speak of going into endurance mode, taking episodes of dissociation for the sake of mental survival. Sentenced to an indefinite duration of pain and permanent hobbling, a prison of their bodies, their families and social values, girls with small feet must have mastered the whole spectrum of coping psychology, including the mentality of the young athlete or disciple who learns to put pain into a box. But then to live with the new reality of small feet, small steps, and an eternally unsteady walk—what extremes of feeling or better yet unfeeling are necessary to manage the daily realities of such a fate? I will never know.
What I am complaining about, again? That toenail, the clipping of which I can already envision, only minutes away.
The irritation now respectfully ranks strictly at the low end on the pain spectrum signs you see at the clinic. Corrected in my thinking, the sensation feels more like a prompt than a sting, a reminder to me of the willingly and unwillingly experienced pains of the past and present world, even from within my own family history. It is a reminder that those considerable smarts and unfathomable sorrows have essentially no association with what small troubles I contend with. A toenail tonight only highlights the fact that in this mild life I am living I am mostly brutalized with music and other external forms of beauty—as long as oneself keeps from getting too cocky over thin ice.
Finally, I realize that this is no pain-free zone in the world of our local owl, either. On the contrary, if the owl gets its way tonight some creature will feel all the wrenching unpleasantness of a full assault, to its limit, beyond which lies only numbness and shock–the anaesthetic, those short moments of a living death. In Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey wrote about the dread of the rabbit, surrounded by the voice of its hunter. My beauty is some other creature's pain, just as my grandmothers' pain was somebody else's beauty.