we are all threadbare


When I was young and transient, I had a ritual of sorts whenever I settled into a new place. I wrote, or typed out, Theodore Roethke’s poem, “The Waking”, and I pinned it above whatever would serve as my desk in that place. Its opening stanza was a daily reminder:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
Recently I came across a faded copy of the poem printed on the first printer we owned, the kind that you fitted paper to on tracks and then you ripped off the edges once printed. 1992? So I must’ve had it near me on this desk I still use, in the study I’ve used since 1982. Though now my desk is surrounded by photographs of beloved people and places, stones from rivers and beaches, a long-dead dog’s pelvis (more on this later), worry dolls, an elk skull.
I thought of the poem in the night when I was awake. I know it by heart. I said it quietly to myself in the dark room. I was feeling a little threadbare because in a routine appointment with the ophthalmologist who repaired my torn retina in December, he found two more tears. Maybe I suspected there was one because last week I saw, briefly, the shimmer of silver light fall by my left eye (the last time, in Edmonton, the light fell to my right, and it was my right eye that diagnoses with a retinal tear). But this time, there was a tear in both eyes. Luckily the ophthalmologist was able to repair the damage then and there. (It used to be that people on our peninsula had to travel for Vancouver for this particular laser procedure but my ophthalmologist now has the fancy instrument and can repair the tears in the small town of Sechelt, 45 minutes from where I live.)
So yes, I was feeling threadbare. And what does that mean?


1 (of cloth, clothing, or soft furnishings) becoming thin and tattered with age

1.1 (of a person, building, or room) poor or shabby in appearance.

‘we huddle round a cassette deck in a threadbare rehearsal room’

1.2 (of an argument, excuse, idea, etc.) used so often that it is no longer effective.

‘the song was a tissue of threadbare clichés’

I thought of my eyes, taken for granted all these years, and the retinas, never thought about much at all. Why would you think of them anyway? But now they are, well, old. The vitreous in my eyes is pulling away from the back of my eyes and causing the retinas to tear. As favourite old jeans tear, or ancient sheets. I am holding myself this morning the way I’d hold a fragile cup. We were all threadbare in the ophthalmologist’s waiting room: the woman with the orange hair, the man who fell asleep in his chair, the other man with his cane, the woman wearing a surgical mask, and me. That poem I know by heart could be a solace now, not “a tissue of threadbare clichés” but something to be carried again as an amulet. It might be time to type it again, or copy it out by hand, and put it where I can be reminded of its guidance:

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.