Sonya Huber's "In the Grip of the Sky"
We all struggle with pain in various forms at some point in our lives. Some of us, like essayist Sonya Huber, struggle with it intensely and chronically. Sonya Huber has rheumatoid disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system begins to attack its joints. Her symptoms came on at 38. She had a 5 year old who loved to run into her arms and wrestle, a thing her former self loved, but her new pain-haunted self winced at. Pain began to infuse all aspects of her life, and became something she had to adapt to and learn to live with.
In her new collection of essays, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, Sonya writes about her relationship to pain. I’m going to read you a micro-essay from this book called “In the Grip of the Sky.” One of the things I admire about this essay is how Sonya connects her own experience of pain to the rest of the universe. Pain can be isolating, causing us to tunnel inside ourselves, but in this piece, it becomes the opposite—a bridge, a connector, a kind of fine-tuned internal barometer gauging the health of the self, society, and the planet.
Here it is, “In the Grip of the Sky,” by Sonya Huber:
The sky has its way with me. As clouds lower their shoulders against the horizon, a warm front’s humid body slides along my skin, lifting the hem of my dress to curl around my waist and stretch along my spine.
Closer still, the atmosphere enters me soundlessly. Barometric pressure squeezes my joints, each a tiny fishbowl of synovial fluid that cushions the space where two bones pivot and swing.
My immune system loves and defends me too diligently. I am one of the joint-diseased, we who have lupus and rheumatoid and psoriatic. If we could map our pain, the constellation of joints would glow on the map, lit to follow storm fronts and hurricanes. A joint-sick friend and I trade texts: Rain coming—Got bad at 2 p.m., now flat on the couch. You?
In this sky-grip I am one of many, and we are on fire.
I lie back, linked in pain with other bodies, in a kind of planetary transcendence. I watch the sky with closed eyes as an internal aurora borealis throbs, exquisite and strange. The rhythm and shifting whorls scrawl inside my flesh and bone in a patterned grammar I can almost pretend to decode. I have decided to listen to the air.
The inflamed atmosphere outside mirrors each tiny joint bubble inside me; the fates of both worlds have been permanently altered.
The heated sky skews and pitches, longing only for balance, hung with carbon-rich effluvia from the coal that launched Britain’s navies and the factories of London. Outer and inner protective layers become inflamed. My over-eager immune system works too well, devouring its host, while the planet’s protective atmosphere holds the dangerous heat that men have made.
The atmospheric and the arthritic trace tendrils of smoke from the industrial explosion. My disease is said to be a signal miscopied, genes or molecules scrambled by chemical by-products that trace our desire to be faster and stronger than nature. My flesh and bones retract against the heat of the world’s fever as the storms whip the planet’s surface.
I and this pain-shadow lie on the couch. We turn in tandem under a blanket as mare’s tail clouds loop above me against the icy blue. If every body seated around the table at our climate negotiations had to push against a pain-shadow to stand or reach for a glass of water, to raise a hand to cast a vote, might each voice be raised in strong support for change? If every human felt the sky inside, we might wince against each turn of a key in an ignition. The islands being swallowed by water might seem not so far away.
In some minutes I feel beaten by the sky. Bobbing down, my spirit fights for air. I have learned to push up into this pain storm out of curiosity and a need to understand. Each throb reminds me of my permeability. The gasses surrounding our planet follow every move I make, pushing at my nerves. I sometimes shake my fist at the sky, but I do not hate the clouds. I do not hate them even when they seem to deliver terrible blows. Their impact is a desperate appeal, intending to reach us, even as far as under the skin, to drag us to safety.
You can find “In the Grip of the Sky” in Sonya Huber’s new essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Key and Other Essays from a Nervous System, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2017.