The Pain Scale

Photo: “Lone Tree”
“Lone Tree” by Esther Weeks. Used with Permission

Today is a good day so I can offer

or try to offer connective parts like

connective tissue, invisible: what

extends between us. So it isn’t so

much offering as pointing out: we

are connected by invisible tissue.

You ask me over and over every

time I come to give you the definition

of this thing I carry with me which

in so many ways has gone beyond

pain: a burning hand that takes me

to sometimes even a trail of beauty;

dying trees covered in scaffolding,

a map of crushed stuff at their feet;

heron voices. The longer I stay

and look the more the distant box

stays open and I can warble or crawl

toward it instead of just trying to sit

here in this chair. I don’t really know

how to be here either but the longer

I make the path, the more lookouts

appear. There is a skull with light

in it, a holy shovel until I’m nailed

again to the sky in my head and we

stand here together like clouds.



Click here to read Julia Story on the origin of the poem.

Photo: “Lone Tree” by Esther Weeks. Used with Permission

Julia Story:

About three years ago I suffered from a back injury that resulted in about four months of housebound, constant pain. Before the surgery that finally healed me, I tried many other “conservative” treatments, and each time I was prepped for one of these I was asked to rate my pain on a scale of one to ten, which is common practice in hospitals.

My pain in the month before my surgery was very difficult to rate or describe to the well-meaning nurses and physician’s assistants. Because of its constancy and heaviness, it had gone beyond what I knew in the past to be “pain” into another kind of realm, sometimes even creating a feeling of euphoria or otherworldliness. Saying “ten” to a nurse did not convey this. I think “The Pain Scale” addresses the depressing Western practice of organizing many human experiences into stages, lists, and other small spaces as an attempt to make unwieldy and bottomless things like physical pain, illness, grief, and addiction look controllable and therefore easy to package and put on shelf before moving on to the next catastrophe of the inevitable: there is suffering, we die.

This pain I experienced was like poetry in a way: it was a space I went to and lived in, but unlike the box of the pain scale it had no parameters or surfaces to measure. At times what I found there was a strange, patient beauty or an odd but loyal friend, loyal in the way my own friends and family, who were not in this sublime world, couldn’t be. What I wanted to show through the awkward communication in the poem and what I see as a desperate attempt to connect, is the absolute separation that physical pain causes: it took me to a world I had to look at alone. Within its boundlessness were no doors for humans; within it I was a new kind of human without a way to share my experience because there was no code for it.

Julia Story
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