Tabula Rasa

Well, I went and pinched a nerve along my spinal cord or perhaps pinched the cord. I met with my terrific neurologist, Dr. Ariagno, who prescribed an MRI. Filled out the paper work and readied myself to enter the “Tube.” “Are you claustrophobic?” asked the nurse. “Nope.”

I was tempted to say, “But I am afraid of the United States.”

“We’ll get back to you about when to have your MRI.” “Thank you.”

That was a week ago.  The last time I had these symptoms, an emergency surgery followed to stabilize my neck. I was told by the surgeon then to expect more surgeries because my neck is very arthritic. He’s a really good surgeon who no longer accepts our college’s retirement insurance package. (He’s also a former student of mine. Julie says the irony is so thick she can’t even cut it with a knife.)

A week and a half later, the nerve remains pinched. Yesterday Julie left a message wondering what the hold up was, given this is a pretty serious situation. Then she called around, insurance company, hospital, back to the doc’s office. This morning Julie got through to a human who informed her that the hold up is with the insurance approval software. “The order for the MRI keeps being rejected. We’re working on it.”

I should after all have said that I was afraid of the United States: There is an algorithm or script in a hunk of software taking away the feeling in my arms and legs.

The highly trained neurologist orders his patient an MRI, but the insurance software decides if I really need one. How many millions of lives are balanced by insurance companies who in my lifetime have shifted their values from caring to “hey, we can make more money if we . . .”

And the holiday means we won’t hear anything for days more. I keep falling down and into things, and Julie can hardly move for her anger.

And then there’s that parade in D.C. We won’t be watching. We just can’t, of course, but we shouldn’t. Not while our country is locking up children and tearing apart families. That’s not the time for a military parade. It’s not 1933. Or is it?


Tabula Rasa

“You may lose the ability to use your
right hand.”—Surgeon’s diagnosis

I think about the end of writing and what may follow:
Some sunlight across the bowl on the kitchen table.

A daughter stopping by after work. I’ll lift the cup
of coffee with my left hand. We will laugh.

The dogs will wrestle, the older one letting
the pup pull tufts of hair from his scraggly ears.

The geese will still bring their V, north, then south.
I know a solitary one will fly by and I will wonder

about its being alone, if it will find its way.
I won’t know. You’ll say,

“Go ahead, stir the soup, add some more
tomatoes if you like or maybe some oregano.”

I will use the phone, but I’m used to stamps,
love writing a name and address, their steady

place floating in the center of a moving
universe, then adding where to return

the letter if it doesn’t find its way and needs
to wander back. Up there, in the left corner.

That’s a kind of home. And in the center, another.
And there we are, heading out, hoping we connect

without knowing when. Maybe not even where.

–Jack Ridl

Published in Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press)

On July 25 from 1-4pm, at The Pines in the Dow Gardens in Midland, Jack will lead a workshop on writing personal history. That evening at 7pm he will join Jim Ottaviani for a reading in the MCFTA Founders Room, 1801 W. St. Andrews, Midland. To register for the workshop, email Helen Raica-Klotz at The reading is free.

If you enjoy the annual Reading at The Red Dock, this year’s will take place on August 13 at 6pm. This year I’ll be joined by D.L. James and Mark Hiskes. Come early for music, food and drink, and a good time on the high water harbor!

On August 20 at 7pm, I’ll be reading with Greg Rappleye at The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague. Talk about a place where the atmosphere alone is a joy, let alone the food and beverages.

AND… Kristin Brace’s first book-award-winning collection, Toward the Wild Abundance (Michigan State University Press), has been released! Stop here to pick up your copy now! 


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Visit Reader’s World or Hope-Geneva Bookstore in Holland, The Bookman in Grand Haven, the Michigan News Agency in Kalamazoo, and The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Jack’s page on Amazon.

Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

36 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa

  1. Oh, do I ever relate to this. The phone calls back and forth trying to confirm approval for tests and treatment, and the fear that my state will pass the proposed law that would prevent my state university from being useable across the river in another state where my oncologist and surgeon are.

    The poem, as always, is lovely. There’s still good in this world, in this country. There are still us poets. xoxo

    • I love hearing your voice, Katie B! It’s all through your
      heart-shaking and loving message. Dear Karen was with me
      in a workshop a bit ago, and we celebrated you and
      cared; oh how we cared, and care.

  2. I’m so sorry to hear, Jack, about the pinched nerve and also the serious delay in medical attention. This is not how it should be. Your thoughts are so well written for one who not at all feels well. I hope you have some relief soon.

    And the poem is wonderful!

    • Jim, your message is actually filled with the most important of
      healing ways: Lifting the spirit and understanding. Know that;
      do please know that.
      Thank you across this bright blue sky,

  3. Oh Jack…now I’m worried about you. My arms are around you. As area ll the others who will read this poem. And I pray – in the way I pray – sending energy and love, that this time will be as it was when you wrote this poem…and the feeling will return…and stay.

    And di you hear? 90% chance of rain in D.C. today… I mean talk about proper irony!!!

    💕💕 💕


    • You ole healer, you! Thank you for your care. I know you know
      what it’s been like to see the culture make these changes that
      reveal the demolishing of what should be valued. And yet, here
      we are, still caring for one another in the ways we can. My
      thanks are innumerable for lifting my spirit when it’s yours
      that needs to stay afloat.

  4. I have in a file hand written letters from Jack Ridl, kept as treasures, read every now and again. “hoping we connect without knowing when.”

    • We just now did, connect. And that connection cannot be broken.
      I’m blown away that you have those letters. Thank you for telling
      me. This is an affirmation that leaves me wordless. Sigh.
      Thank you for lifting this guy’s spirits!

  5. So very sorry you and Julie have to suffer much less suffer through the red tape. I am almost always put down for resisting technology, but your’s is a perfect example of why I resist. Sure wish hugs could right everything. Sending a zillion hugs.Kathleen 

    Sent from my Sprint Samsung Galaxy S7.

    • Aunt Kathleen,
      You ‘n me about technology misused, not discerning when the
      human and humane is needed more than expedience and software.
      Your hugs heal what matters most–the heart and spirit.
      My thanks can’t be counted.

  6. Oh Jack,

    Thanks for letting us know about what you are enduring at the moment. Too many things are broken and only getting worse for us here in the US. Thanks for putting some of the pain into a poem where it can get mailed out into our minds and hearts. And Len says, “That surgeon was wrong”. One can always find another way to write and of course they will.
    Speaking of writing, can we all write your insurance company to demand that they get you your MRI? I am so sick of hearing about the atrocities we are being told we have to live with. Sending much love and fighting thoughts, Phyllis

    • My dear Warrior!
      Thank you for such wonderful concern. It all but leaps off the screen. Wait!
      It did leap through the screen and right into my spirit. Hard to accept what’s happened
      to humane care during our time on the fading planet. You are so good, wanting to get
      people to write to the insurance company. Alas, it will do nothing because even if
      they read it all, the response would be, “We have to adhere to what the software
      tells us. “Software, may I?” “No, you may not.”

      • Thaaaaank you!!!

        And we’re all settled in so anytime you wanna set up a time online, just let me know.

    • I am soooooo glad that you love that poem. Julie does too.
      And my musings. That’s the word I’m gonna use from now on.
      Thank ye! So much. And your idea about universal health
      coverage is brilliant. I think you should offer it to
      those in charge!!!!!

  7. This is an incredible poem.

    Steve Ralph freelance writer/editor freelance voiceover artist freelance wedding officiant Complete Music mobile DJ Team Trivia host 616.405.5919

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Holy joy, Stephen. I am sitting here trying to think of
      a way to tell you what this means to me. Your sensitive
      intelligence responding in this way is an affirmation
      I shall cherish. And it sure will keep me scribbling.
      My thanks are an abundance

  8. Oh Jack!!!!!! No!!!! Not a pinched and SEARING nerve! I will pray! And I love Dr. Ariagno! He was my father’s neurologist. Kindest man ever! And then there is Dr. Lowry. Best in the field, but the insurance drives the bus. I am so sorry!!!! Moving is not good for necks and backs and knees. Writing should be. I will pray. And pray some more!!!!

    Love to you both!

    Sent from my iPhone


    • Beth,
      Your care comes right out of the screen! And it is felt all along my spine !!!
      Yes, Dr. Ariagno! Wow, you know him and your description is right on: Kindest
      man ever. And Dr. Lowry did the surgery on my neck before and was terrific.
      A former student, he also was the surgeon who called me from the University
      of Pittsburgh Hospital to talk with me about my making the decision to keep
      or take my father off life support. To think that truly great physicians such
      as those two end up having to follow some software’s orders, rather than having
      their humane medical orders followed without question. Sigh.
      Thank you for caring so much!

  9. My heart is heavy to hear of your pain—physical and otherwise. I have no pearls of wisdom, no cliche of hope. Just sadness. Mary


    • Now listen here, Mary. No sadness. This ole spirit needs to think of you
      wandering the beach, out sailing with Rubin, fighting for water and the
      whole planet. I need our Mary to be anything but sad. I need to know
      she’s as buoyant for good as ever.

    • Yeah, it hit me that way too when I found it, that poem.

      I’m doing awfully well for how lousy this is. Not much strength
      in arms and legs and my fingers are always stinging. Juju has
      on her Wonder Woman Warrior psyche and of course has her own
      pain to deal with. It’s pals like you who do the real healing
      by keeping our spirits up.

  10. We are so sorry about your neck, your back and the state of medicine. Making Money seems to be the epidemic, the high and mighty aim with doctors and patients as pawns
    May the wrath of Julie find a chink in the golden wall and relief come swiftly after the MRI. With healing love, Marsha & Michael

    • Thaaaaank you so much for your understanding. What you wrote is the needed
      healing–that of keeping our spirits up. It makes such a difference and
      our gratitude is boundless.

      It’s all so sad. I remember when I was a kid, our insurance guy would say,
      “I have to make a living, but taking care of you is first.” And it was true.

      Julie’s wrath is focused and full of love for her ole pal here. What a catch 22: neurologist
      orders an MRI to determine what needs to be done. Insurance says no unless they know what
      needs to be done. Are you kidding me? It’s Kafka!


  11. Dear Jack,
    I watched “Lovesong for Bobby Long” the other night, 3rd or 4th time, and it reaffirmed my belief that American literary and cinematic artists are by far in the lead when it comes to close, mindful, patient reading and interpreting of all the moves we humans make and the mazes we get into. That presupposes something like a readiness to open up to intimate soulmateship, which surprises me time and again. What surprises me not a whit less, however, is the readiness of many of your compatriots and organizations to slam the door right into their fellow human being’s face when they do not function any longer, for whatever reason. It is gross. I do hope that in the end the Gods are with the good ones, but of course that is no more than appeal to uncertainty.
    Even more respect, hence, to an for your poem. It tiptoes along that thin red line between a what-the-four-letter-word has happened to me and why, and something like acceptance after suffering – in my eyes. And it wails not, all the chords sound light and gentle and the strings are delicately tuned. You may address yourself in the formal for that one.
    But I’m afraid what I really wanted to say was “Get well”, you and your wife.

    • Oh my yes, how horrid it is, all the door slamming, and the verbal abuse heaved in public as
      if it doesn’t inflict lasting damage on the recipient because “They’re supposed to take it.”
      I always warned my poet students not to listen to those who say they need to develop a thick skin
      because then they will never again write and all empathy will exit stage right.

      Your description, Reinhard, of the poem is an affirmation I cherish. This is often the most difficult
      of poems to write because one can so easily slip into having the attention drawn TO the I instead of
      THROUGH the I into the experience and perspective. “Delicately tuned” That means so much to me. So very much.

      You are a gift to the poems and through both to me. I braid the sky with gratitude

  12. Dear Jack and Julie, I had a nasty diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer last September…I’m doing fantastically well despite. But, enough about me. I wish you successful treatment for your pinched nerve!!! However, LEFThandedness is not a bad thing. Although, our second-grade teacher Miss Ewalt (you must remember her) used her retraining weapon, a 12-inch wooden ruler with nasty metal edge, on my insistently unretrainable left hand…to no avail. However, I AM somewhat ambidextrous due to a lifetime of coping with a predominantly right-handed world. I’m very good with scissors. I once tried out a pair of LEFT-handed scissors…but, having mastered the workings of right-handed scissors before nursery school, they were not for me..or anyone, I’m sure. I left them (no silly pun here) in the lost and found box where I worked. Rest leads to nerve damage repair. Your left hand to the rescue, and with a little concentration, you will never spill coffee!

    • Miss Ewalt!!!!! OMG!!!! Yes. I was terrified of her. And book ending her were two everlasting
      teachers I loved Mrs. Clumph (sp) and Mrs Sechler, later Mrs. Ginger. Isabel. I learned of her being
      still with us several years ago and go to thank her before it was too late, as it usually is. Sometimes I
      try to thank your father through you.
      Rest! YES! And is it ever difficult to do that if you are coach’s son!
      I love your comments: they are commentaries~~~~!!!

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