A Thin Place
Christian Gonzalez Ho
The muscles in my back wound tighter and tighter as I followed the nurse to the operating room. All I could think was, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” I sat down on the operating table and glanced over at the metal tray arrayed with the various needles about to be inserted into my spine. The doctor walked in and gave a quick outline of the procedure. “This time we’ll try between the 5th and 4th vertebrae. You’re going to feel a small pinch and then a burn. Do you have any questions?” I hesitated, but you don’t really have a choice to forgo the gauntlet when your other option is to die. I shook my head, clenched my teeth, and lay face down on the operating table, bracing myself for my third lumbar puncture—a dose of chemotherapy injected with a needle into my spine.
January 1st of this year, I woke up with what I thought was a sore throat. By April 29, I was in an oncologist’s office learning that I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Two weeks later, I checked into the hospital and hopped on the rollercoaster of chemo: perpetual fatigue, nausea, constipation, numbness, a few days of improvement, then hit repeat. Every three weeks, I was getting about a gallon of highlighter–orange poison cocktail pumped into my arm, but what literally kept me up at night was the dread of getting a lumbar puncture.
Lumbar punctures were performed at the Radiology department, deep in the bowels of the hospital. Face down on the table, I’d wait for the bee sting in my lower back as the first needle passed through my muscles, distributing a searing dose of anesthesia. This was followed by a longer needle probing deeper until it tapped my spinal canal. Sometimes during this second part, the needle would hit a nerve, triggering what felt like a sustained electric shock from my hip down. For me, lumbar punctures were the worst part of chemo. Oftentimes throughout the cycle, I’d flash back to the operating table and start counting down the days until the next one. I could feel myself beginning to shut down.
The doctor began narrating the procedure. “Okay, I’m cleaning the area…” It was like a executioner’s countdown in prose. I noticed that my fists were knotting up and I hadn’t been breathing, so I shut my eyes, inhaled—and then I heard it. The ratcheting of snowboard bindings. My imagination gradually enveloped me with cold air, the creaking of fresh snow under my boots and the rhythm and sounds of a clean morning ride. Sprinkled in–between these sounds were the chirping and chattering of the x-ray machine, and shortly afterward, the plunge of the first needle interrupted my reverie. As the doctor jabbed around my lower back, trying to locate my spinal canal, I closed my eyes, got back on my board, and kept riding. I hadn’t escaped the lumbar puncture, but I had stepped out of the swirl of fear and anxiety and into a thin place, the richness and depth of which outweighed my pain. I was still in that room, having the same procedure, but this time, I was at peace in the midst of it. At some point, I opened my eyes and was startled to see waves of snow. I followed the grainy blue sky to the ceiling and smiled at what I hadn’t noticed when I walked in: the entire back wall of the operating room was a photo of snow–covered slopes.
According to the ancient Celts, heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in “thin places,” that distance is even shorter. My introduction to the concept of thin places was through my friends Beau and Kristen Davidson. Beau is an agriculturalist and Kristen is a chef. Together, they welcome others into thin places encountered when in connection with the land—through
farming or creating meals. Years ago, as we sat down to a meal together, Beau and Kristen began explaining their practice of recognizing thin places, not only as spaces one might enter, but also as presences to be welcomed. As they talked, I began thinking of my experiences snowboarding. They were more than vague memories and feelings; they were like a living refuge I could return to.
I was fifteen when I first heard about snowboarding. “It’s like surfing in the snow,” someone told me. I was a Latino kid living in Union City, NJ; I didn’t know anyone who rode, and my family couldn’t afford to take me. But that year, I used all the money I had to buy a used Morrow board and some janky bindings. Somehow, I made it to a tiny “resort” with five trails and two chair lifts. Progress was slow, but every year there would be a few moments down the mountain when I would find myself ineffably woven into the roiling convergence of the physical forces and ecologies around me.
There is something mystical about discovering a line, even down a small hill. You’re just riding and then suddenly, you’ve slipped into something like the marrow of the earth. It might be 2019, but the veil of familiarity gives way to the realization that you are careening through the strange cathedral of the universe, drawn by the gravitational flux of forces that was, is, and always will be. It’s an aperture to the vastness of existence amidst the matrix of creation.
Riding is a search for thin places. These places resist being seized but are open to those who reverently enter. Their expansiveness bestows an alternate experience of time and place that invites us to more deeply inhabit life in this world—not just in a moment, but also over time, through reflection. My reflections of past rides were a refuge amidst the fear and anxiety that lay siege to my heart and mind as I battled cancer.
Fifteen–year–old me could never have imagined that learning to snowboard would become the means by which 37–year-old me would make it through some of the most trying moments of chemo. Back then, it seemed like snowboarding was about gear, tricks, and attitude. It was both a way to re-imagine myself and escape from the chaos of my life. Now, I realize snowboarding and thin places are not so much about escaping life as they are about confronting it—facilitating a means to grapple with its richness and complexity. In chemo, I began to understand that the beauty of each line extended beyond the immediate experience on the mountain. They became places within me, helping me remain engaged amidst the most difficult moments of my life.
I’m not sure that there is a safe way to come by thin places. They always seem to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually demanding. They offer no formulaic return on investment, but they welcome us into close proximity with the mystery and wonder of existence. Suddenly, our stupor recedes and we find ourselves within the flux of creation, attended by that strange confluence of terror and awe wherein resides deep peace.