I sat in the hot pools at Breitenbush with various kind souls recently. The stars hid behind a blank, dark sky. It was comforting, the blankness. The moon was new and absent. It rained. I rested. All the doing stopped; I dreamed. I felt an assurance that what I don’t know now, that what I don’t get in this life, that what I work to know but still only glimpse, is waiting for me beyond a benevolent white line of light.
Battle worn and battered and rusted somewhat;
the rain affects me more than it once did.
All the fools I believe surround me are themselves
surrounded and I am one of those in the circle around the fools
who surround me. Who knows who the joke is on.
I, like they do, have the right to my worth
only because I am a soul wielding breath,
like it’s my sword, thrusting in and out, exhausted,
triumphant, relentless, until it isn’t, until it stops.
And then what of my worth and right?
Does my breath prop up my worth?
Or, does the last long exhale draws me with it?
I leave with that breath and ride it like a dandelion seed head
blown on the wish of a child.
One time I thought one thing mattered
and that thing gave way,
gave way like a diving board pulled from the diver
when she was to spring to highest heights,
it gave way like that to
something else, this other thing,
and it was all that I cared about because it mattered more
and just when I thought I couldn’t think any
more deeply it fell through like an old attic floor and
there I was, falling
through the insulation again.
Even as I passed through the itchy glassy pink I found
my way to a deeper knowing of the thing that I cared most
about but when I hit the floor it left me like the dream I dream
when I say this time, this time, I will remember this
and then I don’t.
I met a man in the ER. He has multiple sclerosis, which is a random marauder that targets the nerves. He was bed-bound, but more on that in a minute. He had belly pain which is what i was called for. He had a ruptured appendix. This is a disease for which Western medicine is designed. We are really good at mechanical issues where we can remove the offending organ and support the rest of the body while it recovers. It really is cool It works. In the past, ruptured appendix was a killer. The problem is that when the appendix gets hole in it, shit rolls out in to the abdomen. That is what my patient had. Off we went to the OR.That part is fine, boring, etc. He did well.
In the course of talking to him I learned that he lives in a single wide. Doesn’t need more because he can’t move. He has monkey bars installed throughout the place to allow him to escape a fire if one arises; or he can make it to his wheelchair for a doctor’s appt. He has a caregiver 4 days a week. The rest of the time, he is in bed with jars for his piss and no help if his bowels move and whatever he can get to read. The ambulance squad said it was desperate in the trailer – I rarely read such a poetic term from them whether “good” or “bad”. Jars of piss all around and open cans of tomato soup with broken egg shells. Desperate.
He is 71.
I keep him in the hospital for as long as I can, but it comes to an end, on Christmas Eve. His wife, deaf and helpless will help him home from his appendectomy. He can’t swing through the trailer for a few weeks because of surgery. This completely undoes his way to live in the world. He will read romance novels with his headlight on, with his legs useless under him, with the tree sparkling in the patient lounge on the fifth floor of the hospital. He is screwed I guess, but when I talk to him he asks for nothing. He wants out of the hospital, wants to go “home” and I can’t get it. But as I sit with him I realize that home is simply not here, in this sick person place. Home is where his deaf wife does her best for him while she can until she can’t and she leaves again for points south and he passes the days with a head lamp on to illuminate the tawdry romance novel he somehow has next to him and he turns the page and turns the page.
The night falls on my time alone.
They are the same, the time, the night.
I have I take I request I make I demand I require
this time and because you know me I never get past “I have”…
It is a spaghetti bowl, your hair on fire, a flower.
I am pretty good with a flower, especially one dying.
I can’t deny the metaphor.
I am a surgeon
I am pretty good with a disease, especially if you
It is the living with it that gets messy,
Where the tendrils curl on the nice neat thing.
If you are terminal the conversation, the me and you part gets simple, like water, clear.
If you are having to live with something, long term, and I don’t have an answer for you, if even and especially if that answer is Death, then
we have a problem and it is then that Western medicine feels like algebra
in a world of calculus.
Heed this: Go find a shaman. Come back to me, the surgeon, if and only if you have a knife hanging out of your gut. Otherwise we are dancing around fires that have smoke but no flame.
You are dying right now and you and I both know that.
I will switch back to me in my mind, as I hold your hand, because me is all I can handle in the moment of your ending and yet, I don’t know why, I remain here with you.
My dying, because I have no knowing about it, is meaningless,
No matter how inevitable it is, until
chest pain or a drunk driver or a slip and fall or any damn thing
moves me one step closer. Before the slippy step that provokes the obvious,
death remains a theory.
From that step, after it, from any step that wakes me up, like an EKG, a colonoscopy, a swerve
it gets ridiculously real.
Until the fear arrives, I remain aloof from the timeline of
my own inevitability, proud, forever 21, forever asleep, but vibrant, and hoping.
In the whole world, I and my family, are well within the top 1% in terms of money and our hope of “making it” financially. We have more than enough food and we have a house and clothing and the chance for a financed retirement. Most of the world, even in the United States, has no hope for retirement, much less a love for the J.O.B. that finances today. (Maybe there is no mistake that in the Bible that Job and his story of misery and faith is named job.) I have stable and satisfying work, and not just a job. I worked hard to have that and I am lucky to have that combination – or I am blessed or I am rewarded – no matter what I am in a place of having when many are in a place of not havnig. As I am looking to the new year I am focusing on the word gratitude. 1%? Is that an accident? Is that providence? Is that a cycle? That seems to have less to do with me than forces outside me. I…
I know that I am a soul moving through this earth with an amazing opportunity to be in a functional body and I hope to learn and love and relish this experience in a body. I have to feed this body almost endlessly. There is a part of my brain that continues to make up stories to make food interesting every three hours while I am awake. That is ridiculously amazing. Nothing, and I mean, nothing, becomes interesting again every three hours except food and water. There are not enough super models in the world to incite a three hour turn around in curiosity, but a tomato sauce at lunch followed by beet salad at dinner? I am up for that. How does my brain create this interest in food? That alone is miraculous.
I am sure that if I were really hungry I would understand much more clearly about my interest in food and my ability to get turned on by it. For some reason, at least now, I am not hungry, ever. Maybe, like Job, all this will wilt away and I will lose everything and grow boils, and then what? Will I still be grateful? Am I grateful for the bounty or can I know that I am sustained no matter what, even if I were to really get hungry? Someone I love is without heat every day right now and he has no recourse. He is just cold at night. It makes every day different to know that tonight will be unrestful. I don’t have that.
I don’t know how it all works. I am, as I said, a soul moving in and amongst this body and I am wanting to enjoy that truly. At the same time I see pain around me. I won’t abandon my plenty on behalf of someone else’s pain, but does that make my enjoyment of my ride through life, in some way, less? Guilt serves no growing purpose, so I am not looking for more of that. That leaves me with gratitude for the wonder of the life I have, for the eggplant on a Tuesday, for my wife’s hands who prepare it, for my working hands that pay for it, for the sun and the rain. It leaves me grateful for the heater that kicks on at night when the temperature falls to anywhere below ideal.
There goes my heart, again,
Until it actually leaves, until I found it running through the woods,
the past and future were everything and being between them is not
the same as being present.
That (the present, the gift) happens when my heart skips
down the path and my mind scrambles, as it always does,
for anything familiar, and…
and what is left is present, the other part, like I said, my
heart, in me and gone, both at once.
My brain is a whirling dervish. Mostly I am in it. It is interesting, flashy, sexy even. Exhausting. I would like to step off that ride for a minute please.
I have been meditating, a little. I like to have definitions for words. My brain, you know, wants them. It is relentless.
Meditation: the process of me being with my busy brain. If there is a part that is only with my brain then that part is not my brain, my mind. Let’s cross over to mind instead of brain. And the meditator is the part of me that is with my mind but is not my mind. I am both these things at once, like a particle and wave, like light. (this is a miracle or science or both…uh oh, here we go again)
The meditating part of me can love the mind but not be the mind. The meditator is engaged in compassion.
Compassion: the act of being with another’s passion. It is not a feeling, but feelings follow it closely. Compassion is the decision to remain when everyone else has lost hope and gone home, but it does not require hope on my part, only that I remain. It is simply the being with when the dervish of the mind or the cyclone of the heart are in full force and overwhelming. I am in compassion when I sit with you while you hurt, not saying anything, just staying. I am in compassion when I let my son or my wife get to the end of their rope and mine and I stay. I am in compassion when I meditate and hang in there with my busy brain, loving it, smiling, and waiting.
It’s almost nothing, this moment between us
It’s the passing of our hands across the table
It is the paying of bills, it is the proverbial kitchen table
Discussing the future, in capital letters and, you know
But really it is Sunday afternoon and we are walking and the light arrives
When we do, and we remember this because the leaves shuffled out
In front of the bark and we remember this because we
Fell asleep holding each other for a minute until it was too hot
And we remember just the light and our family and our faith in
The next right thing, us, God, god, this right thing, and
We are grateful for the light moving among the
Tonight it hit me that what is in memory, what is old, what fed my imagination (for better, etc) when I was 18, would comfort me. I was right. I turned on an episode of Miami Vice. Some would say that “Smuggler’s Blues” from Season One is the best episode of Miami Vice. Perfect combination of the fundamental plot of the show with undercover work, high risk with minimal thanks, perfect blend of relevant 80’s style music and fashion and nail biter ending. Watch it. It really helped me to remember my young self wanting to ride in the cool retro car, do good while doing bad in Miami and coming out ahead. I ate a burger while my child slept and my wife was hanging out with friends. It was quiet at the end of a long day in the O.R. with high intensity and good outcomes. I had done a good days work and wandering around in my past was a comfort. Good enough.