Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Taming of the Blue

It's been a little over a year since I wrote my History Repeating post about the plague that engulfed Europe in 1347. Like a number of essays on this blog, it was inspired by a show on the History Channel, which just happened to air again yesterday.

I was just as fascinated with the program as I was 13 months ago, but what was even more intriguing was my very different response to it this time around.

Last year at this time, I was in such a state of profound questioning about God, railing against life's unfairness, and feeling that I'd somehow been singled out by my creator to suffer extreme and unending pain for reasons known only to him. My intellect grappled with this daily, on the one hand clearly seeing that I was just an unfortunate victim of circumstance, but on the other, feeling some deep sense of deserving this punishment, and maybe more hopefully, feeling that this was part of some divine plan designed to teach me something profound.

In hindsight, no matter how you look at it, any response I was having was tremendously self-centered, and I say that not as a self-criticism, but as a simple, if uncomfortable, observation.

Of course, it's natural to focus entirely on oneself when physical agony sets the tone for the day, but all that grappling with profound questions has led me to a curious state of being indeed, and one that I didn't at all expect, for in all my questioning about God, the place I'm being led is not to the heavens, but back to earth, upon which I feel like I'm walking for the very first time.

I've always been somewhat of a heady character, and in fact used to joke that my body was the thing that simply carried my head around. In being a creative person absorbed in the arts, I was always writing songs or painting pictures, and when I wasn't doing that, I was pondering the after-effects of therapy in order to unravel a more happy existence. In short, my head was in some very stormy clouds nearly all of the time, and the world around me was something I witnessed but kept at a distance, as I was the star of the show, so to speak, slightly removed and certainly above the mundane world of ordinary folks.

In short, I suppose I was something of a snob, albeit a nice one, but my niceness in no way affected my ambitions to be bigger, bolder and better in nearly everything I did.

What a moron.

I can see this so clearly now, and while a little embarrassed by it, I couldn't be more thankful that this old crusty cloak is slowly disintegrating all around me, and I do have to wonder if this horrible, awful, painful ordeal has had anything to do with it.

Two weeks ago, I had yet another surgery on my jaw, and by all accounts, it seems that my attempts to rid myself of pain have failed yet again. In fact, I may have even made matters worse, as the wound and bone refuse to heal.

This landed me at a local hospital's wound center last week, where I'm on deck (if Medicare approves it) to receive treatment in a hyperbaric chamber, which will be six weeks of being locked in a pressurized glass tube three hours a day. I'm told that this will force more oxygen into my system, thus destroying all bacteria and fostering growth of new blood vessels. Apparently, my chances are 50/50 in terms of pain relief, which before might have depressed me, but now...well...I'm not sure it matters which way the wind blows.

I felt this same way just before my surgery, in fact, which was in such stark contrast to so many of the other surgeries these past five years. I used to pray so hard for a positive outcome, only to be devastated when those prayers weren't answered. In many ways, I felt exactly like the plague victims, who turned to God and their faith for relief from their terrorizing torture, only to be ignored and left to their own devices. Clearly, the god of their understanding became irrelevant when it really counted, just like my own understanding of God and faith faltered when the going got tough.

When I take a closer look, I can see now that I was asking all the wrong questions and focusing on (and praying for) all the wrong things. While it was certainly appropriate and understandable for me to rage at my fate, I can see now that this ordeal has taken me completely out of my head and landed me squarely on my feet, where I now feel the dirt and sand between my toes in ways I never have before.

What's so startling is how I now move in my world. Despite the pain, no matter where I go, I seem to laugh and talk with just about everyone, and I'm quick to help when I see someone in a jam, whether it be a mother struggling to get her baby stroller up the subway steps, or an old lady waiting in the rain at a bus stop, who I pick up and drive home. I hate to think that I didn't help in these ways before, but what I'm guessing is that I just didn't see these situations, as I was too blinded by heady concepts and my own ambition.

In a waiting room the other day, for example, I began playing with three little brothers as if I'd known them my whole life, and in short order had everyone in the room laughing with our antics. The connection was instant, strong and barrier-free. I complimented their mom and dad on their beautiful family, and was warmed by the very thought of these three little devils for the rest of the day.

This may not sound like a big deal, but I can't really remember this ever happening before. When I say I talk with and smile at everyone, I mean everyone, and this glorious, bustling city I live in provides ample opportunity to flex my new friendly and outgoing muscles. I crack wise with cops and politicians, I have coffee with artist friends at local cafes, and I thank my bus driver after every single ride.

Oddly enough, as I write this, I'm actually having a very bad day. The pain is as bad as it ever was, which often leads to combustible outbursts of tears and long periods of sleep.

In a sense, the malaise and sadness about this condition haven't changed, but what has changed is that I don't expect to not suffer anymore. When I look at the world at large, either now or in the past, great suffering certainly isn't anything new, or anything unique to me. Maybe the trick to my ultimate contentment will be to be at rest with what is and to use that as the stuff of glorious, creative absorption, which is, of course, the ultimate painkiller.

It sounds so simple, but it's quite hard for me not to define myself by my accomplishments. No wonder this pain has caused such suffering on so many levels, as it has forced me to sit still and think, to rest, to just be. For so long, I felt like my accomplishments had to be huge in order for them to matter to the world, to make a difference. I'm only beginning to see that a smile exchange with just one person can light a spark for us both that can illuminate an entire hour, or more.

I should know in a day or two if Medicare will approve the hyperbaric treatment. If that does happen, I'm not expecting much, other than some claustrophobia and maybe some nice encounters with staff, who I suspect I'll get to know quite well. Maybe there'll be some kids in the waiting room.