I’ve been home, sick, for two weeks. Coping, as one does with a serious virus, with a two steps forward, one step back–or two steps back, one step forward–progression and resolution. Which means I’ve been inside a lot, outside some, and attempted a return or two to normalcy only to discover that I was not ready to return to normal. Called my doctor, saw her when my condition worsened, and visited my pharmacy. Twice.
While this happened, life did not stop.
A gale-force wind knocked down our fence (again). The IRS demanded its yearly pound of flesh, but USPS failed to deliver documents in a timely fashion. My son’s apartment was burglarized. A driver backed her car into mine, in a parking lot at slow speed, precipitating a flurry of actuarial calls and visits to a body shop.
Through it all, the virus and I did battle. I am winning. I’m getting better, obviously; I’m writing.
I’ve been sicker before; dangerously so. But there is something about being painfully unwell for two weeks in our go go go world that forces one to reflect. What did I learn during this time of seclusion, fever, coughing, staring out the window, and Amazon Prime?
Four things. And each relates to writing as much as to living.
Support & Inspiration Come From Unexpected Places
The first thing I learned–actually, relearned as I’ve discovered this each time I’ve experienced a serious loss–is that one cannot predict who will be there for you when you are in need.
By be there, I mean who will be responsive and caring. It sounds harsh, but people vary wildly in the degree to which they can, or will, reach out to another, even a loved one, during need. Who comes forward, and who does not, is tricky to predict, and has far more to do with the friend, relative, neighbor, or co-worker than it does with you.
Sad? Perhaps. But, we give what we can, and when and how we can.
The important thing about this is that support and aid can come from the most unlikely sources, and often do–as it did for me during this time–and we need to stay open to receiving support, whatever its source.
Fly Away Home
The next thing I learned (again, relearned) is that it is always within reach. It, as in internal support. Peace. Spirit, if one will.
Alongside my husband, the most important people in my life are my two adult children, each of whom live on opposite sides of the continent. Their father and I live in the vast middle of the continent. I am not thrilled with this, but it is what it is. Until I am not well, and one of them is under duress. This unfortunate juxtaposition of need happened during this time of sickness. The morning following the burglary of our son’s apartment, I awoke bathed in sweat, and filled with dread. I am a parent; this is not the first time I have felt like this. I wanted to be there for him, but was not and could not be. Even if truly needed–which I was not, our son has grown quickly into a capable, competent young man–I could not be.
Feeling helpless is uncomfortable. But for someone like me–independent and on my own too young and too soon and, all my life, resilient, self-sufficient, and compelled to help others–it is acutely distressing. I responded to this by meditating. I sat cross-legged, turning my palms up and open to the ceiling. I focused on my breath, trying to calm it and myself. Then a voice–my own–sounded, asserting simply, it is always within reach. I didn’t need to ask what is within reach.
I knew the answer: peace, connection, stillness, home.
I continued to meditate, feeling my palms grow warmer, as if in each an area the size of a half-dollar were softening, melting. Then, without effort, I began to engage in a kind of Buddhist meditation called tonglen. I attempted, while inhaling, to breathe in the troubles and pain both my two children were experiencing, and while exhaling, breathe out to them the energy of my support and guidance, and my wish for them to remain strong and safe. I felt intimately connected to them both, despite the miles that separate us, rooted, and calm.
The next thing I was reminded of while sick is to allow myself to slow down.
I, like everyone, struggle with this. We rush, so determinedly, that we lose sight that we are rushing. Until we are forced, by sickness, injury, or the demands of someone or something that cannot be rushed, to become aware that we are rushing.
One derivation of the word “rush” is that it is Late Middle English and a variant of the Old French verb ruser, “to drive back”. The image that comes when I hear ‘to drive back’ is of people fighting off, or driving back, animals, birds, or people away and into other areas or enclosures, with sticks, weapons, or tools. Of noise and protest. Injury and fear. Of movement that is forceful, pressing, herding, rounding up.
This is what we do a good deal: we drive back strangers and loved ones alike, those we encounter casually and those with whom we work, live, and play. Those with whom we share roads and sidewalks, parking lots, stores, restaurants, parks, and office complexes.
And that which lies within; we drive it back also. Thoughts, feelings, imaginings, and internal energies, even if positive or pleasant, if they prevent us from getting things done. And if not pleasant, but confusing or upsetting? Then especially we drive this energy back and tuck it away, denying it. We reject the aspects of ourselves that don’t fit with our busy lives, or our self-image. We abandon ourselves.
But when running a stiff temperature, aching with fatigue and pain and craving sleep, one cannot rush. One stops. And comes face to face with herself, unable to escape. I couldn’t escape into eating or bitching, talking or walking, or housework or errands or gardening, or being with friends, or reading or writing.
Even TV and radio hurt my eyes and ears until my temperature dropped. Time passed, in that strange way it does when disabled. And through it, there I was, accompanied by myself, as they say, warts and all.
At some point, one surrenders. And then, quickly, becomes bored. And bored, I began to think in new ways. The story that I thought wasn’t good enough to continue working on, seemed fresh and worth completing. Goals for my writing sharpened and fell into new light. Clarity about a knotty relationship grew. Slowing led to stillness and boredom and out of stillness and boredom emerged insight, and a heightened sense of what matters–in my writing, as well as in life.
Suffering & The Open Heart
Last, I was reminded, while sick, of some truths about suffering.
I mentioned above that some we expect to be there for us when the chips are down will not be. It gets worse: not only will some people not be there, but some become critical when they encounter suffering in others. These are the people–few in number, but memorable–who make others feel small for sharing their problems. Insinuating that the problems of others are not worth their time because these problems are, inevitably, never as bad as the problems of someone else.
Illogical to the point of absurdity? Of course. But a reaction that is not uncommon, and capable of inflicting damage.
Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of such talk at some point?
“My father died two years ago; it feels like yesterday that I lost him, and I miss him so.”
“Well, my best friend just died from an aneurysm. Losing a parent is inevitable, it isn’t nearly as bad as losing a friend your own age.”
“Janice lost her job, and has found another but hates it. She’s miserable, and impossible to live with.”
“Ridiculous! She should be happy she found anything at her age!”
“My mother’s alcoholism has grown so severe that she’s damaged her liver, and is in hospital. I’m afraid she might die.”
“Oh? I didn’t know rich families had real problems.”
Why do we inflict such contempt on one another?
It seems that some batter others in this way to conceal their need to shut down in the face of another’s trouble. Rather than say, I don’t have the desire, or courage, or openness to respond to you with compassion, they minimize another’s pain. They’d rather compare and rank various forms of suffering–making the other feel petty for airing his or her troubles–and in that way avoid what is going on within.
But, as everyday life reveals, each of us suffers. Only those in denial, fear, or confusion insist that suffering “be great” before it warrants compassion. One thing I know for sure is that compassion, like love, is without limits. I do not “run out of” compassion, no matter how much I might feel on a given day, just as I do not drain my love for others in the course of a day. If anything, the more I feel, and share, compassion the more of it I experience myself as having.
Interestingly, when I am in pain, I feel more–not less–compassion for the pain of others. I do not know when I became aware of this, but at some point I discovered that suffering softened me, and makes me more, not less, empathic with others.
Deeper & Better Writing
What does any of this have to do with writing? A good deal.
Writing worth reading possesses depth of meaning and expression, and comes from deep within the writer. As writers, we cannot access our depths until we tame, with slowing and stillness, our compulsion to run. We cannot quiet our agitation until we discover, like Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of Oz, that we possess the power to bring ourselves home, to a place of security and peace.
Writers, like anyone, avoid suffering. But it is by coping with difficulties that wisdom, depth, and insight become available to us. Without a willingess to enter into conflict and difficulty, and to experience pain, we remain immature, and our writing lacks depth, believable, rich characters, and insight.
The production of good writing, like all art, requires time, energy, and discipline, and cannot be accomplished regularly by persons careening about in damaging relationships. We cannot create the time and focus to write if our relationships with others are not reasonably calm and predictable. The myth of the unstable, often alcohol or drug addicted, but brilliant and productive artist is usually just that–a myth.
So we need to become realistic–hard-nosed even–about what we can, and cannot, expect from others. While, paradoxically, remaining open to fresh sources of support and inspiration that can arise in the unlikeliest of places.
So if you, unfortunately, become sick, try not to fight it. Take care of yourself with tenderness, and try to remain open to what might be learned.
There’s much to be gained, in that state and place.
(Photos mine; please do not reproduce without permission)