THESE Revelations were shewed to a simple creature unlettered, the year of our Lord 1373, the Thirteenth day of May.
Which means that I had an idle half hour until the café opened, and how much Patience can one play, before the pangs of guilt set in? And so I took up the book Susan sent me, and reread the first revelation. OK—I wasn’t much impressed, since Julian seemed to be painting a theological shopping list with a very broad brush. But I consoled myself: hadn’t Susan had the same impression, on first reading Julian? Maybe, like Pooh, the bears get smarter, with a little time and training.
So the second revelation, some 750 years old, went a little easier on me. And because I was in bed, still technically recovering from a broken back, the second of the three wishes of Julian struck a particular chord:
The Second came to my mind with contrition; [I] freely desiring that sickness [to be] so hard as to death, that I might in that sickness receive all my rites of Holy Church, myself thinking that I should die, and that all creatures might suppose the same that saw me: for I would have no manner of comfort of earthly life.
Is it morbid to wish a sickness? Perhaps, but I wonder if we haven’t medicalized out some of the beauty of sickness. After all, sickness does something that meditation does as well: it reduces or even erases the noise of our life. The emails, the errands, the telephone calls—all that can wait. In fact, it must wait; whether through pain, immobility or simple indisposition, the daily drudgery is put aside.
It was, in those months of bed rest, a curious pleasure to do nothing. And what, truly, had I done that was so important? I had written a book, I had written a blog, I had played the cello. None of that seemed particularly worth the effort. And now I was lying in bed, and the pain was so severe that the only thing I could do was count my breaths, and try to keep my mind free of any thoughts whatsoever. I had done this years earlier, when I was practicing (as much as I could) Buddhism; never, however, had I done it so much, or so strenuously.
There was, in this sickness, more health than there had been in the days that I had woken up, taken the bus to Caguas, worked 10 hours in corporate America, returned, eaten, and collapsed into bed—only to do it all the next day. The clock had ruled my day, and there was no time. Now, the clock had been thrown out, and I was living more deeply into time than I ever had. Morning sounds: the garbage truck two streets away, throwing the bags of beer bottles into its innards. The mourning dove, cooing for ten minutes, and then stopping. Had his or her mourning stopped? Had he a round of mourners to attend to, and was he now off under somebody else’s window?
Then there were the church bells, which I had never heard before.
In the same way that throwing away the clock had allowed me to know time, breaking my back brought the world to me. I had lived for twenty years away from the church bells, before I heard them for the first time on my sickbed. The only mourning doves I had heard previously were in my youth, when I was visiting my uncle’s farm on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin. And since I could no longer walk much—even now, there is a urinal hanging on my bedframe—I was walking a road in southwestern Wisconsin.
It went through a woods, it crossed a shallow ravine, and it led to a shack that I am sure has caved in. After all, my mother, late in her 80's, had discovered that one of the logs that supported a corner of the house had rotted. Her solution? Return home, get the tire jack, lift up the shack, and replace with another log. But Mother had died six years ago—and would anyone else do such Herculean feats? Or even something so simple as using a cut-out part of a coffee can to plug a hole that the mouse had bored into the wood….
No matter, since the crone who lives there, and whom I rarely visited when well, has no use for the shack. Which is to say that she lives there as I visit; nonetheless, she surprises me with her responses. She is, after all, quite unconcerned about my illness. I’ll go on, she says, if I recover from my illness. And if I am paralyzed? I’ll go on as well.
This is the response you want to hear when facing paralysis. Because the response I got from the rest of the world was, “it’s not going to happen; don’t invite that in.”
This was a response from the living and from the healthy, who know that the odds are their favor. The bus will not jump onto the sidewalk, the morning shower will reveal no lumps in the breast. But the world of sickness is larger: not only will the bus jump onto the sidewalk, it will be pushed by the tidal wave that will destroy the city.
To live in health is to live in the margins. Every day is sunny, every face is cheerful. To live in sickness is to live at the center. And what did I discover, at my center?
That I was alone.
Friends knew, of course, that I had broken my back. Though many did not: I posted nothing on Facebook, even as others were presenting their photos of the burger they were about to devour. I could have sent an email to the people in my life who weren’t in Puerto Rico, but why?
But why? Only I could have written that “but why,” since only a person who dwells so much in solitude could conceive of it. “But why” has nothing to do with the fact that there is nothing a person outside of Puerto Rico could do for a person with a broken back in Puerto Rico. It has more to do with the fact that breaking my back was my exploration of the life I had chosen. And that life has been fundamentally solitary.
So I met my solitude. I observed the cookie wrappers as they accumulated ankle deep around my bed. I forced myself into the kitchen, to take the three Advil and the one extra-strength Tylenol every six hours. (I had decided to forego anything stronger: I was already a drunk, did I need to be hooked on painkillers as well?) I made myself get up for breakfast and for dinner, and said little about the pain to Raf.
My mother had snorted, always, at the idea that suffering “refines” the soul. In general, I agree, if “refine” means the Victorian idea of politeness and gentility. If, however, “refine” was used in a metallurgical sense, I might have to pause. For in that time of sickness / health, I was being refined indeed.
“What falls away is always. And is near.”
Yes, Roethke, you had it right. “Always” is the world of health, the world where time goes forward until always. And how it fell, and how easily I grasped it again, when the back began to mend, and when I could at last sweep the bedroom, wash the sheets, and get to the store for the nightly wine. “Always” I picked up again, and could feel glad for doing so.
As I was glad that it had fallen away!