Monday, May 16, 2016

Plodding on with Julian

Who knows why?

I only know that as I was falling, very early on that November morning, I had the twin dreads that what was happening was real, and the equally certain feeling that it was unreal.

To be standing implies control, possibly more than we know or can appreciate. I must know where the floor is, where my legs are; nerves impulses are flying back and forth, muscles are contracting, blood is flowing through my arteries, my lungs are breathing, my heart pumping.

It is, in short, almost miraculous that I can stand at all, and that I have been doing so for more than half a century. And then, six months ago, one system failed, and I fell.

Notice the words: “control,” “failed,” and “fell.”

Julian, in her third revelation, wrote of her illness, but, oddly, she was much more clear about what had happened to her than I was about my own predicament. A paradox—since imagine what I know, and what she did not. If the Internet were not spending the day lounging in bed and eating madeleines, I could refresh the vague memory from childhood of (?) William Harvey, who discovered the circulatory system. Whether it was he or someone else, it was surely later than when Julian wrote, in the last half of the 14th century. Very likely, in fact, she was thinking of her physical illness—if she even framed it as a physical illness—as something brought about by an imbalance of the four humors.

So she was missing some information, according to our lights. When she got ill, in the second half of her 30th year, she called the curate, not the doctor. I, in contrast, knew even as I was falling that my blood pressure had plummeted, certainly due to jumping out of bed to stretch out a Charlie horse. Oh, and possibly due to an alcohol / drug interaction.

Julian’s illness, in her view, was sent by God, and was a gift of God: through it, she was better able to experience the suffering of Christ. My fall, in my view, was the result of physiological factors, some of which were out of my control. Julian is healed when the curate asks her to focus on the crucifix: the room becomes dark, and only the crucifix appeared in “ordinary light.” I was healed when doctors, some of them unseen, looked into me, with various sounds and lights and electrical pulses, none of them particularly ordinary, or even available to the layman.

In short, the two illnesses had nothing in common. She turned to her curate; I, in contrast, sent everyone offering spiritual succor scurrying away. But both of us experienced what everyone suffering an illness feels: our control has been taken away. Or, perhaps, is in another’ hand. Or should that be “Another’s?”

God does not speak to me—for which on most days I’m grateful. I therefore do not speak to Him. We do, however, nod courteously on passing. In this, I operate under a sort of British mindset: because we have not been introduced, we can’t possibly speak.

But wasn’t I speaking, in a certain sense? What if we were to imagine pain as a language? What if pain were the language of God? In those days when I had two Hannibal Lector’s munching on the lumbar portion of my spine, what was I thinking? Or, perhaps, what was I saying. Or He? (Male pronoun by convention only….) 


OK, what was I feeling?

Everything and nothing. Rather, one thing, and that was a pain that I can no longer remember.

Like Julian, I would like to have the pain again. I’d like to explore it, map it, analyze all the physiological and emotional changes it wrought on me. But that, of course, would be impossible: only a person not in pain could do that. So pain is a kind of dream world. Instead of “I was in my childhood home but wasn’t,” we have “I have been stabbed by burning Excaliburs while God plunged the archangel into Hell.”

But if I were to return to that dream world of pain for only five minutes: enough to experience it again, and then sneak away to write / remember it, would that really work? Wasn’t it the duration of the pain, how it intruded on my sleep, how it made me tense before any movement—all that produced an accumulated effect. For weeks, I lived in “I will never not be in pain.” I had once lived in a Cezanne; I was now in a Dürer. 

Pain immobilized me better than iron chains ever could. But was it really immobility? Wasn’t it, in fact, stillness? I no longer had to carry the weight of an ordinary day: in fact, I literally could not carry the weight of an ordinary day. And so I was in the back bedroom, and almost as cloistered as Julian had been in her cell, seven centuries before.

I wrote previously that Julian was clearer about her disease than I was. She had not known, after all, any of the facts about her illness. She was free, therefore, to experience her illness as a spiritual affliction or blessing. I was less blessed, and in a sense less free: my knowledge of physiology and pathology allowed me to put up a smokescreen against the divine.

If I shield myself from the divine, at least I am not immune to poetry. Which meant that the metaphor of a broken back made me wonder—had my life become so burdensome? Could I carry my life no longer? Had my life broken my back, and if so, why?

Or was I weak? A neurosurgeon I saw pondered why a 59-year old male should have fractures of such severity—do I have osteoporosis? Is a bone scan necessary, or even worth it?

I am a broken man reading the words of a woman healed three quarters of a millennium ago. Will anyone be around to read either of our words 750 years from now? How will they see us—Julian and I?

My guess is that I will be some transitional figure: Julian, with her spiritual certainty, will be at one pole. But I am somewhere in the middle—poised between physics and metaphysics.

Will the women and men of the future have pieced it, or merged it, together?