One of the strange things about a long-term medical condition is the abruptness with which it can overturn your life. Most of the time it simmers quietly in the background, folded into the rhythm of the days, time-consuming and annoying perhaps, but also familiar, under control. That control is entirely illusory, however, for bodies are complicated things and don't always act in the prescribed ways that medical textbooks say they should. And when they don't, there isn't always a clear and demonstrable reason why. One day you're just like everyone else: doing your work, paying your bills, making plans as though the future is ordered and predictable; and the next day you're flat on your back. Again. Feeling like Charlie Brown the umpteenth time Lucy pulls the damn football away.
Why, you wail, is this happening again? You can blame yourself, you can blame your doctors, you can blame the Man in the Moon if you want to, but the desire to place blame, to find a reason, is a desire to maintain the illusion of control and to make life predictable once more. If I do X, then I'll stay healthy. If I don't do Y, then getting sick is all my fault. But life is not a straight-forward equation; it is random, messy, surprising and confounding. You can fret, fume, cry, and tie yourself in knots trying to determine where you went wrong. Or you can give yourself over to Mystery, and turn your energy towards healing.
"In the secular world of modern medicine," writes Kat Duff, "we try desperately to rescue ourselves from the grasp of the Unknowable. Doctors have supplanted the gods, deciding when life begins and ends, working miracles, and taking credit for their successes. This aura of divinity that surrounds the medical profession in our society, and the extraordinary expectations that come with it, is the source of much pain and frustration for doctor and patient alike, especially when cures are not forthcoming....
"The sense of diminishment we often experience in the grasp of the Unknoweable, the face of the uncurable, probably has something to offer us from a spiritual perspective, but in the secular world of [modern] America, it is without meaning and so intolerable. That is why the first commandment in illness is to get well. Sick people are under tremendous pressure, from themselves and from others, to overcome their ailments, and return to life as usual in our fast-paced, production-oriented world."
The pressure to get well.
We all know that pressure -- and, as Duff makes clear, it comes from within us just as much as it comes from the expectations and norms of modern society. It's hard to reconcile the slow, gentle rhythms that deep healing processes demand with the pace of life going on all around us: our families, friends, and colleagues whizzing by us in the fast lane, a blur of motion. Yet there is much to be learned from the fallow time and enforced solitude of illness; from those hazy, sweat-soaked, fever-dream days when the mind, like the body, is cut off from its usual pathways and preoccupations. Illness strips us of the things we believe to be central to our identity: our daily tasks, our creative work, our usual roles in family and community. What's left is the naked, vulnerable Self who lies buried beneath these things: the person we are, not the social construct we build, and that person is worth knowing.
In the aftermath of her cancer surgery, Rebecca Solnit observed:
"There is a serenity in illness that takes away all the need to do and makes just being enough. In that state I've only been in before with severe flu, there is no boredom, no restlessness, no thinking about what should be done or has been done. You are elsewhere than consciousness, than everyday life, than the usual bodily awareness and social engagement. We call it doing nothing or resting: the conscious mind does little but the body works furiously, under cover of stillness, to rebuild, rewire, recharge."
A major illness or injury, she continues, "is a rupture that invites you to rethink, to restart, to review what matters. It's a reminder that your time is finite and not to be wasted, and in breaking you from the past it offers the possibility of starting fresh. An illness is many kinds of rupture from which you have to stitch back a storyline of where you're heading and what it means. Every illness is narrative. There are the epics in which you ultimately triumph over what afflicts you and return for awhile to your illusory autonomy, and the tragedies, in which the illness will ultimately triumph over you and take you away into the unknown that is death, and the two are often impossible to tell apart until they resolve.
"Then there are the enigmatic illness whose prognosis is uncertain, in which well-being comes and goes unpredictably, with the difficulty of a story without a plot, or an unfathomable one. Doctors are forever being implored and pressured to read the future from the medical evidence to the present, to confirm the story, but early on they learn that rules are rubbery: the near-thriving suddenly collapse, the person at death's door travels all the way back to rejoin the living, and the time line of death and likelihood of recovery remain unforeseeable."
The ups and downs of such illnesses, in other words, remain a Mystery.
Although I spent the last month confined to bed, watching the world through window glass, I was simultaneously making a long journey: from the land of the well to the sick and back again. It's a journey we all make sooner or later, for as Susan Sontag famously said: "Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."
Books, like the faithful Hound beside me, have been my boon companions on the journey: volumes grown thick with scraps of paper and margin notes pencilled in a shaky hand, marking passages I'll return to here on Myth & Moor in the days and weeks ahead.
Right now, however, I'm still in that liminal space between one world and another: between bed and studio, sickness and health, winter's end and the approach of spring. I haven't fully transitioned back to normal daily life and I know (from having made this passage all too often) that the transitory process should not be rushed. Released back into the world, everything is strange, fresh, and remarkable, undulled by familiarity. The sunlight shimmers, the woodland cries its welcome, the hillside hums with a numinous enchantment. And what better state can there be for a fantasy writer to work in?
Even illness has its gifts.
The passage above by Kat Duff is from The Alchemy of Illness (Bell Tower, 1993), the passage by Rebecca Solnit is from The Far Away Nearby (Viking & Granta, 2013), and the Susan Sontag quote is from Illness As Metaphor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978). All three are highly recommended. The poem in the picture captions is from New Ohio Review (No. 9, Spring, 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Some of the books I've been reading (or re-reading) in the weeks of crisis and return; plus the faithful Hound and bedside flowers. The beautiful quilt was made by Karen Meisner. Some related posts: Stories are Medicine, the four "On Illness" posts beginning with In a Dark Wood, and Books, the Beast, & Me.