Monday, March 19, 2012
The Long View
Of course one can't help but look forward occasionally, as it's quite necessary to do so in order to plan treatment strategies and live your life wisely, but for the most part staying rooted in the now allows a person to fully experience all the good that each fleeting moment has to offer, and not let precious time slip from their grasp while the mind is focused instead on a past that can't be changed or a future that can never accurately be divined. As my disease has progressed, I've found my attempts to fully occupy the present have become more difficult, even as they simultaneously become all the more vital. Efforts at mental discipline and maintaining clarity of mind are rewards unto themselves, though, and without them I very well might have gone barking mad years ago.
Throughout my life, I've often found comfort in a different strategy, one that instead of attempting to untangle life's complex web of emotions and circumstances and break them down in order to escape their snares, tries to take a bird’s eye view of things, understanding that my life is of relatively tiny significance in the context of the long view of human history, and tinier still as part of a cosmos so complex that it is literally beyond the limited powers of our understanding. It may sound a little morbid, but even back in my healthy days I found nothing so affirming as visiting old cemeteries, peering at headstones bearing the names of people long forgotten, trying to imagine the distant lives of those in the ground whose secrets were forever lost to time.
I spent a lot of time in New England back then, a region of the country peppered with graveyards dating back centuries. Gazing at weathered stone markers chiseled with names and sets of dates tells you almost nothing about the people they were meant to memorialize, other than the gender of the dead and the span of their lives. Yet each engraved stone represents the richness of a singular human life, one that was once filled with dreams and desires, failures and triumphs, moments of great heartbreak and also those of buoyant joy. Despite that cacophony of the assembled experiences and emotions that make up the sum of a lifetime, now there is nothing but silence, just the barest of reminders that a person whose name had not been uttered for perhaps hundreds of years had once graced this ancient earth.
When I lived in South Florida, back in the 90s, I developed a very close relationship with my paternal grandmother, a woman with a larger-than-life personality who had the unusual ability to be incredibly endearing and tremendously maddening all at the very same time. She was extraordinarily generous to those she loved, but nursed wicked grudges over perceived slights and insults that were decades old. When one of her perceived nemeses passed away, she was always quick to chime in with a "May they rest in pieces!"
I tried to have dinner with her about once a week, and very few of those meals were ever boring. Over the course of the roughly 10 years I lived in the Sunshine State, I amassed enough stories involving "Grandma Smaidee" to fill a novel, one which I really should write. My grandmother's emotions knew only one speed, pedal to the metal, and she enjoyed good food and good booze. She had the heart of the lion but at times could be tremendously timid, and was one of the least self-conscious people I've ever known.
Of all the things she loved and valued, chief among them was beauty, in objects as well as people. A great beauty herself, it was truly difficult for her to understand that beautiful people were not always as attractive on the inside. When I once told her that a particularly winsome girlfriend of mine had cheated on me, she just about refused to believe it, and when I finally convinced her of the fact, she told me it was my own fault for going out with a shiksa (yiddish for a non-Jewish woman). That my head didn't explode at that moment can only be testament to the thickness of my skull.
My grandmother died in 2006, and as I had become so close to her, the family decided to leave it to me to choose the inscription on her gravestone. She was buried in a family plot, so she didn't have a traditional headstone, just a small stone marker on the ground which didn't allow for many words. All of those around hers said things like "loving husband, beloved wife, cherished son”, etc. They conveyed nothing of the actual person who was buried 6 feet below, and might well have read "generic human being". After giving it much thought, I decided her inscription should read "She Walked in Beauty…”
I'm not sure if she'd be delighted or incensed with my choice, but I imagined that 50 years hence, someone walking by might notice that my grandmother's marker was different than everyone else's, and pause for a moment to think about what kind of woman might inspire those words.
Though we all occupy the center of our own individual awareness of the universe, in which the circumstances of our lives take on seeming momentous import, the reality is that in 100 years the planet will be populated by all new people, and except for a very few of us, in 2112 none now living will even be remembered. Sure, our names may occupy a place on some antique census list or on someone's family tree, but the essence of who we were, all of the majesties and follies that made us human, will have long been forgotten. Given that fact, how downright silly it seems to take ourselves as seriously as we often do, as if our trials and travails have any meaning beyond the small span of time that we happen to inhabit in the long march of humanity.
Faced with this ultimate truth, allowing misery to snatch any of the scant few moments granted us seems quite foolish indeed, whatever pitfalls and traps may lay in wait for us. Of course, spending every waking moment happy may be due cause to certify insanity, but given a dollop of perspective, and secure in the knowledge that you yourself are mere ephemera, it's clear that one must always strive to let go of the dark and embrace the light, even when stuck in a dimly lit room.
Being given a dread diagnosis shocks us with the fact of our own mortality, a universal certainty that when healthy we mostly choose to ignore, almost literally whistling past the graveyard. While no one wants to dwell on the fact that their life is but a speck in the grand scheme of things, acknowledging that fact goes a long way towards living mindfully and realizing the preciousness of each moment we spend on this side of the grass. Although circumstances might not have played out quite as we had planned, fighting against the currents of life only leads to exhaustion and eventual capitulation.
This is not to say that we should surrender to misfortune, but rather we must learn to appreciate the updrafts and avoid the downdrafts, and like a glider soaring high, rise above the hills and valleys below. This is almost never easy, and at times can be awfully damned hard, but to do anything else is to lose control of the short gift of time with which we have been bestowed. I'm of the belief that quality of life trumps quantity, but as long as there is quality to be found, we owe it to ourselves to find it. Live well, as the light of existence is brief, and the darkness that follows an impenetrable mystery. As a friend once told me, life is uncertain, eat dessert first.
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Between the thoughts on life, cemeteries, and the grandma, I found a lot to relate to here.ReplyDelete
I enjoyed this post (and others in the past).
Love the avatar. I'm happy that you were able to find commonality with this post, I think most all of us share life, cemeteries, and grandmas. All three hold secrets…Delete
Nice job! You do such wonderful work.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much. I recently visited your brand-new blog, and I believe we may be kindling something of a mutual admiration society. I'd encourage everyone to head on over to profspazz.com to see the beginnings up what looks like will be a very valuable addition to the MS blogging universe. (I've decided to boycott the word blogosphere, it's simply too ugly, and for some reason even the thought of it makes me feel as if I have to blow my nose)Delete
I think your grandmother would have loved that inscription. I do occasionally ponder what people might say about me after I'm gone and hope they will only talk about my irritability, my bossiness or how unkind I could be when really tired, stressed or rattled as just a part of the big picture, which will also include some of the good stuff.ReplyDelete
My parents legacy was one of laughter and love and I'd be nuts to squander it just because I have a chronic illness. I believe that we, of all people, have a right to resentment and anger and bitterness over the failings of our bodies but it's a right I have tried to sign off on. That's why I hang around with people like you, WK! You always give me something interesting to think about and you're an ally in the way I try to live.
I hope you're right about my grandmother, but something tells me I may eventually be in for a tongue lashing if there is indeed something on the "other side".Delete
In general, I think people tend to speak well of the dead, unless the deceased was a right bastard. I don't sense that quality in you, so I'm sure you'll be remembered with much fondness. And then you most likely will not be remembered at all, taking your place among the anonymous billions that have come before us. And that's okay, too, as it seems that many of the folks that are remembered long after their passing were indeed right bastards.
We all certainly do have the right to bitch and moan about the circumstances into which we fallen, but we also have the right to choose not to exercise that right, at least not all that often. I think it is important to spend a little time mopey and mad and intolerable, lest we go nuts…
I woke up this morning ruminating on much of what you express in this article, especially the first two paragraphs.
Your blog is one of the best resources on the web for insightful, thoughtful and motivational articles about MS; I look forward to reading each new post. I too have PPMS, after being diagnosed with RRMS in 2005.
Have you thought about compiling your articles into a book?
Hi Steve, glad my post matched your morning ruminations. Thanks for the generous words about my blog, I still can't believe that more than a dozen people read it.Delete
Sorry about the switch in diagnosis, but I bet you suspected for quite some time that you are PPMS. I tend to believe that PPMS is an entirely different animal in RRMS, but there are people much smarter than me that disagree. Then again, even the smarties haven't figured out much about MS in general, so their guess is as good as mine. At least according to me.
I have thought about compiling some of the essays found here into a book, among other projects I keep planning to do, but the disease seems to have other ideas. Mostly, it seems to want to sleep a lot. I may have to become a somnambulist to get a book published…
As I have come closer to acceptance of my own personal self, I can truly appreciate reading your writings and soaking in every ounce of motivation and inspiration I get out of it. My hope is that as I try to offer my services in life, I can motivate and inspire half of what you've given me.ReplyDelete
Thank you, that is very high praise. MS does tend to force you to look inward, and accept the very basics of who you are. Since you are conscious of this pull inward, I'm confident you'll find a way to use what you learn to do all the motivating and inspiring you desire.Delete
The more i hear about your family the more i love them. As well it makes sense why youre nuts!! May you rest in pieces! Love itReplyDelete
I'm nuts? Well, okay, yeah, I'm nuts. No sense denying it. We become such good friends these last few years that I'm sure our family histories must have some similarities. After all, you're quite the character yourself…Delete
What a great way to look at life - from the perspective of death. And not morbid at all, I think!ReplyDelete
Well, death is the great equalizer, and once you get over all of the taboos associated with discussing it in public, there's a lot to be learned from the Grim Reaper. As Woody Allen said, "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens."Delete
Amen, Marc. Experiencing my wife's MS journey and recent deaths of a friend, a sibling, my mother and my own much more minor ailments focused my mind along similar ideas. We share that.ReplyDelete
Yes, there are experiences we all share, and unfortunately many of them are not happy once. To once again quote Woody Allen, in this life you've got to learn to take the bitter with sour…Delete
Another wonderful essay filled with the contrast of light and dark, laughter and despair that you do so well.Now that you have broached upon another touchstone for those cursed with MS, how about some insights as to the loved ones who keep the family together, who stay no matter what and what is in their hearts?ReplyDelete
As I said in the post I published several years ago, the real heroes in the MS story or the caregivers. I probably should do another post on that topic, as those who stick with us deserve all the accolades they can get. And those who don't stick with us deserve to be hit with a sock filled with horse manure (yet another Woody Allen reference)…Delete
I've never understood our culture's reluctance to speak about and deal with either end of life's journey. It's almost as if we are unwilling to demystify sex/birth and death. One would almost think talking about them could do such a thing. However, I have long felt experiences and thoughts shared tend to magnify one's experiences and beliefs.ReplyDelete
Reading your blog dealing with your personal experiences with your grandmother does us all a favor providing a valuable context for what all of us endure. Thank you.
Yes, some of our cultural taboos are very counterproductive. Of course, talking about death isn't the most pleasant topic, but the truth is that no one here gets out alive. By keeping such discussions can find the hushed whispers, it's as if we believe that by denying death we can defy it. Of course, such notions are nothing but foolish.Delete
Conversely, openly acknowledging our own mortality may be the best way for us to appreciate the time we are given, which is a precious commodity that gets more precious with each tick of the clock.
As always, thanks for your wise comments.
I never knew that visiting old graveyards -- which I have loved to do forever – constituted taking the long view, but of course it does. Perhaps there should be a Society for the Long View, a prerequisite being a predilection for leaning gravestones and fading inscriptions. Of course, Suffered with MS never makes it onto those epitaphs. That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be remembered for that either.ReplyDelete
I like the idea of a Society of the Long View. How terrible it would be if "Suffered with MS" was left as somebody's epitaph. Certainly, there's more to a person than the disease that afflicts them. Some mention of the fortitude and courage involved with dealing with MS might not be a bad thing to be remembered for, though…Delete
Excellent post, your voice could easily be puvlushed .....publ. :) the tightwire of writing i am still trying to post truthful mixed w positive, love and light to you. OliviaReplyDelete
Thank you, Olivia. Mixing the positive with negative can be difficult, but as long as you write from the heart, with honest emotion, the results are often much more than acceptable. Being able to express the darkest feelings leaves room for some light to sneak in…Delete
Thank you for sharing a little of what made your grandmother special. In doing so you have given her a little breath of life that each reader will take to form an image of her in their minds.ReplyDelete
Right now, my sister is fighting for her life. My whole family is coping in their own ways each causing its own ripples. Your post was as usual poignant, but it rang true for me in a resounding way today. I will endeavor to "appreciate the updrafts and avoid the downdrafts" as I move along and try to leave the world a little brighter for those around me.
Thanks for giving me some perspective during this weighty time.
Kim, I'm so sorry to hear of your sister's struggles. Sending wishes of strength and expressions of sympathy your way. I only hope my words could offer more lasting comforts…Delete
Our elders can be endearing souls it's true. What my grand parents said and how they were is still very clear in my mind and their words and reactions are like an old play to me, wit, grit and guts But - Were they really that old at the time of our youth? They have "seen it all", through "sick and sin" but mostly they lived in different times, when people said what they thought on the spot. Comments could indeed be quick and tasty. An older lady-friend of my mum sometimes had quick words about the recently deceased, like: "At last he is now right where he should have been for a long time" or "justice is done, he's done enough damage." A politically correct teenager at the time I used to think she was disrespectful and common. Now I remember this and it make me laugh. Getting a chronic disease/handicap is humbling first but then you take a step back, you stand freer of expectations, yours and other's. Just like the elders.ReplyDelete
Yours truly (and doubly lucky and free having MS, arthritis and being old-ish.
Marc, it is always a pleasure to read you - all the ingredients are there for a great book.
Your insights into our elders ring true. They did grow up and live the majority of their lives in a vastly different world. In some ways my grandmother was remarkably innocent, but in others, none was ever shrewder. I suppose some of this can be attributed to the fact that my grandparents were first or second generation immigrants to the US, struggling at first for acceptance and then advancement in our society. This bred in them a sense of resilience and a marked proclivity to not avoid conflict. They also grew up in an era before mass media homogenized society. Their emotions ran deep, and seem to have been less programmed than the product of today's calculated societal apparatus.Delete
Thanks for your comments, and for the kind words. It's quite true that getting touched by disease does release you from expectations, much like old age. It's a license to be cranky.
Really nice post. ThanksReplyDelete