Looking good

As I left the house today to get a haircut, I ran across a thirty-second clip of uncommon wisdom on social media.

The clip contended that suffering is one of life’s most exalted opportunities. Failure is good, James Skalski went on to say, and pain, difficult times, loss, and suffering bring death to the ego in a rite of purification, a prerequisite to personal heroism of the spirit.

Reflecting on the powerful message while driving to the barbershop, I was suddenly overcome by a wave of intense connection, reducing me to tears of joy. After arriving, I took a minute to compose myself, and walked in.

Staggering through the door, I did my best to speak intelligibly beyond Parkinson’s slur, introducing myself to the young lady who would be cutting my hair. We started a conversation. 

She told me that her husband worked as a fireman part-time, spending the rest of his day taking care of their two daughters, much as I did with our two children after my 2005 diagnosis.

Her husband was debating whether to go to work full-time. She said, “More money would be nice, but we feel it’s more important to have one of us with the children.”

It struck me that she probably did not make much money cutting hair, and I wondered how they made ends meet. Overcome by her humble good nature and authenticity, it was refreshing to witness this awareness of what was important in life.

Two events experienced in the same hour, each different in content and delivery, with both conveying a rousing spirit of piety through humility’s quiet grace. What we focus on determines our life’s direction: if you’re looking for the good in the world, you will see good everywhere you look.

Peaceful surrender

Parkinson’s is an inherently confusing disease with symptoms constantly ebbing and flowing. When first diagnosed, Parkinson’s seemed to be toying with me, allowing five years before I started taking Levodopa, the only medication, in my opinion, that significantly eases symptoms.

Parkinson’s is a supremely patient adversary, demanding more Levodopa until the side effects produce such painful and debilitating movements that they are worse than the disease.

There are few options available at this stage of disease progression. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) is the most common, but only if you are fortunate enough to prove sufficiently psychologically resilient. DBS temporarily masks symptoms while Parkinson’s steadily grows more robust. Still, DBS brought me six quality years.

So, nearly 18 years after diagnosis, how do I explain such beautiful days as my recent rigorous hike followed by a quarter mile, 50-degree swim? While not necessarily able to slow PD’s progression, there are lifestyle changes that can leverage good humor to find strength in weakness.

Diet, exercise, sleep and keeping active impact Parkinson’s ability to overwhelm. A brutally honest appraisal of life and what will happen after death (spirituality) helps self-regulate mood in a disease that depletes the body’s reward mechanism, dopamine. Lastly, putting concern for others ahead of yourself and having compassion for all creatures puts things in perspective. I have no problems.

It feels good to be out of breath in pain’s eager embrace, wondering if your heart will give out while knowing from the depths of your soul that fate would never allow such an accessible retreat from circumstance, settling into a peaceful surrender to life’s flow.

Laughing freely in this singular expression of grace ushers in a joy unobtainable from all the world’s money, power, or fame. I am grateful beyond measure to be blessed in all respects that matter.

Being

As I ramble along life’s calendar, each day slightly more at peace than before, it strikes me as an odd truism that the rational mind, that most vaunted human attribute, is the source of most unrelieved suffering.

The soul pointlessly craves meaning, a task taken up by the rational mind through its constrained capacity to understand. This exercise of life through perspective is a confounding mystification beyond the narrow definitions of rationality’s comprehension.

Does the future or past exist, or are these elevated artifacts nothing more than the mind’s way of adapting to reality, of making sense of itself? Similarly, are regret and hope free from purpose, a facade of imagination without creativity’s substance, mere relics of the contrivances of time?

The present moment is everything. To be in the moment, fully engaged, aware, every sense tingling in unsullied joy, of being, not expecting the future or past to stipulate an escape from the present and its intrinsic suffering, is the recognition of supreme unity. 

To be fully alive is to accept all suffering as features of the present moment and nothing more, just occurrences to be accepted and perceived as the moment dictates.

Honoring the present moment sustains me through the progression of Parkinson’s disease, wiping clear the fog from the mirror of the present’s extant splendor. 

And life goes on

After spending a wonderful week with my newborn grandson, daughter, and son-in-law, fate decided that I needed a snap back to reality during my flight home from Texas. I was traveling by myself, and the journey evolved into an excruciating ordeal. After just thirty minutes seated, my joints screamed for the relief of movement in response to an intolerable building of frustrated dyskinetic pressure. By the time that the plane taxied, I was on the verge of a debilitating panic attack.

I had not faced such acute apprehension since DBS brain surgery when a medieval-looking cage of forced immobility clamped my head firmly in place. Fighting a free-floating anxiety unmatched by flying in combat or while lost deep within Andrea Doria’s First-Class Dining Room, it took all my will to hold the panic at bay without taking the anxiety medication Xanax. And we had not even taken off yet.

Xanax is highly addictive, and I strive to avoid its use when managing Parkinson’s disquiet, leaving me to look for nonpharmaceutical solutions, often mantras, for calm. Sitting with hands pinned beneath my thighs to avoid flailing into neighboring passengers, I silently repeated over and over a meditation of the Indian Zen adept Tipola:

“Don’t recall, don’t imagine, don’t think, don’t examine, don’t control: Rest.”

Isolated in the awareness of my private hell, exhausted from the continuous effort, slow rescue arrived in the form of three simple words, “don’t control” and “rest.” 

It is one thing to superficially accept that most things we strive to control are beyond our reach. It is entirely another to look deeply within to cut lifelong ties to the illusion of hegemony.

My dissonant facial expressions must have had the other passengers thinking me utterly mad. I smiled broadly, realizing that they just might be onto something. I like to keep people guessing.

New life

Reveling in translation to the material world, new life bridges love’s eternal unity, transiting from darkness to light in the purity of innocence, enraptured in life’s simple joy of wonder.

Opening eyes wide to morning’s natural glow, rejoicing in life’s simple awe, new life remains unaware of joy’s fleeting nature, grace’s inevitable sacrifice to the future through the maturation of crippling manhood.

And what of me, a 15 year old temperament fettered irreducibly by a 60 year old appearance and a 90 year old’s physical incapacity?

Content as observer, grateful to be alive, to witness the intense beautification of novel family, eyes weeping ecstatic tears of love’s eternal messenger, towering glimpses of blessings beyond ordinary ken remind me with the searing power of the present why it is that I continue to choose life.

All seen in the fleeting purity of a baby’s eyes. Welcome to this world, baby Enzo.

Unspoken secrets of the soul

I am grateful for many things, and topping the list is my relationship with my mother, cultivated primarily through lengthy telephone conversations.

During earlier times, our conversations centered on mundane and ultimately unimportant everyday details. Now, with my health challenges but one of many family struggles vying for her attention, our phone conversations have evolved with a richness of unexpected holiness.

I do not use the word “holy” lightly. I can think of no more appropriate approbation to characterize this mutually honored exchange. We talk only of vital life topics that make current events in this world seem hopelessly quaint, dull even. And we laugh at everything.

These are not maudlin discussions of death’s circling proximity. My mother, who is 88, has cancer and a robustly authentic sense of humor. She also walks three to four miles daily, finishes the NY Times crossword puzzle every day, and lives by herself in a house with a second-floor bedroom on the East Coast, far away from where we can render assistance, especially as travel becomes more problematic for me.

What is our shared response to this predicament? We joke about the other copping out by dying first. And we laugh, not the fear-tinged bravado of a false, void-filling chatter, but with the beautiful conundrum of the intrinsic humor of accepted circumstance. I always feel better after speaking with her, not due to concrete advice or singular insight, but because of the sacred sharing of unspoken secrets of the soul.

As life becomes more difficult for each of us, as trials painfully pure in grace join our ever-growing mountain of personal disarray, our humor grows more pointed, our topics more gorgeously esoteric in genuine blessing.

She is a brave companion in comedy. I am incredibly fortunate to have mom share life’s final secrets with me, even from 3,000 miles away—well, especially from 3,000 miles away. Heh, heh…

Hummingbird

Hidden until the final moment by the morning sun, a hummingbird appeared out of nowhere two feet from my face, hovering effortlessly in place. Standing eye to eye, the Hummingbird emanated intelligence, a knowing. Two sentient orbs of lighted grace stared at me in wonder as if to say:

“I am he, and he is me.”

Time vanished in the warm glow of eternal blessing. The Hummingbird flew off, trailing with it a presence of what is.

Let’s play

It’s been nearly two weeks since my wife flew to Charleston to help my son recover from shoulder surgery, a length of time that as a prospect was both frightening and invigorating, with the unfolding reality living up to expectations in either case.

Free-floating anxiety is a typical Parkinson’s symptom, manifesting as a barely controllable panic attack whenever on a medication downswing. Time slows, creating desperately long minutes of foggy indecision where even the mildest noise hurts. Reality mercilessly taunts and baits me in a sadistic merry-go-round as the right side of my body begins to shut down. Feeling intensely vulnerable and nearly frozen in place, I am helpless to influence outcome.

A conscious surrender to life’s inevitabilities is the only viable mitigation while waiting for the medication to kick in. If walking the dogs or engaged in some other, ordinarily innocuous daily ritual, nothing short of pure grit has any chance of fighting through the black cloud of despair, of making it home.

Practicing uncomfortable situations head-on normalizes fear and discomfort until they become another controllable sensation deflated of mystery. It is all a game, a vast, beyond-human-understanding system of contrived decisions and outcomes, a sport with real pain and struggle.

When my wife called to see if I would be okay if she extended her visit from one to two weeks, I immediately said yes despite a pang of apprehension. The associated challenge would be a welcome morale boost, but only if I won. Considering the prospect, I started to smile.

Fair enough. My grin broadened as I remembered how much I enjoyed games as a child. Let’s play.

Yoga’s graceful surrender

It has never been more challenging or painful in my almost ten years of practicing hot yoga to complete a session. During this period, my capabilities have come and gone in direct correlation to taking breaks from the practice due to various surgeries. Currently, I’m experiencing a new type of reversion, a steady slide of capability that has me able to do a bit less each week, regardless of effort or discipline.

It would resonate in today’s world of misguided incentives to believe this to be discouraging. We tend to equate success with a linear path toward any number of ego-inflating goals, and therein lies one of yoga’s masterful strengths.

Yoga is not about competing with classmates or even yourself. Its beauty lies in attempting perfection with the understanding that perfection is unattainable. How close one comes to perfection becomes a meaningless remnant as breathing is closely coordinated with balance, strength, and resilience, causing our thinking process to surrender to a stall. The soul flourishes under such conditions.

The pain and extreme discomfort—the room is heated, often more than 100 degrees—makes me question how much longer my repertoire of responses to Parkinson’s implacable pressure will include hot yoga. It is this discomfort, in my opinion, that lies at the core of hot yoga’s effectiveness in keeping me active.

The human body responds to physical stress through adaptation and acclimatization, reacting to extremes with a similarly disproportionate positive reaction if attitude allows. Both conscious and unconscious thought play essential roles, stimulating the body so that normal capability in certain specific areas, such as dexterity, returns to me for a limited time.

Other practices achieve the same end, notably Tai Chi and Qigong. I strongly recommend any life practices of this type to everyone, whether healthy or not. My personal thanks to Carol and all the life-changing Chrysalis Oak Harbor hot yoga instructors.

A curious power

Lately, it has been difficult for me to get through the day. A mild summer cold and insomnia have made overcoming Parkinson’s constant nag to inaction increasingly impossible to ignore. Condemned to boredom’s nightmare, often unable to muster the energy to stand, I ward off apathetic languor as it vies for supremacy with callous free-floating anxiety.

Patience is Parkinson’s strongest suit: relentless, dull-tipped incursions methodically eat away at my stamina. Given Parkinson’s timeframe for success—measured in decades—it would appear inevitable that the disease will eventually win, a conclusion I’ve endured as an essential premise for the past 17 years.

My singular refusal to allow that day to be today is all that has kept the game in play. So, what is it that keeps this baleful diversion going? My competitive nature certainly is part of it; I’ve never enjoyed losing, even after fully accepting that winning is not an option. Death itself does not scare me inordinately, but I do grow concerned about the inevitable hardships encountered enroute to fulfilling mortality’s contract.

There is one thing that inspires me, however: a fascination with the curious power that twists and turns the lives of family members and how it might influence their travels. I could care less about popular notions of success: whether my children achieve wealth, status, or fame gratifies me only at the margins. That they are generally happy, reflective, and kind fits my definition of success far better.

When my father was weeks away from passing on, his last piece of advice to me was always to stay curious. It has taken me years to understand, but I finally appreciate why: in the end, curiosity might be all that remains as animation quits our still form.