A lone tree, roots locked to rocky isle as branches spread in defiant stillness, patiently awaits a mother’s call.
My conscious desire to learn more about the mystery of identity, ultimately who I am, goes back some 25 years but only became urgent due to Parkinson’s progression before my Deep Brain Stimulation surgery in 2014. About eight months earlier, I had taken up the search for a crashed A-6 Intruder attack jet from my old squadron, an ultimately successful endeavor that jump-started my curiosity and ended up providing the framework for my journey of self-discovery.
The proxy challenge of finding the submerged jet and the introspection demanded by writing about it (The Lost Intruder, 2017) inspired me to a different level of awareness, although only temporarily. It was not something that I was consciously seeking, and the path to where I am today has little to do with the physical searching experience. It was merely my unconscious way of cutting through the noise—my fears and desires—to reach a sense of clarity.
Somehow, I knew, both superficially and deep in my being, that this altered state of consciousness would be fleeting, that brain surgery would relegate it to the furthest reaches of awareness. But I also knew—to the extent that I know anything—that it would be there waiting for me. I just needed to figure out how to access it at will.
This is what drives me, spurs me to action when Parkinson’s mire of chaotic weariness promises nothing but pain and death. This newest search makes me smile and laugh with a child’s genuine glee, maybe because I know at my core that joy is always potentially close at hand. Joy is in the act of smiling, not despite or because of discomfort, but in nature’s reassuring acknowledgment of pain as essential humanity. It is what “is.”
We are Human Beings, meaning both physically Human and ethereal as Beings. I am vastly ignorant beyond this point but freely insert religion here if it brings you comfort: most belief systems that I’m familiar with should find no contradiction.
Attempting to balance the influence of Human and Being on our actions in this world is a challenging but worthwhile endeavor, and the quiet respect of empathy may be the key to achieving equilibrium. Compassion and gratitude, indispensable ingredients to lasting happiness, are within all our reach, perhaps best realized through everyday acts of humble kindness.
As I enter the 17th year since my Parkinson’s diagnosis, anxiety surges forth from the deepest recesses of my being, a primal “fight or flight” response that meets my brain’s inability to process the simplest of tasks halfway, swirling together in a mix of panicky fear and reasoned concern. At least temporarily, I am back in the darker version of the hellish never-world of my pre-DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation surgery) life.
Sheer will—my only faithfully reliable tool—gradually succumbs to Parkinson’s mind-numbing exhaustion until disaster is barely averted by a loving wife’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of patience and attention. Before being rescued by DBS in 2014, my first downward plummet enjoyed a far softer landing than my most recent backslide. Seven years earlier, I asked myself how I would handle the next, inevitable descent into the abyss—It is a question that I still can’t answer with confidence.
There was a trigger to all this: eight weeks ago, I underwent right knee replacement surgery. Weighing the painful procedure’s scheduling—the middle of a pandemic just four days before Christmas—against the eventual positive outcome of being able to hike and work out again was a no-brainer. With my Parkinson’s progression accelerating, the procedure seemed like a good idea.
But once home the evening after surgery, my knee would not stop bleeding, requiring a drive back to the hospital to repair the hematoma with an additional operation. Two days later, we greeted Christmas Eve at home armed with Oxycodone and lots of ice, thinking that the worst was over. We were wrong.
Parkinson’s disproportionately affects my right side, ordinarily waking me after a few hours of sleep even before the two operations, and no amount of painkillers was enough to induce post-surgery slumber. I was trapped for weeks in a grueling nightmare of constant wakefulness, anxiety, and pain. Sitting, standing, lying down, all positions demanded relief, usually after just a few minutes.
As my knee heals, there has been what I can only pray is not a permanent setback. An increased mental fogginess and a slow-moving, painful stiffness of every muscle and joint in my body have begun to dominate my intensifying “off times,” proportionately diminishing shrinking “on times.” When “off,” I cannot drive, think clearly, or converse. The positive impacts of medication and DBS are swiftly becoming less effective. Maybe this is due to post-surgical inactivity and lack of rigorous exercise. Maybe not.
I’m writing this as a warning to folks in a similar situation with Parkinson’s. Expectations are everything while in an egoic state of mind, which was where I was stuck despite my best efforts. I stumbled into the experience with no firm understanding of how a normal recovery would progress, never mind one complicated by progressive disease. Humbled and unable to meditate or even breathe properly, I was suddenly unsure of all but my firmest of beliefs.
I’m reminded once again that I’ve got one hell of a long way to go before truly understanding anything, but thanks to the blessing of the patient care of my wife, Laurie, I am ready to get back to it. In the past, I’ve taken pride in my ability to fend for myself, and it’s only now that I’m learning to accept help with grace. Thank you, Laurie; I am beyond grateful. I love you.
Regardless of where I lived at the time, be it Athens Greece, or Long Island, memories of youth are invariably pulled toward a common theme, climbing a favorite tree. What was the attraction? Why take a risk with no apparent goal other than to perhaps reach one limb of questionable strength higher? It was simple. By raising my head above the day’s routine, I could catch a glimpse of the mysterious outer world of possibility.
In New York, I had to climb to where the leaves thinned to view the surrounding community where it ended in the sea. Tree climbs while living in Athens inspired wild imaginations of times past and present. But oddly, climbing trees produced the same unsettling emotion regardless of locale – the uneasy feeling that I was at the edge of great discovery, bonded to the shadow fear that I would miss out, that I would somehow be left behind.
This deep-seated panic of being excluded from life’s adventure—of being a bystander—still resides within me, fresh yet primal, visceral sensations unchanged from that little boy’s as he raised his eyes above that final, highest branch half a century ago. In an impermanent world, I’m damn thankful for this part of me that remains unchanged, pushing me forward to try something new despite my fear, even as forward inevitably bends to scribe the giant arc of a circle.
A peacock ran directly in front of my forty-mph car today, forcing a thankfully successful brake-slam. I might have let it pass as coincidence had it been the first time, but something similar happened to me about six years ago, at the timeframe that my latest book Beyond Identity begins, only without the benefit of a car.
I was in the living room speaking on the phone with a friend when a loud rustling noise on the back deck caught my attention. Stepping out the door, a huge blur of light and color hurtled directly for my head, causing me to fall backward right onto my butt. After a loud, “what the f…! I jumped up, turned around and found myself staring beak to beak with a giant peacock now sitting on my roof.
So, what, if anything, does a run in with a peacock mean? A quick web search evoked in me a drawn out “whoa…”
The peacock’s spiritual symbolism is connected with integrity, doing what you say, truth, honor, beauty, strength, spiritual awakening, and awareness, among other traits. Okay, so, humor didn’t make the list, neither did swearing, and the obvious mischaracterization of beauty is impossible to ignore. Still, the rest rings true.
Reflecting on both events, each a bookend to Beyond Identity’s timeframe, I’m somewhat compelled to take the spiritual awakening/awareness parts seriously, after all, these are the core themes of the book. I find myself doing that sort of thing more often these days, not necessarily looking for signs, but occasionally accepting them as meaningful, particularly if they literally jump out in front of me.
Blind reliance on the portals of interpretation confuse nature’s rhythm, allowing no room for sensation under the sweet dead-weight of pride.
Initiated with the spark of insecurity, we define ourselves from the mirrored impression we emit to the surrounding world in a desperate toehold against a rising sea of uncertainty. The world view we grow builds on the planted seeds of personality, but all are mere potentials. What we choose to believe and disbelieve reflects back on us like a spotlight on life’s stage.
It is your narrative: yours to change or solidify in momentum’s inevitable move toward evolution or regression. Staying the same is not an option. Such choices can frame life in self-imposed boundaries that leave no room for authentic compassion and kindness. Regardless of strenuous self-convincing, no repetition of walled thought will make your view of the world true; real to you, perhaps, but not true. The revelation of wasted life only acknowledges such hubris by paying a visit as waning mortality’s final act.
Reality is yours to choose, but truth transcends preference, unveiling desperate outrage as the self-serving cowardice of a tortured soul.
While camping in Greece in 1971, my father taught me my first and last lesson in stargazing, consisting of describing various constellations by alternately relating their Greek myth of origin and their orientation for maritime navigation. At just nine years old, the celestial details haunt memory not so much with the vague familiarity of fact, but rather the distinct closeness of warm physical emotion. I can still feel the chilled night air stinging my cheeks, contrasting the snug security of my heavy sleeping bag as I lay on my back under the star-filled sky.
Despite my young age, I do recall appreciating the somber nature of our campground site, the central concentration of the antiquities of Sparta. We had arrived at the ancient ruins of the warrior empire just as the sun was setting, leaving us scant minutes of daylight, not enough to find a secluded corner in some farmer’s field to park our VW bus. It had been a long day, and the parents decided to bed down where we were, amid the ruins. Referencing a lone olive tree in the lengthening shadows, we picked a flat spot, somehow missing the small sign heralding the antiquities with the addendum, “no camping.” In retrospect, it might have been the rattling drive south from Athens with four tired and hungry kids that temporarily impaired my parents’ eyesight.
We got up at first light to the bleating of dozens of sheep as they crossed the ruins, ate a hurried breakfast, and packed up, taking care to leave no trace of our transgression into the past. But what I remember most of our short time in Sparta was the raw dichotomy of youth, the unprocessed, exhilarating thrill of discovery alongside the warm security of a well-used sleeping bag, all while sharing the night sky with the ghosts of warriors thousands of years displaced. To this day, those same stars still threaten to wrap me in the benevolence of childhood’s arms, timeless and eternal in their persistent message.
April 6, 2020
We have lived in the same home for 29 years. Several years after we bought our house, I decided to grow a garden in the rock-walled backyard enclosure designed for just such a purpose by the home’s original owners. I tilled, raked, planted, weeded and harvested, usually by myself, for quite a few years before deciding that there was no point to it any longer during the early years of Parkinson’s diagnosis, confusing a lack of fiscal productivity for a waste of time.
That was a huge mistake. As we approach what may be the peak of this initial coronavirus outbreak, as with many of us living in America, I find myself hand-tilling a smaller version of the same old garden. Why the sudden interest in gardening around the country? It certainly enjoys the benefit of fresh produce if the world’s vast transportation network—primarily reliant on trucking—should falter. But I think we all realize on some level that it is much more than that.
Gardening, feeling the life-nurturing soil crumble between fingers, is a mindless distraction of the highest order. To care for a seedling, to cultivate a plant to full potential, is to pay homage to the marvel of life’s creation. It is a recognition of nature’s merging with man; a welcomed forced solitude of reverence for the earth misplaced for far too long.
As I walk around the same neighborhood and see preparations of fresh ground for planting, it seems to be the best possible way to honor the next several weeks and well beyond. We will all get through this, and when we reach the other side—whatever that may be—I like to think that we will carry forward with us the value in a simple turning of earth, be it as basic as a windowsill flower in a city apartment. It is long past time to till our gardens and be thankful.
Erupting hum in rhyming color, echoes of seclusion’s wild, keen silence pervades the missive scape, lilting aviary the choir.