A lone tree, roots locked to rocky isle as branches spread in defiant stillness, patiently awaits a mother’s call.
A friend recently gave me a book about living with trauma, hoping that a comprehensive self-examination of all yesterday’s life stresses might help me with Parkinson’s disease today. The book, The Transformation by James Gordon, introduces many practical tools, some of which are well known, while others challenged a meditation of the past with methods unfamiliar to me.
In looking at my life through the lens of past traumas, both big and small, I first discovered that there were an awful lot of occurrences. I’m not just talking about physical, life-threatening distress, but also of far more common issues, such as a mid-high school move from overseas back to New York that looks relatively benign now but really shook me up at the time. When I reflect on the incident, I experience a wave of emotion, proving that it still affects my life, probably in ways hidden from conscious thought.
Granted, some sort of hierarchy exists on the list with the most impactful, such as killing in war, receiving my attention long ago. Nonetheless, that leaves many other traumas in some ways as fresh and frightening as the day they occurred.
It is only at age 59 that I am attempting to explore all of the past trauma in my life. I suppose I assumed that their influence would dissolve with time. They have not. I’ve found it helpful to conduct this exercise without judgment or labels: whatever happened, happened, and the distortions of fault or values are immaterial.
A compassionate curiosity about yourself, accepting the rich depth of humanity that is life experience, might be a gateway to contentment, a path to inner peace paved with kindness and understanding, especially for yourself.
The pressure draws near in a suffocating welcome of misty inaction, impossibly heavy yet real. The fog is back, the same oppressive blanket experienced before the brain surgery almost seven years ago. Only it is thicker now, more persistent in its attempts to subvert confidence in who I am as it relentlessly conjures false paths to fool me, to retain control.
“I see you.” I direct the words at my adversary: one of us must go. The mind is desperate to return, to dominate through fear and desire as it constructs the ego’s false urges. Its persistence is difficult to ignore in a weakened physical state. Verbalized reminders of “I see you” hold the line against the first wave, but barely.
My foe strikes at the heart of a life theme, of being left out of the day’s vitality. I see others moving seemingly forward. More likely, they are circling in material temptation’s dampening of understanding. The afternoon’s darkened repose is a trick, an attempt to infuse me with the illusion of self. It becomes harder to calm the mind from anxiety’s panicked hold. It drags me to the edge.
“Is this a test, or maybe Karma for some past deed?” The question is silent. Immediately I see through the ploy, the attempt to inflate a sense of personal worth in a universe so vast that the thought of permanent individuality is ludicrous. All is temporary.
I deserve nothing; I am entitled to nothing. I am, merely and grandly: I am.
Everything changes, and usually not in the manner that you or I envision.
Last November, I had a neurology appointment to fine-tune the settings in my Deep Brain Stimulator (DBS) in an attempt to be more responsive to rapidly evolving Parkinson’s symptoms. Such hardware adjustments are inherently tricky maneuvers, educated guesswork impacted by medication dosage changes and lifestyle modifications.
After extensive trial and error experimentation, we decided that my DBS was already emitting the optimal electrical pulses to my brain, and the settings were left unaltered. I did, however, leave the neurologist with the option to vary the system voltage within a set range.
Soon after getting home, I began experimenting and found that modestly increasing the right-side voltage seemed to slightly improve my bradykinesia (a slow, painful stiffness of limited mobility). I left the DBS at the higher voltage and forgot about it.
Toward the end of December, I had knee replacement surgery, a second operation to stop uncontrolled bleeding, and a surgical recovery heavily dependent on months of narcotic painkillers and physical therapy. Unable to access calm through exercise or yoga, my resilience suffered significantly. Already poor sleep patterns deteriorated further, as did my usually healthy diet.
Meanwhile, my knee healed just fine, but I seemed to be losing ground to Parkinson’s daily. My right shoulder began experiencing near-constant, excruciating muscle spasms that could only be relieved by round-the-clock muscle relaxant and increased levodopa. I couldn’t sleep or, at times, even pick up a fork. I grew desperate.
Finally, I stopped trying to think of solutions while quieting my mind as best I could. Out of the blue, I remembered the DBS adjustment made months earlier. The worst muscle spasms stopped almost entirely after dialing back the DBS controller to its pre-November voltage. What helped me just four months ago was killing me now.
Some changes, despite a daunting appearance, are easily made. Others are not. Perhaps the difference lies in the quiet, compassionate wisdom we bring to trying to understand.
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.