Monday, November 23, 2015

Theory of a Dead Man

"The same sun that melts the wax can harden clay
And the same rain that drowns the rat will grow the hay
And the mighty wind that knocks us down
If we lean into it
Will drive our fears away."
(How Can We See That Far?, Amy Grant 1991)

            I must admit that I thought quitting smoking would be the challenge for me. It was easy in comparison to the medical nightmare I faced throughout the initial aftermath. It had been the chest pain and lung irritation that acted as the final straw, pushing me to finally quit after over thirty years. I was successful in this endeavour. Although the symptoms I experienced started fading the moment I tossed those cancer sticks away, I still wanted to make sure there was not some lingering health issue that needed to be addressed. Occasionally, in a very random manner, I still had trouble breathing during moments of exertion, even during moments of rest. I had mild chest pain and mild arm pain, but both these inconveniences dimmed with the day I kissed the cigarettes goodbye. I knew getting checked out was the right thing to do, regardless of the pain in the ass procedures that meet with almost anyone trying to maintain some semblance of their health. It took over four months before I was able to see a cardiologist in London, Ontario. By that time, the massive weight of the chest pain I experienced had mostly disappeared with my yellow fingers and nagging cough. I just assumed any lasting lung problems or discomfort were smoking related and not so much a more serious condition. On February 11th, 2015,  I took a seat in the waiting room of the cardiac clinic, unaware of what was to come. I was ill prepared for the roller coaster I was about to take a ride on.
            She took chunks out of my chest hair like I was a poodle. She moved so quickly I was sure that my blondness almost caught fire in her wake. I feared for my nipples. The half-hour ultrasound of my heart was over and I had been sent to another room down the hall for an electrocardiogram. A stoic and seemingly unresponsive nurse hooked an electrode to every place I had been violated (and a few I care not to mention). I sat for the longest time, waiting for anyone to return. I started to have flashbacks of the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage, where I was the president connected to a million wires as miniature radar consoles scanned over my body. My journey was interrupted by a different nurse and the doctor. We went through my history, he asked questions and I began to feel at ease. No news is good news. At this point, everything looked a-okay. The same cannot be said of my next endeavour. The treadmill test was not my friend. I was fine until the incline and the increase in speed. My lungs started to expand, they were inflamed and I 
could barely catch my breath. I kept going as long as I could. This was no Herculean effort. I felt like I might pass out so I got off and flopped down in a chair. 
            It was here that the scary part began; not for you maybe, but for me I assure you. You would have thought someone had shit on the carpet. The doctor went from a passive and gentler man into a raging mountain of concern. The words flowed from his mouth like acid: "It would be malpractice for me not to tell you that you need to be in a hospital tonight." There was no way in hell. The hundred kilometres from London to home was necessary. It was not my car. I had to return it to the owner or they would be stranded. I could go to a hospital in Kitchener, I agreed, so he phoned to speak to the cardiologist on call. "They believe you can be treated with  medication," he informed me. I screamed so loud in my head that I swear ear wax hit the diagram of a heart on the wall beside me. I might well have peed my pants, just a little, when he handed me a sprayer filled with nitroglycerin. It looked just like the one my Dad still carries around. With a few heart attacks and strokes behind him, I wondered to myself if I had inherited this doom from my father. I had to remind myself that not once in thirty years did anyone force me to smoke even one of those cigarettes. I was to blame.
            When I got back to the car, I sat in stillness and tried to take it all in. I was confused and didn't understand what I was supposed to do. The doctor left my room without clarifying anything. I had no instruction. Little was clear or even made known to me. I knew the hospital I should go to but I had no idea who I was supposed to contact once I got there. The nurse even left all the electro pads stuck to me under my shirt. I discovered them when I got home. One might imagine that all the ups and downs in my life would have made me conditioned to the ride. In private, I am not convinced. I had a little panic, sitting all alone, as the snow began to fall and my body got the shakes. I rummaged through the car looking for anything I could stick in my mouth and smoke. I had to stop myself and remember the culprit that had brought me to this place. I could never give in, never again.

"This may be a dream come true
This may be poetry in motion
This may be a dream come true
But when it all comes down
It's an awful lot to do"
(Hats, Amy Grant 1991)

            Going to the hospital was a joke. Since I currently had no chest pain and no referral from the cardiologist, I had no appointment and would not be seen. It was a nice walk home and did my heart good. The next day things got weird. Twice in one afternoon, the receptionist called me to ask for the pharmacy phone number that I use in my city. She really called twice, asking for the same number each time. I explained to her what had happened regarding a referral and she said she would tell the cardiologist. I waited to hear from the doctor for the rest of the afternoon. With a three day weekend to follow, my Friday was spent anticipating the call which never came. Three days passed and I sat bemused, especially considering the shunning I got from the one hospital. I was left hanging in a doorway, with no sense of what was wrong, no idea why I needed to go into a hospital that didn't want me, and a nagging sense that this was all too much for most people to handle. The noose constantly tightened but only in degrees. So far I had maintained some decorum. Lucky for me, I can switch into survival mode.
            I was dropped off at the emergency ward of Grand River Hospital around 9:00 AM on a Tuesday morning. I sat hooked up like a monkey for almost 6 hours. I was poked. I was prodded. I managed to get some rest as I lay in a hospital gown much too short and tight for my damaged body. I used a blanket to block the view. When they found nothing of concern, they handed me a new referral and sent me out the door through which I had entered so many hours before. The blood work, the ECG, the examinations revealed nothing out of the ordinary. The ER team saw no reason to keep me, regardless of the cardiologist's urging the week before. I was not admitted. I even managed to walk partway home all on my own. The tiny white container of explosives I clutched along the route. I kept hearing, "You need to be in hospital now," over and over in my head. It was like singing a simple, annoying tune. "This could be wrong," and "If this is wrong," seemed poor harmony in my muddled mind. As I slipped and slid most of the way I travelled, I was overwhelmed with what I should do. Who do you believe? How do you measure the danger based on maybes? Quickly, mid-February became of more concern than the hidden gambit in my chest. I hailed a cab to quicken my journey back home. I checked the weather app on my computer in order to confirm that it gets fucking cold in Canada come the middle of winter (-18 Celsius plus wind chill).
            The next day was madness. I would have preferred having to face the deep freeze which lingered over most of Ontario, Canada at the time. Instead, I spent my day on the phone. From one receptionist to another I was bounced like ping and pong. The highlight of my day occurred when I called the London cardiologist. The main switchboard informed me that I was registered for a Cardiac Cap. This was total news to me. I didn't even know what a Cardiac Cap was when reception filled me in. This open-heart procedure attaches a "supportive device that is sewn around the heart to help normalize its shape and function." Holy fuck! You would think someone would have mentioned this to me. Not surprisingly, the receptionist had written down the wrong procedure. It turns out that I didn't require the Cap, I needed an angiogram to determine what was wrong with my heart. I would need to see a different cardiologist, to pinpoint the/any problem. Having just been informed about the erroneous Cap, I was told that I might only need medication. I might need a shunt. Bypass surgery was not out of the question.  Of course, the newest member of the crew, the latest addition, would determine what ailed me. I would be able to see a local cardiologist, that I was referred to by the Grand River physician, the one who examined me and found nothing to give him pause. I was warned that I might dangle for three months or more before I could be seen.     

"I saw you walking by yourself
Your eyes were crying out for help
I know you feel your pain is more
Than anyone's been hurt before
I know love hurts when it's over
If you wanna cry it's alright
You're like a fallen soldier
But you just can't lay down and die."
(You're Not Alone, Amy Grant 1991)

            Just living can be a royal pain. It's tough to get through one day without having to think about the next and what chaos will come. I use the word "will" because we never get a break, strife and struggle seem a constant in all of our lives. Granted, my chaos may not equal your chaos, and each individual experiences such matters in their own way, from their own perspective. A drug user, having lost everything, may be forced to sleep on the street but he wakes up the next day and carries on just as before. In the same vein, the businessman loses everything and is forced to sleep on the street so he takes a head dive off the nearest bridge rather than facing tomorrow. We all react differently to the bedlam we face. How we respond to those trials will determine any outcome.
            Sometimes I get tired of being "the strong one." People really seem to think that strength means emancipation from worry and care. I would argue that strong people are that way because they feel, maybe even a little bit more than the regular person might feel. We don't use walls to hide, we use them to protect ourselves. Sometimes, when my world is harsh, I wish things had been different for me. I question the reason I remain here. I wonder if it might have been better to have died in that cemetery all those years ago. I don't get this way very often but when I do, it is like a heavy burden for me. I am conflicted, eager to carry on but yearning for peace. It is part of me to feel this way at times. I don't think after everything put before me in this life that I would not be tempted on occasion. It's not in the thinking that lies the danger. It's in the doing.
            My appointment on February 11th could not have been scheduled at a worse time. The following week marked the 20th anniversary of my first partner's death and the milestone of my NDE. My little rat Sydney died on February 17th the year before. A week of Doug and yet another rat slowly dying (February 25th  made me fear what was yet to come. It was a horrible, awful place to visit even if only for a few days. It's the time of year when it sucks to be me. I was forced to use my survival kit. Having one doctor tell you all is well while another telling me I "might" need open-heart surgery is inane. Having to wait three more months or more until I see a local cardiologist made things even worse. I just wanted to curl up in a ball and fucking die! Sometimes this life is more than one can bear. There is so much more than needless sufferings. It can be so damned hard to just get up, let alone carry on. I wasn't suicidal but I just wanted to die.

"Ask me
If I think there's a God up in the heavens
I see no mercy
And no one down here's naming names
Nobody's naming names"
(Ask Me, Amy Grant 1991)

            Even five years ago I would have convinced myself that this dilemma was well deserved. Punishment and consequence went hand in hand for me. These days, not so much. If God is punishing me, if this is my Karma, then I have no one to blame but myself. I did not need any help bringing all this on. This is needless suffering. Still, I find my heart is in motion. I am sure to learn any lesson that comes from this. My Mom died on the floor of her bedroom from a massive coronary. I remember how merciful it seemed to me then. I just don't believe in such silly notions any more. I do believe that this same event also built me to be a better man, a better person. There is not much difference between learning from a negative experience or learning from a positive experience. I am unsure of which this will turn out to be. My only hope is that this is not just the theory of a dead man.
            I was surprised, to say the least, when the call came early in March. The angiogram was scheduled for the end of the month and determining if there was a problem began in earnest. Having to wait only a few weeks made things a little bit better. Not having to have open-heart surgery and a support device placed inside me blew the wind right out of those sails. It would be a good thing to know if there were issues from 30 years of smoking. It would be irresponsible to the people in my life and myself not to make sure. I just wish I had managed a less complicated introduction to the world of cardiac care. No wonder so many people's hearts are broken.  



Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Friendly Skies

"Fly, fly little wing
Fly beyond imagining
The softest cloud, the whitest dove
Upon the wind of heaven's love
Past the planets and the stars
Leave this lonely world of ours
Escape the sorrow and the pain
And fly again"

             Everyone knows that we all have to die. By the time most children reach kindergarten, they have some idea on how death works and what it means. Our interpretations regarding the event itself differ little. We know our body stops working, it begins to degrade and we are disposed of in a cultural manner. It's pretty straightforward, in a morbid sort of way. There is, however, a very big difference between dying and death. People recognize that dying (to die) is a single event, a finite act. We can see it, experience it and feel it. Beyond all the decomposition, what happens to us after we die is a totally different story. Unfortunately, most people are very sure that what they believe is the answer. Their religion tells them. Their NDE (Near-Death Experience) revealed something. A book they just bought contains all the secrets.  From heaven to nirvana, I don't buy any of it, not for one second.

            In the late 1990s, I attended a seminar hosting celebrity physic Sylvia Browne. Located in Mississauga, Ontario (part of the greater Toronto area) the Hershey Centre has a capacity of 5000. By the time she came onto the stage, not an empty seat could be seen. Thousands of people baying for her to speak, clamoured like patrons of the latest cult. The experience was difficult for me. I wanted to stand up and yell something harsh but I dared not. I did not. I suppose the most lasting impression she left on my soul was her supposed knowledge of the afterlife. I was fascinated with her explanations including grand halls and mass reunions with relatives that had only been known from photographs in life. When she identified a giant, heavenly Library, which could be found floating, invisible, just feet above all our positions, I did more than scoff. For thousands of years, men have sought these spiritual insights, but to no avail. Suddenly, Sylvia had all the answers which she was willing to share in her books or for the price of admission. I laughed the good laugh through the rest of her revelation.
            It doesn't matter where you are born, where you grew up, or how you were raised. Each person has their own ideas about an afterlife. Twin sisters, raised in the most religiously conservative of homes, will each have their own personal interpretations regarding life after death. Most of these ideas and expressions may have been taught to them. Their foundation may well be the same. The construction always differs, at least to some degree. It works the same with religion. Not one is the same. Even those within the identical belief structure differ, at times greatly, from their brethren. Martin Luther and the resulting Reformation has left a formidable schism within the body of Christ. Even those divisions have splinted and divided based entirely on interpretations of scriptures. When the dust had settled, they splintered all over again. There are so many factions within the Church that it seems broken and torn in pieces. As dogma and doctrine differ, from temple to temple, so too does the eschatology ("any system of doctrines concerning last, or final, matters," such as death, fate of the soul, the end times).  

"Fly, fly precious one
Your endless journey has begun
Take your gentle happiness
Far too beautiful for this
Cross over to the other shore
There is peace for-evermore
But hold this memory bitter-sweet
Until we meet"

             Every religion, and any resulting denomination, has its own eschatology. We could call it a map, or a guide, but those things tend to go somewhere. Each eschatology is therefore more like a blueprint, serving as an outline of the faith qualities we build regarding an afterlife. Every blueprint is different. From one small measurement to the scale of it all, there is always a variation when a copy is made. I don't imagine anyone could argue that human beings don't adapt to concepts, they adapt concepts to human beings. We add, we subtract, we adjust the plan to fit us and how we envision things to be. Men of the past viewed their god and the afterlife through their own culture, from their point of view. A point of view I would add is now long dead and gone. Religion tells us to follow the outline, but we are constantly lost because we aren't following our own outline. How can we be expected to view the world like the men who wrote the Bible or the Quran did, when we live in our world, within our perspective and not theirs?
            I believe that all religions are "necessary to existence." Most people need what they offer. We forget that these teachings are not truth but rather a perspective on what is truth.  Religion tells us we should be this way or that way based on these ideals, but these ideals are simply that. We all secure our Faith in stages and in pieces. We adapt it and it evolves based not on what we know but what we think we know. I don't believe we are supposed to know anything. Religion and its promises of an afterlife are supposed to be like that blueprint. We are required to build our own home. We are required to find our own truth. Whether anyone else's is a match is beside the point. It's not important the name of your god. Whether Allah, Yahweh, Jesus or the Pink Panther, we are all part of this universe, all part of the Light. We forget that we are all bound to exit the same, to die, but any experience that we have on the other side should be unique and our very own. 

"Fly, fly do not fear
Don't waste a breath, don't shed a tear
Your heart is pure, your soul is free
Be on your way, don't wait for me
Above the universe you'll climb
On beyond the hands of time
The moon will rise, the sun will set
But I won't forget"

             Most religions teach that there is an afterlife. Long before Jesus, such speculation was the primary focus of culture and society. The worship of an entity and the rewards that come from doing so, are embedded in the history of civilization. The history of each civilization is reflected in their eschatology. The Ancient Egyptians, the Mayan and the North American aboriginals are a small sampling of just how important the idea of an afterlife was in antiquity. Some societies continue, such as in the modern Muslim world, to build themselves and their culture around these beliefs, such as the revelation of Mohamed. In both the past, and in modern day, concepts and teachings regarding life after death vary as much as the deity being worshipped. We are bound by what we know. We believe what we have been told. Our truth is familiar. This is how society works. We are trained to think in specific ways. The same process defines how we see the afterlife. It is taught to us, it is thrown at us. We grow up and we believe.
           At the centre of Christianity is Resurrection. The end game is really the only game. Our conduct on Earth will determine our resurrection or our damnation. The entire reason for a Christ is found in Jesus' resurrection. Those who behave themselves and follow Him will find themselves in heaven after they die. Some schools of Christian thought believe that the dead sleep until the Last Day, then rise to greet the Christ. Those who do not find their way are banished, everlasting, into a place of fire and punishment and pain. The core of Christianity is that there is an afterlife, but human beings get to choose where they end up after death. The Bible is very specific. Anyone who does not believe in Jesus, and therefore fails to follow Him, will end up in hell. Those who achieve complete submission and experience a form of rebirth are guaranteed a place in heaven. Heaven is made up of streets of gold, where the dead are resurrected and placed into eternal bliss. The damned greatly suffer and burn forever and forevermore.  The Catholic Church teaches that another state of existence occurs. Between heaven and hell lies purgatory. This is an "intermediate state." Those who die and are not sufficient to enter heaven come to this limbo and "undergo purification." When one achieves enough "holiness" the "final theosis" occurs and they join the rest of "the elect" in endless joy.  
            Buddhism and Hinduism share the doctrines of reincarnation and karma. They believe that the "ultimate goal of the religious life is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth." In the physical realm, this means "freeing oneself from desire (generally speaking),"  with the ultimate goal of reaching nirvana. Unlike the New Age, watered down modern version, for these Eastern religions, "nirvana literally means extinction."  This concept, known as the "samsaric" process, involves continual rebirth until a state of liberation is achieved (nirvana). The soul then "dissolves into nothingness." Jumping into life as a squirrel may seem 'cute' to western thinking, but in Buddhism and Hinduism, to have life in this world means suffering and freedom from it is our reward. There is no heaven, no winged defenders. There are no streets, no one walks on gold. God and the afterlife consists of reunion with the whole, an ultimate melting pot of everyone and everything that is and ever was.
            Traditional Judaic thought on an afterlife concurs that death is not the end of our existence. As a major influence on Christianity and Islam, one would expect Judaism to have great tales of heavenly visits and grand halls. The principal focus of Judaism, however, is "on life here and now rather than on the afterlife." This limited any dogma on death and what happens to the soul. In early forms, a place of shades, called she'ol, was everyone's destination. This grey and heavy realm was so much less than the life that captured souls once knew. More orthodox schools of thought claim that heaven is the destination of the righteous. Other schools believe we are resurrected with "the coming of the messiah." Sects within Orthodox Judaism believe in a place of hell, where "the souls of the wicked are tormented by demons of their own creation." Even the idea that "wicked souls are simply destroyed at death," that we cease to exist, appears in some of the variations of this eschatology.  Variables such as culture and geography can build on already established traditions. In Islam, "death is the complete end of physical life and the beginning of a period of rest until the day of resurrection when Allah judges the living and the dead."  Heaven always comes later but is filled with earthly delights. This not-so-unique eschatology is rooted in other Abrahamic traditions but fluctuates from its influences. The teachings and rites vary depending on location and any resulting cultural differences. Like building blocks, each piece is unique but part of the whole.
            The near death experience occurs when someone dies but returns to life. Most of these experiences bring with them memories of the other side. According to near-death testimonies, "humans are spirit beings more than physical beings." The soul of each person existed before birth and goes on after death.  The act of dying is nothing but a movement into the "spiritual condition we have cultivated all our lives." Some believe that human beings "don't go to heaven," rather, "we grow to heaven." NDE survivors claim to have seen tunnels and felt heavenly bliss and witnessed great light and love. They experienced time with Gods and other people. They had communications and interactions. Some of those returning have claimed that they experienced a literal hell.  There is a general consensus among 'NDErs' that "heaven and hell are not locations but are spiritual conditions within us." Without exception, no matter our lot in life or belief system, everyone "transitions to the spirit world as part of the natural process of life." In the end, we all go back to God.

"Fly, fly little wing
Fly where only angels sing
Fly away, the time is right
Go now, find the light"
(Fly, Celine Dion 1997)

            My near death experience did not convince me that what I saw was the truth. It was simply an expression of the truth manifested through me. I have always believed that whatever my experience was on that cold February night, it was filtered through my humanity so that I could understand it better. The truth became familiar. Since I was the one having the experience, it only makes sense that I saw what I wanted to, what I had been trained to see. Beyond this subjective interpretation, so tied to my cultural biases, nothing else was revealed to me. I would argue that since I really wasn't dead (I still live),  I could not know anything further than what was already known to me. Had I died and crossed over, fully crossed over, I would not have returned to tell any tales. I have seen wondrous things but I still believe we are not supposed to know what lies in waiting. To get to it we are measured through our awareness, not judged for it. We are greeted by what we know and who we are but I don't believe we really see, that is why no one really does. The best we can hope for is a peaceful place, where we all find grace and understanding. Mankind seems to believe that somewhere there is something more than our human condition, but we have to wait to find it, wait to experience it. Whatever it is, once you find it, there won't be any coming back.
            I don't like to think of my loved ones as dead. For me, they exist far beyond my ability to grasp, but they live nonetheless. Energy, after all, cannot be destroyed, it can only change into something else. I do not think my mother watches me eat my dinner. I don't think my late partner giggles while I take a pee. I know we all wish that the dead were here with us but anything we see is simply a remnant, the part of them that was left in our charge. They are not here. They are gone. While the concept of an afterlife is widespread throughout most human religions, I do not believe in any one idea regarding life after death. Such notions tend to be nothing more than an anthropomorphic and archaic representation of the original source.
            We do not know. Belief in such things is not truth but perception. We view these matters based on biases not proof. So, I am left in my corner of this universe to imagine what it will be like. Will there be souls, floating, eager, moving into someplace else? Will there be a light and other people? Will there be anything at all but darkness and oblivion? In my mind's eye, I can see them. They don't turn around, they just keep floating. Up they fly into the friendly skies. As things stand, I'm pretty sure that's as good an answer as I'm going to get. Ironic, that there are no answers. Religion, personal faith and even our own eschatology grants us reassurances, but in human terms. This explains why we believe in a heaven and in a hell. The rules apply to both.

“Man is the cruellest animal," says Zarathustra. "When gazing at tragedies, bull-fights, crucifixions he hath hitherto felt happier than at any other time on Earth. And when he invented Hell..."lo, Hell was his Heaven on Earth"; he could put up with suffering now, by contemplating the eternal punishment of his oppressors in the other world.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher)



Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Window Dressing

"Oh is this a bad dream?
Or the best dream that I've ever had?
And oh what is waiting, beyond the mirror,
Beyond the curtain,
Beyond what fades into the black?
(Snow Globe, Chely Wright 2010)

            People wish you Merry Christmas when it's the last thing they want to do. We attend funerals when we could not stand the dead person in life. We greet a stranger on the street with a friendly hello when we really wish we had just crossed the street.  Every day people put on falsehoods in the name of peace and social conformity. We smile when we are angry lest we upset the natural balance of the room and we sit pretending to listen to relatives who banter on and on at a family gathering. Over and over again, we hide our true feelings to spare or pacify those we come in contact with throughout our lives. It seems a social adaptation, a learned response. Growing up, we watched our parents do it. Our teachers and mentors were masters of the art. We are silently instructed that it is better to grin and bear it than it is to stir the pot.

            Mixed metaphors aside,  human beings, generally speaking, tend to disguise themselves when it suits a need. We often do this without even consciously thinking about it. It becomes a knee-jerk reaction. Whether this somewhat necessary and occasionally productive behaviour is not conducive to the Bible's admonition against false witness and testimony (Exodus 20:16) is unknown to me. Is it a sin to greet your boss with a "Good morning" rather than punching him in the face? Is it not lying to say you are fine when you're really feeling like crap? Is it not deception to tell the one you love that they look pretty when nothing could be further from the truth? It seems all we do is adjust to our environment and the people who always come with it. In the end, the truth be told, all the lies are a requirement of living. It may be a necessary evil but we have to remember that it's all just window dressing. 

“I was like a chocolate in a box, looking well behaved and perfect in place, all the while harbouring a secret centre.” (Deb Caletti, American author)

            She seemed nice enough to begin with. Like with most people in the building, I gave her a chance and put on a good show. I was always polite, always respectful, even when given little reason to be. We grew friendly and became social through a mutual friend. At first, she did not give me much reason to question her. She was always so open and vulnerable. As random contact went on, I grew to like her. I welcomed her into my home and allowed her the luxuries that come with my friendship. I fixed her computer, printed off documents and took her with me to the market. I would not say we were friends but she became a pleasant acquaintance. I always greeted her with a warm hello.
            We don't really know people. We think we do but we really don't. Most human beings are not always who they betray themselves to be. Underneath all the camouflage, we are private creatures. Our secrets and sins are unspoken to the world we reside within. Even the closest of companions may not truly be aware of who we really are. If you leave a person enough time, their true colors always shine through. The same applies when they take enough rope to hang themselves. It may be logical to conclude that we hide the best parts of us along with the worst parts of us, but people, in general, don't go there. We tend to share our better qualities. We don't open the curtains to let in the night. It is not even that we are lying about ourselves, we just omit what we believe are traits unacceptable to the people with whom we have contact. 
            I'm not sure if it was the diagnosis or the treatment that cracked the facade, revealing a darker side. All I know is discovering it firsthand. The sicker she got, the more struggle met her condition, the more devious and negative she seemed to become. It was only a matter of time before she began to reveal her true self. It was not the cancer that made me ignore this revelation. As hard as it can be sometimes, I really do try to be kind. If that doesn't work, then I try to be kind some more. Regardless of her behaviour, I refused to act from the same ugly place as her. I withdrew myself, giving her space but protecting myself, but I was always available and accessible for her. Despite the changes in her, I refused to allow these developments to change me. In the end, I didn't like her. While I did not wish her harm, my ambivalence grew hard and firm. She was admitted to hospital on a winter's day and died a week later. I am glad her suffering went no further. I wish her peace but I don't really care if she is gone.

“I start to feel like I can’t maintain the fa├žade any longer, that I may just start to show through. And I wish I knew what was wrong. Maybe something about how stupid my whole life is. I don’t know. Why does the rest of the world put up with the hypocrisy, the need to put a happy face on sorrow, the need to keep on keeping on?" (Elizabeth Wurtzel, American author)

             We put on a brave face. We smile when our heart is breaking. We lie to strangers and to ourselves. We are all trying to get through, to do the best we can in the circumstances put before us. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail, but it is the trying that counts the most. We hide who we are and what we truly think. We do this not only in fear of others but in fear of ourselves. We don't want our inner person to be seen in a public way. We protect ourselves as we build great walls. We may be covering our negative traits. We may be defending our feelings from the world around us. On a bad day, we have to decide to hold it all back but on a good day, we do the very same thing. We don't wish to be invaded, to be vulnerable or corrupted by the people and events that occur around us. The truth, however, will always surface.
            Who we are does not just go away, it just finds a way to hide. We hide so as not to reveal our weaknesses. Most people act really happy. They smile and exude the light. Maintaining this diversion can be the most exhausting thing in the world. It is tough to be intact. Underneath it all, I believe we all are broken, to one degree or another. We distract, we elude, we hold it all in. I guess I just don't see an issue. I may even be coming off as a hypocrite, to one degree or another. I also hide beneath a smile. I have secrets, I have shame. Even though I tend to share them more often now, I hold back those things I am not ready to share. Still, I smile in my grumpy way and am kind to all I encounter. I recognize that each person is exactly the same as me. We are all trying and struggling and crying. We all have unimaginable pain and sorrow. It's hard not to remember this when I am in the same place.

“If we’re wrapping ourselves up to conceal any vulnerability, whatever happens to us has to go through all those extra layers. Sometimes love doesn’t even reach where we truly live.” (Alexandra Katehakis, American author)

             Jesus talked about this state of empathy (Matthew 7:5, 7:12, Luke 6:42). We must see others as they really are, to walk in their shoes. To do to them what you would have them do to you. To take the stick out of my own eye and leave the toothpick in theirs well enough alone. Like everyone else, I grin and bear it. On occasion, I feel fake dishing out my better sides. I suppose I have found some sense of moderation. I can write about myself, reveal myself, even give of myself, but I cannot just abandon who I really am. I won't let you walk all over me. I won't smile while you fart in my face. I must be kind but I must also be kind to myself.
            Everyone is a little bit of a falsehood. We all use window dressings. Sometimes all the notions don't matter. Empathy for someone else is difficult to find when you are screaming in your own head.

 “Now I understand why you grow so many flowers."
She shifted her head, not understanding.
I said, "To cover the stink of sulphur.”
(The Magus, John Fowles 1966)


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

On Being Megus

"Free is all you gotta be
Dream dreams no one else can see
Sometimes ya wanna run away
But ya never know what might be comin' round your way"

            For the first time in over thirty years, I went without a cigarette. One day turned into one week and that week repeated, over and over. I did not give in. On the eight-week anniversary of quitting, I realized I had pretty much made it through. For well over a decade, I had told myself that if I could quit, for even just one day, I would be able to quit altogether. I was right. I had not borrowed a smoke, tasted a smoke, not even considered having another cigarette. I had been told for years that this feat was a very difficult one to accomplish, let alone follow through on. Although I cannot say I did not quench the need for nicotine with supplements of varying forms, I held to my claim that I would never have another cigarette again. It was like, "So far, so good."
            The chest pains that precipitated my quitting had almost disappeared at the two-month crossing line. I could tell that my lungs were the problem, not my heart. I just knew it, even though the Ontario Health system made sure that I had to guess at the culprit, leaving me hanging for over four months before I was seen by a cardiologist. It was obvious that all those years of smoking had taken a toll, whether I had official medical opinion on the matter or not. I must admit that it wasn't an easy thing to do, but it was much easier for me than I had been led to believe. Still, I hadn't even encountered much temptation up to that point. Rude people who knew that I had quit kept offering me one stick after another. Getting gas was nothing but an opportunity to cave in. I had made my decision and stood my ground. The world started changing in tiny ways. I could smell it again, and taste it again. My fingers returned to their original color and my clothing was fresher and whiter. I knew I was free when I found them.
            The last cigarette I had was on a late Friday evening. Saturday turned into a pinnacle which I moved towards each week. I hoped that one day all that counting would fade away like those nicotine stains. I will not lie and claim that the drug itself had no  hold on me. I craved it like a secret thing, a thing I must ignore and not give in to. I still  see it everywhere and must block each exposure out. Temptation, of course, comes when you least expect it. The pharmacy I used then is located about one city block from where I lived. If you went out through the back of my building, then cut down a service lane between two smaller buildings, you made a short trip even shorter. It's a dirty road that runs from Water Street through to College Street. I remember ice was thick on that path,  a victim of deep winter and the Canadian cold. I stopped dead when I saw them. Tucked between ripples of snow and chunks, a pack of Player's Light cigarettes lay open for all to see. The seven smokes within called out to me. The lighter which rested conveniently in the other side of the pouch granted me no reprieve. It would have been so easy.
            A few days later and I once again found myself walking through Downtown Kitchener. In the almost six years in which I had resided in the area, I must have travelled that same path at least a thousand times. Even in the dead of winter the people were familiar and the journey mostly fair. As I approached one of the corners I crossed, he greeted me like he always did.  When I informed him that I could not give him a cigarette, he flipped his lid. I tried to explain to him that I had quit smoking and didn't have any. It was obvious he did not believe me. He sneered at me and shook his head. As I walked away, I sort of felt guilty until I heard him call out, "Could you at least buy me a pack?"

"On a day like today
The whole world could change
The sun's gonna shine
Shine thru the rain
On a day like today
You never wanna see the sun go down"

             Outside of the nicotine cravings, I think for me the hardest part of it all was psychological. My mind had to adapt to this new reality before my body could truly follow suit. Telling a fellow smoker that I had abandoned the habit was emancipation. I wasn't a smoker anymore, I was a non-smoker. I have to admit it felt pretty good.  I once gave my nicotine addiction such control over me; it was in charge. Finally, having some form of control over it was exuberating. I had believed all the press about quitting. I was told it was harder than coming off of heroin. This did not hold true for me. I had recovered from my Morphine addiction decades before, but any of the withdrawal from cigarettes was nothing compared to that nightmare. I'm not saying it was easy. I'm not saying it was a piece of cake. I'm just saying it was all in my head.

 "Somewhere, there's a place for you
I know that you believe it too
Sometimes if you wanna get away
All ya gotta know is what we got is here to stay"

            When I was a boy all I wanted to be was a superhero. From the time I was four or five years of age, I knew my powers, my alias and my outfit. I had heard  the term Megus just once on an episode of Space Ghost and much like Odessa, years later, I kept it as my own. Spider-man could climb walls but Megus was completely indestructible. He could not be harmed, he could not be stopped and he could not die. The innocence of my youth often found me praying to God for this salvation. Every wish was to be him. It was always something that I hoped for. When the ways of my youth fell behind me, the term Megus became more of a metaphor for my life. I adjusted, no matter what happened to me. No matter the damage, no matter the cost, I could not be put down. I may not have been physically indestructible but it often seemed like inside of me was. I always survived and remained intact. It was something I would naturally do.
            I sort of feel that way having quit smoking. Although I do not know the future and what is to come, I am confident that I have risen above this labour. The only thing I can do is trust that I, Megus will not experience any further health issues related to this addiction. I won't hold my breath (so to speak) but one can always hope. It can be strange, and quite overwhelming at times, to look back on my life and truly recognize everything that has happened to me. Perhaps on some other plane, in a different place, I really exist in this state of invulnerability, but I highly doubt it. At this late stage of the game, it would be nice to manifest any type of superpower. I suppose the art of adaptation will have to do me for now.

 "On a day like today, the whole world could change
The sun's gonna shine, shine thru the rain
On a day like today, no one complains
Free to be pure, free to be sane
On a day like today
You never wanna see the sun go down"
(On A Day Like Today, Bryan Adams 1998)

            All living things meet "environmental challenges as they grow and develop." Within each there is a safety valve for survival. Each organism is "equipped with an adaptive plasticity as the phenotype [composition] of traits develop in response to the imposed conditions." This tool acts as "a kind of biological insurance or resilience to varying environments." It is part of our evolution. When we adapt, we evolve. As human beings, this double edged sword allows mankind to conform to almost anything we might encounter. Regardless of an event or circumstance, eventually it becomes normal to us. It is part of our condition to rise above, or at least have the ability to do just that.
            As a tree will lean away with a constant wind, we adjust. We must or we would not accommodate change. Human intelligence gives us the ability to consciously adapt to that change.  We can choose what to do and how we react. When the chest pain came, it mattered little what it was or the root cause. When smoking interfered with my survival, I adapted, I adjusted. I did not wish to stop. I enjoyed smoking and before this strong inconvenience, I had no intention to quit. I didn't want to. Nothing anyone said made a difference to me. The fear of dying was my agent of change. I didn't just adapt, I adapted quickly. I recognized that you don't have to be a superhero to survive.

 "Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live."
(Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor c.161-180 AD).