Sunday, September 05, 2010



Some old friends seem to think it's like hitting a switch,
and you reset to what you were before. Reset, reboot.
As though one treatment was enough to cure the plague.
As though none of what has gone before had gone before.
As though you could throw the switch and be what you had been,
before everything. Before everything happened. A simple switch.
But in the mirror you look older, older than you really are, lined down,
face aged, stiff, careworn, beard and hair whiter than yesterday,
than in quick memory. You never get out unscathed.
In the meantime, having circled so close to that black hole drain,
close enough to see through the grate to nothing dark inside,
when you return to old venues full of old friends and old dramas,
nothing clicks, nothing connects, nothing seems to matter.
Nothing matters more than something. It's hard
to care about paying bills, buying groceries, weeding the garden.
You know you need to, but you just can't find room to give.
It's one thing to throw yourself into the details of life as a form of
meditation, knowing that slicing a lemon is enlightenment, just so.
it's another thing to feel this withdrawal from every day, as a monk
in one's own home, forced to be this way by the slow drip of bloody
circumstance, by the constipated pressure of survival. Ill for long enough
to have lost track of what some friends say really matters. Time away
from the usual flurries of the usual personal dramas of other lives
makes them seem small, irrelevant. I suppose I ought to call some
friends who called a week or so back to ask how I was. It's just too hard,
though, to keep telling the same story. And friends who think the switch
has been thrown, one treatment and you're all well again, are too tiring,
overwhelming, exhausting to seek out. Needy people are needy enough
to drain what's left right down that black drain, sucking dry the juices
of attention. Especially when by contrast you can spend an hour by a river,
in sun, by trees, listening silent to birds and brooks, getting recharged.
When human time just drains. I try to write a poem, and the pen gets stopped
by interruptions, now that I'm supposed to be all better. Now that
I'm all better I'm available to be sucked dry again. I try to go out and
the phone rings, keeping me in. I try to go shopping for those uninteresting
needs that keep the flesh alive, and run out of steam halfway to the checkout.
Fresh meat never looked so good. Throw the sugar bowl over your left shoulder
and make room for chocolate. But getting impatient with impatience
is bad form, you offend the needy by refusing to meet their needs.
It's all about them, after all. Now, again, now, again. What's a poem worth
compared to your latest romantic fiasco? Of course it doesn't matter.
Still, when I go out to the garage and look at the pegboard filled with tools
some drained despair chokes me, waters my eyes, and it's not the cayenne
kept on the shelf to pour over the flower beds after rain to keep deer
from eating my roses again. What's a child of the heart to the wake of narcissus?
I'll tell everyone my narcissus have already finished for the season, bulbs dormant
under mulch till next spring when they'll be the second line up and blooming.
Nothing to do but wait through winter. Sorry, door's closed till then.
No office hours. And if I'm impatient with the unsympathetic, if I'm rude
to the rudely insecure, if I'm silent in the face of redundant neurotic unbalanced
nightmare gall, then at least I still have the excuse for now of saying
I've been sick. I'll act pathetic, to be left alone. I'll pretend it's not a waste of time.
I'll act as if the divine remains in the small things, the lemon sliced,
the row hoed, the quiet stack of freshly washed stone teacups, the endless
repetition of laundry and gas fire. I'll put on Mozart's Requiem and pretend
it's about survival. I'll harvest bell peppers growing on the porch,
ninety days of watering and turning to face the sunlight later. i'll pretend that
it's okay now, that the switch got thrown, that there's no time
like the present, that recovery isn't still in doubt, that in no uncertain terms
shall there be uncertainty. Just because you circled that drain a few times,
edged a little too close to that precipice, doesn't mean your life has changed,
that you want to live, now, again. Nor does it mean that hovering near
that threshold gave awareness of the numinous glint of time's long fading,
nor did it make you impatient with those who refuse to perceive.
Sweet strong peppers hang from their thin green stalks, a metaphor
for recovery, perhaps.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

I sure need a metaphor for recovery, Art. My poor broken leg. As you say it cld be worse and yes hopefully I will walk out of the hospital in triumph, even if I stagger out on crutches. This poem conveys the experience of pain and survival, the sadness of friendships lost and despite its sadness it also conveys some hopefulness for me at least in the metaphor of recovery.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I understand people thinking of being well/unwell as something you are or are not. I’ve actually heard people say, “Well, you’re either sick or you’re not sick,” and, of course, that’s true up to a point. I’m no longer taking pills, no longer talking to a psychotherapist but I’ve not bounced back the where I was before. The thing about the bouncing ball is that it never bounces as high the second or the third time and eventually it stops bouncing back completely. Also balls bounce in straight lines – up and down, up and down – and yet what have I done? I’ve veered off to the left a bit. What matters? I’ve just made a comment of a guy’s site, a guy who’s just come back from a holiday in France and, after tasting a different pace of and approach to life he’s understandably reluctant to get back into the rat race. Illness is like that kind of holiday. For the last three years I have been able to attune myself to a different rhythm of life. I feel so much better for it. But holidays can’t go on forever and most illnesses don’t last forever even if we do drag them out a bit.

Needy people can be a drain, yes, but without them we wouldn’t be needed and I don’t know about you but it matters to me that I fulfil people’s needs. I need to be needed. So I can’t have my cake and eat it. There should be reciprocity though. I expect someone to take care of my needs. And just because people take from us in one way doesn’t mean they don’t satisfy other needs: my wife asks me to rub her neck which I do and get tired in the process but I also feel good that I’ve been able to make her feel better. Quid pro quo.

Understanding another’s ails isn’t easy. My wife is very ill and she’ll never get better and repeatedly she’s tried to explain how things work with her but I can’t get it because I’m not inside her. Her explanations and definitions don’t correspond with my experiences of being ill. I simply don’t understand. I remind her to take her pills. I help her get up when she’s struggling. I hug her when she needs a hug. But it’s her battle. All I can do, to use a weight-training metaphor, is spot her, keep the bar moving. She was talking a few days ago about me and she said that if I get sick again – which, if I follow my usual cycle should happen in about 2017 – she’d rather I was anxious rather than depressed because at least with the anxiety she can do something; the depression makes her feel so helpless. I get that. When I have pain I want it rubbed – that’s the kind of pain I get – but rubbing doesn’t help her and I feel useless.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Yes all around. Yes to eventually walking on one's own. Yes to something like hope emerging from the complaints. For me I think the lesson has been about sorting out what's real hope from what's toxic hope, the latter being always built on false expectations. I'm sure the surgeon hopes that you won't have to have your tibia pinned back together with a titanium rod or bolt. It's a tricky place, I know.

If you need a metaphor for recovery, feel free to borrow any.

I remember how my pear tree out back lost a limb in a huge wind storm last year, and how I had to saw off the last bit of broken branch and seal with black tar the wound. Now new wood is growing around the wound, eventually closing it up, and meanwhile the branches next to it are thick and full and healthy.

I also saved some of the fallen wood, just a section of thick branch, which is drying in the garage. At some point I'll use it for a woodcarving or other art project.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


There's that important distinction, which people don't make, between being sick with a short-term illness and being chronically ill for a long time. I'm sure your wife knows the difference. In the past year, I'm just glad I avoided getting the flu on top of everything else. (knock wood) Being sick AND ill is just too much.

I don't mind being available for other people, and I've often chosen to be of service to others, but it's not my purpose in life to expend my life-force meeting their needs while neglecting my own. My whole life I've been in some version of the caregiver role, or the mentorship role; even some lovers have tried to put me into the role of being their therapist or guru, which I refused, which often caused the end of the relationship. The inequity, or lack of reciprocity, which you rightly point out, has often been manifest as everybody always wanting to cry on my shoulder, but when I need a shoulder everybody vanishes. I could host a pity party around that, it's happened with such regularity all my life, but never mind. The fact of the matter is, when people come to you out of habit rather than need it's partly because they're unwilling to stand on their own two feet, or be of service themselves. Reciprocity goes a long way towards making things okay, though, when people at least make the effort to be mutually supportive.

I understand that some people just can't deal with anyone's dramas but their own. That's narcissism. I understand that some people can't stand to be around people who are ill, for fear of some kind of moral or emotional contagion, beyond the physical. That's not narcissism, but it is a form of self-doubt about one's own capabilities. In the end, both moves are fear-based. I've run into both of those scenarios with regularity this past year or so.

The real problem is, which I think I've expressed, is that I just don't have anything left over for needy people. I need to marshall all my strength for my own needs, and there's not much left over. That's when needy people start calling you selfish, when you no longer serve to meet THEIR needs rather than your own. I can't be of service right now, and not again until I'm able to meet my own needs and still have something left over. It's called getting your strength back.

I've never believed, even though my birth family culture went out of its way to try make me believe it, that a life of service requires one to sacrifice oneself completely for others, to let oneself be drained dry, and keep nothing for oneself. One lesson of my own long illness has been that my own needs MUST come first, at least for now, and everyone else has to just get in line.

11:02 AM  

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