Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Standing On The Edge Of The Rest Of My Life

“Nervous exhaustion in man is increasing with the speeding up of life leading to delirious excitement. People often return home after work showing signs of nervous exhaustion. As a consequence man’s concentration is weakened, and mental and physical efficiency is lowered. Man becomes easily irritated and is quick to find fault and pick a quarrel. He becomes morbidly introspective and experiences aches and pains and suffers from hyper-tension and sleeplessness. These symptoms of nervous exhaustion clearly show that modern man’s mind and body require rest—rest of a high quality.”
Piyadassi Thera

I did not want to write this piece. I did not want to write about myself. It is impolite to predominate the conversation, to obsess on one’s own predicament. I should be the least important person in the room. But it all comes back to this, to the self, and I cannot write honestly about others if I do not write honestly about myself.

“Come here, I want to show you your x-ray,” she says. She is my doctor. “Your lungs look pretty clear at this point, but see this white shadow in the center. That is your heart, and it is huge. Muscles get larger when they are working hard. In your arms and other areas that is a good thing, but in your heart, that means weakness. Your heart is not pumping effectively, and the blood is backing up in your lung causing fluid to interfere with your breathing and your heart beat. An enlarged heart is not good. If you do not do something about this, you might see fifty, but certainly not sixty.” She blushes when she says this. “I am sorry, but I must tell it like it is.”

It began as a chest cold. I lost my voice, and trying to speak caused a coughing spasm so intense that spots fluttered in front of my eyes. If I lay down in bed, I felt as if I was drowning. So I slept sitting upright in a chair for a few weeks, struggled to stand up in front of a class, until there was nothing left inside of me, and my chest ached like an earthquake fault.

Acute bronchitis. With inhalers, cough syrup, other medicines, it will eventually go away, but after nearly six weeks, I still do not feel like myself. But then there are the more permanent issues: hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart failure, obesity, sleep apnea. These are the things that will kill me. These are the things that killed my mother at sixty-one years old. And not dealing with these things is entirely my fault, my refusal to step up and take responsibility and do something. I stood over my mother’s dead body in the emergency room. I know how the story ends.

I think to distraction. I cannot move, I am paralyzed with thought. I am Hamlet contemplating what I should do, “to be or not to be?” It all comes down to that. Refusing to change my life is suicide, and I often engage in the self-pitying thought of “who would miss me if I were gone?” That is self-absorption. I can be a real jackass a lot of the time. No one knows what will come, what the future holds. That is what I tell my students. What kind of hypocrite am I if I do not believe this myself? Teachers should always tell the truth, even when the subject is the self. If we are not honest, we are nothing.

I decide to scale back. I will teach and put my energies there because I must work: I need the money and the mental stimulation. Teaching is important to me. If I must cut something, I will cut writing. I will give up this blog and all my other writing projects, even though writing is necessary to me as well. I trick myself into thinking I can jettison the pen and paper

I email my friend, William Michaelian, a writer and philosopher of amazing elegance and grace, and tell him I am shutting down The Teacher’s View. I do not say it directly, but I make it clear I am at a crossroads. He catches me like the net catches the falling trapeze artist. “I know your writing means something to me,” he writes. “If it were to cease I would try to accept it and understand, but it would be a lot like losing a beautiful old tree in the neighborhood—and the strange new patch of sky would be a constant reminder.”

Self-pity, self-pity, self-pity! I am a teacher because I love literature and stories and books and life and learning. I am a writer because I have something to say, stories to tell, ideas to explore. I cannot leave either behind.

So here we go. We must believe in spring. I pop Bill Evans’ lyrically sad jazz piano into the computer. Life is a journey. One foot in front of the other. Regroup, revise, restart, rewrite. Stop crying and get moving.

Outside in the early morning five a.m. light, Stone eats his breakfast while I let the cold wind wash over me and contemplate the sky. Canadian geese knife their way north, racing for summer. Their cries fill the morning. Nature goes on. Life goes on. And it will go on without me, but I would prefer that my journey continue for as long as possible. The road beckons. The struggle will be difficult, but difficult tasks offer the greatest reward.

Let’s go.