I wrote the following words in a letter to my family and friends about this time last year:
“[Due to complications with my vision] I have stopped driving and I have stopped playing tennis. My mobility is limited and my activities are limited and, furthermore, all my activities are now somewhat circumscribed. What do I mean by that? Well, for example, it is harder for me to read the expression on people’s faces, which is a major clue in conversation, which leads to awkwardness and confusion on my part. And embarrassment. Then, all my insecurities rise to the surface and I am not as confident that I know how to proceed in any given circumstance.”
While they are still true, I have also been embracing a new way of perceiving the world. I recently made a trip to my oncologist and discovered that my cancer is in remission and I am essentially cancer-free. This information meant more to me than I imagined. I began to realize that the future had opened up again, that I had closed down my sense of future expectations. I wrote recently that once the foundational lies that support our personality are exposed, what one is left with is emptiness. Let me elaborate. I have come to an understanding that much of what I thought of as my “life story” was illusory. A made-up story of who I am. I am not any one thing or any one story. I am not my past. I am not my future. I am alive in the present moment. So, if the story of one’s life is an illusion— in some cases, a delusion— what remains is a made-up story that can be looked at, appreciated, for what it is. Changed. Accepted or rejected. But the trick is to let it be what it is: the understanding of a life story appreciated as a story worth telling.
Sam Harris, in his book Waking Up, talks about being able to both be a part of the story as well as the witness of the story. Being the witness of one’s own life. It’s a challenging concept, but I think of an earlier philosopher telling us that the unexamined life is not worth living and I think he had something in mind very similar to what Sam Harris is talking about. To see and accept what is about your life has been, for me, the first step in being able to reconcile my understanding that cancer and Parkinson’s and glaucoma are realities that I have learned to live with—my limitations, though not welcome and occasionally depressing, are not defining.
As for my current state of health, I like to tell this story of the monk, who was chased out of the forest by a tiger. He ran to a cliff and scurried over, down a vine to get away, only to discover another tiger at the foot of the cliff trying to get at him from below. Then, looking around, he noticed a rat, poking its head out of a crevasse, had begun to chew on his vine. Then, looking off to his right, he realized there were some wild strawberries within reach. And they were so delicious. As for me, I am enjoying the strawberries, I have nothing to complain about. What is behind me and in front of me is just that: behind me or in front of me. They are not here.
ESSE EST PERCIPI
To be is to be perceived.
— Bishop George Berkeley
- REMOVING THE BANDAGES
A canopy of white guy-wires
sweeps skyward as we cross the new Bay Bridge
into San Francisco.
I cannot see the Ferry Plaza,
the Transamerica Pyramid,
gray Embarcadero monoliths
reflecting stark afternoon light.
I listen to the rhythmic thrum of tires.
Instead of the cityscape, my brain creates
leafless winter trees
rising over open meadows
floating past the car window
highway to Tuscaloosa,
Alabama winter-green grass going brown.
I know this image is all wrong.
But the grass sways with the motion of the car.
- RETURNING HOME
Winding up the two-lane road
past the California landscape:
manzanita, bay, live oak and evergreen.
I remember leafy shadows, evening light
but I see the tall red brick tenements
stretching up 14th Street, NYC,
Lower East Side, 1970,
as far as my eye can see.
Where do they come from?
The buildings waver, remain following me
around the curve, over the creek.
As we drive on, the mirage
disappears in oncoming headlights.
I am learning to make friends with what I see.
Not what’s there.
- LETTING GO
“Take a look at this photograph.”
The page of the album turns
in a crisp November light,
colors swirling: red-brown, rose, white, grey.
No form, no shape.
“Isn’t she beautiful?”
“What am looking at?” I ask.
“Nate and Kelsey, at the altar,”
and the grey becomes my son’s suit
the rose-red a bridesmaid’s dress
and the sun gleams clear
through the redwood canopy.