I spend a good deal of summer sprawled on my back on the lawn, staring up at the cloudless sky. It is not that I crave moments of stillness. I am simply trying to restore enough strength to my legs so I can continue one of my favorite activities: gardening.
Like many Americans, I feel compelled to do — something, anything. Doing nothing is not an option. It isn't productive!
Illness, or disability, as in my case, can abruptly and forever alter that American, must-be-always-busy approach to living. It sure has for me.
Today, a frequent "activity" involves waiting for my legs to recover, whether it be in the garden, the grocery store, my car, or the lawn furniture section of Lowe's, a place I know well, while my boyfriend John shops for supplies for my home.
If a store has a chair and my legs are tired, I plop myself down. If no chair is available, as is often the case, I just sit on the ground.
When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, or MS, 12 years ago, I was very much in denial about what "supposedly" was going on in my body.
After all, I was still much more active than most people, regularly subjecting myself to arduous mountain bike or horseback rides over the logging roads that criss-cross the timberlands surrounding Astoria, where I lived for a number of years.
Eventually, I could not ignore the ever-so-gradual, but incessant, loss of strength and coordination in my legs, hallmark symptoms of the disease that damages the nerve-messaging system.
Today, when I obstinately turn a deaf ear to my body's pleadings — I just have to weed that last flower bed — my body lets me know in no uncertain terms that I am going to stop. Now.
Often, my stubborn, impatient self, still very much in residence, immediately tries to stand, but my legs order me to stay put.
My frequent, forced mini-respites have brought a discovery, or perhaps I should say, many discoveries.
In the garden, for example, as I lie splayed on the grass, I have nothing to do but take in the world around me, a world I usually miss: the mythical creatures materializing from the clouds, as they did when I was a child; the songbirds creating a chorus in my backyard; the earthworm methodically tilling the soil; and the hum of the honey bees working among the lavender and cat mint.
When I view my temporary convalescence this way, I don't feel so bad.
Sometimes I wonder whether MS hasn't been a message from the universe, teaching me a lesson I needed to learn: that each moment of life has value, period. No qualifications. I have worth, regardless of whether I can claim a certain title or achievement, am jetting off to some exotic locale or hiking up a rugged Cascades trail.
If I am breathing, if I am aware, life has value.
I realize it is human nature to try to make sense of inexplicable, difficult events in our lives, to rationalize why they occur. Perhaps that explains what I am doing when I imagine MS as a divine intervention. I realize that millions more would have the disease if it simply were a case of needing to learn to slow down.
Believe me, if I could go back, if I could regain the body that rode three Cycle Oregons and the STP bike marathon twice between Portland and Seattle, I would.
The thing is, I would want to take my newfound awareness with me, or maybe I should say, my regained childhood wisdom that we adults cast aside in our hectic lives: to really see life around us, even if it extends no farther than our arm's reach or our eye's gaze.
I am not always so philosophical about MS. I have many moments of anger, of grief, of despair. Alone, sometimes I unleash a primal scream when I cannot do a seemingly simple task I "should" be able to do.
Those moments are short-lived.
I am not special in this adaptive perspective. This is an attitude most of us adopt when faced with adversity. It's our animal instinct to not only survive but thrive. As I like to say, what's the alternative?
Some time ago, I read a newspaper story about a man who nearly became paralyzed in an accident. He was quoted as saying he would rather have died than lose the use of his legs.
Pre-MS, I made the same assumption, that my quality of life would be significantly diminished if I were to lose, say, the use of my legs (and, yes, I still can walk a block or two, although with some difficulty).
One of the many lessons of disability, however, has been not only the resilience of the human spirit but the richness of the mind to compensate for a loss of physical strength.
As a lover of literature, I often fall back on other writers for inspiration, in this case, the great early 19th-century British poet William Blake:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
As I rest beneath a cloudless sky on this July afternoon, I notice the Shasta daisies, grown lanky in our recent heat wave, and tell myself, "I must stake them."
Then a faint scent of lavender wafts my way, as I stretch myself onto the grass, and I give a silent thanks that I must stay put a few minutes more.
Joan Herman teaches English at Lower Columbia College. The title of her new column is taken from "A Summer Day," a poem by Mary Oliver, which includes the lines, Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is it you plan to do/With your one wild and precious life? Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org