Placeholder habits for setback times

an old man walking into the mist

About 5 days into my 11-day incarceration at Cedars Sinai (IBD Block), my handsome new gastroenterologist dropped by on morning rounds, indulged me with some perfunctory flirting as he made notes in his charty-chart, and then shot me a stern glance over imaginary half-glasses.

"You know," he said, "it wouldn't kill you to get out and walk around a little."

I looked at him; I looked at the IV still attached to my arm. I looked down at my impossibly bloated belly and the impossibly bony legs just past them. True, I'd used those knobbly sticks to get us all to the toilet several times per day, about 32 times, according to the notes I was obsessively keeping, but outside the room? Down the hall?

He waved vaguely in the direction of the window and the glorious L.A. day it framed.

And the courtyard, out there. You can take the elevator down.

Well, alrighty then.

I do not recall how far I made it that first day, but I do remember the feeling of finally stepping outside the hermetically sealed hospital confines and into the reasonably fresh Southern California air. It was exhilarating, only more so: better than the greatest top-down convertible ride on PCH, better than psilocybin mushrooms on an Ithaca summer day, even better than Disneyland. And I love Disneyland.

I remember marveling at how sunshine felt on my skin, and how the sky sounded, and how each breeze carried impossible mixtures of coolness and warmth. I remember being astonished at how involved everyone seemed, rushing here and there. I dimly remembered what rushing was like, it is, after all, my factory-installed setting. But it seemed so crazy right now, to be rushing when there was this sun and this sky and this air. I felt not exactly sad for them, but tender, the way I always felt like the angels in Berlin from that old Wim Wenders movie. Like I was out of time and place, and could see things for now that I couldn't see before, and that I would probably have to fight to see again. While not as heart-stoppingly amazing, the experience was not unlike the bloody epiphany I'd had a few days earlier: a veil lifted or fallen or however the hell it is that veils make themselves scarce.

This is partly my roundabout way of saying I'm sick again. As in, fighting-a-Crohn's-flare sick. Don't worry, I've done it before, more than once. Successfully! Yes, we could quibble about how successfully, as there have been subsequent flares, like this one. But each time, I learn a little more about what I can and cannot do safely. This time was screamingly obvious, in hindsight: do not follow up two weeks of crazy prep and one weekend of excellent (but energy-depleting) work with an 800-mile roundtrip driving excursion punctuated by heavy social activity. Especially when you are almost 50 and immunocompromised.

But it is also in part my way of reminding myself not to let the dazzling Perfect that I see there, sparkling just out of reach, get in the way of the very much good that exists and that is possible in the here and now.

Can I handle a full-on, two-mile walk first thing in the morning? I cannot. But a leisurely stroll to the library and back later in the day, with a rest there to skim a book or three? Absolutely.

Maybe not my full Nei Kung routine, but 15 minutes of Horse Stance, like my teacher told me to do, I dimly remember, when I once confessed my all-or-nothing mindset to him.

And when those are too much? I walk to the corner mailbox to send a note, or do ten minutes of Horse Stance. Five, even. And if I were immobilized temporarily, I suppose I would lie there and think about walking, or reflect on what Nei Kung has done for me, or see if I could do crazy chi-stimulating things with my mind only yet. (Doubtful.)

Like an old acting teacher used to say, if the answer has to be "all" or "nothing," most of the time it's going to be "nothing." Placeholder habits are a surprisingly simple, surprisingly gentle way back from that kind of thinking. It can even be a game, dreaming up how to do just a little of this, a placeholder of that.

That's all I got today. Except, well, stay healthy out there, if you are. And hang in there, if you're not.


Image by kasrak via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.