Several nights ago I was talking to a friend whom I hadn’t seen for awhile, and I offered the following summary of what I am feeling at the current moment, two and three-quarters years after my accident. The gains are beginning to catch up with the losses. I am not sure at this moment whether they will ever overtake them, but eventually there may be some kind of balance. I said this to my friend because a few days before, while I was riding home in my wheelchair in the van, after a trip with two of my caregivers, I suddenly and somewhat inexplicably began to feel as if the situation I was in could in fact be more of a gift than a defeat of all that I thought I would be at this time in my life.
We had just been on an outing with the six-year-old daughter of one of the caregivers to an absolutely beautiful arboretum, Red Butte Gardens, near the University, watching the child play in the fountains and wondering at the colors and shapes of the flowers around us. A day or two earlier, I had gone out for lunch to a restaurant for the first time, a Salt Lake fixture called Oasis, and wandered around (in my wheelchair) in the adjoining Golden Braid bookstore looking for a statue of the Buddha, something that was to be a gift from my class on Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.
There it was. A statue of the Buddha that seemed to convey the equanimity I have been searching for. It was high up on a shelf in the bookstore, mixed in with all sorts of counterculture and occult paraphernalia, so it was a little hard to tell that this figure was exactly the right one, the one I’d been looking for, but when we brought it home and found the right niche, slightly veiled by plants on a low table, it seemed exactly right. Equanimity. What I’ve been seeking.
Life will never be the same. We know that. But nobody’s life is quite the same, as time goes on. Ours, fortunately, is getting better, from its awful lows. A night or two ago, we went out for dinner at the home of some friends—this was the first time we’ve been able to go to a private home. It’s a challenge: almost everyone’s house has stairs, both at the entrance and sometimes inside, not navigable in Brooke’s giant wheelchair. Our hosts, Tom and Christiane, had been working on this for weeks, measuring the width of their doors, the height of the steps, keeping their fingers crossed that the weather would be good, because the only place in their house we thought we could reach would be the big back porch. Of course, this was a treat: the weather was cloudless and the porch overlooks the entire city.
The porch offers a frontal view of the Utah State Capitol, a replica of the one in Washington, and of course prods you to think about the political maneuverings that go on inside it. But we avoided political discussion altogether—astonishing, given how disturbed we’ve all been by recent events—and turned to something deeper. We were talking about things you wish you’d done in your life but hadn’t, and at first this turned to trips—“We wish we’d gone to Vietnam. We wish we’d gone to Patagonia. We wish we’d gotten to somewhere in Africa”—but then turned to kinds of things we wished we’d done that don’t require locomotion. What kinds of mental things did you always want to do but never got around to?
Someone said something about being liberated, now that their children have grown up and they’re free to travel, to do anything, but then went on to explore artistic and emotional roads not taken. This notion of liberation touched something in me, the stark disparity between being paralyzed, being confined to a wheelchair and unable to go most places, to travel any great distance, to do most physical things, and a certain liberation of mind or spirit, if you can call it that. We’ve written about this earlier, but it came home more fully to me that night, sitting on that big open porch looking out at the city. I thought again of Coleridge’s great poem “This lime tree bower my prison,” in which the poet begins by expressing his anger at being confined because of an accident:
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime tree bower my prison! I have lost
Such beauties and such feelings, as had been
Most sweet to my remembrance…
His friends have left him in his garden and gone out walking in the countryside; he can see them in his mind’s eye, descending from a ridge into the narrow, shaded, fantastic glade of a streambed, and he cannot go with them. But he discovers something new, even as he imagines where they are, climbing up again, gaining a view out over the land, seeing the sunset. It’s a joy in their joy: they can see these things, even though he cannot.
But it’s not all altruism, self-sacrifice, that they are having these experiences while he cannot. There are new experiences for him too, of a sort far more fine-grained than he would have had walking in the countryside:
Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad
As I myself were there…
…have I not mark’d
Much that has sooth’d me. Pale beneath the blaze
Hung the transparent foliage; and I watch’d
Some broad and sunny leaf, and loved to see
The shadow of the leaf and stem above
Dappling its sunshine! And that walnut-tree
Was richly ting’d, and a deep radiance lay
Full on the ancient ivy, which usurps
Those fronting elms, and now with blackest mass
Makes their dark branches gleam a lighter hue
Through the late twilight…
I’ve read and taught this poem so many times but now realize of course I could never have fully understood it. I never thought I’d be in a situation anything like Coleridge’s, and of course my accident was much more serious and permanent than Coleridge’s, but there’s something here that allows me to see what a great poet has been able to see, to understand, in a situation like this. This is an uncanny experience, but in a way my whole life is an uncanny experience, with resonances to many earlier parts of my life and the literary works I have taught, but at the same time entirely strange and new. We’ve written about this poem and this experience of confinement and liberation before, but it continues to have new meaning, new reality, new depth. Peggy says she has a sense of complete calm too, at least most of the time, when Brooke isn’t in pain; she too is looking in new ways at the shadows and dappled light on the individual leaves in our bower here. Are the gains catching up with the losses? Is this the mental thing you always wanted to do but never got around to (as if it were that simple), something close to achieving equanimity?
Peter Mathiessen’s tale of a Buddhist monk in Nepal also comes to mind, as least as I remember it from a reading he gave here in the late ‘70’s; it’s been with me that long. The monk is old and no longer nimble enough to climb down from the cave on a high mountain ledge where he has been living. He is trapped, at least as we might say. The monk looks out from the ledge and sees the mountains and valleys around him, knowing he will die there, will never get down. His response to a visitor’s question about whether his situation is painful for him is this, It’s beautiful, especially since I have no choice.