Two phrases from my high school History and Comparative Religions teacher Willie Hall woke me this morning, the sound of his voice and clomping, swaying, gait resounding in my mind. These phrases—what I call the Tao of Mr. Hall—have helped sustain me through 26 years with MS.
“Life is dukkha.”
“You have to look at things with a different pair of glasses.”
Dukkha is a Buddhist concept with multiple meanings. Among them: suffering, transience, pain, change, impermanence. Life is suffering. Life is change. For everybody. In other words, we are all afflicted at one point or another with some kind of pain or change. Mr. Hall introduced me to this phrase the year before I would be diagnosed with MS. He himself was disabled, one shoe heavier and larger than the other. I picture him swaying through the classroom, lurching side to side. I totter like that, or shamble. It’s sometimes the only way forward. Is this dukkha? Mr. Hall might say, “If it’s part of life then yes,” (at least during our Buddhism unit).
MS brings undeniable change, reminding us of the fleeting nature of health, the losses that come with living in an unruly body. For some, unknown symptoms stir our deepest fears. I used to be most afraid of going blind from MS. And then that sort of happened, and it was different than I expected. I couldn’t read for a year and still live with residual effects, but I got through.
After that, I feared losing my memory, so at a poetry professor’s retirement ceremony I watched attentively as she looked through a wall for a word, the early stages of dementia claiming her. Nowadays, cognitive struggles and forgetfulness are “sort of happening,” and that’s dukkha, but so is the unexpected return of a stronger stride than I’ve had in years. Healing, the impermanence of a negative condition, is also change.
Recognizing that all of life is imbued with some form of suffering, it’s easier for me to accept my body’s betrayals, my mind’s cloud. Incrementally, MS has provided me early glimpses of some eventual fragilities we all will face. I already forget. I already pee my pants sometimes. I need assistance. May surviving these experiences help me empathize with seniors when they face similar humiliations for the first time.
A Different Pair of Glasses
When Mr. Hall would tell us “You have to look at things with a different pair of glasses,” he leaned forward, pinched the temple of his metal framed glasses, and shook them emphatically. Facing the uncertainties of MS, I have looked through many a pair of glasses. Literally.
The first pair I wore after optic neuritis were bifocals with a dark amber tint. They helped me read eventually, but when I looked straight ahead through the line between magnification and distance, the watery, bright haziness felt too familiar. LAST RESORT is printed on the arm of the frames. I wore others with similar tints, often hastily purchased at big box stores with too-bright fluorescent lighting. The mock-snakeskin cat eye frames on my favorite pair has since peeled back to reveal a white plastic core, like frayed myelin on a nerve.
Last week at a museum I offered my glasses to my friend as I explained my flawed depth perception from lazy eye. These amber-tinted glasses contain prisms to align my vision. “Whoa!” she said, a bit too loud, dazzled. One would think she had taken the best drug ever.
“How many do you see of things right now,” I laughed, knowing the prisms that prevent my double vision can prompt it in others.
“I don’t know, maybe three . . .” She took in the room through another pair of glasses, multiplying everything.
Looking through another pair of glasses of course refers to accepting other perspectives, getting outside of yourself for a while: re-vision, which is a huge part of the writing life. With relapsing MS, our bodies also revise old drafts of MS symptoms, which leave and return, similar but slightly altered. Poet Elizabeth Bishop revised her poem “One Art” in seventeen drafts(!). Two lines in particular illustrate the Tao of Mr. Hall:
So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
The lost sensation, lost strength, lost balance, lost vision—even the lost mind: it’s horrible and frightening, but not the greatest disaster, if we can survive, even thrive.