Pause 2

Pause Part 2

I have arthritis in my right thumb and middle finger.  When I was in my first weeks of college and in the back seat – if it could be called a backseat – of a friend’s sports car, another friend shut the passenger door on my hand. My middle finger was broken in three places, my thumb in one.  In the library of our lives, our bones and joints become the reference archives for degenerative processes.

Several times a year and unpredictably, my middle finger – the arthritis cannot be repaired – becomes, in an instant, so painful that in order to use my hand I have to splint my finger for several days.  Kathy carries an emergency repair kit in her purse; a popsicle stick and roll of paper tape. A physical therapist gave me a thumb brace.  For purposes of hoping to get certain points across, I have been fortunate in not creating confusion with my gestures by never having had to wear the splint and the brace at the same time.

I also have a brace for my left ankle.  My ankle, an orthopedist speculated, was sprained and broken and went untreated after a snowboarder hit me while I was getting off a ski lift decades ago.  I use a special sunscreen on my face because of the former skin cancers I’ve had, and I apply, on a daily basis, a hyper-steroid cream to control a rash that occurs at the site of a now invisible cut in my right eyebrow. The cut occurred decades ago when my head encountered a rock covered in barnacles and apparently a fungus.  I use a pad to protect an artificial kneecap when I garden and I sleep best if I don’t lie on my right shoulder.  Grapefruit gives me instant indigestion and one of my toes is increasingly feeling numb. 

I could go on, but the internet being a permanent record, I’m not certain that even this brief description of my body’s foibles won’t be used against me at some point in the future.  As you age you can’t be certain that someday you won’t be struck with a desire to join the likes of an art activity program that requires finger dexterity at a senior center.

I unintentionally awakened Kathy the other night.  I was getting up to take a couple of Tylenol because of some back pain that was keeping me awake and I stubbed my toes.   As I sat on the edge of our bed moaning and soothing my foot, I told Kathy that I was so glad that we were together and that I, with my various physical symptoms, sounds, and scaffolding, wasn’t dating and spending the night with a stranger.

Nature speaks in symbols and signs. 

                                                                        John Greenleaf Whittier

Despite having experienced a life-threating health issue in the past, I, as I have aged and despite my fortune, sometimes still feel a little bit betrayed by my body, by the signs and symbols that, like all things, I am impermanent.  The feeling of betrayal comes perhaps – in part – from the feelings that we all have at some point, the feelings that we shouldn’t really have problems; that when something goes wrong that something is out of sync with our expectations.   We long for certainty and predictability.  Our bodies, as we age, seldom participate with our egos and our pride, two aspects of our being that are so reluctant to recognize that aging is out of their control.  What is within the control of our ego, however, and what is so often difficult for me and my sense of pride to acknowledge is that how I age and the degree to which I show myself forgiveness, grace, and kindness is up to me – up to us.

There is a Buddhist Metta prayer that begins,

 As everything ages, may each of us be kind to ourselves… 

The intent of the prayer is to start with bestowing kindness on self and then expand that expression outward to all other.

When I came home from a hospital, now almost a decade ago, I was broken and felt distanced from being of any value to anyone.  I learned the Metta prayer – I said it every day – with no sincerity in the beginning – no belief that I deserved kindness, compassion, and forgiveness from myself. I sometimes said the prayer with tears I did not understand.

I think we all have some degree of doubt about our worth, some fundamental belief that we are not totally okay.  When things happen to us, the losses, the illnesses, the set-backs, the periods of grief and longing – the processes of aging – the feelings of being less than can become embellished.  It is at these times in our lives that learning how to give kindness and grace to ourselves becomes of primary importance to our healing, to our on-going sense of self-worth, to those acts of compassion that we will be called upon to share with others.

I read, in those distant days of doubt, a Buddhist teacher who wrote,

 Every breath, new chances.

In those broken days, this intention was easier for me to relate to – the belief in hope.  Offering up kindness and grace to myself has taken longer.  The ego and pride of my youth are still getting to know the old man I am becoming, but as they watch me tape my hand, pad my knee, brace my stance, they are listening – learning. 

Every breath, new chances.

Last month I wrote in the article Pause, that I would write this month about a practice that helps me and others move from the inherent bias we have towards the negative; a practice that lifts the spirit and keeps the shadows at bay. I was going to write about the process of gratitude, but the role that kindness towards self plays in our health and aging process apparently wanted to take over the keyboard today. 

In retrospect, I’m grateful that it did.  Kindness in our times needs a consciously enabled opportunity to speak. 

Deep breath, breathe

Fred, August 12, 2019

Photograph by Laura Gilchrist

6 Responses

  1. Janet Amundson-Splidsboel says:

    The writings here by you and John are perfect for me right now; I will read them more than once.. Thank you Fred?

  2. Marian Meyer says:

    When I read your words I hear your voice. Thank you for writing in such a peaceful way.

  3. Fred Swan says:

    Thank you Marian. I’m honored.

  4. Fred Swan says:

    Thank you Janet. We all have stories in our hearts. I greatly admire the ones you share through your artwork.

  5. Stephanie Brockway says:

    Such great words of truth, the sharing of vulnerability is a soothing balm to all of us
    All those pesky thoughts that flicker in our brains, that we never give a voice to. But once spoken, loose their power and hold over us. Why it is, that Grace and kindness towards ourselves, is so hard to find? A timely reminder for me to seek it

  6. Fred Swan says:

    I’m honored by your time and thoughts Stephanie. A life long need – to forgive and love ourselves. We’re such hard self-critics, even blaming ourselves as small children for so many of the behaviors of the adults around us.