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December 8, 2011

From Fly Creek: Words from the heart

— Eons ago when I was a college sophomore, I dutifully copied down a definition of masterful writing, i.e., of literature: It is, my professor intoned, “the enduring expression of significant human experience in words well chosen and well arranged.”

Three necessary elements, then: human experience that is profound; the artful choice of language for expression; and the test of time. The last is essential: Will what has been judged significant and then carefully expressed have captured a universal? Will it speak to readers in one, five, or ten centuries hence?

This column is meant to enshrine a piece of masterful writing. It came to me as part of a letter, and I think it meets all the above criteria, including having a universality that will speak as long as there are humans.

The writer was a woman who’s read my recent book, “Wobbling Home.” She has Parkinsonism; and, as I hoped in writing, the book has proved very useful to her. I haven’t said much to you lately about my dealing with a disease still not closely defined in my case.

The best judgment I’ve had remains the one from that grand Hungarian specialist down at Johns Hopkins: “We must patiently wait as the symptoms mature. Then we can make a definitive judgment.” Well, the symptoms have been maturing — not enough yet, perhaps, to make the final diagnosis, but certainly enough to confirm a condition in progress.

As you know, I’m falling down more these days; cf. my last column called “Tail over Tin Cup.” Tremors, day and night, have increased. And, though my mind remains clear enough to write and to speak publicly, there’s no  question that I’m losing someground in cognitive functions.

But I’m certainly still clearheaded enough to drive and to joke with friends, and even to win an occasional thrustand- parry with the Fly Creek General Store’s Tom Bouton, that master of verbal dueling. And, thank God, I can still correspond with you.

But let me quote now from that letter recently sent to me. (A mutual friend, knowing of the writer’s Parkinsonism, had sent my book to her; and she responded by sending me a letter via that mutual friend.) She says this:

“The first thing I did was to turn to the back cover blurb, and my eyes lit on the words, ‘he sees the disease as emanating from the same loving Source that gives him life.’ Right there in the front hall where mail is delivered, I choked up and started to cry.

I haven’t allowed myself to do much weeping since I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in February of ’07, because once I start to cry I tend to live on the edge of tears for several days. But [the cover’s words] touched me deeply, for where God is, there is hope.

“I don’t mean hope for a cure from Parkinson’s. I had only lately realized that my PD was a gift. It happened one night. . . when I . . . asked myself what I would do if my PD were suddenly cured. I found myself protesting that I didn’t want it cured. With PD, I was starting down a new path.”

(And here, friends, begins the passage so rich with meaning, so beautifully couched in language, that I call it great writing): “With PD I was learning so much about many things that I would never hope to know otherwise — about values, about coping, about pain, about hopelessness, about kindness, about loss of control, about strategies to get around new disabilities, about humor, about the physiology of emotion, about denial, about creativity in the presence of disintegration, about rejection and acceptance, about much more; but perhaps most of all, about the loss of self on the one hand while on the other, the growth of one’s closeness to the allencompassing Love which makes all things possible.”

The intensity and cumulative effect of that cascade of words, every one so perfectly apt, must move one deeply; certainly anyone with enough age and life’s experience to grasp what this woman is saying.

I may be biased in judgment; this friend speaks my own mind. What she says about the richness that has come to her, and from a source both unexpected and unchosen, rings true to my very soul. My disease has enriched me, and in exactly the ways this woman has cataloged.

These last four years I’ve tried to share with you the richness Parkinson’s has brought me. Hence the occasional columns about Parkinson’s as experienced, and the support group that has helped a lot of participants, and the many talks I’ve given on the subject. And hence “Wobbling Home.”

Of course I don’t understand the mazelike pattern that, if we will only let it, leads us on in our growth and deepening.

But I do know that humbleness, perhaps the most elemental form of wisdom, comes intensely through direct experience of physical and mental decline and a clear sense of where it is leading us.

Aeschylus said it well, twenty-five centuries ago: “We who learn must suffer, even in our sleep, as pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart. And in our desolation, without our will, comes wisdom to us by the awesome grace of God.”

One can draw this wisdom closer by embracing it, by saying, so let it be. Or, more simply, amen.