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January 18, 2011

15-1-11 Meditation

15-1-11

This meditation came to mind a couple of days ago and even in the throes of relocation I remembered the book – God Of A Hundred Names, ed. Greene&Gollancz – and the shelf where I’d set aside the stack of poetic metaphysics ready for transit. This opening passage struck me when I first read it 25 years ago and it’s lodged…

“Say to thyself, Marcus, at dawn; today I shall run up against the busybody, the ungrateful, the overbearing, the deceitful, the envious, the self-centred. All this has fallen to their lot because they are ignorant of good and evil. But I, understanding the nature of the Good, that it is fair, and of Evil, that it is ugly, and the nature of the evil-doer himself, that he is my kin – as sharing, not indeed the same blood and seed, but intelligence and a spark of the Divine – can neither be damaged by any of them (for no-one can involve me in what is disgraceful) nor can I be angry with my kinsman nor estranged from him. For we have been born for cooperation, as have hands, feet, eyelids and the rows of upper and lower teeth. Therefore to thwart one another is unnatural; and we do thwart one another when we show resentment and dislike.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Stoic

Christmas and New Year already definitely feel like last year; it was New Year’s Eve 2009(!) when awoke in post-op Intensive Care I thought ‘hello, here I am’ and therefore knew I was, and realised as I thought it that I’d arrived at this conclusion by Cartesian deduction. Thank you, René; I don’t know if I actually smiled at this helpful diagnostic but I felt like it.
This time last year I was in a new world, comfortably anaesthetised, ticking audibly like a pantomime crocodile, a row of waxy-brittle sutures up my chest, on watch for odd body sensations and unable to judge whether they were related to the condition, the aftermath of the surgery, the medication or the wear and tear of age exposed by the resultant fragility, dammit (or in German, da mit).
I spent a lot of time in the recovery ward thanking anyone within earshot who had any part in any routine procedure, including the cleaning staff. I should say ‘ anyone within conversational range’, unlike some other patients – patients! – who bypassed the attention-button by the bed and shouted ‘Nurse… nurse… nurse!’ until someone turned up at the bedside – one in particular who’d greet the nurse with “I’ve been calling for five minutes!’. I took to keeping time myself and found that I sometimes had to listen to him for as long as two minutes, though it began to feel much longer.
I was advised on diet, exercise, the effect of anticoagulants – look out for spontaneous nosebleeds and bruising, use an electric razor, more dietary restrictions. A range of food I’d thought irreproachably good for the heart turns out to be bad for Warfarin – green leafy veg, chick peas, cranberry, grapefruit, wheat bran and oats, avocado and even olive oil (which in any case, the heart-health advice man told me, turns to a Bad Oil when heated in cooking). Mature and blue cheeses are of course in any case not good in quantity but, oh man, I watch Wallace and Gromit adventures with a sigh; cheese runs ice-cream a close second in my yummy treats stakes.
These days I’ve regained confidence in the proper razor and no longer fear Kill Bill spouts of claret if I break the skin, though biting my tongue can cause hours of seepage, particularly embarrassing when I look in the mirror and discover traces of overflow at the corners of my mouth, like a very low budget Nosferatu.
The first electric’s foils developed little threadbare spaces for the buzzy blades to poke through within a couple of months, just enough to leave a pimply effect of little nicks which didn’t seep but didn’t heal easily either, and the spares proved more expensive to replace than the cost of a new razor. Both took an age to clear the stubble in those circular motions that feel like you’re colouring-in with a big crayon; neither gave that freshly de-fuzzed sensation that soap and blade can in a few decisive sweeps.
A year ago I had a very acute sense of being ‘in’ a body that had proved prone to all manner of unpredictable mechanical failure and when I was able to ask for the catheter to be removed    – a very queasy moment despite a deft tug by the nurse – and get about slowly but independently, I felt like I was cradling the newly installed prosthetic valve and aortic lining as if they were made of thermometer glass.
This careful plod was made more interesting by the occasional loss of balance when the ward floor felt as if it was the deck of a Channel Ferry.
This illusion of riding the swell became a regular feature for a few months, unpredictable but a routine ‘one of those’ and it reached a peak last Autumn when I had bouts that felt exactly like the vertigo of dropping from the peak of a steep roller-coaster even though I was seated. Closing my eyes to shut out the room slowly skewing around me, I’d chance a glance and find I was sitting ‘upright’ at about 30 degrees.
I was advised in those first few weeks to place a hand on my chest if I sneezed or coughed in case I sprang open like a rack of lamb. Gentle exercise was recommended so long as the arms didn’t rise above shoulder-level.
As ever, I wondered about that sense of a continuous mind’s-I, the sense of a ‘me’ that persisted in all these changes, and I reminded myself that at some point in an unspecified future the experience would be an episode I’d look back on. Happily, here ‘I’ am, ticking along.

This reflection on the persistent I-dentity was prompted by the rediscovery of a copy of Norman Lindsay’s ‘The Magic Pudding’ given to me by a neighbour on my 6th birthday, now missing its cover but intact with its rattling rhymes, bad manners and bouts of fisticuffs – quite unsuitable for small children in that awf-ly polite era, which may account for my lasting affection for it. The Magic Pudding, Albert, encourages its keepers to dig in and take slices. It’s self-replenishing and provides any flavour you wish for; truly the cake you can eat and have, and thus a tempting target for Puddin’ Thieves, hence the necessity for robust defence by Bill Barnacle, sailor (ret’d), and his doughty companion Sam Sawnoff, penguin.
As the truculent Puddin’ says, impatient with the well-bred hero Bunyip Bluegum, koala, who considers Albert’s demand that a slice be cut for him ‘very polite’:-
“Politeness be sugared, politeness be hanged,
Politeness be jumbled and tumbled and banged
It’s simply a matter of putting on pace,
Politeness has nothing to do with the case.”
I also keep the copies of the Winnie-The-Pooh books I inherited from my mother and inscribed ‘From Uncle Andrew, 1937’ – her 6th birthday – and I still admire the writing, but The Magic Pudding retains its subversive thrill.

The cardiac health advice is that while oily fish is Good, seafood is Bad for cholesterol levels, so – bah! – I have to be wary of king-prawn Chinese dishes, which can also be too salty for my own good. Being top of the food-chain is of course no guarantee that The Prawn can’t get you back at the best of times. The Slightly-Off Prawn Diet can be a dramatic appetite-suppressant if you have a couple of days to spare while it works through.
Now I have to be wary of my appetite for Chinese cuisine, so… raise a glass of mineral-water to The Chung Ying on Chester Rd., who do a range of treats-in-moderation I can order with only slight impact on my conscience and also, I’ve discovered, the non plus ultra of chips, crisp on the outside, light inside and in little baggy-portions that preserve me from the Friday night indulgence of generous chip-shop scoops and the attendant temptation to top them up with chicken kebab-meat which I tell myself is the ‘healthy’ option until I’ve finished and feel as if I’ve taken a broadside amidship and swallowed a quantity of the Briny.
The Puddin’ again:-
‘Onions, bunions, corns and crabs,
Whiskers, wheels and hansom cabs
Beef and bottles, beer and bones
Give him a feed and end his groans.’

  1. Let’s hear it for gratitude, goodwill and politeness. Except when thanks and smiles are obviously insincere, they are a (cholesterol-free) grease on the wheels of society, and an encouragement to those who do what they do to continue to do it with good heart – whether or not ‘it’s just their job’. And the hospital staff certainly got you up and running again, Graham, for which I will happily add my own thanks. (Now with bonus metronome track.)

    You…. That continuous I-dentity, as you put it, is attached to something that is quite obviously changing all the time, even as we think (literally, as we think). The Sue who is writing this sentence is not exactly the Sue who has just written it, nor the Sue who has read it back and considered it, the one who has now revised it slightly to read more fluently, the one who has just posted the finished comment to the blog, and the Sue-yet-to-come who may be pondering it again in the light of any responses made. (Note to world: bloggers like Graham need response. If what you read makes you think, say something! Otherwise we end up thinking that all our readers want to do is sell us dubious medical goods and obtain our bank details under false pretences.) But all life is change. That is what it is – a process of organised change. It’s the degree of organisation that separates a living thing, however simple, from an eroding rock or a burning star.

    We learn to cope with the variety and constant change in the external world of our senses by learning to identify things, then categories and more complex systems, so that we can work with them. We give them names and stories and meanings and reasons as we learn. (The sky is blue. Those are the clouds, which make rain. That front they predicted is coming in from the west, I think we should postpone the beach trip.) To do this we need to have an apparently fixed viewpoint, a still centre, a self-reference point. Otherwise we’d be lost in a sea of sensation. The animals that seem to have the strongest sense of self-identity are those that reason and observe the most. And the same holds true for people.

    Even with an apparently ‘changeless’ self, the changes outside our minds can overwhelm us all too easily. Especially the big ones: grief, serious illness or accident, uprootings and severed connections – things where the future is suddenly too unpredictable, even for our I-dentities, so that worries, stresses and strains block our ability to learn. (No wonder we’ve filled our religions with changeless beings, with promises of happy-ever-afterlives, and so forth. Reassurance, stability, something to cling to.) But we do cope: come gradually out of the stress, reasserting our sense of self and learning our way through the changes which are busy changing us. That’s life. Good, innit?

    Comment by Sue Jones — January 19, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

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