A Trip to the Minotaur

I haven’t been able to add anything to this search-journal-for-strength, which I’m now equating with a search for well-being, because I’ve been unwell.

Not unwell in a clinical sense — although last night I felt that I might also be contracting an inflammation of my neural system — but rather I had not been able to keep a firm hold on key elements of health. During this bout of un-wellness (we ask one another how we are doing, then often follow up with the anticipated answer: ‘well, I hope’), I lost consciousness of anything but my suffering. Suffering over what, you might ask. It’s taken me a while to answer that particular question, and the answers may continue to arrive over the next few days.

For one thing, I lost hope. I’m not sure which came first, but I also lost my sense of orientation. It’s also easy to say I lost balance, which is slightly different from orientation, since balance is not about fixing on a central point but rather a playing off of opposite forces. I’m reminded of my Portuguese friend Manuel Gonzalves with Circus Vargas when I worked publicity for them. Manuel could balance himself atop rolling logs and would continue to add logs, stacking them in opposite directions so that the roll of one log would go right to left, while the log underneath would roll forward and backward. He performed this act three times a day. Often I was in his trailer visiting with him and his wife only minutes after a performance. His mind was always on something else. We never talked about his balancing or how he learned the art or how he felt while he was atop the logs being watched by five thousand people, his ears filled with a small but powerful band playing. The balance that Manuel possessed was clearly a gift, something not on loan to everyone, no matter the practice. Yet I think of Manuel when I can’t seem to balance my family life, my personal goals, my job demands, the dictates of a healthy diet, and the exercise that my body, like a dog, waits patiently to embrace at the close of every day.

When things fall out of balance in my world, I have the added, self-denigrating impulse to lapse into depression and begin to see all my pursuits as hopeless. That’s where this bit of prose started out, I believe: with the statement that I’d lost hope. However, there’s so much more involved to depression that to say ‘I am depressed’ properly, one would have to possess a voice like a symphonic orchestra. The word ‘depressed’ should always come out as polyphonic, because so many strands of life combine to make it happen. Depression should also appear as a Yellow Submarine-type character as drawn by Peter Max: a scamp who wears a coat of many colors, their principal hues on the dark side. But not entirely. There are golds and yellows, too, because depression is such a court jester: it’s making fun of our lives when it makes its un-grand, un-wanted entrance. Depression intends not to entertain us but to turn our existence into a joke – for no one but ourselves. It’s a wonder that we stand still for depression, but there you have it. One disappointing episode at work, one slightly wounding letter received in the inbox, one alcoholic drink with double the spirits that evening (as if that were going to shoot down these rocky experiences), together with dreams of oblivious sleep after which everything would be okay: dreams all right, as in dream on.

Any health journal worth its salt should acknowledge the backside of health, which is lack of well-being. And lack of well-being is painful. It hurts in the heart, the gut, and the neurons that keep firing those bad experiences over and over in the mind.

What to do? Personally I had to endure a second day of malaise. However, somewhere in the middle of the day I struck upon a tactic that might help me out of my problems at the workplace. Can you sense the flame of hope re-igniting? I couldn’t do anything about the alienating email (which wasn’t meant to be alienating; quite the contrary, I realized), so I let it rest. I made plans to exercise and run. I had visions of generating endorphins, then finishing with a sweaty thirty minutes of resistance training.

But you know. Somewhere in the midst of these plans. I just. Laid down. In an instant I was out. I knew it wouldn’t last long, and it didn’t. But when I woke up, I felt hugely rested. Of course. It was the first true rest I’d had in 36 hours. At that point I could feel that my body – yes, back in touch with my body – was saying: don’t go running, don’t work out heavily today.

Instead, loosen up with a yoga video. I chose Rodney Yee’s 25 minutes on hip-openers, was going to follow it up with another clip on twists, but the power went off in our neighborhood. These days, in Cairo, power cuts are daily. Why do they always take me by surprise? Just the same I’ve figured out what to do. I can either sit in the darkness and meditate – a good option since there is no light coming into the house from any direction at all. Or, as I’ve discovered, the gas supply to the house doesn’t cut off in sympathy with the electricity. One can cook!

I don’t have to finish this story. You can see that I uncoiled out of my un-wellness; I got in touch with myself again. I have a feeling that you know all about these experiences. Don’t you think they have to be figured into any mindful quest for strength? Otherwise, we’ll begin to cut out whole sections of life. Life! To my way of thinking, it’s either all or nothing when it comes to monitoring health, which is a big part, but not all, of life. The periods of un-wellness count. The trick is to ride them out and pay close attention to how one finally manages to pick back up the thread to wellness.

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