Apple a day, metaphors at bay

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My current obsession? I want to be better in bed. Here it is, flu season, and — clearly — I’m just as rotten at being sick as I ever was.

My very own custom-made version of the winter crud, which begins — mysteriously enough — with a whistle in my ears, is here; and by day three it’s in my chest and my vocal cords have gone through a meat grinder.

Very shortly after that, the four horsemen — chills, aches, hacking cough, and fever — career into my body, and, with their hoofing and snorting, I go down. But not gently.

No, I kick and fight back and pretend it’s not happening as long as I can until finally, eyes shiny and face flushed, I collapse, strapped onto the symptom gurney and being wheeled away to I don’t know where.

All I can think about is that wellness grass, over there, on the other side of the fence, and how green it is, how envious I am of the people standing there. Am I on the outside looking in? The inside looking out? Why did I get this thing? Will I ever be well again?

Of course, this kind of pitiful, prattling interior dialectic thwarts healing. I know this.

So then I start wishing I were more like my sick-people role models: the ones who sleep for three days straight. Or toss back Theraflu until one day it’s simply replaced with a life-resuming morning Cappuccino. Most of all I envy the ones who accept their fate with peace, drink their green tea, and then fall into difficult 900-page novels.

Because of the fact that envy is misguided, I then opt for a thoughtful meditation on the sick boys and girls from childhood stories, the pale ones who patiently watch as seasons of birds, leaves, and snowflakes scud by their window panes until the scarlet fever or what have you is finally vanquished. There is beauty in the natural process of going through the dark night of sickness to get to the new dawn of health.

So why can’t I be more natural with it, huh?

Maybe the answer lies in etiology — the childhood causes of this disease of resisting disease. Here is so complicated and rich a field to mine, I don’t know where to start.

Double pneumonia, delirium, and a bathtub filled with ice cubes? Fabricating an illness in Mrs. Wilson’s fourth grade until the symptoms become real? Long, empty sick days in a big house with a mother who cannot, under any circumstances, have her housecleaning schedule interrupted (which explains a visceral response to the combination of soft-boiled egg/sound of floor waxer)? I don’t know!

And when I don’t know, the car of my mind will inevitably veer onto the MetaphorLand off ramp. There are those, as we know, who believe all illness and injury are primarily a reflection of spiritual, emotional, or psychic imbalance.

Sinuses are about repression of grief and unshed tears. Hands are about not being able either to hold on or let go. Etcetera. I am so prone to this kind of thinking — not just about illness but about every single thing in life — that I need to be polemically reminded that there are also those who disagree.

One of them is American woman of letters Susan Sontag (1933-2004), who in her 1978 celebrated treatise Illness as Metaphor states up front that “…the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”

She names tuberculosis and cancer, and later AIDS, as illnesses that have not benefited from being culturally viewed as metaphors for anything. In fact, her view is that patients suffer unnecessarily by attributing additional meaning to their disease.

Exhausted by meanings, I partially agree! As I lie here, then, trying not to attribute much meaning to my symptoms, their related organs or body parts, or to illness as a whole, I try imagining a world without metaphors. To do this, I have to imagine myself as a crow or a box or a bolt of lightening, which, though they exist in our human world as metaphors, exist to themselves as simply themselves. I am able to hold this thought — myself as crow — for about six seconds before my stream, river, flood of consciousness collapses the dike.

Fast forward to now: I have managed to stay on the couch for four solid days and get better. How do I do it? Ha! A lucky combination of blocking metaphors, drinking gallons of hot fluids, and four entire seasons of a TV series I’m too embarrassed to name.

Now that I’m better, however, I know what I’m in for: that inevitable flooding back of metaphors. So, I’m rolling up my pants.

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