Taking Stock: My Musings on Spring, Health Goals, and Mortality

Folks, it happens every spring. My brain crawls out of its hibernating cave, squints in the morning light, and wipes the winter sleep from its eyes, ready to receive hopeful, happy thoughts.

I’m a gardener, so I’ve been gazing out at my dormant beds and planning my spring clean-up tasks to clear away dead lily leaves and brittle sedum husks, pull out early weeds, and till the hard spots.

Spring is also the time when I renew my commitment to exercising and eating a healthier diet. With the sun tilting more towards my little spot on the planet, I can better see myself in the mirror. It is in this moment when my true identity becomes clear once again.

I am a writer. I have the craft, the sensibilities and emotional intelligence of a writer, the social immaturity of a writer, the insecurity, self-centeredness and obsessiveness of a writer. But worst of all, I have the body of a writer.

The conflict between my true nature and a desire to change begins afresh.

I also have multiple sclerosis. It bears mentioning, though I don’t like to think of it as being part of my identity. That doesn’t mean it isn’t part of the “who” of me, I just don’t like to slide it in there alongside my writing and gardening. After all, it isn’t a skill, a career, or a hobby. It’s a medical condition. It's not an accomplishment, it isn't something one earns, it just is. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I still balk at saying I have multiple sclerosis. Every time I say it, I visualize standing at a podium in an AA meeting, admitting that I am an addict. I'm not belittling 12-step programs—they are tremendously helpful to millions of people—It's just that whenever I hear these confessions that start with “I am an __/I have__ . . .” there is, to my mind, a tinge of raciness, worldliness, or perhaps other-worldliness, something that suggests the confessor is a visitor from a secret, submerged place like Atlantis, where strange, mythic creatures commingle with humans that thrive in an altered form.

That is probably because I was raised in and continue to live in an insular environment away from diversity and suffering. I’d hoped that having multiple sclerosis would somehow redeem me and deliver me from unimaginative thinking and the kind of fear that accompanies ignorance and unfamiliarity. But though I am less ignorant of and more accepting of otherness and suffering, I still struggle with wanting to become a member of that horrid club to which I would never really want to belong, the kind of club that is, let’s face it, something akin to the Ku Klux Klan in its myopic intolerance of otherness: The arrogant able-bodied.

Let’s tie in this pot-boiler with the subject of my spring dilemma. I want to be stronger and my spastic muscles to be more flexible. I want to lose weight; eight pounds would put me back in my normal weight range. I want other things, too, that have more to do with vanity than with my health. Vanity is the tie-in with the darker elements mentioned above. Vanity can be a denial of weakness and imperfection. Unchecked, it could become antithetical to coping with a body weakened by multiple sclerosis, and to fostering an accepting attitude about looking less youthfully attractive because I’m nearing age sixty. Not only does my youth fade more each spring, its ebbing away brings my demise into sharper focus. I realize that I have 20-25 years left now, and with that fact comes an urgency to get going on some goals.

It seems as if my goals of losing eight pounds and gaining a little more strength and flexibility are entirely realistic and practical. Of course they are. But if that is all I had to deal with day in and day out, then reaching those goals would be a slam-dunk.

Spring lulls me into making such plans with its mild temperatures and partly cloudy weather. I still need to wear a coat and closed shoes, and the windy 50-degree days are ideal for comfortably walking around outside. In this kind of weather, I can easily fool myself into thinking that daily walks and sessions in the garden will be effortless and that I will maintain these activities. But how easily I forget that everything changes when the summer heat blazes down on all my plans to make good. An afternoon trip to the dollar store can suddenly become a struggle to remain standing after Uhthoff's phenomenon zaps my feet, balance, and strength sometime between getting out of my car and reaching the store entrance.

I can only hope that we’ll have another mild summer like last year and that I’ll make some progress towards my goals. After all, I did quit smoking after many years of struggle. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If that goal was reachable, surely my health and activity goals can be realized. The memory of past accomplishments are so valuable right now. As tenuous as they might feel in my weak, numb hands, I’m going to hang on for dear life.

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