How to Live When You’ve Been Mostly Dead
The Princess Bride, Unknowing, and Offering your Fiat
I couldn’t speak.
I was pretty sure this is what Wesley from the Princess Bride had felt like when he had been “mostly dead” all day. The only way to get words out of him was to have Miracle Max pump air into his lungs and then squeeze his chest to get those precious words out into the air.
How do I explain what I need? My brain queried within me. How do I tell him that yes I was hungry, no I didn’t want any egg rolls - it just didn’t sound appetizing right now - and that there probably wasn’t much point in bringing me food anyway because opening and closing my jaws around something sounded as impossible as bench pressing 2000 pound slabs of lead?
Problem was, I didn’t have a Miracle Max to squeeze out those words, and I didn’t have the strength to squeeze them out myself.
So instead, I just looked at the man in front of me. I kept thinking that maybe if I strained hard enough I could communicate. I spent about forty seconds desperately trying to outmaneuver my incapacity. Maybe if I timed it just right, I could sneak out a few words on an exhale when my brain wasn’t watching?
For the 118th time that day, I released my efforts. There was little point in pressuring myself to do things I couldn’t.
Just be, Kelly. This will not be forever. Rest.
The man knelt down on the bed where I was sprawled out, unmoving.
“Okay, I’ll guess.” He stuck his finger in my curled up hand. “Squeeze my finger if I get close.”
I rolled my eyes with the half grin my face allowed.
“You want… wine?”
I didn’t drink. My insides snorted, and I’m pretty sure my faint facial expressions reflected it.
“You want… some omelets?”
I was allergic to eggs. I made a small groan.
“You’re… wanting to go on a hike. You want to have a dance party. Oh, I know it-- you want to play charades!” he exclaimed with triumph on his face.
I mustered my Miracle Max and squeezed out a whisper. “Crackers.”
Because… hunger. They could basically melt in my mouth, right?
“Crackers! You got it!” He scrambled from the bed into the adjoining kitchen, and returned with the blue box.
Opening it with a flourish, he picked out two rice crackers, stuck them in his mouth, and crunched them with satisfaction.
I lowered one eyebrow and gave him the stink eye, in a way so slight it probably looked like I had a tic.
“I know, I know,” he said good naturedly. “I’ll go get my own gluten snacks in a minute.”
He poured a few crackers on the bed next to me. I stared at them.
He paused, looking from me to the crackers and back. “Oh! Right.”
With the exaggerated mimicry you use when feeding a baby, he opened his mouth wide as if demonstrating to me what I needed to do in order to eat.
A breathy, silent snort escaped me. I opened my mouth a quarter inch.
“Heyo!” he celebrated as he popped the first cracker into my mouth.
I smirked. Silly as he was, he was taking care of me.
Illness, Control, and the Mother of God
It’s no joke when your body is in rebellion. After going through 18 months of the above, I was beyond grateful when I was able to move, feed myself, and laugh again. Most of the time, the experience of illness seems like a half-remembered nightmare.
But unfortunately, the above is not a recollection from seven years ago. That episode happened this summer.
As you might imagine, the emotional impact of returning to that physical state was not a joyous one. When you’ve gone through something harrowing, the experience gets lodged in your muscle memory. Anything that resembles that event--a smell? the feeling of chaos? a loud bang?--makes it all present again, and your body goes into fight-flight in order to survive.
Perhaps the most difficult part of going through illness is the loss of control. This is true of any crisis that is bigger than us. They always involve a dying: death of your expectations, death of a relationship, death of your lifelong dream.
They all remind us that we, little creatures that we are, are not in control.
As those layers of illusion are stripped away (for “control” is really an illusion, after all), what remains is liminal space. It’s when we’re neither here nor there, up nor down, right nor wrong. We’re suspended, in between. And our poor executive brains hate being in between.
Which box does this go in? Is this to be labeled “good” or “bad”? Are you moving forward or staying here? You can only pick one, and you’d better do it fast.
Meditation trains us to remain open in liminal spaces. When our minds want to close around this or that, we gently stretch our hearts wide open to welcome it all.
I, like everyone, have been swimming in liminality lately. Life is giving us all the master class! Society is un upheaval. In the US, there is still much fear and uncertainty around the pandemic. I just moved to a new place. I have very few friends out here, very few people with whom I can process all these changes. For most of the summer, I was too weak to research new doctors to help me figure out what was going on. I had been living out of a suitcase for the past six months, and because of all the health issues, couldn’t even fly back to get all my stuff in a Uhaul.
This liminal, neither-this-nor-that space is what the mystics call unknowing.
I don’t know how long my new rash of health issues will last. Will it be a brief hiccup? A year?
I don’t know how long pandemic conditions will exist in the US. When can I travel?
I don’t know how long it will take to settle into my new city. When will I find a place that feels like home?
Unknowing is remaining open to uncertainty, and refusing to “just pick one already” and refusing to run. (The pandemic has stripped us of most options, anyway. There’s very little that we are able to choose, and for many of us, there’s nowhere to run.) But Unknowing is also that barely sensible hunch that everything is going to be okay.
Unknowing is a dark sort of knowing. It does not see, but rather senses. By skipping the head and going straight to your entrails, divine wisdom can be both undeniable and elusive at the same time.
Meditation, or any contemplative practice, trains us to remain open in liminal spaces. When our minds want to close around this or that (are masks excessive or necessary? Am I going to be living in Portland or Salem next month??), we gently stretch our hearts wide open to welcome it all.
I used to refer to this as the Marian stance. In scripture, Jesus’ mother models feminine receptivity with her fiat. When the angel tells her the crazy things the divine wants to do in her, she responds with, “let it be done.”
In Latin: fiat. May it be so.
Sometimes I’m able to offer my fiat and accept today’s crazy circumstances. Maybe it’s all the years of practicing, stretching that muscle wide open to receive Reality.
Or maybe it’s grace.
There are other times I’m utterly overwhelmed. Angry. Hopeless. Crying into my pillow. I have so many dreams! So much I want to do! And--so much that I need to do so I can put food on the table!
The mysterious thing is, that is grace, too.
According to the mystics, it’s actually a gift when the divine shuts off all the lights. Though it feels outrageously uncomfortable, liminality teaches us to be supple. This is the whole lesson of the contemplative stance. It stretches open that muscle and relaaaaaxes your body so you can receive whatever gift Love has for you. It’s scary to do that in the dark.
Darkness is mercy. It forces us into remembering that this whole thing is about relationship, not about progress.
When it’s daytime, it’s easy for us to think we’re in control and run headlong into whatever direction we think is right. But when it’s dark, running would result in tripping and falling on our faces. So we must settle into our bodies, listen deeply, and sense Love’s presence.
Darkness is mercy. It forces us into remembering that this whole thing is about relationship, not about progress. When it’s light and clear, it’s way too easy to forget about our relational nature, our call to communion. We begin our “personal salvation project,” as Thomas Merton would call it, and we go about achieving and controlling and making it all work. Darkness strips us of that illusion.
There is always an invitation. In the dark, the invitation is to relationship. (Recall: intimacy happens in the dark!)
For the truth is: darkness is not an obstacle to life. It is life. My health issues are not keeping me from living. It is living. It is precisely what I’m being invited to accept right now.
Bringing it all Together
When I get frustrated that my health issues are getting in the way of me working, reading, showering, spending time with friends, I have to often remind myself that those things may not be on the itinerary today. Life itself is the itinerary, and I can accept it with curiosity, or I can throw a tantrum that it doesn’t conform to my version of events.
Who said it should be any other way?
The same is true for any circumstance: quarantine; the goodly landscapers who decide to use a chainsaw, lawn mower, and leaf blowers simultaneously outside my window; or fill in the blank with the latest thing that made you say “Seriously?? How am I supposed to get anything done?!”
Even when you don’t have a Miracle Max to squeeze out your desired result, that’s okay. Maybe, for some mysterious reason, you’re supposed to be “mostly dead” today. Maybe the invitation is to feel that awful chaos, and be reminded that the point isn’t productivity, or being an awesome homeschool mom, or having an uninterrupted Zoom session.
The point of it all is to be in relationship with Another, and to offer him your fiat.
Kelly Deutsch is a personal growth coach, international speaker, and bestselling author of the book, Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.