This is a question that anyone who copes with autoimmune arthritis asks at some time or another. This disease is practically the embodiment of uncertainty and change. We can’t help but wonder what’s ahead for us.
I believe, however, that there’s not much point in twisting our minds into contortions over what the future might or might not bring. For one thing, the future doesn’t really exist. It hasn’t happened yet. The future—yours, mine, everyone’s—is a mystery. Anything could happen. Anything might. Or might not.
I’ve written before about “mindfulness,” the practice of living in the present moment, the “now.” The word “practice” itself implies constant effort, perhaps even single-minded dedication to the subject, like the way a silent, mysterious, half-smiling Buddhist monk would do it. But you don’t need to be a monk to be mindful, thank goodness. It’s not that hard to do. Still, being mindful does take a certain amount of effort. Good thing it’s pleasant work!
I started being mindful back in the late 1980s, when I lived in Germany. Within the first year of arriving there, I started having frequent, very painful and sometimes disabling RA flares, though I wasn’t diagnosed until the second year. (It didn’t occur to me that the source of the pain was a disease; I simply thought I’d somehow injured myself without noticing (!) or “slept wrong,” rendering a wrist or shoulder or ankle stiff and painful upon waking in the morning. Silly, wasn’t I?)
The RA flares were a bummer, for sure, but I absolutely loved the adventure I was in the middle of. I’d dreamt of going to Europe since I was a little girl, when I’d read the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen beneath the blankets with my flashlight. I’ve always had an extremely vivid, visual imagination. I’m an artist and a writer. To this day I love stories and storytelling. And I longed to see, with my own eyes, real castles and thatched cottages; crooked buildings made of brick and stone separated by narrow cobbled lanes; and dark forests of whispering trees so ancient their branches were weighed down by the heavy fruit of Time itself.
My imagination was–and is–busy all the time.
Being in Germany with years ahead of me in which to explore and learn really was a dream come true for me. But I believe that such gifts always come with a price. Mine was rheumatoid arthritis.
Although I worked full time during the six years I lived in Northern Germany, I loved wandering the old parts of the cities and towns on the weekends, and I often did so in spite of having painful flares in this limb or that along with feet so sore that I’d have to use a cane to walk. But sometimes, the flares were too severe even for that. I’d have to stay home. Being housebound as the Old World beckoned to me was frustrating, but I had no choice. I’d just have to wait the flares out and hope that the next time I made plans to explore, my rheuma dragon would sleep through it. I’d already anthromorphized my RA pain, imagining it as a wakeful, hateful dragon that chewed and tore at my joints with sharp teeth and claws.
We lived a half hour by train from the city of Bremen, the home of Grimm’s famous Town Musicians. I absolutely loved visiting there. Hamelin (Hameln) of Pied Piper fame was two hours away by Autobahn and surface roads. And the countryside and many small towns in between were, to me, full of magic with their half-timbered buildings and houses, thatch-roofed barns, the bleak, heathered moors and dense stands of forest along the edges. Just a quick fifteen minutes from my home was a fire tower once used to warn merchant ships off the coastline as they made their way from the cold, stormy North Sea into the mouth of the Weser River, heavy with wares for the enclaves of civilization built around inlets and harbors. That high stone tower had been there for more than 800 years. When I touched the stone at its base I swear it vibrated with history.
I remember clearly the afternoon I first decided to be mindful. I didn’t call it that, then. I simply wanted to pay attention to my surroundings and consciously record special moments in my memory for future reminiscence. I knew this magical time in Europe wouldn’t last forever. I was on a short walk with Max, our little wire-haired Dachshund. Each step I took was agonizing, thanks to a bad flare at the base of my big toe on my right foot. I was feeling pretty grouchy and low. I wanted to Max to hurry so I could go back up to our third floor flat and take my weight off my feet.
We’d gone around the back of the building where there was a narrow stretch of grass bounded by a dense, elderly hedge that stood about nine feet high. It was early autumn and the air was sharp and cool. As Max nosed along the base of the hedge sniffing for the perfect spot to anoint, I happened to glance down.
There, at my feet, was a fairy ring.
I stared at it, stopped dead in my tracks. I’d read about fairy rings in stories, but I’d never actually seen one—and I never expected to. I’d had no idea that they were real. I was totally delighted and promptly forgot that I was feeling impatient with the dog and irritated with my family. I forgot the throbbing, biting pain in my right foot and the dull, continuous ache in the left. For a long, conscious moment the sun grew brighter, the air more crystalline, and the small rounded caps of the mushrooms and green spears of grass were sharp-edged and glittering. The world went still.
Fairy rings, I’d read, were where elves held their wild dances on moonlit nights. Fairy rings were also gateways into the Otherworld, representing a dangerous temptation to unwary mortals. They were fey and magical, strange and fantastic.
That fairy ring in the lawn behind my flat represented the mythical and the real at the same time. It was, to me, a momentous and unforgettable gift. I just gazed at it and let the simple joy of discovering its reality fill me up. Remember this, I thought to myself. Remember this moment forever.
In the daily rush and chaos of life it’s easy to miss the gifts the world has to offer. But from that day with Max and the fairy ring on, I made a conscious effort to become aware of those special, breathtakingly simple moments we all have from time to time; those moments during which the starstuff of our souls and the universe itself become one and the same. As often as I can remember to do it, I bring my attention to the now, to the present moment, and savor it.
Being mindful requires turning off the constant drone of thought, worry and directives in my own mind, even if only for a few moments. It’s not always easy. If it was, it wouldn’t be so deeply rewarding. Living in the present moment as opposed to living the future—that which hasn’t happened yet but that we think about all the time—is refreshing and renewing. It rewards right now, not next payday or Christmas or next year. Being mindful also heals the hurts and wounds we carry forward with us from the past. This can’t be anything but healthy.
Lately I’ve struggled with the constant pain of intransient bursitis in my hips. It’s been hard to be positive and upbeat. Pain drains energy, and in the midst of it, whenI think about what my future might bring it’s easy to conjure up the worst. I imagine more pain, more disability, continued unemployment and the loss of much of what I’ve worked for these last 35 years. It’s a grim exercise, that sort of look into the dim unknown that’s the future.
The thing is, it’s false. I don’t know what the future will bring. It may be the complete opposite of what my tired, pained imagination conjures up for me at the moment. And honestly, why can’t my future be bright rather than grim? I have lots of useful talents and skills. I have an open mind, always ready to learn and practice and explore. Life is enchanting, and being mindful—living in the now, rather than in the past or the future—reminds me of that.
So. What about the future? If it’s anything like this moment, it glitters with hope.