“My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” Mahatma Gandhi
It was a sunny afternoon in June, 1995, and I had been in the library for several hours. That morning I had had an odd moment in the shower when I felt as though water were hitting my open eye. I had no idea what was happening then, but sitting in the library I noticed that my face felt very strange. My eye felt funny, and the terrible headache that I had had for the previous few days was back with a vengeance. I gathered my things and left the library and driving home my face really began to feel awful. I barely made it home, went into the house, and saw, with horror, that my face was becoming unrecognizable. Imagine putting your little finger in the corner of your mouth and your index finger in the side of your eye and pulling down. It was as if one side of my face was melting. It was the beginning of the paralysis of Bell’s Palsy and by the next day I was in terrible pain and looked frightening. Over that summer I would see a succession of doctors and spend most of the summer in bed with my face packed in ice. I was told by one doctor that in addition to the Bell’s I had another syndrome that was complicating matters and would cause extreme pain. Over 90% of people recover from Bell’s completely. Thank God I didn’t know, at that juncture, that I wouldn’t be one of them.
Today, twenty-two years later, I am still paralyzed. My left eye isn’t quite right, and I only smile on one side. During many years of struggling with my weight after I’d had my children my one vestige of pride in myself was my smile. People used to tell me I had a beautiful smile. In a heartbeat that smile was gone, never to return, and I would spend the next decades trying to come to terms with the aftermath of Bell’s Palsy. I have never quite adjusted. I feel shy and often afraid to meet people. And it was the beginning of my leaving the world, in stages, the onset of agoraphobia. The Bell’s left me a broken thing, my heart, my spirit, my sense of self, shattered, and I was never to be who I once had been in the world again.
My saving grace, at this time, was finding a book that helped change my outlook. The book was Everyday Sacred by Sue Bender, and in this book she spoke about the concept of wabi sabi, something I had never heard of. She said that in Japan when a prize bowl broke it was not discarded but pieced back together with silver or gold and became more valuable than it had originally been. I began to study wabi sabi and found out that it is the Japanese aesthetic of the imperfect-perfect, and my heart began to open, to find compassion, for my lopsided face. It changed everything in my life and I started, gradually, to accept myself, but I had become afraid of the world at large and still rarely left my house. My heart was open but the rest of me was in hiding. Finally, as time went on, I was also diagnosed as bipolar, and I was suffering from an anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and PTSD. It was a domino effect, and as they fell I felt flattened. I was far more wabi sabi than I had ever realized.
Fast forward to today. I have been looking back over the last 22 years. Where have I come from? Where can I go? What can I do now? I have only just realized that Bell’s Palsy cracked me open to a kind of compassion for myself and the world that I would never have had otherwise, and it is the place, the very place, where a kind of light began to shine through the cracks, light that would be the lantern I would carry on my path for two decades and more through endless trials and hardships I could never have imagined would come. It is as the late Leonard Cohen wrote…
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
I have been writing about the Bell’s a lot lately as I hold it up and look at it from different angles. I am also trying to figure out how to survive in this life with the various parts and pieces and diagnoses I carry around with me. Today I am afraid. I am so afraid. I have been anxious all day. I just keep moving, fingers on keyboard, filling up the vast expanse of the page before me, breathing, one breath after the other. Hold on, hold on, hold on.
I wrote a whole blog post. And I looked at it, I read and reread it, and I realized that it wasn’t right. I threw most of it out and started over. I keep going over the same territory, hoping that if I just find the right way to look at my life, to understand it, maybe I can move forward. I will be 63 next month and I am on the cusp of a new way of working in the world and if I am going to be able to do that I have to get my bits and parts and pieces together in some formation that can make for a workable life. And how to do that?
It occurs to me that the clue is in Gandhi’s quote. If there was a blessing in the Bell’s perhaps there is a blessing in it all. The imperfections, the failures in life from manic episodes gone awry when bad decisions were made, if I can hold those times up with the times of grace, when successes and talents had their days and surely they did, then perhaps I can find the balance in it all, perhaps I can lay it all at the feet of God. Perhaps if I have work to do in the world it will come from having been so broken and so afraid but somehow holding on and continuing to move forward, one step, one moment, one day at a time. I believe I have something to offer. There are gifts in brokenness.
The summer after the Bell’s, with my face packed in ice, I started a small press publication called The Contemplative Way ~ Slowing Down In A Modern World. As I slowly recovered I poured my heart into that publication. I found a way to do my work despite the pain and the ravages of Bell’s Palsy, and the work was good. If I could do it then I can do it now when I shake from anxiety and fear. I have done so much in my life, I have things to share, things to teach, stories to tell. I will find my way, and through the cracks the light will get in.