This weekend I was on a great Photography Course called ‘Capturing Sheffield’ with local photographer Laura Page. We braved the elements and strode out into the Queen’s Road and up into Heeley. As we returned, bedraggled, to eat our lunch this image jumped out at me from a shopfront next to our venue. This fabulous golden monkey communicated something to me and I have been trying understand what it was ever since.
He looks, to me, confused, perhaps bemused at the place he has found himself. ‘Why am I stuck in this shop? why is the door closed? where to next?’ As someone who is influenced by Jung, the great psychologist, I know that we project our own state onto images and people we encounter. So, do I feel confused, bemused, stuck, shut in, unsure of my future? The answer is yes, I do.
I have spent most of the last 54 years enjoying good health, always trying to get fit, lose weight, eat healthier, drink less all the usual first world problems of the middle class, middle aged, but basically okay. Then, as my blog ‘Now I Am 54’ recounts, I had a big bout of anxiety and much besides. This all improved over the summer and I sighed many sighs of relief.
More, however, has emerged, I have a condition called hyperparathyroidism, all to do with having too much calcium in my blood. It has many symptoms, including anxiety and depression, fatigue, aching bones and muscle weakness, memory issues and others. Sounds like ageing you might say, but in my case it is like getting old really quickly. It used to be known as the moans, groans and stones disease, as one can also, joy of joys, develop kidney stones. So the winter has been a bit shitty. Nothing terrible, just feeling lack lustre and generally under the weather, which has been generally very grey and wet!
I am having all sorts of tests to get me ready for surgery, the only cure for my condition. The Royal Hallamshire Hospital has become a second home this week. It is obvious to me now, on an experiential level, that health issues immediately create a chronic kind of liminality, something I failed to grasp empathetically before, and therefore have sometimes displayed only cursory sympathy. Not anymore.
I remember seeing Simon Russell Beale playing King Lear a couple of years ago at the National. After his madness episode on the blasted heath, he is hospitalised in this modern production, complete with NHS unflattering, back-fastening gown. Wandering the stage dragging his saline drip around, the great ruler has been reduced to this parlous state.It comes to many of us.
Laying under a Gammer Ray Scanner, having had an injection on radioactive isotope, the scanner plate 3 inches from my face for forty five minutes I felt utterly powerless and alone, (no-one can be in the room with you). It will be worth it I tell my self, as this is how they will identify what needs to be removed. But that is no comfort in this claustrophobic space, I try to meditate, relaxation exercises from my Yoga classes. They get me through. I am a man after all, I have done the Rites of Passage, I have led the Rites of Passage, instructed other men in how to find and trust the deep mature self.
So why is the boat of my life sailing through such turbulent seas? A part of me chimes in with the answer – ‘who said we always had to feel good? Stop being such a narcissist and get on with it, there are people much worse off than you with your middle class quandaries’. Another part of me recalls the golden monkey, seen on the day when the Chinese New Year was being celebrated, the year of the monkey. It reminds me of this wisdom; all transformation takes place in this threshold space, the meaning of liminal in latin is threshold. Life is doing something to me, with me, in me, what I don’t know, what for, I don’t know, but I need to trust the pattern that is constantly set forth in numerous spiritual traditions. Whether it is Jonah’s whale belly or Christ’s cold tomb, or the Buddha’s Bodhi Tree, a new reality emerges from the wreckage of the old.
That reality will not be what I necessarily want; me feeling myself again. That aspect of my self may well have dissolved in order to give birth to a new one. This skin shedding is a life-long process, it seems to me, with some of these periods being more intense than others.
I called this post ‘Finding a Way’ in fact it seems, as I read it back, better to call it ‘Letting a Way Find You’. So much of what has been going on for me feels like a time of endurance, interspersed with periods of confusion. I have stayed, doggedly with weekly Jungian therapy, and allowed my unconscious self to communicate with me mainly through my dreams. This is more of an art than a science. It does however, like an artist building up a portrait in oils, produce a distinctive image of the self, or as Jung would write it The Self, I carry deep within me. It has required some unflinching honesty and many, many humiliations.
As I write this I am back on i floor at the Hallamshire having another scan. Being in this great technological beast is like the modern day Jonah in the belly of the beast. They did put Radio Four on for me, I’m not sure Jonah got to listen to ‘You and Yours’. But still, we need to lift our sense of life’s journey above the mundane without, of course, becoming totally self obsessed. Watching the staff and patients around me I am struck by how functional and blunt this world of health provision is. So little for the imagination to feed on, so much to make you feel utterly at the mercy of science. When a ray of kindness or gentleness shines through it is amazing in a world where so much of our feeling function has been sold off to pay for the thinking function, for a large dose of technical rationality.
So I turn again to my confused Monkey in his golden year, trusting those deep currents of wisdom still below the technocratic surface and wait for the way to find me once again.