As part of my ongoing “recapitulation project,” rooting through, and publishing or republishing old essays via A.K. Reader and manuscripts as E-books composed over the five decades since I came of age as a “writer,” I’ve decided to focus for the rest of this month on publishing BACK WHEN I WAS DYING as a series, prior to collecting into an e-book. Today’s offering will include the Table of Contents, the Prelude, and Chapter One of this manuscript.
BACK WHEN I WAS DYING
Meditation on a Three Day Ordeal/Epiphany/Assignment
© Ann Kreilkamp 2008
Table of Contents
Prelude: THE CROSSROADS
Chapter 1: THE SET-UP, scene 1
Chapter 2: THE SET-UP, scene 2
Chapter 3: THE SET-UP, scene 3
Chapter 4: THE DISCOVERY
Interlude: From My Journal 7/08/08
Chapter 5: SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, part 1
Interlude: From My Journal, 10/27/08
Chapter 6: SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, part 2
Chapter 7: SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, part 3
Chapter 8: SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, part 4
Chapter 9: SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, part 5
Chapter 10: PERSONAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, part 1
Chapter 11: PERSONAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, part 2
Chapter 12: A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF OUR CULTURE
[photo of bridge in Central Park, NYC]
Chapter 13: THE FINALE
Chapter 14: THE DENOUEMENT
Chapter 15: ADDENDUM
APPENDIX: Astrology — Saturn vs. Pluto, and the BWIWD Event Chart
At 3:30 AM on the morning of April 13, 2008, I found myself alone in the E.R. waiting room of a local hospital with no magazines to read.
Of course I panicked.
Had I found myself in this situation a few years ago, panic would have morphed into “boredom,” my mind churning with impatience and frustration while I paced with head down and arms crossed. When that got old, I would have sat stiffly on a hard chair, jiggling my legs and glancing repeatedly at the clock. The longer the clock ticked, the greater my annoyance (at the inconvenience of the strange intermittent pain), my terror (of what the pain might portend), and my regret (at trading a good night’s sleep for an expensive and probably unnecessary venture into the world of western industrial medicine).
Instead, on April 13, 2008 a miracle occurred: I paused in the doorway, briefly surveyed the empty waiting room — and then walked directly over to a wall, got on my knees, curled into the yogic “child’s pose” (the fetal position, a pretty good substitute for thumb-sucking), and drifted into a near-pleasant, timeless oblivion while awaiting the call that might not come for hours.
I had always wondered how I would respond if I discovered I was dying.
I was about to find out.
Or, maybe I was already finding out.
THE SET-UP: Scene 1
Like all of us, I am subject to mysterious messages from my belly — grunts, groans, stabs, gurgles, odd pains that rise and subside like the tides. Since they are temporary, I ignore them.
So when I found myself with a minor twinge in the lower right quadrant, I paid it no heed. It came and went and came again, so subtly that each time it let go I forgot.
But the twinge persisted. And, given the location, its intermittent knocks on the door of awareness made me uneasy. Finally, while climbing into bed that night, the question surfaced: appendicitis?
Around 2 AM I woke up, apparently summoned, the pain more frequent and a teensy bit stronger. I turned onto my back and, stiff with fear, listened to my belly, wondering what to do, if anything, and whether or not I could wait until morning to decide. What if it was my appendix? I was hunting for one good reason to banish that thought.
After about an hour I gave up, got up, wearily pulled on clothes and drove myself to the Emergency Room, thinking well, better now than in the daytime, since there won’t be much of a wait.
I walked in, described my symptoms, and was ushered through the admitting and triage process. I would have to wait, the kindly nurse cautioned, since four ambulances had arrived just as I did. So much for my previous smug speculation. I had come in early Sunday morning, April 13, during the busiest weekend of the year in this college town of “Breaking Away” movie fame: the “Little 500” bike race weekend in Bloomington, Indiana.
She directed me into the cavernous, fluorescent-lit, nearly empty waiting room where I immediately noticed, in a moment of startled panic, that it held no reading matter. I would not be able to distract myself.
What happened next cannot be understood within the usual epistemological parameters.
Western scientific culture conditions us to frame our experiences within a linear cause/effect template, where they appear as predictable processes. Though we also insist on “free will,” we make very little allowance for it. The beginning of any drama — called the “cause” — once triggered, tends to produce an “effect,” which in turn “causes” the next “effect” and so on. Though “causality” is only one possible way for humans to impose order on seeming chaos, this long-running, ubiquitous and largely unnoticed psychic structure has had powerful real world consequences: recall the “domino effect” in cold war politics; contemplate the “chain reaction” of the atomic bomb.
Yet we seldom ask how to decide the size and shape of any particular drama. Each time we carve a set of events from the flux of phenomena, what prompts us to begin and end at certain points rather than others? The start and stop of any story bookend a portion of the flux and delimit a supposedly simple, linear “cause and effect” chain that by an act of will, or fiat, implies, nay, announces, though subliminally: “this is meaningful.” But the original question remains: why start here and end there?? Why do we call any specific, delimited portion of experience “meaningful?” I, for one, have no idea. As the 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein mused, with real perplexity, “It’s hard to start at the beginning and not go further back.”
The story I tell here documents what I’ve come to see as a transformative three-day death and rebirth drama in the spring of 2008 that began and continued as expected — until the chain reaction was abruptly interrupted and the story started over again, carrying an entirely other import. From a personal perspective, the entire episode (including its two beginnings) appears to have been an Initiation that I was destined to undergo. From a larger perspective it may bear further fruit.
The first beginning, or cause, was that intermittent bodily pain that I eventually realized I needed to attend to. From there, “one thing led to another” until I found myself in the E.R. waiting room of the Bloomington Hospital at 3:30 A.M.
But then something exceedingly strange occurred: the chain of causation ceased! In walking over to the wall and kneeling down I suddenly and unaccountably shifted from panic into what I can only call surrender.
Oh, one would not be able to detect this state change from the outside, because once in the E.R., the course of events is predictable, and I did indeed endure it. But on an internal level yes, my consciousness transcended the seemingly inexorable pattern that had been set in motion by subtle, persistent bodily pain. Somehow, my sudden panic as I entered the waiting room triggered a dimensional shift that sheared off from what would have been the next effect in the chain of causation propelling me in a certain direction and with a set of attitudes usual to “emergencies.”
In response to that moment of panic, another part of me bypassed the ego, switched gears, and set out cross-country, with neither map nor path. And yet that metaphor is not accurate, for the switch was not horizontal but vertical, ushering me out of our usual three-dimensional reality into another, larger one.
I dwell on the import of that one moment in time because it appears that my surprising, instantaneous, intuitive response to panic initiated a second point of origin, which then altered the way I experienced the entire ensuing course of events.
(But was this truly my “choice”? I don’t recall considering various options. Was this the workings of “free will,” or did something more mysterious push me into uncharted territory.)
The first, and obvious, origin, appearing as a intermittent pain in the physical, drew consciousness downward, into the interior of the body. The second origin seemed metaphysical, not located in either space or time. And the shift that occurred spread consciousness throughout an ineffable, timeless space that surrounds and interpenetrates the body.
So that one moment of sheer panic was, apparently, an unexpected crossroads, jam-packed with significance. And yet only now, a month later, as I attempt to unpack the complex, multidimensional memory of those astonishing three days, do I realize the import of that singular moment. For when I started to walk from the doorway across to the wall I paid no attention to what I was doing. I just did it: knelt down, head bowed and hands on the floor, as if in adoration. Within seconds, it was as if I was floating through the mists to Avalon, leaving the other world behind. And when I awakened, to the sound of my name in a soft, sympathetic tone, I was no longer the same person.
You can imagine the nurse’s alarm when she found me curled around my belly on the floor.
About an hour had gone by.