~This essay previously appeared in WordWrights! (2001).
Melodious, rhythmic, two words trip off the tongue with a dancer’s grace, four syllables each, each with a long vowel sound sandwiched between short vowels and a percussive shimmer of consonants: Ankylosing Spondylitis
Ankylosis is a disease process in which joints become rigid. A spondee is a type of metrical foot in poetry – two heavy stressed downbeats. I’m taking some poetic license, since the: “spondyl” in the disease name refers to the spine, but it’s close enough for me.
“Itis” is inflammation. About 25 years ago a friend maneuvering through the crush of people at a crowded party brushed against me, then nearly jumped back. He said heat was radiating from my neck. It was the “itis” in ankylosing spondylitis -- the flame in inflammation, the heat in the fire. A piece of a word came to life.
So: “Heavily stressed poetic units growing inflamed, becoming rigid.” It almost sounds like some rare breed of erotic poetry.
Much jazzier than the generic “arthritis,” as in “minor pain of arthritis.” That old phrase evokes a world of advertisements featuring bored actresses whose mildly troubled expressions barely hide the smiles that will shine when a couple of over-the-counter pills make everything all right.
In in my early teens, walking in Sligo Creek Park, when a bee stings me on the hand. The year is 1967, or maybe ’68. A sudden inspiration accompanies the throb that follows the initial electrifying shock. It’s a thought so far outside my ordinary train of thinking that it nearly turns my mind inside out.
Paraphrased, it goes like this: “Don’t label this experience as ‘painful’ or ‘bad.’ Just observe what you feel and see what happens.”
I focus on a pulse, intensity increasing and decreasing in wave-like patterns. The rhythm of that throbbing becomes musical, like the drone of a tambura which sounds in the background of Indian classical music.
The play of my thoughts is a melodic improvisation rising from that pulse; the bee sting grows into a gorgeous concert playing in my hand. Freed from the straitjacket of language, the experience becomes so enjoyable I almost miss the pain when it finally begins to subside. I don’t understand exactly what has happened, but know it’s important.
We get clues in our lives, a sort of fragmented roadmap of what’s to come, if we can only read the signs. In the winter of 2001, recuperating from my fourth hip replacement, I recalled the bee sting, that fascination with pain. What is it? How do we deal with it?