It’s only the second week of the so-called spring semester, and I’m already sick. Over the weekend, I noticed the first signs of a sore and scratchy throat, and by Monday I’d descended into full-on bronchitis, which is what you get when you couple the common cold with chronic asthma. This week I’ve experienced lots of coughing and wheezing, relatively little sniffling and sneezing, and a renewed sense of gratitude for my rescue inhaler.
On Tuesday and Thursday I managed to get through my classes with only occasional bouts of coughing interspersed with strategically-timed inhaler hits. But I’m still weak as water, my lungs simply not working as well as they do when I’m healthy. There’s nothing like a cold, a bout of bronchitis, or an asthma attack to remind you of the (literal) power of a single breath. Every time I hack up a dime-sized glob of gluey goo, I marvel that I can breathe at all through such gunk, and I realize why every time I’ve tried to nap this week, it’s felt like I’m drowning, the phlegm in my lungs pooling whenever I try to lie down.
I’m aware of the bitter irony of being a Zen practitioner with a chronic lung condition. In the warm months, my asthma is largely controlled, but in the winter, my lungs proclaim themselves as my true master. It doesn’t matter whether my spirit is willing: if my lungs are weak, they get the last (gasped) word. In an ideal world, I’d be able to breathe deeply and without impediment all year round; in an ideal world, breathing would always come as easily to me as (yes) breathing. Instead, there is perhaps a strange appropriateness in the medical hand I’ve been dealt: because breathing doesn’t always come easily to me, I’m acutely aware of it, closely monitoring each rise and fall for its depth and smoothness. In Zen we talk about impermanence and the fragility of human life, but as an asthmatic I understand better than most, I think, the fact that even our next breath isn’t guaranteed.
When I’m sick, the simple exertion of taking the dogs in and out, climbing stairs, or standing at the sink to do dishes leaves me breathless, as energetic as a limp dishrag. Is a simple virus all it takes to knock the (literal) wind out of my sails? When you stop fighting, there is a great lesson to be learned from illness: it is my body, not my mind, that makes the agenda, bringing me back time and again to the limitations of this moment. Henry David Thoreau, who struggled with tuberculosis throughout his adult life, spent his final months bedridden from the disease, no longer strong enough to take the long, woodsy walks he is remembered for. In his final journal entries, he describes in detail the behavior of a litter of kittens, his keen naturalist’s eye focused on the most mundane of domestic scenes. No matter how far our souls may wander, our bodies invariably bring us home.