But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
– Robert Burns, To a Mouse
It’s not the kind of thing most of us want to hear – that our illnesses bring gifts with their trials and tribulations. But it’s none the less true for all that. A much looked forward to week off, full of plans, is upended, my best laid schemes did indeed gang agley.
In retrospect I could have anticipated this; July and August have a long history of challenge for me, and a holiday is always a trigger. What has been ignored or saved up suddenly finding its release valve. It’s when I first noticed the early symptoms of MS. When the optic neuritis that would herald the start of this phase of life was diagnosed and when most of my biggest relapses have flared. So instead of schemes unfolding I have been in bed once again, an infection causing symptoms to flare and overwhelming fatigue to kick in. Truth be told I’d noticed it creeping in a few days earlier but playing at the edge of the cliff is a hobby I have had since childhood.
At this cliff edge though I struggle – knowing I should rearrange plans, unable to take the decision to do so, hoping that in wilful ignorance I might find bliss. Dancing with fate increasingly furiously, I hope that I can stay on the right side of the edge. But as I start to slip over I know it’s time to concentrate on landing well. In the past I’d have danced all the way down but I’m much better at this now. When it becomes irrefutable that I’ve flared again I quickly accept it’s time to stop. Attend to what it is wrong now. Banish worries about what has changed or what this might mean about the future. Concentrate on the present.
You see the real point of To a Mouse is not its best known soundbite, that plans often go wrong, but that the mouse copes with these so much better than Burns precisely because it has no sense of past or future. It lives only in the present. It’s not the schemes going awry that cause us pain and grief – it’s the thought of what might have been, the pain of remembering what has been lost, and the fear of what might yet happen.
Multiple Sclerosis – the disease of many scars on the brain – might also be the disease of existential angst. It traps us, if we let it, between all that we have lost and all that we might still lose. It keeps us permanently teetering on the edge of the cliff. Like a cat playing with a mouse it taunts us with the prospect of relapses and losses that may or may not hit at any time. There can be no future plans without accepting that they may well gang aft agley. No coping without accepting that life in the present is what matters when MS dances you over the edge. Listening to the body, to the mood, to feelings. Accepting the stillness and quietness of these times. Will it be hours, days, weeks before the fatigue lifts, the muscles begin to work more normally again? That doesn’t matter. Thinking about that will not help, twenty plus years with MS has taught me that.
What has been has been, what will be will be. What is, is what must be dealt with. The recovery plan is put into action: call off engagements, warn the family, make sure pills and books and crosswords are by the bed. Fire up the radio. Most importantly – the baby steps journal is brought out. Experience has taught me how important it is to focus on recognising and revelling in the small triumphs – ‘got up and showered’, ‘spent time in the garden’, ‘brushed teeth’ in the early stages moving on to ‘got dressed’, ‘played with the dog’, ‘wrote a letter’ as things improve. Over the years those patterns have proved the only certainty in the land of radical uncertainty that is MS. Each day will have some small triumph, and as the entries increase the return to something more ‘normal’ emerges. This time the cliff was not too high: the dance lasted days and not weeks or months, the landing was soft and my baby steps journal is daily full already of the small present moments that are the real stuff of life. This has been a good fall, a smooth recovery.
Over the years MS has taught me that whilst past and future consume so much of our energies, so dominate our thinking, it’s in the present that life is found. In the daily round of moving, talking, watching, listening, tasting, smelling, feeling. From those moment by moment building blocks life is built – interactions made, plans enacted, feelings founded, thoughts explored. Life is made in the absorbing of what the world puts in our midst, not in the regretting of what it doesn’t or the anticipation of what it might. When I am at the bottom of the cliff the way back up will be so much harder if I spend time on those enemies of living presently.
But of course, like Burns, I can’t escape the siren call of past and future thinking for ever. Already they are creeping back in. But my baby steps journal is there as a constant reminder that the solution to plans going awry lies in radical attention to the now, something MS (amongst others things) has helped me become much better at. After all, lessons in living presently are an appropriate gift from something that steals one’s past and future. That plans will go awry is just a given, no matter who you are. But when they do, Burns’ mouse has much to teach us about how to cope.