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Jack Schimmelman Headshot

Oysters Unite!

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Photo by Valentyn Volkov. Used by permission.

Peck, peck, peck! Says the Woodpecker. Peck, peck, peck! I will peck your head until you let the light in. And so it goes.

I thank God for this woodpecker who has been furiously pecking at my head, especially these last five years. When I first became chronically ill more than five years ago, I cursed the doctor who had caused my illness. I cursed everyone. What I did not do is understand the toxic choices I had made throughout my life that helped put me in such a vulnerable position. I did not acknowledge the role my anger had in my apparent demise, anger at a past I could not change.

I was scared. Told by doctors that I was going to die in a short amount of time did not ease my angst. I was annoyed with my partner for being so worried and protective. I did not want to be a sick person, incapacitated. I had been healthy my entire life with a strong body. I could do anything, even as I was mired in middle age. But that woodpecker flew onto my beak and told me otherwise. At first, I swatted. Go away! Let me be in peace! I was anything but peaceful.

Peck, peck, peck! Let the light in. It was constant. I almost died twice during these past three years. My partner panicked and gave up on me. I terrified her with my denial. Our relationship ended suddenly and painfully. Stripped of everything, including my dignity, in constant pain, I scrambled to my former home, Martha's Vineyard, whose beauty I hoped would heal me. Unexpectedly, friends far and near helped with this transition. Without them, I might have died. My life began to reveal its light.

And now, that woodpecker's work is almost complete. Today, I thank God for allowing me to be so ill. For it is my illness that has taught me life's most valued lessons. Being incapacitated has forced me to plumb the depths and heights of my humanity. And dive I did. I don't know if I hit bottom, but three years ago when I was in the ICU knowing that I was dying and starting to leave my body, I decided in that instant that I still had more life to experience. Why? Because I am a slow learner and life is a master teacher. I touch my soul today and compose a smile. I walk on this earth happy. Sometimes I even tune into the brilliant music that is this exquisite island. More and more I am happy. And that is the key to recovery. But it is not something you can will into your life. There is no technique that can make you happy. No mantra. No shortcut. You work on it in mysterious ways. You labor in a painful vineyard never knowing if your ground will produce sweetness. Why does one endure? For me, it isn't a choice. During these days of tremor, I compare myself to a wounded dog. When I see dogs seriously injured, I marvel at how they continue to live, how they walk, breathe and play. They are my inspiration. I sit with nature and know that I, too, can regenerate my cells. When every doctor is telling you that regeneration is impossible, it is not easy to keep one's faith.

I have learned to love. I have earned an advance degree in loving myself unconditionally. This allows me to love others in the same way. Once on a sunny day, when she was 7 years old, my daughter and I were walking together in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, when she turned to me and said, "My heart is very big." When I asked why is that, she told me, "Because I love so many people. I love you, mommy, my friends, my teachers..." Her list grew. It took a while. To this day in her 20th year and a cancer survivor, she still says the same thing in many different ways. She is my inspiration. It isn't her prodigious accomplishments at such a young age that make me proud. It is her heart. She is grand. Her soul emits a golden light to which everyone who meets her is drawn.

Life has been good to me. My painful illness has granted me moments of grace. I am eternally grateful. I seem to be recovering. I am definitely healing. I make healthy choices. Baba Ram Dass once said that there is a difference between healing and recovering. You can heal yourself, but not always recover from physical ailments. What I am learning is that healing is enough. Recovery is nice, but not absolutely necessary.

I am learning to live with my childhood trauma. The little boy who lives inside me is beginning to inhale light. The woodpecker has done a good job. I suspect he will stick around a while and my head will be hurting for the foreseeable future.

Sometimes I wish I had appreciated the years of a robust physicality. I wish I understood then what a gift that was. Well, it doesn't quite matter, does it? Our journeys are now. Our love grows through the art of living. A wise teacher once told me that our souls are like an oyster's pearl. An oyster makes a pearl when a foreign substance (such as a grain of sand) inserts itself between the shell and mantle that lines the shell. Sensing an irritant the oyster tries to rid itself of the irritant thereby creating constant friction, rubbing. Out of this struggle does a pearl appear. I have battled through many conflicts, both real and imagined. Out of my life's constant friction my soul evolves. The pearl is born. I am shining it, loving it, knowing its inevitable appearance is already born in the ether of my longing.

I do not wish such a painful journey on anybody. But if you find yourself in similar circumstances, I send you love and assure you that you are not lost. Although you may feel hopeless, frightened, I say you are exactly where you need to be and there is one indestructible element that resides in you. That is your heart, your eternal soul. We may agonize, die in poverty or worse; that we cannot control. What we can do is choose how to live. I have made my choice. I am in the exact place I need to be. I invite all of you oysters furiously fighting your way through life to join me.

Oysters unite! We have nothing to lose but our shells!

For more by Jack Schimmelman, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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