I tasted pure honey for the first time one summer at the age of twenty at Miller's food store in Lancaster. By "pure" I mean that I ate the honey without any accompaniment whatsoever. It was merely a drop, an accident really: I had spilled the tiniest amount while opening the jar and, without thinking, I licked it up. At the time, I had not eaten for three days—I was in the midst of a three-day water fast—and this isolated taste of honey was the most unexpected and pleasurable food experience I could have imagined.
Today, I eat pure honey by the spoonful—my preferred method of treating hypoglycemia, a side effect of self-administered insulin injections.
In August 2004, during my honeymoon in Barcelona, I was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. Now, since my pancreas no longer produces its own insulin, I inject myself with insulin whenever I eat food. The purpose of the insulin is to stimulate my body's cells to take in glucose from the food I eat. (Glucose is a simple sugar, the main source of energy for the body). A second purpose is to notify my muscles and liver to keep the glucose stored—in other words, not to release it into my bloodstream.
Danger arises when the amount of insulin I inject exceeds the amount of sugar released into my bloodstream. Suddenly, my blood sugar plummets. I feel confused, woozy; as my sugar dips lower, I sweat profusely, lose my sense, begin to mumble, confusedly. This is hypoglycemia. If left untreated, it can lead to loss of consciousness, even death.
I dip into this danger-zone maybe four, five times a week: My blood sugar goes low and suddenly I must ingest sugar to compensate. I suppose I should drink fruit juice, or chew on a glucose tablet—both are easily accessible; both work quickly. Honey, on the other hand, is not always accessible, and it does not so work quickly. I suppose I'm stupid, or worse, stubborn: When my sugar is low, instead of drinking fruit juice, I eat honey.
It seems strange, even to me, considering the risks, but still, I prefer honey.
Diabetes mellitus is a Greek/Latin hybrid phrase. Early physicians noted that people with this disease seemed to urinate incessantly, as if they were siphons. Thus diabetes, the Greek word for "siphon". It was also noted that those who had this disease emitted a sweet smell from their pores, as well as their urine. Ants, especially, were attracted to the urine of diabetics. For centuries, to diagnose the disease, a doctor would taste the patient's urine for sweetness. Thus mellitus, the Latin word for honey.
Before the discovery of synthetic insulin, in 1921, a patient with diabetes mellitus wasted away with an unusual ferocity, marked by a voracious appetite and thirst completely out of line with their skeletal, yellowish appearance. Traditionally, the method of managing the disease was a diet low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fat, a solution that provided, at most, a few years stay on what was a certain death sentence.
Typically, as the end drew near, patients fell into a coma from which they never awoke, the same condition, I was told upon entering the hospital, that I would shortly succumb too without the immediate administration of insulin. In reality, the Barcelonian doctors surmised I should have already lapsed into a coma, so weakened was my body, so entirely suffused with sugar my blood.
How could I have let it get this bad?
At the time, I had no easy answer, although it now seems obvious. The signs had been clear for quite some time, dating back six weeks before I entered the hospital, when I arrived at my wedding looking like death itself. When I emerged from my car that afternoon my father's best friend Marty, the first person to see me in my tux, looked at me and said, "You look sick. Yellow. Gaunt."
This, in a heavy Brooklyn accent.
By then the sugar would have already escaped my blood stream, and the cells of my gradually failing organs would have been floating in a solution of glucose, a condition that made my breath, indeed my entire body, smell of an apple, recently bitten.
I was born in Lancaster and I often go back there to visit. Typically, I stop at Miller's, an Amish-owned natural food store. Inside, the atmosphere is dim and soundless, the only light the glow from the sun-filled windows, the only sound the whispers of the shoppers and, from time to time, the anachronistic cha-ching of the manual cash register.
Often, in my memory, it is stormy when I arrive at Miller's. I recall, for example, browsing the aisles one afternoon when a thunderclap split the sky, the windows darkened, and the solitary source of light was a bushel of fat, orange carrots.
The day I tasted pure honey, though, the sky was clear. I recall emerging from my car, shielding my eyes from the sun, and feeling incredibly warm—a warmth, I imagined, accessible only to the belly-empty, hollow-hungry.
I was hungry, more hungry then I had ever been, but after three days without food, I was becoming philosophical about hunger, and I had begun to look elsewhere for sustenance.
I recall, for example, looking at the environs around Miller's—the silo jammed with corn cobs, the green field full of pasturing goats, and, across the road, a plain of corn stretching for acres—and feeling my hunger ease for the moment, as if I were eating the view, nourishing myself with Lancaster farm imagery, instead of food.
Perhaps this is why, to me, fasting is such an arduous practice—it forces one to imagine himself out of hunger. And perhaps this is why so many artists complain of hunger and yet, at the same time, produce stunning, imaginative work.
Hemingway writes of imagination and hunger in his memoir of his early years in Paris, A Moveable Feast:
"You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at the tables on the sidewalks so that you saw and smelled the food…Then the best place to go was the…Luxembourg museum where all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see how truly he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wander whether he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been…hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way."
Denied food, Hemingway sustained himself with Cézanne's paintings.
Living with a chronic disease like diabetes requires a similar feat of imagination. I was diagnosed—suddenly, my life was transformed. I had this thing, this new characteristic, something I'd just soon not have, not have to bother with, but there it was. And now I had to change everything about my life: the way I eat, the way I move about, the way I think about the future. I felt utterly unprepared.
It happened like this: I was healthy until I was twenty-four. At the time, I was living in Barcelona with my girlfriend Karen, surviving on my savings, writing my first novel, living the lifestyle I had envisioned for myself ever since leaving college, one credit short of graduation, with one question on my mind: How do I become a writer?
Then, in July, 2001, we traveled home, to Philadelphia, for a short stay. We had intended to return to Barcelona in late September, but we delayed our trip, indefinitely, after 9-11.
For weeks after this turn of events, I was bothered by the feeling that I had left some serious business unfinished in Barcelona. And so, even as my savings ran out, I continued working on my novel, essentially living my Barcelona lifestyle, albeit, a modified version, in my father's house, just outside of Philadelphia.
I had no car, so I never went anywhere, and I had little money, so I cut certain extravagances out of my life: wine, for example, and haircuts. With little else to do, I worked feverishly, completing two novels, beginning work on a third, subsisting primarily on hard-boiled eggs, on raw almonds, and cheap, local apples.
I have seldom felt so dynamic as I did then, long-haired and sober, working for hours in the day and night.
Then, in early spring, 2002, after a furious two-week burst that took me one-hundred pages deep into a second novel, I began to feel very odd. My symptoms were vague, mysterious. I imagined all sorts of problems, some real, some not. In the following years, I received a series of scary medical diagnoses. At twenty-five, it was Raynaud's Phenomena, at twenty-six, ulcerative colitis.
By the time I was twenty-eight, I was stuck in illness, like a fly in glue.
Where I lived in Lancaster, as a youngster, just out my back door, across our wide, green lawn there was a cornfield that seemed to stretch for miles. I spent my formative childhood years wandering around this cornfield, losing myself, often for hours.
Now, whenever I see an expansive cornfield, I feel the urge to walk straight in and keep on, just like I did as a child. This fanatical urge to walk, otherwise manifested in my life as the urge to suddenly abandon one place for another, is still with me, haunting me.
It is this urge, I believe, that led me to Barcelona, in January 2001. And I still remember my sense of purpose as I walked around the inner city, down Riera Alta, L'Hospital, Ferran, and many other streets and alleys, and later, returning to my flat on Calle Tamarit, as I recorded my impressions in a black composition book.
Upon returning, five years later for my honeymoon, my intent was to experience this sense of purpose anew, to relive the ambition I had cultivated as a younger man. And in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so enlivened as I did upon returning to the city, swimming in the Mediterranean, feasting in the cafés, walking for hours through the bright, sun drenched streets, talking and joking with my new wife. And I still recall, as if it were yesterday, sitting in a little place called L'Hortet, eating an entire pizza, drinking red wine, and looking out the window, to the humming street, feeling as if, for the first time in my life, the world were actually conspiring to make me happy.
I wonder now, however, if I had not been influenced at the time by my condition; as the days passed, even as I slowly recovered my former verve, I began to feel astonishingly odd.
I recall, for example, a Friday night at a seaside grill, when, after eating a few slices of salted cod, and stepping to the curb to hail a taxi, I fell into a stupor, where a few white paper lanterns festooned below a red awning across the street appeared to me as a sole constellation of stars in a universe from which I was slowly receding into a hole, as black as pitch.
The next morning when I awoke and looked in the mirror it appeared as if my head had shrunk several sizes; my ribs seemed to be pulsating through my skin, which was yellow, or a shade of pale, somewhat beyond yellow; and I was more thirsty than I had ever been, unimaginably thirsty, as if a high powered vacuum were sucking the water out of my organs, indeed the very pulp from my bones.
Whatever the case, nearly three weeks after we arrived in Barcelona, I was taken into the hospital in a state of utter dissolution.
The French writer André Gide said that illness opens doors to a reality which remains closed to the healthy point of view. His implication is that illness intensifies experience.
If this is true, why did I feel so bereft, sitting in my hospital bed in Barcelona?
The doctor, a young man named Ruben, told me, "When you leave here, you will be a new man." But, at the time, I did not have the capacity to envision myself a new man—my imaginative faculties seemed suddenly broken.
Before this, for many years, I had cultivated the ability to imagine myself as a character in a myth of my own making. This character changed throughout the years, but the essence was always the same: my self-portrait included long hair, blue jeans, and a stoic countenance, and more often then not, I imagined myself walking down the street, having just finished work on my latest novel, in pursuit of wine, friends, and discussion.
When I received my diagnosis, however, I lost this sense of self-portrait. I no longer wanted to envision myself as anything, because I would be obliged to include this new wrinkle—this portrait of a disease.
Still, I tried: I contemplated the vanity of my wound, the odd superiority that an ill person allows himself to feel ever so often—the feeling that suffering, in itself, decrees a certain level of accomplishment and that living with illness is emblematic of triumph.
But, I could not get past my need for insulin. I could not square the vision of myself injecting insulin with the vision of myself living freely, as a writer, no doubt, should live.
And so, a few weeks after my diagnosis, I became increasingly troubled by the feeling that my life had been split in two. I thought: Never again, never will I be able to live as I once did. Never again will I swim with delight in the sea; never again will I feast on pasta in a café; never again, never again, never again.
Early on, I was attracted to mythology. I recall a time when I was six or seven years old, wearing a pair of leather sandals inspired by the film Clash of the Titans—an adaptation of the myth of Perseus—swashbuckling my way through an entire summer.
Even then, without realizing it, I was learning how to mythologize, how to imagine my life.
The mythological god most associated with ills and woundedness is Dionysus, the god of the wine harvest, of fertility, and blood. The myths say that the Titans gave Dionysus a mirror when he was young and then, when he was distracted, tore him up into pieces, boiled him in a cauldron, and ate him.
But Rhea, the mother of Zeus, saved Dionysus' heart and from it she reconstituted him and hid him in Zeus' thigh, from which he later sprang to life, reborn. To shelter the newly re-born Dionysus from the recriminations of the Titans, he was left in the care of a band of Maenads, the nymphs of the valley. They hid him in a cave, fed him honey, and raised him with tigers.
Like Dionysus, I was born twice: first, in a hospital in Lancaster, September 1976, and then again, twenty-eight years later, on brilliantly sunny Saturday in Barcelona.
And yet, if André Gide is right, if illness opens the doors to a reality which remains closed to the healthy point of view, for some time, my new, unexplored reality, my new life, was one of vacancy.
But I suppose it is absurd to say that my imaginative faculties broke. On the contrary, I was suffering the ills of imagination, always envisioning the scarier side of diabetes—the potential blindness, comas, and amputations—imagining myself deeply into my illness, never really attempting to imagine myself out.
And yet, isn't this is the essence of imagination?
As James Hillman writes in his book Re-Visioning Psychology: "The extraordinary fact of the imagination is just that it is truly extraordinary; no matter how known, it is always able to surprise, shock, horrify, or break into ravishing beauty."
We tend to think of imagination as a source of light, of wholeness, and inspiration. Doing so, we often neglect imagination's dark side: the blindness, the blankness, the missing limbs.
But is not the dark side necessary? Robert Bly writes of Dionysus in his book Iron John:
"Some of the Greek gods, Apollo and Zeus, for example, stand for wholeness, radiance, and sun-like integrity; but Dionysus stands for the ecstasy that can come from tearing and being torn. The ecstatic wine comes only if the cluster of grapes is torn apart, trampled..."
The older you get the more you'll find that everyone has something, something broken, something spooky. We are all struck, at some point, a bit torn, a bit trampled, by illness. And when this happens, it is impossible not to sink into yourself. When I began to receive my diagnoses, at twenty-five, I did not merely sink, I plunged, into myself.
I felt so isolated, betrayed by my body, and my imagination.
For some time, I wanted only to die.
But perhaps this plunge, this betrayal, is exactly what I needed.
What I mean is that I have the suspicion that, at some point, we all will, and must, feel this way: that we are meant to suffer isolation, to feel betrayed, and to want to die, just a bit, every day, but to want to live just a bit more, because life is not intended to dull us into submission, but to alert us, again and again, that life is living when it is felt deeply.
Dionysus, some myths say, was also the god of honey.
I think of my early love for myth, in Lancaster, how I played the roles of the heroes and gods of Greek myths. Alone, always alone, I wandered for hours, straight into the cornfield, seeking adventure, going on and on, until everything became corn, the sounds of the cicadas and the plows stopped all at once, the world sank into silence, and I knew I was the last human being on earth.
Isolated, six or seven years old, I imagined myself Perseus.
What could I imagine myself today?
No, I am no longer own the boldness of my young self, the ability to envision myself god-like, or even heroic. I'm just a dude, trying to imagine myself a life. I'm not sure the characterization even matters; the important thing is the act itself: imagination.
Living the imaginative life, I think, is living the courageous life. Yes, it's tough. When we imagine we open ourselves up to assault; Like Hillman says, the possibility is always there: surprise, shock, horror.
But without the horror we'd never experience the alternative either: the ravishing beauty.
To me, this is the only way to survive.