The Portuguese man of war…

From Wikipedia: The Portuguese man of war  is not a single multicellular organism but a colonial organism made up of specialized minute individual organisms called zooids. These zooids are attached to one another and physiologically integrated to the extent that they cannot survive independently and function as if they were an individual organism.

And so are we. We are flowing rivers, rippling streams, transforming with each breath. We are legion. Our being, or beings as we shall see, is different as are the beings of all and everything in relation to us. And illness conjures up different beings and different worlds.

For example, the being of stairs and our being with stairs has particular qualities and meanings, most of them unconscious, when we are young and learning to navigate them safely. Stairs are physical challenges to be “conquered” literally one step at a time. They are also places of risk and potentially fall or injury which might bring parental scolding or comfort or both. Stairs may lead to the hospital.

They are sources of pride. They are places to sit and hide, perhaps to overhear adult conversation or spy on grown ups’ behavior, parties, misdeeds. The tops and bottoms of stairs have different feeling and even moods. For a child a stairway is a path to mystery, through which sounds descend or rise from and to top or bottom, or it is a journey to the warm and welcoming smell of a kitchen below or an apartment above where grandparents live.

For me, when I was eight or so, our stairway was a place of ambush where I could wait silently until my brother passed by and I leapt upon him. Outside, as well as inside, for some others they might be shelves for mail, flower pots, sneakers, and boots. Banisters are slides in some homes, stairs an indoor playground. This is just a fraction of what a staircase is for a child and its being has deep roots spread widely in memory, sense, feeling, physical and intellectual. And this is just a fraction of the stairway being of my youth.

As adults, our stairways are generally not particularly special. If I live in a home without one, however, a part of me may miss it, may hunger for it, without any conscious nostalgia on my part. Its absence may drive me to look for a house with two floors. I might feel irritation, get into irrational fights with my partner independent of home design, but evoked by something that awakes “stairway being,” with as much reality as any other “I” perceived to be myself. And I do not mean this metaphorically. The stairway being will look like me, except for highly differentiated, distinct yet meshed networks of reaction. He will be one of a number of beings, all with different memories, needs, desires.

Another powerful example for many of us are “food beings.” “I” love ice cream. I often describe it as a food of the gods. It can be eaten by people of all ages, with or without teeth, and invariability people are happier for it. It also contains many of the basic pleasure food groups–sugar, fat, chocolate and caffeine. It supplies quick energy.

I have many positive childhood memories of ice cream in all kinds of situations and even now I top off most evenings with a Klondike bar. I would have a very difficult time if I were on a particular eating regimen that did not include ice cream that. Certain beings might indeed be screaming for ice cream. They might dream of ice cream, think of cheating, start rationalizing why a change of eating habits is a good idea. I would be jonesing.

Now back to stairs. As I glided up and down stairs through my younger years, they were largely emotionally invisible to me. When I became ill and increasingly disabled, I began to notice them with a wider range of feeling. They became obstacles, rather than stairs. Rather than simply moving up and down them I now had to plan how to negotiate them. At different times I had to use this or that device to help me move up and down them.

Wherever I went and whether in fact I could go depended to a great degree on whether or not there were stairs. I saw stairs everywhere where before they were used and fell out of mind. It was as if they barely existed, not unlike the flashlight in the drawer which ceases to exist until its absence or failure of its batteries impress its presence upon us.

Now we live on one floor and use the basic machine of an incline plane, a ramp or covered stairs in order to exit and enter. Stairs are different beings for me now and I am inhabited by different beings, as well. Before they were frequent falls and calls to EMTs to restore me to my chair. Since we have moved to one floor, however, and more recently installed an overhead lift, I have not had a fall.

So as a child I saw stairways brightly, and then dimly if at all, now stairs and so many other things are lit. Different worlds embodied by a constantly changing gathering of meanings, beings, and I,’s, some lost, now found. Amazing grace!

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