I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago about all the toys that I've sold because MS doesn’t allow me to play with them anymore, things like snowmobiles, ATV’s, and our camper. I ended the piece by mentioning an item that I’d not exactly given up because I hadn't dared to try it this year – my handcycle. I rationalized that if I didn't even attempt to ride it then I wouldn't have to suffer the disappointment that I've suffered with so many other toys. This was a blatant act of denial that I nevertheless felt entitled to. Just last week, though, I finally relented and gave the handcycle a go.
Good news- I can still ride. It isn’t pretty, and I can’t go very far, but I've now been on four short rides in the last two weeks. I can still advance the cycle down the road, at least a perfectly flat road. I employ energy conservation techniques in order to put any distance on the ride at all. For example, I coast when I'm able to coast, which by definition on a round-trip ride is about 50% of the way. I simply have to take a break when I get tired. I can't worry about bettering yesterday’s time or yesterday's distance. This is about as unnatural as asking my dog Phoebe, the West Highland Terrier, to just casually watch those damn squirrels cross the yard, willy-nilly, unharassed. But I’m left with no choice.
I'm not sure how beneficial handcycling is to my physical well-being. I don't know if it's the case that I get so little exercise that even this tiny bit is magnified in importance, or if it is the case that this scrap of exercise is so irrelevant that it can't possibly impact my health at all. Bottom line, though, is that it doesn't really matter. If I get any physical benefit from this modest exercise, then it is icing on the cake, because it's good fun, and fun is something in short supply when you have MS.
On this morning’s ride the weather was perfect. It was a bright, sunny day with comfortable temps and low humidity. The neighborhood was quiet, the chaos of the morning commute having subsided. As I began to glide through our quaint, suburban community, breeze in my face, my all-too-well-rested cardiovascular system shaking off the cobwebs, I began to experience a peaceful bliss. Ahhh, life was good. But then my instinctive defense systems kicked in. The part of my brain which is responsible for protecting me from future heartbreak sent an alarm out, “Hey, don't fall back in love with this activity. It will be all that much more sad for you when you're no longer able to do it." That kinda killed the mood.
So often these battles take place wholly in our subconscious, making decisions on our behalf without the participation of our conscious selves. In this instance I was fortunate enough to lure the discussion into the light of day for further examination.
The debate could be boiled down to this. Should I temper my enjoyment of an activity that I'm almost certainly not going to be able to experience for much longer, so as to protect myself from future sorrow, or should I take advantage of any opportunity, no matter the circumstances (within reason), to enjoy a moment, and deal with the fallout later. I, the conscious I, decided clearly in favor of the latter. Carpe diem, and all that. I further reasoned that even though the activity that triggered this singular pleasure may not be available to me for much longer, there are still other ways to achieve that same feeling. When handcycling does go away for good, it won’t take all opportunity for peaceful bliss with it.
So, does that settle the debate? Probably not. My conscious self is not fully in charge. I only hope that subconscious Mitch indulges me on this one.
I'm no Buddhist, all that meditation and talk of Nirvana turns me off, but I do subscribe to several of the tenants of Zen philosophy. In particular, it’s helpful to stay in the moment. Moments will come and they will go, but only this moment exists right now. Make the most of it.
Let's explore what it is about handcycling that brings me such joy. It must stem from the fact that I am propelling myself through space under my own power, since I can't think of another instance where I can do that anymore. Sure, you could argue, existentially, that I self-propel myself through life using my power wheelchair, which I bought with money that I earned while I was gainfully employed as a healthy person. So in a sense, the effort that I put forth my entire working career is allowing me to self-propel via my power wheelchair today. That doesn't really cut it though. It’s a logical rationalization, something you might say to make yourself feel better, but it does not induce a feeling of peaceful bliss.
How does handcycling accomplish this? The process of sending a signal from my brain, through a frayed and fragile central nervous system, to the last few muscles in my body that are still accepting assignments (my biceps, triceps, and pecs are hanging in there the longest), and having those muscles respond by moving my body through space- it’s just a magical feeling.
All the logic in the world can't make that happen.