Now, for many years my answer would have been "nothing." Raised in a family with one agnostic, one atheist, a Christian, some Buddhists, and one "I'm not sure but I know the world is goin' to hell in a handbasket," a crisis of identity seems unsurprising, to say the least. While the way my parents met may appear to be fate (they were the only two to show up at the gate; everyone else heard the flight was delayed), our family discussions go back and forth from meant-to-be to luck-of-the-draw, to karmic-energy whirlpools. My head actually became the whirlpool after a while, sucking variegated notions into the maelstrom of my mind and spitting out...nothing. After all, how could one belief system find its way up through all these poles-apart ideals?
So I went along in my "non-belief" way and did just fine. I got a college degree, even. I became a teacher. I leaned toward my father's belief system-he's the atheist-because I couldn't see any evidence to the contrary. And, I felt way too intelligent to believe in the other stuff. Self-righteousness became my conviction, acute moralism my faith. I spent much time arguing for tolerance and against extremism, without realizing the extreme intolerance of my own position. It was a glorious place to be, atop a mountain created from the littered remnants of others' shattered conceptions.
It was a pretty long way down, too.
My dethroning came in April 1994. After a lifetime blessed by the gods of...oh, that's right...we're still in the non-belief phase. After an extraordinarily lucky life, untouched by death or dysfunction, enriched by support and success, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I was just twenty-four. The diagnosis stunned me, panicked me, and, most of all, pulled me headfirst back into the vortex. I left the neurologist's office with my father, and as we exited the big double doors of the building, I saw him cry for the first time. I could see the question in his head, this man who believed it was all random and luck of the draw: How could this be happening to her? She is definitely not that unlucky. Seeing his face was almost harder than the diagnosis itself.
My mother couldn't believe I was meant for disease and sickness, and all the Christians and Buddhists saw it as part of a larger, if hard to understand plan, and my grandma, well-if this wasn't proof eternal that the world really was going to hell in a hand- basket.
I was just plain mad. Whether multiple sclerosis was part of a larger plan or was pure bad luck, I felt it monumentally unfair that it should happen to me. Some early symptoms (like double vision and dizziness so bad I couldn't lift my head) did nothing to improve my outlook. My mother even came to California from Colorado to help me grade essays, since I couldn't read them. I wasn't grateful, only scared. Wasn't coping much, but crying often. My past seemed to be too easy, and I started blaming my wonderful life for not preparing me to handle something like this.
I ended up moving home to Colorado, needing some of the support and success that had marked my first twenty-four years. I settled into my old bedroom, pored over albums that sang of an earlier time, watched the posters of forever-young men pose from my wall, and wished it all back again. I took walks around the block whenever I felt able and remembered who had lived in which house in my neighborhood, which roads I had conquered on my bike, which trees I had climbed. I prayed...no, I wished...no, I hoped to make some sense of it all.
And then the strangest thing happened. One morning I awoke from my tiny twin bed, pulled the curtains, and saw a bluebird sitting in the tree outside my window. Well, probably a blue jay, since I'm pretty sure that bluebirds aren't indigenous to this area. Whatever, it was a beautiful cornflower blue, with animated eyes and a navy crown on its head. It fixed me with a look from one side of its face and settled into the tree. Every time I glanced out of that window, there was my new friend. But the wild part, the part that turned me inside out, lifted me from the undertow and dropped me whole on the beach, was what happened when I left that room.
I walked outside for my daily stroll around the block, and that bluebird followed me. No, he didn't fly from tree to tree; he literally jumped down on the ground and hopped along with me. Slow, fast, watching him, or whistling nonchalantly as I looked the other way, there he was. And when I drove away, he'd perch on successive trees and see me off. It was the most fantastic thing, this bird!
Sometimes I cussed him out, "Whaddya want with me, ya crazy bird? Don't you know I'm sick?" Sometimes he walked alongside me and watched me cry-his penetrating stare darting from one side of his head. Always his look said, "I'm here. I'm still here." And he was. Until I figured it out and didn't need him anymore, there he was. This disease wasn't fatal, and you know what they say about that which doesn't kill you. Besides, that whole self-righteous thing gets old after a while. A chronic illness can do amazing things for one's compassion and ability to empathize with all kinds of differing lifestyles and viewpoints. Sometimes, it even makes one think that her viewpoint might not be the all-time best one.
What was he? Guardian angel, messenger from God, positive energy from the Universe? A bird in need of therapy?
I'm not sure, but I am sure of something-that bird gave me something to believe in. I now have no doubt that we are a small part of something larger-be it force, presence, or energy. That bluebird showed me this and now that I understand it, I'm seeing it in every aspect of my life. If you gave me that survey question today, I'd be able to answer it with pride and confidence. It's me-I believe in me. And you, and you, and the endless possibilities of the whole darn parade as it passes before my chronically ill body but free-flying spirit, and dances before my compassionate and wide-believing eyes.