When I was a senior in high school, an English teacher introduced the class to a poem that immediately took up permanent residence in my head: “For Once, Then, Something,” by Robert Frost.
It goes like this:
Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
The teacher had us read critical analyses of the poem and discuss our thoughts about it. And I sort of listened. But mostly I was locked in my own mind, as usual, focusing on my own reactions to Frost’s amazing poem, which seemed to be speaking directly and personally to me.
It was saying that life could be confounding, challenging, complex, equivocal, ambivalent, and frightening. But moments of calm, cleansing clarity are possible. They may be fleeting but are nonetheless comforting.
As a rather nervous teenager constantly preoccupied with where the universe came from, what I would do with my life, and how I’d survive the semester, the prospect of such comfort was holier than the Grail. The poem held out the possibility that maybe, possibly, if I could get out of my own way for a minute, I might reach a place from where I could see the world clearly, a state of mind in which life was safe, secure, and good.
In the ensuing decades, I engaged in a continuous search for whatever it was at the bottom of the well. Through reading, meditation, mountain hiking, and traveling the world, I sought the “something.” Occasionally, I experienced brief, intermittent moments of this easy-flowing, effortless happiness in the natural state of life.
And then, finally, as a right of passage into old age, I had my first colonoscopy, when I was 55 years old and living as an ex-pat in Switzerland. The gastroenterologist laid me on an exam table and injected my arm with a sedative.
When I’ve had the procedure with other physicians in five-year intervals since that first time, I’ve always been put under and remember nothing of the procedure afterward. But on my maiden voyage into the deep interior of my body, I was awake and could follow the gastroscope on a TV screen above me as it snaked its way through my stomach. Whatever sedative the doctor had administered – perhaps midazolam or propofol – was transporting me to that wishing well, where I seemed to be seeing and feeling, the wonderful onset of some certain “something,” like what Robert Frost described in the poem.
I remember thinking to myself, “Wow! I never should have put this colonoscopy off for so long. It’s really quite interesting, and even cleansing, somehow. Cleansing to my insides as well as to my mind. I like feeling this way. I want to keep on feeling this way after this procedure. And you know what? There’s no reason I can’t feel this way all the time, and that’s just what I plan to do. Life is good. Life is wonderful. I’m ready to live it this way from here on out!”
Then the procedure ended, and a nurse said something to me in Swiss-German before closing the door behind her and leaving me alone in the room. Feeling fantastic, I leapt off the table, changed out of the open-backed surgical gown and back into my street clothes, and walked out to the waiting room, where I began reading a book while awaiting the test results.
Within a minute or two, euphoria began shifting to discomfort, shortness of breath, and then a horrible feeling of nausea leading to…
Utter confusion, aggressive shouting, unreality, feeling in the midst of a chaotic scene where soldiers stood over my prone body with rifles yelling at me to “Get up! Get up!”
Finally, I felt myself coming to and feeling like I was waking from a terrifying nightmare.
Apparently, what the nurse in the procedure room had tried to tell me was that I needed to lay still for a while to let my system recover before I stood up to dress and wait for the doctor. I later learned that, by missing that instruction, I’d triggered a vasovagal response, upsetting the longest nerve in the body, running from the brain through the chest and abdomen. When this nerve is disrupted by, say, an idiot bolting from the exam table after a colonoscopy, it sets off a chain of events resulting in a variety of unpleasant sensations.
For once, then, something – something really, really good. And then, all of a sudden, something else, really, really bad.
Life is full of lessons. Here’s what I learned from this one:
- It’s important for health to get a colonoscopy every five years, starting from the age of 50, and if you have the option, get a general anesthesia.
- Life, like poetry, is a beautiful thing when you view it from the proper perspective.
- Seeing life clearly can be a blissful, and sometimes even enduring experience. If you think you’ve found that clarity while lying on an exam table getting a colonoscopy, hold that thought until after the procedure is completed and you’ve rested peacefully for a full 10 minutes before getting up.
I still love the poem, have become a more savvy colonoscopy patient, and feel closer to that special “something” with every step of my evolution in life. My vision of that truth at the bottom of the wishing well gets clearer and clearer. Even when it blurs, the world I see in it is almost too beautiful for words.