Commencement addresses have become a thing, like any other in this world – critiqued, reviewed, mocked, and admired. I wondered what I could say to high school or college graduates. What, at the ripe old age of 53, could I impart to a group of people whose adventures are beginning? Not much really, but I’m taking a swing at it.
Dear New-ish Humans,
Congratulations! You’ve reached a milestone. With luck, you will reach many more. Like menopause and cashing out your 401K. Maybe you’ll patent an invention or live to see your grandchildren graduate. Maybe you’ll travel the world and dive off cliffs or maybe, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll see the world from your armchair through observation and a lot of knitting.
It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is your path, no one else’s. We live in a world where people advertise their lives and if you look long enough, yours will come up short. All lives look great with selective editing, but real life is a rough draft full of unresolved storylines and happy endings that only last a page or two before the next challenge arises.
The surprise ending is not really a surprise at all. It pretty much ends the same way for most humans. It’s the path on the way there that counts. Outcomes take up only a fraction of a moment. The process is where life is at – messy, complicated, wonderful, terrible – those moments when you are struggling are where the meaning resides.
I have had a messy life. Or I should say lives. Once I was a poor kid growing up in a rural town. Once I was a soldier. A college student. A janitor. A tutor. I became, for a longer term, a spouse and a parent. I traveled. I stayed still. I ran. I grew fat. I shrank. I trained in martial arts. I learned to abhor violence and guns. I briefly tried politics. I grew up evangelical. I became enamored of Buddhism. I went to therapy. I tried on personas, boyfriends, jobs, hobbies. Humans shed and grow almost 1,000 new skins in a lifetime. Why would anything about us stay the same throughout our lives?
And that’s what everything comes down to. Your generation knows this better than anyone, as you transition to new lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Nothing stays the same. Nothing was ever intended to stay the same. Change is constant. Unless you want life to be excruciating for yourself, accept this fact. Learn the skills that help you deal with change – resilience, adaptability, flexibility, knowing when to let go, when to move onto the next plan or idea.
We also live in a world where everyone has opinions and way too many ways to convey them. Outside entities want you to like and thumb and swipe your way through life. They want to elevate your sense of self-importance so that you volunteer every aspect of your life like wares at a marketplace. This is the nature of consumerism, the nature of data mining and advertising. This is not the nature you want to cultivate, because in the cold dark night, when you’re alone, none of those entities will be there for you. You must learn to trust yourself, to spend time in your own head, to be your own confidant and best friend. Know yourself best so that you might understand others more. Listen more than you speak.
Some of you will be embarking on relationships. Maybe one, maybe many. The secret to any healthy relationship is this: you bring out the best in each other. You like who you are with the other person and they like who they are with you. Friends, lovers, partners, spouses. The same thing applies. I’ve stayed too long in relationships where I was a lesser person, ashamed of myself, hyperfocused on keeping the relationship because I felt I was lacking. Even if your relationship is healthy, alas, change applies here as well. You grow along with a person or you don’t. The trick is knowing when to let go or when to dig in.
The lessons of generations before me eventually landed hard on my head. No matter what rights have been gained, no matter what ground has been covered, you can’t have it all. You shouldn’t have everything at once. To learn how to deeply appreciate one thing, one person, one moment is to learn how to better appreciate everything else more. To savor a moment is a luxury in a society that tells us to quickly want for the next. Defy the speed of the world around you. Slow down. Feel the joy of the moment. Be in it.
Lastly, but most importantly, there is the practice of kindness. What does that really mean? This practice is the most important thing you will ever do – it impacts everything. It shapes your relationships, it can protect the natural world, it can affect your job, it defines your role as a citizen. Operating from a place of kindness is not going to solve all the world’s problems. Sometimes it won’t even make the person talking to you be polite. You practice for the muscle memory, so even under duress, you choose to be the person you’d like to be.
Kindness is sometimes mistaken for weakness, but it takes a strong person to live in this world with compassion. Kindness is not agreeability or concession or surrender. It is approaching the world, your life, the lives of others, with curiosity and openness and compassion. It is one of the most powerful choices you’ll ever make, because it will characterize your life and inform your decisions.
The world is full of wonders and dangers and conflict and love. We often judge lifetimes by accomplishment, by enduring works of art or invention or unfortunately, wealth. Most of us won’t end up on a college reading list or in a history book or on a Forbes list. But we can have lives well-lived, make the lives of those around us better, ensure that we do more helping than harm. Life is an adventure of your own making. Make it well.
For the first time in thirty years, I woke up this morning to neither a dog to walk nor a cat demanding to be fed. I said good-bye to my 17-year-old tomcat yesterday. I watched, masked and from a distance, as a vet drugged him into oblivion. He will be my last animal companion for a very long time, if ever again. I am both sad and relieved.
I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice and love and how it can reach a tipping point. With people, with animals, with any passion, there comes a moment when maintaining the relationships, the dedication, starts to feel like one’s life is draining away. This last year has aged me, short-circuited my brain, turned me into an insomniac. I’ve cried more, slept less, been less. Love and sacrifice have never been far apart. I have few regrets about this, but I’m tired.
Things had gotten bad with my cat buddy, Pete, but I didn’t realize how bad until this morning when I woke up without him. Feline dementia had him yowling throughout the night, sometimes during the day. In our small house, it was impossible to escape and his deafness meant no volume control. I would often get up to comfort him, turn on lights, anything to keep him from waking up the rest of the family. I’d learned to get by on 4-5 hours of sleep. Last night I slept for 7.
He’d started to paw my feet to get attention while I was reading or writing and it was rapidly becoming an obsessive behavior. I couldn’t focus for more than 15 minutes at a time. And he’d returned to feral ways when it came to the litterbox. I spent quite a bit of time doing clean up. It happened slowly at first, until our house became a patchwork of plastic mats and makeshift litterboxes. After he was gone, I spent several hours with enzyme cleaners and hot, soapy water returning our home to a more hospitable state.
Making the decision to end another creature’s life is never easy. Like a person with Alzheimer’s, Pete would have moments of clarity and seem his old self and even as I knew I was making the right decision, I was riddled with doubt. It wouldn’t get better and I was exhausted. Pete was now anxious most of the time and began to lose his appetite, his hearing and vision, and arthritis turned his stealth walk into a bit of a lumber. In the end, he began not to recognize me, nor want human attention.
Pete is one of four pets I’ve seen through long lives and silent deaths. Elliott was a Scottish Terrier who’d been marked down in a local pet shop. Sitting in his cage in a puddle of pee, he was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. He was there through college and grad school, through crappy jobs, and even worse boyfriends. He was ferociously loyal and playful and I took him everywhere with me. In college, I taught private flute lessons (not a euphemism) and I sometimes used play time with him as an incentive for the younger students. He died at the age of 14. To this day, I feel a twinge of pain when I think of him. Some losses really stick with you.
For the next 16 years, I lived with cats. I adopted Pete and August from the local humane society. Pete was a kitten, August a cantankerous middle-aged cat who tolerated him. When August got kidney disease and I had to make the decision to end her life, I remember my daughter saying good-bye to her before preschool. August sat there, always the proper lady, while my 4-year old chattered away. When I returned from dropoff, August staggered to her blanket and collapsed.
Pete started getting a little more vocal after August was gone, strengthening his pipes for future yowling. We thought it was mourning and adopted Owney, a fickle, older Tortie. Owney had no interest in Pete and often took an active disliking to him. He
followed her, slept as close to her as she would allow, drove her insane with his constant lurking presence. She also succumbed to kidney disease. Near the end, she and Pete were still not friends, but she no longer hissed at him when he came near. That was last year.
Pete outlived his housemates. He was a laid back, gentle giant who had a rumbly purr and a penchant for suddenly flopping over in front of you while you were walking. Being underfoot was his trademark. He rarely took offense and even as his cognitive abilities began to slip away, never struck out in fear. He was, as we humans are wont to say about male creatures, a very good boy.
There is a little garden in our backyard that hold the ashes of my animal companions. On the stone bench, the squirrels like to sit and chatter away before raiding our birdfeeders. The birdbath hosts cardinals and finches and dark-eyed juncos. At night, raccoons teeter on the wooden fence behind it, munching the Concord grapes. Occasionally neighborhood cats show up, eat some catnip and loll about in the grass. Pete has spent years in the study window meowing and chittering at the menagerie of critters. And now he’ll join that natural world, leaving me behind, to imagine I hear him meowing in the night. Grief is a funny old process.
Our family has been in “quarantine” for approximately five weeks, leaving only for grocery pickup, and medical emergencies. Work, school, meetings, and music lessons have all been conducted online. We wash our groceries. Door knobs are cleaned regularly. I still touch my face constantly.
When all this began, I was filled with ambition. I was going to write blog posts a couple times a week, maybe run a contest, and get reconnected with other bloggers. Our house was going to be cleaned from top to bottom. I’d get my garden seedlings ready. We’d finish our deck and teach our daughter to drive. Maybe I’d get my curse of a novel edited and revised. I’d get on a regular exercise plan, maybe knock off some extra weight.
Instead, I play “spin-the-bad-news-wheel” rolling from one news source to another. I’m rage-reading Twitter. A good day is one in which I shower and make one family meal. These days, I think about the repetitive pacing of animals in the zoo. Early in the morning, I walk my neighborhood – nearly the same route every day, in order to avoid other humans. The days all run together to the point that I’ve taken to writing the day and date on my whiteboard.
And yet, we’re safe (a relative term). We are able to get by financially. We have access to food and water and electricity. We have solid internet. Our home is a comforting sanctuary. We are among the fortunate.
Between my daughter’s medical emergencies and the overwhelming news outside our front door, there are days though, when I feel the undercurrent of anxiety. Some nights I wake up, thinking that I hear someone crying out. I toss and turn and the following day is a blur.
I return to the toolbox – meditation, exercise, gardening, writing. Halfhearted attempts at best. I even tried to add a little ritual here and there. During meditation, I decided to try some old incense. Buddhists do it. They seem serene. If serene means filling your house with acrid smoke that smells like an ashtray on fire, then I’m zen itself.
New tools. A Nintendo Switch video game that we gave to our daughter for her 16th birthday. Now our entire family spends time each day building a rapacious island dynasty in Animal Crossing. There is something quite calming about traveling to a remote island, stripping it of all its resources and running away. Virtual colonialism. My family of origin is British, so perhaps there is a genetic component.
As I express my concern about the lessons the game teaches, my daughter rolls her eyes. Mom ruins everything. I don’t want to brag, but I’m good at taking perfectly benign entertainment and deconstructing in such a way that you can’t help but feel guilt. I think it really adds another layer to the game.
I didn’t think I could do it – writing at home with other human beings in the house. For years, I regarded solitude as necessary to writing. I’m a well-trained caregiver. Any noise or movement and I’m immediately alerted to potential need. I’m being forced to unlearn this mentality. In fact, my family would damn well appreciate it if I would stop checking in with them every hour.
My study has two doors, which creates a shortcut to the kitchen. I’ve had to learn to shut both doors. We all now use door knob signs to indicate “Video Call” or “Writing: Please do not disturb”. I also need NO – I do not know if we have any parmesan left or I know you are bored, but I’m not going to entertain you. They think I am writing a lot.
The upside to the pandemic is (and I say that, acutely aware of my privilege at the moment) that the Gotham Writers Workshop is offering some of their classes via Zoom. These are classes in NYC that I would have never been able to attend. I’m taking a fiction writing course focusing on short stories and a course to complete the first draft of a novel. It’s been an interesting experience, but more importantly, connected me with other writers and feedback on my work.
I’m feeling very writerly these days. This week, I listened to my short story be critiqued six ways to Sunday, shortly after I received two short story rejections. One of those rejections was a kind note from the publication editor. I have surprised myself by being able to handle both critique and rejection well. I don’t think I could have handled it when I was younger. You know, last year.
To admit to any moments of joy or happiness feels wrong. I know there is suffering and grieving and injustice in the world. I know that I’m a resident and user of services in a system that supports inequality as a feature, not a bug. This was the way before the pandemic and will likely be the way after. Like most crises, we see revealed before us that the “gaps” are canyons, that imagination is desperately needed everywhere – education, government, employment, public spaces, media, and relationships.
I want to think about the world differently. I want, after all of this is over, for the world to be different. Maturing, evolving, kinder, with a sense that we truly are all in this together. I don’t fool myself, though. I knew after the 2012 Sandy Hook murders of school children and staff when nothing changed, that my country was its own worst enemy. And here we are, forced to watch as our government, led by cynical ignorance, fumbles about with our lives.
What I want for and of this world is of no account. I am a non-essential citizen. I started this post writing about perspective. As a nonbeliever in gods, I’ve arrived at a point just past nihilism: if nothing matters, then everything can matter or, to be more precise, I get to decide what matters to me. Kindness, curiosity, and learning still matter to me. I’m not particularly adept at any of those things, but that’s the path I am trying to trod. Same as it ever was.
My 20th wedding anniversary was on April Fool’s Day. This will suffice as an explanation for the rubber chickens, whoopee cushions, and jester hats at our wedding reception. I drew the line when my husband said I should walk down the aisle with a pillow stuffed up my dress. To celebrate two decades of commitment, we quietly acknowledged the date and guilted our teenager into playing card games with us. The day was a tick on the calendar, but had less meaning to us than the days prior.
Despite our efforts to stay quarantined, my daughter had a medical emergency three nights ago. The on-call oncology doctor sent us to the emergency room. We didn’t want to go, knowing that we’d be utilizing resources and making ourselves vulnerable to the coronavirus, but she was in severe pain. Then we made a choice that was unusual for us – my husband would stay at home to lessen exposure and I would take her to the ER.
The night was a blur of watching my brave kid be in constant pain. Six hours of testing and alternating pain meds. I broke for a moment when I asked the nurse where I could get a cup of coffee – in tears, shaken, unmoored. I thought I can’t take this anymore. My texts to my husband throughout the night were straight reporting until the last one. It will be better when you are here.
By morning, she had been admitted to the hospital, which was strangely comforting – we’d spent several weeks there over the last year, so the surroundings and routine were familiar. Except for the extra precautions – everyone in masks and gloves – even more critical on the pediatric oncology floor. My husband arrived with overnight bags. He’d fed the cat, straightened up the house, notified his boss. I could feel myself breathe again.
Before he arrived, I thought of the other many long nights that we’d spent in emergency rooms, surgery waiting areas, by hospital beds, and sitting at home, alert to our girl’s every sound and movement. It has been a long year and while I could call it a bad year in terms of everything we’d all gone through, it wasn’t a bad year for our family relationships, our marriage, our time together. Our true fortune is that we know how to take care of each other and we know how to laugh.
I tend to eschew sentimentality. It took me five years to tell my husband I hated heart-shaped anything. And it’s taken him a long time to get used to my distinct lack of interest in celebrations or gifts. There is this idea that anthropologically, humans need ritual and celebration, but I think those events are simply about noticing the moment. If noticing and appreciating the moment is the point, I probably have 50 micro-celebrations a day. The pleasure of birds on the feeder, that damned good cup of coffee in the morning, a wonderful paragraph I’ve read, laughing with a friend or just hanging out with my tribe.
By late morning, my daughter’s pain had dissipated, test results were good, and we were discharged with a plan. Transitioning back to home meant dropping our clothes in the garage, hitting the showers, and disinfecting everything that had been at the hospital. And the re-set on quarantine has begun again.
I thought about love, what it meant in terms of our marriage. For the last few years, while my mother-in-law was struggling with Alzheimer’s and the last year when our daughter went through surgeries to remove tumors, my husband and I learned just how much weight we could bear. We discovered that we could still be tender, even under the worst circumstances. We could still laugh when things were darkest. And we practiced kindness when it would have been so easy to rage.
Perhaps it is not the length of time, but the fact that this commitment ever came to be that still amazes me. I placed a Yahoo singles ad twenty-two years ago, long before the swiping and the algorithms. I was 29, had just moved to Minneapolis, and wanted to get on with a social life. Of the responses, many creepy and weird, I picked his. With no locations mentioned in the metro wide ad, we found out that we lived two miles away from each other. We exchanged emails for two weeks before going on our first date. Thus far, it’s worked out pretty well.
Like character, love shows its nature under duress. The world seems like a very scary place now. Nothing is assured and everything is shifting and changing. The greatest luxury of all is to be kind to ourselves and to one another in the midst of chaos – and to realize that celebration can’t be saved up for singular occasions. When so much suffering is in the world, we are sometimes afraid to let the moments of joy in, to say yes, in the middle of all this, I can have moments of happiness. The gratitude for those gentle moments seems a lot like love.
The doctor shook his head after examining my daughter. We were talking about the Covid-19 crisis. This is a real public health failure he said. They were running low on seasonal flu tests, but he said they’d better test her because of the underlying conditions. We were in the middle of a dystopian movie, all of us in masks, him in a face shield and gloves. We’d been waved off from the main clinic entrance by similarly masked security guards and redirected so that we wouldn’t come into contact with any other patients.
Her cough started four days ago, followed by fever, body aches, and a severe headache. Our family had already begun sheltering-in-place before it started. We were the fortunate ones – my husband can work from home, I was already there, and the schools closed. We live in an urban area where, if stretched, we can get some form of grocery delivery. In February, I’d starting building up a small pantry so that we could get by for a month. Except for maybe toilet paper, of course. But they still deliver those anachronistic phone books. We have options.
I suppose if this last year hadn’t traumatized our family with large tumors and major surgeries, we’d be more panicky. We had hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves on hand months before coronavirus began rampaging around the planet. I started laughing a little hysterically talking to my husband and then I was so angry I could feel myself choking on it. Hadn’t we had enough? Hadn’t we spent enough nights on hospital couches and in waiting rooms? Hadn’t our kid been messed with enough?
The doctor called last night. My daughter tested positive for Influenza B. I’ve never been so grateful for a Positive result. A flu can be serious, especially for her, but she’s now on antivirals and resting like a champ. We are, in the scheme of things, extraordinarily lucky.
My husband and I are both pretty shaken up, though. This week was a reminder not to get complacent about either our health or anxiety coping strategies. Being at home gives us a sense of false security, but like many people, our lives have changed drastically just in the course of a couple of weeks. There are a lot of unknowns and scary times to come. People are arming themselves with guns and toilet paper (that seems very American and not in a good way).
We’ve learned to start with the basics: sleep, hydration, good nutrition, exercise. Then we level up with: meditation, yoga, journaling. The masterclass is creativity – solving problems with the resources we have, appreciating art and music and books, finding humor even when things are bleak, finding ways to grow our connections with other people, despite the physical distancing. And if you’re ready to hit the expert level: finding ways to help others, either psychologically or materially.
Having worked at home for many years, I’m on a first name basis with our postal carrier. We yelled a conversation across the lawn yesterday, checking in with each other and asking about our families. I asked if they were taking any special precautions as mail carriers and she said not really. We talked about all the hoarding and she wistfully said I just wish I had some hand sanitizer for my truck. There’s no way to wash my hands on the route.
I told her to wait a minute. We’d had a bottle that we purchased after my daughter’s surgery, but we never used it. We weren’t going anywhere and we had plenty of soap. She was so happy and surprised as I tossed the bottle to her. It was a good reminder that in times of darkness, when we’re so much in our own navels, look for ways to help. Reach out to friends and family, donate to your local food bank, feed the birds, grow a plant. Anything beyond the hamster wheels in our heads that generate anxiety.
Adversity tests our character. We can all be good people when life is relatively comfortable and predictable. But who are we under pressure? Do we buy the last two packages of toilet paper on the shelf, or do we leave one? Do we choose to deny the problem and in doing so, put other people in danger? Do we adopt the language of war and battles and hunker down in our foxholes?
There will be challenges ahead. There will be a lot of choices taken out of our hands. But the choice of what kind of person we are in crisis is powerful.
Who do you want to be?
Lastly, this blog has been oft neglected over the last year and half. If there were any time to connect, to share, to reach out, the time is now. I’ll be here more frequently and am coming up with some ideas to reconnect with blogging friends and showcase new bloggers. I’ve gone back on Twitter and you can find me @TheGreenStudy. Stay well and let’s make blogging cool again!
It’s been nearly a month since I’ve written here. For some people, this would be an indicator that they were being wildly productive elsewhere. For me, it runs parallel to everything else in my life. So I return, disorganized and unkempt, my decompensation complete after a year of crises.
I woke up two weeks ago feeling as if every joint in my body was inflamed. My hands were stiff and painful. There was stabbing nerve pain in my knees. I walked as if I were 82, not 52. It sent me into a depression. After so long of keeping a stiff upper lip, of caregiving, and chauffeuring and tracking down medical research and working hard to make sure everyone in my circle was cared for, fed, loved, paid attention to over the last year, my body and brain said enough already.
Writing stopped altogether. I buried myself in books, frequent naps, and long stares into space. I walked a lot and when my feet hurt and my eyes stung from the cold, I walked some more. I slowly unraveled the strands of my depression. It’s February in Minnesota. I consider it the worst month – 4 months of winter behind, 2-4 months ahead. As I’ve written about numerous times, this last year was situational hell with medical crises and family losses. And menopause has got me in its grip – miserable and unpredictable. So, there are reasons.
In this Instagram marketing world, there’s a temptation to wait until everything can be repackaged into a neat story, complete with a moral and pics to prove it. But sometimes the only way to find one’s way through the story is to write about it, to just start telling it. We’re in love with stories of redemption and miracle outcomes, but those are movies and reality shows and late night commercials, not life. Life continues in all its uneven messiness, where the best victories are slivers of light – moments when we are able to exhale.
Things are quiet now. My daughter’s health is stable and we have a month or so before the next battery of tests. I’ve got a long list of self-care things I must do to regain my health and sense of purpose. I approach everything the same way (which can sometimes be an issue): Make a list of problems I’m trying to solve, do research, break it down to concrete steps, line up resources, and start walking the plan.
It’s time to exhale.
There was a moment in time a couple of weeks ago when I was binge-watching episodes of Leverage while playing Freecell, eating, checking my email and text messages, and rage-reading Twitter feeds. I had a brief insight, a moment standing outside of myself, seeing a kind of desperate escapism at play. I was numb, distracted, and when I stopped all activity and sat still – utterly, utterly depressed.
It was time to wake myself up, to stop sleepwalking through my emotions, and to take some responsibility for the quality of my life. Compassion allows for the fact that this last year was the worst of my life, but when does self-care lurch into self-medication and then stagger into self-destruction? For me, it’s when I can’t remember my days. What did I do yesterday? I have no idea.
It’s a hard road back from the Land of Numb. I take preventative measures – delete the games from my computer. Log out of everything so I’m forced to log in – one step in mindfulness. I make myself get back into an exercise routine – the pain and muscle aches end the detachment from my body. I force myself to do one activity, one step at a time. I do it initially, resentfully, repeating the mantra it doesn’t matter if you feel like it, just do it.
I started to think about distraction and escapism and self-care and how it all gets conflated and confused. There’s a whole economy built around the idea of self-care with few definitions on what that truly entails. The Venn Diagram that includes self-care, distraction, consumerism, entertainment, and addiction is a giant black circle with slivers of light at the edges.
Our brains are so overwhelmed not just by our own human predicaments, but by the constant influx of information and messaging. Maybe the paralysis of mindlessly entertaining ourselves is all we can manage. I think about Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. We have so many diversions to choose from, so many choices to make in our lives, that paralysis comes rather easily. As Schwartz explains, even when we make choices, our satisfaction is less because if our choice is not great, we think about all the other ones we could have made.
I’ve taken to asking myself a lot of questions about what I do with my time. Does this support my intentions for myself? Do I feel energized or drained after this activity? Is there something better I could do? What am I avoiding? There are times when taking downtime is a necessary part of life, to let your mind zone out or wander, to be purely entertained or engaged. But how much time? When does comfort become a coma?
I had the pleasure last week of reading David Puretz’s The Escapist, which was sent to me by JKS Communications. The protagonist/anti-hero is self-medicating, incapable of dealing with the reality of his life and sets off to find his father, a veteran of the Iraq War. The protagonist is alternately self-destructive and introspective, but learns and experiences enough to make this a satisfying read.
Debut novels can be hit or miss and I was wary of reading another drug-fueled odyssey, which is usually the purview of male writers – especially those of the David Foster Wallace era. In The Escapist, the anti-hero is just sympathetic enough, the writing is strong, and the story is engaging. Bonus points for lack of misogyny and rare masturbatory or bodily effluvia references (not a prude, but how much does one need to know about sputum and semen?).
Self-medication as escape is nothing new. I come from a long line of self-medicators – booze, smoking, drugs, more booze. I sobered up in my mid-20s, gave up smoking when I was 30, but there was always food and an addiction to running shoes and books. And for this writer – the productivity-killing need to research. For some people, it’s sports or religion or patriotism or political ideology or fashion, whatever makes the answers easier, life more palatable, something to subvert our fears and anxieties and any other untenable emotions.
Some of these things are perfectly healthy, but anything can be a way of detaching from emotion or reality. I’ve become intensely curious about life with all of those things stripped away. Our addictions, distractions, comfort blankets, the groups we identify with, and the cozy philosophies – who are we without them?
Writing is an escape of sorts, but these days I don’t know if I’m running away from or toward it. I guess it only matters that I’m doing it, anchored in a moment, neither here nor there. I keep thinking about the path and how a writer lives two lives, moving in the world and then living on the page. And that my fears have often allowed one to supercede the other.
I’ve started reading The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free from Complacency and Fear by Ezra Bayda. The first chapter was all about facing fears head-on and he ends it with a prescient quote from Chinese Zen Master Wu-Men: When the mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best moment of your life.
Wishing you some of your best moments in the week ahead!
Almost eight years ago, I published my first blog post. It came on the heels of challenges I had created for myself – training in Taekwondo, learning how to climb rock walls, pushing myself to write publicly. I’ve given up martial arts and rock climbing, but I’m still writing. My challenges are different now. They usually involve trying to get a good night’s sleep and not letting my anxiety overrun my sensibility.
I just finished reading Dinty Moore’s The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. It’s a short, inspirational read – a reminder of some basic tenets of being a writer. I’ve been thinking a great deal about a quote in the book by Ezra Bayda: Your difficulties are not obstacles on the path, they are the path.
My path in 2019 was the most difficult of my life. It started off with a family death, spiralled into personal health problems, the loss of a pet, crescendoed with my child’s medical crisis, and has now found an uneasy holding pattern of doctors’ appointments and testing. I’d begun sleeping, finally, in this last week for more than three hours at a shot, loaded up on melatonin, soothed by a white noise machine. Maybe, my brain said, things will get back to normal.
We found out yesterday that the chemotherapy drug refill my daughter needs is out of stock. One company in the world makes it. I had a panic attack while on the phone with the specialty pharmacy. My heart was pounding louder than the hold music. How often had I been here in the last year? Anxiety steamrolling me, brain racing to problem solve, catastrophizing in “what if” land.
Normal? What the hell was I thinking?
“When/if…then” thinking always catches me off guard. I realized that I’d been telling myself when things got back to normal, I’d get back to a stricter writing practice. I’d exercise more regularly. I’d be more careful about what I ate. I’d catch up on correspondence. I’d sleep better. I’d be able to think more clearly – be less hostile, be more compassionate – be a better person.
While I’m not someone who is inclined towards drama, it occurred to me that this waiting is a living death. Because what if “normal” never returns? I’m getting older. My peers are getting older. Illness, death, change – it comes to us all and it accelerates as one ages. Time is a finite resource for a human being.
This morning, I re-read a 1993 Paris Review interview of Toni Morrison. She talked about her early writing life. She was a working single parent with small children. She wrote in the early hours and no matter her level of organization, she always ended up writing on a small square of her desk or table. Within those limitations, she created beautiful works of art.
I think about her writing in that little space with limited time – creating a universe of love, joy, hate, pain – weaving together the threads in a poetic yawp to the world. We can make choices in the spaces between troubles and limitations. I’d gotten so overwhelmed by the big, scary stuff that I’d stopped making the small choices that would bring me joy. Writing in that 15 minutes before the next doctor appointment, going for a short run, napping near a sunny window, digging out a recipe book and cooking a good meal, writing a thank-you note to a friend, sinking into a book.
It’s hard to unravel the idea that to write, I don’t need a huge expanse of time, a clean desk, the recommended amount of sleep, an uneventful day or ten. It’s hard to believe, that after so many years of an interrupted life, that I still allow circumstances to override this visceral need to put chaos on paper. This forgetfulness is always how I arrive here: depressed, cynical, often simmering with a vague, low-energy rage. Writing is how I survive, even thrive when life eddies about me.
So this path, full of potholes and thorny briar patches and distracting squirrels, is the path. And the only way forward is mindfully, pen and notebook in hand.
There’s a quip about the cure being worse than the disease. No need to tell me that at 2 a.m., when my child is keening with stomach pain. We’re in the wilderness now – trying a relatively new drug not tested on children, for rare tumors with no proven treatment path. My kid is filling up the bingo card of side effects. And each day, I am supposed to hand her the drug that does this.
My husband and I sit up with her for the next two hours, hoping that the cramping recedes quickly. Eventually, the pain passes and she is finally able to fall into a deep, restful sleep. I am wide awake. I’ve sent a message to her doctor. This is untenable for the long term. Any ideas?
Now that she is comfortable again, I am introspective. What am I becoming? I don’t sleep well anymore, even when a night is uninterrupted. I have copious notes, dates and times of this medicine, that reaction, what works, what didn’t. I’m on constant alert, vibrating with anxiety and now, caffeine. My stress hormones have cozied up to my menopause hormones, so every five minutes, I flash into a drippy sweat.
I’ve read every article and study I could find about the drug, the tumor, the side effects. After reading about one side effect treatment regimen, I asked the doctor if we couldn’t try a particular drug. Reading the same article, the doctor said sounds like it might be an option and wrote the prescription. Criminy, they realize that I only have a liberal arts degree, right?
But this is the speed of science. As quickly as one protocol gets established, four more options pop up. That’s a good thing, but it means everyone has to be read in, constantly.
While I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, I’m no genius and the fact that our role as parents in her care is so outsized, really freaks me out. It has served me well to stay in the moment, except in the moments after a crisis has passed. Groundless again. My brain doesn’t know whether to stay on high alert or to relax. I am afraid to relax, as if my tension were a shield against calamity.
I think about the beginner’s mind from Zen Buddhism. If I looked around me, with fresh eyes, at this very moment, what do I see? My daughter is sleeping well. As is Pete, our old tomcat, with his little snores on the floor, near my feet. Snow is falling outside, muffling the city sounds. I’m tired, but healthy. The house is warm and smells of coffee and last night’s stew. My husband is able to work from home after the long night. I explore this moment, writing here, grateful that I still can. Open your eyes. Breathe.
I was thinking about advice on recharging phone batteries. With lithium-ion batteries, the lifespan of the battery doubles if you partially charge and discharge the battery. Then there’s parasitic loading – when you are using an item while it’s charging. It can induce mini-cycles, causing part of the battery to deteriorate at a faster rate. The writer in me wants to wring a metaphor from it.
Being a caregiver or a parent can be like this. You have to keep going, no matter how low your battery is. The only protection against deterioration is finding the time when you are only charging. The moments between crises have to be more than just time when bad things aren’t happening. This is tricky – the space between shaking your fist at the sky and noticing how beautiful it is. Enjoying the buoyant, cool water just before you feel like you’re drowning.
So this morning, I practice. I fold laundry at the kitchen table and watch the snow fall. I listen to Dar Williams sing “After All”. You catch your breath and winter starts again…
…and the long night falls away.
I return here, unsure of how to proceed. Writing this blog has always been an exercise in being present, but distant. I’ve written from wherever I’m at, but writing itself, putting life in words, is an exercise in putting emotions at arm’s length. My family is having its worst best year and it will carry on into next year and perhaps, beyond. This is unfamiliar territory, this landscape of worst fears. My anxieties have always nibbled at the edges, but now they are front and center.
As I’ve written in previous posts, my teenage daughter has been seriously ill. After two major surgeries this year, we are now moving into the chemotherapy stage. I don’t want this blog to become a recitation of medical victories and setbacks, but now I understand why people write them. It becomes your life. How is it possible to write about anything else? In fact, how is it possible to do anything in the midst of this? I’ve been unable to focus enough to read, to really write much, to do anything but read dense medical articles and try my best not to be steamrolled by what if, what if. It’s funny that the what ifs never include positive outcomes. How very me.
Perhaps life would be easier if I believed in higher mechanics at work. But the pain of seeing my bright, beautiful girl struggle makes it better that I don’t. The rage and bitterness would consume me. I’d rail at the sky gods and pulpit liars. I’d be unforgiving. Thoughts and prayers indeed.
I’ve always been drawn to the tenets of Buddhism and Stoicism, lightly adhering to the idea that what is here is it. What is now is now. Never have your life philosophy tested. You will discover a derelict home and how little you’ve done to maintain it. You’ll find there are foundations of styrofoam and duct tape, leaky pipes, and an overabundance of distractions/fixes that no longer do the job. You’ll slap up a foreclosure sign and walk away. Time to start over.
Yesterday I read a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and it hit me – nothing I was accustomed to doing for comfort/distraction/numbing in my life was working anymore. I was suddenly and sharply aware of a nightmare I have of falling off a cliff, before I jerk awake in a sweat. The sense that all that was before and all that would come after no longer mattered. But there is no waking up, no relief to discover I’d just fallen asleep on my arm, drooled on my pillow. I’m awake and groundless at this very moment.
I grew up in poverty, plagued by its cohorts alcoholism and domestic violence. I struggled to put myself through college by serving in the Army for four years. I quit smoking. I overcame years of dysfunctional relationships to meet and marry a wonderfully kind and smart man. I went through a dangerous labor and delivery to introduce my daughter to the world. I trained in martial arts in my 40s – bruised and injured sparring with behemoth 18-year-olds. But nothing, nothing in my life is as hard as this moment right now.
How does a person live in this space? I’ve asked friends who have had similar life experiences. How did you do it? The blank look on their faces said it all. They just did what they needed to do. I wrote in my last post about the exercise of stating exactly what one is doing to bring the current moment into focus. That little trick stopped working a few days ago when I found myself mentally shrieking Woman folding clothes while trying to fend off another round of laundry room sobbing. It started to seem more like a defense against thinking unpleasant thoughts.
There is, at the heart of all this contemplation, a concrete reason to keep learning how to work with my own mind – I will be a better person, a better parent, a better partner if I can live well with uncertainty. My thinking brain is a construction site – all activity and planning and loud machinery. It does not provide solace. It does not expand compassion. It does not cultivate courage.
So I’m learning all over again – how to meditate, how to silence the raucous noise, how to sit still. This insistence is also an insistence to be courageous – to recognize I have no control, no soothsaying powers, no magic remedies. To face that no amount of chocolate or bingewatching or reading or writing or housecleaning will distract from the sharp edges of my life.
I re-read this post and thought well, this certainly sounds like you’re making things about you, you narcissistic twat. To write about my daughter at this point would invade her privacy and likely shred me. She is who I want to be if I ever grow up – self-possessed, funny, and honest. I take so many of my cues now from her. Still, it’s not on her to make me a better person. I have to do the work. I have to practice. I have to be mid-air, still able to breathe, still able to comfort, still able to laugh. I’ve been in flight, trying not to notice the lack of a parachute or wings. The trick is to not look down.
Sources that Have Been Helpful to Me:
Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy by Bruce Tift
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh