We All Die and Other Lighthearted Things I Thought about While on Break

canstockphoto13220366While on a digital break, I let my mind become an unwieldy toddler, waddling from one idea to another, occasionally drooling on myself.  I have a high level of anxiety these days, for no obvious reason except that I’m not ready to die. I know, I know – who among us is? Death anxiety is not a product of my middle age. Many nights throughout my life, I’ve lain in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about the randomness of some kinds of death and how I’ve lived such a tiny, conservative life.

It would likely help if I believed in religious instruction that told me where I’m going and how to get there. Or maybe if I could get on board with the attitude-of-gratitude-don’t-worry-be-happy crowd. I can be quite jolly, but it usually requires a tankard of beer, a pack of smokes and any dish with sour cream and cheese in it. I’ve given up all those things over the years, so that when I do die, I will also be miserable at the time.

There is likely a drug that would tamp down my death anxiety, but I don’t know if that should be a goal. I tend to be pragmatic – if I’m feeling enough anxiety to trigger a fear of my random death, I need to look around and see what’s happening. What’s happening is a period of transition in my life and in the lives of those around me. Each day I watch as dementia/Alzheimer’s tightens it grip on my mother-in-law. My daughter is transitioning from days of dirty knees and silly rhymes to sex ed and mean girls drama. Friends are struggling with health issues, buying homes or getting divorced. I am standing still in the middle of a swirling eddy.

canstockphoto1654493For myself, years of working from home and caregiving have isolated me. I’m becoming unmoored from structure and pop culture references. I used to pride myself at staying tuned in, able to converse on a wide range of topics, able to fake chitchat and laugh at all the right things. No longer. Snip, snip, each rope is being clipped. Until one day, I imagine just floating away. Unless a driver goes through a stop sign and t-bones me. Or one of those random craters opens up under our house and swallows me whole. Or, after years of healthy living, the cancer gets me.

There’s always a spin, though. That is my life skill. I’m able to take a problem and turn it over and over until it becomes something new, something I can live with, some idea that elevates me. The big picture is that I’m trying to find my creative self. What is more endemic to that process than remembering that our time is finite, our brain power has its limitations and that all of this shall pass? My unmooring is moving me closer to my desire, even if it’s taking a roundabout way of getting there.

I’ve always been a late bloomer, which is fine as far as most milestones go. I never worried that I would die without developing breasts or getting married or finishing a marathon. Now that I have a family, I would not want them to go through the grieving process. I want to type up instructions on how to use the washer and what brands of sunscreen to avoid. But that is what I worry about for others. For myself, I worry that I will never feel any measure of satisfaction as a writer.

The problem is, do I even know what satisfaction looks like for me? I’m restless – dissatisfaction drives much of what I do in my life. If I were truly satisfied, would I stay at rest, gathering mothballs and grinning like a fool? It sounds much like some people’s version of heaven. We sit around, perfect and smiling and strumming our harps, as if we had all overdosed on Zoloft.

Perfection is boring. Nobody would create anything if every aspect of life were perfect and we were all satisfied. Some people take that dissatisfaction and destroy themselves trying to attain perfection. Others do anything to numb the pain of feeling less than. Others create, invent, sing, paint – anything that works those kinks out of their system. Some of us manage a dichotomy of destruction and creation and then numb ourselves to the results.

I see that nothing and everything matters. Most of us will not be remembered beyond a generation or two. If we’re lucky enough to be recognized for our creations when we’re alive, it’s tempered by the fact that we will never be as happy as when we were creating, no matter what our Amazon sales. And we will be expected to do it again. Those of us who create tomorrow’s classics, works that are resented by high school students and lit majors everywhere, will never know that we made it.

Is there an object lesson to be found in all this moroseness? I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like I’m paralyzed and a sadistic intern is poking my toes with a needle. Did you feel that? Did you feel that? Sometimes it wakes me up and I feel that and I know I need to get moving.

And death anxiety? It comes and goes. We all die eventually. Smiles, everyone.

Hypnic Jerks: Not Just for Sleeping Anymore

Does it really matter? I blurted out this question in the middle of a school equity team meeting. We were discussing how teachers approached dress code issues and the usual example of saggy pants, underwear on display. The discussion was focused on how not to handle the situation punitively, but rather provide some guidance and instruction to the child to understand what was appropriate in the classroom.

This question about what matters has been cropping up repeatedly in my head. It’s not a flippant attitude – it’s an awakening. I thought getting a tattoo and quitting my job to pursue writing were the markers of middle age and time a-creeping away. But the red convertible is happening in my head. Trying to sort out what is worth spending my emotional and intellectual energy on is the greater challenge.

For much of the first half of my life, I have been disciplined, strict with my personal expectations and intensely goal-oriented, which often rolled into critical judgment of others. Conservative in my personal conduct, but growing increasingly liberal in my thinking, I wonder about the evolution we often see in humans throughout their lifetimes. This is the path – a shifting, winding path that one hopes is progressive and enlightening.

canstockphoto10767838I have dreams about mortality, waking up, afraid that I’ve wasted so much time doing very little. What neural pathways are now ruts? Can I change? What would I change? When will all that past emotional masochism, not to mention smoking and drinking, catch up to my body? I am not a nervous, anxious person as a matter of practice, but occasionally my mind goes into free fall. I catch myself, like that startling, semiconscious moment before sleep when you feel like you’re falling.

I’m experiencing a metaphorical hypnic jerk, startled by how many years have gone by, how long it has taken me to learn how to take care of myself, how to love others with my whole heart. It has taken me so much time to come to terms with the past and to learn to be present. And everything has to constantly be revisited in order to hold onto those lessons.

I’ve always had the sense that being a survivor was the holy grail, but I’ve been there, done that. It feels like greed to want more, to want to live a life not just in resistance to failure. A friend asked me why I felt like it was selfish to want to be happy. I don’t know what happiness looks like and what it would look like for me. Maybe it’s here and the skill I lack is being able to see that, without feeling like the other shoe is going to drop.

The motto repeated in my family was “Prepare for the worst, hope for the canstockphoto12691940best.” It sounds nice and pat, but it’s a dichotomous edict, to continually try to imagine the worst thing that could happen while remaining optimistic. I’ve often been called a pessimist, but I secretly (perhaps wrongly) believe that I’m an advanced optimist – I recognize the 15 million ways things can go haywire, but I’m always willing to try, to move forward, to apply myself.

I fear becoming rigid and brittle and hardhearted as I go through life. I see it in others. The fear of loss hardens their outer shell. They become less forgiving, less kind, less adaptable. They forget to question their beliefs and habits. Nothing new is allowed to enter. They live, but in a shrunken, isolated prison of their own design. The fragility of body accompanied by less and less neural plasticity.

canstockphoto7379441Epiphany is sometimes represented as a one-time fork in the road. But change is a choice that has to be made repeatedly and likely does not lie in picking a specific road, but in how one decides to travel. It’s hard to leave the preconceived notions and the well-trodden paths of the past. Each time I think I have a grasp on the journey, I get startled into some new awareness. I realize how little I know, how much there is to learn and how this anticipation of more knowledge is exactly what happiness looks like for me.