This Wild and Precious Life

My Wednesday Writing Group is now meeting via email since we are sheltering in place. Our fearless leader’s recent prompt forced me into some deep soul searching. I didn’t know where this piece was going when I picked up my pen, but it turned into something meaningful for me, so meaningful that I’m opening myself up to you now.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Naturalized daffodils in the woods

I remember when our children were young and complained about not having enough time to do the things that really mattered. My go-to response was to remind them that however they spent their time was a demonstration of what truly mattered the most to them (which was often watching TV). Sometimes the response was tears, sometimes an eye roll or two, but it never seemed to change behavior. Maybe that’s because I was better at preaching than practicing. I was chiding myself every bit as much as I was chiding them.

I live in constant awe and envy of many women whose orbit I circle: women who travel to far off places to do good, putting themselves in who-knows-how-much of harm’s way, risking their health and safety. They give their time, their creativity, and their financial resources to help others. They think of others before themselves.

Like theirs, my heart aches for the plight of so many in this world, but that is often as much as I allow. I’m filled with compassion more than passion. I am not moved to activism. A lifetime ago it was different, but I burned my candle down to a nub. I got burned and burned out, and the flame has never reignited.

Still, I find myself looking around me and wondering how I can help, how I can make a difference. I looked close to home—it’s not an easy place to find an answer. I’m surrounded by an enclave of family—theirs, not mine. Much of what they do, all four generations of them, they do together: farming, canning, eating, errands, playing. They are self-contained; they take care of each other. They do not seem to need others, even in times of need.

“Where am I needed? What can I do?”

That was the question I asked myself when one of the older generation among these neighbors received a devastating cancer diagnosis. They certainly didn’t need me to bring food or offer trips to the doctor. I had just recently retired from my far more than  full-time job when it came to me—the one thing I now had that family members did not.

Time. I could visit. While their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are off at work and school, I could give my time.

I had my answer.

At this stage in my own life, it seems the things I have to offer are the small things. A smile, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a compliment. They are indeed small things, but as I look around, they are things the world seems much in need of right now. These things I can do, and I have learned to be on the alert. Not always, not enough, but so much more than when I was so overworked and overwhelmed that I seemed only to live inside myself.

These days I actively watch for opportunities to smile, to make a small gesture. “Is there something I can get for you from that top shelf?” to the older gentleman in his electric shopping cart. “May I help with that?” to the woman struggling to get her arm into the coat sleeve.

I step out of my comfort zone to say something pleasant to a person who seems vulnerable. It’s an indirect way of saying, “You’re not alone. Here is a safe place.” Sometimes I just watch. How is this clerk from Pakistan being treated by her customers? How are those Latino customers being treated by that cashier? I’m ready to step in, though I have no idea how.

I’ve also learned that things I think and say and write can occasionally make a difference. It’s the main reason I continue to write—in hopes that I will sometimes find some combination of words that will touch someone.

In these ever more uncertain times, I believe it is more important than it ever has been—in my lifetime, at least—to look for the small ways I can help improve someone else’s day. Maybe it’s an extra large tip when my server is having a tough time. Maybe it’s a conversation with the overworked cashier at the big box store. Maybe it’s popping a check in the mail to make up for the appointments I’ll miss with my hairdresser for the current stage of the coronavirus shutdown—with a little something extra added in. Maybe it’s looking for a sliver of silver lining someone’s clouds.

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to plant a little ray of sunshine wherever I can. Carrie Newcomer sings, “Between here now and forever is so precious little time.” With my precious little time I will seek out tiny acts of kindness to perform, following Mother Teresa’s counsel to do small things with great love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

 

 

Random Thoughts in the Midst of a Pandemic

Foggy Sunday, March 15, 2020

I took a walk in the cool fog today.

I like walking the fog. Fog is quiet, coming in “on little cat feet,” as Sandburg wrote. A stroll in fog is conducive to introspection and reflection.

On this day, fog seems to mean more. Walking in the fog, I can only see what is immediately around me. It seems an apt metaphor in these days of self-isolation. But in a good way. The safest place I can be is here, alone. My being here, alone, is the safest thing I can do for the people I love and care about, too.

I can look at the fog and my isolation as annoyances, as gray and depressing, as confining. Or I can look for the opportunities it provides. Time to read, write, catch up on chores. (Closet-cleaning, anyone? That’s what a cousin is doing today.)

Me? I’m about to introduce myself to a new friend over the phone. What better time than this? We found each other on social media when we realized we were each the daughter of our own mother’s best friend. We’re going to gossip about our mothers. Imagine them as teenagers. Invent stories about them. And keep each other company. We’ll laugh. We may even shed some tears.

We will connect. Even in the fog.

-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-:-

Tuesday Evening

I’ve had another thought. (Yes, sometimes that’s about how often they come to me.) It’s still foggy outdoors, and I’ve learned something. Fog looks better when I’m in its midst (or should I say mist?) than when I’m indoors looking out at it. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there worth exploring, but that’s not the thought playing in my mind just now.

What I’ve been thinking is that we just might see some real good coming from this coronavirus disaster. Now, I’m not equating potential benefits with actual devastating losses. But I remember once hearing something along the lines of, “There’s almost nothing, no matter how good for one person, that doesn’t have some bad in it for somebody else, and almost nothing, no matter how bad for someone, that doesn’t have some good in it for someone else.” It was an interesting observation and as I conjured up one situation after another, I could see how it works.

Again, I would never attempt to suggest equivalency, but the notion that most good contains bad and most bad contains some degree of good seems to hold true to some degree or other, no matter what scenario I throw at it. So I wonder . . . in this time of social distancing and self-isolation, what changes are we likely to see when we come out on the other side because some unexpected, even tangential, benefit has occurred.

Even in this highly technological and rapidly changing age, we often cling to archaic systems and structures. The coronavirus is changing all that. It’s been truly astonishing—and refreshing—to see how creative and generous individuals, businesses, and organizations have been in the face of this unknown. As stressful and challenging as these times are, people have risen to the occasion and proven their ability to adapt quickly and ingeniously.

I suspect we’re going to see some permanent restructuring after the urgent need for temporary solutions has run its course. Some of it may not be so hot. But . . . who is going to realize that some of the drastic and immediate responses to our current situation actually offer new, improved ways of doing things? How will our work change? How will schools change? How will you and I change?

I don’t know what and I certainly don’t know how, but I have this deep, deep feeling that we’re going to see some new ways of thinking and doing that will bode well for society as a whole.

That thought does me good. And I’m going to hold on to it.

Finding Moments of Joy

Last spring, I heard a writer friend mention the happiness journal—365 days of happiness. I was taken with the concept, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I landed on something similar, but in some ways dramatically different when I began recording one single event each day that I could claim as a personal Moment of Joy (MoJ). I mentioned my Moment of Joy journal here.

I wasn’t looking for things that simply gave me satisfaction or created an exhale of relief. Instead, I wanted to make note of those unexpected moments that take my breath away, that make me want to say to anyone who can hear, “Hey, look at that!” I vowed to exempt personal relationships and everyday happinesses when I recorded a Moment of Joy. Writing that I was happy to wake up next to the GNOME, for instance, could become a cop out and a crutch. Too easy. I’m always happy to wake up next to him. I wanted to become more aware of the little things that are too easy to miss.

I admit I’ve ended a few days scratching my head as I prepared to document an MoJ. Some days are like that. But I’m happy to report that for the most part, I have trouble narrowing down my MoJ experiences to just one or two to record. I’ve been surprised how easy it is to find them. The Gnome’s gotten in on the act, too. We see a rainbow and he says, “That could be your moment of joy today.”

A few months ago, I thought I’d stop keeping an MoJ list. I was practically stumbling over all the moments of joy around me (not a bad thing); maybe I didn’t need a list. But as fall slowly morphed into winter, I changed my mind. I’ve written before about the emotional challenge that the often overcast, always-short-day season can be for me. Of all times to be on intentional alert for moments of joy, this is it.

I’m glad I kept at it. Being attuned to joyful moments after day upon day of gray fog is so good for the soul. As I write this, I glance up every few moments to watch snowflakes lazily drift through the air. Yesterday, all it took was a look outside to notice the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery with snow on the ground and hoar frost adding its own touch of brilliance to the mountaintops and the tips of branches. The male cardinal wears an especially bright coat of scarlet on days like that.

Last week, we spotted the brightest, biggest, most distinctly colored rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. And when we looked more closely, we could spot an ever-so-faint second rainbow above it. What a WOW moment!

When the world is as naked as it is in winter, I look for subtleties: the patterns and hues of lichen on trees, the grain of tree bark. Winter is the time for noticing the delicate shades of dried grasses in fields and meadows, ranging from sand to bronze to deep burgundy.

My Moments of Joy have ranged from getting an unexpected phone call to listening to wind gusts, from spotting a dandelion puff in winter to discovering a tidbit of information to make an otherwise mundane essay sing, from a stranger’s kindness to seeing five deer standing just outside the window or catching the scent of winter-blooming narcissus.

Being on the lookout for each day’s Moment of Joy quickly became a habit, an almost unconscious one. And that’s the way it should be—being so in the moment and so intuitively aware of the world around me that I never have to be reminded of the many things to be thankful for, of the beauty and potential for joy that surrounds me. Besides, the very best Moments of Joy are those that come unbidden, catching me off guard, sweeping off my feet.

“Hey, look at that!”

 

The Wisdom of Fifth-Graders

Here’s a conundrum. You’re a fifth-grade teacher who’s already had to turn in grades but school  is still in session. How do you keep squirmy ten- and eleven-year-olds engaged?  My teacher-daughter sometimes gives her elementary language arts students a list of incomplete aphorisms to complete. If they know the saying, fine; if not, their minds are kept busy trying to think up some logical statement endings. She gave me permission to share some of them here.

Proverbs common to us adults may befuddle a fifth-grader, and it’s fascinating to see how their young minds work. Sometimes they state the obvious; sometimes, you’re left scratching your head. In any case, my guess is you’ll chuckle along the way.

Some are literalists
Out of the frying pan into . . . the mouth.
Those who live in glass houses . . . have no privacy.
Children should be seen and not . . . hiding.
When a door closes . . . you can’t see inside.
Early to bed and early to rise makes a man . . . wide awake.
The road to a friend’s house . . . is the walkway.
Every cloud has . . . rain in it.
A man’s home . . . is his property.

Some are into rhyming
Make hay while . . . saying “Hey!”
Do as I say and . . . play as I say.
Make hay while . . . we all play.
What’s good for the goose is . . . good for the caboose.
Some use logic (of a sort)
Too many cooks . . . means too much food.
The darkest hour is . . . the coldest hour.
Those who live in glass houses . . . are reflected.
The grass is always greener . . . when it rains.
You catch more flies with . . . a frog.
Those who live in glass houses . . . are transparent.

Credit: Petri Krohn at Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

Some may be speaking from experience
The road to a friends’ house . . . is weird.
A rolling stone . . . hurts.
A bird in the hand . . . hurts when it pecks you.
Children should be seen and not . . . ignored.
The darkest hour is . . . the hardest day of life.
Too many cooks . . . in the kitchen make a mess.
The road to a friend’s house . . . could be the path to an enemy.
You catch more flies with . . . your mouth open.

Some are practical
What’s good for the goose is . . . good for the hen.
When a door closes . . . no one goes in.
You catch more flies with . . . your flyswatter.
Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man . . . sleep the right amount.
Those who live in glass houses . . . have good plants.
Too many cooks . . . not enough kitchens.
Those who live in glass houses . . . wash their house a lot.

Some are philosophical
Two wrongs do not . . . smell right.
All work and no play . . . would be boring.
Today is the first day of . . . reckoning.
The road to a friend’s house . . . is a good one.
Children should be seen and not . . . be avoided.
Those who live in glass houses . . . see the world differently.

Some are optimists
All is well that . . . starts well.
Do as I say and . . . you’ll get somewhere.
The grass is always greener . . . when you have a good attitude.

Can’t argue with that
The bigger they are . . . the bigger they are.
When a door closes . . . it closes.
A rolling stone . . . rolls.
Children should be seen and not . . . be hurt.
An apple a day . . . costs a lot of money these days.
The grass is always greener . . . in the pasture.
Give him an inch and he’ll . . . be taller.
What’s good for the goose is . . . goose food.

Others are—well, different
Two wrongs do not . . . make a left.
Children should be heard and not . . . clean.
What’s good for the goose is . . . good for you.
Birds of a feather . . . are not disease-free.
Pretty is as . . . stupid as a one-eyed duck.

My personal favorite
A man’s home . . . is filthy; women do all the cleaning.

For more fifth-grade aphorisms, click here and here.

Failures and Fiascos

“No true fiasco ever began as a quest for mere adequacy.”  —Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown

I fell in love with this quote the second I heard it. It really resonated with everything going on in my life at the time. Fictional Drew Baylor became my hero.

Drew also said, “Failure is simply the non-presence of success. But a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions.”

Thomas Edison put it a different way. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Bob Ross, the afro’d artist of PBS fame, was known to say that when it comes to painting, “We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”

The varied nuances in these quotes take me down somewhat different mental paths. I have had failures, and I have experienced fiascoes. For the most part, I point to my years working in the public sector for both. Usually, debacles led me towards alternative paths that worked out just as well and occasionally better, even if it was after a good bit of fretting, fuming, bawling, and varying degrees of depression. I just had to keep an open mind, look for more workable solutions, and refuse to give up.

Failure can indeed open doors, at least for a person who is imaginative and alert to possibilities.

But it’s true there’s a difference between failure and fiasco. Failure doesn’t necessarily imply significance. You can fail to set the alarm clock. You can fail at making the perfect piece of toast. The world will not end.

I’ve definitely experienced a fiasco or two, especially in my career. The world didn’t end then, either, though there were times I thought it would. Mine, anyway. Inevitably, those fiascoes resulted from experiments to break molds, push boundaries, explore the unexplored, be better. Such paths aren’t always popular in the cautious, slow-moving, don’t-rock-the-boat, if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it world of the public sector.

Sometimes I was too eager to try the next big thing, assuming others would jump on my bandwagon. I failed to understand that a thing that was only my dream was destined for doom. I didn’t look for unintended consequences.

I didn’t imagine that they couldn’t imagine, or that they simply didn’t want to do the hard work. In my eagerness, I didn’t do my own hard work of laying groundwork, getting investment.

Sometimes, my ideas were just plain dumb! People were right not to dive in with me.

And on occasion, I made the very bad mistake of assuming people I thought of as mentors would stand behind me—or at least guide me. It was a painful lesson to learn otherwise.

As I look in my life’s rear view mirror, my career growing infinitely smaller behind me, I understand that it was always lofty goals which led to my efforts which in turn led to fiascoes. I’m proud of that. And painful as those moments may have been at the time, visible as some scars remain, I’m content in the knowledge that I wanted to make things better, that I knew how to dream.

Like Drew Baylor, I’d rather dream big and fail big than stumble along in mere adequacy.

Tip: watch this 2005 feel-good road trip movie (featuring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin, and Paula Deen). You’ll be glad you did.

Boundaries

Just as children are astonished to discover potatoes buried in the ground the first time they dig in the garden, I’ve heard there are real people who, on their first airplane flights, have been shocked—shocked!—at the absence of lines differentiating one state from the other. Yes. Strong, black, permanent-marker-type lines like they’ve seen on road maps or in textbooks.

                                     Where are the boundary lines?                                       Aerial photo courtesy of Daniel Schwen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9578535

I’ve been thinking about boundaries—those demarcations that set us apart. Some are real: canyon ledges, rock cliff faces. Who would want to take that next step into the abyss?

Rivers are demarcations. They divide one piece of land from another, and sometimes (but not always) rivers are used to set boundaries. Even so, they’re usually crossable by one means or another.

But other boundaries are completely artificial. Humanmade. Political, legal, emotional. Some are good to have. Some, not so much.

One of our neighbor families once owned the acreage where we now live—for a very long time—before having to sell it off to pay health care expenses. I’m sure it was a painful decision. They’d sold to someone else, who then sold to us. One day a year or two after we’d moved, we came upon the matriarch of the ‘first family’ hunched over our wild blackberry patch like a furtive hooded monk. She figured we wouldn’t mind her picking those blackberries, she said, to make jelly—like she always had.

She knew she was overstepping boundaries. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have looked up at us like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar. But she was ready with her passive-aggressive defense, suggesting that by prior ownership, she now had squatter’s rights. She did not respect our boundaries.

Plenty has been said about personal boundaries of late, with much more eloquence than I can offer. Let it be said that they deserve respect, too.

But what I worry about is the tribalism which we’ve allowed to create artificial boundaries, rivalries that erupt based on nothing more than an accident of birth, or where one’s parents transferred for work once upon a time, or where we went to school, or simple indoctrination. That sort of thing.

It bothers me, this “We live in the best [fill in the blank],” or, “My [blank] is the best” mentality. We use this blanket superlative whether talking about our schools, our communities, countries, spiritual beliefs, or ‘our’ teams. How can we possibly know ours is the best? I certainly can’t; I’ve not experienced all the others, even superficially. Has anyone?

I’m pretty place-bound. I’m at home with what I know. I appreciate the landscape around me, the people who surround me, my heritage. Traditions built from shared experiences help bind us together in ways that help us through times both easy and hard.

But don’t all people everywhere have every bit as strong a claim on pride of place as I have? Don’t I need to understand and honor their natural pride without proclaiming mine is the better, the best, and possibly the only, way?

Is it arrogance that makes us believe such things? Or ignorance? Or both? Isn’t there a better way to live in this world we share? A more thoughtful, generous way?

When I travel across a single state, I may move from salt water and a flat, sand-covered topography to densely green mountains, from arid desert to lush wetlands. Yet, as I step across the imaginary line between my state and its neighbor, I neither see nor feel anything magical taking place to set one apart from the other. Except for a green metal road sign, I wouldn’t know. The terrain is the same. Why should I imagine there’s something completely unique about my side of the boundary?

Photo courtesy of Famartin [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Can any lasting good come from this cutting ourselves off from otherness? How can it build understanding and goodwill? And if we don’t want to build those things among our fellow humans, what do we want?

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.