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Should I?

Friday, April 3rd, 2020

I have had a complicated relationship with Should my whole life. It’s a story that, rather weirdly, involves punctuation  

When I was young, I rebelled against Should. I think doing so is healthy and necessary to become an adult with a strong individual identity. I’m talking about  Should with a question mark. “Should?” comes as we move from docile acceptance of authority when very young,  to wanting to overthrow everything, before coming back to something more resembling a balance. “Should?” challenges.  “Should?” shapes the adult we become.

As I matured I began to see Should differently. I began to understand what a privilege it is to have the life I have been granted. I have a base of security, comfort, and belonging, plus brains and abilities, that allow me to be effective in this world.  Should with an exclamation point  says that I don’t get to waste those gifts.  If I can write well, I have an obligation to do so. If I can lead, I need to lead. If I can contribute, I need to contribute. Much given, much asked in return.

“Should!” guided my career. I wanted to use my gifts to make as much of a difference as I possibly could to the cause of educational equity, the guiding passion of every teaching and administrative position I held. Because I turned out to be good at each job, “Should!” guided me to jobs of increasing importance, to the extent that is measurable by responsibilities and pay raises.

“Should!” played a big role in my career as an author as well.  I do love to write, and I don’t want this to sound as if I was dragged kicking and screaming into publishing five books in six years, but once it was clear that I could spin a good story that publishers wanted to buy and people wanted to read, “Should!” set in.  People told me they wanted me to write another book because they wanted to read it.  My agent wanted me to write another book because she wanted to sell it.  There were so many forgotten women whose stories were crying out to be told.

Most of my adult life I have been guided by “Should!”  I took on what was demanded of me, or that I demanded of myself, because I could. If I was good at something I felt obligated to do it, from career, to publishing, to volunteering, to running 10Ks or swimming laps.

“Should?” began poking its head back in my life more often as I moved into my sixties.  I became less interested in self-reinventions others thought I should make.  I didn’t want to learn how to do the latest, greatest thing, whether it was a new teaching strategy or learning how to work the bells and whistles on my phone.  I wanted to keep growing, but I wanted to choose how.  I guess you could say “Should!” was being countered more often  with “Do I really need to?” and the latter was proving more persuasive.

I chose to return to teaching rather than pursuing administrative advancement, then eventually I walked away from that into retirement.  I decided I didn’t owe anybody any more books. I didn’t owe unnamed  future students my knowledge.  I resigned from boards that weren’t providing me opportunities to feel I was growing in ways that mattered to me. I went into cruise lecturing with no sense of purpose other than to have fun sharing my knowledge and seeing the world.

Now in this age of Covid, I find myself in a new phase of my lifelong relationship  with Should.   In the past, when I was facing long stretches of unstructured time, I remained productive by establishing different categories of time and made myself spend at least an hour a day on each. It worked brilliantly as a self-imposed Should.

I blogged confidently about it here just a few weeks ago. In all honesty, it’s not working all that well now. I have my categories of time prominently displayed in my home, and I do use them as a reference point when I get antsy, but I just can’t make myself do anything I don’t feel like doing.

What’s so different?  I think it’s because until this point I was projecting into the future, seeing all those Shoulds (and the “Do I Really Need To’s”) as leading somewhere.  The goal might have been no more than a misty sense of well being in the future for having chosen a certain path, but that was enough.

Now I don’t know.  I don’t know how to believe in the future the way I used to. Certainly not with a fervor that will drive me today to do a little research on a potential writing project, or get down on the floor and do crunches. Should’s punctuation is now a trail of dots.

Good things might lie ahead, influenced by my efforts now, if I have the good luck to survive in good health.  That’s a big if.  What would I do today, if I were pretty sure I would survive this?   All I know  is that the answer is different than if I were pretty sure I wouldn’t.  The second, I  should confess, involves at the very least  far more ice cream and far fewer plank poses.

The background hum of Should is so different  now, precisely because I don’t know which of those questions will be the one I should have listened to. But don’t  get the idea I am despondent.  Actually I am pretty content these days. Maybe letting go of Shoulds is a natural part of the aging process, launched forward on steroids by this pandemic. What  seems clear now is that in this complicated, evolving new reality, when I can answer  “Yes!” to the question  “Do I Really Need To?” I can affirm life in this  moment in ways I might not ever find while listening too much  to Should.

Living with Losing

Sunday, March 29th, 2020

Having lived through the cancer that took the life of my husband Jim eight years ago, I was thinking today about how similar some of my emotions are in this pandemic to those we faced  in the aftermath of his diagnosis.  Although then we knew how his story would eventually end, we had a lot of hope at the beginning that effective treatment could keep him around for a few more years.

The immediate period after his diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer was surprisingly unchanged, once we both got used to the small puncture in his back and the tube connecting to a urine collection bag that was always tucked under his clothes. Soon we were back to playing tennis, and going along in our lives more or less as usual.  We went a spur-of-the-moment trip to Hawaii over Thanksgiving rather than waiting for Spring Break, as we had planned. We laughed, we teased, we kept the bounce in our step.

The drone in the background was louder in my head than his. He was still denying the reality behind his PSA numbers. Treatment wasn’t working. He wouldn’t have the luxury many luckier prostate cancer patients have in their 70s, of being able to slow a 100% fatal cancer down so long they were liable to die of something else first.

He couldn’t go in the water in Hawaii because of his bag, so it wasn’t the same splashy-grinny trip we took the year before to Lake Okanagan in British Columbia, when we were blissfully unaware of the cancer already taking root. But we were there, together in Maui, and that was what mattered.  We went because of the unsaid message running through my head that made me insist on taking the trip then rather than waiting. I knew we were making our last memories. I knew this was about the quality of the rest of his life.  He died a few weeks before Spring Break.  We had made a wonderful memory while we still could. It made him smile for a few months  I am still smiling

It was always there, that drone in the background, brought forward occasionally by a jolt of awareness that something had changed.  We still played tennis but for a shorter periods, then less often.  Then we changed the rules so Jim didn’t have to run more than one step.  Then we stopped playing. Jim ate and drank with the same gusto, then, slowly, he didn’t.

And then he fell off a cliff. That is what dying of cancer is like. You are okay, all things considered, then suddenly you’re not. We played very abbreviated tennis up to six weeks before he died. He was still making his own lunch three weeks before he hit that cliff. Just as the doctor predicted, he stayed in bed more and more until he was there all day.

Jim went to hospice when the cancer, or the medication—I’m not sure which— affected his brain and he was behaving erratically in ways I was afraid I could not physically control.  He died three days later.

Why does this feel so similar?  It’s that drone in the background.  Maybe the virus is digging into my cells right now.  Maybe it’s already too late. Maybe this is it and I just don’t know the details. Maybe this is something I will survive and end up dying years down the road of something else.  Maybe this story is happening right now not to me, but to someone I love.

Life today is also similar because it is so disrupted. Our old lives aren’t on temporary hold.  In some respects they are already over. By the time Jim died, our beautiful condo had been ripped apart because I insisted that his two East Coast children not leave it to me to communicate with them after his death about what of his they wanted. We packed up and mailed things while they were here to say goodbye, despite how horrible we felt because he was sleeping in the back bedroom while we went through his things.

Life became a slow, incremental process of losing a little, then a little more. Then losing everything, except what can’t be lost, and that is the spirit in the living that enables us to go on, and the dead to transition whatever, if anything, might be beyond.

When you acknowledge the possibility of a fatal process already underway in your body, it changes your relationship to the material things in your life. I look around and wonder what it might be like for my son to confront what I leave behind.  This virus also makes us confront our non-material legacy— the story of what we have done with our lives.  To come bang-up against what it may be too late to do.

Maybe I have this malignancy  now, maybe I don’t. Maybe I will get it later, maybe not. But for now, I am going to navigate this changed world with the best, most hopeful spirit I can bring to it.  I am still planning my future. I am trying to learn all I can from this. The drone isn’t entirely bad. It alerts us to what is really important, and to the value of things— like love— that no disease can take away.

The Next Stretch

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

I think this next stretch will be harder. Novelty is wearing out. Resolutions may not be kept. Isolation may take a toll on the many ways others contribute to our well being. Things like going grocery shopping may turn into ordeals. We may hear more about loved ones and friends caught up in this. We may treat minor vagaries in our bodies as signs of impending Armageddon. We may get bored out of our skulls. We may be stuck inside with people who are driving us crazy. We may be frazzled from trying to be everything to everybody. Everyone has their own response to all this, and it may be fraying at the edges. And we have no idea about when this will end. We don’t know how to plan, how to pace our lives and how to interpret where we are and what’s going on,

Few born in this country have lived through anything like this.  Remembering the privations of World War II is rare, and the Great Depression even rarer. The  pundits are right that this feels like war, although except for hospital workers there are no front lines, and for most of us, this war  is still a privileged first-world sort.  Our reality at the moment is still something people in much of the world would see as luxury. Bombs aren’t falling, there’s no wreckage to sift through. We aren’t being terrorized by civil war.  Our grocery shelves are empty right now but they will fill. Our roads are still passable.  The trucks will get through from warehouses that still teem, and fields and farms that are happier than ever with less of our pollution to contend with.  We are hunkered down with a fair degree of security. We simply are going to need to adjust our sense of entitlement.

For most of us, our worst fears will not be realized.  We may remember most strongly the anxiety of the open-endedness of this time.  We may not like the comeuppance we get in our views of ourselves  that were shattered by behavior we’re not proud of.  Yes, everyone is in this together, and yet I suspect many of us feel more alone than before.

This next stretch will be harder because we are still adjusting.  We are more aware we are just settling in rather than soon to be liberated. We are learning to live with more questions than answers  But we can adjust, we can make the most of it, we can choose to see the opportunities in having less to distract us.  Today I am ordering some flowering bulbs that can grow in water in a window of my condo.  I may get a bird feeder for my balcony.  Neither of these would have occurred to me a week ago.  Life will go on in abundance, and it’s up to me to go with it.