Chapter 1: How to Live
In the land of my mind, “How to live?” is a number one hit, playing simultaneously as gospel, rhythm and blues, hard-driving rock and roll (complete with Bruce Springsteen-like howls), familiar Irish gigs, complex but haunting folk songs, and as a blaring musical (think “Oklahoma” meets “Rent”). While I’m learning the various notes and hues of this question, I’m finding—to paraphrase the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—that I can only live my way into the answers, or, more likely, more questions.
Ironically enough, one of the clearest answers I get is to try to try less, something almost impossible for my grasping mind to inhabit, given my you’re-not-alive-unless-you’re-doing-something ways. Being my father’s daughter, I carry within me the legacy of working passionately, but also obsessively, springing into doing something related to my brilliant and exhausting career at any given moment (2 a.m.? No problem, I’ll just start up the computer; Weekends? Oh, just this one thing and then . . . Vacation? Let me check my email first).
Yet my father died relatively young after too many years of constant illness and workaholism to see straight. After my own list-carrying decades, delighting in crossing things off and feeling generally compelled to immediately do whatever I think up, my very smart body now refuses to tolerate being dragged around like a pull toy from one overwhelm to the next.
I didn’t just realize the obvious easily. I sailed under the skies of low-grade, but chronic, unidentifiable illness since finishing chemo. After visiting my oncologist, various other doctors, energy healers, acupuncturists, massage therapists, psychics, dear friends, the self-subscribed-to myths of my past, and all manner of big pills (herbs, vitamins, amino acids) that came in glass bottles, I had a breakdown of sorts. In a small hotel room on the eighth floor of a Boston Marriott, in the middle of a conference at which I was presenting and helping organize, and in the middle of a herd of small ailments, from a wound on my foot to a migraine in my head, I heard one clear sentence: If you want to heal your life, you need to change your life.
Since that Boston epiphany, I started giving up things I used to do: extra work outside and inside of my teaching position, over-functioning with friends and family (on the premise that if I couldn’t fix my own life, I could fix someone else’s), and activities, thought-mazes and habits that took me away from being here, with myself as I am, in the present, whatever the weather. I’m a slow learner in the art of surrender (ten years after writing this post, I’m still immersed in these lessons). Give me an urgent task and high speed internet, and I’m easily tempted to go galloping in my mind toward whatever is asked. Give me an excuse, and I can convince myself it’s fine to take on more work. But the imperative to live a life of meaning has been a patient and persistent teacher. My health, which tends to go south easily and for prolonged periods if I don’t listen to my body, reinforces what I need to do . . . or not do.
I’ve also been discovering something entirely thrilling and not so unexpected: Living with greater self-care, discipline and awareness makes me outrageously happy. In the fall, I love watching the deer empty our bird feeder, as I watch from inside the house, still under the weight of the motor-purring kitten. I love the winter’s open space and time that’s always been right here, like the sky—sometimes variegated in golden pinks and grays through the bare branches of the sycamore—when I’m waiting at a stoplight. I love long stretches at home, and because I’m still hard-wired to keep doing things, using these stretches to re-organize the linen closet, make collages, or stare at old pictures of my parents and siblings. There is such a profound joy in the simple and constant art of cultivating space.
How to live is no longer such a cross-blend of many stations playing at once, but more like a heart beat. Its rhythm is all around me. All I need to do is listen.
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