Thursday, January 7, 2010

We'll Never Get Out of This Alive

I read once that we die of the ills that our age is heir to. In other words, we’ll die of whatever is going around, and lucky for us that it probably won’t be the Black Death or being stoned as a witch. So how afraid can I be of the swine flu, AIDS, radon gas, antibiotic resistant staph? Should I be afraid of flying? (I have been, ever since Reagan broke the back of the traffic controllers’ union.) I took nuclear winter off my list when my American history professor notified me that the Cold War had been over for some years now. Now I worry about stuff like heart disease and cancer, and sometimes surviving the traffic on I-5 during rush hour.

And I have some friends struggling with serious health issues, so worrying about myself seems laughable when my health issues are more along the lines of “No, you can’t eat ice cream every day and expect to stay a reasonable weight.” I’ve even lost some friends to heart disease and cancer recently, which is not only a sad thing but also alarming – I get nervous when people die in their fifties or, God forbid, in their forties. What’s the deal with people dying? He was so young…she was so young…

What I tend to forget is that death is imminent for everybody, depending on how you define imminent. Sometime in the next fifty years, I’ll be dead. That’s pretty soon. I make a lot of long term plans, always have, and fifty years is just the other side of long-term. I had to change my retirement plans so I wouldn’t be out of money and unemployed at the age of 100. Heck, I have a plan to go to Italy to celebrate my 100th birthday, it IS a milestone birthday, although I’m having a hard time getting takers for people to go with me. But even I have to admit that I probably don’t need to make a financial plan for after 106 or so.

Then there are the charms of aging. I have lovely neighbors in their late 90s, retired educators, who are helping me think about what advanced old age can be like if you plan well, stay healthy, and are very lucky. It still looks like hell. And even if I am the luckiest of all and die in my sleep at the same moment with my sweetie, hand in hand, at the age of 106 after having done everything I wanted to do…it’s…still…a world without me anymore.

Now, dying is worth worrying about. It’d be crazy talk to say it isn’t. The thought of not being part of the warp and woof of our family and our friends’ lives is certainly worth concern and maybe even some planning. Children count on us. Spouses and friends. I find, though, that I fear death for itself, not just for the effect my death would have on others. I know that the concept that I won’t be around, forever meddling in the world, is a powerful one that propels me to take all kinds of rash actions.

But the little thought has been creeping into my head lately that maybe the fear of not existing anymore…is maybe a fear that I don’t need to keep. Of all the certainties that life has for us, death is the most certain. Soon or late, we end, and we are remembered or not. We began, too, and had the same amount of consciousness before coming into the world as we presumably will when we leave it. I don’t spend any time thinking about my fate BEFORE my life. Why worry about after?

A friend came over for breakfast this morning and asked me why I wanted to spend my work life in a little box when I could do so much more. She pointed out that we shouldn’t waste any time being miserable, if we can help it. Whether we have ten days, ten years or more, it’s a finite amount of time. So if we want to contribute something lasting to the world, accomplish something specific, have some fun or even get enough sleep, we need to hold the awareness that there is a limited amount of time in which to act.

And maybe that’s what ultimately bothers us about death. Finite isn’t a concept we Americans like. We want to think that we can have it all, if we can afford it. Life, however, does come with an expiration date.

When I was younger, I got around the time limit by carrying on parallel lives. For three memorable years, I was a concert soprano, voice teacher, owner of a pasta business, mother of a young child, a church soloist and a corporate secretary. I don’t recommend it, but it did make the three years seem longer. I spent four years once attending college full-time, working full-time as a college administrator (that’s how I paid for the college), and holding two, no, three part-time jobs. This may have been a bad idea, even if it meant I graduated debt-free.

Now I realize that a time limit can be helpful. Who said that it focuses your mind wonderfully to know you’ll be hanged in the morning? I do pay more attention now, and I stopped feeling smug about multi-tasking on the macro level, even before I recovered from the chronic fatigue. It is permissible to do just one (or maybe two or three, okay?) things at once?

And we do control, to some degree, how much we limit ourselves in other ways. Because, you know, being alive is the discrepancy. It’s the odd state we happen to be in. For most of human history, we weren’t here! Most of the billions of people in the world right now aren’t affected by us, either. The corollary of that is, we are HERE, affecting the few people we affect -- NOW. So all we have to do is live HERE and NOW.

Not easy. I’m the one with the fifty-year plan, remember? But I also need to remember that I’ll never get out of this alive.

So this is it. Here and now.

Live it up!

The Back Half of the Game

I live and vacation in Oregon, and I like walking on the beach that stretches from Neahkahnie to Nehalem Bay State Park. When the tide is out, it’s possible to walk for eight miles in one direction, thanks to a long sand spit and Oregon’s beach law that says nobody owns the beaches. But the tide never seems to be out in December, and since we live in a part of the Pacific Northwest where we get rain pretty much every day from October to June, it’s a startling coincidence if the sun comes out during low tide. And we live above the 45th parallel, so that means no matter what you had planned, if there’s a sun break (we call them “sun breaks”), get out there while the getting’s good because the sun is above the horizon for maybe eight hours altogether near the turn of the year.

So there I was, walking south toward the winter sun. I had decided to walk 5,000 steps and then turn around – about two and a half miles each way, a good walk on level hard-packed sand. The white foam on the waves reflected brilliantly. That, and the salty wind in my face, made me squint. The awareness of Neahkahnie Mountain behind me made a nice comfortable psychological backrest. I talk to myself when I walk, when I’m not singing arias from La Traviata, and as I walked I flipped through different ways of looking at being in my fifties. (I’m constantly bumping into this fact and getting surprised all over again.)

I reached 5,000 steps and turned around, toward the mountain. And suddenly the ocean turned blue. I had been looking at hard brilliance, walking toward the sun, but now the sun and the wind were at my back and the giant green mountain was before me. I was halfway through my walk, heading home.

And just at that moment, at that halfway point when the world surprised me by becoming even more unbearably beautiful, I had a wonderful realization – I am just halfway through my adult life. I’m not near-elderly, as the federal government likes to call people in their mid-fifties. I’ve been an adult for thirty years and with any luck, I’ll be an adult for at least another thirty. And this thirty years will be the thirty years in which I know who I am, in which I have good friends, in which I know how to take care of my emotional and physical health – all a huge improvement over the first thirty years.

So I’m heading into the back half of the game. Heading home, toward the mountain, wind at my back, sea and sky blue. I’m just starting the best part of my adult life.

I intend to enjoy every bit of it.

Thoughts on the Day After the Shortest Day


That’s it. That’s possibly the most important idea that human language has captured.

I always thought life was a checklist. You make the list. You do the things on the list. You check them off and they’re done. I coach vocal technique and I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to get my students to automatically, naturally, relax their throats. One way is to tell them to imagine, especially around the holidays, that “Everything is done!” The student instantly emits a blissful sigh from a visibly relaxed throat and jaw.

The problem is that there is always more to put on the list. Sometimes I’m not employed in a full-time job, either on purpose or because of some misadventure on the universe’s part or an odd combination of the two, and my check-off list is always just about as long. My mother has been retired for over twenty years and HER check-off list is as long as mine. When there isn’t a 45-hour-a-week job involved in the mix, though, the check-off list has more, shall we say, optional things in it, like friends and house maintenance, and it spans a longer period of time. I start doing things in advance. I’ve always done this, always the first teacher in the building to have my grades done, for example, but when I’m not so slammed for time I tend to do my Christmas shopping in September, so it’ll be done. My idea of nirvana is to get everything done. In advance.

And…then what?

Exactly. And.

My brother always says, When everything is done, you’ll be dead. A smart guy, my brother, and as a long-time John Lennon fan, he is more able to Let It Be than most people.

I’m not much for process. I’d like to be. I’d like to live in the moment and smell the flowers and all those things. But I seem to always be looking at the end. What’s the long-range plan? What’s my mission statement and how will I get there in twenty years? How are today’s tasks building toward a life structure that I envisioned five years ago? Earlier this year I wrote a list (a list, a list!) of things I would do when I retire. At the top of the list was, “Get enough sleep.” And the funny thing is, I’m self-employed. And I’m the second income. And there’s no reason not to get enough sleep. Except I have this list…

And what’s on the list? I’m always either looking for a job or changing careers. This being me, I’m doing both right now, and since I can’t just choose a life direction and head there, I’ve got three career changes going on. I’ve been working on a career change to teaching for ten years, so now I have six licenses, covering an age range from Early Childhood to Middle School and a range of subjects that is conservatively Pretty Much Everything – and I’m working on getting an acting career going, and oh yes, there’s that writing thing. So networking, rehearsals, coaching, writing a blog. Actually, my biggest job at the moment is being the Keeper of the Keys for our household and we’re just coming off a year of renovation and smoke damage, plus we have a teenage son. So most items on the list have to do with scheduling, procurement, quality assurance, and inventory control of homework, clothing and food. We unexpectedly made a couple dozen friends this year and, never having done anything like that before, we were surprised at how much time it takes to have friends, kind of like what happens when you get a boyfriend or have a baby. And I’m putting off really settling into my fifties, so that takes time for working out, walking, and choosing food wisely. I used to schedule in non-motorized transportation time, because that’s a two-fer -- saving the earth and my health – but it took too long.

And I need to add more Saving the Earth stuff to my list. Yesterday I read in Time magazine that the Himalayan glaciers are melting. Three billion people literally depend on that glacier melt for their lives. The same article stated that many climatologists believe that we’re looking at the extreme edge of the envelope for global warming, and much faster than anyone anticipated – you can see the changes, year by year, with the human eye. You don’t even read about the “Great Die-off,” also known as the biggest extinction rate since the dinosaurs, or the deterioration of the ozone layer any more. Seems that we’ve run out of brain space for the number of planet-sized disasters we’ve created as a species.

But it might not be that bad. A friend of mine says that it’s not the planet we need to worry about. It’s ourselves. This big ol’ planet has healed itself, or changed to sustain different kinds of life, several times. Evolutionary niches will always be filled anew, if you wait long enough. It’s just that the Earth doesn’t much care if we’re one of those species being sustained or filling the niches, and I don’t think my descendants are guaranteed a seat in the theater to see what does fill those spaces in another couple million years.

So maybe I don’t like the process that we’re in, this particular epoch. Or maybe the flowers need to be sniffed now while they’re still there.

Martin Luther said, If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my little apple tree. And who was it who said that jobs worth doing couldn’t be accomplished in one lifetime? As I mosey toward certain death (actually, in my twenties it felt like moseying – thirty years on it feels more like sliding and soon it may feel like hurtling), I’m becoming more aware that I will have to leave some jobs to others. (Although I’ve already picked out two candidates for my husband’s next wife, women I approve of and who will treat him well. There are two so he’ll have a choice.) I never did get that job of Empress of the World, so the task of delegating some of the bigger jobs is going more slowly than I’d like, the bigger jobs being things like achieving universal health care, outlawing meanness, and nuclear disarmament.

Today, the day after the winter solstice, is the first day of the new solar year – this morning, as Susan Cooper wrote in her beautiful poem “The Shortest Day,” the new year’s sunshine blazed awake. As the Earth continues in its accustomed path around the sun, our hemisphere will be tilting toward radiance more and more for the next six months. Instead of the days darkening and shortening, they will brighten and lengthen, as they have every year for the past billion years or so.

I will never finish everything on my list.

(Can I take a nap then, and read a non-improving book, and take the time to walk to the store?)

We’ll keep working on those jobs, daily and eternal, and when we’re done with our part, other people will pick up what we were doing.

And that’s the way it is.