“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Friday, December 30, 2011

Day 23: Pre-New Year's Resolve, Part 3: Or, Are we Sea-Worthy, or One Storm Away from Ship-Wrecked?

One of my students spent a semester at sea early in her college career.  This experience seemed to add to her reserves of personal strength and wisdom, plus she came back with lots of juicy stories to dine out on, literally. (If you hadn't read it, check out one of these lovely stories in Day Eight: Lettie Discovers the Zen of Orange-Eating.)  A friend and colleague is about to teach on the semester at sea because she wants to see more of the world and happens to like boats.  She's a little scared, but I know she'll have a marvelous time, and I look forward to hearing about her adventures when she returns.

Never say never, but I'm 99% certain you're not going to see me applying to teach at sea.  Nor, when I'm in my dotage, will you find me on a cruise ship rocking to the oldies with the other oldies.  Boats make me seasick, and although I love to swim and to paddle around in the canoe with my husband, especially with Zoe between us like the queen of the Nile, the big vast ocean, to me, is a sublime entity best enjoyed on sand or on a balcony with a glass of wine.

Besides, just being human can feel like one wild ride on the roiling, seething seas, and even if you're a relatively even-tempered person, as I like to think I am, life in this era of literal and economic tsunamis is far wetter and rougher than many of us thought it would be when we groomed ourselves for adulthood. As a young person at the height of the Cold War, I often (for good reason!) indulged in bouts of gloomy, pessimistic thinking and I'm glad my worst case scenarios haven't happened (yet), but I never anticipated the rise of homelessness around the globe, the melting of all that polar ice, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, last year's tsunami in Japan, an entire decade of war with the Middle East, or even political candidates who are given the time of day even though they were mentored by folks who believe slavery was really a lovefest among Christians and wasn't all that bad, and who think Darwin wrote science fiction.  A lot of us have had to toughen up in ways we didn't think would be necessary in our idealistic youths when we thought all we had to do was work really hard and try to be good and things would just work out.

So, how do you toughen up enough to weather the storms without closing your heart, without losing that tenderness and compassion that makes life so exquisitely beautiful?  How do you create a vessel sturdy enough for the high seas that is also flexible and light?

I've had it pretty good in recent years, but I can still be stricken with fear and self-doubt.  It doesn't take much to make me feel like I've failed.  I happen to be one of those people with a deep fear of rejection: which makes my career choice, writing, just a little bit fraught.  I can't think of any profession that brings more disappointment, except for being an actor, where those rejections happen face-to-face.  But writing is something I can't not do, so like everyone else with the same addiction, I just have to suck it up.

And unless you're a centenarian who just adopted a puppy, if you let a pet become part of your family, you have to know you're going to get your heart broken--that it's just a matter of time.  I used to tell people that I was going to ensure that Zoe lived to fifteen, and that the year she passed away I would need to be to be medicated for at least six months. Suffice it to say that I don't think it's going to go down this way now.

Then there's all the illness and death around us.  Do you ever think, when you do the math, that you happen to have moved into one of the cancer hot spots on the planet, but no one told you? Or are the hot spots just getting closer?  So how will we weather the storm when we or someone we love gets sick, or just wakes up one day and dies without warning, as happened to the husband of a dear friend a little over a year ago?  Is there a way to rehearse sickness and bereavement before the real test of our characters begins?

My husband is healthy, except for arthritis, and I've been lucky, so far, with my own health, but when I got home in June from India, I had a little case of positional vertigo.  It was like I was at sea, always.  If I just turned the wrong way, even when I was lying down, I thought I was going to pass out.  It's one thing to get dizzy spells, but to be dizzy all the time makes you think differently about what it means to be grounded.  I made myself go to yoga anyway, where the slightest pose and subtlest bend felt more challenging than anything I ever could do back in my most bendy-limber yogini days, and gradually, after two months or so, the vertigo went away.

Now, when I walk across the floor in the morning to do something basic like put on my clothes, I say, Thank you feet. Thank you, toes.  You are some good, sturdy little dudes.  But in the midst of the dizzy days I tried to learn from being so incredibly off-balance.  It felt, well, emblematic.  If we put our equanimity in the hands of external forces--editors who like or don't like our writing, the health and wellness of everyone we love, the economy, the weather, functional inner ears--we're totally screwed.  Or at least we're going to have positional vertigo as a way of being in the world.

It's for all these reasons that I decided I had to make some subtle changes and commit to a few practices that I hoped would make my vessel a bit more sea-worthy in this next phase of life. Some people wake up one morning and stop smoking or start exercising or begin writing the Great American Novel or get out of abusive relationships without a prelude, but I'm not wired that way.  I need to rehearse, in my mind, so that I can believe and really trust that I'll do this thing and carry it through and not wimp out.  With a few days or weeks of lead time to prepare, jumping into new terrain, for me, feels a little less scary and weird.

A boat in Zihuatanejo: one of the thousands of boats I have seen, but never wished to board

Boats along the Mediterranean sea port of Collioure, one of my favorite towns in the South of France.  Matisse and Derain made some of their more colorful, gorgeous paintings there, and they became known as the Fauves.

Zoe at sunset near our dear friends' cottage on Georgian Bay, Ontario
I know so many people who are much braver than I am.  My sister, Mira Bartok, for one, who was hit by an 18-wheeler truck, had to reteach herself the alphabet, and lived to tell the tale (check out her gorgeous illustrated memoir, The Memory Palace), and helped me, as she did this for herself, reconnect to all the scary places of our shared past until they weren't scary at all, but became, in fact, places of friendship and love.  My former students, Derek and James, who both served in Iraq.  My friend whose husband died suddenly, but despite all the grief and sorrow can still feel gratitude for all the other good things happening in her life.  My plucky student, and now my colleague, who signed on to spend a semester with strangers on the high seas.  But since I began making a few tweaks to my daily routines, I do feel more peaceful, and more steady on my feet.  And in the meantime, to those of you who are ready to walk a new plank, whichever one it is for you, I have only one thing left to say.  "Yar!"

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