I am dying. Dying of excitement for my book launch, of course, but also in the literal sense. Three years ago, when my thyroid condition — aptly named Graves Disease — was at its most acute, my mortality was a daily reminder since my immune system kept shutting down. Compared to that period, I feel practically invincible these days. I eat a lot more vegetables and I rarely get sick, but it still doesn’t change the fact that I am schlepping toward my demise, albeit slowly, every day. We all are. It’s the one certainty in life: we have an expiration date.
I took the bus to a meeting in downtown Seattle yesterday and observed my fellow passengers. The vast majority sat or stood with head bent, earphones blaring, transported elsewhere via their tiny screens. Except for two people. A lovely young woman wearing a striped shirt plunked herself next to me and pulled out a thick, hardback book from her designer bag. I cast sidelong glances as her aqua-painted nails flipped each page as she read. Flip, pause, pause, flip. She was a fast reader. And directly across from me, a man with an unruly tuft of beard sprouting from his chin (sans mustache) rested an obviously brand new copy of Remains of the Day on his rounded belly. I watched as he sank deeply into the chapter, occasionally turning the pages back to double-check on something. Maybe he’d forgotten a detail? Maybe he was verifying continuity?
At any rate, these two stood out in the sea of digitally-immersed passengers. Books can be distractions too, but I’ve always connected more deeply to myself when I read. Perhaps that’s just me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about presence. The here and now, if you’ll allow me.
M said the other day, “When we have some money saved, we’ll go on a nice vacation.” Something fun to look forward to, to be sure, but then I wondered if that statement is actually saying “We’ll be happier/better when we have some money saved and we can go on a nice vacation.” It’s how most of my thoughts seem to be structured.
“I’ll feel content when I look more fit and this funky cyst on my cheek is gone.”
“I’ll be better when I have a regular income.”
“I’ll be happier when I finally get the house organized.”
I know that I’ve been annoyingly bringing up how I have so many deadlines, and last night I was furiously typing away while half-focused on cooking dinner, trying to meet an upcoming deadline. Then my neighbor texted me, inviting us to have an impromptu picnic dinner out on our shared front yard. “It’s so beautiful,” she declared, “we need to be outside.” The evening was glorious and balmy, borrowing summer weather for a night. I abandoned the laptop and my barely done soup, and she fed us chicken and green beans and crock-pot pinto beans. I contributed roasted potatoes, watermelon cubes and Sardinian crackers from Trader Joe’s. We sat on batik blankets, kids and parents clustered tightly together, chatting easily the way people who have lived in stone’s throw proximity for years can seamlessly discuss memories and future plans. But we were present, in the here and now (or is it “there and then” since I’m referring to the past?).
A diagnosis for a debilitating illness is like a clarion call, a sudden honing of the psyche to bring to fore what really matters. When my endocrinologist told me how serious my condition was, I recalled the astonishing clarity I gained when I first inserted my contacts after squinting at everything for months because I was too embarrassed to wear my clunky glasses in middle school. I felt ridiculous that I’d been walking around blind for so long. Three years ago, I may have looked and felt like a hospice patient, but it forced me to take stock of priorities: Health. People. Truly meaningful activities. Everything else felt inconsequential.
It’s funny how remission and the passage of time will slough off the sharp edges of focus. Nowadays, I’m just as digitally-immersed and paradoxically disconnected as all those people on the bus seemed. I obviously need to learn the same lessons over and over and over.
I don’t know how much time I have left and though I’m certain that I’ve been able to push back my expiration date a good chunk by changing my lifestyle, I’d like to be better at pausing and being nowhere else but here, in that elusive moment. Not my forté, I admit. I’m a natural born planner and a worrier and a get-caught-up-er. But I want to be able to have spur-of-the-moment al fresco dinners, and leisurely read books that connect me to myself, and snuggle with my loves. I’m not aiming to shirk responsibilities or to go off the grid to meditate with a swami. I just want to stop chronically prefacing every idea with “I’ll be happier/better/more content when…” and be okay with what I’ve already got going on. I want to squeeze the good stuff out of the months, days, hours, minutes, seconds…like an industrial strength juicer to get all the vitamins and electrolytes and energy-boosters. And I also want to face the less-than-good stuff — the hurts, the frustrations, the disappointments and anger — without flinching and without falling into a self-imposed tunnel of gloom. A challenge of the highest order, don’t you think?
I’m just thinking as I write, as usual.
P.S. The topmost graphic is actually Japanese calligraphy from a book by Mistuo Aida that a friend gifted me almost twenty years ago. It translates to “Here and Now”.
P.P.S. The other drawings are by K, which I keep in my journal. They make me happy and seemed to go well with the calligraphy.