My mother is always the first to notice when I’m not writing. “February 5 was your last post,” she pointed out during lunch last week. I appreciate this. She notices.
In that vein, I want to dispense with one issue upfront: It has been suggested (not by my mother) that the occasional long gaps between my posts indicate I’m insufficiently “serious” about writing. I always despaired a little at that, because it felt unfair. At the same time, I always feared it was true.
But I’ve found that when we interrogate the assumptions behind our fears, and follow the what-if trail to its conclusion, we can find clarity. And I’ve realized it is true. There are many things I take more seriously than writing. Understanding, feeling, processing, life, and honesty are all more important to me than simply stringing words together. These things are indispensible to the kind of writing I want to do. Devotion to writing, without attention to them, is pointless to me. And sometimes, they demand all I have.
2016 has, so far, been a tricky one. I returned from my last photography trip in Florida early in the new year. Less than a week later I learned two things in one day. First, I learned that my grandmother was dying, and would be gone in a few days. A few hours later, I learned that someone I loved as a girl, who has turned into a grownup soul-friend, has a progressive and usually fatal illness. Shortly thereafter, another friend was diagnosed with cancer.
This is not to whine, but rather to explain my non-writing state of mind. Most people have it harder than I do, principally those staring down terrifying illnesses. But still, all those things drove me underground, into a place of contemplation and sadness. I was unable to speak for awhile, sorting through the dark threads and trying to understand their meaning.
I’m not a writer who processes via blog. When I do that, the work I produce is often flecked with the bullshit I tell myself while trying to fend off harder truths. And what I’ve been doing in my silence is coming to term with these grim realities, despite my best efforts to shut them out: that not every anguish can be ameliorated; that no, everything doesn’t happen for a reason, and sometimes we struggle to extract any kind of meaning or lesson when it does; that terrible things will unfold over my objections, no matter how strenuous those objections are.
I talk with my friend, my young love from a million years ago, often. When we reconnected, it became clear that we are jarringly alike in many ways. We have both struggled to balance an intense, soul-driven orientation with obligations we couldn’t bear to disregard. We both know well the conflicting pressures of having a free spirit paired with a heart devoted to our kids.
His ethic is simple: Live as well as you can while you can. We talked about it briefly last week.
“Live well,” he wrote to me again in a message. And the darkness around me began to crack, because the truth had finally cornered me. Live well.
I’m coming to understand that there is no such thing as the future. And those of us like me, who have probably pinned too much on it, could find all hope in it abruptly dissolved. There is only now, this very second. And if you cannot, for whatever reason – whether because of money, time, or obligations to others – live the way you desperately want to live, the way that is most meaningful to you, then you better learn to extract the meaning from the way you live now.
It took me two months of dark and sadness to accept that, because doing so meant embracing hopelessness. How do I do that? What if I can’t? What if all the time I get is spent confined to a Midwestern suburb, grasping for small crumbs of time in nature, for tiny pieces of things to write about and images to capture?
Well? What if?
We are back to the task of any life – to figure out how to live it as well as you can within the bounds of your own conscience and circumstances. Right now. Abandon hope.
This means something different to me now than it did ten years ago. Back then, I was still struggling to accept the two contrasting parts of myself, and struggling to endow my creative side with even a slight sense of entitlement. Today, my creative side has found its bearings, and feels, mostly, frustrated at the impossibility of full actualization. Five more years, it whispers, till the kid is out of school and we can move away from here, back to a place where we belong. Or at least until I can take off for the swamp at will and photograph gators, or to the Badlands to catch prairie dogs and mountain goats.
The luxury of that line of thinking is gone, as I confront the reality that five more years are not guaranteed to anyone. They weren’t when I was thirty, either, but it seemed likely enough back then to take for granted. Not now.
So that’s where I’ve been, off assimilating and accepting one of the great, immutable truths of life. Live well, now, and here. Abandon hope.
The traveler in me wants to see what happens.