Thursday, October 11, 2007
The Top Three ThingsThink Terminator 2. Remember the guy who gets blasted into liquid bits that slowly flow together to reform the whole? That's what it's been like since I was taken apart and put back together again month ago today. The reconstruction has been slow, atom by atom, but the fascinating part has been in watching how the puzzle reassembles.
What I've noticed is proportions and order. How big are the pieces of our lives and what priority they take in the overall scheme of things.
When I got out of surgery, my insides and outsides were all switched around. I was hooked into a variety of bags and machines and tubes and sensors. Food came in through my veins and went out through a tube. My heartbeat was monitored through my finger and my blood pressure through my arm. My stomach juices came up through a tube in my nose and other nasty stuff came out through a new hole in my stomach. Inside was out. I was dependent upon external technology to keep my functions in process.
So the first and biggest part of my atomic reconstitution was purely physical. Body -- and keeping it intact and healthy -- is by far the biggest part of life. Obviously, right? Like, duh. No body; no life. But take a moment -- and we'll get back to this in a second -- and think about what priority actually nourishing and nurturing our bodies take in our daily life... and you'll start figuring out where I'm going with this blog.
Eventually... and it took a long time... my functions started happening in the intended order again. When I ate, the food went in my mouth. There are currently no unusual holes in my body through which anything is going in or out. Over the month, I have been able to again walk, drive my car, do almost everything that I used to do. None of which is possible without the first key component of what is important in, and to, life: the body.
What's the next most important thing? Without equivocation, I say it's people. Our relationships. Good conversations over long dinners, those moments of connection when you know you've found a friend that will be with you for the rest of your journey. Laughter that makes the stomach ache and purges the soul of all poisons. People sat by my side, brought me books and cards and tabloid magazines, grabbed the nurses when I was in pain. Nurses tucked me in as tenderly as they would their own child. The ties between us all are sacred, healing, and profound. Next to keeping our physical bodies alive and healthy, these relationships are the most important tending we can do.
Remember my story about the cellist, the morning of my birthday? Like an opening into the heavens, that music transported me, literally, out of my pain and gave me a moment of absolutely transcedent bliss. One night, probably with the aid of the narcotic drip I was friendly with, I had this vision: a circle in the middle, representing the body; a triangle encompassing it, representing the relationships with the people in our lives; and the whole thing encompassed by another circle. Because how do you describe that moment with the cello? It's not physical, and it's not relationship.
And it's magic.
And it's a whole lot of other things: it's the zzzzzinggg of a good first date, the swoony romance of the New York skyline, it's the curtain starting to rise, the tingle from a story with a perfect ending. It's the roar of the crowd when the ball hits the bat for the winning home run. It's the weight of your dog at the foot of the bed. It's your child asleep after a hard day. The smell of sage on a summer afternoon. The appearance of an envelope with long-forgotten handwriting. A first kiss. The smell of bacon and coffee in the morning while you're still in bed. A pillow that still feels faintly like 98.6.
The third thing, that ties it all together... is that stuff. A good friend suggested a word, and for lack of any better (and because this is the only word that works at all) let's call it Love.
Those are the big three, my friends. If you were to do a cross-section cut through the mountain of life, my guess is that those three things would occupy 98% of the strata.
What comes after those three things has also been revealing. I got back into my house and felt like I was wearing someone else's life. Here are these clothes, a cabinet of CD's and DVD's, a kitchen without many food products, a bass guitar, my laptop. How does all this fit in?
I learned that the next layers are the ones that serve the top three things: so cooking has become a main way I spend my time. Clothing... not so important. Entertaining myself... well, when it starts smelling like pixie dust (like a well-written novel or a beautiful piece of music), then it's beautiful and healing. When it's more like distraction, background noise to mask something that I don't want to deal with, it produces a lowgrade headache, makes me nervous and edgy.
And then there's money. Money is what takes most of our time. And of course it's important. It's very important. But what I would suggest, is that it's important ONLY to the extent that it helps further the Big Three.
Money pays for food and shelter, enables us to care for our children, buys us lattes to laugh over, purchases yoga classes to yoke together mind, body and spirit. Money buys us transportation and high speed internet so we can write blogs and visit our friends. Money is critical.
But it's only critical in how it serves: to keep us healthy, create and maintain our social connections, and facilitate the pixie dust of love, in whatever form it may appear. Get this, OK? The money is secondary, people. Which means the job that creates the money is secondary. And the car that takes us to the job is secondary. Unless your car or your job or anything else honestly falls under the category of love or art, everything that's not done to support body, people or love, is secondary.
I'm not saying it's unimportant. That's not it at all. It's just subservient to the real stuff. Not the other way around.
What is it we think about and stress about all day long? The secondary stuff. We snap at our kids because we're late to work. We fall asleep on the couch because we're exhausted. We work ourselves to the bone and, in so doing, let the things we do it for slip through our fingers.
I'm as guilty of this as anyone, so I'm in no way pointing fingers. I don't really know how to stop it. I don't really know how to get off the treadmill and turn it back around. If I really believed that becoming a Basque farmer in Spain would restore the proper ratio, would I chuck the works and go do that? I don't know. I like my life. And my people are here. My people are #2 on the list. How do I reconcile that?
Here are some thoughts for how to maybe keep our integrity and do the right thing by the time we're graced to be alive and well:
1) Pay attention. I think that the most obvious answer is just to show up and be aware. One of the teachers in my life defines meditation as paying attention to just one thing. I think that's a key way to make this start to make sense. Stay here in the moment. Pay attention. Take care of the priorities as they come up, mindfully and thoughtfully.
2) Pay attention to the body's messages. Put good food into it. Take care of it. Instead of driving it like an old beat up jalopy (which, I confess, is my usual M.O.) think of it as a cherished classic. Give it the best fluids. Polish it up from time to time. Don't let the headline tear and droop. Save the pedal-to-metal stuff for the true emergencies, not the ones that you get all worked up over in your head.
3) Put the job and the money it its correct perspective. Working at a job you love and that pays you well for your talents is a high and worthwhile goal. It's just not THE goal. THE goal is for you to take that money and, at the end of the day, use it to take good care of yourself and your people and to find the nectar of magic in the world, wherever and whenever possible.
4) If you are engaged in the creation of art, know that you are an acolyte and your work is sacred work. Don't diminish its power to transform. Don't despair because the road is difficult and uncertain. You are one of the manufacturers of the world's pixie dust. Not everyone is blessed (or cursed) in this way. Quit whining because the artist's life is hard. Accept your gift, and then shut up and serve it to the best of your ability.
5) And finally, treat those closest to you with a little extra TLC. Starting with yourself. As I found out all too well, scar tissue can kill you. So lose the baggage, lighten your load, and take it a little bit easier on yourself, the people in your life, and the planet. Cut yourself some slack, laugh a little more, and find the love in those little moments.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 11:16 PM 0 comments
Life in the Slow LaneAfter more than four weeks, and not without some trepidation, I'm returning to work in a few days.
The trepidation comes from a fear I have that somehow I will revert to the "old me." The me that doesn't have the perspective that comes from nearly dying. The me that inhales life without breathing it in. The me that is constantly confused about who is driving what in this mad race towards the finish line.
Not that I'm exactly sure what the "new me" is all about. In my fantasies, four weeks off from work -- something I've never had, ever, in the last 36 years of my life -- would actually be enough time to relax fully, to watch all the movies in the queue, to read all the books, to sleep all the sleep, to do everything on the list so fully that I would run out of lists to make.
Not the case.
I haven't even scratched the surface of the things I'd like to do with my time. Not even close. Here's what I have done, though:
I have dug in and read 2/3 of a good long book, this is true. Don DeLillo's "Underworld." It's long, it's literary, and I'll look smart when it's done and up on my shelf with authentic cracks along its spine. But it's just one book, and who knows when I'll finish it when I go back to my 30 second pre-pass-out end of day attention span.
I did -- thanks to a malicious and self-serving friend of mine -- start cracking the code on those insidiously tricky "cryptic crosswords" that appear under the already hard-enough New York Times Sunday puzzle. I started to learn how to unpack those, and that was similar to starting to learn how to inhale crack cocaine... not nearly enough time to do that new addiction justice.
I have started cooking, which is really the most compelling argument to the theory that they swapped me out with an alien being while in the OR. I'm actually cooking, and not just because I'm being protective of my poor sundered little intestines. I'm liking the process of it. I'm liking the control I can have over what I put in my body. I found myself reading the words "onion" and "garlic" the other day over and over, thinking about how beautiful certain foods are (not that I can or want to eat them, yet). I made a halfway passable chicken stock. I eat from different food groups. I love broccoli. I haven't touched caffeine since this happened.
But there are signs it's time to go back to work. I'm starting to be one of those people who calls up utility companies to complain. A lot. I've called the trash people twice and am now engaged in a passive aggressive battle over trash can placement. I became good friends with the electrical company repairmen, on the day they had my electricity out for 9 1/2 hours while they swapped out a pole that was ridden with woodpecker holes. I've stopped short from yelling at city hall for turning off the water without forewarning us residents, causing debris to foul my washing machine valve and incurring a $125 repair bill that, you know, I didn't really need.
I'm one of those people whom you run into while walking in the mid-afternoon and complain with about the shoddy state of customer service.
I'm also starting to fix things. This is dangerous. My girlfriend Cindy came over and I gave her moral support while she swapped out my kitchen and bathroom faucets. We did the obligatory three trips to the hardware store and I felt the rapture of the deep of being in a huge retail establishment with the deadly combo of cabin fever, no money and a credit card. Ohhhhh, the things I could buy. Ceiling fans and drawer pulls and a new workshirt and ohhhh, paint chips... I could paint some new walls.... it was bad bad bad. But we got the faucets working and I'm happy as can be about that. My credit card could not take another week off work however. I'd be down to the studs in the kitchen within days.
Let's not even go into the Target run. Slipcovers and sofa throws. And then there was the day I had the kids pull off every single dog hair from on, under, through, and around the sofa, prior to the cleaning people coming over. And yes, I've washed some curtains. Because, hey, when else am I going to find the time.
Things I've not done: written any books, written any blogs, done much exercising, walked my dog. At the point when I'm actually about to do some honest creative work, fatigue sets in and I go to sleep. I've become an expert napper, knocking off one, two and even three a day at times. I have also learned -- and more about this in a subsequent post -- the difference between moving through life alert and exhausted, versus moving through life actually well rested. There is such a thing, which kind of surprises me. But it's true. You actually can rest enough, at least for an hour or so. And it's a different propulsion through life than one gets when aided by anxiety and caffeine and the blunt instrument of sheer necessity to get to the other side of the day.
But... my great sleeping notwithstanding... I'm still often tired, and I haven't written anything great. I'm trying to let that just be OK. I mean, I have been sick. I'm giving myself a break on that one.
I have more that I want to share, but will save it for a subsequent post. I want to put down all the things that I want the "new me" to remember when I get into my "old life." Lessons from the brink, and all that. But first, I think I'll sleep some more. While I still have the chance.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 10:40 PM 1 comments