Friday, November 28, 2014

It's My Birthday!

It's my birthday. One of them, anyway. The dragon gets one, too, but that's not until July. As is the case every four years, my birthday falls on Thanksgiving, which means I get turkey and cake. A couple years ago I started writing a post on Facebook on my birthday so that anyone wishing to acknowledge the occasion could just click “like” and be spared any awkward effort of trying to think of something clever to write on the “wall” of a person they have most likely not seen in years, don't know very well, or have never actually met in real life. Such is the nature of social media. I'm okay with that.

The custom this time of year is to write about things for which you are grateful. In the first draft of this post I wandered off on a digressive rant about genocide and economics at this point. No one needs that from me, if anyone even needs it at all. If you are interested in reading about British colonial cruelty, genocide, religious fanaticism and the folly of collectivist agricultural policies, Google is there. You don't need that today. You need a novel take on gratitude.

Life threatening illness is one of those things that makes life really simple. All your priorities become very clear. The people you love, the people who build you up, the emotional requirements of survival: these are what move to the foreground. The physical demands of your body and the illness are consuming; without the cushion of your health to absorb assaults, you must put yourself in the middle of the universe and make everything else revolve around you. That you are not in control becomes very clear, but so does what you do have an influence over. You know what you miss, and what you don't, when you can't do very much. The muse is really loud, the path is really clear.

Then a funny thing happens during recovery, or at least during my own. All that stuff that seemed so simple, whether important or inconsequential, starts to feel complicated again. Where there was in focus and out of focus, now there is soft focus, and then everything gets crisp and urgent again. Life returns to...normal. The difference, though, is that it's easy to see that you are choosing. You can see that you are deciding what is or isn't a priority, whether you realize it or not. You have the chance to say “The universe has handed me a moment in which to redefine myself. What matters to me? Who do I want to be, starting right now?” I know that sounds wonderful and amazing, and it is. But it is also traumatic and terrifying. It is a rebirth, yes, but it is also a re-adolescence, with all the struggle and drama of that liminal passage of self-realization.

Today, I turn 38 years old. My relationship with my husband is almost 15. My marriage is nine. My children are eight and four. There is a lot on my horizon. At some point in the next six months, I will be able to resume normal activities with other people (as opposed to, you know, wearing a surgical mask into the bank. That took some explaining). This means that anything I want to do, I can do, at least in theory. In other words, I am out of excuses.

The second big thing that is happening is that the “mom” part of my stay-at-home-mom job description is being redefined by my customer base, who don't need, or want, my undivided attention all day. In fact, these days I often find that, once everyone has had breakfast and the dishes are done, I'm not entirely sure what to do with myself until lunch. The third thing is that we are rapidly outgrowing our little house, at least in terms of space for John's business or any prospect of my developing one, which means that we have to start planning for a major investment some time soon.

How do I manage my present, when the certainty of sixty years of future no longer feels guaranteed? It's not that I expect to die young, indeed I expect the opposite, but the importance of living young comes into greater relief after cancer. I don't want to waste time when I know I feel good, because I know how easy it is to start feeling really, really bad.

What does all this have to do with gratitude? Remember that part about adolescence? There is a big difference, too. Serious illness can teach you that you have to take care of yourself, focus on yourself, make space for yourself. At fourteen, I felt completely alienated from myself, adrift in a foreign culture I could not navigate. At 38, I know that I am responsible for taking care of me, and that the world will come to me if I give it a soft and solid place to land. I have spent most of my adult life honing the ability to hear and interpret the muse. When I act, whether buying a brokedown palace, quitting a soul-destroying job, choosing to stay home with my kids, selling a house, buying a huge boat, or whatever harebrained scheme comes next, I know that I am doing it because it is exactly the right thing for me, right now. I don't seek balance. If something feels worth doing, I'm going to do it like I mean it. Because I do. I'm so grateful that my experience with leukemia and transplant has made it so easy to stand on the ledge and look out over the landscape and say, “Who I want to be starts RIGHT NOW!” You don't need to get sick to do that. I just got lucky.