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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Priorities, Mortality, and Success

There I was in NIA class standing directly behind the instructor. I could just see my hands behind hers in the mirror and I had couple thoughts. One was that one reason I like to stand front and center is that I can see the teacher well; but another reason is that when I stand behind her, I can’t see myself in the mirror. This is a plus. It helps to keep the fantasy of youth and flexibility flowing. But anyway. The other thought I had, with our hands up in the air, was, We’re going to die. I wasn’t talking about the strenuousness of the workout. I was talking about us humans, kicking our feet in time to the music, here now, eventually to vanish, uh, die. This obtrusive thought reminded me of John Hodgeman’s Shouts and Murmurs column in the New Yorker last week. It was about watching “Downton Abbey” with his children and remembering being a child and watching “Upstairs Downstairs” with his parents. This parallel causes him to be overcome by recognition of his own mortality. It’s hilarious and pitiful in a way that I relate to. Indeed, I wished I were John Hodgeman and had written that piece and published it in the New Yorker. 

Anyway, yes, I did think, We’re dying. Right before that I’d been remembering a recent conversation I had with the instructor about whether our kids were in the right schools for them. Then I got thinking about all that motherly concern going out into the world. The NIA class was full of women, many, if not all of them mothers, all of us with our jazz hands raised and all that concern going out for the children and for what? We’re going to die. We’re raising them, and they’re going to die. And at some point we need to admit to them that we’re going to die, and dot dot dot.

Which was maybe heavy for 8:30 in the morning during a dance movement class, but that’s who I am.

Later on, eating my second breakfast, my seven ingredient mix of cereals and nuts and cinnamon and whatnot, I thought about a mom who told me a few years ago that she found it refreshing to talk to me about parenting because I wasn’t afraid to talk about how annoying my kids could be. This may have been after I admitted to fantasizing about flicking one of them in the back of the head after she’d said something particularly egregious to me. Flick, flick. And I remember thinking, Really? Is it odd for women to admit to negative or ambivalent feelings about their children or about being mothers? Really? Because I am awash in ambivalence about everyone I love. Love is a vast emotion. Sometimes it works at the macro and micro levels, and sometimes it works at the macro level, so universal you don’t know you feel it, while other temporarily more salient emotions work at the micro level, in Technicolor. Flick, flick.

Speaking of emotions – all these thoughts about difficult emotions reminded me of an interesting moment in a conversation I had during the monthly conference call I have with two women, one of whom I know well, one of whom I’ve never met in person – yet. Two of the three of us – I’ll let you guess whether I was one of them, Readers – said that work allowed them relief from difficult emotions.

This led to a discussion of life priorities. I realized that for me, work has always been something I arranged around my relationships. In truth, in recent years, there have been times when the idea of a regular office job appealed as a possible haven. However, for the vast swath of my life, my intention was always to manage my work life so that I was available to everyone. My goal was to pay my bills and have my health benefits, but to be available to whoever was important in my life. Friends. Boyfriends. Children. I admit this reflected a lot of insecurity: I was afraid that people wouldn’t wait around for me, so I made myself available to them. I had spent much of my life trying to cobble together from friends a family for myself. Naturally this has led me to take on part time work, as well as work that is not as challenging as it could be. All I wanted was to build that support network and those close connections to people that I had lacked as a child.

During our call, I also told them about the bus ride to sleepaway camp. When I was a kid, that ride was practically the best thing about camp.  The drive took six hours. There I’d be, on the bus with my best camp friends. We were all together. No one was going anywhere. No one had to do anything else but simply be together. It was bliss.

You know how you think that whatever you think about something other people probably think about the same as you? Well my two conference callmates were astonished by my statement. Their reactions made me feel a little weird. But it also explained a lot. For example, why they are the figureheads of two long and successful careers, while I have hunkered down with my family and friends. Come to think of it, I also hunker down with all those scary thoughts and emotions. (We are dying. John Hodgeman is dying.) Indeed, I work with them. I make them into writing, fiction, blogs, incredibly boring and histrionic journal entries meant for no one but me.

Anyway, that conversation illuminated one of the reasons I may have struggled professionally, why I may feel like a professional failure. It also put my situation – my path – in a different perspective. From the outside, perhaps it looks as if I piddled away my twenties and meandered through my thirties. I have no major career accomplishments to brandish at you in refutation, should you challenge me on that. I have, however, managed to create that supportive family, finally.

And all us are one day going to die. 

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