A steady question has circled me for years like a song I can’t shake: “How to live?” When I was diagnosed with breast cancer over five years ago, it was as if someone turned up the volume of this question, and since then, I been regularly landing in moments when I felt paralyzed as to what to do with myself to live my life the way I should….or felt I should. I would stand in the middle of my living room, debating whether to put my feet up and read a book, or practice the cello (which I’m learning), work on poetry or teaching or something else that locks my eyes to my computer screen, do some yoga, take a walk, or clean out an obscure drawer. “What to do?” became the back beat behind “How to live?”
In the land of my mind, “How to live” is a number #1 hit, playing as gospel, rhythm and blues, hard-driving rock and roll (complete with those Bruce Springsteen-like howls), familiar Irish gigs, complex but haunting folk songs, and of course as blaring but sweet musicals (think “Oklahoma” meets “Rent”). While I’m learning the various tunes and hues of this question, I’m finding — to paraphrase the poet Rainer Maria Rilke — that I can only live my way into the answers (or, more likely, more questions).
For me, one of the clearest responses has been — ironically enough — trying to try less, and working to not work so hard, something almost impossible for my grasping mind to inhabit often, given my you’re-not-alive-unless-you’re-doing-something ways. Being my father’s daughter, I carry within me the legacy of working passionately, but also obsessively, springing into doing something related to my brilliant and exhausting career at any given moment (2 a.m.? No problem, I’ll just start up the computer; weekends? Oh, just this one thing and then… Vacation? Let me just answer a dozen emails first). Yet my father died relatively young after years of feeling sick and too busy to see straight. After my own list-carrying decades, delighting in crossing things off, and feeling generally compelled to immediately do whatever I think up, my very smart body refused to tolerate being dragged around like a pull toy from one overwhelm to the next.
To be honest, I’m didn’t just realize the obvious easily. I sailed under the skies of low-grade, but chronic, unidentifiable illness for about three years. After visiting my oncologist (repeatedly), various other doctors, energy healers, acupuncturists, massage therapists, psychics, dear friends, the self-subscribed-to myths of my past, and all manner of big pills that came in glass bottles (herbs, vitamins, amino acids, etc.), I had a breakdown of sorts. In a small hotel room on the 8th floor of a Boston Marriott, in the middle of a conference at which I was presenting, and doing many manner of other tasks, and in the middle of various health dodahs all descending on me simultaneously, I heard one clear sentence: If you want to heal your life, you need to change your life.
Since that Boston epiphany, I started giving up things I used to do: extra work outside of and inside of my teaching position, overfunctioning with friends and family (on the premise that if I couldn’t fix my own life, I could fix someone else’s), and activities, thought-mazes and habits that took me away from being here, with myself as I am, in the present whatever the weather. I’m a slow learner in the art of surrender. Give me an urgent task and high speed internet, and I’m easily tempted to go galloping in my mind toward whatever is asked. Give me an excuse, and I can convince myself it’s fine to take on yet another job (and rationalize how it’s not too much). But the imperative to live a life of meaning in a meaningful way has been a patient and persistent teacher. My health, which tends to go south easily and for prolonged periods if I don’t listen to my body, reinforces what I need to do….or not do.
Lately, though, I’ve been discovering something entirely thrilling and not so unexpected: Living with greater self-care, discipline and awareness makes me outrageously happy. I love watching the deer outside eying our bird feeder (which they empty out on a regular basis), sitting very still under the weight of the motor-purring kitten, and picking up the kids from school without feeling rushed. I love the open space and time that’s always been right here, like the sky — sometimes stripped in golden pinks and grays through the bare branches of the sycamore I watch while stopped at a light. I love having long stretches at home, and because I’m still hard-wired to keep doing things, using these stretches to re-organize the linen closet, make collages, or stare at old pictures I found of my parents and siblings. There is such a profound joy in the simple and constant art of cultivating space.
How to live is no longer such a rap-style mantra, complete with cross-blends of many stations playing at once, but more like a heart beat. Its rhythm is all around me. All I need to do is listen.