Or when it feels like your hair has been on fire since January...
Photo by Jorge Fernández Salas on Unsplash
Spring has…not quite sprung, here in Pittsburgh. It’s doing the equivalent of scritching its fingernails across our screen doors.
But I’m glad to see it. This semester has been rough. Last I posted, I was contemplating what would happen, if I let myself be happy? Part of that project was getting back to my favorite pre-pandemic activities. I signed up for an online screenwriting class, just for fun, and a quilting class here in Pittsburgh. I made an app’t to do a training to become a mentor for refugees newly arrived in our city. And I was really looking forward to a quiet term, sorting myself out, and getting back to what makes me happy.
And then one of our beloved WPF mentors died, suddenly, right before residency. I’d spoken to them the day before, and we’d arranged to go over Canvas the next day on Zoom. When they didn’t appear, I texted. And their husband replied later that day to let me know they’d had a massive stroke, and wouldn’t recover.
WPF (or the writing program I direct here at Seton Hill) is low-residency, so it’s a bit like camp. We see each other two times a year, for five days each residency. Harris, who died, was someone I always looked forward to seeing. They were weird and wonderful, and a great conversationalist. They were also curious and kind and didn’t take things too seriously—everything could be discussed, and seen in other ways, and understood differently. So I was unbelievably sad to hear of their loss. And it was a loss—they did good in this world.
And because I’m the director of WPF, I had to take a day to grieve and then I had to literally replace this person I respected and admired, because I had a residency to run in just a few weeks.
It was hard, on a number of levels. But everyone was wonderful, of course, and we did it. I think residency had a special poignancy. We had two mentors return after bouts of very serious cancer, now healthy and full of life. And we’d lost Harris. It made everyone nicer, I think. More willing to give the benefit of the doubt or try to put things into perspective. I certainly got fewer complaints about the cafeteria food.
After residency, I was still looking forward to that quite semester. And then the first day of classes, two weeks later, I learned my mom was in the ER, and being admitted to the ICU. I drove to Illinois after class on Tuesday, and didn’t leave till she got out of the hospital, two-weeks later. And she left with a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, or bone marrow cancer.
So I’ve not had that quiet semester. Instead, I’ve been going back and forth to Illinois. I am happy to report that my mom is doing well. She’s responding really well to the chemo, which is critical. She’s got every chance of having good, healthy years in front of her, which, at 80-years-old, is all anyone can ask for.
As for me, however, I do feel like my hair has been on fire since January. I’m playing myself a tiny violin here—I’m not the one who died, or the one who has cancer. But I am pretty tired. I think I can slow down the trips to Illinois now that things are stable, so that’s good. That said, I also am very aware that I can no longer depend on “quiet semesters,” the way I could just a few years ago. I am Of An Age. An age when other people, people I love, are starting to fall apart. Also an age when I am starting to fall apart. For example, I’ve not been one of those people who “doesn’t even notice” their gall bladder is gone. I notice, all the time, because my body keeps being like “where the fuck is that gall bladder?”
Obviously all of this has made me think a lot about mortality, and what I’m doing with my life. It’s also made me so aware of how I tend to think of life as what happens with preparation. Not what happens when your hair is on fire and you’re doing your best. I keep thinking about my lost term, the term I was supposed to be learning to quilt and playing around in a screenwriting course. Instead, I’m ridiculously behind on my quilt and I had to tap out of the screenwriting course after bursting into tears trying to finish an assignment after just driving home from Illinois and realizing I had no brain left to give. I didn’t even go to the training for the mentorship program.
It’s tempting to think that in a parallel universe, there’s a Nikki who just gave a quilt to the refugee family she’s befriended, right after handing in the final assignment for the screenwriting course that she aced.
Instead, what I have to learn how to do is to be here, now. Even if “here” is the very depressing Holiday Inn in Toledo where I spend the night when I leave after class to go back to Illinois to take my mom to chemo. Or “here” is bombing back into my Pittsburgh life on a Sunday, feeling like I have no idea where I am or who I’m supposed to be, and no plans made with anyone for that week, and assuming everyone has forgotten about me and I’ll be alone forever, starting now.
So my challenge to myself for the next few months is to be here, now. Figure out what inspires me in the day to day—not what might be the perfect habit I could theoretically form if I had that mythical “quiet semester,” the habit that would lead to my unqualified success and happiness.
I went out to lunch with my very wise friend Lee the other day, and she reminded me that I was seeing it all wrong. I was grousing that it all feels really meaningless, and she reminded me of what Arthur Brooks teaches us about the second half of life. He sees the mountains we climbed in our early life as, really, their inverse—they’re the holes we’ve dug for ourselves. Such things like success, money, fame, and career that are promoted as happiness makers are mirages—what matters are our connections, living our values, and our gratitude for things like the natural world.
“You’re literally at the bottom of that hole, right now,” Lee reminded me. “And it will get better.”
So I’m trying not to think about what I’m missing out on, in this imperfect semester. Instead, I’m trying to think about what I need to do in a given day, and how I can make that day more aligned with my values. How I can do something to help me appreciate my world. I’m trying to reach out to loved ones, even if I’m scared I look needy, and ask for attention. I’m trying to see the beauty in the world.
For example, the people at that slightly depressing Holiday Inn are really, really nice, and they serve cheese sticks in the restaurant.
So that’s where I’m at. I hope you are well, and taking care of yourselves. Enjoy spring!