Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
My Little Existential Soulmate
I found this nickname in an old greeting card from my husband while going through all of our treasures after he died. I’ve been trying to downsize and organize. During my mom’s last few years, I had to move her three times, from her house to mine, from my house to assisted living and finally to a nursing home. Sorting through her things was really hard. You’d think her possessions were reproducing themselves in the night. Truly annoying. Stuff is stuff. You don’t want resentment over “things” to muck up your feelings. So when I started looking around my house where we’d lived for forty years and considering my pack rat partner’s stashes, I got busy fast.
The five years of Michael’s illness permanently altered the way I perceive time. We lived from scan to scan and appointment to appointment for years. Long range plans fell away. Moment to moment, day to day became our norm. So faced with the seemingly herculean task of shedding the piles, I’ve felt like I’m racing time. I don’t want my kids to go through what I did. So I’ve been sorting, donating and tossing at a pretty rapid clip. But while I’m trying so hard, I’ve found myself mired in my head, with each task creating internal conversations as I weigh what’s important and what’s not.
I’ve never been much of a materialist. I’m not fashionable. I drive old cars. I care more about how my house feels than I do about furniture or matching dishes or window treatments. My garden looks much better than my living space. I do like books.My guilty pleasure. But I’ve parted with almost all of them. We used to have two rooms with floor to ceiling bookshelves, all full. Now one room has none and the second has only one small shelf. The books I still have are now put in bags to go out the door as soon as I’ve read them. The only ones I’ve can’t part with have strong sentimental value. But as I push myself to get through this process, I feel that existential self breaking through my task-oriented behavior and often find myself just stumped and pondering. Just sitting. Instead of working my way through each room, scooping up what’s irrelevant and making progress, I’m distracted. The worst impediments to my progress are both physical and psychological. They’re my journals and notebooks of fiction and poetry that suck me in, slow me down and leave me pondering the meaning of life. Just like I always did. The reason Michael called me his little existential soulmate.
I’ve got these nuggets going back about 55 years. Crazy, huh? I get to read my growing up. I can see myself at eleven when I was busy deciding who was my best friend and which boy was the cutest and smartest. But even then, I was trying to figure out what life was and where my place should be. I was always a little detached from whatever was going on around me as I tried to find a reason for whatever was happening. I was interested in big ideas. I couldn’t decide if that was cool or not. Even then, I had the feeling that most people felt comfortable gravitating to the median. I never felt that way. But being outspoken and somewhat noncompliant was expensive. My pages are filled with the clash of social norms, the desire to fit in and my natural tendency to deviate from the acceptable. These themes are consistent as I sink into the pages of the past. And I guess it’s not a surprise to find that trying to resolve my inability to just be quiet and fit in remained an issue throughout my life. I developed what I called my internal armor so I could survive the inevitable backlash that you incur when you push against the flow. I remember one incident in particular that really stuck with me. I was in an advanced placement English class with a brilliant, prickly teacher named Ms. Annan. She had a PhD but chose to teach high school and she taught with an iron hand. I think I learned more from her about critical thinking than I did from any other instructor in my life. But she ticked me off because she was so definite and right all the time. We were reading Lord Jim in her class and discussing symbolism. I remember that she had specific ideas about the use of the word “white” throughout the book. In the school lunchroom before her class, some other students and I were discussing alternative points of view in contrast to her opinion. So we went charging into class and when discussion opened, I raised my hand and offered up what my mates and I thought. I still remember her looking at me and saying, “Well isn’t that interesting? Is there anyone else in the class who’d like to support Renee’s point of view?” The time after that question felt like a hundred years. All that lunchtime bravado was left at the table. My face burned. Finally one guy got the nerve to give a lukewarm endorsement to my, (our?,) theory. I never forgot that moment. I was 15 years old. And I realized I had no tribe. I was a one person show. Which was problematic. Because I really believed in team play. I always thought that numbers meant influence. Being one was so much harder.
Reading myself through the years is wrenching. I spent a lot of time trying to team up, partner up, all the while recognizing that even a teeny deviation from what was expected of me often brought a powerful sense of isolation and disappointment. The worst part was that I felt unseen. On the surface, I could tell that people made assumptions about who I was without doing much digging about the underpinnings of what they saw. I often felt empty. But I presented differently. I wound up with a lot of imbalanced relationships. Often, I was the only person who recognized that uneven status. And there was a dominant part of me that didn’t want to wave my hand and say hey! You’re not getting me. I wanted the recognition to just happen.
Growing up is hard. Sometimes it never happens. People just enlarge and march along without ever probing their depths. That’s been challenging for me. I always want to know more and I think everyone else should want more too. But that’s not very realistic. I’ve chewed on these ideas my whole life. I’ve read page after page, my frustration spilling out, both with myself and others. Getting into a comfortable spot has always been a challenge. I’m not sure that I even really want one. There’s something about comfortable which for me implies stagnation. If I’m not always poking around, trying to think of every angle, I think I might stop growing and adapting to what’s tossed at me every day. I know everyone doesn’t feel that way. They work hard to get into a safe, stable spot and develop a framework that fits over everything. And what doesn’t fit organically can be molded or twisted into that system that makes life explainable for them. And for whatever happens, there’s always an answer. For me there are always more questions. Life keeps me on my toes and I can’t find any configuration that doesn’t require adjustments to the unpredictability of life.
So what does this have to do with my piles of stuff? Well, first I don’t have my soulmate any more. He wasn’t as existential as me but he was accepting and willing to travel all the crazy roads my brain led me down. So that constant supportive resource is gone except for what I believe will be his permanent presence that remains with me. The knowledge that eventually there really was a place for me, and that someone really was always looking below the surface was my anchor. Now I depend solely on my internal resources honed over a lifetime. And that’s ok. But everything takes a lot longer without having a sounding board, so my haste to deal with the concrete, like what needs to be pared down in my house often slows to a crawl. Even as my list gets longer and my need for speed continues to spark my engine. I guess, in time, I’ll figure this out. Or not. And if I don’t, I forgive myself in advance. Life’s too short to be wasted on worrying about stuff. So it’s ok that I didn’t get rid of one single thing today.