Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
I’ve had a lot going on in my head lately. Actually, that’s nothing new. I almost always have a lot going on in my head. But a number of different thought threads have been knocking into each other and somehow I need to pull them all together to see if there’s some essential cohesion about what all this random pondering means, if anything.First, I guess the underlying connection is likely reflective of my lifelong oppositional, anti-authoritarian attitude. That central theme of my life didn’t really manifest itself until my sophomore year in high school. Up until then, I was a very good student, cooperative, getting good grades and being pretty comfortable fitting in out there in the world. But at thirteen, I decided I was done with a lot of rules. I was interested in learning and often took off on my own intellectual journeys. But school was off-putting. I didn’t want to do a bunch of random studying just because it was there, because it was the curriculum. My school system was fundamentally unfair. I was in these classes which were labeled “honors” or “honors telescope.” My performance was mediocre but the value of those labels gave me extra credit. My class rank was bumped up and I was somehow in the National Honor Society. I thought it wasn’t right then and I don’t think it’s right now. Other harder-working and better-performing students deserved my spot more than I did. In addition, I developed terrible study habits, just sliding along instead of applying myself. My intuitive biology teacher, Marjory Coleman, suggested to my parents that I transfer to the lab school at the University of Chicago, where individual programs might fit my personality profile better than the public school. But that was a private school and beyond our means so I continued on my merry way.
By the time I started college, just barely having turned seventeen, I was locked into my attitudes. I was all about being a rule breaker and an in-your-face person. I cut all my classes the first day at my university and piddled around with my formal education until midterm grades were sent home to my parents. My dad called me and said, “what the hell are you doing there?” I didn’t want to go home so I pulled my grades up by a letter and things settled down a bit. I was able to do well in the classes I enjoyed but my GPA was appalling most of the time while I busied myself with what felt important to me. Mostly that was being anti-war, pro-feminism, pro-civil rights and the like. A lot of my friends pulled off both school and their social conscience activities with much greater success than me. I wasn’t interested. Institutions and expectations be damned. Youth. Who knew or cared what would come down the road? It took me a long time to find a way to to fit myself into “regular” life. I remember getting dropped off from work once, into the middle of an anti war demonstration and then never going back to my job. And my similarly rebellious partner didn’t do much to tamp down my impulses. What a team we made. As we moved into our later twenties, we both figured out that we needed to find a way to take care of ourselves and eventually, we found work that was suitable for each of us. Fundamentally we were the same rebels as we’d been before. I remember my mother-in-law once saying in utter exasperation, “Our friends’ kids went through the ‘60’s and early 70’s and they all got over it.” Oops. Michael and I remained pretty consistent throughout our lives. Neither one of us liked the random abuse of power in any context. We were both defiant. When we saw an issue that we perceived as institutional tyranny, we fought it. We did that for ourselves, for our children and for other people who came into our world. Michael carried his attitude into the public sector. I never put myself out there the way he did, as I felt that my attitudes and big mouth were better used behind the scenes. I could be diplomatic but I was happier when I could just be the all me show, all the time. I understand the rules. I can abide some of them, based on the principle that a cooperative society works best when accommodations are made for each other’s differences. But often, I don’t like the rules nor the time I spend restraining myself from my natural inclinations to push back against them. Over the years, that choice has led to both positive and negative responses. On the whole, who I am works for me. Here’s a daily life example.
The other day while swimming laps, there was a water aerobics class going on in another section of the pool. The instructor was loud and harsh, very militaristic in her behavior. I found it really annoying and as I swam my laps I was thinking that if I’d ever been interested in military service, I’d likely have been booted to the brig pretty fast. In addition to her aggressive teaching style in that peaceful venue, there have been several occasions when my fellow swimmers have been disrespected or hurt by unconscious types who attend our facility and are self-involved and thoughtless. It’s always me who goes forward to call out the bad behavior. I just can’t stop myself. More and more I find myself verbally intervening in situations I think are unfair or unjust. So what does any of that have to do with censorship? A lot, as it turns out, at least to me. I explored a variety of “censorship” definitions today. I liked this one – “In general, there are four major types of censorship: withholding information, destroying information, altering or using selective information and self-censorship. Withholding information is a common form of censorship used by many governments throughout history.” Of course, I’m opposed to censorship, although I understand that often, there can be reasonable moral intent, especially in regard to children, that isn’t always another arbitrary rule, but rather a protective device. But those instances are limited. I looked through the long list of books that have been censored, finding so many of my favorites.
Animal Farm. To Kill a Mockingbird. Ulysses. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I get the concept of age-appropriate. But the acquisition of knowledge and exposure to different ideas is in my view, crucial to the development of critical thinking. Who gets to decide this stuff? Governments, school boards, religious leaders? The road gets dicey very fast. In one of my favorite movies, Cinema Paradiso, every film shown by the village’s theater projectionist has to be vetted by the town priest for inappropriate sexual conduct. The scenes are then cut from the film before it’s shown. The projectionist’s bequest to his protege and friend is a compilation of the beautiful passions which were removed from the movies. Truly, I found it one of the most magical subversive behaviors I’ve ever seen.
So we have books and films being censored. There is political, governmental and social censorship. I’m not sure I can even imagine the breadth of the hidden secrets from countries like ours which are ostensibly operating for the benefit of the body politic. And the censorship of those blatantly totalitarian regimes that hide objective realities from their citizens is also unimaginable. Censorship is prevalent across the globe. I have no doubt about that.But then I arrive at self-censorship. That’s the one that I’ve been struggling with the most, the one most accessible to me, particularly as I’ve been navigating my new status as a widow, a woman on my own. In my youth, I was often called a truthsayer, and amusingly, an angel of doom, always bringing up the dark stuff in a kindly way. But in order to get along socially, in work settings, as a parent, a wife and an advocate, I’ve practiced self-censorship as a method of finding a smoother path to what I’ve needed or wanted for myself and the people I love. I’ve understood when silence is more appropriate than talking, when restraint has been more important than pushing. I don’t want to create unnecessary conflicts, nor do I want to be confrontational just for the sake of doing it. But my filters and my patience were definitely worn thin by the years of fighting hard by Michael’s side when he was sick. I spent more energy than I realized. When he died, I could feel a perceptible internal shift in my attitudes. After making an offhand comment one day, my daughter looked at me and said, “Oh no. Dad died and took all your filters with him.” That really resonated with me. I’m not actually sure I had that many filters in the first place. But I did have boundaries. I was careful with my children because they didn’t need to carry the burden of my behavior. I was always mindful that my husband was a public figure, and I curbed some of my natural instincts, in order to protect his reputation in the outside world. So did he. But with him gone, and only myself to think about now, I find that I’m not much interested in a public veneer. I want to say what I think all the time. I don’t want to think about what other people want to hear. And that makes life complicated. I can’t think of a topic that feels off-limits to me. But that isn’t true for many people. I want to talk about death and disease. I want to talk about sex and feelings, aging and the marginalization of older women. I want to be blunt. But often when I do, I feel a recoiling, even from people who’ve known me for a long time. There seems to be a wide web of buffers around many issues. Buffers that are supposed to stop you before you push past them into uncomfortable territory. I’ve always found them irritating. I like cutting to the chase which in my view, saves a lot of time. And I understand how fleeting time really is now. We can all disappear in a blink. But that isn’t what everyone around me thinks. When Michael was alive, I had a safe place where I could unload every thought that went through my head. I never felt censored. He didn’t necessarily enjoy my expounding on all the things I chose to lay at his feet, but his unconditional acceptance of what I needed was a given. And now that’s gone. I can get away with being the full-blown me with my kids to most degrees, and also with my sister who’s been very close to me. But even in those relationships, there are still boundaries. I still have to watch what I say in certain situations. And the truth is, I don’t feel like it. I am raw. As time passes, I feel more cut to the bone by my experiences. And I feel like sharing them is a positive thing, something that can provide insight and help for those who are trapped in the social niceties that preclude direct communication. I guess I can’t impose myself on the people who want to be removed from my commentary. But I’m thinking that I’d rather be by myself rather than acting according to someone else’s code. For however long my life is, I’m thinking that living my own way is more important now than smoothing the way for others. Transitioning from a caregiver to a new model of me. So I guess, it’s buyer beware. What you see is likely what you’ll get. And apparently, I now come with a take it or leave it warranty.