DO NOT GO GENTLY INTO THIS GOOD NIGHT (Dylan Thomas)
NEVER WASTE A GOOD CRISIS (Milton Friedman)
Perhaps an inevitable part of aging is looking backward, searching for meaning in the distinctive chapters of our lives. After moving past obvious markers (leaving home for college, getting married, etc.), I keep stumbling across the fact that there are periods that are less clearly marked by an anticipated beginning or a clear end. Some of these are unpleasant: Queen Elizabeth had her annus horribililis, Karen Storm writes about her past experience with prolonged grief, Katherine Malanga reflects on being in the middle of figuring out the job of loving and caring for someone who is declining.
For me, 1998 and 1999 were such a chapter. Nothing exceptional happened that distinguishes me from other fallible human beings who experience suffering – except that everything occurred in quick succession.
Well, to be perfectly honest, the symptoms started earlier, beginning with rocky transitions to college for my children. The resultant stress and disagreements about how to handle myriad other issues tore at an already fragile marital relationship. By 1997, we were living together in 17th century house on a beautiful canal in the Netherlands (because we were on sabbatical) without our children (who were still causing us anxiety).
With a lot of travel, living largely separate lives, we struggled through. I responded by spending weekends with friends in another city and drinking Jenever (Dutch Gin, which smells a bit like rotten cabbages), straight from the freezer.
Back in the U.S. The semi-separation became a real separation. The children were gone. Frisk, a beloved dog, was very old and barely able to move. My parents died, a little over a year apart. My sister felt like my only support, but our grieving took different forms – she turned inward and to her family, and I wanted to turn outward because my family was….well, disintegrating. I was able to briefly distract myself as International Karen — a 1999 Fulbright trip to examine the condition of higher education in post-Soviet Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Czechoslovakia and an invitation to cheer in the new century with friends in London, accompanied by bagpipes in the Royal Park in Greenwich. I am, however, here to let you know that, in spite of the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love, treating distress by relocation is overrated.
I thought that I needed a project, and foolishly took my half of the sale of the jointly owned elegant town home and bought a “fixer-upper” in Uptown, a densely populated, just-on-the-edge-of-becoming-trendy part of Minneapolis. The house was owned by a blind woman, who lived with two alcoholic sons and a husband who had recently entered an assisted living facility. Her sons assured her that they were maintaining the property and redoing the kitchen. Hah…the ring of cigarette burns on the floor outlining their beds was evidence that only dumb luck kept them from burning the place down. I am not a very handy person – I have no idea what inspired me to take on a neglected home despite its “good bones” and untouched quarter-sawn oak woodwork in all the rooms. My friends were worried. But I barely saw them because I spent most of my time isolating when not at work. I was a contemporary version of the Prodigal Son, who after failing to maintain my social and financial assets, wanted to go home. Except, although I had a house, I had no real home to turn to.
One day, when walking the dog, I fainted and hit my head. No concussion, but my doctor insisted on a sleep-deprived EKG. Now, I am a person who could never stay up all night even when I was in college…I had no idea what to do other than to rent a machine that would pinch me regularly. At a rare social gathering, I humorously asked where I could get one. A bit later, Dan, who I barely recognized, approached me and said that he had worked nights, was easily able to stay up, and would be happy to help. He suggested the local all-night Home Depot, followed by a very early breakfast in the café of a 24-hour grocery store. Putting aside every caution – I, after all, had inhaled Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar that left woman my age thinking that behind every eligible middle-aged man lurked a serial killer – I agreed. And I thought about Carol, who was as close to an intimate friend as I had. I knew that I could cut the evening short because she got up ridiculously early and could get me to the test before 7.
When I least expected it, two people came into my life to accompany me on what turned out to be a quotidian medical adventure. A few years later, I married Dan, who never made the slightest pass or sign of flirtation during our 5 hours examining hoses, shovels, and industrial cleaning implements at the all-night Home Depot or the coffee shop. Carol and I grew into closer friends over the years, even when our conversations were rare due to moves. This modest, almost non-event was, in retrospect, a crack that widened and allowed me to see that things could be different. I can only conclude that one mystery of life is that when I am experiencing the greatest turmoil, it is often a small voice that reminds me that relationships can change and heal.
The prodigal son returned to his father’s home, but as a humbled and open person, ready to leave what he had become in order to be changed. There was no instant moment when I saw a way out, but Dan’s kindness and Carol’s support at a juncture where I felt my human frailty so intensely allowed me to see that I was not alone. I was ready to be changed, but I needed to see that I had companions who could walk with me.
Unlike Dylan Thomas’ cry for an intense battle to grasp what joy is available, I was listening to gentler voices that recognized that chaos – what in 12 step groups is referred to as psychologically “hitting bottom” – is often required to provide the courage to return to oneself. I learned that it is precisely when I am in existential turmoil that I must depend on others to support me. Milton Friedman’s assertion that “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change” is also time to remember John Donne: “No (wo)man is an island.” This minimal insight has altered my life and the way I respond to those first inklings that “things are not going well….” Instead of isolating, or throwing myself on the most immediate comfort or escape, I try to look closely for the small voices, usually of others, that remind me that I am worth saving.