Tolerating the Undone

As I’ve been preparing to restart this blog, I went back and reread some of the writing I’ve done in the past year since I last wrote on my Carepages blog. I’ve decided to post a few of those entries, mostly written last June, before I move back into the present day.

Most of them chronicle my week at the Commonweal Cancer Retreat last June, an incredible experience that I think is worth sharing with you here. I dedicate them to Jane, a radiant, vulnerable and lovable participant in that phenomenal week, who died of cancer this past March, nine months after our retreat.

So here are some entries from June of 2008, shortly after I last wrote to you:

Friday, June 13, 2008

What I’m thinking about today is the velocity of life, the speed. Life is going much too fast for me today. There is too. So many good things stacked up on top of my back, crushing me. I am grateful that I can do these things—cook a meal, drive a carpool, give someone a ride, plan for teaching, attend a celebration—but there are too many of them.

When seeing someone I love or doing something I love becomes a checkmark on a list until it is over and I can go on to the next thing, then something is terribly wrong. I can no longer live at such a pace. I can feel it in my body today—a tight racing heart flying frantically in a too small cage, my jaw clenched, my back tight, my mind shutting down in anger, the young child inside me just barely waking from a yearlong sleep, screaming out, “Stop. Enough! No more!”

What my body is telling me is that I can’t live like this. Not only am I just emerging for a year of cancer treatment, but more succinctly, in bold flashing neon letters is the message, “I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t call this a meaningful, viable life.” I can’t keep making the mistake of lining up ten good things in a row—each deserving attention, each deserving to be savored and digested—and call it a good life. I can’t call it my life—inevitable, unavoidable.

It is avoidable. It is a choice. Mostly, it is a habit—a habit I have carried for a lifetime—a habit that says, “These things make you happy. This is who you are. This is what it means to have two kids at home and to run your own business. It is inevitable. It is the reality of modern life.”

Well, it can’t be the reality of my life anymore.

I remember my friend and coach, Doug, telling me once, early in my cancer, about the many men he worked with early in the AIDS epidemic. He singled out one young gay man who was living with AIDS. While on a panel at a conference, this young man was asked, “How has AIDS changed your life?” He replied, “I don’t run for the bus anymore.”

I can’t run for the bus anymore. It is a crazy way to live and it won’t bring me any points in heaven. This is one lifelong habit that I am going to break. I need to breathe in between things. In fact, I need to breathe, period, and occasionally let there be a special thing.

It is not going to be easy for me to do this, but it is essential. The life I have fought so hard to live cannot be the same life I lived before. And the time for change is now.

Later the same day…

During the hour I spent with Ellen Bass today, we talked about what she called, “learning to tolerate the undone.” I latched on to the phrase right away and decided that it must be my new spiritual practice. Maybe someday I can graduate from “tolerating the undone” to “admiring the undone,” “embracing the undone,” or “relishing in the undone.”

In the same conversation, Ellen told me that her partner Janet is her greatest teacher in this regard. Every day after work, Janet comes home and plunks down on the couch for an hour. Sometimes she reads the paper, sometimes she picks up a novel, sometimes she and Ellen have a cocktail. Sometimes Janet just stares out the window. But every day she stops her momentum before getting up and making dinner. For people afflicted with the doing workaholic gene, like Ellen and me, this need, this choice to stop, is remarkable. I wonder if proximity to this kind of behavior rubs off.

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