Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A random set of blog thoughts, happy and struggling

Phil Nel has written an incredible essay about death, life, and how we can explore our lives in this moment.  Phil writes, "What do you want to accomplish during those years? And how do you want to live?"  I want to spend more time in the thoughts he shares.  I'm eager to respond.

But not today.

Today I'm digging into a set that's become a set of ideas.  On Saturday, a good friend invited me
Trey has gotten me several of these
small pads.  I write in this every
day, multiple times.
to create two lists:  THINGS THAT HELP ME FEEL GOOD and THINGS THAT MAKE ME FEEL LIKE SHIT.  Alright--what do they mean?

The THINGS THAT MAKE ME FEEL LIKE SHIT was pretty easy when I started:

1.  Lack of competence
2.  Speaking--struggling
3.  Terrible mother [Me, not my Mom]
4.  Trying in a terrible way to teach my class
5.  Needing too much for ppl. who already have full lives.

And let's go on and share the THINGS THAT HELP ME FEEL GOOD (do you notice the titles here?  "Make me" vs. "Help me"?)

1.  I am writing effectively.
2.  Donuts.
3.  Excellent friends
4.  Excellent supports
5.  Having contact w/an even broader community
6.  Writing for the blog (& and other things to write, like book)
7.  Relation w/Brian

What do these lists mean?

As I wrote these, I went back and forth.  There was no list made all together--I'd make one or two on a list, and then I'd be drawn to the other.  The Shit list was pretty clear and consistent, while the Good had things that were goofy (donut) and repetitive (writing and writing).  I can read the Shit list and feel painful by every item on the list.  The Good makes me laugh, but I'm skeptical.  Am I really writing? How am I asking my friends and family?  At what point will my friends feel sorry for me, but will move on, knowing that this woman has a brain tumor that's sort to devastating and sort of release?  "Needing too much for ppl. who already have full lives."  Time to let me go before I've actually died?

This is not the place for you, Blog Jumper.  It's not the place of kicking into gear, feeling that you must change my mind because you're sharing hope and attention and respect.  I get that, and I do really appreciate that.  You consistently offer this sort of affection, and I respect that--very much.

But right now I'm not asking to be saved.  Right now I'm considering what it means for me to be 43, someone who's here but will die, sooner or later.  Phil writes,

During your struggles with the brain tumor, have you figured this out? Have you learned how to say goodbye? 
It’s a question that you shouldn’t have to face in your 40s. This may be why I can’t answer it yet, and why my 74-year-old relative can. But I know that the question confronts you, and has been confronting you, throughout your 40s. This is unfair. In fact, it’s unfair of me to expect you to have arrived at a better answer. 

Powerful here.  How I have "learned how to say goodbye?" "This is unfair."  Yes, it's certainly unfair.  But so many parts of the world in which we live are unfair.  There's no clarity.  I've written about this, and I'll write it again:  for many people, death is so terrifying that it disappears.  As Phil says, "This may be why I can't answer it yet."  

Right now I'm sitting in one of my two favorite coffee shops in Charleston.  I hear the sounds of people who are in and out of this place.  Soon I'll grab a bagel or cookie to take to class with me so that I can keep myself energized for the evening class.  Sitting at the blog, writing at the window, is ideal.  Then what does it mean for me to be in a perfect afternoon and evening while I'm aware of my brain tumor?  Every word that doesn't emerge correctly--it's the brain tumor (or else I identify that way, even if it's not).  Things in my body will shift, and I'm worried that I'll have a seizure.  The chemo medicine could bring on diarrhea--is it happening/  I'm in an incredibly pleasant afternoon, but it doesn't take away the THINGS THAT MAKE ME FEEL LIKE SHIT.

Here's one more thought, before I leave for class:  my students and I will be talking about Harry Mcbride Johnson's book Too Late to Die Young (2005) this afternoon.  She has a bunch of quotes like this one:  "Mortality is something all people share, a unifying force.  Every life, whether long or short, is a treasure of infinite value."  Yes and no.  Shit and Good.  She's asking us to recognize the differences in bodies, in minds, and she encourages us to recognize that even a moment is precious.  It's not devastation--it's "a treasure of infinite value."

Yes and no.  Death and life.  Shit and Good.


  1. Mortality sucks. But yeah, life is a 'treasure of infinite value.' Overcoming suicidal tendencies, learning this, making myself believe it, was super important. Different situation, of course. But you are handling the cards you've been dealt with grace and style, and it's beautiful.

  2. Thanks, Alison. Generous of you to contemplate the (big, impossible, pressing) questions I posed, too. I like your answers! Those are good lists!

    In a weird way, I actually like the fact that these questions are, in some measure, impossible, unanswerable, confounding. Such questions are the ones that force us to think deeply about our lives and how we live them. They are (in my humble opinion) the best questions to ask. And the ones we need to keep asking ourselves, over and over again.

    What I don't like (AT ALL) is that your brain tumor is forcing you to reckon with them. You, too, should have the luxury of letting such existential conundrums linger in the corner of your mind. Even though we need to keep asking ourselves these questions, they're tough questions to face — and especially tough to face with such urgency.

    I'll conclude here by wishing you lots from the FEEL GOOD list, and hoping that the SHIT list stops pestering you for as long as possible. Or, to put this another way, keep on discovering your own "infinite value," and — when you can — sharing what you learn with the rest of us.


    1. Good lord, Phil--you're always write things that knock me out. Go, you!

    2. Thanks, Alison! Like you and all who read your blog, I seek meaning in a world that often frustrates such (necessary, futile) seeking. It's nice to have occasion to write some of these thoughts down, for whatever (little) they may be worth.

    3. And, geez, I should amend that last sentence further. It's not at all nice that part of the occasion is your own reckoning with this $#&@! tumor. I presume that's obvious, but I want to continue to register my (ongoing, ineffectual) protest against the tumor!

    4. You didn't need to change that sentence I agree with everything you wrote.

  3. Here's to more time with the Good (list) and less with the Shit (list)...for all of us. Hugs.

  4. For what it's worth, the ppl who already have full lives love you and would consider it a privilege to help, even if they aren't on line or here all that consistently. ;)

    1. I want to see you! I want to see you! I just have a hard time making plans and seeing what I need. Keep waiting...

  5. Good morning, Alison! Hope its its a 3 doughnut day! I woke feeling sad and unsettled, so went to read this again. I think you have it right...like riding a bicycle...just pedaling forward, enjoying what's beautiful ..you are so gifted and so loved..but also being able to curse at , even sometimes laugh at the rough, awful parts, as you push past them, still in balance. So much of the hard, awful stuff! But I conclude by now that that's what we are here on earth to master...the joy and gift of being this way in each moment...where those I love all still are and will forever be riding with me. You are such a gift Alison! Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Sara! I'm happy that my writing can be something we connect with. And I am very happy to have your love here--I want it!

  6. Hi Alison, thanks for sharing all this. It's taken on a new significance for me since my mom was diagnosed with a progressive and incurable lung disease over the holidays. I've moved back home to take care of her (and my dad, since he's not dealing well). I think of you often and appreciate your sharing and honesty. Maybe we'll see you at Duke, if we wind up at their highly-regarded lung center. Right now I'm feeling more of the shit than good, but your fight inspires me to have some hope for my mom. Xo

    1. I'm sorry to hear that about your mom, and I'm also sad that you're having to carry the weight for both parents. Shit sounds pretty appropriate. Sending hugs your way!