Dancing at the End of Our Plans

January 15, 2019

(This is a post I started months ago and found in my drafts folder.)

I have a friend — an acquaintance who is the spouse of a friend — who has a particularly virulent form of cancer. Last night he wrote on Facebook about the impossibility, in his current situation, of planning for the future, and about trying to live in the reality of the moment and have fun.

I woke up this morning with the kernel of anxiety that is my almost constant companion and I thought about his post, and about that state of no longer planning for the future.

This one night when I was at Cancer Camp, we had a dance. We jumped around to pop music while wearing funny hats and vests and feathery boas from a trunk in the corner and it was a true celebration. It was also surreal, because as I danced, I looked around the room and knew that some of us might be dead soon and that part of “some of us” might be me.  But because we were all in the same boat, it seemed strangely okay. 

I think often about how much our (or my) ability to enjoy life is social. So much is context. Discontent — or maybe just anxiety – comes from having your expectations exist side by side with other people’s expectations. It’s easy to eat a vegetable plate if vegetables are all that’s at the table and everybody is happy with vegetables. It’s harder if you’re surrounded by people eating pizza – especially if they want you to partake, and your veggie plate is making them feel bad. When I lived in the Outback, I happily wore the same rotation of clothes for months, but when we visited the city and everybody had shiny shoes, suddenly everything I had felt faded and dusty.  Death seems like it should be bigger and more important than all of that stuff, but what I found was that it was pretty similar. It was easy to talk about dying with other people who were ill, and harder to talk about it around healthy people. Healthy people like to have conversations about their plans and their futures and things they hope to achieve. Today I am one of those healthy people. I talk about plans. I have career decisions to make, and many worries about the future. 

But that memory of the time that I stopped planning lives inside me. It was a very specific feeling. All my concerns about success or failure dropped away. One week I was furiously working toward a deadline for a grant for a little documentary, the next week it felt completely unimportant. It was sad at first, but it was freeing. These days, when projects hit obstacles, as they seem to constantly, I remember how easily it can all feel unimportant, and it’s oddly comforting.

I also think how lucky I was to have experienced that feeling of freedom with like-minded comrades who could appreciate it with me — to have felt the kinship of dancing into the night with others who were equally uncertain of what the next day might bring.

We Live, and Then We Die

I was lucky this summer to get to go home for almost two whole weeks. I’ve always been grateful to be able to go back home in a way that few of my friends can.  My mother still lives in my childhood home, and when I arrive, I carry my suitcase up the stairs and put it in my childhood bedroom, where the same bedroom furniture set remains.

When I have just a few days, it can be hard to mentally pull myself away from my big city life. But when I have a little longer, home is the place that grounds me, that provides distance from my day-to-day battles, and a vantage point from which to view my life.

This summer’s trip was more emotionally packed than usual. For one thing, I attended a high school reunion — which was predictably disorienting.  Some acquaintances looked so different from high school that I only recognized them because of their name tags. Others seemed to look exactly like they did in high school. We spent a lot of time exclaiming to each other how we looked just the same, but then someone played a slideshow of pictures and it became abundantly clear that no one looks like they did in high school, because we looked like children.

There was a table in the back dedicated to the pictures of fellow classmates who will never look as old as we do. Military service, suicide, cancer.

I also met people at the reunion for the first time. These weren’t spouses or partners, they were people who’d gone to my school for the same three years I did, and I had never met. What was I so involved with that I never once noticed this person? I wondered.

At the beginning of the first night, I felt distant and awkward. Conversations with my old classmates felt painfully  like conversations I have all the time with strangers.  By the end of the second night however, I was feeling nostalgic and close to my old friends and acquaintances. This person is so cool! I thought, as we had drunken conversations in the finished basement of a couple who married after high school and have a kid looking at colleges.  If I just led a different life, lived in a different city –we would still be friends who hang out all the time! 

But the reunion was just a start to my jaunt down memory lane. Because on the first night of the reunion, as I wandered around outside the American Legion hall  trying to move past the awkward phase, I checked my phone and found a message from an old boyfriend who I hadn’t heard from in years. He was writing because a mutual friend — someone we’d worked with — even shared a house with for a short while — had suffered a stroke. A day later the friend died. My old boyfriend sent me a photo of the three of us at some bar that neither of us could identify. In the photo we looked so fresh-faced and innocent, I wanted to reach out and pet us. But I couldn’t remember the evening at all, or even guess what we might have talked about that night.

A few days later,  a writing partner called to that a fellow writer — who had been a mentor and helper on our project– had also died of a sudden stroke.

On Sunday, I looked in the local paper and saw that there was memorial service for the former artistic director of the local theatre company where I’d interned the summers after my last year of high school and first year of college, so I went. I entered another room full of round tables and chairs occupied by people with faces and names I hadn’t seen for years. As with my first meeting of my high school friends, I felt happy to see them, and at the same time separated by glass.

To hammer home any themes that might be emerging, for the two weeks I was home, I stayed up late each night and binged episodes of Six Feet Under (which I recommend if, like me, you missed it when it aired). It’s about a family who runs a funeral home. Each episode begins with somebody dying, but for the most part, the people who die are not main characters so the show is not as depressing as it sounds. Although also, it is, because it is about people yearning for connection and never quite finding it. And then, before they have finished looking — they die.