On the other side of the planet, in another time and another season but at this instant, Doug Silsbee is being farewelled by friends and family in what must be a spectacular—moving, beautiful, soulful—goodbye. I am sitting at my desk in this wintery morning, struggling to work on the prosaic but fundamental pieces of my life: a slide deck for a big program next week, the final manuscript of Mindtraps to be to my editor by the end of the month. But somehow time is feeling pleated today, strips of three years ago touching strips of thirty years ago in a near-seamless continuum that makes up a life.
Walking down the windy, wintery beach with Michael yesterday afternoon, I could almost hear an 8-year-old Naomi squealing in delight over the beautiful swirly shells dotting the black sand, or little Aidan practicing his Maori by singing in the wind. This week Naomi is on a different beach; at 21 she’s off on holiday on the other side of the world with her boyfriend. Aidan is off to university next month. And today I’m aware that I’ll blink and, God willing, I’ll see their children squealing and singing, perhaps on this same beach, facing into the same wind.
The bruise from my biopsy last week is fading. It connects me to other biopsies, other times waiting for the phone to ring. My mammogram this year was not delightfully clear, but rather kept with the every-other-year-a-needle tradition. Breaking the tradition was what turns out to be the most beautiful phrase in the English language: “no malignant or suspicious cells.” Other biopsies have had grim news that changed my life. This news will fade with the bruise.
Which means somehow that it’s not just time that is pleated this week, but all of the possibilities that are folded and touching each other. As I go through my days this week, I notice that my life could have changed last week, and it didn’t. We don’t often notice the weeks when our lives couldhave changed—the car accident we didn’t have because we decided to take the train instead, the love we could have met if we had been just a little bit braver at a friend’s dinner party, the cancer cells that could have multiplied but instead were killed off by our immune system.
Our lives feel like they are continuous in many ways, and the things that change them stand out to us: when the doctor says I’m afraid it is cancer, when you hold your new baby in your arms, when you unlock the keys to your new apartment in a new city on the other side of the world, when the police call to say there’s been an accident. When those things don’t happen, one day can blend into the next with a comforting—or an alarming—sameness.
The question for so many people these last years has been about how we can manage the complexity and ambiguity of our lives—how do we handle it, reduce it, cut through it? And that’s because we think there are times that are complex and times that aren’t complex, and our system prefers those that aren’t. (Stay tuned, my new book is about this preference and what to do about it.) Butalltimes are complex these days, because we are complex beings ourselves and we live in an increasingly complex world. It’s not for cutting through or reducing that complexity (mostly) but for making sense of it, seeing the patterns inside of it. Today I’m noticing that things that don’thappen to us are somehow helpful in shaping the world we want to live in next.
For me, thinking about what didn’t happen last week is a constant reminder to be grateful this week. I am mostly good at gratitude. Cancer twice in my 40s has helped me hold on to how precious each day is, how lucky I am in my life. But that gratitude tends to focus on what I have in my life—the people I love and who love me, the work I am blessed to do, the beauty of this planet we inhabit.
But this week, I want to be washed in gratitude for those things that didn’thappen, not in an anxious or catastrophising way, but in an embracing-the-fullness-of-life way. I wasn’t diagnosed with cancer last week! The earth didn’t move under me! My kids made it out of their time together in New York City without major or minor incidents!
The pleating of time and possibility give me a chance to tell the story of my life in a new way, to make meaning of my experiences anew. This is an untapped vein of delight, gratitude, and learning. If I can pay attention to even a tiny number of things that didn’t happen, I might learn more about the life I am choosing each day and the life that is choosing me too. I could have gotten a different call from the doctor last week and this week would have been filled with cancellations, scheduling surgery, trips to the hospital. I could have gone back to summery London between my Australian gigs rather than spending two weeks here in on the wintery beach in New Zealand. Instead I’m here in a sweater and wool socks, my dog sandy and a little damp beside me. I cannot know what riches and sorrows a third trip to Cancer island might have brought; I cannot know how that London August Jennifer would have been. Knowing that I’m not in some other time or place or possibility can make me love this a little more. It is not the smooth fabric of life that makes us whole, that makes us humans. It is the complex pleating of time and possibility that gives texture to our stories, to our understanding, to our lives.