Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Ordinary Instant

On Thursday afternoon, I checked the messages on my cell phone.  Everyone who knows me knows I'm notorious for leaving my cell phone off or set to such a low volume that I never hear it unless I happen to be 1) sitting right next to it and 2) actually looking at it.

There was a message from my best friend.  We've known each other since I was 16.  In all those years, I don't think more than a week has gone by that we haven't been in touch.  We don't do email or Facebook or MySpace.  We either write letters (yes, actual letters, written by hand) or we talk on the phone.

She's lived in California, Mexico, New York, and South Carolina, while I've hobnobbed up and down the East Coast.  For 26 years, we've been in touch weekly and, when there's a crisis, daily.

Her nine-year-old son, my little godson, has been sick for about a month.  At first, it seemed like a stomach bug coupled with nerves about starting a new school year.  No big deal.

Then it seemed like maybe an anxiety problem.  A thyroid problem, possibly.  Lyme disease?  Migraines.  Something neurological, somehow.

The message on Thursday: a brain tumor.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion comments on her husband's sudden death from a heart attack: "Life changes in the instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."  She describes how she leaves out the phrase "the ordinary instant" to describe the life-changing moment itself because "there would be no forgetting it:"
It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it... confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy (4)
How could we not have known? How could we not have expected it? How could something life-changing not have heralded its own arrival?  How could it not have warned us, so that we could be ready, somehow? 

We would have tried to be ready, if we had known.

You wake up in the morning and think, "This can't have happened.  There's been a mistake.  It'll stop now."  The unthinkable and the unbearable have no right cloaking themselves in the ordinary instants that make up our lives. 

But they do.

And suddenly, all of the unnoticeable and tedious minutes that accumulate in our lives become terribly precious and we wish we were back in the thick of them.  Back in a life where nothing ever happens and where it would feel good to be bored, because we now know the alternatives.

There is no solution, of course.  Sometimes we make a path through our lives, and sometimes we have to follow the path in front of us because there's simply no way around it.

George Eliot once wrote, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together." 

Great pain and sadness require great efforts of human consolation, and there is no impulsive gesture equal to the task.  Only the painstaking ordinary attentions that make up a series of small and inadequate kindnesses.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."