One of the most beautiful books I read in 2018 was The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. It is a memoir that chronicles her journey with breast cancer and while it is a heart-breaking story about dying, it somehow is more about remarkable living. It is even better read aloud, and I will often find myself listening to a chapter twice, or writing down the page number so that I can have a friend listen to it with me later. In the past year, this book was often my companion during a morning run, and there were times when I would literally stop in my tracks, right in the middle of the street and to no one in particular say, “Did you hear that? Did you hear the beauty she created with those words?” And I would hit the 30 second rewind button and listen again. I found myself wondering how in the world she came to see life this way. Was she simply a beautiful writer or did she just really live well in her illness? My guess is that the answer is both.
Why is it that so often the people we see living the best are the ones who know they are dying?
I confess I love reading memoirs like this and usually ask myself if I would embrace my illness like Nina Riggs and live as beautifully as she did. And I might even imagine myself going on adventures in spite of the terrible pain, smiling bravely at my family or friends, and basically walking through the horrible suffering well, just like this author. Imagination is always easier than reality.
One day last May, as I ran along a country road during a holiday weekend, I stuffed some head phones in my ears and hoped that the last hour of the book would last because I really didn’t want it to end. And as I ran, the biggest squirrel I had ever seen suddenly ran out onto the street and plopped itself right in my path, staring at me. I didn’t immediately slow my pace because I thought for sure he would run away the closer I got. But no, he stood up on his back legs and seemed to taunt me a bit, daring me to come closer. I looked to the right and the left, wondering if I could somehow escape this bold, sneering creature and finally just stopped in my tracks and decided to stare right back at him. Truth be told, I was imagining what I was going to do when this squirrel decided to leap towards me and attach himself to my face, attacking me beyond recognition. I could already hear myself screaming, could see the blood running down my cheeks as I tried my hardest to release his feisty, angry grip. And no one would be anywhere close by to help me.
I am not sure what was running through the squirrel’s head, but we stared at each other for a good hour. Ok, it was about 15 seconds, but it felt like an hour. In spite of my fear, I decided to take a step or two forward, risking my life after deciding that I had no other choice. As soon as I moved, that squirrel turned and ran for his life, swishing his big fat tail, revealing that maybe he was just a little more scared of me than I was of him.
I breathed a sigh of relief and just as I got ready to push play again on Nina’s powerful memoir, I heard this thought: “Why do you face life like it is a rabid squirrel? Why are you so afraid? Why do you think you have to have some terminal diagnosis to really start living? What are you waiting for? Aren’t we all dying, really? When are you going to stop waiting around and finally start walking forward?”
I took a deep breath and then said aloud to no one and everyone. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I am waiting for. Maybe sometimes life just feels like it is going to jump on my face and attack me, and it just feels safer to stand here instead. And to somehow pretend that a horrible, terminal disease would somehow cause me to suddenly start really living my life. As if I finally had permission.”
And then I heard, “You have permission now.”
It is difficult at times to understand what “permission” means, but as I continued on my run, I started to picture what steps forward might mean for me. Too often I tell myself that I am not living my best life because look at how routine everything is. I am just way too ordinary. So in 2019, what would a memoir look like about an ordinary life? Could I embrace the ordinary and wake up to how extraordinary it really is?
Life is difficult and can swallow us whole. If we haven’t walked through suffering yet like Riggs, I can almost guarantee we know or love someone who has. But I want to be present and awake and thankful and not miss any of it.
I wouldn’t want to read a memoir where the main character shares the story of how she stayed stuck in the same fears for her whole life. The end. No, the stories that impact me the most are the ones of true transformation and hope. Stories where in spite of the difficult struggle, the main character kept walking, kept growing, kept staying alive.
In chapter one of Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown tells the story of literally writing herself an actual permission slip to allow herself to be fully present in an experience instead of being afraid. Doing this changed things for her. How about us? What do we need to give ourselves permission to do this year? Let’s write it down and face that squirrel in the road with courage together. Maybe we might find that our courage is much stronger than our fears. And we might learn that there is no such thing as an ordinary life.
Here’s to being “grateful thankers” in 2019. And to facing the squirrels. Happy New Year!