My favorite non-fiction writer, you may or may not know, is Annie Dillard. Her clean, spare, breathtaking descriptions, her trust in the reader to keep up. Her honesty, her ability to remember her child self and imagine the wild thinking of animals. Long ago, when I first began writing seriously, I was so completely relieved to read The Writing Life. It isn’t about how hopeful and necessary writing is, but about the reality of how much it sucks and frustrates and shreds you. How stupid and blind we (even she, the great Annie Dillard) feel when our logic is crumbling, when we have to throw out pages of beautiful sentences because we’ve written our way to a very plain sentence that negates everything and shows us what we mean. Oh, but how satisfying to find the sentence. My favorite quote of Dillard’s is: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It’s scribbled on a little piece of fluorescent green paper and stuck by a magnet to the inside of my front door. If I can ever get up the courage to go back into a tattoo parlor this sentence is what I’ll have tattooed on the inside of my wrist (look, I don’t care what any of you hard-asses say, I have given birth; I know a thing or two about pain: tattoos hurt).
A few months ago, I came across the Five Wishes, an advanced directive created by Aging with Dignity a couple of months ago. It is a framework for a living will for people aging or facing serious illnesses that may impact the ability to make decisions. If you’ve been hospitalized, you may have seen it. I’ve been thinking of it in terms of “how we spend our days–” a directive for how I want to live my life right now. In the past few weeks, I’ve been cornering friends with this idea. I’ve even made a few people write to it. Being friends with me can be a real pain in the ass. But if you’re here, you already know that.
I’ve slightly modified the five wishes for my purposes here. This prompt will take some time, perhaps a few sittings. And as my friend Joe pointed out, it’s a living document. Don’t get caught up too much in making permanent judgments. Plan to re-evaluate as you learn more about who you are and what you need. The perfect balance is a moving target. That’s kind of the rhythm of life: you do all this complicated shit and arrive at some simple idea that negates the rest, but suddenly you know it’s right. Until it changes on you again. You never run out of work to do.
1. Who do you want to make decisions for you when you can’t?
Which version of yourself? Which version of yourself would you like to please sit down and be quiet when the big decisions come up? Consider who you are in the company of different people, when you feel the brightest, the best, the most enough. I also kind of dig the idea of calling upon elders here–which of your elders would you like to channel?
2. What kind of care do I really want? What kind of care do I not want?
Do you hate the idea of being coddled but actually kind of like it and need it sometimes? Do you need to be left alone but know you’ll do better if you have dinner plans after spending some time on your own? Knowing your own balance and then planning so that those needs are met is key. I love, love, love being alone, putzing around my apartment, reading books and writing and dancing to Robyn and staring out the window and drinking a whole pot of coffee and pretending to be a ghost (look, I don’t judge you). But too much of it and I get kind of sad and weird(er). I have to strike a balance; have to put a cap on it. On the other hand, too much company and I can’t hear my own thoughts.
3. How comfortable do I want to be?
Holy loaded question, Batman. In the original 5 wishes this refers to pain medications at the end of life. But in our case, let’s think about challenges–mental and physical. You want to keep growing, but constant chaos isn’t sustainable. Nor is the numbing of self-medication. Too much fall out. But too few challenges, too much repetition and I want to burn it all to the ground out of boredom. What parts of my life can I be chaotic and uncomfortable in? How will I make sure I challenge those parts of myself? Where do I want order? “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gustave Flaubert. Yes.
4. How do I want people to treat me?
Of course, we don’t have a lot of control (okay any) over how other people behave. But we can choose who we want to include in our lives and how much based on how they generally treat us. Do you have a mean friend that is sort of grandfathered in but always makes you feel like shit? Time to reorganize. Make more time for the people who lift you up, the people whose presence makes you glow the brightest, reach the farthest, feel the most you.
5. What do I want my loved ones to know? How do I want to treat people?
A lot of the time we act however the hell we want and then are like, Oh they know I love them. But let’s be honest. That’s not enough. How are you acting? How do you want to act? How do you want people to feel when they leave your presence?
Like I said, it’s a big prompt. Maybe there’s just one question that you need to answer. Usually it’s the one that makes you most uncomfortable. The places that are uncomfortable are the places we need to go.
So here’s mine, which I am not obsessing over. It’s a mash-up written just for me, for who I am today:
I want the patience of the long view, the willingness to hear myself think even when truth isn’t what I want to hear. I want silence that has an ending, melancholy that is allowed to settle but is interrupted before it chokes me, want to read a book while listening for the thud of Nikes in the hallway. I don’t want to close my eyes and pretend hurt is not my problem, that war will disappear if I shut my eyes tightly, that I can have choice without consequence, that I know enough to draw. I’ll never be the smartest person in the room, will take choking melancholy over the company of people whose blinders are tied tightly, favor silence over eloquent stupidity, over people whose own guilt poisons the water around them and makes me feel like I’m swimming through clouds of ink. I’ll take ugly truth over pretty lies and give the kind of love I want to receive. I’ll search for genius around me, be generous with kindness, cautious with judgment, move the slowest when impulse pulls strongest.
2015 has been really great. Entirely because of the people who have populated it with me–all of you who have read my words, allowed me to read yours, have offered me truth and ideas and poems and stuck it out with me even through my missteps and flubs and imperfections. I am thankful for all of you. Here’s to 2016.