At 12:50 this afternoon, my Fitbit vibrated gently against my wrist, reminding me to take 250 steps. I am determined to beat my sisters in our weekly Fitbit walking challenge, so I walked.
Not two hours later, I learned that a classmate of mine from graduate school — an accomplished scholar and historian — was recently diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable cancer. Stage IV. Thirty seven years old. Just like me. A mother. Just like me.
I combed through her website maniacally, reading post after post about her experience with this horrible disease. About living with intention. About chasing authenticity. About making sure that she leaves enough of herself in her little boy, who will soon step out into the world without his mother.
I cried for a long time. I cried for the suffering of this wonderful woman and her family. I cried at the cruelty and randomness of her disease. I cried at the thought of my own mortality. I cried for any child who faces the loss of a parent.
I cried until my Fitbit vibrated again.
When I emerged from my sloppy, tear-stained fog, the first thing I saw was a piece of paper — a quote by Lewis Lapham — that I keep near my computer.
"The future turns out to be something that you make instead of find. It isn't waiting for your arrival, either with an arrest warrant or a band, nor is it any further away than the next sentence, the next best guess, the next sketch for the painting of a life portrait that might become a masterpiece. The future is an empty canvas or a blank sheet of paper, and if you have the courage of your own thought and your own observation, you can make of it what you will."
That piece of paper, weathered with deep crease marks, had been tucked away in my wallet for years. About 18 months ago I transferred it to my desk hoping that its increased visibility would inspire me to action. It never did.
I have a good life. A very good life by any metric. I have the love and support of a patient and generous man. Three beautiful, vibrant, healthy boys. A lucrative job that I enjoy, being of service to others. By all accounts, I am blessed beyond measure. And yet...
All of the good I experience daily seems to be countered by a dull, nagging, constant feeling that I am not living my best life. That I am walking around in someone else's Tory Burch wedges. I feel like an imposter sometimes, because I do not feel like myself.
A great irony about motherhood is that it calls us to expand, to get bigger, to take up more room, to become everything, while simultaneously requiring us to sacrifice and forego, to stifle, to become smaller versions of our true selves. And the risk is that mothers — even the happiest and most blessed among us — lose our authentic selves in the details of homework, lunch boxes, doctors' appointments and errands.
But that is no way to live. That is no way to experience this one, wild, beautiful, heartbreaking life that we are given. Yes, our vocation is to usher our little people through the world. To nurture them. To guide them. To love them. But we need not do that at the exclusion of ushering, nurturing, guiding and loving ourselves.
I suspect that a lot of mothers are afraid to say "this isn't enough." They're probably afraid even to think it, out of an irrational fear that some higher power will deem them ungrateful and take everything away. But if we want to live our best lives, then shouldn't we start with the truth?
My reaction to tragic news is always sympathy/sadness/anger/fear followed by a resolution to live a better life with whatever unknown, non-guaranteed time I may have. But it is only a matter of time before that resolution fades into the background, only to be summoned again the next time I inevitably hear bad news. I recall with great detail the day I learned about the death of Marina Keegan, a promising Yale alumna who died five days after graduation. Her death sent shock waves through her New England community, strong enough that I felt them in my office chair in Philadelphia. I was miserable at the time at my law firm, desperate to find a way out, holding onto a dream of something bigger. Marina's senseless death inspired me to live a meaningful life.
That was the day that I put the Lewis Lapham quote in my wallet, where for years it remained tucked in between my library card and my expired driver's license. Never to see the light of day.
Creating a meaningful future does not come without effort. It does not come without bravery. We can say day-in-and-day-out that we want more, but most of us just wait for the future to arrive and then complain or lament or regret the shape in which the future has presented itself. But the objective is — and should always be — living a life of intention, rather than skating by on auto-pilot, changing diapers and making sandwiches.
We have to be brave if we want to create and then claim our own futures. My brave consists of hitting "post" and sending these stories out there into the big, scary world of the internet.
You should join me.
What does your brave look like?