Promises

When I was a newly-minted nurse, stuck on the graveyard shift and alone except for my tech and infrequent med nurse, I made myself a promise. It wasn’t a hasty promise as much as a hopeful one: I promised myself that, by 40, I would read the 100 Best Novels list by The Modern Library.

I still have the leather journal that I bought to document this process– the list is pasted in the front and the first half dozen or so novels are laboriously commented-upon in my uncertain handwriting. As the years went by, I had varying success with keeping to the promise. Some months would go by without my reading anything, followed by torrid reading fests where I gulped down the classics as fast as I could. I made some progress. Right now, two months shy of my 40th birthday, I’ve read 63 of the novels. That leaves 37 to go, impossible even if a) I read a book a day except on weekends and b) the “novels” consisted of only a single book each. Many of the selections are actually for multiple-book series– Parade’s End, The USA Trilogy, and the Studs Lonigan Trilogy among them.

So I’m not going to make it. The promise will remain unfulfilled.

Except . . . .

When I made this ambitious reading plan for myself, I really had no vision of myself at forty. My mother died at thirty-six, and like many adults who were orphaned early, I was unable to move myself past that age. Something would surely strike me down before I passed her by, some tragedy would lay me low before I dared to outlive her.

But it didn’t. I struggled mightily the year I was 36, and very nearly did die at 35, but somehow I made it through. The years have slipped past, each one bringing a little more gray to my temples and a dubious amount of wisdom to my mind. In another month and a half, I’ll hit the magical 4-0 and be, finally, something very like middle-aged.

I am still trying to resign myself to this process– just becoming older than my mother did not necessarily accustom me to the indignities of ageing. Miss Clairol is my boon companion. Creams and lotions of all sorts have started filling my shopping basket. I am not yet old– indeed, I’m due with another child in early June– but I can feel the pendulum swinging. Things are beginning to break down, and if I live to be 80 this is indeed the midpoint of my life.

But I can see 80 from here. When I resolved to read all those presumably mind-improving books, forty was an un-knowable quantity. I couldn’t imagine it, couldn’t put myself in the picture. Who I would be was a joke, for I didn’t expect to “be” at all.

So, in a way, I am not the person that made that promise. I have grown, stretched, changed– and not simply in the creases at the corners of my eyes or the sudden in-elasticity of the skin on the backs of my hands. I’ve learned that, sometimes, promises aren’t worth keeping. There are important promises– ones to love and honor, ones to serve– and there are the rash promises we make when we’re really wishing for something else. For certainty, perhaps, or for hope. They’re not true to who we are, and were never really meant at all.

The trick is, I think, not to make many of those second types. They’ll break you as you try to keep them and you’ll end up breaking them.

I’ve broken most promises I’ve ever made.

This will not be the last.

I wish I could promise to only make good promises in the future. To vow that I will always be sensible and constant, faithful and thoughtful, loving and mature. But we all know better than that. I will swear off Coca Cola and end up desperately gulping one down in a McDonalds parking lot. I will vow to never swear and end up taking the name of God in vain right in His church. I will be stupid and unfathomably idiotic in many many ways.

But life is too short to keep bad promises made in bad faith– or in none. I had no faith that I would ever be this person– this woman on the cusp of 40. I never intended to fail, but I never really intended to win, either.

And life is much too short to read things you hate simply because someone put them on a list.

So, I will promise you this: I will learn something from this experience, even if it is just that James Joyce was the world’s biggest con artist. And I will put that knowledge to good use and probably never read “Ulysses.”

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll think twice before promising myself something stupid in the future.

Enduring

So, I’ve been thinking and thinking about what it means to endure.

To live is, in some ways, to suffer. To live through suffering . . . to endure. . . is simply what’s required of us. If we can’t hack it, if we quit, then it’s lights out, game over, the end of the road. To live is to endure. The alternative isn’t too pleasant.

So I’ve been enduring, been living. But that isn’t quite enough for us prissy middle-class American types. Nah, we want to thrive, to be blissed-out, to have perfection and harmony and a really nice camera to record it all with.

But is that what I want?

Sure, I want to have happiness and goodness and joy. But lately I have come to realize that I am more interested in the inner self than I’ve been in a long while. I want to be good, to do good, to live well . . . and not in the “living well means a new SUV and a perfect house and great food” kind of way. (Although any of those things would be nice.) I want to carve all the hate and fear and selfishness and anger and misery out of myself . . . to cut down close to the bone and remove the dead flesh until there’s nothing left but the essentials. Which, I hope, would be good things.

I have never been a good person. Oh, sure, I did a good imitation for a while and had the external trappings, but in my heart I was awful. And I am old enough, and broken enough by time and sufferings, to know that those selfish ways and hateful thoughts hurt me before they hurt anyone else.

So, if I cannot endure forever, I must search out what I value in the little time that I have. And I value love and gentleness and peace and family. Those things endure through time, past my brief life and on into the future, echoing through the generations to come. If I can give those things to my children, perhaps they can pass them on. And in some small way, I will endure.

There is a sad lament written about the Native American experience that moved me. And proves that something of us does live on, even if it is just a few words spoken at the right time. Here it is:

The Earth Only
composed by Used-As-A-Shield, translated 1918

Wica’hcala kin
heya’pelo’
maka’ kin
lece’la
tehan yunke’lo
eha’ pelo’
ehan’kecon
wica’ yaka pelo’
The old men
say
the earth
only
endures
You spoke
truly
You are right.

It is enough.