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.