“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet”- Emily Dickinson
In high school I read lots of Emily Dickinson’s writings. Her letters counter the reclusive poet image that many have of her. The richness of language and exuberant expression inspired my teenage soul as much as my regular attendance of Catholic mass at St Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, MD. So, 40 years later, reading the blurb underneath my senior yearbook picture the quote from Emily, it makes perfect sense to my 57-year-old-self. I am struck though on how wise that quote makes my 17-year-old-self sound. Especially when coupled with the last phrase at the end of the blurb:
Goal- “To enjoy life to its fullest.”
Now what does a 17-year-old know about living life? And how did an overachieving 17-year-old know that life is more about the journey than the destination? To be honest I’m not sure. I could provide you platitudes that all those Sunday’s spent listening to the gospels had an impact or that my parents were responsible for this perspective. I suspect the answer is just more complicated. Or it could be as simple as having a goal that ran counter to my high school accomplishments.
Two words pronounce the goal- enjoy and fullest.
As a high school senior, I must have sensed that there was more to life than earning A’s, competing in flute playing competitions and running the literary magazine. That perhaps life included AP History exam study sessions with Bridget Serchak, comprehending the beauty of integration taught in calculus and emoting while playing the flute.
The goal seems simple enough; yet, as my 57-year-old-self can attest, tis damn hard to achieve. Happiness, John Lennon’s mother told him was the key to life. The schoolteachers disagreed.
When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. – John Lennon
John didn’t let schoolteachers change his mind–a testament to his mother’s influence. Philosophical discussions with my parents occasionally occurred. I do know the intellectual and creative atmosphere coupled with the hard-work attitude influenced my siblings and I. My childhood best friend, Stephanie Cohen, remarked years later “There was always this energy when I walked into your house.”
My 17-year-old-self wanted her older self to fully live because as Emily Dickinson pointed out you’re here now.
What my 17-year-old-self had already experienced was that life was short. The death of a 16-year old classmate in my junior year of high school. Learning that a classmate lost their mother to cancer. While teenagers think of themselves as invincible and take on risks before their cerebral frontal cortex fully develops, we are not unaware of events around us. The processing of it as noted in my letter to Bob Hines, Magruder High School history teacher, can be delayed by simply ignoring it. Like a small nick on your hand, the pain exists. But it’s not close to a vital organ.
Though high school classes do expose you to a wider world which forces you to look at pain. The devastation noted in “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” the tragedy shown in “Of Mice and Men,” the social satire pouring from “Pride and Prejudice”, the discrimination highlighted in “The Martian Chronicles” provide examples of life’s unfairness. The march back of Napoleon’s army from Russia, the bitterness of the French colonial occupation of Algiers, the assignation of President Lincoln informed us as teenagers that unfairness is an equal opportunity experience.
While my everyday life in high school paled in comparison, I experienced unfairness and a bit of cruelty. It showed up in small ways, one clearly documented in my high school yearbook. Someone on the yearbook deliberately misspelled my first name as “Annie.” Someone knew that I had a strong dislike to being called “Annie.” Maybe that someone will finally confess by the time of my 40th high school reunion. As a Roman Catholic I forgave them decades ago. Yet I remain human. When I look at my photo, it reminds me that someone decided to be a little cruel to me. 40 years later I still cannot fathom why.
40 years later how am I doing in meeting that goal my 17-year-old-self set for myself?
I live in the moment as much as possible in the hectic pace of the year 2020. Living in the now while being able to plan for the future and reflect on the past– quite the achievement for someone who has lived with anxiety, depression, and a bit of mania for over 40 years.
Last Fall, while running errands I stopped by my mental health provider’s office to pick up some supplements. On a post-it-note adhered to the check, I made a comment about being a “calm field marshall.” Based upon my mental health diagnosis she texted me with some concern. At our next appointment we discussed it and I attempted to describe what I meant. It relates to living in the moment while having a plan. And trust me the “E” for efficiency in this engineer’s mind runs deep, it loves to plan the week, the day, her route to run errands. Field Marshall was one of many nicknames that Mike, my late husband, had for me. When in a group I tend to take charge. If I have a plan I persist until its executed. However, what I have finally learned is to balance this persistence with flow.
Going with the flow, living in the moment provides me the ability to adjust my plan/priorities on the fly when some obstacle comes up to executing the plan I had for that day or that week or that year. I adjust with absolutely no fuss, on a good day, with a bit of fuss on a bad day. I do not claim to have reached nirvana; I have no delusions that now life is fair. But in my life, I have come to a place in which I assess, accept, make deliberate choices as best I can moment by moment. To get me here, trust me it took decades of work, accumulating plenty of wellness habits and the right mix of medications.
I believe my 17-year-old-self looks at me now with satisfaction.
My 17-year-old-self wanted her older self to fully live because as Emily Dickinson pointed out you’re here now. I’m happy to inform my 17-year-old-self that she gave me an excellent goal to work towards. I’m happy to inform her that most days I live life to the fullest. That means I savor moments during the day. That means I respond to the day’s moments of unfairness with compassion and deliberate responses that either move the situation forward or move myself forward to the next moment.
Because what Emily Dickinson wrote still rings true to my 57-year-old-self. If you’re too busy, too focused with executing your plan you will miss those moments that remind you of life’s sweetness.
Have a Productive Day,
Dear Reader, please share your comments and stories that are sparked by this piece. Were you wiser in high school than you thought? What does “living to the fullest” mean to you?