by Jennifer Hartley
About a month ago, Guy wrote an essay, Let go, or be dragged. His essay spurred some more personal reflection on my part about letting go. I’ve made reference in my last essay on Nature Bats Last on ways that I’m letting go, such as relinquishing conventional ideas of “achievement” or the hubristic concept of “saving the world.” But I’m releasing more than that, in ways that are both painful and full of vitality.
The most painful thing to relinquish is the hope that my five-year-old daughter might live a long, peaceful life, on a planet not being actively murdered. I can’t maintain that hope in the face of compelling evidence, and it’s devastating. At the same time, I have not given up hope that her life, whatever its length, might be full of as much joy and meaning as possible. The tension between that anticipatory grief and the quest for joy and meaning is often complicated. Nevertheless, knowing that her life will likely be much shorter than that of her ancestors, I feel much more free to offer her an unfettered childhood. We don’t put off small pleasures. We don’t waste time with jumping through hoops of others’ expectations. There is ample time for frolicking outdoors and seeking out friends. I try to say “yes” to as many of her requests as possible (although there are some limits). We have time for reading lots of books. We have time for philosophical discussions. (If you haven’t had a philosophical discussion with a young child in a while, I strongly recommend it. It will be time well spent.)
Meanwhile, I’m also aware that I won’t have a long life either; longer than my child’s, most likely (I’m 40), but almost certainly not as long as my parents’, grandparents’, or great-grandparents’ lives. Sometimes this prospect is horribly depressing, and I think to myself, I’m not ready for this! I need more time to make something of myself. I want to leave my imprint on the world. But what kind of imprint can be left in a world without people, without memory? There’s still so much I want to write, so many more projects I want to take on, so much to learn, so much self-actualizing that I want to do. And I wanted to be the most splendid mom ever.
Now I must confront the door of the hospice where dreams go to die. My hand is on the doorknob. And I’m in charge of populating that hospice with my own appointed caregivers that I seek out in places both mundane and surprising, and also responsible for being one of those caregivers myself, to everyone I love and those I encounter who are in need.
Unsurprisingly, I’m also letting go of the prospect of having any more children. I have no doubt this is the right decision, and yet there’s a part of me that mourns my potential child(ren).
I’m letting go of the idea that I will somehow perfect myself physically, mentally, and emotionally. Strangely, this seems like a great opportunity for me to go to self-acceptance boot camp. I will not have the perfect body. I will not be brilliant and famous and dripping with accolades. I will not be brimming with confidence and finally grow a thicker skin. I will not gain the wisdom that only comes with old age. None of that will happen. It would make sense, wouldn’t it, for me to arrive at some sort of peace with that, sooner rather than later?
I’m letting go of the idea that my demeanor and actions don’t matter. Extinction might suggest that we should just behave any way we want, no matter how thoughtlessly or callously, because what does it matter if we’re all dead in the end? I can’t subscribe to this. I believe that acting with love and kindness is all that matters.
I’m letting go, gradually, of the elaborate coping mechanisms I’ve developed over the years to maintain illusions of control. In reality, almost everything is out of my control. Cultivating love and patience in my own heart seem to be the main tasks that remain. No doubt I won’t be free of anxiety, and I will still circle back to old habits: intermittent denial; believing I could solve intractable problems if I could just think hard enough about them; believing I could cause people to care if I could just be persuasive enough. I will try to treat myself with kindness when I recognize that I’m still clinging to those illusions. I’ll be kind to others who cling to those illusions with all their might, with no sign of unclenching their fists.
I’m letting go, too, of the illusion that any day is ordinary. From here on out, I will ask, what extraordinary things are to be learned today? What adventures will transpire? What will my daughter do, or what will I do, that will be new, delightful, important, thought-provoking, odd, “crazy,” or even earth-shattering? I will stay awake and not take any event for granted.
I’m letting go of the notion that there is still plenty of time to make all the apologies I want to make for long-ago mistakes, for finding and reconnecting with long-lost friends, for speaking the truth to people in my life in possibly dangerous ways. There is not plenty of time. The truths need to be spoken now. The risks need to be taken now.
One small example: not long ago, I found the blog and email address of an ex-boyfriend, with whom I hadn’t been in contact for over 20 years. I had always felt regret about some of the things I had said to him. So, I took a deep breath and wrote to him, telling him I hoped he was having a good life, and that I was sorry. He wrote back, astonished, glad to hear from me—he was having a good life as a writer, thousands of miles away, happily married. He didn’t have the faintest idea why I would be sorry and said it was simply not necessary for me to apologize. No matter. My conscience was eased.
I’m also developing a list of the people throughout my life who have profoundly affected me but disappeared, and I’m planning to find their addresses if I can, and write letters or emails to them.
I’m letting go of the idea that if I can just practice restraint and self-abnegation, I can somehow keep the boat from rocking and keep others around me happy. I’m letting go of being a “good girl.” I realized very recently that it serves no one’s interest for me to squelch my own genuine needs and desires. It’s common for women in particular to do such squelching, and mothers even more so. There is a high cost to be paid: the experience of being fully free and alive. I want my daughter to have a model of womanhood that is not about repression, conformity, and taking care of everyone’s needs but one’s own, but about living at full throttle (with respect and kindness for others, still, and shouldering responsibility appropriately). My own mother, who I think is brilliant and gorgeous, always maintained that she was unattractive, not smart enough, and not good enough. She had many ambitions that were never realized; as a child and as an adult, I remember many times when I would strenuously attempt to help her pursue her interests, only to be told, “It’s too late for me. But you — you will go ahead and do great things.” I think she truly believed that her self-effacement was somehow serving the interests of others, that in the long run, it would be for the best.
But now there is no long run left. And if part of my task is to compress as much full-throttle living into the time that’s left, for both me and my daughter, then I owe it to us to heed the words of poet Mary Oliver:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Carpe diem, friends. May you be fully alive every day of your life.
Jennifer Hartley is a homeschooling mother, radical homemaker, permaculturally inspired gardener, and local food activist. She was a founding board member of the non-profit Grow Food Northampton, and lives on a budding, quarter-acre homestead with her family in western Massachusetts. She is also a former reference librarian and still gets excited about connecting people with resources and ideas, helping people evaluate information, and collecting scads of books. These days she and her daughter can be found reading books, making art, singing a lot, harvesting and preserving food, playing with numbers, and having deep conversations. Jennifer loves sharp hand tools, mows with a scythe, and splits wood with an axe.
McPherson has been blocked from commenting at ThinkProgress after pointing out Joe Romm’s latest essay in that space, although relatively comprehensive, is too conservative. I pointed to evidence and, in return, I’ve been precluded from further commentary. I sent email messages to the publisher, so far without a response, and to the writer. Romm responded by telling me I am ignorant, and he is saving me embarrassment by blocking my comments. Thanks, Joe!
McPherson’s responses to the YouTube video embedded below, from somebody who did not contact me for clarification (the limited length of comments necessitated multiple comments):
“Thanks for the introduction, asshole. I’m professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. I left that institution and the city of Tucson for ethical reasons several years ago. A quick little math check: 2031 is NOT 13 years from now! Several of those 80 people missed their predictions, some of them many times, but ALL have made predictions consistent with global economic collapse (e.g., Kunstler and Dow 4,000 = capitulation, Soros directly in January 2012, Max Keiser changed his forecast).”
“I could go on and on, but I hope you get the idea. Without bothering to contact me, you’re questioning my credibility. No, it’s much worse than that: You’re claiming I’m not credible. Do a little research, or check with me so I can point you to the claims, and you’ll see each name on my list has made a claim consistent with complete collapse of the world’s industrial economy by the end of 2012.”
I regret the name-calling. It was quite uncivil of me, as pointed out by one of my Facebook contacts, to call somebody an asshole in the first sentence ever written to a person.