Monday, October 11, 2010

Known and Unknown Knowns

Saturday night, while watching a movie with the lights dimmed, we heard the soft tread of bare feet on the stairs.  Hesitant bare feet.  And we waited for Edith's face to appear.  She'd had trouble getting to sleep, she said.  Her face was small and contracted, as though she were going to cry.

Edith had been thinking about death.  More precisely, she said she'd been thinking, 'but how will it all end?'

We comforted her by redirecting her line of thought: she still has so much living to do, and any ending is very far off.  Sometimes it's best to push those thoughts to the back of your mind because thinking of them is overwhelming.  And this realization is a reminder to make good use of your time here--to strive to be a good person and work as hard as you can.

We avoided saying that no one really knows their end, at least this far out.  We avoided saying that everyone does meet an end, an end being inevitable.

I told her I could remember having those same thoughts at about her age: mostly these were a result of the contemplation of eternity, having been raised in a Christian household.  Eternity, I tell you, is not something I direct my thoughts toward much--that idea that things go on and on without an end.  How else do we mark and divide our time?  The days end, the nights end.  The work week ends, or the weekend.  Graduations.  Even marriages are both an end and a beginning.

But I don't like the part of the Yom Kippur liturgy about the Book of Life.  The gates closing and all that.  The idea that my destiny for the next year is preordained, written in the Book and based on my conduct over the last few days in particular.  While knowing full well this is an inappropriate thought, it makes me think of God as Santa Claus, making his naughty and nice lists.

Life is like a book, though, our time here divided into chapters.  Which is the analogy which Edith drew upon for her question: how will it all end?  The problem is, it doesn't all end.  When my grandmothers died, I thought not only of the stories they would not know of: Robert's diagnosis, the babies yet to come in my family, but I thought also of how they wouldn't know the endings to the plot lines on their favorite soap operas (both canceled now, which they'll never know).

And that's it.  The soap opera, which cultural roots are in the medieval romances (and Dickens), in which the stories never really end.

But this makes the longing for resolution, if that's what an ending is, all the more intense.  Why was I riveted by soap operas at one point in my life?  Endless longing, pun intended, for resolution and ending.

Poetry is about endings, and therefore, about death, one of my poetry teachers used to say.  True.  If a poem arises from a speaking impulse, the impulse to tell something, to relay a voice, an image, a fascinating vocalization, the poem exists when an end is reached.  Excepting the filibuster, vocalizations end.

And all of this above, that things have an end, that life is like a book, that we do wonder as we read, well, how will this all end?--this is the source of my mental conflict about this latest round of diagnostic inquiry.  I find myself tortured by it: is this diagnosis it?  Even though we cannot come up with genetic 'proof'?  Or is this clinical speculation like the exercise of geometric proof (that I so despised in high school): one truism unwound and explicated such that it explains itself.  I was awful at this stuff--constantly getting lost and confused by the obvious.

If we had the genetic proof, then we could retrace all of our steps, sort out our observations in one column and put our reasons in another.  And that would be that, a self-contained system forever explicating itself in a continuous loop of logic.

Instead, I go through my days and walk through our house suspended in uncertainty.  Has the end of the story been revealed to me?  But even so, it would be but a template for an end.  The specifics and particulars, like the see-saw between predestination and free will, are not yet written.  But when I think this way, I can at least begin to imagine the future and its furnishings--and imagining this narrative gives me at least a hint of how I might live or what I might do.

This is what normal people do, I think.  Normal people can look ahead, into the future, and imagine certain outcomes: how this one will go to college, this anniversary will be met, an addition to the house comes with a certain amount of money saved, we will go on vacation in June to a destination of our choosing--normal people can narrate to themselves a version of their lives that is not unpleasant, nor unrealistic.  Even when events conspire against them, once the known knowns are in place, the facts of the divorce, the money lost in the stock market, the child who ran off to join the circus or the Peace Corps, then the ability to move the narrative forward begins again, and the chapter breaks can be visualized at crossroads in the future, the figures at those intersections small but somewhat distinct.

Our lives have not been this way for the last twelve years.  Nothing is known.  Nothing is certain.   Plans are approximations and guesswork.  Rare that I'm ever able to commit to anything, any event, no matter how small.  I frequently can't get myself to make plans, even with friends for outings. Because I don't know what might change in the interim.  Whether this is a reasonable facsimile of reality to which I am keenly attuned, or whether this is a character flaw, is not clear to me.

Tempting as it is to imagine certainty, uncomfortable though that certainty might be, I find myself unable to become comfortable with clinical diagnosis.  Nothing is resolved.  We're still guessing, even if we can dress "guess" up in the fancy clothes of working hypothesis. Which makes me long for resolution no less.

The movie we paused as Edith crept down the stairs was Doubt.  The movie that opens with Father Flynn's sermon: "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty."


Dale said...

I gnaw on that question all the time: is it character flaw, mental illness, spiritual insight, or bleak realism that makes me unable to imagine the sorts of futures other people seem to picture so readily?

Some of all four, perhaps. (Of course, my life is not lived under pressure anything like yours.)

Anonymous said...

I've come to believe that learning to live with uncertainty is what I most need to do. We spend so much energy is trying to plan and feel safe, but life (and death) are just not that way. Thanks for this post!

Autism Mom Rising said...

I feel your story. Ours is not exactly the same, but similar enough in theme. The uncertainty. Sometimes it feels like my family lives in suspended animation, always waiting for whatever will move us in some direction. It seems like nothing ever does, not really.
I commit to nothing, this person who was once heavily invested in community. Actually, that's not true. I commit to my blogging is flexible. I can come and go I need to and everyone is still here, taking their own breaks as they need to, but always to return.

Carlen Arnett said...

I remember Heather McHugh saying "Doubt is devout." It does contain its own kind of continuity. Maybe this is part of what Keats meant by "negative capability."

Thanks for bringing this moment forward, Jeneva.

Elizabeth said...

Normal people always claim that "no one is normal" and that "everyone has their stuff" -- I don't believe them. I am doubtful of that response. I believe you and I believe myself. I plan nothing beyond the obvious because who the hell knows?