A moment stands out to me from my early forties, possibly my late thirties. I had just gotten pictures back from development — it was pre-digital days — and I was sorting through them to decide which to put in our album. My husband pointed to one he liked of me, one I did not like very much at all. I can’t remember now exactly why I didn’t like it, only that I appeared not at all like my “ideal self.” Suddenly, a thought came to me: My appearance was not likely to improve. This was as good as it was going to get; from there on out as I aged, I would only begin to look less and less like the “ideal self” I had in mind. I had hitherto operated on the notion that I would get better looking as I got older. What a delusion! I could use cosmetics to conceal whatever I wanted to hide or “improve,” but the essential me would never conform to that aspirational self. Life was changing me physically, inexorably; entropy of the body was now underway. I had run up on a kind of limit I knew I needed to accept, and I have accepted it, largely because I’ve had no choice.
There have been other similar realizations over the years, moments when I’ve had to confront a choice that had closed itself off to me. The moment I realized I would never go to medical school, if writing should fail me. The moment when, after much medical intervention, I realized I was never going to bear a biological child. The moment when I knew the marathon I’d always thought I would run was never going to happen. The moment when I realized I would never move back to New York City, the city of my youth.
I’ve had mixed feelings about these closing doors. On the one hand there has been disappointment, but usually, that period of disappointment has been followed by relief. Each door that has closed has been like an arrow instructing me to enjoy the life I have.
I often think I became a writer because it has allowed me to live vicariously in a variety of lives and life choices that are vastly different from mine. In inventing characters the imagination (and the internet) can take you pretty darn close to experiencing lives that are not yours, mitigating the feelings of regret as doors close.
Recently more doors have been closing. I will never eat a sandwich again, or chew on a chicken bone, or devour a juicy piece of red meat. I will never guzzle a glass of cold water or enjoy a mug of hot tea. Which is to say that my eating days are nearly over due to my inability to swallow.
Initially, when I began thinking about this closing door I was filled with longing. Who doesn’t love to eat?! I watch my husband consuming various dishes and I try to imagine I’m him. I try to take pleasure in the smells of cooking food. I was recently riveted by a scene in the TV series “Call My Agent” in which one of the characters was eating a long sandwich made from crusty French bread.
But another feeling exists alongside the longing. Yes, relief. Swallowing has become a chore, sometimes requiring such concentration it becomes a source of stress. Soon I will have a feeding tube and will not have to swallow anything. It may be hard to imagine, but that thought comes with a healthy dose of relief.
Many artists feel their best work comes from working within prescribed parameters. Poetic forms, budgets, page limits. When choice is limited an artist is forced to step out of her ruts and find new and often more creative solutions to problems. I’ve seen this when I’ve asked my students to write stories using only three-letter words. The results have been startling, original, illuminating.
Eliminating certain choices can help a person focus on what is, to mine the current reality for whatever it might have to offer. In the case of my yesteryear understanding about how my appearance was not going to improve, I came across the realization that a radiant smile makes a person attractive at any age. When I was not able to conceive a child I adopted a son I adore and got to know his birth family who I’m still in touch with. In taking responsibility for another woman’s child, I had the visceral expansive feeling of becoming, for the first time in my life, a member of the whole human family.
I don’t know where this eating thing will lead, but I have no doubt it will guide me to something interesting. I won’t stress about eating the right thing. Perhaps my imagination and memory about food will be stretched and deepened. Maybe I’ll spend the time I would have spent eating doing something else I love.
Much as I have wanted to be Everywoman, living many lives at once, there is, as Mary Oliver says, only “one wild and precious life.” It is my mission to find a way to celebrate that.