I remember reading some dumb article in the 80s that claimed that women felt more stressed than ever because they had been “offered” more life choices. Should they stay at home with kids? Work outside the home with kids in daycare? Work outside the home, part time, with kids at home? Honestly, I don’t recall any other options but those three. I’m going to glide right over the ridiculous claim that women are happiest when most oppressed and that men cannot factor into child-rearing. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect not to admit that options can, in fact, create stress when making decisions.
Options themselves are not the problem, though. Surely, most people have more options than they realize or care to acknowledge. I think the challenge, when presented with numerous paths, is mastering the art of narrowed focus. For instance, this semester, my university has performed some pretty impressive contortions, trying to maintain funding whilst not exposing students, faculty, and staff to a potentially deadly virus. On these gymnastics, I choose not to comment publicly. I will say that, while removing the option of meeting with all students (in the same room and at the same time) has prevented much of what I normally can accomplish in my classes; in a strange way, it’s opened doors to other learning options that I hadn’t truly considered before. The details of these options may best be detailed in another forum, but I will mention that my hope is to return, one day, to regular in-person classes, but with new ideas I’ve picked up from this tip-toeing-on-slippery-riverbed-rocks semester we’ve been handed (gifted?).
Growing up in an unhealthy household proved my greatest informant regarding the preciousness of options. While I agree with the pessimists that it is annoying when optimists try to arm-wrestle people into cheerful submission (although I would argue that those optimists aren’t as happy and open-minded as they claim) the same can be said of the iron fists of the gloomy and their relentless oppression of choice. Many of my early, familial cellmates could be described as the latter. I believe that the only way I escaped their misery was to fantasize about better options.
The key to embracing options is first, to see them, and second, to narrow them down for yourself, as not to get overwhelmed. I find that the first is usually the most problematic for people. Of course, we’ve all been told what we’re allowed to expect. For instance, I always have to laugh when somebody older than me (or these days, around my own age) tells me what horrors lie ahead once I “hit” a certain age. (It’s a curious way to say it, “hit,” as though your birthday isn’t just waking up, not dead yet, but a violent act you obliviously greeted.) I’ve been told what physical and emotional changes I should dread since I was twelve. Sure, changes happen, but I find that our culture suffers from a serious lack of imagination. Beyond what one can expect at certain age-milestones in life, I hope that the current revitalization of various movements (civil rights, women’s movement, and so forth) might inspire people to imagine a healthier, more thriving world than they previously thought possible. Although probably, many people will continue to hold tightly to the “truths” they’ve been taught and, perhaps, even punished for questioning.
My friend, James Duncan, the editor of Hobo Camp Review, recently published a beautiful issue of poetry with themes of hope, opportunity, belonging, and optimism; and he graciously included my poem, “Ode on ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’” In this poem, I reference John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which he describes a young couple, immortalized on an urn. The two will escape old age but also will never move forward, even prevented from ever kissing each other. They are frozen in this joyous, innocent, youthful moment.
I read this poem as an undergraduate and felt moved by its romance (if not frustrated that the two could never truly be together). Now in my forties, though, their situation seems horrible. Beyond just their inability to consummate their romance, they’ll also never get to grow old. I have always been taught that growing old is a horrible event that happens, both to body and mind. Admittedly, I have always enjoyed good physical health, which I’m sure informs my optimistic notion of aging. However, the couple on the urn, while they will never face inevitable physical decline, will also never receive the honor of perspective, the awe of understanding life more deeply after having witnessed cycles repeat, their significances revealed. I wrote my poem, not as a backlash against the inexperience of youth, or as a lamentation of life past forty, but rather as a revelation of the pleasures of growth.
I’ve linked my poem below, for anyone who is interested. Also, you should read James’ guest blog post about his beautiful poem, “Last Appointment of the Day.”
I hope this blog post finds you in good health and happiness (or as close to them as possible).