The questions began the moment my husband announced his decision to retire from academic life last September. They weren’t just our questions, but those asked by family, friends and acquaintances. “So what are you two going to do now?” The questions lingered in the air, ones neither of us could answer with anything more than “we haven’t made a decision yet.” Or even yet. J. has been wrestling with the questions of retirement for months, spending long hours doing research and meeting with financial advisors. Several times a week, our dinner conversations are punctuated with the questions we ask each other: “But what would you do there?” “What about friends?” “Will we sell our house?” “What if we spent six months there and six months here?”
It’s a process that requires more time and thought than I anticipated, confusing and sometimes frustrating, since we don’t always share the same wishes and wants for what might be next. I feel like I’m to be living in a constant fog of “what ifs?” We try out scenarios one after the other, and what seems right one evening seems wrong the next day. Questions. I dream about them. I awaken thinking of what’s ahead; Questions pepper the pages of my journal. My pages read like a continuous loop. Writing is about discovery, I remind myself, but I seem too impatient to remember my own advice.
But I know better. The answers, in life or in fiction, are revealed as we write, a kind of writing ourselves into knowing after groping in the darkness and stumbling on a new insight or direction. E.L. Doctorow, author of the award novels Ragtime and Billy Bathgate, famously remarked that when one sits down to write a novel, “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Life doesn’t come with a set of instructions, and it’s often riddled with questions. We may the trip in the dark, navigating through it as best as we can, dealing with the unexpected events, difficult chapters, the illnesses and losses we experience. Cancer is one of difficult one of the life chapters we don’t expect nor wish for, and the journey through it is not unlike the trip Doctorow describes. There’s the shock of diagnosis, agony of surgery and chemotherapy, followed by the roller coaster of recovery, yet despite every assurance offered, there are few certainties. You can’t see very far ahead; you do your best to anticipate and prepare. Life seems punctuated by more questions than answers. “Has the treatment worked? “ “How likely is my cancer to recur? What if it has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? Stage four? Then how long do I have?” The truth is no one knows for certain. Everyone is forced to navigate through it all in the same way, able only to see a short distance ahead, but little by little, finding your way to the answers you seek.
“Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors, “ a poem by” Elena Georgiou, poses several questions, ones that play in the narrator’s mind, and like life, don’t seem to come with answers:
Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?
If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?
If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?
If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?
If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?
How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?
Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?
(From: Mercy Mercy Me, © 2000)
Georgiou offers no answers to her readers. Neither did Austrian novelist and poet, Maria Rainer Rilke (1875-1926) in his advice offered to a 19-year old military cadet many years ago and published in his wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet in 1929. In one of the most poignant passages, he wrote:
Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Live everything. Live the questions… Live the questions now. Live your way into the answer. Rilke’s words stay with me. I’ve written them on the chalkboard in our pantry so that I see them every day. Perhaps his words will resonate with those of you facing difficult times in your lives. Whether cancer or a period of significant change, living ourselves into the answers is not an easy thing to do, yet it is all we can do. There are no guarantees or crystal balls to foretell our futures. Our task is to be present, to pay attention and live life fully each day. Not surprisingly, when we do, we often stumble upon the answers we seek.
Whether you’re wrestling with the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis or some other unexpected life challenge, write down the questions that continue to replay in your mind. Recall an earlier time in life when you also faced the unknown. What questions did you have then, and how did you find your way into the answers? Are there insights that may pertain to your current challenges? Once you’ve listed all the questions you have, choose one and begin exploring it on the page. Write freely, without judgment, for fifteen or twenty minutes. Read what you’ve written. Underline the phrases or words that stand out. Put your notebook aside for a day or two before re-reading. You just might discover some wisdom that leads you to some of the answers you’ve been searching for.