If I Die Before I Wake

English: Sloughan Glen A great place to spend ...

A quiet Sunday afternoon with the family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that I’ve read more and more posts and memes lately about people—artists and innovators, particularly—pursuing their dreams so they won’t have any regrets at the ends of their lives. One was from Anne Lammot, and I gave her a resounding, “Yes!” After all, I was raised by parents who believe that it is more important to do something fulfilling than pocket-filling. My father has always been baffled by people who suffer through a miserable work week to make it to a weekend during which they will spend half their time bemoaning that it’s almost over. It is a wonderful ideal, to wake up excited about work every day. But what if it doesn’t pay the bills? There is a reason we’re called “starving artists.”

The question for the artist in me is: If I give up on a writing career, will I regret it when I’m eighty? But an even more important question is: If I die tomorrow, what regrets will I have? Put another way, if I knew I only had twenty-four hours left to live, what would I do?

This is a question that was posed to my mother’s Sunday school class twenty-nine or thirty years ago, when I was a baby. Her answer (in part, at least) was that she would still have the same number of diapers to change during that twenty-four hour period as during any other; even if she was leaving a number of unfulfilled dreams, she was still the mother of a dependent baby.

For myself, I would probably spend too much time writing instructions or creating spreadsheets of online usernames and passwords for my husband. What I cannot imagine saying is, “Gosh, I’m not published yet; I’d better get on it.” Mainly, I hope, I would want to be with my family. There are people every day who go home from hospitals, unable to be treated, and their only goal is to spend what time they have left with their families. Those who are left behind will have to survive on the memories made during that time.

As a healthy young woman, I could easily live another forty to fifty years. I could also easily pull out onto a busy street tomorrow and get hit by a careless driver. I apologize if this seems like a downer, and I certainly don’t want to live with my last will and testament in my back pocket, but I also don’t want to forget that life is so short and precious.

My husband and I pretty much follow Dave Ramsey’s guide to debt-free living (see The Total Money Makeover Workbook), and we’re well on our way. Ramsey promotes a lifestyle of delayed gratitude, which I think is healthy (the real world won’t give me a cookie just because I kick and scream for it), but in a way, it’s also sad that many people will never make it there. I don’t mean that a debt-free life is unattainable, just that it could possibly be attained and then not enjoyed. Several years ago, I met a woman who told me that she and her husband had everything they wanted after he retired. They finally had the means and time to travel, and they bought their dream house. It was there that he died, less than a year later, the victim of cancer. Sometimes, she said, they laughed hysterically at the irony of it all: they finally had the house in which they had always wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, yet the rest of their lives wasn’t long enough to enjoy everything for which they had saved.

I still follow the Dave Ramsey method to a point, but Thomas and I also decided that living on beans now so we can enjoy steak and lobster some thirty years down the road is not exactly how we want to live and raise our kids. If our vacations are modest road trips that only last a few days at a time, at least we hope to make good memories with our boys as long as we are able. And if we can achieve a more comfortable lifestyle in the future, so much the better.

With money and careers in mind, there is a part of me that has always said, “When I publish, I’ll finally prove that I’ve done something. The last piece of the puzzle will be in place.” But another part of me knows that I’ve already done a lot, and publishing does not guarantee authorial success, nor does it guarantee mansions or good health or unanimous acclaim.

About five years ago, I met an out-of-state friend for coffee. While we summarized everything we’d done and all we’d hoped we would do by that point in our lives, I lamented that a writing career seemed impossible to attain. I’d gone to a good school that turned out lawyers and doctors, and what was I doing? She pointed out that I was happily married and a mother. She couldn’t say either of those things for herself. Although she had achieved a level of success that I never hoped to claim for myself, she graded me according to different standards. I never thought someone would look at my life and think it enviable.

Similarly, in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie Deal gives up a possible musical career to marry the love of her life and raise a family. Her children never appreciate her true potential, how great she could have been. They don’t really understand her at all, in fact. Two of her daughters make conscious decisions to never have children and never marry, respectively, in order to pursue careers instead. Only the one who doesn’t marry regrets her decision later in life, when it’s too late to go back to the man who once loved her.

Abbie Deal made a choice that many people wouldn’t—and don’t—make. She chose something for herself—love—but something so much more than herself: she chose relationships, in this case, a relationship with her family. Abbie Deal lived a (fictional) life that I consider was without regret, even though it wasn’t what she initially wanted.

When I think about the people who are going home to spend their remaining time with their families, I realize how important yet how difficult it is to live in the present. What if the present is stressful? As much as I want to spend time with my little boys, my husband and I still have to earn enough money to keep them fed and clothed. And sometimes spending time with them isn’t what I want. I want something for me; I want to read or write or simply have a few moments’ peace.

There must be a balance. Whenever the end of my life is, if I have the luxury of any kind of reflection, I don’t want to wish that I’d spent more time with my family; I want to be thankful for all the time we did spend together. I don’t want them to say, “Well, we didn’t get to see her much, but thank goodness she had such a successful writing career.” (At this point, they won’t be saying that anyway, but they might lament that I spent too much time chasing said career.)

While I won’t for a minute say that I’m totally selfless, that I never make decisions based on what I want to make myself happy, I hope that I can share my life and my time with the people I love. Since I won’t be able to take anything with me anyway, I can leave a legacy of many meaningful memories. Besides, watching my two little boogers dive face-first into Nutella and recite Mother’s Day poems provide good fodder for creative writing, anyway.

It Shouldn’t Be a Popularity Contest

Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t think anyone would ever call me a rebel. When I hear people talk about all the stupid stuff they did, writing it off as, “Well, I was just a teenager,” I wonder why I never did those same things. The whole balking against my upbringing thing never happened.

But when someone says, “pop culture,” I absolutely cringe. When Titantic was really big in high school (I had friends who had time and money to waste and saw it in the theatre more than ten times), I refused to see it. To this day, it remains one of those movies on my personal “banned” list. It could be a masterpiece, but it seemed popular for all the wrong reasons.

So maybe I’m a pop culture rebel. Well, not entirely. I mean, I did go nuts over the Harry Potter books, and I do have Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as an iPhone, on which I can check my statuses. But take fashion, for instance. Skinny jeans are in, right? Kids, adults, male, female, skinny people, not-so-skinny people–they all wear skinny jeans. I watched kids getting off a school bus one day, twenty or so. Out of all of them, only one kid wasn’t wearing them. And I just prayed that I wouldn’t be forced into buying them because this girl does not have skinny legs. Yes, I’m small, but the brand jeans that I buy come in “curvy,” and they actually fit. (If you’ve ever been clothes shopping with me, you’ll know how monumental that is.) I’m not going to go out of my way to not buy trendy clothes, but if they don’t look good on me, forget it. If they do look good, however, I’ll continue wearing them long after they’ve gone out of style. (This is a trait I came by honestly. I used to cringe at the skirts that my mom wore, you know, the semi-A-line ones with huge pockets? Yeah, they’re back now. Who knew she was a fashion maven ahead of her time.)

But fashion is just a small part and not really the important part of how pop culture snakes its way into our lives. This popularity business is starting to make us kind of dumb, quite frankly.

Now, I know I’m about to sound old and preachy, but this issue is close to my heart. About twenty years ago, I fell in love with my school’s media center and checked out every book I could, from Ramona to Greek mythology to Little Women. Some of my best memories from that time center around those books or time in the library. Of the six guys I used to hang out with, the bigger the book you read, the cooler you were. And no, they weren’t nerds with pocket protectors (although all of them made the honor roll). They played baseball and football, took piano and violin lessons, sang in our choir, took Tae Kwon Do, drew amazing cartoon-like illustrations in the margins of their homework, had rock collections and pet reptiles. In other words, they were well-rounded guys, not pigeon-holed into one particular sport or other area of interest. And though I fit in well enough with them, I didn’t feel nearly as cool. I was not athletically-oriented at all, and although I started taking piano lessons younger than just about anyone else I knew, I was no good. So what could I do? Read. And the two-to-three hundred page books I routinely read just didn’t cut it anymore. That’s when I found Little Women, a five hundred-pager. To this day, the longer the book, the happier I am to read it. Series? Even better.

Today, my son goes to the same school, and I volunteer in the media center. There is now a computer program that assigns reading levels to books, and when kids read them, they receive a certain number of points, according to whichever level it is. One day, my job was to look up each book and find out the level and how many points each book was worth. The books were all new to me, either too advanced for my five-year-old to read yet or too young for me to read for my own pleasure. I asked the media specialist how high the reading levels went, and she said about the eighth grade. The next thing I asked: Did they still have Little Women? Yes, but kids don’t read it all that often (and it’s one of those eighth graders). I waxed eloquent about the books I used to read and asked if she’d noticed a decline in literacy. (She started working at the school my last year there, so she’s seen the entire progression.) Her answer saddened but did not surprise me. Kids these days are more interested in graphic novels, which are fine, but instead of just attracting kids who, otherwise, wouldn’t ever touch a book, they’ve lowered the standard for everyone else.

And then there’s music. My dad raised me on Styx, Alan Parsons, Blue Oyster Cult, Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saens. I grew up singing in choirs and participated in a few musicals as a teenager. I still love all of the above, plus Sweeney Todd, Mumford and Sons, System of a Down (yes, I know), Metallica, and current British composer extraordinaire John Rutter. When people talk about Usher and Adele, I’m kind of lost because I don’t listen to any of that kind of thing, unless I catch it in a commercial or movie. And people my age look at me like I’m crazy. Just like I shouldn’t wear flare jeans (they were so ten years ago), I should get with the times, right? My poor kids won’t ever know what’s popular, unless they hear it with someone else. The music we listen to in the car is either from the above mentioned groups and composers, or one of Peter’s faves of late is the sixth movement from Brahms’s A German Requiem. I actually got the bug to write this particular post as I listened to him singing his heart out, going right along with the tenor line, then asking for me to play it again. Now, you can’t tell me that that “dead white guy’s” music didn’t connect with him.

I was moved and encouraged recently when my mom showed me Eric Whitacre on TED Talks. This is a long video, but if you’re familiar with TED, you know it’s worth it. If you need some arm-twisting, Eric is a tech-savvy, good-looking, youngish, self-proclaimed classical composer. And he created a virtual choir in 2011 that comprised over 2000 people from around the world—young, old, black, white, male, female, nerds, cool people—every kind of person imaginable. So that tells me that there’s hope after all, if only we can open enough minds to thinking outside the so-called popularity box. People will learn to connect with music like this if they’re taught that it’s okay, if they think they won’t be teased. And some people like me will love it anyway, not really caring what others think.

I’m not trying to create a new kind of popularity, just open people up to more possibilities than what typically top the charts and grace the covers of the magazines at the check-out lines. For parents or teachers who have already given up because their kids just don’t like to read, or who don’t like classical music themselves so never played it for their babies, what kind of message are we sending by this lack of effort? I think it’s unacceptable to give up and say that if we can’t beat them, we might as well join them. Progress isn’t worth it if it plows right over and buries the good along with the out-moded VHS tapes, legwarmers, and suitcase-size mobile phones. Don’t lose the things you love; share them, and watch the wonder and growth at these new-old discoveries.