On roller coasters, bandwidth, and impeded streams

I’ve found myself in a situation that has me thinking lots about this idea of an emotional roller coaster. I think one of my best qualities is my ability to overthink things, thank you very much, especially when it comes to word choice, so when I found myself describing my life using the term “emotional roller coaster,” I started wondering about those words, and then I suddenly had a very clear insight about how inaccurate a phrase it is.

With a real roller coaster, you can see what’s coming. You can see all of the ups and downs and upside down twists and turns that are ahead. And you can know that the roller coaster experience is finite. It will end, and when it will end, and you can get off, and move on with your life, unless you’re one of those weirdos who wants to ride over and over.

I’ve been struggling lots with my desire to share what’s going on with me while also honoring my wish to also maintain some kind of privacy for me and for my family. But look: it is a true fact that I’m becoming known as a person who talks about self care and vulnerability. This is not a career development I anticipated, and yet it is a thing that is happening.

While I was giving a keynote about compassion toward oneself in the face of burnout, I knew that the next day, a hospice nurse was coming to my house, where my mother-in-law lives with us, for an evaluation. My mother-in-law Addie was diagnosed with cancer two days after Christmas. She declined surgery and other more curative treatments and instead opted for palliative radiation. And now, her condition was at the point where in-home hospice care was indicated.

The thing about hospice care is that in order to qualify, they have to decide that you have six months or less to live. Where Addie is in that six months is anyone’s guess. So while her pain is currently managed, my wife Constance and I find ourselves with all sorts of other logistical challenges involving her care, as well as emotional challenges. The constant worry of am I doing the right thing? means that I feel spent, like I have nothing left to give. There are lots of ups and lots of downs and the only way it can truly be described as an emotional roller coaster is if it were some kind of perverse, infinite roller coaster ride, one that you were forced to ride while blindfolded, because you have no idea what’s coming next.

The answer is obvious: when you feel spent, you have to feed yourself in some way. I get that. Right now I’m feeding myself with lots of ice cream sandwiches. Still, though, I have a bandwidth problem. Public-facing stuff at work just about breaks me in half and I don’t do a very good job. I have lots of emails that are going unanswered because I don’t have anything in me. Very wonderful people who have written to me wanting to share their stories on this blog are finding themselves in limbo, and oh: the guilt. I feel terrible about all of this. Everyone, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all of the ways in which I’m not measuring up.

I don’t have a tidy end for this, just as I don’t have a tidy end for anything. Wendell Berry says “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” For now, though, I’m waiting for that singing, that music, that beauty that I know comes from these hard, stuck places. I’m waiting to see it, to hear and feel it, because maybe that will bolster my bandwidth. Maybe the stream is already singing and I just can’t hear it yet. Today I am going to work on trying to listen. That’s about all I can manage.