I’ve recently had to change my schedule a few times based on the needs of others. I was greatly amused by a colleague who said this to me:
Did you see my email about the schedule change? Well, it’s the most recent email about the most recent change. I’m sure it will all change again. For today, it’s the truth.
I loved that. For that day, it was the truth. Tomorrow, everything may change again, and there will be a new truth. That’s okay. I changed my calendar, changed my email and pop-up reminders for the change on the calendar, and changed my thoughts about how to handle the schedule change, as one change has an impact on many things. No big.
Since I’m a fan of change (“fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man”–one of the Pattonisms guiding my life this spring term), I thought, bring it, bring on the changes, I can adapt to anything.
I remember the exact moment when I thought: I can endure anything; I will survive no matter what. Throw the worst at me, and I can take it for at least one day. And if I can take it for one day, then I can take it for one more day. And one more day after that. I will not be defeated except by beheading.
My moment of epiphany was a long time ago actually, and might explain something about who I am now. I read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962) (the story of one day in the life of a man imprisoned for over 3,600 days total). I was required to read it for a 20th century European literature class (in translation, of course). I loved that class and my 19th century European literature class, too–these gave me such a fine context for reading what became a focus for a good part of my life: British literature, and then publishing and writing studies. Oddly enough, I think, it was just around 25 years after the original publication that I read the book–it felt real and fresh to me actually. We were still in the midst of the Cold War, a post-WWII era ushered in by Stalin, dominated by Stalinist ideas. The Berlin Wall had not fallen yet. My life was partially defined by the Cold War–what person living through the end of the 20th century wasn’t defined by that? For instance:
- I am a child of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I watched these cartoons as a child, owned the VHS, now own the DVDs.
- My father was a member of a Civil Defense League meant to stop the Communist threat right on the shores of California before reaching the American heartland. (How they would do that, I’m not sure, but we lived in LA and he owned a 10 gauge side-by-side barrel shotgun. Honestly, it would have scared away a few folks perhaps.)
- I read a lot of spy fiction with my mother throughout my youth–good spies were American and British; bad spies were Russian (and/or East German).
I was keenly aware of the Eastern Commie Hordes who I was told might storm the shores of my state (so close to China and Russia) to take me and my fragile life any moment to be reprogrammed in the socialistic evils in a Gulag or on re-education farm. The Solzhenitsyn book just reinforced the horror of that kind of regime and the concept that I was somehow in peril because of Stalin and his legacy (I still say things might have been different had Trotsky not been exiled and then gotten an axe in the head–I won’t even talk about Mao here).
I knew something of Solzhenitsyn as a writer, as a protester, of his imprisonments prior to being assigned this book, so found his story credible. I also understood that the book was about just one day in the life of an ordinary prisoner, a regular Joe-six-pack dude, Ivan Denisovich Shukov. And what I learned from that book is that survival is about daily survival–live through a day, greet the next day breathing and putting one foot in front of the other, again, until another day can be gotten through. I don’t remember details now at all, just that it was cold, dark, scary, vicious, full of hunger, thirst, fear. All that year I was in school, I worried about a 1,000 things that I thought were so very important. But–epiphany!–Shukov got through worse than anything I experienced, and all in one day and ended that day with something like hope of kindness. I can survive one day of disappointment, of heartache, of loss, of emotional misery. My worries are petty worries about a chipped nail or a bad hair cut, about how I miss someone, not about whether I will die of starvation or hypothermia or a beating. I also remember thinking, no way I’m ever in a situation that is worse than a Russian Gulag. That shut up my complaining pretty quickly, at least for that year.
I still think it’s important to consider myself in relief to others less fortunate. I have an easier time of it than a roofer. Smelling tar makes me nauseous. I do not carry buckets on my head 10 miles to get clean water for my family. I am not beaten or stoned for saying the right thing at the wrong time. I have never wanted for food unless I was too lazy to go out and get it. I have never been afraid of being torn from my home in the middle of the night by police-state-sanctioned thugs to be held against my will in perpetuity without trial (despite what my 1950s-influenced relatives might have believed about the Red Scare). I’ve never been in a war-torn area. I’ve never even, really, been threatened by anyone.
The truth of my life is all around me is fairly tame, quiet, and supportive, and that truth is generally unchanging. I could be attacked by a herd of mad cows tomorrow and die in a freak stampede accident, but still that’s not a daily threat. I am fully aware of my relative safety and fully aware of how and why I have that safety and privilege. Sadly, I take it for granted too often.
My truth is that I am truly safe… always, even during change. It’s good to remember this when my heart is breaking a little or the grocery store is out of my favorite spinach/artichoke dip and I have to find something else among the 25,000 items in the store I want to eat, that I can afford to eat (which would be anything, I suspect), that I can buy nearly whatever I want without thinking twice about it (but I WANTED the spinach/artichoke dip).
When I am inconvenienced or when I am frustrated that I can’t get my wi-fi to work, I only need remember Shukov, Solzhenitsyn (and so many others), and all they symbolize, then and now, of the incarcerated without cause, the beaten without reason, the killed without meaning, the silenced without hope for freedom of speech, and I can thankfully hush my whining mouth, change my small plans, and live another day in utter peace. If Shukov could find that his one awful day could almost be happy, that there could/can be meaning despite every attempt by oppressors to make life devoid of meaning, then, really what could we get through if we were determined to survive or had reason to live?
I’m not demeaning the life I live by poking a bit of fun at my chipped nail dramas in contrast to those who have suffered greatly–the life I lead is predicated on the freedoms I’m allowed and for which I’m profoundly grateful–I know that and celebrate it. What I mean is that I know how good I have it.
In direct and personal contrast, I knew a man who was part of the Bataan Death March and his health (physical and mental) was changed forever after… he survived that and was imprisoned for nearly the rest of the war–how long, I don’t remember. He was lucky, though, because he was a doctor and was allowed to semi-care for other prisoners. He was haunted and hampered all the rest of his life by that experience, though. I knew both him and his wife, and we had dinner a few times–sometimes listening to music after dinner, moving the furniture around, and dancing to old records. They had a property care taker who I’d dance with, and then we’d switch partners. (Such an odd moment of my life to remember now that I think about it.) The doctor and his wife were both very aged when I knew them (I took care of their dogs sometimes when they traveled–all named after fellow prisoners of war). The doctor didn’t talk about his ordeal much, but once he did, and I asked him how he managed to survive when so many others didn’t. He said because he needed to–the other prisoners of war needed him to live. So he did.
When I think about surviving for another day, I think of him, I think of Shukov, and Solzhenitsyn, and I want to believe I could do that–get through one day, no matter what, and another day, if I needed to survive. At the least, I have learned from them that survival can happen, in the worst of circumstances, and that there are real and good reasons to fight for life.
Small changes that rearrange my time? These mean nothing to me. It’s just part of the truth for that one day. And on any one day, I’m grateful for everything and embrace whatever the truth is for that day.