Friday, May 16, 2008

Out of the squirrel cage

I have not posted anything for quite a while. This is partly because I’ve been traveling (Maryland, Cape Cod) and partly because I’ve been thinking. Or, more accurately, squirrel caging, defined by one website as “the act of rumination on negative thoughts.” Mr. Neff calls this obsessing. I call it seeking information and making contingency plans.

I have not wanted to turn this blog into a confessional of any sort. I completely understand a friend of mine who, during her first visit with a spiritual director, said, “I don’t want this to be about me.”

But maybe I’m being too reticent. Lively Dust is about being human, earthbound, mortal. It’s about the interplay between spirit and flesh. If I can write about food and wine, maybe I can also write about malfunctioning bodies, even if one of them belongs to me.


I have known for five years that I have a defective aortic valve and an aneurysm of the aortic root. Every year I get scanned various ways, and so far my structural defects have not affected my daily life. But last month I learned that my heart is growing less efficient (qualifiers like “moderate-to-severe” appeared on my report), and my cardiologist predicts that sometime between now and Medicare I will be split open, my heart will be stopped and removed from my body, machines will sustain me, and my aorta and two valves will be repaired or replaced as needed.

I can think of several ways I’d rather spend a day.

Yes, I know my chances of full recovery are excellent. As my incredibly young doctor-chick with the perky smile and Gap trousers puts it, “Almost everybody survives. You just gotta do what you gotta do.” She’s absolutely right.


Still, I do not “go gentle into that good night,” even the good night induced by anesthesia. Though I accept that “all flesh is grass” (Isa 40.6) and that “all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccl 3.20), I resonate with Woody Allen’s observation: “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

The prospect of heart removal, repair, and replacement is a powerful memento mori, even though I may well go on for another twenty, thirty, even forty years. My great-great-aunt Emma, when she was 97 and living with her 94-year-old sister, Ella, said to my mother, “We’re coping fine right now, but I do sometimes wonder what we’ll do when we get old.”


Squirrel-caging isn’t all bad. After running round and round the wheel day after day, eventually this squirrel gets bored and goes off in search of nuts. Today I caramelized six pounds of onions. Tonight I will set a pound of navy beans to soak, and I will put a batch of bread dough in the refrigerator to rise overnight. Tomorrow a dear friend I have known since we were eight years old arrives from Italy, where she has lived for the last thirty-some years.

Over the years our parents have died, our children have grown, our bodies have slowed. But thank goodness we are not pure spirits, even if the dust part of us isn’t as lively as it once was. Tomorrow night we’ll enjoy hearty peasant food and drink good red wine as we talk about books, travel, friends, family, and the way we used to scandalize the small college town where our fathers were respectable professors (“What will people think?” my mother kept wailing).

It takes a body to enjoy an evening like that. An imperfect one will do.

1 comment:

Mary Lynn H. said...

This was really good medicine for me today. Thanks! And to think I thought that "squirrel caging" refers only to the lil' varmints who get in under your roof, gnaw at your rafters, and make a pesky mess in your attic. Or is that one in the same thing? (Either way, I've experienced both -- and neither is pretty.)