I write a lot about complexity and uncertainty, and how to handle it with grace. I have tips and tools I teach leaders all over the world. But these 10 days are a time for me to understand the realm of chaos better. Chaos is when there are no patterns, when cause and effect isn’t connected in any way you can make sense of, and when the situation feels perilously unstable. We tend to talk about this happening after a natural disaster or after a massive reorganization that breaks all the patterns and relationships people are used to. Our advice is to act to stabilize the situation—just do what you can to make things begin to feel patterned and understandable. It’s good advice, but it doesn’t account well for the chaos of waiting where the thing to do to stabilize the system is to get up in the morning and go to sleep at night and know that the passing of time will bring a pattern but that the pattern can’t be rushed.
I remember this in a happier way when I was pregnant with Naomi. I knew my life was about to totally change and I had no idea what it would feel like. And I didn’t even know when, for sure, the change would happen. Those last weeks of August 19 years ago stretched into long and formless days of walking along the Charles in Cambridge and feeling dazed and uncertain about what was next.
This period for me now is a slower and quieter chaos—the space of fog and uncertainty. I will look back at it with much more clarity—ah, that was the time before I knew I was all clear! I’ll say (hopefully hopefully).
As we traveled through France and I worried about this little lump, I wondered what my future self would tell me about that time. My favourite hope was that I would look back and tell myself: “This was the time when you ruined your French holiday worrying for nothing!” (And it wasn’t ruined, just dented a little.) I used to try to connect with that future me, looking back to tell me it was all alright. And of course, I couldn’t do that, both because it’s not possible to do it, and because that imagined future self didn’t exist. It was cancer. I was right to be worried (and to go to the doctor the moment I set foot back on NZ soil).
Our lives unfold forwards but we make sense of them backwards. In times like this, when the old way is broken and the new way has not formed, the guiderails that keep us safely marching forwards while looking backwards just disappear. I feel it in my mind, which ricochets from place to place and has a hard time staying still (which is why it’s easy to see dawn each day, even as our days grow longer as we near the equinox). It would be of such help to have a practice that helps me here in this space, when unclear is what it is. When unpatterned is what it is. And the passing of time is the only way through.
Of course, that’s what mindfulness practices are all about. Meditation is about bringing the mind back to the present, again and again. And I’m not great at that in the best circumstances, though I go through periods of boldly trying. And then there is the opposite side of the coin: mindlessness, the practice of numbing and removing yourself from the present. I don’t have tons of strategies there, either, though often books have been a refuge.
The pregnancy metaphor is actually a helpful handhold for me (notice me looking into my past to find a way to make sense of my present). This time is pregnant with possibility. This is the fullness of life. This is the time to hold my friends and family tightly and with deep and abiding love. The universe has given me a chance to really be present in this moment in all of its confusion and love and fear and rage and beauty. I am not good at that today, but I have the next ten days as a practice. And then the rest of my life—however many dawns that might be—to make sense of the patterns.
This blog is a new one, a celebration of life and death and friendship. If you’re reading it, it’s because you are connected to me in some important way. I want you to know how grateful I am for those connections. A few weeks ago I read this lovely NYT piece that seemed to me to be the best case I’d ever heard for immortality. It is a beautiful reminder that we make each other live—in the most literal way. I think today my practice is to be present to that.
(since dawn has been seriously grey and miserable this week here, some flowers to brighten the post)