Future tense

This morning I watched the sun rise over the harbor here on this cold mid-winter’s day. The clouds are low on the horizon after days of storms, and I have been watching them form and break away in tendrils—and then watching the tendrils dissolve into clear air. It has been ages since I’ve watched the dawn, ages since I’ve written in this blog—even since I’ve had the desire to watch the dawn or to write in this blog. I have been busy doing Important Things, flying around the world and sleeping in lush hotel sheets in a dozen cities in the last two months. There has been no time for dawn.

I have landed, blinking, into July. I have had one week of winter cold, one week of Fiji delights, and now am back at my desk, peering into the future. I am trying to imagine what comes next, to try to craft the conditions for the future I want to emerge.

As I am doing that, I notice two things.

First of all, I’m not sure when I get to actually put the cancer behind me. People ask me about whether I’m all healed after the radiotherapy, and I’m probably at close to 90% (just woke up from my nap). That’s the good news.

But geez there’s still so much more cancer treatment around me than I expected. There’s the daily pill that stops the estrogen from being created in my bones and fat. There’s the monthly shot in my stomach that has thrown me into menopause by stopping the estrogen from being created in my ovaries. There are the frequent hot flashes, the aching bones, the mood swings, the muscles I’m just beginning to yoga back into shape after the assaults they have suffered.

But wait, there’s more. There’s the question about whether to have the surgery next month to have my ovaries removed. The oncologist visits about cancer. The endocrinologist visits about hormones. The gynecologist visits about the belly shots. There are the disagreements among my doctors as I am left on my own to try to piece together my sense of what should happen next (because really they’re all dealing with cancer and hormones—it’s all so interrelated). Because I used tamoxifen the first time I had cancer (this is the drug for premenopausal women) and avoided all this menopause stuff, the cancer treatment—and thus the thinking about cancer—could recede in the distance. But this time the treatment lingers and lingers and shapes my everyday life, er, every day. Every hot flash is a reminder that I’ve had cancer twice, that it’s changing my life. And, given the mood swings, these reminders are not particularly joyful.

Perhaps because of that, perhaps adjacent to that, I also have a hard time holding on to some idea of the future.  “Tomorrow is always a day away,” Annie tells us, which is why she loves it so much and why she can bet her bottom dollar that tomorrow there will be sun.

Thinking about the same future in a different weather pattern, Macbeth famously howls:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.”

So tomorrow might be sunny or it might be lighting the way to dusty death. It’s not just different people who have different takes on what the future holds; my own relationship to the future also ebbs and changes over time. When I was little, the future was a mysterious blur. What would I do for a job? Would I get into college? Would I have children? And, perhaps most importantly, would I ever have a horse? (The last one is still undecided). Twelve years ago, I sat with Keith and talked about my future plans and he asked, “And once you accomplish all that at 35, what happens next, death?” Perhaps my future was too goal oriented, too small and achievable. I tried to dream bigger. With my friends I created a firm, a community of practice. I wanted to write three books in my 40s (two down, and the third about 70% finished).

When I was diagnosed with cancer at 42, I saw my sense of a possible future shrink back even as my delight in the present moment grew. I began to dream smaller, or at least of fewer tomorrows. I was just beginning to imagine a future again when I was diagnosed with a local recurrence of my cancer ten months ago at 46. Then I pretty much lost the plot on the future altogether. As I look forward, I realise it’s a blank, that anything more than six months away seems impossibly far. I have been so knocked around and had my future plans so upended that it’s very hard for me to put my faith in any sort of future.

And that isn’t all bad, really. There is delight in living in the present. And there is peril in getting lost in the future, which I used to do, trading in my current experience to focus on my hopes for what was next. I don’t want to do that anymore.

But there is also delight in the future and peril in getting stuck in the present, I think. I am not thoughtful about crafting the life I want to live—it is just sort of happening to me. Months on airplanes and sleeping in hotel beds shows me that I am not thoughtfully creating balance in my life. This morning I watched the clouds form and dissolve and reform in the orange light, and I felt an unusual resonance with them. I have been blown about more than I’d like. I would like to find a way to love the beauty of that cloud and to love our similarities, to know that we form and reform and are resilient—even as we live and die and our bodies transform back into earth.  But I also want to celebrate the ways I am not the cloud, not simply shaped by the wind but exercising choices about how to shape the conditions of my life. I don’t believe the sun will always come out anymore. But neither to I believe that our lives signify nothing.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, for however many there are for me, I want to create the conditions for a life of meaning, of connection, of good work that leaves the world better than I found it. I want to hear my nearly-grown children laughing. I want to spend time with clients who matter. Hold hands walking down the beach. Drink cups of tea in front of the fire with my friends. To build a firm that grows friendship and work and ideas and a better world.

The clouds have cleared and the sky is bright winter blue. I have put on my sweater and taken it off and put it back on again as my body does its zany temperature adjustments.  I’ll try to finish chapter 5 of my new book. I’ll coax Michael and the dog for a walk through the Botanical Garden in the slanting afternoon light. And I will try to shape my own path towards the future, blown clean by the wind and also pushing against it.

6 thoughts on “Future tense

  1. Jennifer, you write so beautifully. I am so thankful you got to write this blog and share what’s going on for you. Your desire to be intentional about your future resonates. Cancer or no cancer, that is important work – figuring out how to ensure the talents we have are used to leave the world a better place. And don’t forget that what you’ve already done continues to work in those of us who have got to share the journey in some way. That happens even when you are drinking tea, walking tea or listening to the ‘kids’ laugh….enjoy the walk.


  2. Love the post.

    Sitting here with my morning espresso looking over the lovely NC mountain landscape, preparing for another writing session as I hope to bring Part IV of my own third book to a reasonably coherent landing place before I pass it back to my editor.

    I notice how much less aspiration and urgency I bring these days to my craving for particular futures. It’s not that I’ve stopped being a dreamer — I have a VERY long bucket list indeed. It’s that I feel much less attached to the dream, much less identified with my aspirations. I am coming to see how much of my drive to experiment and experience over 6 decades now has been about the difficulty of staying with the moment, and of needing to validate my own identity and sense of self through the intensity of engaging fiercely with the world.

    I have been attached to experience; I have had an aversion to boredom. I am gifted, and cursed, with a restless soma. And, when I sit still, and am present, there’s less “I” and more expansiveness and ground than I would ever have thought possible.

    This business of imagining and creating a future, I think, involves much less aspiration and planning than conventional wisdom might suggest. Mostly it begins with really being here. In my body, in this particular time and location, and sensing myself as part of a whole and as the whole.

    Of course, this has always been true. And, it has taken me a long journey to begin to glimpse this.

    Your post, as always, touches me in some deep place. I see and feel myself differently after sharing these moments with you through your own posts, as well as relishing the privilege of these glimpses into the heart and soul of a thoughtful and generous friend.

    Thank you,


  3. Hi Jennifer,
    Great to hear from you again. Sending much love and care as you navigate the knowing and the not knowing of each day.
    Your words resonated with me this morning as I sit with my mum as she slowly leaves us with dignity and peace – the most caring and compassionate person I have had the privilege to know.
    Much love, Anne

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello my friend,
      My heart is with you and your mum as you mark this ending together. She is lucky to have such a caring and compassionate daughter to carry her legacy forward.
      much love to you and your mum and your family,


  4. Hi Jennifer, good to have your blog back in action! Sounds like you’re in transition and this piece from our mutual inspiration John O Donohue may be worthwhile:

    For a New Beginning

    In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
    Where your thoughts never think to wander,
    This beginning has been quietly forming,
    Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

    For a long time it has watched your desire,
    Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
    Noticing how you willed yourself on,
    Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

    It watched you play with the seduction of safety
    And the grey promises that sameness whispered,
    Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
    Wondered would you always live like this.

    Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
    And out you stepped onto new ground,
    Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
    A path of plenitude opening before you.

    Though your destination is not yet clear
    You can trust the promise of this opening;
    Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
    That is at one with your life’s desire.

    Awaken your spirit to adventure;
    Hold nothing back; learn to find ease in risk;
    Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
    For you soul senses the world that awaits you.

    John O Donohue 2007

    Love and best wishes from the West of Ireland!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “I want to create the conditions for a life of meaning, of connection, of good work that leaves the world better than I found it.”

    Me, too. I’m doing okay with the meaning and connection (you taught me that in high school). Someday I’ll figure out the good work bit. I hope.

    I cherish these glimpses into your world. Thank you.


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