I don't like autumn. I don't like watching the vibrancy of summer wither away, and the sunlight become slanted, weak, always positioning itself in an inconvenient place in the sky. I don't like having the taste of summer still on my tongue and the tips of my fingers, the memory of owls and thick air and wildflowers still so recent and hard to let go of. I prefer to be deeply entrenched in winter, adjusted to and resigned to our current fate and able to start anticipating the coming tendrils of spring instead of aching for what's just behind.
If asked for the most important lesson I've learned about living well with a chronic illness, I would say this: Think of a meaningful life goal and chip away at it to matter how slowly you have to do it, and no matter how unusually you have to go about it. Don't wait until you are "better" to start. Trust me when I say that hoping and striving for wellness and weaving a path towards a goal, based on what you can do now, can coexist. Nothing has enriched my life more deeply or persistently than learning that. Metalsmithing is my absolute passion. I don't work 40 hours per week. I wish I could travel to seminars and workshops but I can't. I wouldn't be able to pay all of our bills with my business alone. I wish I could apprentice with a master goldsmith or have a booth at arts festivals, and right now it's not feasible. I work from my home studio on a schedule that my body mostly dictates, learning new skills in fits and starts over the years, sometimes closing my shop for a few weeks when I need to. But this oasis of productivity, of striving for something, accomplishing something, having a goal and a purpose and a payoff, even in small increments, makes the difference between feeling completely imprisoned by circumstances, and feeling like I hold some control over my own fate and future and joy. Every minute I spend with metal yielding under my hands is a minute of satisfaction, the ripples of which spread out across the rest of my existence. I say this: find your metalsmithing. Even if it's writing a sentence per week of a novel or children's book, or, if you're trapped at home, challenging yourself to take photos of your usual surroundings in a way that captures them unusually. String beads; teach yourself a programming language in as much time as you need to take; start a blog and write movie reviews. I don't care. Whatever you dream of. Whatever winding road you need to take. However slowly.
We won't all "triumph." It's just not a promise the world makes to us. But most of us can at least build, find, steal, pockets of accomplishment, satisfaction and control, and I fervently hope that for most us they will also be enough to make pushing on worthwhile.
Last year one of the boys who bullied me as a child killed himself. I was not in touch with him but found out about his death when mutual friends posted about it on Facebook. I didn't rejoice in any way; I found it strange and surreal to realize that someone I'd assumed was confident and comfortable with their place in life was, in fact, suffering seriously in some way. It perhaps gave credence to the notion that those who bully are often the most unhappy themselves (although, there were an intervening 20 years between his being my classmate, and his death, so perhaps he wasn't unhappy as a child). The people who bullied me would probably struggle to remember me or even recognize my name - this I assume, as I haven't spoken to them since - but I can remember the names and faces of every single one of them. I was only 10 but consider that year to have altered the course of my life permanently. It convinced me at a very young age that there was something not ok about me. Still, for years I wondered why so few people wanted to be friends with me, why nobody sought me out to befriend me. I only realized later that it was because, despite how rich my inner life felt to me, I must have seemed blank from the outside.
"How do atheists know right from wrong?" is a question sometimes asked by theists.
In many ways it is the fact that there isn't a god that guides me morally. Our shared mortality, the fact that we are all in this startlingly brief, mysterious, profoundly painful, incredibly complex and utterly beautiful existence together, and that this is the only chance that each of us, each a completely unique being and consciousness, will ever have to exist, is to me what makes life precious and worthy of protecting. For me, understanding the brevity and uniqueness of each life makes it impossible for me not to believe that treating each one carefully is as inherently right as is possible.
Compassion is my religion, not because it has been commanded of me but because I've suffered and I've felt its stain on the precious gem of what will be my brief time here. And if I ache for the chance for this fleeting, singular existence of mine to be as good, as rich and possible to savor as it can be, then it is ultimate human virtuousness to allow the same for other people. If acceptance and love is the most singularly craved experience of humanity, then learning to give it is one of the most meaningful missions one can accept.
Just as many serious theists feel that their journey to live by their beliefs is lifelong work, it is a lifelong journey to learn to fully follow and live by the lead of compassion. It can be paradoxically difficult to figure out how to honor the equally valid hopes of oneself and the ones around them. I have failed, I do fail, I will fail, sometimes and many times - though I hope less as I grow. But despite that, and the fact that not all humans are kind or good, or wish kindness in return, I find it hard to imagine that when the end is reached by any person who strived to let an utter awe and appreciation of both the despair and gorgeousness of life guide their way, that they will feel regret.
That is how I know right from wrong, and why, if you are feel differently, I love you no less.