As I wrote the title for today’s post, I thought back to the title of Grace Paley’s story collection, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. One of the great titles ever.
Do enormous changes ever come upon us in any way, other than the last minute?
We apply ourselves each day. We show up. We practice our craft. We love the people we love. We try to be good friends. To be kind. Compassionate. We soften into life, like velveteen rabbits. And then one day—at what feels like the last minute—we discover that maybe we know a little something. That we’ve changed. Altered in some way that will serve us and the people around us. It has happened so slowly that we hadn’t even known anything was happening at all. And then it is here. Seismic. Something has shifted.
When I say we, I, of course, mean me. I mean all of us—but my experience is all I have. So yesterday, during a conversation with my fourteen-year-old son, I had a shock of awareness that maybe, just maybe, I had learned something along the way. A small but seismic piece of wisdom that I could share with him. One that I had begun to live without ever putting into words.
And. Not but.
Without getting into details, we were talking about some difficult feelings. Have you ever met a fourteen year old—or a human being, for that matter—who doesn’t experience difficult feelings? I was trying to console him. To tell him that things would improve. That he wouldn’t always feel exactly this way. And as he responded to me, the first word out of his mouth was but. But…
And I stopped him.
No, I said. Don’t say but. Say and.
Our lives are not comprised of this but that. But rather, this and that. We are full of contradictions. Our joys are bittersweet. Our sorrows stem from love. Our growth is painful. The lessons we learn—the ones that allow us to move forward in life—are so often fraught. This and that.
As I write, I’m sitting in a beautiful hotel room in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There is a siren in the distance. Somewhere, someone is getting a traffic ticket or has fallen on the sidewalk or is robbing a convenience store. The steeples and domes of Harvard University—a school I didn’t even dare dream of attending when I was a kid—are in the distance. The autumn leaves on the trees in the courtyard below are a riot of color. As usual, a cappuccino has grown cold at my side. Across the room, my husband is preparing for the festival release of his beautiful film this weekend. I’m speaking to some wonderful booksellers tonight, giving a reading on Wednesday night. Tears are springing to my eyes as I write these words. And. Not but.
I spent a lot of years selling myself short. A lot of years feeling that I didn’t deserve, couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t. My dreams—if I had dreams at all—were shockingly small, as if I had gotten the message, somewhere along the line, that I didn’t deserve much. That if I was pretty, I couldn’t also be smart. That if I had made a mess of my romantic life when I was younger, that meant I wouldn’t be allowed to be happily married. That if I had a difficult mother, that meant I wouldn’t know how to be a mother myself. And that if somehow I managed to grab a bigger piece of the pie than I deserved—happiness, success, a bountiful life—that something terrible would happen. The other shoe would drop.
This and that, I said to my beautiful son.
Hold it all. Cup your hands and let the world pour in.
Say yes, not no. Yes to bounty, to the lessons, the gladness, the pain, the fleeting joy, the opportunities that your life is offering you. Strike the buts from your very heart. That smallness, pettiness, stinginess, and fear have no place in this life you’re living. Take this day—this one, precious day—and face into the wind. Remember what the great Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has to say about what it is to be human: this too, this too, this too…
Dani Shapiro’s most recent books include the bestselling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion and the novels Black & White and Family History. She teaches writing workshops nationally and internationally. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, O The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, and have been broadcast on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives with her family in Connecticut. You can also follow Dani on Twitter and Facebook.
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*Image courtesy of awrose.