Last night, I read When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi’s observation of a young and promising life — his own — cut short by cancer.
Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist who also had a degree in English literature, was completing his last year of residency at Stanford when he got the diagnosis. He died at 37 in March 2015, having spent the final year of his life writing a moving memoir capped exquisitely by an epilogue from Lucy Kalanithi, who describes herself as “his wife and a witness.”
The book is powerful in an enduring way, but as I climbed the stairs to my bedroom, I could feel its discrete and immediate gift: Kalanithi’s story had lifted me from my own, which has recently featured a kind of enervated fretfulness, circular and deadening, a not-quite-worry that breeds insomnia. A turning over and over of thoughts too familiar and not particularly happy.
I read this dead man’s book, and I slept.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a cowboy. Not a cowgirl in a silly skirt and embossed pretend boots, but a cowboy in rugged jeans and leather chaps, a six-shooter and bulleted belt riding casual and deadly at my hips. Scuffed boots that spoke of long days in the stirrups. A black shirt with a banded collar, a flash of red bandana at my sun-burnished neck. A serious hat. The real deal.
I knew from a young age that cowboys were heroes; they thought big thoughts, though rarely spoke them because, being cowboys, they were laconic. Mostly, they righted wrongs; they took action. The wimmenfolk stayed in the background and fretted, mired in messy, invisible emotion.
In kindergarten, I had a stick horse with a black vinyl head and a mane of yarn. We bravely rode where we were needed. We killed the bad guys and saved the town folk, especially the women, who, like children, seemed forever in need of rescuing. My horse and I traversed the world of Big Ideas and Bold Action, living large, perpetually riding into the sunset, ever dreaming of the next day’s possibilities, of the unknowable adventures that awaited us.
And then I grew up.
Neuroscientists say that habitual ways of thinking and being carve grooves — actual physical grooves — in our brains, and that as we repeat these patterns, the pathways grow deeper and deeper. They erode the expansiveness of a once untrammeled mind into narrow culverts, and soon our thoughts and associated feelings flow into a handful of dubious ditches as naturally as gravity compels rain into a gutter. Our perceptions shrink, and along with them, the world of our possibilities.
A ruminating mind is a jail cell, a place of suffocating sameness: a single, barred window with a constricted view. Grey walls, a hard cot. Beans and biscuits on an enamel plate, weak and tepid coffee in a tin cup. Day after day after day. Cowboys that once roamed free languish there. Their six-shooters have been confiscated; their swift, hard-muscled horses grow slow and soft in the livery stable. The vast landscape of their once-epic world has been reduced to this pitiable constraint.
They pace. They brood. They begin to die.
I realized a couple of years ago that my inner cowboy was still with me, though he had become a she, and more a wrangler than a cowboy. She understood courage differently, too.
I was running on mountain trails, and she rode boldly into my mind, strong and capable, parting a path through the old and tired cattle of my thoughts. She was dressed as a cowhand, but with flair: fringes on the chaps and vest, a sharply creased black hat, silver spurs. Her horse, in parade tack with a lariat looped over the saddle horn, was surpassingly beautiful, a fast and flashy pinto, like Little Joe’s horse on Bonanza.
I saw she lacked a gun; I saw it didn’t matter: Her work required fluidity, not force. I watched as she herded my thoughts this way and that, cutting deftly, like a barrel racer, reining in a wanderer, cajoling a straggler. And when she had them all wrangled, she pulled up that fine horse in a short and showy cloud of dust and looked expectantly at me, as if to say: How’s that?
She was trying hard to please; she meant to shape and reshape my thoughts, to help me imagine what was yet possible in my middle-aged life. But it had been a long time since I had given her anything fresh to work with. It didn’t matter how skillfully or faithfully she reconfigured these old cows; they were lifeless, worn out.
I saw she was discouraged. She dismounted and tied the reins of the studded bridle to a hitching post, then settled herself on the top rail of the corral. The pinto’s head drooped a little, and the wrangler gave me a long look. Not unkind, but dead serious.
True to her breed, she was a woman of few words, and each one mattered. “We need some new cows,” she said.
I consider the comforts of the ruminating mind: the familiar terrain, the polished and smooth paths, the assurance against surprise, or ambush. And then: the constricted vision, the paucity of imagination. That dreary, circular deadness which, after a time, becomes an imitation of life. I think of the leaden days and fitful nights we languish in cells of our own making.
And then, of these acolytes of possibility, the hard-working wranglers who every day gallop up to that jail hell-bent for leather, like Pony Express riders bearing a message from the vast expanse of a world we have forgotten, a life perpetually fresh, vital and mysterious:
Be bold, they say. Break free. Find some new cows.
Maybe one of them will be a book like Paul Kalanithi’s, a story of consciously living and dying that ennobles both and reminds us that our time here is short. Maybe one will be a new challenge, another a strange sound, another an amazing sight. Anything odd or fresh or unknown.
It doesn’t matter, as long as the cow is not a creature of habit, inclined to walk placidly along a path already worn too well. The wider the range of this herd, the better: Wranglers of possibility are meant for wild and woolly work.
Think big, they say, with their quiet cowboy courage: Be bold. Break free.