Possibilities

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.pinterestcom

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.lariat

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.

spursAnd 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.

 

 

 

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76 comments

  1. Very inspiring and just what I needed to read 🙂

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    1. Glad to hear it. Thanks for letting me know!

      Like

  2. I can relate so much to this. I really appreciate the reminder of how the brain works as well and how habitual thinking impacts the brain. I too was the wannabe cowboy. Thank you for sharing this.

    Like

    1. You’re welcome. Thank you for reading and responding!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The write up is great.

    Please follow me also

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is beautiful ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!

      Like

  5. Well, now ALL my cows are escaping out to a limitless pasture, and my inner herder has gone with them. Freedom!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hurrah! I love that image, and can almost smell the morning dew on fresh pasture as your cows lumber/lope forward with the clumsy exuberance of their kind. Thanks for that gift to start my day.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. having just reread this……. it is my first ‘reblog’

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m honored; thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] via Possibilities — Meditatio Ephemera […]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing!

      Like

  8. This was absolutely beautiful and right on time thank you!!💙🦋🦋🦋

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so glad it arrived at a meaningful time. Thanks for your appreciation!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Beautifully written.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. I appreciate the time you took to read and comment.

      Like

  10. Lovely post… 🙂 I think your cows are different from our ‘placid’ English cows. No need for cowboys there.. 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Mark! My cows had become a little too placid, and I’m grateful now for every injection of new life into the herd. I appreciate that you read and commented.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I guess my inner cowboy heard the call. Also do check my blogs I’m sure you’ll like it ☺️

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m glad your inner cowboy is listening; thanks for reading. Do create an “About” page on your blog, as readers often like to know something about the creator. Good luck!

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Reblogged this on FRANDEMONIUM and SUCH and commented:
    This was the most inspiring and beautiful story.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks so much for the lovely compliment and for re-blogging this piece. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I am just learning to build my site and haven’t figured how to add the whole piece. I just read the book, it is amazing

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes, indeed. The book is well worth the read.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Enjoyed reading your article and it makes me question the neuroscientist that habitual way has negative impact on my brain when as a Catholic I pray the same prayers over and over again and find new meaning as a result.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The neuroscience is content-neutral, meaning that constructive and helpful thoughts can become embedded with repetition in the same way as negative thoughts, though to good rather than harmful effect. Just understanding how the brain lays down grooves is a great incentive to be careful about what we choose to habitually think about. It sounds as if you’re being skillful with your prayers! Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. This is good . Love reading your article

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m glad. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Wow.. very touching !

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. you’r welcome

        Liked by 2 people

  16. Thank you bro

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Beautiful!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Nathan!

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Reblogged this on streetsoflagos and commented:
    Beautiful

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. I’m deeply happy I’ve found your blog – post often!! Thank you! ☺️🙏

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You’re most welcome. I’m grateful for your interest and encouragement!

      Liked by 2 people

  20. So beautifully written!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you kindly.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. ♡ It’s amazing!!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Why, thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Love it I too love inspiring words and write on them too. You have really inspired me

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m so glad! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. Marilyn Kriete · · Reply

    Wonderful analogy! I love what you said about brain grooves: after a long spiritual slump, several years ago, I devoted hours every day to memorizing chapters of encouraging Scripture, reciting them as I moved through my day. It transformed me! I still recite the verses, and every time I do, it’s like pouring fresh water on my thirsty soul! Thanks for sharing your journey…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. What a lovely practice! And this matches what neuroscience I understand: We can’t “fill in” those negative grooves, but we can create new, more life-enhancing channels into which our thoughts then will flow as habitually as the others. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Super

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  25. Great analogies and an important message to live more intently and not to let dreams die and fade away. I think we all need to be reminded at times that for some tomorrow never comes. Really enjoyed reading this.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you. So glad you enjoyed it!

      Liked by 1 person

  26. “new cows” hand to heart, tears streaming down my face…….thank you. My inner cowboy heard the call.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. What a lovely response! Thanks for reading and sharing your feelings.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. wineandwilddogs · · Reply

    Reblogged this on wineandwilddogs and commented:
    a worthwhile thought, corralling the wandering cows of our imaginations, as if we were cowboys… my own childhood fantasy was to be a cowboy, or an Indian , as long as on a horse, riding riding…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you; I appreciate the reblog. I think many of us had some version of this childhood fantasy …

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  28. This is amazing and inspiring. Your description of habitual thinking strikes a strong resemblance to someone I love who’s stuck within a self-made cell. Yikes. Had not heard it defined so well before. And your “new cows” is spot-on as well. Thanks! This one’s a keeper for future re-reads.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you found it a worthwhile read.

      Liked by 1 person

  29. This inspired me. I am about to retire from 35 years in the same place & yes I need new cows. Like you I was the tom boy. I wanted to be the girl who was disguised as a boy in WWII France. I was the resistance and could do what girls could not.

    So..Here is to us being free to find those new cows and herd them into our lives.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Here’s to us, Sister! Congratulations on your retirement, and every good wish as you explore new vistas! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  30. I love this writing.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you. I am grateful that you took the time to read and to comment.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I agree, the flow, the choice of words. It’s a high quality post👏🏽

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you! I appreciate the time you took to read and comment.

          Like

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