I walk into French class. The teacher asks, “Quoi de neuf?” (“What’s new?”)
This question aims to have us talk without notes, converse spontaneously. I cheat and plan, “I’ll talk about seeing ‘Mamma Mia Here I Go Again.’ How do you say ‘movie’?”
I look it up and scribble notes, my French not fluent, not perfect. I have some comfort with extemporaneous French, though, not speaking in mere single words, now and then a phrase, here and there a sentence. Given my fragile French, I offer only facts. I might say, “I went to the beach.” Nothing creative. Nothing flowing.
Quoi de neuf comes in English, too. This morning my friend Jane texted, “I asked my husband, ‘what’s new?'” He said, ‘Yankees won in the 13th.’”
“Newsworthy,” I wrote.
Jane answered, “Sure is. What’s new with you?”
Fluent in English, my mind flowed from facts to fantasy. “I want to run away to a world where I sing and dance 24/7, where chocolate is the new kale. You?”
Jane asked, “When can we leave?”
“When can we leave” reminds us about our fight/flight/freeze stress reactions, hard-wired into our reptilian brains. I rarely put up dukes, and don’t sit still much, so I seldom attack or collapse. I default to “I don’ wanna be here. Get me outta here. Transport me to where I can play all day and eat only sweets with only sweet consequences.”
Even youngsters yearn to escape. In Judith Viorst’s children’s book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” after every unpleasant childhood event, Alexander vows, “I think I’ll move to Australia.”
I get it. I also relate to Peter Pan. “I won’t grow up.”
But flights of fancy boomerang and then ground hard.
As I sat dreaming about flying out my bedroom window, Donna, a sister-like crony since high school, called to say that yesterday she had chest pains with labored breathing, and rushed to the ER. The friendly, competent staff, swamped with ailing patients and caring for the throngs, did their best, yet didn’t see Donna for hours. They couldn’t reach a diagnosis. Today she has a stress test.
On the phone, her voice trembled. Even knowing this is one of the country’s top cardiac hospitals, I heard her fear, exhaustion and sense of being overwhelmed. With Donna’s shaky speech, I whooshed back from my imaginary who-knows-where and crashed into my earthbound life. I arrived right here greeted, as we all are, by loved ones, joy, illness, uncertainty and grief.
Donna’s call stopped my time and space travel. Do I really want to flee? Sometimes. OK, lots of times. Then I’d miss Donna’s call. I’d miss Donna. The idea of hustling outta-here grabs us, seduces us. But bolting in search of something else, somewhere else, creates suffering. We scurry away from our empty-seeming “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” days and miss the fullness of living. When I landed, I remembered that being here includes everything. Easy-breezy movies and hard stormy times all belong.
If we stay and open to life’s wobbles, we see the quoi-de-neufs show up, disappear, arise and pass again. Life doesn’t cheat us; we get it all. Yankees win sometimes. Yesterday a pleasant French class, today a fun film, tomorrow a pal in the hospital. Like any flight with both turbulence and calm, our years offer fluent paragraphs in a language to which we must spontaneously respond with no formerly scribbled notes. Nobody escapes to Neverland or avoids the piercing rawness of being human.
And that distant continent? Alexander’s mom helped me grow up a bit and have more ease with extemporaneous living, with what Zorba the Greek calls “the full catastrophe: wife, children, house, everything.” Alexander’s mom says life is hard, “even in Australia.”
To land in and then welcome life’s fragile imperfect perfection, now that’s newsworthy.