Sunday, July 12, 2009

Creatures of Habitat, Not Habit

One thing that moving to a different base for six weeks does is highlight how much of daily life is location-dependent and how much is internal. We turn out to be creatures of habitat more than habit, which was highlighted when our friend, in advance of our visit, wanted to know what we ate for breakfast and other such items a thoughtful host explores before receiving house guests. Our answers were all variations on “we’re flexible.” We don’t have strong preferences or limitations on what we eat: we like food. Our few issues are more what we don’t do (drink coffee, for example) than anything else. So our response to the breakfast and other meal queries was that we eat pretty much whatever is served wherever we are at any given time. Without going TMI on everyone, we’re similarly flexible in which side of the bed we sleep on, changing depending on the layout of the room we occupy, which is evidently truly unusual in longterm couples. At least, every time it happens to come up in conversation, people act like it’s the most bizarre thing they’ve ever heard. Our lives are completely different here than in Urbana, and we fit comfortably into both places; probably, there are many more places we could also slide into new routines that we could make our own without too much perturbation.

All of this got me thinking about the insights the events of our medical adventure have provided us, and wondering whether that’s why we’ve seen this so much as a largely positive process, if you leave aside getting a brain tumor in the first place, of course.

If you think about it this way, the change in our circumstances has been an opportunity to explore what really matters to us, and to confirm the values that underlie our choices, whatever habitat we might occupy at any given time. For most of the last year, we set up camp on the craniotomy conveyor belt, and went pretty much where it took us. Most of the trip was through uncharted territory, and what we took along for the ride were friends and beliefs. Pretty much, we’ve had to redo most of our daily routines, and that’s worked out pretty well--we’ve crafted a life that, while quite different from what went before, still works and is productive and happy.

Over the last week or so, we’ve had a chance to find out just how much we’ve adapted to provide me with familiarity in our routines, as novelty and large crowds still are tiring and costly. This got me to wondering about why airports and travel have, by and large, gone as smoothly as they have since October. When I travel by myself, I get a lot of solitude in hotel rooms and the trips don’t usually involve much outside of airport-shuttle-hotel-meeting site-shuttle-airport. Maybe over the years, I’d already been adapting and have a set of routines that minimize visual overload? Maybe the hotel quiet balances out the airport scenes? Maybe that’s what my habit of reading newspapers on airplanes and in airports does for me? Provides an island of familiarity in otherwise unfamiliar territory? And how do those routines fit with all the self-professed flexibility I was blathering about above? It seems contradictory, yet all the pieces fit, and pretty smoothly. So what am I missing in putting the pieces together? Maybe, it occurs to me, that my brain is compensating for its shortcomings in a variety of ways: the tumor was in the left parietal lobe, where, among other things, communications functions are centered. Maybe the reason I’m having trouble reading narratives these days is that my brain needs all its capacity for working, which has been my priority all along. Maybe, as it continues to recover and build new neural pathways, that will come back, as it gets easier and takes less effort to get my productive work done? Looking at it that way, not being able to read with the facility that used to be my baseline has sure cleared up a lot of time to work. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to teach or keep my other projects going, if I’d also been able to spend time reading?

As we cleaned this morning and as I hung laundry in the sunshine, these contrasts have been on my mind. No good answers have emerged, and that’s OK. The sunshine is strong, the world still there when we read the news on line instead of on paper, and the completely different breakfast was totally enjoyable. We got our walk in the neighborhood, noting that several of the major re-construction projects that were just starting last summer seem to have stalled where they were when we last saw them a year ago: some of these must have been purchases at the peak of the market and we surmise that money ran out before the projects got very far along. The abandoned shell of a house we’ve watched now for more than a dozen years is still empty. If it’s still that way when we’re done with College, Part 2, we might explore its ownership and status a little more carefully. At least, that’s the fantasy we spin ourselves as we walk by it.

Our Sunday looks to be quiet, peaceful and restorative. May yours be, too.

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