Lessons learned from puppets

April 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

I need to write a disclaimer before I begin this post. This musing is going to be about my NYC trip again, now nearly a month in the past. I’d rather not cast this observation as one reflecting in contrast, the relative dullness of my present life, as that is wholly untrue. There are a million stories from medical school that need to be told, and I’ll save those for another day. Instead, NYC contains multitudes, and that is enough.

It started on my BOLT bus ride from Boston’s South Station to NYC’s Time Square. I was sitting towards the back, in a window seat. The passenger list was pretty meager; indeed, from my vantage point, it looked for a bit as though we were going to have low occupancy and that I would get both seats to myself. A few minutes before takeoff, however, a large group of twenty Indian boys suddenly climbed in. From what I could tell, they were a college dance troupe that was heading to NYC for a local competition. They quickly filled in all of the remaining gaps in the bus. I have heard this idea before and support it fully, that people fill seats like electrons fill orbitals. Both adhere to Hund’s principle, or that both will occupy all available empty seats and empty orbitals first, before a second person/electron will look around, and seeing no other options, will decide to sit next to you. (This analogy is part of my ongoing quest to uphold science literacy in life).

So anyways, that happened, and I soon found a tall, serious looking Indian boy taking a seat next to me. He smiled, I smiled, and we didn’t say anything else. The bus took off, and I pulled from my bag, a copy of Norbert Elias’s The Loneliness of Dying. The book was on my reading list for an elective that I’m taking at Harvard where we discuss the role of philosophy, literature and religion in medicine (amazing). The bus ride was so relaxing. This was my first trip to NYC from Boston, and I had thought that the four-hour ride was going to be so difficult to sit through. But really, time felt immaterial as I sat there in the twelfth row. The New England countryside blitzed past my view in a blur of quaint transience, and the skies overhead were grey and soothing. I kept at Elias for twenty minutes at a time, before needing to put the book down and rest my head on the window, content to stare ahead and just be.

It was an hour and a half later when I finally lifted my chin and looked to my left, to see the cute Indian boy looking at me with a distraught expression. I stared at him for a moment in confusion. He looked seriously troubled.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

He looked surprised. Then his eyes flicked to my book, so mine followed. I stared at the title for a moment longer before looking back at him and blurting out, “Oh I’m not dying!”

It felt so preposterous that I was more amused than anything. There was nothing about me besides the choice of reading material that would suggest anything but health and vitality.

My friend L and I later caught an off-Broadway production of Avenue Q that weekend.

I cannot remember a time I laughed harder in recent memory, but remember being especially struck by the closing song, For Now.

Why does everything have to be so hard? says Princeton.

Maybe you’ll never find your purpose, says Gary Coleman.

But then – I don’t know why I’m even alive! says Princeton.

The puppet cast then breaks into song. You’ll be faced with problems of all shapes and sizes, they tell Princeton, and you’re going to have to make a few compromises, but only for now. The refrain, for now, is repeated for a variety of situations: health, employment, joy, discomfort, friendship – for now. Sex, hair, George Bush – for now. Each time you smile, it’s only for now. Life may be scary, but it’s only temporary, ba-dum ba-dum, everything in life is only for now.

I came out of the theater feeling like something momentous, full of solemn gravity, or as much as a puppet show can really muster up, had just been delivered.

It’s an exhilarating thought. To think that the stressors affecting my life right now, all of the drama surrounding life and love, young romances, long nights studying for pathology, the new boots and new scarves I bought over the weekend, the occasional fights that I have with my friends, and the relationships I build with my mentors, that all of these various things that I spend time thinking and writing about are all temporary and ever-shifting is both gravid, and exciting.

So perhaps the boy in the bus wasn’t completely off-base after all. Perhaps it wasn’t such a farfetched thought that the young twenty-something girl next to him who alternated reading with quiet contemplation could potentially be dealing with something terminal. We’re all here, living in the moment. In the blink of an eye, the world can change.

And isn’t that just the craziest thing?

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