What we need is some clear measure
Of how we stand in life each day.
And knowing this, we’ll know how to feel:
Numerical fact keeps doubt at bay.
How many days until the week-end?
How many pounds have been lost or gained?
How much toothpaste left in the tube?
What is joy: How much has it rained?
How flat are the tires? How many gray hairs?
How long has it been since I’ve been fed?
How much do we have in our savings account?
How many minutes ‘till we meet in bed?
Some fixity would help us here
To tell if we’re happy, to show us the score.
How many games out of first are we?
Can I rest content, or must I live some more?
I wrote “Measures” almost 50 years ago. As an English major in college, then an English teacher and now a writer, I know that stories matter more than the “clear measures” that numbers seem to provide.
Once a month Kim gets her blood tested, and her oncologist looks at her numbers. I believe he is mainly looking at the impact of her daily chemo on her red blood count and her immune system, and indeed her lowered scores limit both her energy and her willingness to go to events crowded with sneezers and coughers. But her numbers are not so low as to cause alarm bells to go off at the cancer center. So we kinda know where we stand, numerically.
We also look at the numbers associated with Kim’s stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, which a short time ago meant, “Sit down with your attorney and make sure your will and trust are in order.” (We did that.) And then we look at the numbers associated with Kim’s chemo drug, Ibrance, and maybe adjust the stage 4 numbers. Should we plan our lives around those adjusted numbers? My classmate, Doug Reilly, reminded me of something that physicist Niels Bohr once said: “Predictions are difficult, especially about the future . . ..”
We are grateful for our Ibrance, despite the expense and the side effects, but we mistrust the (maybe 2 additional years?) numbers. I think of a sick person back in the Middle Ages, lying in bed as the leeches are being applied, thinking, “I’m glad to have the benefit of modern medicine! Think of what people had to go through in the old days!” I know, I know – now we have science, which suggests knowledge, but still . . .. Predictions are difficult.
No, maybe it’s better to live by stories than by numbers. We go out in a blizzard to take photographs because that’s a better story to live by than the one when we curl up to listen to the clock tick toward our count-down. We tell ourselves the story of living in this cool cottage on Torch Lake, where I can deal with the snow in winter and weeds in summer, and we can look for Petosky stones, photograph birds and maybe a fox, and in the winter, we watch the snow from our porch with our Jotul stove and a glass of wine to keep us warm. And we buy the occasional lottery ticket because we enjoy the story we inhabit, at least until the drawing.
When I was a first-year teacher I sometimes felt overwhelmed by my life, and I needed a story by which I could imagine my way out. I found one with a magic number:
They said, “Dial 9
to get out.” I dialed
9 and was out
in the parking lot.
A clatter of voices
and mimeograph machines
followed me, so
I again dialed 9 and
in the desert, or
was it the sea?
The sun heated the
skillet and I slid
across like hissing
butter. So, quickly
I dialed 9
and was out
tumbling breathless in
some starry void,
terrified by the silence
and by the gurgling
of my own organs,
so I dialed 9
and got out.
In the story that Kim and I are living in now, we are staying. We’ll get out soon enough . . ..