Some time ago I stumbled upon an unforgettable commencement speech by Ann Patchett. It was a speech she gave to Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater, in May of 2006, titled, “What Now?” Today it’s a book.
I’d been searching for inspirational words about transitions. And Patchett’s words felt almost primal.
“Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door, that later brings you to another door…which eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice leads you to a trail of breadcrumbs so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a breadcrumb in sight, just a few shrubs, a few trees and woodland creatures…And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, what now?”
The words are reflective and powerful. Patchett made me see the universality of “what now?” as a byproduct of ordinary living (read: time management), but the question of course resonates at a far deeper level. Isn’t there something essential about answering to “what now?”
This was abundantly true for my friend Marcia Donziger. She drew upon her own experience as a cancer survivor to found an organization that now connects some 100,000 people around the world whose lives have been affected by the disease. My LifeLine.org offers free websites for cancer patients and their families, a network that brings people together and speeds healing and hope. When Marcia was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer in 1997, the Internet had not yet transformed communication. These were the days of the telephone — sans texting. Meanwhile, talking on the phone depleted Marcia; she put all her energy toward treatment and holding onto her job at American Airlines.
Thank goodness Marcia beat the odds. She’s cancer-free and the mother of twin seven-year-old boys. But all these years later she can’t look at a yellow legal pad without remembering the frustration and anxiety she felt staring at pages of names, phone numbers and messages. “The list grew longer by the day, and eventually I fell so far behind that returning calls became unmanageable. Everything overwhelmed me.”
As one would expect, many times after her diagnosis Marcia had to answer the question “what now?”
Step by step she remade her life.
It wasn’t, however, until her friend Lori’s struggle with brain cancer in 2003 that all the “what now?” questions came together with startling clarity. Social media had become more mainstream, and Marcia was amazed to see the way a website created to support Lori’s cancer journey offered a hands-on network for her family and friends. “It was our lifeline,” Lori’s mother told Marcia after Lori died in 2005.
A lifeline for Lori became the catalyst for My LifeLine two years later. Marcia built a whole movement, and anyone with a relative or friend facing cancer ought to know about this invaluable resource.
I believe that Marcia was meant to use her experience in a way that served others. Answering “what now?” is what led her there.
How about you?