My battered red Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary tell me the word means to "keep in a safe and sound state, [especially] to avoid wasteful or destructive use."
I am learning to conserve.
Let me make clear what I am conserving. Not money, not land, not my tangible household goods. I'm good in that regard. I consider myself fairly thrifty and frugal, and I reflect regularly on ways to reduce my eco-footprint. I recycle and reuse. I limit my spending and vigorously eschew conspicuous consumption. While I am not at the same level of routine subsistence living as my son Sam and other millennials, I easily surpass most of my coworkers, all of my siblings, and many of my friends. Long before the Non-Consumer Advocate adopted it, I had already made this World War II slogan my own: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.
So what am I conserving if not the treasures of this world?
I am learning to conserve me.
I have moved into a new phase of cancer: chemotherapy. My new regimen is two consecutive days (Tuesday/Wednesday) for three consecutive weeks, rest one week, then resume. Because I have am incurable, unsolvable, and terminal cancer, chemo is not for so many weeks or courses. It is an infinite loop until it or I fail.
It is such a wearying prospect.
I have just finished the second week of the first round. It could be a lot worse. Way worse. So far I am not experiencing acute nausea. I am unlikely to lose my hair. It does not take all day, only about three and a half hours with driving. On the first day, I went to our monthly legal clinic afterwards. I have gone to work afterwards three of the four chemo days. So I am well aware and grateful that I am tolerating chemo so seemingly well.
All the same, I am becoming increasingly aware that the chemo is charging a heavy tariff. And in that regard, I am the wastrel, the profligate intent on squandering her assets while the tax collector waits in the hallway, shifting stolidly from one foot to the other.
Our home life often moves at a fast pace and as of late it has moved at a frantic pace. Most of the most frenetic activity is in Warren's spheres, which invariably spill over into mine, but some of it is of my own doing.
I need to learn to step away. I need to learn to turn off the engine. I need to learn to conserve.
I took a baby step a month ago, resigning my seat on our town's civil service commission. I have served on the commission since 2006 and that was a hard letter to sign. Afterwards, I cried, especially after the note from the fire chief arrived in my email.
I am taking bigger steps right now, wrapping up a yearlong court project with my old court. The project was community building in the truest sense and I am proud of my work. But as I draw up my project punch list, I find myself handing over the reins (and the paperwork and the responsibility) to the new court coordinator with a palpable sense of relief rather than reluctance. It is time to let it go.
I am learning to conserve myself.
The most daunting frontier of conservancy is personal. I can not, I will not winnow my friends. But I have to start limiting my engagements. And that is hard, hard, hard. No, I can't meet you for lunch; no, I can't do coffee that day or even that week.
It is hard and I resent it. But then I come back to the definition of "conserve" and the reality of my life now. To be able to work, I must conserve myself. To be able to write, I must conserve myself. To be able to be Warren's companion and helpmeet, I must conserve myself. Already others have called me on the carpet. My friend Kevin wrote "Especially while you are in treatment, if the choice is between baking and taking a break, you should take a break!" Kim echoed him in her email: "Lastly, I know you are the mentor and I am the mentee but I do have to say April take care of yourself. I only say this because it seems that you're spreading yourself really really thin even for person who had 100 percent health. " And my wonderful friend and coworker Dodie looks at me and says, bluntly, "April, just go home!"
So I must learn to conserve. My friendships will carry on, even if the emphasis shifts to emails and shorter contacts. One dear to my heart, discussing my health, wrote "God has blessed you both with many friends. Hold tightly to them." I hold those words tightly and gratefully.
I find myself thinking a lot of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and E.B. White, the two writers I return to time and time again. Anne was famous for the sheer volume of friends and acquaintances she had. Her correspondences, tea and luncheon engagements, and evening events (plays, dinners, concerts, movies) were staggering. She wrote in her lyrical Gift From The Sea:
There is so little empty space. The space is scribbled on, the time has been filled. There are so few pages in my engagement pad, or empty hours in the day, or empty rooms in my life in which to stand alone and find myself. Too many activities, and people, and things. Too many worthy activities, valuable things, and interesting people. For it is not merely the trivial which clutters our lives, but the important as well. We can have a surfeit of treasures.
Anne did not often take her own wise counsel, although she passed it on.
At the other end of the social spectrum was E.B. White, who tended to lean far away from the limelight and the social bustle. Quiet and introverted by nature, he filled his days, but tended to fill them at his pace and with his writing. I have been rereading the exquisite Essays of E.B. White. White's writing is deceptively simple, so clean and clear that you read and then catch your breath in sheer delight. In one, he wrote:
There is one big boulder down in the pasture woods where I sometimes go to sit when I am lonely or sick or melancholy or disenchanted or frightened, and in combination with sweet fern, juniper, and bayberry this old rock has a remarkable restorative effect on me. I'm not sure but that this is the true energy, the real source of man's strength.
Fall is just over the horizon and conserving—canning and harvesting—is in the air. I don't have a rock but I can sit for hours on my deck and watch the bees ply the sunburnt flowers. Doing so has a remarkable restorative effect on me.
"Conserve" also means to preserve with sugar and a conserve is a candied fruit mixture, much like a very thick jam. It is time for me to take stock. It is time to candy those memories and store them against the darkening days, the gray winter ahead.
It is time to conserve.