After two bus transfers and about three miles of meandering in search of a Brookline café that had seats, free wifi, and available outlets, I found myself on Beacon Street next to a ginormous motorhome emblazoned with “something something Medical something” and a woman with a pink heart balloon attached to her waist.

“Would you like to donate blood today?” she asked chirpily.

“Can I donate blood if I recently lived in Egypt?” I replied, pulling a well-rehearsed quizzical brow.

She pulled the same face.

“Um… you could ask the charge nurse inside.”

Giving blood was a hassle even before I moved to Cairo and back. My parents can’t give blood in case they have mutated prions lingering in their blood stream from living in the UK circa 1989, and every time I go in the staff have to triple check that my childhood homes don’t disqualify me because of rampant tuberculosis or malaria or something else unchecked in the former Soviet Union. I get cleared, but I get weird looks and smiley comments like “well, haven’t you had an exciting life!”

I say, “oh, not really,” like a knee-jerk reaction, but while pumping half a droplet-shaped stress ball and watching deep red liquid slither out of my arm, I have time to reconsider this response. When you’ve got a sixteen-gauge needle in your arm you can’t fidget much, and when the nurses are bringing you goldfish crackers and orange juice you don’t want to.

Why did I say that?
Did I mean it?
Have I had an exciting life?

What happens to my blood after they put it in that cooler?

Why do people give blood?

Do humans ever do things out of purely altruistic motivations?
Does goodness depend on altruism?
What does it mean to live a good life?
Have I had a good life?
Have I had an exciting life?
How much of that depends on me?

It all depends upon a red wheelbarrow, of course.

Yet here I am, in a plush motorhome-turned-blood-drive-mobile eating goldfish crackers and watching a nurse move through a finely tuned, well-designed process of clamps and valves and test vials after undergoing a screening and a check of my vital signs. I am worlds and worlds from Cairo and I still don’t have any answers to those questions, even though they are probably the reason I went there in the first place.

Not the questions about blood, obviously. The questions about goodness, what it means to pursue it, and by what criteria I’ll evaluate my life.  In Cairo, life was good if I felt useful, if I didn’t cry that day, if I spoke Arabic in full sentences, if I got out of bed and showered and wore something clean. The latter clause is a standard I still attempt to keep. But though school is familiar territory and there are clear academic expectations set out for me, I’m not sure what to expect of myself.

What does it mean to live a good life?

 What do I think it means to live a good life, here, in the United States, in Boston, in graduate school?

My answers are always small and inadequate and provisional. They always look something like getting out of bed and doing my homework and emailing a friend and brainstorming Christmas presents, and they never feel like enough. And they aren’t enough. Not relative to the thousand crippling inequalities and problems and imminent catastrophes swirling around me. I donate blood that will go to someone in the trauma bay of an Emergency Department, or in a cancer ward, to a surgical patient or someone suffering from a blood disease. And it’s one pint of blood, and it’s not going to cure anyone. My offered cells don’t take away the car accident or cancer diagnosis or their causes. The woman behind me in line told an impatient husband that he could “wait fifteen minutes if it means saving a life,” but my pint of blood doesn’t do that on its own. If donating blood is an answer, it’s small and inadequate and provisional.

But it’s something.

I don’t know what it means to live a good life, or how I’m measuring it. I didn’t donate blood out of purely altruistic motivations—I’m a sucker for free snacks and affirmation. I have had a good life, an exciting life, and insofar as it depends on me, I’d like to keep that up. So something is enough for today, and a different something might be enough for tomorrow, and as I’ve done every morning in Boston, as I did every morning in Cairo, and every morning before that, I’ll get out of bed and try for something.

What’s that red wheelbarrow all about, anyway?

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