on filling time and looking forward

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Photograph by C. Levy

The past year and a half has been a crazy chunk of my life, scarred with startling and unwelcome news, heartbreak, loss, healing, adventure, personal discovery, growth, love, leaps of faith, hope, more heartache, and more healing (in roughly that order).  It’s been a time of important transitions and big decisions – especially concerning what to do next, now that I’ve finished my MA – and all of those elements has played a part in shaping my relationship to my indeterminate and open future.  Unlike many close friends who seem to have an innate sense of certainty in their life plans, I feel more like a wanderer – meandering, rather than striving, and scanning rather than focusing.  It’s difficult not to feel envious of the sense of progress and momentum that comes from seeing your destination on the horizon, and knowing that it’s just a matter of checkpoints between you and there.

Without a doubt the biggest decision I made this summer was to leave my full time job as a cafe manager and to move into a cheaper apartment so that I could afford to work less and have more time to pursue projects that might help me establish a new direction for myself.  It was intensely scary, and it took me ages to actually make the move, but I am so happy that I did.  The happiness I feel now, though, doesn’t diminish in my mind the incredible scale of that decision for me at the time.  Deciding to take that risk was huge, for me, and it was intensely scary to face (and to try to embrace) the vast and empty space that it was meant to open up in my life.

The main reason that I felt I needed to leave that full time job was lack of time to do the things that I felt would give my life meaning – namely: teaching, reading, and writing.  Which is why I found it so startling that, just yesterday, I found myself writing the following note-to-self in the margin of my lecture notes:

I have no time to do the things that I want to do

That thought gave me pause.  I am working as a teaching assistant (and in fact, yesterday I led what I felt to be one of my best tutorial sessions to-date), I get to sit in on a class that is right up-my-alley in terms of interests, and I participate in a reading group for a text that I’ve been meaning to tackle.  In my spare time I do a bit of freelance work, but mostly have the time to read and write.  To be fair, most of that time lately has been spent reading and writing out of obligation rather than for leisure, but the point remains that I chose all of the obligations that demand things of me, and I continue to endorse those obligations by re-committing myself to fulfilling them.  For all intents and purposes I am doing the things I want to do.

This summer, I gave myself a blank slate and this is how I chose to fill it… So how can I reasonably say that I have no time to do the things that I want to do, when these are precisely the things that I chose, the things that I want to be doing?

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about personal direction and ambition.  I have been accused (compassionately) of lacking drive and determination – even of lacking goals.  High school-me would laugh; that type-A, straight-A Student Council president who won leadership awards and was hell-bent on getting a PhD in philosophy would probably not recognize the uncertain (but, I maintain, equally brazen) young woman I am today.  But the things past-me didn’t think about weigh heavily on me now: the sense of homelessness that I feel in this transition between the secured freedom of teenage certainty and the open-endedness of adult self-determination; between the things I need to do to sustain my life, and the things I want to do to give it meaning; and, perhaps most pressingly, between staying to tread water near family and friends, or venturing out into the deep end, far from familiar comforts and supports.

I find comfort in the philosophical texts I am reading; they reassure me that these are not easy decisions, and that the fact that I feel the weight of the world bearing down on me is at least hopefully a sign that I am authentically facing these decisions rather than fleeing into distractions.  That comfort settles nothing, however, and therein lies the hard core of the matter; I feel the (hopefully justified) paralyzing anxiety and yet still must choose.

The key, I think, is that I need to stop thinking of myself as busy, and remind myself that I am the projects I undertake.  My life is not the space in between the things that I do – a space that feels ever-smaller the busier I am – but rather the things I do themselves.  To live well is to spend the limited time that I have thoughtfully and intentionally.  I will make mistakes, I will change direction, I will adjust the sails or flip the hull and try again when I capsize.  I will waste time, and then chastise myself later for squandering such a precious resource.  Those are not stumbles and they are not falls; they are actions undertaken on the basis of present-knowledge that the future may deem, in retrospect, to have been misguided.  Taking the time to make decisions thoughtfully, and to hold off on making commitments until I feel ready to see them through is not stalling; it’s respecting and honoring the significance of those decisions.  I can only hope that the choices I make end up being worth the weight of making them.

The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware,
joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.
Henry Miller

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