Among the many projects I started this year is a two-person podcast, aptly titled “Never Try”, which addresses a wide range of failures throughout history. With any luck, the podcast’s 10-episode first season will be published this year, but for now, I’m gratified that the first bit of research I did for my segments involved the difficult personal life of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Not everything negative in Melville’s life deserves sympathy; in the throes of his setbacks, failures, and depressive spells, he also caused harm to others, including his wife and children. However, in the sum total of his sadness still lies a pointed reminder: namely, that the giants of our cultural canon were messy human beings, many of whom struggled with little immediate success, and no way of knowing that their lives would have any greater impact.
I’m heartened by this reminder that success has no fixed blueprint, because this has been a grinding and disappointing year for me. I had high hopes for many things, all of which fell through: the transition out of academia, the completion of a novel project, the production by summer’s end of a season of podcast episodes, the achievement of any further writing sales to build on last year’s fortuitous landing in two Year’s Best Anthologies, the accumulation of savings to make moving to a new community a viable option, and the preparation needed to take a post-secondary equivalency exam in physics, so as to build history-of-science writing credentials by other means after withdrawing from my PhD program last November.
More than these individual failures, though, I’ve been shaken by what they suggest on whole about me: in particular, about my (in)ability to establish clear, coherent goals and see them through. There is, of course, always the spectre of type-II bipolar disorder weighing on any large list of unfinished projects (bipolar manic phases being known in part for huge spurts of furious and disorganized energy), but I don’t think this set of failures can be dispelled as simply as that. Rather, I suspect the furious energy involved here has more to do with desperate desire to offset one failure (i.e. the abrupt collapse of my PhD two dissertation drafts into the process) with concrete affirmations that I can develop an accomplished life by other means.
Either way, though, furious energy is rarely effective energy, and the last few months have shown no exception to that rule. A few weeks ago, someone attempted to sympathize by telling me that being intelligent can’t be easy, because there are so many things I could be doing that I must have difficulty a) choosing between them, b) sticking with one path, and c) building my career therein. This friend was being kind in calling me “intelligent”, because the other half of his statement needs no such prerequisite–and it, at least, is true: I have been wavering. I have been frozen by the thought of how many lives there are to live. And then, of course (in the manner common to many persons lucky enough to have such problems), I’ve felt ashamed for wasting my abundance of opportunities–and, in this shame, I’ve wasted even more.
In the coming four months, though, I have a work schedule that does not allow for much striving, and I’m hoping to use this restriction to my benefit. I will be stretching myself thin on the work front, so to avoid a level of crankiness experienced in previous terms when working 2-3 jobs with little financial security over the full week, I’m limiting my social media, prioritizing a rigorous climbing and running schedule, and curtailing evening social encounters (especially where there is the opportunity to drink). Mostly, though, I want to see what I lean towards in the small moments of freedom this schedule allows for, and try to listen to those natural inclinations, and build upon them for whatever comes next.
I’m sure this sounds easy, but if I’ve learned anything about myself this summer, it is that I am terrible at defending what I want to do when confronted with resistance. In the last few months, while failing at things I have striven for, I’ve had a disorienting number of people encourage me… not to pick myself up and try again, but rather to stop striving so hard at all: to take the paths of least resistance when offered; to put off dramatic risks; to give up trying to accomplish so much; to just “enjoy the journey”.
Now, on the one hand, this feels like a sure way to give up on dreams that require long-term planning, diligence, and sacrifice. Moreover, when I think in terms of this loss, I feel most acutely the absence in my life of a fellow-traveller: a person who would always champion those biggest dreams, and push me to take the risks needed to achieve them, and support me (as I would them) along the way. Granted, I know such people are rarities–and furthermore, that my own experience involves people who drain time, money, and energy for their own survival or ambitions, and frequently have no interest in my interests at all. But, despite the pragmatic reality, the theoretical sticking point remains: the sense of having failed at so many other things in the past few years because I failed first, when I was younger, to achieve the right sort of ally-ship in life. So be it, though: if that’s the problem, that’s one I cannot fix overnight.
On the other hand, though, I think I know what people are really saying, when they encourage me to relax. They’re saying: Learn to see the successes in the everyday. Seek out more pleasure in being present. Build a sense of accomplishment around the miracle of being alive at all, and celebrate that wonder with other such miracles while you can.
I have enough examples, after all, to know that these are rich lives, full of purpose, too.
In the building where I live, for instance, an older lady named Margarida tends a small plot of flowers. Margarida is Portuguese, and although we’d conversed many times before, I felt we bonded most one predawn in our shared laundry room, when she told me about a then-upcoming trip to Portugal: a trip that she was treating as a final goodbye to a sister in decline. Was this sad? Yes, of course, but she was thankful for having the opportunity at all–“So long as my sister doesn’t surprise me by dying before I get there.” But the trip, when I saw her on her return, went even better than expected: a rare opportunity for both to reflect upon the long arcs of their lives–the sorrows, the joys, but most of all the little quirks that made their worlds their own. She was satisfied, she said, to have had the chance to reflect on a life well lived.
If Margarida has particularly sad days, I never see them. What I do see is the side she shares with most of the world: the side that wears and trusts in her cross with pride, but makes a less overt display of all the little things she does for her community, even though her impact is plainly felt: in the baked goods she brings to local vendors, in the time she spends with less independent residents of our building, and, of course, in the flowers.
I didn’t realize, until I ran into her one morning, weeding the lot and picking detritus from between the stems, that the flowerbed was entirely of Margarida’s own construction: a labour of love over a decade old, and not just a standard facet of the building owner’s designs for the apartment complex. Perhaps if I’d looked closer, sooner, I’d have realized this wasn’t the work of a contractor… but to be honest, I had taken the whole thing for granted throughout my four years in the building. When I mentioned my surprise to Margarida, though, she laughed. She told me that she worked on this flower garden for two reasons: first, for the pleasure of the work itself–that sense of achievement in seeing something so fragile come into its own; and second, for the joy of brightening her neighbours’ world, whether they knew it was by her hand or not.
These, too, are valuable lives, and I’d hate to think that I’m impugning similar in my friends groups, and my broader networks, by not being satisfied with the sheer act of being alive, and all the little joys that come from being present in and for my community. I live in an area surrounded by people who have–for reasons of brain injury, addiction, degenerating age, or extreme mental health concern–lost the ability to produce anything like the output I long for; but then there are also a great abundance of locals who do have the ability to produce similar, and simply have no interest in it. Or, if they do have interest, their working lives and child-rearing lives and attendant slings of financial and social stress have entrenched them in a sense of defeat about artistic practice. And in this body of experience, they, too, offer lessons in what constitutes a life well lived. Who the hell am I not to listen? Am I just spinning wheels for the sake of spinning wheels? Using my immense amount of busy work, and all my goals and ambitions, to pretend my way to a life of meaning?
There are days when I want to leave, and live an anonymous life in a small community teaching English halfway across the world–maybe translating and writing in the quiet of the evenings or the lull of predawn; but always, in this fantasy, without all the attendant worries about “wasting” time and failing to achieve any recognition for the work. Who really needs another book about histories of science? Another short story, or poem, or tediously long-winded blog post? It’s no wonder I’m told so often to stop striving, to relax, to just go with the flow of life. None of these things I care about matter. Nothing really does–but not in the nihilist sense of the phrase; more in the sense of “so why are you breaking yourself over any of this?”
It’s a fair point, and so–for now, while I work a difficult schedule and figure out how to cope with the terrible decision I have allowed myself to be pushed into–I am going put off bigger goals, and as much coherent striving as possible. I’m going to focus on just getting through these next few months, and–in the process–listen: to other lives, yes–other ways of finding meaning in existence-but also, to myself. I want to see what comes most naturally to the quiet spells between necessary labour. I want to see where my heart really lies–what sorts of “gardens” I’m inclined, on my own, to tend–and then, without all the frantic performance, all the desperate urgency that has marked so much of these last few months full of failure… to tend to them: quietly, patiently, and with more love for the daily labour than any hope of a grand result.
Whatever successes you have and have not achieved in your own creative practice, I hope you’ve at least found the gardens most worth tending to in your lives.
If not, then I wish you well on your own, impending hunts.