Plans, Plans, Plans… and Flowers

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 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.



Notes on a Dead Year, & Thoughts for the One to Come

I started 2016 with high hopes and a raging head cold.

This year, no head cold–but my optimism is firmly tempered.

Last year I was simply thankful to reach 30, despite many crises in my twenties that made planning for the future difficult. I had lost much in preceding years, and sadness reigned when I thought of all the negativity present in the universe in part because of me. Calmness reigned when I looked, instead, ahead, as someone who at last had triumphed over their traumas.

That sense of triumph did not last long. I taught my first course, but felt like I was blundering through the material I had so lovingly put together. I tried to mend the more exhausting relationships in my life, and ended up estranged from a great deal of community for months. I created some healthy distances in my life, but only with great strife, while the intensity of my work schedule made it hard to build better connections in their place.

I suspect I was wounded most, though, by my own ego. In some communities, 30 is supposed to be an age of wisdom: the earliest age of candidacy for some political offices; the age of rabbinical viability for figures from both the Old Testament and the New. But of course, even the character of Christ has his failings, like his temper tantrum over a fig tree–and there’s something comforting about that, even as an atheist: knowing that people can have their missteps overtly acknowledged, and still be celebrated for other, ostensibly more constructive acts.[1] Meanwhile, other traditions recognize 30 simply as the beginning of a new phase in personal growth. In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates purports that 30 is the age when the dialectic can first be taught with any measure of protection against the “insanity” of youthful eristicism–and even then, only with great care and prolonged study, after which

they must be sent down again into the den and compelled to hold any military or other office which young men are qualified to hold: in this way they will get their experience of life, and there will be an opportunity of trying whether, when they are drawn all manner of ways by temptation, they will stand firm or flinch.

Only after this, and much more, does Plato’s Socrates suggest that the survivors at 50 will have wisdom enough to rule over their own lives, let alone provide vital leadership to the rest. I have a ways to go, then, before I require further excuses for failing to achieve a better balance in my own life–and in 2017, I intend to make full use of this extension.

In the wake of 2016’s global politics, for instance, a final gear seems to have fixed itself in my heart, driving an engine of conviction that has, if not a clear endpoint, at least a direction: a sense that the time for play is over, and the real work must begin. Not since 9/11 have I felt so present in my own era, or so certain that “big history” is stirring–overtly and inscrutably–all around me. On the one hand, I know that these are dangerous feelings, because a deep immersion in political histories can distract a body from the specifics of a given cultural context. To this end, I wonder sometimes if my current fears are out of proportion with the actual extent of today’s threats to forty years of (already uneven) social advancement.

But then again, so what if these fears are out of proportion? Because, on the other hand, the greater danger lies in waiting until the world is burning in order to say, See? I was right all along! If the worst price we’ll have to pay for advocating harder, right now, for our most vulnerable populations and democratic institutions is the risk that, years later, others might shrug at the thought that either was ever really threatened in the first place, so be it. Let us live to mark that privileged future as the truest sign of our victory in the present.

There are, after all, more futile ways to spend one’s energy. I dedicated a great deal of 2016 to a project I wanted very much to succeed: a dissertation on representations of astronomy in the 19th century, which would have paved the way for a career in scientific non-fiction, which would in turn have allowed me to advocate for scientific literacy as both educator and writer. To this end, I wrote and researched little else in 2016 between three jobs, and let the rest of my life fall away. Time for fiction-writing became a particular rarity, and even when I did write stories, I was not ignorant of the fact that most pooled around 9 to 11,000 words–the same length, give or take, as my dissertation chapters. That PhD project was, for all intents and purposes, my life in 2016. It consumed everything–and to an end that as of yet remains uncertain.

What I do know is that I will be pivoting hard in 2017, and finishing a novel draft by April. One of my constant refrains as a writing mentor is that, if you let go of the story that isn’t working, the story that has failed to find its place in the world, then the best ideas in that story, and the themes that matter most to you, will be freed up to resurface in future works. Moreover, when they do–however long that process might take–they will almost always emerge more seamlessly than in any versions come before. So it is with my current project, where, for the first time ever, I am finding a confluence of ideas and character types and reading practices that have been flitting about in novel and story drafts since I was at least 17. I already know the shape of this project from beginning to end, and–despite its reliance on a narrative structure that scares me–I am beginning to think that, if I pull this off, the book will contain everything I have been trying to say about what storytelling means to me for years.

And yes, I know, that is a lofty bar to set so early on. This, though, is the crux of what I want to bring with me to the year to come: Decisiveness. Self-confidence. The surety that, at this point in my life, irrespective of any ongoing sadnesses and setbacks, I can lay claim to a certain set of skills, and that–in consequence–I have a responsibility to use them.

In a few days I begin to teach another course: a writing course, wherein I hope to help others find and hone their voices in turn. A part of me is preemptively grieving the possibility that this tremendous opportunity will also be my last–but the rest of me knows that where life goes on, growth goes on. There will always be other communities, other spaces in which to become a better ally in hopefulness about the world.

With this in mind, I am hoping this year that I will always be in a space to repeat to myself–at the next, inevitable downturn in mood or life outcome–that 2017 may be an arbitrary turning point, but it is our arbitrary turning point, and that ownership gives us both license and responsibility to make the very best of the time ahead.

I lay no claim to knowing exactly what that will look like–“making the very best of the time ahead”–but my head is clear and my heart is certain: I know I still have to try.

A Happy New Year to you all, then–for I know you will as well.

[1] Granted, the tribalism, pro-slavery sentiment, scientific ignorance, failed prophesies, indifference to animal welfare and social change in the mortal lifespan, and dubious rabbinical counsel are often overlooked because billions consider Christ a god, which makes the elision of his flaws as troubling as they are inevitable, in keeping with his purported superiority over the rest of humankind. Nevertheless, the general principle holds. Wouldn’t it be splendid if we could hold each other’s failings up–not to undermine each other’s successes, but so as to recognize the fullness and the complexity of other lives, and to stand firm against the glorifying impulse that makes it so easy to be disillusioned when any human being, however charming or socially constructive, fails to be perfect on all accords? This secular humanist can always dream.