“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
This quote by Mary Oliver has been popping into my head on a daily basis the last few weeks now. A bold whisper of a voice, invisible, incessant and slightly disruptive. Sometimes, I find it terrifying.
This morning I was sifting through the photos on my camera–all one-thousand or so of them. (The picture above I took last September while in Barcelona.) I was berating myself for not erasing the ones that have already been downloaded, tsk-tsking myself as I kept hitting back, back, back, the camera beeping with each photo. There were pictures from a particularly colorful sunset last week, a trail of dog prints on the sand from months ago. There were pictures of my garden and my yard, back when it was less brown than it is now. There were pictures of the room where I write, the desk situated in various places, under the window or against the wall. (That was before I’d found the perfect place to put it, in the middle of the room exactly where it is now.) The more I clicked back, the more I became aware of the gradual transition that has, almost imperceptibly, taken place with each passing day. The pictures allowed me to revisit that time, remember how awkward and vulnerable it felt to be there and realize just how far and how long it took me to get to this place–the now where I am now.
Now it’s the end of summer. We are in yet another transition.
This year I went from living in the Northern hemisphere to living in the Southern hemisphere–from summer to winter. I talk about this a lot because I find it’s kind of like time travel. You get on a plane and you can go from one climate/season/hemisphere/reality to another, in a matter of hours. I find it fascinating how I wake up in the morning and it’s still yesterday in the States. People are going on their lunch breaks on Wednesday as I’m having breakfast on Thursday. I am in a constant state of future, I live on a parallel plane seventeen hours in advance. This is a fact, yet it surprises me every single day. It’s as if part of me really believes that tomorrow we’ll all be in the same time zone because when I close my eyes tonight, time will somehow stop for me, long enough for you to catch up.
I forget how we are always and forever in transition.
This reminds me of so many conversations I’ve had with myself. It is the the underlying thread, the unspoken theme around which many of my conversations with my friends revolves. It’s this myth that as soon as X happens then I will be Y. Replace X with any number of things and you can conjure your own ideal for Y.
As soon as I graduate, then I will start my real life.
As soon as I get a good job, then I will feel more financially secure.
As soon as I get married, then I will feel fulfilled in my love life.
As soon as I buy a house, then I will feel settled.
It is this false idea, I believe, that accounts for much of the world’s unhappiness. It is this notion that as soon as we accomplish something on life’s long to-do list we will somehow suddenly become entitled to keep our lives under lock and key. We will be granted some sort of immunity against change, against age, against tragedy or loss. And magically, we will be awarded a sugar-coated lifetime of utter happiness.
Despite knowing better, we continually set ourselves up for these inevitable disappointments. We are even surprised, angry and indignant when “bad stuff” happens. (Why me?) Humans can be so, well, human. Our brains can’t accept the transitory nature of life–even though we live, breathe and experience it every single day, from the day we are born until the day we die. We think that real life has yet to begin and when it finally starts we will absolutely, without a doubt know it because it will feel solid and stable and ever-unchanging. All will be well just as soon as we can hold everything in our hot little hands.
Indulging in this way of thinking is a grave, grave mistake. It is a farce and it is this very way of thinking that will lead us all into ruin, if we let it.
So what’s the alternative? What’s the solution? How do we fix this?
I believe the answer to that is to stop looking outside ourselves. To stop believing more in circumstances or things outside ourselves than we believe in ourselves. Why? Because we are all have, right here, right now.
So why do we constantly ignore ourselves? My take on that is because it’s easy. It’s easier to focus on others or the things outside of us than it is to turn inward and focus on ourselves. It’s all too easy to get sucked into daily routines and chores, to fill our lives so full of obligations we ultimately sabotage our very existence.
When I was in my early twenties, I used to think or fantasize or probably truly believe, that one day someone would knock on my door and give me everything I wanted, complete with a bow and a wad of cash. Part of me naively thought that being a good person, doing my best, going to work every day, would, by default “earn” me something. And in a way, it did. I earned exactly what I got, exactly what I had. Want to know what I had? I had a good job that I actually liked. I had a good-looking, kind-hearted husband who would do anything for me. I lived in a big huge house and was building an even bigger huge house with a three-hundred and sixty degree view of classic Italian panorama. I drove a Mercedes, went out to eat whenever I wanted and didn’t think twice about spending money. I went home to see my family three times a year, if not more and traveled to exotic, exciting places. There wasn’t a thing wrong with my life. There was absolutely nothing to complain about. No one was sick or dying, all was well. And yet every single day, I felt wrecked and heartbroken. I felt there must have been something terribly wrong with me. That I was somehow fundamentally flawed because I could not simply just be happy with what I had. I tried in every way I knew how to learn to love my life, to “embrace it,” as my mother used to tell me to do when I would call her sobbing. But something inside me wouldn’t have it. I felt empty when I closed my eyes and tried to imagine my future in this world I’d worked SO HARD to build. I could see everything–the beautiful new house, the expensive counter tops we’d argued over, our yellow lab running through the sloping acre of olive trees in the back yard. It was exquisite. It was fabulous. And it was all wasted. I felt wasted.
While I wasn’t sure if there was anything actually wrong with me, I knew there was something wrong with feeling wasted, so I decided to do something about it. I felt I had no real choice in the matter in the end. In my decision to “do something about it,” I lost more than I could have ever remotely imagined, on so many levels. Some people, people I have loved deeply, took one look at my decision and called me selfish. I find this interesting because the level of loss I have experienced tells me otherwise.
It has taken me years to pick apart why I felt that way. I felt the way I did because I copped out of my own life. I certainly wasn’t conscious of this then, but enough time has passed for me to see it with the distinctly clear lenses of hindsight. I was terrified of having to carve out a path for myself when the world opened with possibility after I graduated. Part of me wanted a career and another part of me just didn’t want to face it. “It” being uncertainty, the future, impending failures, the inevitable learning curve that I so stupidly thought I could somehow weave my way around. I wanted to be in a two-person alliance with someone who counted “more” than I did. I thought this would be easier than working to achieve my own dreams at the time. In fact, I didn’t even have the guts to define my own dreams for myself. So instead, I made someone else’s dreams my own. I abdicated myself for my marriage. I didn’t consciously think these thoughts, believe me. It was just a natural, almost biological response to the fear and uncertainty in my life at that point. I opted for the external instead of asking myself what it was that I wanted.
Part of why I didn’t ask myself what I wanted was because I knew the answer to that. The truth was, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted. Knowing what I know now, I wish I could go back and tell myself, “Well, honey, if you don’t know what you want in life, don’t just take a wild guess. In fact, I would advise you not do anything until that begins to become a little more clear to you.” By “doing” anything, I mean–don’t move in with anyone, don’t get married, don’t have a baby. Don’t make any life-altering decisions in your state of “I don’t know” and for God’s sake, don’t involve other innocent by-standers, no matter how much you want to love and keep them for yourself forever.
What I needed back then was a good shaking.
I needed Mary Oliver.
I needed someone to ask me to ask myself, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The now where I am now, in New Zealand, forever located in a future seventeen hours ahead of the continent I call home, twelve hours ahead of Europe, the continent I called home for ten years? It is a weird little world to say the least. There is nothing stable about my life right now. I have no job and I drive a four-hundred and fifty dollar car that just barely passed its six-month inspection. But this is my life. Right now. This is it, folks. It might not seem like much, but to me this time in space feels sacred. I’ve come to see it as a holding space–a landing pad of sorts. Here, I am gathering my thoughts, my wits, asking myself every day if what it is that I am doing with my “one wild and precious life” is actually what I want and feel called to do. Most days I feel lucky to be able to honestly say, I’m working on it. And today, I realized, I even have the pictures to prove it.