Living in the moment sounds great until you’re forced into it. Knowing that a phone call, email, or text could arrive and flip the day upside down gets to be a bit draining. Experiences like these become fast reminders of why a little boring predictability is a good thing.
We often presume news out of the blue is a good thing. This likely expresses our fairytale tendency to Disney-fy life’s grimmer moments. We don’t talk about when news twists your head backward and proclaims, “nope, you aren’t really going in that direction after all.”
I’ve been pre-occupied with existence and meaning these days. Frankl talks about asking of life’s meaning is not the real question, but instead to recognize that life is questioning us. These days I wonder how that questioning changes when life is nearing the end – I am not responding as I live the rest of my life, but as I near the end of my days.
Ok, don’t panic, I’m not dying. Well, not today at least. Death isn’t looking at me, but it is hanging nearby watching another. Death stands in the corner, tapping a patient finger on its crossed arms. I’d offer it a cigarette, but that seems a little too cliche`. Maybe death prefers Swisher Sweets?
Life questions us. Death, on the other hand, doesn’t really entertain questions. It has a firm grasp on certainties. We’re the ones who futilely expect it to offer answers, platitudes mainly, and fall prey to creating the very frustration we seek to avoid. We circle it, plead, joke, make deals – and all the while it just carries on, knowing it can go wherever it pleases. We just wish it would clue us in on where that destination happens to be.
Not too long ago, I couldn’t tell if it was around. I’d catch a glimpse here and there but would lose sight of it. Maybe it left, or maybe Death is just a really good hide-and-seeker. Now it’s out in the open, making itself a regular fixture in the room like a skinny floor lamp or one of those 1980’s landscape paintings you’d buy out of a trunk from a roadside starving artist sale. You know it’s there, but you’ll scratch your eyes out if you have to look at it all day.
It’s funny though how much time we spend pretending it’s not there. But the truth is, you get to a point where you don’t want it to go away. It needs to be there because the person it’s staring at is slowly running out of ways to answer life’s questioning. Their stuttered half-truths reflect this teetering between question and answer, and you realize the answer that is coming is only meant for their ears.
How is it this person becomes a time traveler, visiting friends from past, present, and future, often at the same moment? I can’t see these people but they are there, conversing as though nothing has changed. These characters parade in and out of the room, and Death winks at each like an old flirt. Maybe Death prefers Gauloises after all.
I don’t know when this stage play will come to an end. I’ve been assured it will though, whether I’m there to see it or not. Oddly enough, I’m not angry at Death for these theatrics. They make their own absurd sense, and it’s the only thing Death will talk about with me anyway. Smoke away, Death, your lungs can take it. Mine, on the other hand, are waiting to take a deep breath…
(I wrote this a while ago with the thought of getting it published somewhere. That didn’t happen so here it is.)
Following news of the suicide of another high-profile figure, we have been flooded with stories related to suicide, depression, and mental health. Questions of why this happened, how it could be prevented, and what we should do next abound. These reactions are expected and necessary, but I find myself reaching for connection in the midst of my grief-induced loneliness.
I never met Bourdain personally. But I, like many others, was introduced to him through his work. He stood out, often referred to as the “bad boy” of celebrity chefs due to his brash, straight-talking persona. Yet it didn’t take too much effort to see behind the act. His shows and writing were filled with thoughtful reflection, insight, and personal accountability. He spoke the truth of what he saw even when that could have ended his career. But more importantly, he revealed his shortcomings and his errors, and allowed himself to be changed by what he learned. A raw curiosity, a desire to learn from mistakes, and putting himself out there for all to see is what drew me to him. Bourdain could do what many seasoned counselors can’t, and he inspired me to regularly step into that which I did not know.
As I look at the tributes and comments many have made, I can see how many people from all over the world are affected by this loss. Those who were closest to him request privacy, as they rightly should. Friends and acquaintances share stories with sadness tugging at their throats. But there are many people with stories like mine – people who never met him directly, never shared a drink or a handshake, and yet we feel as hollowed out by this experience as if we had lost our closest friend.
Is it so strange, though, to think we could be deeply affected by the presence of someone we did not physically meet? Is this feeling just the surface reaction to the shock of suicide, or is there something more to this? But perhaps the question to ask instead is, why shouldn’t we be affected by an inexplicable loss of someone who influenced our lives?
I wonder if our tendency to dismiss the grief associated with the loss of a public figure is rooted in a cultural stance driven by rugged individualism, the spirit that says one person can withstand anything. And yet, we easily forget that the one cannot stand without the many. While we look at our personal successes and failures, we tend to ignore the many people who came before us, those we needed to become who we are today. We can see the people we know directly, but we lose sight of those whose influence worked in the background, the many people we may have never met who helped shape our understanding of ourselves. Thus, when we lose someone who has shown us something about who we could be, of course it is devastating because we are left wondering who is left. But in a society that prizes the individual above all else, admitting our need for others gets redefined as a weakness instead of a strength.
Our social-media interaction style gives us the illusion that we are together, a mere Instagram away from the next person. The exposure someone like Bourdain gets means we have more access to the figures who influence us. It becomes possible to find people all over the world giving us a sense that we are not alone. Yet it also makes the divide greater because our posts, tweets, and shares are one-dimensional snapchats of ourselves, preventing us from engaging in the risk of vulnerability that is also required to be known and to know others. I am left knowing that Bourdain made an impact on my life, but our relationship will always be one-sided. His death confirms that there will never be a chance for me to know more.
Here we come to the tragedy of suicide, the act where only those who have done it truly understand it. We who remain can only get so close to making sense of it and usually have to settle with angry acceptance. We want to be able to prevent it, yet it is the fact that it has already happened that reveals our powerlessness.
I will make no claim regarding why Anthony Bourdain ended his life. He alone in that private moment knew the reason. Perhaps I refrain from speculation because in Bourdain I recognized a familiar interior struggle, the desire for authentic relationship shrouded by the angst of isolation. We fear that if someone knows the real us, they will leave us and we will be alone. Yet it is not perfection that breeds genuine relationship; the experience of being disappointed by another means we have shared our humanity. Imperfection becomes its own beauty because it is through our flaws where we find our common humanity. Our limitations create the need for each other.
Loss ironically reveals the significance of our connections. While we may need to accept that the physical person is gone, we seek the ways in which we can hold on to what mattered. Bourdain meant something to me, and I want that meaning to go on, to find a way to flourish. It is a way to keep those connections valuable, even though the person is no longer there.
I wonder if Anthony Bourdain had any idea about all the people who felt connected to him, who now see emptiness where he once stood. If he had known, would it have made a difference? Would I be writing about something else, hopefully something mundane, if he had been given a glimpse into how much we need his risk-taking, his plain-speaking, his mistakes, his foibles, and his passion – how much we simply need him?
I am tempted to provide comfort and say this will all get better. But that seems disingenuous to the memory of someone who easily called “bullshit” when he saw it. The truth is, this hurts; we will find few answers and more questions. We may want to say that if suicide can claim Bourdain, it can claim any of us, so why bother. But maybe this is what Bourdain has given us, a final demonstration of his own humanity so we can be affected by it. Instead of retreating from those we do not know, we can sit down, reach across a table, and share a meal. Maybe his absence can continue to remind us how we need each other’s presence, and it is the risk of being ourselves that leads to togetherness.
I find it ironic that my last post was meant to rejuvenate my blog, get me back on track, and increase my writing volume. Here it is, one month later, and I’m now composing post #2 about my writing journey. That’s about the same pace I was on before I “rebranded” my blog, and also a great example of how rebranding is a big lie, directed mostly to ourselves.
Curiously my lack of blog posting is not an expression of a lack of writing. Since my last post, I managed to 1) finish my fiction novel, 2) finish and submit an academic article, and 3) finish and submit academic book proposal #2. That’s not bad, really. I did not make much progress on academic book #1, the one I’m supposed to be writing. But it is fair to say I had to get #’s 1-3 dealt with so academic book #1 could move to center stage.
That seems like another great lie, that we have to clear off the plate in order to start the next meal. I have told myself on plenty of occasions, “after item X is done, I can start the next thing.” It’s just that “item X” can become anything, from preparing a syllabus to weeding the windowbox full of old, dead flowers that I don’t like in the first place. Over the last several years, I’ve slowly learned to make item X be more relevant and less distraction, but I have to admit that sometimes distraction is a good thing. Sometimes I really can’t clear my head unless I complete the deluxe enhanced expanded expansion pack for here unnamed Xbox epic dystopian role-playing game. Sometimes I need to know what will happen if I pull up the loose, flappy sliver of wallpaper. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night unless I binge-watch all 12 seasons of senseless crime drama-come-sitcom-com-secret sci-fi romance thriller show. I must scroll to the end of the “now trending” Netflix column or life will be incomplete.
And whoever invented the “autoplay” default setting on YouTube should be beaten about the face, or given a huge raise.
What was I saying…oh yeah, distractions. Anyway, I imagine most writers suffer from self-induced ADHD on a pretty regular basis. In actuality, it probably is a good idea to include some distraction time in the writing schedule. As some famous neurologist probably said, the brain never stops working. Many times an idea has worked itself out during these periods of nonwriting, and it appears later on the page.
Of course, one does need to make oneself write. The idea that writing just springs forth like a geyser is the biggest of all lies, the dumbest of all “ideals” to live up to. Writing comes from writing. Admittedly I am not as scheduled as some of my peers, although this does not mean I am not as disciplined. My life circumstances mean I can’t hold a fixed timeline, but I can designate which days of each week are devoted to any particular project. Sometimes on that day, I write; other times I research, and other times I doodle. Each of those activities moves the project forward (including doodling, my brain’s best way of working through abstractions). When words do appear on a page, I don’t concern myself with whether or not they are the “right” words. Sometimes I have to write some pure shite in order to figure out what I meant to say. Other times I look back and wonder what the hell was I thinking. But it all progresses, and most importantly I can feel and see that progress, which makes my next designated project time feel worth it.
Next up is outlining Chapter 1 of academic book. That means looking at what I’ve compiled and determining what else I need. So not sure if I’ll write a paragraph that day, but the work of the project continues. Note that focusing on these little steps keeps me from getting distracted by the big fear that no one will want to read the book. So far, that’s been the real bulwark to working on the project. While finishing the other 3 projects did provide an excuse to stay away from the book, their completion also gave me something to bolster against that fear – namely confidence. I don’t know if anyone will read academic book #1, but I do know I can write it.
(and a shout out to R. Keith Sawyer and Paul Silvia, two authors whose work on creativity and writing has helped inform my writing. Ok, reading their stuff was also a distraction, but one that continues to pay off.)
This blog, like many creative things, has evolved since I started it 6 years ago. (Six years! Did that happen? You’d think I’d have more followers. Maybe I need to post more kitten and puppy pictures. Here’s one:)
Anyway…I’ve found having a journal of sorts lets me work out all kinds of bumps and wiggly bits clattering inside my head. It’s sort of a mental massage; occasionally it’s of the soft, fluffy Swedish type – other times it’s a full-on deep tissue-come-rolfing battering session. What results from this written free-association sometimes helps me organize my ideas, other times process complicated emotions, and occasionally make avant-garde garbage. I don’t claim to be an amazing artist (which is probably good if we get back to that lack of followers thing). But writing, in general, helps me do stuff, whether it is providing a simple creative outlet or a sounding board for generating ideas that turn into other things. And yes, it has also been a place for me to rant on about crap because if I didn’t do that here, I’d be screaming in the middle of a bridge on a pretty regular basis.
My intent at this point is to use this platform to maintain some sort of personal accountability as I’m embarking on my first book. I’ve always had a creative writing streak; as such I have stacks of incomplete short stories littering my home office (and basement, attic, bookshelves, and just about anywhere else writers store their half-baked creations. Are there others out there who can’t seem to find a way to end the story they started, but also couldn’t dream of throwing it away?). But now I have an official contract, one that says at a specified date I am to deliver a finished book some 70,000 words long.
70,000 words?!? Am I insane? Why did I sign up for this. What was I thinking – now I have to write and FINISH the damn thing. Giant OMG in supercaps, what have I gotten into?
This is exciting, and it means a publisher and hopefully others want to read it. Yet in the middle of exciting sits scary, because 1) I have to get it done and 2) once it is done, all the critics will get a chance to rip it apart. It may seem premature to fear rejection before the book is completed, but it is likely because I’ve been down the rejection road that fear looms in the background. I’ve had my share of bad critiques and I can accept that criticism can make your work better. However, that doesn’t mean I like going through it; you don’t really want your partner to tell you how fat you are when the clothes come off.
I do believe I will learn a lot about this process, and likely myself, before this is all over. That’s part of the motivation to do it; I grew tired of asking myself if I could and decided to just do. So in some ways, I can live with it if the book flops. But I don’t want to find myself years from now asking why I never finished it, or worse, why I never started it. In that way, I’m already on this journey, and I don’t know where it ends.
So back to writing and this blog – I hope to chronicle the process (that’s so meta, to write about writing) so later on when I feel discouraged I can look back and remember what I’ve done. Plus, it’s an old trick – invite others into the process so it’s no longer me alone with my thoughts; the project is in the open for others to be aware of and ask questions about. And I’m sure I’ll write about other things as well since my brain will continue to fill up with clutter and need some occasional clearing out. But for now – on to the business of writing. First – I should make a list of what to do. I should make a list of what not to do. I should make a list of lists about what to do and not to do. Oh look, puppies. What was I saying? What am I supposed to –
(I suppose if any other fellow story-makers, book-writers, or general project-embarkers happen to be out there and want to know someone else is out here freaking out with them, feel free to “follow,” or drop a comment from time to time. )
You’re gone. You already knew that, but I found out this morning. I am sad and angry, and I’m writing to you when it is too late. Maybe you have a way of knowing what is in my thoughts, or maybe you’re cosmic dust. Regardless, I’m writing down what I never had a chance to say and what you will never hear because this is the reality I am left with.
You never knew the impact you had on me. I “met” you through watching A Cook’s Tour, in the days long before you swam in Top Chef-style cash. Since then I have watched, read, listened to your words and found comfort – yes, comfort – in the brutal honesty you threw around. Why? Your version of honesty wasn’t about showing the ugliness of others. Instead, you invited us to look at the honesty of yourself, including all your uncertainties, unpleasantness, awkwardness, and absurdities.
That’s some beautiful shit, man.
I know a lot of people were drawn in by the “coolness” of hard-talking swagger (although I don’t think I ever saw you really swagger – people just think they saw you swagger). But it wasn’t the Ramones t-shirts and tattoos, the fountain of alcohol, or the reckless 4-wheel driving that made you stand out. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was fun and made for much more interesting TV than say, a meals-in-5-minutes cooking program. But it was your words that caught me, every time. You saw things and you said things, and many times you spoke what someone like me needs to hear.
You were excelling at the one thing so many people have such a hard time doing: you were living as yourself. And that means you irritated people, you ruffled feathers, you put your foot (as well as other things) in your mouth. But you didn’t stop there – you let us see how that affected you, how you made sense your fuck-ups, and how you learned so you could do better next time. And you did keep getting better – better at being you.
I need people who do this, who work to be only themselves. Most people try to be someone else. Even when the facade gets pulled away, many still try to get us to ignore the fact that they wear no clothes. Being someone else is easier; becoming yourself is the harder, less chosen path. Authenticity is difficult because it takes you into the parts truly unknown. The mirrors that flash up on that journey will sometimes reveal the nasty bits, especially when we would prefer to see greatness.
Which is why, when I encounter someone who by all reckoning shouldn’t be excelling the way you were, someone who knows their success is based on a pure second chance at life – I cling to them, because knowing someone else out there is embracing the struggle gives me some sense that I can struggle too.
I am angry at you, Anthony Bourdain (can I call you Tony, yet?). I am angry that you leave me with this, forcing me yet again to confront the existential dilemma of isolation and connection. The void you have left implies the tie I had, even though we never shared a face-to-face conversation.
I’m also angry that I have to listen to the multitude of platitudes expressed whenever someone dies in this way. I get that there are a lot of people who don’t know what to say. But eventually, you would think people would at least stop saying some of the dumb things. Are you in a better place? Who knows. I don’t even know if you would say a better place exists. Maybe you’re stuck in a perpetual line, waiting forever behind some guy trying to order a latte at McDonald’s. Did depression overtake you? Who cares. It is like suggesting this is all just a character flaw – oh look at poor tony – which really just becomes a great way to pretend the rest of us have no pain. And if depression did play a role in this – then fuck depression and everyone who thinks depression picks on a select few to inhabit. That’s bullshit all the way – especially when we live in a time when depression might be the healthiest response we’ve got to all the ridiculousness going on.
I don’t know why you did what you did. No one will ever have that answer, except you. I would like to think that if I could’ve done something to stop you, I would have, but I also know that sentiment is only meant to make me feel as though I have control over something like this. I don’t. And in some ways, neither did you.
I’m sad, Anthony Bourdain. I’m hurt that I’m now left trying to make sense of this and I won’t have your poetic ranting to provide that beacon of light in the chaotic darkness. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia – you called it what it was and when it got crazier, you got louder. And in those moments I knew I wasn’t nuts because at least you saw it too.
I was inspired by you, Anthony Bourdain. There were several times I used clips from your shows in my courses. I didn’t use them to gross people out or show how “weird” other cultures can be, which is where a lot of travel/food shows gets it wrong. And that’s why your work wasn’t just a travel or food show – you were doing something that I have been encouraging my students to do for years. You moved outside of what is comfortable for you and tried to step into the world of someone else. Someone you may never truly understand but you will attempt to, even if it means making a fool of yourself. You could recognize that the repulsive to you was appetizing to someone else; you knew that it wasn’t the custom that was “backward” or uncivilized, but rather you were too clumsy to get it right. You embraced what you did not know, and you allowed yourself to be affected by the people you met.
You did what hundreds of highly educated, trained, even seasoned professionals in my line of work struggle with. Some can’t even begin to approach the kind of generosity and curiosity you demonstrated just by being you. Being yourself can make a difference, and you showed us that. Damn you for taking that away from us, from me. Damn you for making me face again just how bad we can be.
Look, now I’m ranting. Do you see what you bring out in me? Do you know how much I loved the fact that you bring this out in me? Do you know how much I will miss you bringing this out in me?
I’ll close my letter by telling you one more little thing. For about 10 years, I kept having a reoccurring dream where you would appear. I don’t know what it meant because I’m not that kind of therapist. Anyway, the only other person who knew about this dream was my husband, who laughed every time it happened, prompting me to convince him that it wasn’t a sex dream. Really, it wasn’t a sex dream (I’m not that kind of therapist either). But you would just show up, and we would talk, and laugh. And I woke up, and would feel better. You made a difference to me.
See you in my dreams, Tony. And you’d better have a fucking good story to tell.
Hey, check it out – it’s not a weird experimental writing blog post. Just a quick note to say I’m going to be changing the look and feel of this blog. Time for new and different things.
Clearly, I’ve been going weeks, or in some cases months, between posts. Life has been throwing a lot of — life! at me. Moves, job changes, and the regular evolution of family life have overwhelmed me. I declare myself exhausted, and simplification is in order. So, new site, new blog focus, new projects all to help this compass find its true north.
In the meantime, watch these cool things (social justice-themed public service announcements) my students made:
Imagine all you have done – every accomplishment achieved, badge earned, failure absorbed, challenge undertaken, battles lost and wars won – imagine the sum total of all your experiences that have led to you knowing who you are at this point in time.
Now erase it. Wipe it away with one broad sweep. See the mural of your work disappear under one, two, maybe three strokes of paint, leaving nothing more than a bland white wall.
Next, try to convince everyone who stops by this wall that this amazing tapestry, this colorful landscape, this eye-popping abstraction used to live under that nothingness. Initially your enthusiasm catches a few passers-by. Maybe a few stop to listen; you gain momentum with the hope that someone wants to know and maybe even see the picture that has vanished.
Then the questions come: How did you know it was there? Are you sure that’s what it looked like? But why did it have such color? Did it have enough shapes? Did it have too many shapes? What made you put it there in the first place? Did it even belong there?
If it was so good, why is it gone?
You leave the questions unanswered, or more likely you realize your answers can’t satisfy the requirements. It is like describing the taste of an apple to someone who has never eaten fruit. The desert doesn’t imagine the damp of the forest, because the desert knows no need for rain.
How long this pursuit continues depends on how long the memory of the colors, lines, and contrasts persists. Our memories are not nearly as good as we would like them to be. Perhaps the wall was always white. Perhaps what you imagined was really just a dream.
Perhaps reality is just a big, blank, white, empty wall.
Do you stay and keep looking? Or do you walk away? Something inside you sheds a tear because it becomes clear that both leave you alone.
This is the fear, the angst that if nothing is left we will disappear. To be seen is to be known, and to be known is to be alive. But if I only live to be seen, I will never notice the picture of the other I so desperately need to recognize me.
It’s April and I’ve yet to make a proper post this 2018. “Life is busy” is too normal a state to be an excuse. Or wait, maybe the problem isn’t life is busy, but business is life…
There’s too much of both these days, too much business and too much life. Not enough time. Not enough of me in that limited time. I’ve always said I don’t need an assistant, I need a clone – someone who can carry on being me when I don’t want to. “But what if the clone is better than you?” Great! Let them carry on, I’ll lie on the couch and watch stupid reality tv shows about how people don’t clean while I drape my junk food wrappers over the carpet.
Work supports Life is supposed to be my mantra. Over the last few years, the balance between the two has slowly shifted to where work and life are running neck and neck for the lead position in a marathon I never signed up for in the first place. We talk about learning how to say “no”; I don’t think the problem now is that I take on too much, rather each area I attend to requires a lot of attention. This is the ‘middle career’ passage, where you now do know a great deal about how to do your work, and that means you have a great deal to do.
And my other job – you know, the one where I’m raising little people who keep turning into bigger people – that doesn’t get any easier. Ignore those lies, all the “it’ll all change when they learn how to…” When they learn how to what? Cease being people and turn into houseplants? Each shift, each developmental change brings a new set of adventures…and children’s independence doesn’t mean you worry less. Instead, you worry more – because you find out just how much you can’t do for them at all. The parent business evolves; my employees become shareholders and that means lots of board meetings full of conversation, complaints, and compromising.
I’m not really complaining about it, though. True, it’s not joyous; I do need to renegotiate my schedule. I have to consider the reality that my body is older and will go on strike when I force it to work overtime. My priorities have changed, and I’d like to think I’m mature enough to accept that many people won’t agree with whatever my priority list looks like unless it happens to match theirs. (Ok, I think I am mature enough to intellectually accept it, but I’m not mature enough keep from getting cranky when others get critical.) But more of what I do now reflects who I want to be as I do this work. And the lesson that has taken me a long time to learn is that who I am becoming continues on even when there is no work.
One of these days this work-life boat will steer towards a horizon composed of soft clouds and blue skies. But in the meantime, there will still be storms, sharks, an occasional talking volleyball, and hopefully a few stops on some gorgeous beaches. I like what I do, even though I sometimes hate my work.
This all reminds me of a conversation between my daughter and myself:
Me- “Do we have enough time to finish this?”
Her – “I’m fine, but for you, mom, every breath is an exercise of faith.”
Threat. Who works well under threat? No one, really. Every action becomes extreme because the situation pushes at the seams. Threat. Duress. Pressure. Tension. Tension? I don’t think tension gets at it. Pressure is also not quite it. Pressure can produce interesting things. But too much makes things break.
Do we need pressure to thrive? I get that we need a degree of stress or anxiety. I need the fright before being on stage, the bolt of energy that makes you invent and elevate into someone else. It can be fun, like the thrill of figuring out a “whodunit”. It can be inspiring, validating, exhilarating…when it works. It’s a pretty big crush when it doesn’t.
I guess I have to admit to a wee extent that those of us who are prone to existential angst also need that charge to remind us we’re alive.
But how much is enough? Truthfully I’m not asking a philosophical question. Even with all the bad things I am aware people are capable of doing, I still just don’t quite get why we tend to be bafflingly, predictably, unabashedly, mean and petty towards each other.
“Why can’t we all just get along?” Is it really such a whiny thing to say…and yet it also seems dismissive to reduce our everyday experiences of injury into a childish sandbox fantasy. I’m not really expecting people to get along. I do expect people to convey a degree of respect, act with a smidgen of decency, and maybe – just maybe – treat each other with some sliver of courtesy.
For fuck’s sake, we do all live together. For one moment in time, it would be refreshing to see people remember that fact and treat each other as though we actually want each other to be there, instead of perpetuating all our Freudian envies and drives toward replicating our impotencies.
I am angry, I am sad. I don’t really need to be recognized. I would occasionally like to be noticed. I wager most people want to be noticed. It is so easy to do, and yet we so often refuse. Why is it so hard?
Do we really think if we stop paying attention to ourselves we will just disappear into nothing?
Is nothing so bad?
Misanthrope, curmudgeon. Bake me a cake or go away.*
December brings the end of the semester and the end of the year. Therefore, I’m usually doubled-over with reflection, neck twisting backward like an owl into the near and far past. This year has been piled high with change and my cup has runneth over about 378 times.
Brace yourself: I’m ready to not change. Not forever, but at least for a little while. Even just a couple days of sameness would be nice.
Odd that considering the past would bring me to this present point. Or not odd. I can’t tell yet. What does strike me is how the last semester has made me wonder what it means to even have a past. I suppose that means I’ve lived enough to have an experience of something called, “the Past,” but I couldn’t really say what all that is. Or was. Or what verb tense fits.
Three years ago the presence of a Past hit me when we moved across-country. But then I was more consumed by discovering how much familiarity I had lost and would need to rebuild. Those simple comforts like favorite hang-out spots, walking paths, even parking spots revealed their significance after they were gone. My brain’s security void demanded I fill it as quickly as possible with whatever substitute would come close. But like most incomplete gestalts, any puzzle piece that didn’t fit properly created more angst, not less. That first year became largely a balance between stability and chaos, with chaos winning out most of the time. The awkward Present sometimes hit like an electrical shock, and I missed my Past.
They say you know yourself through the reflections of others; if this is true, then after I moved I was no-one, a foreign shoot sprouted up overnight which others couldn’t decide to prune or weed. I had to remind myself I existed before, that my Past had occurred. But I also got caught in the trap of proving my potential, a path that usually leads to disappointment. Eventually, I quit proving and decided to just be, which alleviated some of the identity pressure but left me still unsettled.
I realize moving again sounds like the opposite of what was needed to resolve this instability. But, in this case, diving once more unto the breach became the essential injection of sanity so desperately needed to breathe. And breath has come, bringing with it the luxury of introspection. Even though this last semester threw more curve balls at me than my two arms could ever hope to juggle, I could refocus on who this person is who makes a living from standing in front of a room and talking to people.
I wanted my Past to be seen, acknowledged, valued. I am not sure why, other than perhaps I thought I wouldn’t have much else to offer. Maybe I needed them to know that I wasn’t a “rookie.” But what does it matter if I am? Would that make me more susceptible to pranks? Will my stupid words sound stupider? Do my mismatched clothes look more ridiculous?
Now that the term is over, I realize the Past clung to certain vanities, like recognition or approval. But this is not to say the Past only lingers on perceived greatness. I do have a Past, and that is somewhat unnerving to admit. It includes success and failure, joy and pain; it includes the many faces I’ve had as I regenerate from one iteration of myself to the next. My Past has already taught me that I can be liked, feared, loved, hated, admired, criticised, ostracized, welcomed, respected, honored, ignored, and remembered. I suspect the Past wanted to be noticed to remind me I am human, which means I can be hurt. Ironically, this also means my Past wanted to defend myself, and that is not always a useful thing. Sometimes the dark is just the absence of light, not a nightmare.
What, then, is the purpose of the Past? It reminds me where I’ve been and thus where I could go, but its presence is not necessary for someone to know me in the Present. My psychodynamic brothers and sisters will argue that point, but my social constructionist crew will fist-pump the air. I am as I am, composed of all the “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey goo” that is unchanging while never staying the same. Relationships not only reflect the old but reverberate towards the new.
There is a kind of freedom in allowing myself to be no-one because I can also be anyone. The yet-to-be me is a work in progress. As I write that, I chuckle, because the truth of this statement is obvious. I’ve always been a work in progress, so why stop now?
(on a side note: here’s Dylan Moran’s – a comedian who’s “work in progress” is well worth seeing – take on having a past…)