October 6, 2013

Living While We’re Here.

Photo by Marcin Wichery, Creative Commons, Flickr.

There is this old television that’s been sitting on the sidewalk outside my window, in the rain, for a week with a sign that says “free.”

It’s still there because everyone wants a flat screen these days. So by now, it’s not just three dimensional—and therefore unlovable—but broken, with its insides all soaked and corroding.

That TV reminds me of my old babysitter. The one I used to watch Buck RogersAlf and The Cosby Show  with, until my mom came home from work. She was single and worked long hours at the airport, checking in passengers and their bags, explaining why the flights were late, and watching them get irate when things beyond her control changed their plans.

People are really uptight when they travel. They aren’t having fun yet. They are all waiting to have fun when they get where they are going. Or when they get back home.

That was about the time the term Latchkey Kids was coined.

After high school, I spent a year at the University of Oregon, and instead of doing my work-study to pay the bills, I rowed on the crew team.

I had an Ivy League sense of entitlement on a community college budget.

My idea of college was shaped by that old television, rather than legacy, and I had exactly no idea how to actually succeed. At seventeen, a college experience was higher on my priority list than a college education.

I just wanted to live while I was there and rowing crew seemed quintessential.

Perhaps it wasn’t the most pragmatic of decisions, but there is no guarantee that, had I chosen to spend my time filing paperwork in the administration building for minimum wage, or checking students out in the bookstore or something, I would have a Pulitzer Prize by now.

Making pragmatic decisions are important on many occasions. It’s true. It’s important to have a general discipline behind taking good care of yourself, choosing the thing that serves your healthiest self as much as you can. But pragmatism is not always superior to saying yes to amazing experiences.

If you prefer accounting to art, if that makes you feel really alive, you should rush headlong into number crunching. But I’d rather turn cold clay on a wheel and muddy up my Chuck Taylors while Yo Yo Ma plays Unaccompanied Cello Suite No 1, loud, into my ear buds.

I’d rather spend my last twenty dollars on four dark chocolate truffles with gold flecks and espresso, than dry pinto beans and rice that would feed me for weeks.

This penchant for the spectacular means I don’t necessarily have an enviable stock portfolio. Yet. But it does mean I have a ridiculously rich memory bank. And that is worth everything. It gives me stories and ideas and ideas, which lead to invaluable connections.

The trick is to figure out which pragmatic decisions you enjoy. Or at least, which ones you can streamline and habituate.

It is so interesting how for some things, say brushing our teeth or taking a shower, we take away the question, the noise, about whether we should or shouldn’t do it, whether doing or not doing it makes us a worthy person. Somehow some things were important enough to become habit.

My son has only recently stopped battling most hygiene, save for the last bastion of hair washing which still makes him throw down like I’ve asked him to commit Harry Carry. This sucks a lot for me, but reaffirms that, with some discipline, we can habituate anything. I am optimistically making the assumption that the boy will someday wash his hair voluntarily. And quietly. (Basically, this is the definition of faith, you guys.)

What I’m saying is that if he can do it, you can do it. You can decide what you want to do. Those things can become an easy, and if not blissful, at least a neutral part of the day.

The formula might look like:

(Achievable expectations)

+  (Practice)

– (The village of internal opinions)

= Cumulative ease + Results

Another equally useful formula might look like:

Your life

– (A whole bunch of things you think you should be doing but hate)

= Your way better life.

Because you don’t have to do everything. Just the most important things.

You can get educated, exercise, cook something healthy to save money and your digestive system—and then you can get on with your fantasy ceramics scenario, or writing the next great American novel, or illustrating your graphic one.

And you can edit out the things you hate. Achievable expectations means just that.

You don’t have to write the novel and run the marathon while presiding over PTA meetings and Board of Directors with silky hair and an impossibly kind inner voice that infernally makes gratitude lists between bites of kale.

Achievable really might mean getting up to stretch for five minutes so you can finish another thousand words without a migraine setting in, or driving to the juice bar so you don’t inadvertently find yourself on the cold-coffee-cleanse.

This practice is not about perfection.

It’s about finding what works and then showing up consistently. Over and over. It’s about enjoying your life, not waiting until you get to your destination, or home from your work trip, to have fun. It’s about being the kind of person who laughs and goes to sit in the massage chairs at the Sharper Image with a Vanity Fair instead of swearing at airline employees for not being able to stop a snowstorm.

Not finishing college sometimes makes me feel like I’m blackballed from a club everyone else seems to be a part of. I have tried to go back a couple of times, but setting my business or writing aside to spend a decade in business or writing school seems ridiculous. I have the Internet, books, and no shortage of fabulously educated friends and colleagues teaching focused workshops on such things. I have success in so many formats.

Also, I have playlists to make, food to cook, walks to take and gold-flecked truffles to enjoy.

I have a kid who wants me to watch him beat the final boss so he can absorb the dragon’s soul.

And I can still feel, precisely, the cold air on my skin as I stripped down to my polypropylene long underwear, the coxswain counting us down in strokes, eight oars breaking the surface of the water in unison, muscles burning, cutting through thick fog under a covered bridge at the crack of dawn and soft sweatshirts on the bus back to campus where everyone else was just waking up for their first class.

I often still have a healthy (read: outsized) sense of entitlement and the drive to live while I’m here. I still choose risky over boring much of the time and sometimes I crash in colossal flames. Other times I manage to create something amazing.

All of it is served by flossing my teeth, eating fresh food and getting some exercise. All of it is served by my community. And love.


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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