I randomly read this article today, and left its browser tab open for the afternoon. It’s pretty standard, I guess: you can either have high-flying ambitions and move to the big city, or you can live next door to your parents and teach in the local school and when you get cancer your community will raise money for your treatment. And following material desires isn’t awesome for happiness. And it’s, like, good to have friends, that sort of thing. Studies have shown, etc.
Pretty standard but also pretty guaranteed to hit my various buttons: a family member lost to cancer, leaving home vs. staying at home, desire for novelty and adventure vs. desire for community. How do we live? How should we live? Forget ‘we,’ even, how should I be living? What am I doing, anyway?
Part of me is appalled by my own lack of ambition and my unwillingness to work very hard. Part of me thinks that I used to be a smart kid and have a lot of unformed ideas about things I wanted to do in the world, but I never got it together to do many, most, all of them. (I remain slightly bemused by the idea of the life list). I don’t think of myself as inventive or innovative in any way: I am a notoriously late adopter of almost everything. Part of me has a hard time doing much more than holding down some sort of job and vacuuming the house on a regular basis and reading books occasionally and going out with friends and making sure my hair is as least chaotic as possible when I leave the house. Part of me loves comfort, and familiarity, and the small, carefully calculated risk that is supported by triple-strength safety nets.
So it makes sense that I would be a little more orientated to community, to relationships, to settling down. I love my people and I am pretty sure, most of the time, that they love me. I have been very lucky to always find good people, wherever I go, and I like to spend time with them. Here in Wellington my group of friends has changed a lot over the years, as most groups do, but it’s still the main reason I have wanted to make a life here, the reason I have chosen to do so over and over. I don’t know if I have really settled down, yet, but it makes sense for me to be here and to try to make a place to stay.
So why the restlessness? Why do I think, sometimes, that I have completely squandered my life by not writing a book/monetizing my blog/getting signed to a record label/starting my own business/working for Doctors Without Borders or otherwise saving the world? Why do I fantasize about taking a years-long round-the-world trip when I turn forty? Why do I have that moment of bitterness when I see one of my high school classmates’ successes on Facebook, when I like those people and think they’re cool and also know that there’s not really anything holding me back except the aforementioned laziness? Why isn’t it enough that I live where I want to live and hang out with (most of) the people I want to hang out with, and do what I want to do? Why do I feel like I have to do more? Why do I feel like I have to be more? And why do I feel that I am running out of time?
I thought about Mom, as I was reading that article. She, among other things, stayed in one place for many years and became a solid rock in her community. I thought about her memorial service: how people my age, who would have been some of her first students thirty-five years ago, came to weep openly and to pay their respects. How, when I was there last March, a family who had had some kids in her class fifteen years or so ago, came by the house on the island for a visit, a mom and three teenagers. I told them—kindly, I hope–that she was sleeping and couldn’t see anyone, and so this family went out to their car and wrote her letters, telling her how much they loved her and how she had been the best teacher they had ever had. They were on their family vacation—they’d moved to Spain and were visiting friends I think—and these gorgeous kids were wiping tears as they told her how important she was to them.
Not everyone gets that, that kind of devotion. I don’t think I will ever be as adventurous as she was, and I know I will never be as much a part of any community as she was of hers.