It’s become clear to me over the last few days that, suddenly, without warning, and for no apparent reason, I’ve turned a corner.
Last year I was totin’ that barge and liftin’ that bale in a job that could only be described as the most ghastly of intellectual sweatshops. This year… Well, there’s only one way to describe it, and if it’s corny, so be it.
I’m living my authentic life. Not my so-called life. My authentic life.
Now, let’s be clear. Some really important intangibles have lined up on the plus side: I’ve got the A(ll)B(ut)D(issertation) monkey off my back, for one, and, just as importantly, the Evil Empire, also known as SNL Financial, is so far in my taillights as to be almost invisible.
But there are minuses on the material end of things. Big ones.
You’ve seen me luxuriating in this blog in my relative leisure (compared with last year) to write and teach (even master’s students! woo-hoo!) and garden. But the reality is: I’m not yet on tenure track, and my income has not recovered to pre-financial downturn days.
No reason to front: I’m making just shy of half what I made in my last really flush year. That’s right: half.
Now, think about that—what would your life look like if your income were cut in half? Mine, I can assure you, has not been pretty. If it weren’t for my housemate, soon to become my employer, not even the mortgage would be a sure thing. You see now why I call this period my Great Depression.
And yet … the financial uncertainty does not change the fact that I’m suddenly, mysteriously, most blessedly (given last year’s mind-numbing state of depression) … happy.
Yesterday, I stepped off the university loop bus at 8:55 a.m. sharp. It was the first day of the year that has felt and looked more like early summer than spring. The bursts of color that were the ornamentals in the landscape are transitioning from whites and pinks to a patchwork of pale and emerald greens. The oaks that form an allee on either side of the street from the library to the end of the “ranges” have fully leafed out and unfurled into a restless curtain overhead. The relatively muggy morning held a promise of heat later in the day, but there was a breeze tossing the leaves and my hair into confusion. And, for no reason at all, my spirits were just soaring.
I was reminded of the last time in my life I recall feeling pure, unalleviated, unadulterated happiness. This was nearly twently years ago on the Louisiana State University campus on a similar day that, in that warm climate, occurred a full two months earlier. It was a February day before Mardi Gras. The sweet olives were blooming and layering their rich perfume on the warm air. Everyone was wearing shorts, and I felt a sense of being in the right place at the right time doing the thing I was born to do that was so blissful, so keen that I knew it wouldn’t last. Knew it instinctively, the way I know how to season shrimp and grits, the way I know Southern men love to see a Southern woman in a big picture frame hat.
So I also knew what I needed to do: I stored up that memory for colder, less beneficent times. And they came. Lord, lord, lord, did they ever come.
The emotion I felt today was in no wise as intense as what I felt walking among the sweet olives in Baton Rouge all those years ago. But I recognized it as the same in kind if not the same in degree. And I felt as if I’d stumbled unwittingly upon some universal law. If I had to articulate it, maybe I’d call it the law of … living in the present?
When you get right down to it, I’ve spent years, maybe decades even trapped in the past—blaming, regretting, torturing myself for things done, left undone, done to me… Not to mention all the time I’ve wasted living in the future: dreaming of what I could do when I possessed X, how life would change when I had achieved Y, the look on so-and-so’s face when they had to acknowledge Z… It’s kind of like living life in a speeding car: The past is pretty clear in the rear-view mirror, the future hasn’t yet come into view but it’s clear in one’s mind, while the present … is a giant blur.
Maybe my present never could come into focus because I could never be satisfied with it, kept looking for that next thing, right over the horizon, that would make it all … well, my authentic life. So I’d stay someplace a while and move on. Learn to love a group of people yet follow the siren call to the next horizon. And when something really special did happen—first book publication, say—and the world’s headlong rush did not pause to crown me the next literary star, not only did I endure that disappointment, but also I didn’t allow myself to pause to celebrate or to thank the people who stuck with me along the way. Not for anything. It was almost like I felt ashamed of my beautiful little child because the world didn’t stop at the stroller to coo… Just crazy—crazytalk! I think now.
Could it be that what was missing all those years was just gratitude? Simple gratitude?
Looking back, it seems as if good things piled on top of good things in my life, which I was unable to appreciate and didn’t even try to enjoy. So one by one, each treasured plank in my personal security was simply taken away until, by the time of the Lehman Brothers crash in 2008, I found myself balanced on one thin board over an abyss during an earthquake, watching what looked to be the whole world falling down around me. And for a while I gave up hope.
Specifically, I gave up my dream of living a life of purpose and meaning through writing. It was at a dead end anyway, because I’d spent every dime I could raise or borrow to get the dissertation to the finish line and was rather desperately in need of cash. I thought my only choice was to take the first of what would be a series of dead-end, soul-sucking jobs for which all my previous experiences with white-collar intellectual work had left me unprepared and for which I was fundamentally temperamentally unsuited.
I chose security and learned the final lesson that I was apparently intended to learn: that there is no situation so bad that one’s attitude can’t make it worse. Reallly, the less said about that period the better. I’m just glad I lived through it. And I’m certain of something, too: I’m quite positive I wouldn’t have lived through it if I hadn’t learned to live in the now.
There was a bit of a trick—well, actually quite a trick—to it. I had simply to let go of the past, leave the future to its come in its own time, and direct my full, undivided, loving attention to the things and people in front of one.
Now anyone who’s tried to let go of something difficult will understand that what I’m talking about is no mean feat—and there’s no hope of achieving it at all without some strategies for keeping the nasty thoughts, the doubts, the discontent, and the disapproval resolutely and absolutely at bay. My goal—and I’ll admit I’m not yet there—is never to allow myself the luxury of a negative thought.
But there has been one concrete, positive result, and that is that my dreams are no longer like that mirage in the desert that drives the lost traveler around the bend—the things that torture me. Instead, they’re sources of hope and renewal—a flame that did not die during the hard times by some miracle for which I thank God and all the angels.
Maybe that’s the secret. I no longer worry about the future, so there’s no need to waste time and energy blocking out the images of the unpleasant thing that in my soul I’m convinced is right around the corner. Instead, I treat my dreams like daydreams, as an intention for the future that lightly, ehhh-ver so lightly, guides my attention in the present … my compass needle’s true north, regardless of what direction I may be facing.
I know, I know. All this sounds way too mystical and kind of crazy, and I’ll bet you’re wishing I’d go back to blogging about gardening. But it’s been raining a lot lately, so I’ve had time to look around a bit and measure the distance I’ve traveled over the past year. And baby, I’ve come a long way.
Just twelve months ago, I hated my life. Every moment that I spent within the walls of the building I thought of as the Death Star (as the one of the enslaved minions of the Evil Emperor—yes, I do have a turn for the dramatic) was a misery. I longed desperately for escape, yet feared leaving the ranks of the “full-time-with-benefits” crowd. I felt trapped. I wished, not all the time idly, that I were dead. That was then.
Today, the skies are going to be partly sunny, I don’t have to be on campus, and I have only two things on my mind: washing my kitchen down with that nice mint bath that keeps the ants at bay and getting back out in the garden to harvest that giant row of spinach.
If that gets done before noon—and it should—then I’ll have the whole of the afternoon to work on the revisions for my second book and get a nice dinner on the table for me and Baby to share when he returns from his labors in other people’s gardens. It sounds very mundane, rather dull, in fact—and yet I got up at five a.m. because I was so eager to get started.
So, sufficient unto the day is every day’s potential for bliss—that’s what I say every day these days. And it feels suspiciously like … my new authentic life.