Not My So-Called Life, My New Authentic Life

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.

Time–no longer just slip­pin’, slip­pin’, slip­pin’ into the future

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.

I’m “walkin” May 22. Not, sigh, in these fancy doc­toral robes, but I could! If I had $1,000…

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.

Another beau­ti­ful day at UVA–the Chi­nese red­bud behind my building…

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.

My lit­tle med­i­ta­tion cir­cle at Sugar Hollow…

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.

3 Comments

  • Oh, and this morn­ing while sit­ting at the cof­fee shop with Baby, I ran into another SNL sur­vivor. Where was he plan­ning to spend his morn­ing? Pick­ing straw­ber­ries for his hand-crafted jam business.

  • Thanks for writ­ing this. Liv­ing in the present is the only place you really have any power. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to stay there. Your obser­va­tions on this sort of stuff are just as valu­able as your ideas on how to kill ants :-)

  • You have been blessed with an excep­tional and authen­tic gift of writ­ing. It appears to me that you are one who is truly LIVING life. I am so thank­ful to have dis­cov­ered your works of art. Cur­rently lis­ten­ing to WWOZ.

    Peace and Blessings!

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