Photo by Ruth Hartnup
Since last week, this phrase, almost like an excavated mantra, has been echoing in my head. Something with the sense of time running out, or the preciousness of days, with this turning 50 and daring to be realistic and not pretend I’m not likely more than halfway there, my life halfway gone. Too often, I am surrendering to shallow thoughts and not pushing, going deeper, to what might be behind or underneath. Or stepping back, to take in the view, and a longer look. Isn’t this the definition of a dilettante? Some of this is also my reaction to the you-can-have-it-all baby boomer trope; I long ago realized that idea was untenable, that for me it could never be true.
Neil Young gets it right—and it sounds dumb and obvious but I think that means it’s a truth—when he sings in his new song “The Painter”, if you follow every dream, you might get lost.
I have long believed I have all these interests, all these different things I wanted to learn, study, do, explore, read, even write. Everything from Theravadan Buddhism to the Divine Comedy to a return to my Oberlin-begun project of reading of Marcel Proust. For some reason now, I feel like I have to put all of these interests through the staying test and if they fail, chuck them out of my life and move on. Are they truly what grabs me, what speaks to me? pursuits and pastimes I can’t live without? Or are they things I thought I “should” be interested in? Or things I was once interested in and now need to let go? Am I deferring to external voices when I say it’s something of interest? Or is it genuinely the lifeblood of me? What do I get joy from but consistently forget to do? And what have I been letting distract me from going deeper into fewer things? Am I afraid to do that? Afraid to commit? That I might somehow miss out? But, lately, when I’m feeling this fractured, this empty and overwhelmed, I feel like I’m missing out on even more…
It’s clear to me, after these years of solitude and self-examination, that I am a modern thinker trying to live outside the post-modern world. I am a person who still cares about the soul and nature and poetry and art and music and the sublime and ineffable and mysterious and inexplicable in life. I grew up in a very old-fashioned world, where we were often out of the loop on all the rages and fads and spending of money that went on in more prosperous parts of the world. At a young age, thanks to a flood, I learned important lessons about letting go of material things. No wonder I was always at odds with that job at Cornell—I was working with technology that I don’t believe in as much as the world would have us see it as our salvation. These facts about me are what make me an interesting person with a peculiar perspective on life. Why can’t I keep this in my mind, heart and soul as my motivating, energizing force? Why can’t this be my focus? The wellspring from where my creative energy springs?