I don’t always put things back.
One of my worst habits, it necessitates another—bouts of frenzied organization when reckoning is due. Sometimes, if I wait too long, my life feels like a boat beyond bailing. Then I deny the inevitable, and disorder becomes the order of the day.
People buy me blank books. They think highly of my self-discipline and have an unbounded and irrational faith in my daily organization. Many of these books have beautiful covers, but remain blank inside. Others contain a few full pages and then a desert of abandonment.
One I found the other day contains four pages of notes on some forgotten thought, then two pages of doodles, then a page titled “Self-Disgust-O-Meter,” with a needle crossing an arc of zones labeled:
- a respite from self-recrimination and doubt
- tolerably horrible—who has it any better?
- I must change my life
- resignation tipping into despair
- acute self-loathing
- nihilism and a desire to evaporate
The needle I drew hovers in “I must change my life.” And that’s the last entry.
Some people love lists and take naturally to calendars. For them, organizational aids are as much a part of existence as eating, breathing, and sleeping. They patch me into their lives so expertly that, from my perspective, they seem imaginary, appearing and disappearing just as I look for them. Their schedule possesses an order as invisible and enviable as DNA, and they dance in a dream ballet where each move presents itself as needed.
They are comfortable in their lives’ operations and accomplish daily what takes me several days. Their activity travels at a different pace, and their peregrinations look like a time-lapse train station flickering with activity and energy, filling and emptying like an impossible tide.
In the busiest moments, I sometimes awaken to life. I’m walking back from Starbucks and a cool breeze stirs, reminding me the season has changed. I smell fall during my senior year in college and notice how much wetter today seems, even though the sun is out and it’s not raining, as it always seems to be.
The stacked memories of the weeks leading up to Thanksgivings, then exams, then holiday breaks come tumbling down. A deep breath and suddenly I’m alive and aware. Sunlight recalibrates to illuminate the faces of familiar buildings, the faces of people passing, my own face in a storefront window.
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes, “When the mind speaks, the heart finds it indecent to object.”
I wonder why. Are hearts so doubtful they bow to the mind’s control or do they simply lack the strength of order, the organized direction of resolve or ambition? Maybe the heart doesn’t speak at all, its dumb will simply survival, happy with its place, music to our lyrics.
For almost the whole time we’ve lived in our condo, something inside our chimney has needed repair. When it’s windy—and in Chicago that’s much of the time—the cap at the top whistles and whines like a western prairie town just before the big showdown. If it’s really blowing outside, a cable to a defunct satellite dish whips against the downspout, creating rhythm for the symphony.
We always say we should do something, but the sounds are now a familiar domestic background and, when I notice, strange consolation sweeps through me, a deep association with the sort of peace I only find at home, out of the rushing stream the noise represents.
I only do as much as I can recall and rationalize that, when my appointments, tasks, or responsibilities exceed my memory, my brain is alerting me I’m doing too much. I meet nearly every deadline, make it to trysts nearly on time, and nearly fulfill all that’s expected of me. Or I can make it seem so. Or I can live with what’s missing.
Someone once asked me when I’m happiest, and I thought of sitting next to a sunny window in winter, just reading or writing or painting and feeling lucky to have sensory organs and a brain capable of amusing thoughts.
The rest of life seems spoken for. Though most of it speaks to important matters, I like feeling life can sometimes speak for itself, without direction or control. And when it’s good, it’s glorious.
In E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the character Leonard Bast tells the Schlegel sisters about an all-night walk. Sharing their romantic faith in possibilities, he takes a page from George Eliot’s The Ordeal of Richard Feveral and decides to “Get back to the earth,” break out of the workaday world, and just go. Bast doesn’t know how long he walks—it’s too dark to see his watch—and describes finding and losing the Pole star in his attempt to escape London’s streetlamps, the cloudy sky, and his life. When he steps from the road and into the woods he entangles himself in gorse bushes, unsure of every step. He didn’t consider he’d need the same meals he’d want during the daytime, and he finds himself hungry and cold. The sisters ask him, “Was the dawn wonderful?” and Bast answers, “No… the dawn was only grey, it was nothing to mention.” His walk takes him far from home with only his feet to take him back.
The sisters admire Bast’s courage to escape his life more than Forster seems to. Bast can’t truly step out of a life more ordered by the world than his own heart. You want to escape the business of life, you want to elude its appointments, deadlines, and commands, but they are there, running parallel, ready to pull you back into the current.
Every few days I have a new dream for my life.
Last week, I decided I might find work as an adjunct professor, go onto my wife’s health insurance, and open up hours and hours of time to write, to paint, to make something new of my life.
Later I considered the drop in pay, the challenge of cobbling together the number of jobs I’d need to match my current income, the hassle of traveling from school to school, the tedium of being a gypsy instructor with no office, no title, no real place anywhere. Then I gave up that dream for another. I could put my experience to use teaching education.
That would mean another degree, and we’ve earmarked all our money for our children’s colleges. So I gave up that dream for another and two others since then.
Hand-wringing is my best subject.
I’m expert at eddying circumspection while the rest of the world gets things done. The few souls who know doubt as well as I do might identify and bask in fellow feeling, but some people just hate navel-gazing. They haven’t the patience to listen and shout instead. I hear them. “Get off your ass!” they say, and “Get yourself together, stop complaining, and do something about it.”
I know they’re right and resent them.
Once, when I had a fever, I dreamt I’d been given the task of outlining all knowledge and spent most of the night determining what the major headings might be. I’d settle on the next only to discover I’d forgotten the rest.
When my fever broke, the life I woke to seemed so ordered in comparison, so much more forgiving of variation and surprise. For a few hours, possibility defeated responsibility, and I began to think of all I might do instead of what I must.
I’d like to live in that moment, a moment every impulse finds fruition, and organization grows like a lattice, solid yet transparent, a lens on a life I might lead.