“If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not write essays, I would make decisions.”
—Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)
The other night I dreamt I stood outside an unfamiliar room. We discussed going in—someone was with me, though I can’t remember whom—and he was all for it, ready to turn the knob and march on. But we didn’t. Instead, we kept whispering in the golden, lamp-lit lobby of the old hotel. The burgundy Persian rug, rich with patterned foliage too ornate to be untangled, oppressed me. The wood grain of dark, over-varnished paneling oppressed me. They say you can’t read in dreams, and that’s how looking around felt. My companion listened to my reluctance to intrude, my concerns about propriety, my fear of reprimand, my questions about purpose. We never entered.
Before you interpret this dream, let me try. Work will start again soon, and I’m worried about whether I’m ready to begin teaching again. My companion is my double. He reassures my apprehensive part. He’s rational. The rug and wood grain are the complexity of starting something new and yet familiar, not knowing where to—or knowing why or whether I want to—begin.
Over the last few weeks, it’s been unusually cool in Chicago. We’ve kept our windows open, and I’ve been listening to workers on breaks, to kids playing in the neighborhood, to dog walkers exchanging small talk about canine life. In almost every case, I’m envious. The rest of the world seems to feel abandon I seldom experience. It knows, or senses it knows, everything. It laughs freely, thinks of adjacent moments, and revels in light companionship. Meanwhile, my brooding imagination dwells on how different it is, sending it deeper into brooding.
Another part of me laughs at how absurd my worries are, can think of no reason not to chide me, and discounts doubts as wasting time that should be spent in action. That alter-ego means to cajole me, sometimes to shame me. Too bad neither side wins. I suspect I could be happy if either felt confident of its rectitude. The argument isn’t angry, but it goes on, and neither side seems purely convinced by its position.
When I was young, I sometimes lurked in my bedroom, rehearsing scenes I’d face. As I played both parts, my fantasies devolved into Mitty-esque displays of wit and charm, smooth grace and social aplomb. It didn’t take me long to understand even my worst improvisation surpassed my best performance. Speaking my intended lines felt like quoting. If I listened to myself talk, I heard a stranger who needed shushing.
The difference now is that I rehearse and don’t use the material.
Silly as it sounds, I want to blame society. Who can exist in our advertising era without living in gaps between what is and—according to absolute, invisible standards—ought to be. Yet, intellectualized consolation isn’t satisfying. When you hold yourself to higher ideals, you have a mirror before you. No one else matters. Your actions are your responsibility.
The most enjoyable moments I know are undoubled, and they’re rare. My education tells me the unexamined life isn’t worth living and self-consciousness—that’s what we’re discussing here—assures twice as much (and twice as profound) experience. I believe that. I only wish my stereoscopic view were more focused.
Without self-recrimination, I might act immediately. I might always be prepared because I lived between waves of experience, fielding one and bracing for another. There’d be so much less effort in compelling myself to get busy, so much less torture.
I undo surprise with seven layers of anticipation and eight layers of after-the-fact analysis. I want to open the door.