“When you go there, there is no there.” — Gertrude Stein
Last November I wrote a post about how I wasn’t going to buy anything for a year. All of my life’s possessions at that point already neatly fit into a small case plus a small bag. And I was intent on keeping it that way, wanting to whittle things down even further if I could. This was partly a protest against our numbing consumerist society and partly because I aspired to become a highly evolved creature who was above mundane material grasping.
Ten months later, I’m here to tell you this was a colossal failure. Not only did I buy shit, but I bought more shit than I ever have in my life for as long as I can remember. A big reason for this was because after several years of moving around, I finally stopped and settled down in one place. I signed a lease and everything.
It’s easy when you’re roaming and living in other people’s homes or in hotel rooms to forget how much stuff is required to run a household. I had planned to be canny about this. I shamelessly took back the iron I’d donated to my bestie when I’d left this city the last time I lived here. I asked him and his family to give me old bedsheets and other spares. I was convinced I was still going to manage this move without buying stuff, especially as I was renting a furnished apartment.
But it didn’t happen that way. One moment I moved in with my small case and small bag. The next moment – and I’m speaking literally – the local shops delivered my orders: cleaning supplies, mops, sponges, brushes, pots, pans, spices, utensils, cutlery, buckets, food containers, toilet paper, drying rack, laundry detergent. That week I went out and bought pillows, shower curtains, towels, cushions and lamps (because living with only overhead lighting is too, too depressing, as is lounging without cushions to tuck under your back or behind your head for that all-important Sunday afternoon nap on the sofa). A little speaker so I could finally hear my beloved music out of something other than my phone. Plates and glasses. A television and DVD player. Scented candles and vases because who doesn’t want to smell tuberose or jasmine when coming through the front door?
I was back to working in an office where I have to look vaguely presentable and could no longer simply rotate my few outfits, so I bought clothes. And a handbag. And scarves, because everyone insists on blasting the air conditioner at all times.
And even though film scripts hog all my reading time and I haven’t had time to go through my unread books, I continued to buy more like a secret glutton, stashing them – digitally – for when I’ll be able to devour them one after another. Does this go against my lofty ambitions to have only what I can consume right now? You bet. Did it stop me? Not for a second.
When people come over to my home, they always note how sparse and light it is. So none of this rampant, shameless consumerism has led to clutter. But then, that was never my problem. I’m genuinely not attached to material things and am already streamlined. But if you notice, I still decided to self-impose some pressure to make myself even more of a minimalist. Because whatever I was doing was just Not Enough.
So this leads me to a recent development. Now, I love my friends, I love my job, and I have a hugely amazing life. My days are full and I mostly go around feeling excited about everything. And yet I couldn’t get rid of this nagging feeling that I should be a better human being. Like: I could wake up early every morning, meditate, do yoga or go for a run, come back to make a homemade protein smoothie for breakfast before heading out to work.
Every day I’d plan to. But every morning I’d wake up to the new day and just ease into it, not wanting to be on an agenda for at least an hour because once I step out of the house, it’s all go go go. Instead of simply accepting that that’s how I like to operate in the mornings, nibbling on a handful of papaya slices and calling it breakfast, I would berate myself for not doing more. I berated myself for months.
I think as fallout of my (it’s fair to say) epiphany while in Kerala last month, I decided: Stop. I no longer want the stress and self-imposition of trying to be someone I’m not. I’m not going to wake up at 6am and do six clever things before breakfast. I’m not that person right now. And feeling disappointed in myself doubles the trauma of it all. Who needs that shit?
And by the same token, I’ve accepted that I am not that person who is perennially benevolent, and does and says only the right thing at the right time. That’s how I imagine the Perfect Me could be if I just worked hard enough at it. In reality, I’m impatient, I’m clumsy, I want things I can’t have, I frequently look like an idiot, and I fuck up all the time. I now think that’s okay. I’m broken and it’s okay to be broken. We’re all broken.
I think of all the effing effort I’ve put into trying to be this evolved human being, and to what end? There are plenty of people going around being pretty oblivious, and they’re not suffering for not being perfect enlightened creatures. (And as a cousin once told me: stop evolving so much – no man ever does that amount of work, and you’ll just end up being perfect but with nobody around who can relate to it.) We can spend our lives correcting ourselves, or we can just spend it living.
I’m not giving a free pass here to our media-rich social conditioning. We are surrounded by very, very expensive, pervasive advertising that drip feeds into a gnawing conviction that who we are as we are is not good enough. This advertising also pays for the gazillion magazine and web articles that tell us at every corner how to be more productive, more pretty, more likeable. We’re told happiness is attainable, not just by buying the products they’re peddling but by constantly striving. Well, I’m done striving. I’m exhausted.
I know better than anyone that when we’re deeply unhappy, it needs to be addressed. I’ve left a marriage, I’ve moved countries, I’ve tried all kinds of things to navigate my way out of misery. And all of them were absolutely correct.
But the low-grade dissatisfaction doesn’t disappear by setting goals and believing that accomplishing them will mean I’ll finally be happy and whole, I’ll finally be lovable. I imagined that by setting targets like this, I’d be positive and forward-looking. But I just ended up frustrated for not being that person already.
This low-grade dissatisfaction is entirely self-created as a blunt instrument to bash myself with, for keeping me in a state of anxiety and self-reproach because, you know, torturing myself feels more familiar than breathing easy.
We’re all dying at every moment. I don’t want to move through the world being cautious and hesitant. I don’t want to lie on my deathbed and think – oh fuck, I didn’t grab life. I missed out on stuff waiting for when I thought everything would finally at last be in order. That I postponed euphoria to a later date, expecting a perfect moment that never came.
We are meant to stumble our way through life, not having figured it all out. The most breathtaking and most fun lessons I’ve had have come out of the times I’ve dived into the dark, not knowing how far the water was below. Restrictions take too much joy out of our days. Self-control is overrated. Self denial is the worst of all.
Perhaps nirvana does reside on the other end of personal evolution and self-betterment. But I bet it’s not as much fun as exhaling and being totally, completely, divinely in the present in all its messiness. Because we can only be where we are right now. And right now, it’s all pretty damn magnificent.
“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.” — Jack Kerouac
After watching several slow, dark, impenetrable films in a row (job hazard), I need a light palate cleanser, as I call it. This was the best one yet: Pitch Perfect, directed by Jason Moore. College students singing a cappella, learning about teamwork and letting their freak flags fly – yeah!
Under the guise of research for a book some years ago, I bought a bunch of 1980s tracks that I used to listen to in my teenage years that I pretended over the decades to have outgrown. It’s still my instant cheerer-upper, and the cheesier the better. Addicted to Love, Walk Like an Egyptian, Love of the Common People, Walking on Sunshine, Give It Up, Sledgehammer, Fame, Come on Eileen, Relax, Maneater… the list is endless.
“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” Surely one of the best first lines of a novel ever? About an eclectic family living in a crumbling English castle as the two teenage sisters look for love, this is one of my most favourite books ever: I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith.