“We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” — Joseph Campbell
Can I just say that you, dear readers, are rock stars? I’m so impressed to get emails from you saying that not only did you read the most dense blog post ever written and that too on the tricky subject of personal finance, but that you are conquering (or are inspired to conquer) this area of your life? Seriously, you guys rock.
Because I wrote the longest post ever last time, I was going to collate some “light” thoughts on money to make up for it. It was to be called Money Well Spent.
While I still intend to complete and post that one, in the mean time, similar but separate ideas kept bubbling up. It feels more urgent to share this one first. So here it goes!
Many moons ago I wrote (and discarded) a novel where two characters who have been on a will-they-won’t-they dance meet up in a foreign city where she’s working, and they’ve been up the whole night talking (platonically) and now he’s leaving. They’re at a train station, and he looks at the clock then looks back at her.
He says: “The damnedest word in the English language: time.”
She thinks but doesn’t say: “The grandest word in the English language: stay.”
I never stay. I never stay long enough to find out. I see people wait interminably for their bosses to change, for their jobs to get better, for their spouses to stop drinking. And (admittedly uncharitably) I’ve thought: suckers. I’ve always gotten the hell out, and fast. My go-to motto has always been “life’s too short”.
Stephen McCauley (incidentally one of my writing professors from college) wrote in his novel, Man of the House:
He did look good in that dim light; handsome, of course, he still had a decade of good looks, provided he didn’t lose more weight or balloon up, grow a beard or start following fashion trends. But I pitied him for the first time ever as I heard his voice droning on somewhere on the other side of my thoughts. He’d misread the situation – in thinking he had forever to decide about his son, in thinking the rush of life would come to a standstill until he’d had time to catch up to it. I’d misunderstood my situation too. For years I’d been assuming that my relationship with my father was unfinished and unresolved and had let myself drift into the becalmed waters of waiting. It wasn’t until Otis vanished that I saw the cost of waiting and longing. Dad and I finished all our business years earlier; we had nothing left to resolve. It was simply a matter of learning to live with the resolution.
The above was a perfect illustration of what I saw was a problem of people who waited, indeed even hesitated. Life moves on, and they get left behind, expecting something to change on its own. I felt the onus was on me to push for the change, to make things happen.
This of course meant I didn’t trust things to blossom on their own. As a friend once told me about why she so abruptly ended her romantic relationships one after another: “I reject them before they can reject me.”
Staying had always felt painful, like holding my finger above a flame and watching it burn. Waiting something out was for patient people. I was not a patient person. I had too many things to do, too many people to see, too many places to go. If this one didn’t work out, well, there were tons more to explore.
Thomas Mann wrote in Death in Venice: “Yet he knew only too well the source of the sudden temptation. It was an urge to flee – he fully admitted it, this yearning for freedom, release, oblivion – an urge to flee his work, the humdrum routine of a rigid, cold, passionate duty.”
Yes, I’ve always had the urge to flee the humdrum routine. Though I’ve always been vaguely aware that sometimes I’d get out too early.
As Beth Kempton wrote in her book, Wabi Sabi: “Over the many years I have spent supporting people through major life transitions, I have noticed how vastly different our attitudes towards change can be. At one end of the spectrum are those who are terrified of it, and will do absolutely anything within their power to hold on to the status quo, even when they don’t actually like it. At the other end are those who embrace change as an escape mechanism, often habitually, so that as soon as things start to get difficult, they jump to something else, often later chastising themselves for never sticking at anything.”
I was of the second category for sure. It was tough for me to stay because the uncertainty made me feel out of control. I would prefer to end things just so I would know. It would give me a false sense of certainty, of control.
In more recent times, I’ve surprised myself for sticking around for a few select things. A city that felt like it was worth the hassle figuring out how to live in it, or a passion project that requires a long gestation period to come to fruition.
Not rushing off but staying has been unexpectedly rewarding. Wow, you mean it doesn’t have to be about white-knuckling it? Rather, tenacity has surprised me with its charm. Like a baby finally being born.
Naturally, staying the course for a few precious things throws light onto all the things that are totally not worth it. Gretchen Rubin wrote in her famed The Happiness Project, “The days are long, but the years are short.” I finally understand what that means.
Sometimes something has just reached the end of its course and pretending otherwise would be a disservice to myself. I have no regrets of abandoning a much-hyped year of travel after just one month; I knew in my bones that I had outgrown it, however much I tried to convince myself that it was an adventure of a lifetime.
Sometimes I wonder how much more I’d have gotten from my 10-day silent meditation course had I not left on the 8th day. I don’t regret it still – it was exactly what it was meant to be. But I realise now that the first flash of pain or discontent is not necessarily a signal from the universe to leave.
And so, I thought about trying to decide what is worth spending my precious time on and what isn’t (that novel I completed and discarded probably isn’t…). Here are a few:
Life’s too short
… for bad movies and bad books. I don’t have a problem shutting something half an hour in if it’s not grabbing my attention or satisfying me in some way.
… to try to convert anyone, especially into supporting something that is meaningful to you. My cousin and I ping pong one another’s advice back at each other, and this came up recently, which she’d first told me some years ago: if someone doesn’t genuinely support something/someone that is meaningful to you, then they forfeit the right to hear about it. Which means there’s no need to feel guilty if you want to keep your news to yourself – yes, even in our over-sharing culture. Protect what’s important from people who can contaminate it by being spiteful, mean, hurtful, withholding, jealous, or anything else negative and toxic.
… to not listen to your gut. The most time I’ve wasted has been going against my innate wisdom, or letting my head talk over my heart. The truth is, we all know, even when we think we don’t. We override our inner guide with external forces and second-guessing (“what will people say?” or “she’ll be upset” or “maybe I’ll never get this chance again”). Making decisions for polite society doesn’t garner any brownie points. Feeling something strongly and consistently (so impulse buys and impulse anything don’t count – boo) is powerful.
I have all the time in the world for
… recharge. When I’m feeling tired, fragile or overwrought, I shut shop and don’t apologise for it. I want to be able to just sit or lie down quietly and let my thoughts settle, and let myself feel whatever it is I need to feel; but this can be really hard. If I’m physically tired, I go to bed with the phone on airplane mode. If I’m emotionally drained, I try to write it out.
… being up to date. Instead of staring at an overwhelming to-do list, it’s immensely satisfying to say: I have a spare hour, what is the most delicious way to spend it? I did just that recently because I’d deleted my crazy long watchlist on Netflix, and instead watched what popped up fresh and new on my welcome screen: Unbelievable. And it’s the best thing I’ve seen in a long time. There are eight episodes that are at times harrowing, but also deeply moving and cathartic. I’m so glad I didn’t postpone that in favour of something I felt I “had” to watch instead.
It breaks my heart still but I’ve had to make peace with the fact that I’ll never get to read all the books I want to read, or watch all the films I want to watch. The only way out of this is to read or watch whatever feels like what I want just at that time.
… surprises. I was on a plane from Vienna to London a few weeks ago, and there was a really old couple trying to sit down in the row in front of me. I helped them with their walking sticks, and a flight attendant came to help with their bags. She asked about their trip, and they told us they’d gone to Vienna to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The cheery flight attendant asked which one, both of us anticipating 30th? 40th? Maybe even 50th? They said it was their first – they’d gotten married last year. It kind of melted the hearts of everyone around who heard.
They were two strangers I’ll never meet again, so I could have easily put them out of my thoughts. But I was grateful for this unexpected morsel of delight, and recounted it to everyone I’ve since seen. In the process, I realised how hard it is for me to be still for a bit and enjoy something, just for the hell of it.
Life often feels like a frantic blur. When it’s time to go, I’m all for going. But once in a while, it’s good to pause, to savour, to stay. Stay. It really can be the grandest word in the English language.
“I always say this to women: “Start knowing.” I say it to myself, too. Enough of “Should I do this?” Go deep and say, “It’s time to know.” You have to believe that the force of knowing is in you. We’ve inherited it from our ancestors; they’ve passed on everything they went through. There’s an old version of you that lives in yourself. Ask her.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
Although I am no longer active on social media, I’m more than thrilled if you choose to share this post on your end, thanks!
The Huxley Parlour Gallery in London had 16 little-seen colour photographs by Vivian Maier. The prints were incredible. And the small number of them made me savour each one, really drink it in. You can see the images here, though viewing them in person was a powerful and visceral experience.
A lovely podcast I’ve newly discovered is How to Fail, where writer Elizabeth Day interviews people about three of their “failures”, and what they learnt from them. I’m still making my way through the back catalogue but a great episode is with Mo Gawdat (24 April 2019).
There’s a wonderful article by Jenny Odell called How to Do Nothing (a long read but worth it) in which she describes Scott Polach’s 2015 project at Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, titled Applause Encouraged:
Forty-five minutes before the sunset, a greeter checked the guests in to this cordoned-off area. They were ushered to their seats and reminded not to take photos. When the sunset finished, they applauded, and refreshments were offered afterward.
The accompanying photos show some people seated in a row of chairs observing the sunset and not doing anything else. Gosh, I love that. We sometimes do need to isolate an experience – even a daily occurrence as a sunset – to appreciate it.
In the same article, Odell also says: The push for an 8-hour workday in 1886 called for “8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, and 8 hours of what we will.” Food for thought, people!
Good use of your time?