“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
“Don’t talk to me about rules, dear. Wherever I stay I make the goddamn rules.” – Maria Callas
Since I’ve been unable to write stories recently, I’ve decided to write about a topic that’s been on my mind for the last few days… weeks… well, years, honestly. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the extent to which we should plan the future, and the extent to which we should be in the moment. I’ve usually tended towards the former, and only this last year have I really begun to think that I’ve been doing it wrong all along. I’ve talked about a lot of this before, but not recently, and it’s nice to remember where you’ve been once in a while, especially when you’re wondering where you’re going.
I don’t think I knew how terrified I was, before I came to college. I applied to fourteen universities, all within the top 50 or so, and waited. I worried constantly. I had decided to pursue Political Science, because perhaps in politics I would be able to make a significant difference in the world, and to minor in English or Creative Writing, because it was what I loved. I had a path, and I would stick to it, and hopefully, things would be alright.
They were not, not really – I went to university when I was already reeling from a variety of recent hits to my self-esteem. My high school friend group had self-destructed; I was still in denial that I was in love with one of my best friends back home; the lectures I attended left me cold. I was terrified of being alone and terrified that people would notice, and while I did ask for help from my sister, I wasn’t willing to admit how awful I felt while everyone around me seemed to be doing so well. My anxiety worsened when I returned home for spring break, and for the first time that year my guilt at being miserable solidified into hopelessness. I was homesick, depressed, and anxious. I hadn’t found my people (well, I’d found a few of them, but I hadn’t figured that out yet), and I had no idea if I ever would – if there were people like me at all. I want to say now that that seems silly, looking back, but I can’t. In the absence of evidence, it’s easy to imagine things won’t ever get better, and I wouldn’t laugh at anyone who feels that way now.
At the end of the year, I switched my major to English. I identified myself, first and foremost, as a writer – although I’m sure those of you who write know that the major is hardly a necessary part of the package. This new identity gave me somewhere authentic to branch out from, and the next year, instead of trying to do everything, I tried to do everything I could to Become a Writer. I interned as a staff writer at Clarion, started taking English courses, and submitted pieces to literary magazines. (I created this website, too!) I took the more challenging professors whenever I could, and spent hours sitting with the very kind and very clever writing fellow, Lauren. I made friends with the people in my specialty housing not quickly, precisely, but deeply, and for the first time in a long time, I was very happy. From that base of confidence, I was able to build even further, and plan my summer interning with Locus and my year abroad. Even now that I’m more secure, I encounter small failures. London let me down in many ways – my specific program wasn’t large enough for me to find a satisfying group of friends, my pocket money was stretched very thin, and I didn’t do well in the constant rain. But now I know what to look for and what to avoid for next time.
Where, then, did I go wrong, and where did I go right? I think I should’ve listened better to the people who told me to relax and see how it went, although in the area I come from relaxing is tacitly considered wasteful and unusual. I think I should’ve pursued what made me happy, rather than what I thought was important. Mostly, I think I didn’t realize that I could recover from failure, and that failure could be much more useful that success. My unhappiness served its purpose by guiding me away from things that didn’t suit me, and while I regret not having taken as many English classes as I would have liked, at least now I won’t regret not having tried politics. I know where I’m happy because I have been unhappy elsewhere, and that is a gift.
I still plan, but I’m trying to live more in the moment. I’ve been practicing mindfulness – a minimum of 10 minutes a day – and while I have a Google Calendar that would frighten you and Google Document full of plans, each section has a multitude of options. I know I want two years off before graduate school, ideally teaching English abroad, but I will have to wait to see which of the various programs I am interested in accepts me. I think I will need to go to graduate school, most likely for Psych or English, but I don’t know which programs I will apply to yet, and I realize that it is futile to look now, if only because ratings, accreditation, and even funding will change in the 3-4 years I have until then. More importantly, I might change, and why waste that time when I could spend it being here, doing the changing?
(At the moment, being here would involve doing my homework. I suppose there is that.)
I’ve learned that it’s important to be comfortable with uncertainty, and that the easiest way to do so is to try something new, especially when that involves failing, and especially when it involves failing with other people. I think that the adults who raise us sometimes give us the impression that if we fail, we’ll shatter, and won’t be able to pick ourselves up again, when the most valuable asset we could have is knowing we can recover from shattering. Once you’ve repaired yourself the first time, you develop a fantastic tool-kit, too – I know that if I wake up feeling awful, I should have a glass of water or four, eat, shower, throw on some makeup, meditate, and go for a walk, and that this or any one of these things will make me feel better. I know that when I write, I always feel less lonely, and that my friends – at least the friends worth keeping – won’t mind being asked for help once in a while. I know now that bravery has many faces, and that the most important of these is curiosity, because it makes us focus on who the people we meet are, rather than how they may see us. I know these things now, and I know that when I fail again, I will fail better than before. If I do not, I will have to change my strategy, and this is fine too.
Planning calms me. I think of the Gotham writing course I plan to take as soon as I have sufficient funds, the possibility of Clarion in a summer of graduate school, perhaps a Stonecoast MFA when I hit thirty. I plan to apply to these things, but not because I should, or because the world needs my writing, or because I think that they’re important. They excite and delight me, and since nobody really knows how to live, my passion will have to be enough to guide me. I will allow myself greater flexibility now, greater forgiveness. I cannot foresee everything, and life wouldn’t be worth living if I could. I will weave what I can of my dreams into my life, and be thankful for the surprises – whether pleasant or educational.
Earlier today, on the train to school, I was reading Trickster Makes the World, by Lewis Hyde. He described how Picasso would make each new student who came to him draw a circle. I immediately imagined myself in the same situation, as I usually do when reading, and winced, thinking of how abnormal and awful my circle would be compared to those of the real artists. I continued, only to find that Picasso made them draw the circle to see how they were unique – to see what made their style theirs. This evening, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, and read a post that said something along these lines:
“When you look in the mirror,
all you see are imperfections.
But how can they be imperfections?
There is no one else with your face.”
I guess what it really comes down to is that it’s alright, perhaps better, to make yourself along the way. To make the way, too. You never know what you’re going to discover, and it’s much harder to find the really important things – love, a good idea, your missing glasses – when you’re afraid.