So, I live with a house full of girls. Umm… Yeeah… It’s nice. Convenient. Full of drama, yes, but still a great place to be. I really trust the people I live with and feel they trust me, so it’s all good. It’s packed though. For such a small place, we practically live on top of one another and this produces a lot of conversation. You can’t really avoid one another, after all.
Earlier this week, in one of those rapid-fire “HowWasYourDayFineHowWasYours” exchanges that happen, the question of purpose came up. And then it came up again the next day. And then again today.
A lot of conversations about “purpose” and “what am I doing with my life” have been happening lately. Maybe it is the approach of midterms for (some of) us. Maybe it’s situational life events – I mentioned in an earlier post that one of our friends got engaged. Turns out, we’re all happy but it makes us question our own relationship statuses (or lack thereof). Just a lot of life going on, I guess.
Anyway, here we are, in the kitchen, talking about what we want to be when we grow up and I’m recalling how little support I had growing up and how that shaped my personality.
I’ve told many variations on this theme before, but in case you’re new to my blog, Reader, it bears repeating: My mother was/is supportive of my life choices. My father? Not so much. Perhaps I’m too hard on my dad. I think that comes with… a lot of backstory, but I want to defend him for a moment. Bear me an aside?
Shortly after my father started kindergarten, his mother died in childbirth while delivering my aunt, Donna. My grandfather, Billy, was an… unpleasant person to put it mildly and quickly threw my dad (again, who was in kindergarten and five years old when this happened) on the streets. Literally. Came home from the hospital and removed my dad’s belongings – again, at the age of five – from the house.
What followed was a rather difficult upbringing. My dad, Randall Sr., was raised by his mother’s parents while his sister, Donna, was raised by another relative.
As you would accurately assume at this point, my father developed several… “quirks” when it came to personal relationships. Among them, he openly admits he “never knew how to be a dad because I never really had one myself.”
When I got into college, I think my dad really just wanted me to do well at whatever I chose, but he continually pressured me to go to law school since that was a safe, predictable, and secure career. There was only one catch – I didn’t really want to go to law school. That was his dream, his aspiration, his desire for security. Not mine. And so years later, when I finished my first masters in Literature, he made fun of my degree because it wasn’t profitable. “What are you going to do with that? Teach? Literature is a fucking waste of money and everybody knows that.”
You would be inclined to scoff at my dad. For years, I did. And, as you might have predicted, this denigration of my interests reached a head one idle Thursday afternoon and we had rather charged words about “dreams” and “living vicariously.” But, underneath this familial argument was another issue entirely – security and freedom.
I would like to sit here, at the dining table where I am writing – cellphone and keys at one hand, a roomate’s scarf and books at the other – and tell you that my father’s difficult life convinced him to create a better future for me. I would like to say that, having lived through such hardship he devoted himself to “making a better life” for his son. “Unfortunately,” I shrug and tighten my lips, “I can’t say that.” History repeats itself if we are not careful and so my dad, a wonderful man in many ways, “never knew how to be a dad because [he] never really had one [him]self.” Very much like her experienced, I grew up poor and had to learn certain survival skills to find money and help feed/take care of my mother and little brother. I look back on those years now and they are really a blur, as if I am standing too close to a subway train as it passes by. There are flickers of light and glimpses of faces, but for the most part it all moves past so quickly that I cannot really “see” any of it.
What is clear, again in hindsight, is that very much like my father I had to make a decision at some point whether to live in fear and pursue security, or to live in the unknown and pursue freedom.
Don’t get me wrong, Reader! It is not as simple as all that! It is not as easy-cut cookie as one might hope for in an essay like this. I cannot honestly continue to sit here and say that my father always pursued security and stability, and that I, the free spirit, have always pursued freedom so as to live life on my own terms. The human experience is not that tidily summed up, as you well know and I trust that you will see redeeming qualities in my father as well as you see the less pleasant traits that I possess myself – the same as yourself and your own parents. We are all trying to make sense of our world and, lifted out of context, one decision is not better than another when we speak in generalities.
That said, coming back to this conversation between my roommate and I, a big part of this whole… thing we call our lives is expectation. Hopes. Dreams. Aspirations. Whatever you want to call it, it is the Yellowland of our fantasies where we can imagine ourselves to be our own hero or heroine. As Dickens wrote in the opening of David Copperfield, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Dickens, while a bit winded at times, has always struck a note with me. Even in fourth grade, while my classmates played whatever sport of the season was de rigueur, I dove head-first into classical literature and found solidarity with Dickens cast of characters, their hardship, and the hope for providence, a bit of favor, and love above all else. And yet, for all of Dickens’ body of work, I’m not sure there was ever a surety of outcome. David Copperfield was not being magnanimous – I always felt that he was truly open to the likelihood that he might, indeed, not be his own savior. That he needed people. And that those people, his friends and family, were in some sense, the very freedom he desired. But, ah! This is the wasted life of a man of literature as my father would remind me! So, Reader, let us move on from my analysis.
In pursuing this, the hope that we might be the hero(ine) of our own life, we find ourselves too readily on the conveyor belt of society. Pre-fabricated for a world of work once we leave the educational system, we find in time that we are stripped or are being stripped, of the joys of life and living. We may vacation here, honeymoon there, and visit the kids on the opposite coast now and again but somehow it never really satisfies. Cogs in the machine, we are too aware of the sense of purposelessness that prevails in the silence of our souls, our neighbors, our friends, our faith communities.
In short, we are disappointed.
And, if you are like me, you come to see that life can be a punishment worse than death.
Ah! Am I too macabre? Well, it is almost Halloween on the West Coast you know. All Hallows Eve? When we remember the fallen and departed? Those who left us prematurely? What a season this is. Death and excess. But I digress.
So here we are, out of school, seemingly pursuing a vocation we are passionate about only to find ourselves serving drinks and fries on the weekends or scrubbing hotel floors at midnight (for, aren’t they the same thing in the end?).
And there we are, wiping our hands on an apron or wringing the mop, left to contemplate “The Next Thing.” The next step. Where do we go from here?
It may start with the promise of a job offer at the end of our internship. Maybe it’s the prospect of marriage, becoming a yoga instructor, or returning to school – for again, aren’t they all the same thing in the end? They all hint, like the breadcrumbs of Hansel and Gretel, to a candied home with warm, ominous fires that we call the “successful” or “purpose” or “best life now” that so frequently create long lines for book signings and before you know it, we’re lost in the “forest through the trees” and not sure at all how we got there. We all, like sheep, find ourselves astray I suppose, and yet there we are decades later getting the pot of macaroni and the cake iced with “You’re retiring! Yay!” and a card that everyone in the office signed wondering What the hell happened to my life?
Well… You committed to security. You committed at some point to hop on that speeding subway everyday into the city and out of suburbia to earn your name on the nameplate, the church bake sale, or have your photo posted on the wall because you devoured 5lbs of Big Charlie’s Dallas Ribs.
But who were you years ago? Who was that small, child-like person faith who believed they would change the world before the story began to write itself without your pen, thankyouverymuch? Were you someone who committed to the predetermined path, much like my father? Did you trade relationship for responsibility and aren’t you a pretty child for it? Was there a better option?
Or, conversely, were you like me? The unaccompanied minor who longed for “adventure” and found it in spades only to damage what fragile parts were tick-tocking away inside you? Did you invest your life in someone to have them betray you and watch as people who did things the “right” way were rewarded for their bludgery? Did you find “freedom” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and, in the end, wonder what would have happened had you taken that scholarship to the Ivy League law school? Would that have been the better option?
Which do you value more, right now? Security or freedom?
Oh Reader… How I long to embrace you and tell you it will be all right, that most of us feel the very same way as you do right now. How I wish I could make things better, to help you, possibly even to heal you, to love you until you felt loved so that you may not feel the loneliness of silence.
Polonius in Hamlet is famed for saying, “To thine own self be true” but what does that even mean?
When I began to study literature, much as my father did, friends and family tried to help me, to encourage me – What do you want to do with that? Teach? You know, teachers don’t make much money. Maybe you should do something different. Thing is, I wasn’t in it for the money. I did it for me, not for money, not for my parent’s approval, not to follow my father into the same profession. And I wasn’t doing it so that I could be a teacher. In fact, by that point, I already was a teacher and didn’t need a diploma to prove it. No, I wanted to be a writer and to study writing, to help others with their writing. And yet I also understand the drive towards money. In our current economy, I think it’s fair to say that we all want a safety net – some degree of stability. We want the lights on, gas in the car, and the option of choosing to skip a meal rather than have it circumstantially forced upon us.
But is being safe your only goal?
Is being free your only goal?
What exactly do you want out of life?