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Posts Tagged ‘choices’

Once in a while, I wish I wanted to be an accountant.

In this alternate reality, my life is quite simple. I am a good accountant, diligent, dedicated, and detail-oriented. I probably work too much, and this fact probably occasionally causes a little bit of angst, but I’m probably mostly too busy to think about it.

I do the standard things society has taught me to value. I consume. I nest. I go to the gym several times a week, or else I jog. I follow the most popular TV shows. Maybe I even follow a sport. I am a somewhat brainy accountant, so I bet I read a newspaper, although probably not quite as often as I secretly feel I should to be up on current events.

I have an actual cleaning schedule for chores around my house. I cook balanced, healthful meals, and I freeze leftovers for later. My furniture mostly matches, and I don’t need a ridiculous amount of wall space for eight plus bookshelves and a piano.

I wear slacks on a regular basis, or maybe even smart blouse and skirt outfits, and pointy-toed heels have magically become not a torture punishment to wear. Also, I am not allergic to almost all perfumes. I remember to get my hair cut at regular intervals. I might actually wear makeup almost every day, and I wouldn’t be caught dead outside without sunscreen on.

I go to happy hours on a regular basis. I drink wine with dinner. I host formal dinner parties. The last book I read was Shades of Gray because all my friends told me I had to read it. I receive women’s magazines in the mail. I send out Christmas cards to everyone I’ve ever known, every year, without fail. And I remember to call them holiday cards.

My edges are all rounded off.

***

I am not that woman. She only exists in my mind, an amalgam of television ads and eighties sitcom wives and Good Housekeeping covers and mostly overlooked comments and the fifties sensibilities my parents were raised in. Add in the power woman of the workplace with oversized shoulder pads and the collective obsession with female appearance and a good dose of social norms and common hobbies and belief systems that allow us all to coexist with less friction than otherwise.

And there she is, this imaginary woman. Her life isn’t actually simple at all; it sounds quite challenging to be good at everything she is good at, and to keep on top of everything she keeps on top of. Add in a family and a house, and I wonder if she has any time for herself at all. Maybe she is also unlike me in that she doesn’t become a shell of herself on less than eight (seven, absolute minimum) hours of sleep.

What does seem simple about her, though, is that she is exactly what society has told me I should be.

***

I am who I am, and I live the life I have chosen, and most of the time, I am not just fine with that, but grateful. I mean, yes, I should wear sunscreen more often. And perhaps there would be a kind of comfort in living the life that seven-year-old me was led to expect. But even seven-year-old me wasn’t on board with that life because that’s the year I both started studying the piano and decided I wanted to be a writer. Being a serious artist didn’t ever really fit into the picture I was given.

(Not to say you can’t be a serious artist and also be an amazing cook or be good at keeping the house clean or wear killer blouse and skirt outfits or watch basketball or read three papers a day or be an accountant. People can, and they do. They’re creating their own amazing pictures.)

***

Here is where I spend most of my time.

Here is where I spend most of my time.

Here is my picture:

My apartment is filled with books: YA and science fiction and literature and fantasy and travel guides and research materials and sheet music. I can’t imagine living without a piano. The little white dog lies curled up by my chair. I probably need to vacuum.

When I go to happy hours (maybe once a year), I go for the cheap food. I will probably never drink wine with dinner. I have friends over for board games and role-playing games instead of dinner parties, and sometimes I bake brownies for them. I eat out a lot, and I eat frozen dinners a lot of the rest of the time.

I’m wearing jeans, a sparkly sweater, and no makeup. I spend most of my days reading and writing and thinking. I’ve been trying to make more time for practicing music. I love to read novels. I am horrible about sending anything to anyone via post. I’m not athletic and I never go to the gym, but I do love walking my dog and soaking in the world around me. I don’t know the right way to clean a variety of stains, and I don’t know how to use a sewing machine, but I do know how to sew on a button.

I wear glasses, and I have a weird sense of humor, and I’ve never had a traditional salaried job. I like the Vampire Diaries, but I am more than half a season behind on it, and right now I’m rewatching The Gilmore Girls because I like watching Lorelai create her own picture for herself, plus hers includes the really nice blouse and skirt outfits. I daydream about London and New York and Seattle, and Disneyland is still one of my favorite places on the planet.

I try to figure out what it is I actually care about, as opposed to what I’m told I should care about. Sometimes these things are the same, and sometimes they aren’t. Making the distinction can be difficult.

***

What is your picture?

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A Happy Life:

I have few or no worries and low stress. I am healthy and pain-free. I don’t have to deal with change very often. I spend time doing pleasant activities: reading books, playing games, watching movies, eating good food, making music, doing fun work, hanging out with friends. I go on fun outings on the weekends. I have enough money to do what I want to do.

A Meaningful Life:

I don’t walk away from something only because it is difficult. I embrace change when it is necessary. I enjoy challenges. I prioritize time for the things that matter to me: building close connections with others, helping others, working towards artistic mastery, creating things, doing work I’m invested in, learning more about the world and about myself, feeling gratitude and appreciation for the little things, evoking emotions and uncovering truth. While I still search for a balance in order to take care of myself, I make trade-offs in order to live in line with my priorities.

*****

I don’t think these two lives are necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do sometimes come into conflict with each other. And when I’m being honest with myself, I know that the happy life, while sometimes tempting, also sounds…empty. I’d enjoy it for a while, sure, but if that was all there was for me, I’d get restless.

When I think back on my life so far, what gives me the most personal satisfaction are not the pleasant activities I’ve done. I can hardly remember most of them. Most of the things I’m actively glad I did were challenging and not always comfortable. I’m glad I moved to London for a year. I’m glad I studied music. I’m glad I got to travel. I’m glad for the relationships I formed, with students, family, friends, romantic partners. I’m glad I taught. I’m glad I wrote a musical, and short stories, and novels. I’m glad I got a dog. None of those things were easy, and none of them were unadulterated happiness (although the dog was close!). But they are what matter to me.

I was struck by something in the Atlantic article “There’s more to life than being happy:”

“Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life.”

Now there’s a silver lining if ever I’ve heard one. Right after reading the above article, I happened across my friend Myke Cole’s essay on PTSD, and he also talks about finding meaning in the face of adversity:

“We have to find a way to construct significance, to help a changed person forge a path in a world that hasn’t changed along with them.”

This is how we move forward in the world, through the meaning we create, through the choices we make. The more I think about this idea, the more clarity I find. Buddhism talks a lot about the inevitability of suffering. But the suffering can give birth to meaning, and that meaning? It’s a truly beautiful thing.

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My post about my friend who throws away books generated a fair bit of controversy a couple of weeks ago. I was really happy to hear from so many people who love books a lot, just as I do. But I was also a bit surprised by how upset some people were, to the point that one person even said that he couldn’t be friends with someone who threw books away.

I guess we all have our hot topic buttons, but I can’t imagine throwing Rahul under the bus because he has a different perception than me (and one he has thought about, to boot). Most of my friendships can survive more than one difference of opinion, particularly one that doesn’t affect me directly (regular and overt sexist behavior, for example, would be another kettle of fish).

Anyway, I’m talking about this because I’m going to share a profound Rahul Kanakia quotation from Facebook: “The only major decision that life offers is: Should I look for something better, even though it means endangering what I have?

Photo Credit: timtom.ch via Compfight cc

(I mean, seriously, how could I not be friends with someone who randomly posts status messages like that on Facebook?)

I’ve been trying to think of a major decision that doesn’t involve the choice of perhaps losing or changing what you already have, and I’m drawing a blank. Change involves endangering the status quo. Sometimes when we’re involved with change, we’re pretty sure we’re going to end up better off because of it; other times, we’re simply guessing. We don’t know, and that’s where some of the pain of change comes in: letting go of something to make room for something else that might not be any better (or, even worse, might be not as good).

Also, if looking for something better doesn’t endanger what you already have in any way, then it’s not a very hard decision.

I suppose there is sometimes a follow-up decision, which is this: you’ve already decided on the change, but you have to choose between several options. In this case, instead of endangering what you already have, you’re trying to make the optimal decision for yourself. We see this when high school seniors are deciding what college to attend, in multiple job offer situations, when going house shopping. The more options there are, the more decision paralysis sets in. But you’ve already made the initial decision to look for something different (by getting more education, purchasing a house, searching for a job, etc.).

Should I look for something better and accept the risk? It’s a question worth asking. Often the answer is no. The risk isn’t worth it. The hypothetical better isn’t worth it. But sometimes the answer is yes.

Good fiction asks this question a lot. Sure, sometimes the main character is railroaded by events, but the most interesting fiction gives the protagonist some agency. As readers we enjoy when the stakes are high and the protagonist has more to lose, because then this decision becomes really interesting.

Do I act, even though by acting I risk losing what I care about? Do I try, even though I could fail and never get back to where I am now? Do I change, even though the changes will have unforeseen consequences?

These questions, I think, are a deep part of what it is to be human.

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I often pretend that I’m eighty years old.

When I was eighteen, I went away to college and began studying music. My life wasn’t ideal: my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer that year, I had wicked insomnia, there were various college dramas to deal with, I had a bum ankle and was constantly sick, I wasn’t always making the progress I wished to make. But I remember very clearly walking home from the music building one spring day. I could see the ocean as I left the building, the sun was out, I was surrounded by beautiful redwood trees, and I was able to spend all my time studying music, which I was truly passionate about. And I thought, “There is nothing I’d rather be doing with my life right now.”

That’s a powerful thought, isn’t it? I decided then that I would try to live as much of my life as possible in the same way, and that is still one of my goals today. There are many things that I was wrong about when I was eighteen, but that wasn’t one of them. One of the ways I can check on myself and see how I’m doing is to pretend that I’m eighty. Whenever I’m making a decision or evaluating something I’m doing, I ask myself: How will I feel about this when I’m eighty? First of all, will I even remember it? (If the answer is no, then it’s probably not all that important, and if nothing else, I can bring down my worry level a notch or two.) If I do this, will I be glad I tried it when I look back at my life? Will I regret passing up this opportunity? Or will I wish I’d played it safer or made a different decision?

I was talking to a former student the other day who has decided not to pursue music professionally, at least for right now. She went to professional school for musical theater for a while and began to hate it, even though she had previously been amazingly passionate about the subject. So now she is studying a different subject. And you know what? Even though she ultimately changed her mind, I think she did the right thing going through the musical theater program. Because if she hadn’t, then when she was eighty, she might have regretted not pursuing her dream. Now she knows that she doesn’t want that kind of life, and she can move forward without regrets.

From photobucket.com by notapooka

According to this article, one of the top regrets of people on their deathbeds is not having followed their dreams. (I highly recommend you read the entire article.) Of course, we can’t always be doing exactly what we want to do. No one wants to sit around recovering from a root canal gone wrong or clean the bathroom or deal with any of a whole host of problems and difficulties that are part of our daily lives. But I think all the unpleasant parts are rendered more manageable if we can find and highlight the aspects of life that are so wonderful to us that they dwarf all else. For me in college, that passion was for music. Nowadays, I find it in my relationships, in writing fiction and this blog, in teaching, in travel. When I’m spending time on any of those things, I get the same feeling, that there is nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Steve Jobs gave a great insight in a Stanford commencement address that I think about a lot:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

So now I’ll ask you the same questions: if today was the last day of your life, would you want to do what you’re doing? When you’re eighty, how will you feel about the decisions you’re making today?

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Last night I asked my husband what I should write about next for the blog. “If you don’t tell me what to write,” I said, “I’m going to talk about teeth.” He looked horrified and gave me a few topic suggestions. And here I am writing about teeth anyway.

I’ve been trying really hard not to whine about my dental problems too much, which is hard, because I feel this pressing need to whine. Seven months and counting, and right this minute I have a not insignificant toothache from the same tooth that’s been causing the problems all along. I’ve been through two root canals, an onlay, two permanent crowns, and three or four temporary crowns for this one tooth, not to mention gum surgery, several courses of antibiotics and steroids, and countess bite adjustments. It still hurts. And now a new filling on the opposite side of my mouth has decided to act up and hate on anything cold. Eating has become an interesting exercise since I now have two bum teeth on opposite sides of my mouth.

I can question the competence of my dentists all I want, but ultimately they just really really want to save this tooth. They care about saving the tooth more than they care about the pain it is causing me or the subsequent deterioration of my quality of life. My tooth is, after all, irreplaceable; no prosthesis will be as good as the real thing.

It occurs to me as I obsess about my mouth that this is a more universal problem. How do we decide when it’s time to let go of something? I think it’s probably about time for an extraction of my tooth, but without 100% support from the dental establishment, I have hesitated for several months now. I’m kicking myself because maybe all this pain could have ended last December. But how do I decide when it’s time to give up on the tooth?

How do we decide when to give up on anything? What is it that tips us over the edge into deciding a marriage just isn’t going to work? What motivates us to change careers? What is the key information we need to make the call that a business relationship isn’t working out or a person is just never going to treat us respectfully? How do we make the call that “enough is enough” and that something has got to change?

I have a lot of trouble letting go. My stubbornness is an extremely useful trait in many ways, but it can occasionally be inconvenient. What kills me the most is that so often, we’ll never know for sure. We won’t know what would have happened if we’d made a different choice. Maybe if I’d stuck with that relationship for another month or two, that extra time would have made the difference. That’s the insidious whisper that plays inside my head. Maybe if I try one more dental treatment, I’ll get to keep my original tooth. Maybe if I can persevere at a task for a while longer, it will become more rewarding. Maybe maybe maybe.

Or maybe it’s time to make a hard decision and extract that broken molar from its roots, rip the band aid off the skin, take a stand and say, “This is where I draw the line.” There’s giving up and then there’s embracing change; the line between the two is murky but important, because one feels like defeat while the other one can be liberating. A sad and bracing liberation, to be sure, but I’ll take it over straightforward defeat any day.

So tell me: how do YOU make such decisions? When is giving up the right thing to do?

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