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Tiny Revolutions №11: The 10 Year Challenge
Hopefully we're all "better" than we were
Me in White Sands, New Mexico, in 2009.
2009 was the year I learned to meditate. I took a class at the Shambhala Center in Eagle Rock, in the easternmost reaches of Los Angeles. I attended one of their free introductory classes on a weeknight after work, and in a quiet, dusty room with the hushed noises of the 134 freeway in the background, I learned that my thoughts didn’t necessarily mean anything -- that they were just thoughts, things that came and went, not unlike the weather. And that I didn’t have to believe them.
And thank god, because being tortured by my thoughts is sort of my jam. My first reaction to meditation: “Why did no one tell me this before?”
I’d like to tell you that this was a turning point in my life. And maybe it was. But not how you’d think it would be. Reality is never so pat. In a perfect world, I would have become a devoted student and practitioner of meditation, and I would have headed off — or at least mitigated — many more years of self-hatred and disappointment.
But no. My introduction to meditation was actually when things got interesting, because while it gave me a way forward, it also showed me that I had such a long way to go. And I was so drained then that I didn’t think I had it in me.
So instead I had what one might call a breakdown. I took a leave of absence from my job and I got adequately medicated and I went to a shitload of therapy. And eventually I got better.
What I didn’t know in 2009 that is abundantly clear to me now was how absolutely married I was to there being only one way to be OK in this world, and it was more or less the way most god-fearing Americans do it -- get educated, get married, get a job, get a house, get some kids. For a variety of reasons both inside and outside of my control, my life hasn’t followed that structure. And yet I clung so tightly to this story that, the older I got, had less and less to do with my reality.
I am, at heart, a deeply conflicted person. I was raised to live one way and I live another, and while it is the only way I can live (believe me, I have tried otherwise), it is hard to not still measure myself by the yardsticks of my childhood.
It’s not an atypical story: so many millions of us leave the places we are from to make their lives in a city far away, among people whose values more closely mirror our own. You can see that drama writ large in American culture. Indeed, it feels like the quintessential American story -- to have the audacity to abandon familiarity in search of something better. Particularly when, as in my case, the familiar isn’t unbearable, but more of a suburban sameness that, while not terrible, just never really appealed to me.
And the reality is that sometimes the gamble pays off — we read about those stories all the time — but sometimes it doesn’t. And you can’t ever know whether it will. My own search for a life that suits me is still a work in progress, and there are so many days when I wish I had taken a “safe” road, but I didn’t. I couldn’t then and I still can’t now, and I just have to live with that. And I’m acutely aware that if I had, I’d be wondering what would have happened had I struck out and cast my fate to the wind the way that I have now.
What I have noticed, however, is that the less it feels like the gamble has paid off, the more depressed I am. Last summer felt like a dead end, personally: I was broke, in bad shape professionally, unhappily single, precariously perched in every possible way. But things change and fortunately they changed for the better.
The searching mind isn’t one for easy answers, and that’s a hard thing to come to grips with when you are a type A. I’ve always been ambitious and by my very nature I want all the goddamn answers and I want them now so I can bend the world to my whim. But that’s not how it works.
So if anything, my 10 year challenge has been to try to reconcile the facts of my life. There’s medication and there’s therapy and those things are helpful, but ultimately it is meditation that is critical. Just reminding myself every day that there is nothing but the present moment. And that each moment is new.
Despite almost every message we get in our daily lives about all the ways we could be better, we’re all fine. You and I are alive and we write and read emails and exist in relation to each other and just by virtue of that fact, we’re performing a hire wire act and that is A LOT. That is ENOUGH. The point of life is just to live and that’s it. Some days it’s bad and some days it’s not so bad and some days it’s fucking great.
As a side note, I’m feeling a lot better these days. So much so that I’ve been asking myself if I want to keep writing a newsletter about living with depression. Because once you’ve escaped quicksand, it’s not something you want to spend a lot of time thinking about, you know?
But I’m going to keep going and trying to evolve this format. If you have ideas for things you’d like to see me write about, please let me know. And thanks for being along for the ride.
And now on to some things that have inspired me lately…
I thought planning nothing would allow me to do everything, but in fact I just did nothing.
I loved this piece by Darcie Wilder, a young writer I admire, about the importance of establishing a daily routine if you’re a freelancer or gig economy type worker. Being a certain type of young and cool New Yorker, she took her experience to a pretty extreme place (up all night, avoiding going out, etc.), but I recognized a lot of the deleterious effects of dealing with large swaths of unstructured time.
For those of you on the ‘gram, one of my favorite feeds of late is Nitch. It’s basically just short profiles of famous thinkers and their associated wisdom. This post is a prime example of what you can expect.
Speaking of people who’ve known all of the above…
One of the best things I’ve watched recently is the excellent documentary on Quincy Jones on Netflix. There’s the music, of course, which is wildly impressive, but even more impressive is the man. Watching his trajectory from poor kid from the South Side of Chicago to Broadway arranger to big band leader to film composer to music (and film) producer to media and broadcasting mogul is pretty astonishing. His foibles with women and his family, which are many, are never far from the forefront, but somehow you never doubt his heart. It’s an inspiring portrait of a great American who struggled with his share of demons and roadblocks but never lost hope in the process.
But maybe one day we’ll cure depression by fixing the microbiome? Go science!
Never forget what we’re up against…
So, in the words of the late, great Mary Oliver:
And in case you didn’t know how I feel about us all:
Have a great weekend, y’all. Watch the Super Bowl if you must, but definitely eat some fuckin’ nachos.
p.s. 10 years is nothing. Take it from John McPhee:
“A million years is the shortest time worth messing with for most problems”