Since we returned to California from New York I have been feeling unpleasantly directionless. It’s the kind of feeling that prompts one to slouch around the house — or in front of the internet — seeking distraction from the mental refrain that won’t be distracted: “Who am I, anyway? What am I doing? Why am I here?”
If that all sounds eye-rollingly pathetic, it feels that way to me too. Then again, maybe it doesn’t sound like it to you, because likely you are less harsh on me than I am on myself. But given how comfortable and enjoyable my life is, I hate that I have the luxury to wallow in my doubt; I don’t have to squash these desperate questions to get through a day at my job, for instance, or feed kids or care for an ailing relative — and so I just sit around thinking them, over and over, without answer.
Well, actually, no. I do have some answers. One is that it helps to make something: “Action is the antidote to despair,” as the Joan Baez quote goes. Even when I don’t like what I’ve made, it still feels better to do something than nothing.
Once I realized that, I decided I need to be messing around more: noodling, doodling, trying out and messing up. After all, I am not really a writer or an illustrator or a painter; I am something of all three, and maybe something else as well. Essentially I don’t know what to do with myself because there is no name for it yet; I have to be an inventor. And whoever heard of an inventor sitting around waiting for the invention to arise? An inventor should be tinkering, and so should I be. I’m hesitant to start projects because I don’t know what they will look like, but why not just dive in and make something? Even if it’s hideous, at least I will know what I am not making, and that’s better than knowing nothing at all.
To that end, I have given myself an assignment to mess around for the month of August. I was revisiting my Bach collection the other day, and so when I thought “I need to experiment more” I immediately thought of his inventions. I like the idea of creating my own inventions. Ideas I always have in plenty, so I will take some time to play with each one, see if it leads anywhere. I may or may not post them as I go; I don’t think I should, given that I want complete freedom to experiment, but I suspect I will because I usually do.
This morning I was writing in my journal and I remembered that whenever I’ve felt directionless and mentioned it to someone, they’ve always been surprised. In grad school I’d been watching Project Runway and I remarked to one of my classmates that if they made a reality show of our cohort, I’d be tagged as “the one who has a lot of talent but just doesn’t want it enough.” He looked startled and said, “You? No.” Which startled me in turn, because I really didn’t want to be in grad school, and he knew it. But no one ever believes me when I declare a lack of passion. At one point I confessed to my faculty advisor that I was afraid I’d just drift if I left school, and though she didn’t necessarily want me to leave the program, she said after some consideration, “I don’t see you as the drifting type.” And just the other day I was on the phone with my best friend, and I told her about the “Who am I? Why am I here?” questions I’ve been asking myself, and she said, “Don’t worry. I know who you are.” Indeed… everyone always does seem to think they know, even when I don’t. Either they know something I don’t, or I am a much better pretender than I think.
The thing is, I can see why people are surprised. I am not a passionless person. I mean, duh, if you read this blog at all. Or even if you’re visiting for the first time and just click around a tiny bit. I have a great many interests, I have several useful skills and a correspondingly helpful amount of talent; I have a lot of capacity for commitment, for enthusiasm, for communication, and I think I am even capable of vision and power. But when it comes to pinning all those qualities onto a single pursuit (or a few pursuits), that’s where I fail. As I’ve written before, it’s as if my code of personal integrity makes it impossible for me to succeed in a chosen field(s) because I cannot bring myself to the necessary neglect of everything else in my life. I refuse to put anything second — at least not for long — and so nothing ever comes first, and I realize that’s why I feel so rudderless. Without a line to navigate by, how can I steer? It was fine while we were traveling (since our itinerary came first), but now I feel I’m simply drifting. And perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that, but — to mix metaphor with reality — I’ve always been afraid of the vastness of the ocean.
I was thinking that maybe I need to approach this metaphorical navigation the same way I do my real-life experience of it, when visiting a new place. I’ve learned that elaborate plans and schedules always stress me out, but as I say, I can’t drift entirely or I just feel panicky and/or depressed (“what am I doing? why am I here?”). What I like is to pick a single destination (or a small handful of destinations), and then set out, without placing importance on how we get there or if we even do at all. It is about the journey, but I’m outcome-oriented enough to be afraid of that, so basically I trick myself into thinking there’s a goal, and then I’m happy to just go and see what happens.
I am hoping that is what I’ll accomplish with my “inventions” idea too. My plan is to make things based on certain ideas, but the true goal is to just make a whole lot, because that is the real work: to make, not to make something.