Misplaced Longing

 

What name does one give to the phenomenon of wistful longing for a past event that wasn’t event pleasant, or one that’s not actually in the past yet? Could it still be labeled as nostalgia?

Whether or not the name actually applies, these nostalgia-like feelings seems like ever-present sentiments in every stage of my life. In fact, even though I have terrible memory/usually can’t remember anything from my childhood, I have this one random vivid memory of grappling with nostalgia at an early age. I remember sitting on the school bus in 1st or 2nd grade and being excited about something that day (I can’t remember what) and subsequently having the thought that the state of excitement and happiness felt at that moment was something that the next day or even weeks from that day I would be looking back on with fond remembrance and longing, with nostalgia (obviously not articulated in such a way at the time). I remember then trying really hard for a few moments to just fully soak in the feeling of that moment and the events of that day that I knew would be so fleeting, to somehow hold onto them more deeply before they became things of the past to look back on.

Obviously, it was an impossible endeavor…it has even been said that there is really no such thing as the present moment, insofar as the present is comprised of such tiny fractions of time that our human mind can’t really grasp it. But nonetheless, I wanted to hold onto the present, and in doing so, felt this subtle nagging anxiety for what I knew would quickly be a moment of the past, no matter how much I tried to hold on.

The nagging anxiety to hold onto the present, and ultimately, the past, has followed me around ever since….spreading and taking on new forms and disguises, almost like a disease. It was in one of my college courses that I remember making the ironic discovery that the idea of ‘nostalgia’ actually first emerged in the 19th century being perceived as exactly that: a disease. That is, it was seen and treated (sometimes harshly) as an actual medical illness, a psychopathological disorder. While the idea of nostalgia over time lost this connotation of illness and strayed instead into the realm of romanticism and literature, I think it still regains the same underlying potency to infect a person’s mental and physical well being if not regulated.

This may be a bit of a dramatic take on nostalgia, but just given the all-encompassing nature it seems to play in my own life, particularly as it relates to aging, I think I’ve begun to subconsciously regard it as some kind of disease to be cured. The more I come to realize just how much my aversion to aging has not subsided with each passing year but in fact deepened (made worse by the fact that each year continues to represent an even older age), the more I find the necessity to get at the heart of my nostalgia for youth in particular, whatever ‘youth’ might mean.

It’s not a fear of grey hair and wrinkles, coming more closely to death, or even a fear of failing to reach some preset idea or expectation of what is meant to happen at any specific age. Nor is it that I think that youth is inherently superior to being older, despite the subliminal narrative affirming such a notion in most media these days (particularly for women). Perhaps I can best describe it as an anticipation of the loss of youth itself. And since I realize this description is still barely a description, I’ll borrow the words of another who has reflected on this topic and so uncannily captured exactly how I feel about it in her essay:

“What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life.”

Just as the essayist Meghan Daum alludes in her reflection on the subject, I also recognize that such a sentiment is of course a complete romanticization of youth and the excitement attached to such a state, one often overshadowing the real lived experiences that may not have been so pleasant, despite the fact that we had the ‘gleaming architecture’ of the future to placate us at the time. What’s more, I also realize that my misplaced longing for this idealized period of youth that probably never even existed to begin with is made that much more ridiculous by the fact that part of my longing for it is directed at the present moment. The above referenced essay to which I found myself relating so closely describes this nostalgia from the point of view of a middle-aged woman longing for her twenties. And, just as first-grade me felt that day I tried so desperately to hold onto the present, my current nostalgia for youth is almost just as much an anticipatory longing for a past time that has not yet become the past as it is a longing for my actual younger days, particularly in recognizing that I still could consider myself in the midst of youth from the reference point of my older future self.

At the moment, this abstract longing for a nonexistent idealized past and a period of youth in which the future towered over me continues to take on a multitude of unexpected forms. This is perfectly illustrated by the most recent longings for a distinctly-tumultuous-but-rewarding-in-retrospect time of my life: the 7 months I spent living and working in Zimbabwe. They rise and fall, without warning or reason, as a series of flashbacks tinged with pangs of yearning:

An image of running through the row of jacaranda trees that formed a long green canopy down the street next to my house, recalling the way the light pierced through the leaves onto the pavement in beautiful outlines and caught my eyes in flashes as I ran by them; glimpses of beauty which at the time actually felt like rare breaths of fresh air amidst weeks spent mostly behind a computer screen…

A sudden strong craving for the bland meals served at my office canteen…the same $1.50 plate of rice, chicken, greens and butternut I ate nearly every single day at the office, always marveling at my own taste buds for somehow never seeming to tire of the plain, monotonous experience each time….

Some song, image, or smell that jolts me back not into a past time but a past emotion, not so much as a re-experience of the emotion but as if viewed through the eyes of a spectator; a remembering of the emotional states that at specific times became the entire lens through which I experienced my life, though often skewed and limiting in nature…

A feeling of safety and comfort in remembering a Saturday in which the highlight of my day was a run or trip to the grocery store (the few forms of ‘breaks’ I allowed myself for the majority of my time there, always with the heavy weight of unfinished work preventing me from desiring much else by way of breaks); the kind of comfort not grounded in contentment necessarily but in simplicity, and perhaps even lack of choice (or at least a feeling of lack of choice)…

As is probably evident from these descriptions, the majority of these things I feel nostalgic for are nothing remarkable or particularly enjoyable; in fact, many were the opposite of pleasant. And yet, even in having this awareness and surface-y recollection of the unpleasant emotions felt at the time, I continue to reminisce nostalgically over them, to almost unwillingly yearn for them. The thing is, regardless of what my actual daily experience was at the time, I think much of its allure to my present mind is that it was distinctly a period which had a clear transitional and temporary quality to it, a period intended to bestow upon me life lessons and allow me to delve into confusion with the knowledge that the future still lay ahead. I knew that even if it turned out I failed completely at the job and left from it broken and confused, it would ultimately still serve as a time of growth and a jumping point from which to move towards my next life context, whether grad school or a career shift, equipped with the lessons of the last.

And the paradoxical thing about this seemingly comforting knowledge of a future full of possibility, flexibility, and time, is that its comforting qualities rarely seem evident at the time. Only in recalling the period later, once it feels as though less ‘future’ lay ahead, does it feel like something has been lost, and is thus something to long for. Really, it is a yearning not so much for any specific event or experience but for the underlying current of ‘youth’ that characterized all of them. I like the way the essayist Daumer articulates this phenomenon through a fictitious interaction in which her Older Self gives wisdom to her Younger Self, but doesn’t have the heart to tell her about the nostalgia that will be most unbearable later on, to tell her Younger Self that:

“…the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable because…they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them.”

And, at the center of this nostalgic longing is really a romanticization and unfounded worshipping of our younger selves based on the notion that whatever we did in youth represented, as another author puts it, “our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities.”

And with this recognition, one might ask oneself, would you really want to go back to that time representative of endless potential, if you had the choice? Or would you opt for the current, inevitably wiser, even if not necessarily more ‘grown up’, version of you? I have a feeling most would go with the latter…and I think I would too if really given such a choice…just in taking stock of what you know you know now that you didn’t know then, even if that knowledge is in many cases characterized by more confusion and uncertainty. That’s probably part of the beauty of aging: not some grand epiphany or stepping over some static line from youth to fully fledged adulthood, but simply a state of deeper knowing – the kind that lends itself to expanded awareness of how much you don’t know and how much there is yet to be known. The kind of knowing that we often taken for granted as we reminisce over our romanticized younger selves.

But with all that said, even my own words on the beauty and gift that is aging do little to quell the continuous nagging nostalgia for the period of ‘youth’ the more I move away from it. The closest conciliation I’ve found of late is in the recognition that I’m not alone in my paradoxical romanticization of and nostalgia for the experiences of my younger self. There is always comfort in knowing that your own irrational responses are not unique to you but something deeply human and, in that, a unifying experience. So, in the absence of any satisfying conclusions, I’ll instead share some further reflections from others who have felt the same and articulated my own sentiments much better than I could have: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/12/09/meghan-daum-unspeakable/

“…anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

Anything. Or anyone. That does not bring you alive.

Is too.

Small.

For you.

I’d once heard poetry described as language against which we have no defenses. It is a language whose words at times bring with them truths we didn’t want to hear, didn’t feel ready to hear. They render us unable to deny or hide from some reality we felt hesitant to confront, because confronting new truths usually means confronting our own vulnerabilities and the uncertainties we all possess as humans.

These brief, poignant words from one of David Whyte’s poems had seared themselves into my consciousness since I’d first heard them. Some words are too significant, too evident, too loud to be ignored.

Equally so, some experiences are too loud to be ignored.

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A few weekends ago, I had a chance to briefly visit Johannesburg, the city I had called home for two years before moving to Zimbabwe some months ago. The moment I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, it was as if I had breathed in new life. As I rode the train into the city, the outlines of familiar shapes blurring past my sight amidst the evening lights reflecting off the large glass windows, I continued to inhale the strangely satisfying air. It was as if my lungs were just now able to fully take in the air necessary to expand to their full capacity, whereas for the past months they had only taken in what they could to sustain life, unsatiated yet laboring on in their capacity.

This fullness literally felt in my lungs continued to define the rest of the two days spent in that city. One day felt like a week – from driving through the city centre and taking in all the beautiful grittiness I had always loved about it, even amidst the very real danger and need to remain alert in turning each corner; to revisiting the familiar artsy spaces carved out throughout the town, in the hipster cafes and markets and in the fashionable and unavoidably cool youthful city residents who occupied them; to catching up with familiar faces and friends whose vibrancy, intelligence, and beauty I had the privilege of appreciating anew, the way periods of absence always seem to re-introduce us to the things we come to take for granted in others by way of familiarity.

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Our experience of time is so deeply intertwined with our experience of people and place; of the emotions and diversity of experiences we allow ourselves in each moment of each day. This could not have been more evident than in that one Saturday in Joburg. One day can easily assume months or even years of meaning and depth, depending on how we fill it and what we let in. It is both frightening and liberating to realize the extent to which we control or relationship with time – the way in which one day can seem to pass by in a second, accumulating to months or even years of fleeting empty moments, but equally so, how one day can be filled with so much life that the concept of time in itself seems to become irrelevant and meaningless.

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Relatedly, it is both a deeply beautiful and yet in some ways painful phenomenon to be reminded of the manifold ways our existences depend on our connections with other people. Such reminders may come in the inevitable moments where we find ourselves kept afloat and able to keep at this business of living simply by the grace of those in our lives, but they may also come in those moments where we think we are fine, living, moving, but then jolted suddenly more alive by the influence of another.

I am all for learning to love oneself, or at least learning to be at peace within one’s own self – to recognize the wholeness that is already there, and find a sense of grounding in that alone. It is no doubt dangerous and unhealthy to expect that anyone else can complete us or to rely on someone else to build up those things we must ultimately build up in ourselves. But I’ve also found the beauty and mystery in the power of another person to sometimes expand our sense of completeness. It is not that this other comes in and fills some hole we thought needed to be filled in our lives, but rather, that he or she literally stretches the space that once represented the totality of our identity and human experience. Inevitably, this may end up leaving a sense of loss or incompleteness once that individual is no longer in our lives, but not because we had relied on him or her to fill a certain absence. Still, in stretching the canvas of self we started with, that person ends up leaving some sense of emptiness in the stretched out space they had made for us, but a space whose emptiness is only an illusion – one that, with time, we find a way to fill with our own color, adding ever more shades of beauty to our existence.

It is this sense of expansion I had the privilege of experiencing on multiple occasions throughout the course of that Saturday in Joburg – in the unexpectedly diverse and profound conversations had with both old friends and new. While naturally not all conversations in life must serve to elevate or inspire, I find that for me personally, I rely on such conversations for sustenance. Lately, I’ve come to realize that maybe bringing up my confusion over the nature of reality with random colleagues on a coffee break or delving into the meaning of life with drunken strangers at a party or discussing colonialism and racism on a first date may not be typical contexts associated with certain types of conversations, but I’ve also realized, why not. More often than not, regardless of the context or ‘norms’ for discussion topics in certain settings, simply allowing people the space for expression on those things that matter most creates an instant connection and opportunity for something meaningful to emerge.

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In many ways, these moments transform mere conversation into a form of art: a molding of two or more experiences into some new idea or expression, something never before revealed into the world in that precise way. Simply by nature of the uniqueness of the elements – of the perceptions and experiences and personality of each person – brought together to produce the interplay of thoughts and meaning making in that specific instance, the conversation unleashes something that ripples out in tiny invisible ways into the ocean of meaning that shapes the world.

While the following quote from Rilke was written in the context of marriage, I think it also applies to the beauty of connection, facilitated through the types of conversations had between people in any context: “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

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When reminded of the immensity of depth and wholeness embodied by each and every individual in our midst, it is that much more incredible to imagine what is possible by the interactions between them. As Rilke articulates, the point is not a merging together, for such a task is impossible in light of the infinite distances between any two people, but rather, an appreciation of the distance in itself. Conversation is one means of delving into the depths of another person’s immense sky and in the process, finding the horizon of your own sky shifted into ever-farther expanses.

I’m not sure why exactly the conversations in Joburg stood out so much as compared to the ones I’ve been having in Harare. It’s not that I haven’t come across moving people or interesting things worth reflecting on here, but maybe it is also that my excessive focus on work has left me more closed off to the influence of these conversations. And then, there is also the fact that some people just have a deeper effect on us than others, who make us feel more alive for whatever reason. As with most things, this reality becomes more evident in the absence of it. In this case, my experience of leaving those individuals who had been a part of my life in Joburg made their uniqueness and inspiring qualities that much more worthy of appreciation in having the opportunity to once again feel a unique kind of alive in their presence.

These moments of heightened aliveness in the past few months however have by no means been confined to my weekend in Joburg. They’ve appeared in countless and usually unexpected ways throughout my time in Harare, yet often in short fleeting bursts rather than in a sustained and embedded way.

One day, in returning from a work trip to the field, I had been driving back to Harare from Mwenezi, a dry, dusty rural district in the southern region of Zimbabwe, at dawn: the sky was painted with a deep red along the horizon, as the rays of the luminous waking sun pierced through the dust, casting shadows of hazy pink brightness in every direction. The vibrant red horizon softened into lighter shades of pink, mingling with strokes of blues and wispy forms of white, eventually settling on a bluish grey expanse as the eyes journeyed upwards. The reddish pink horizon rested along the outlines of ridged mountains in the distance, appearing in layers of various depths and darkness, broken only by the rounded outlines of trees in their midst. Something about the way the dust from the rocky dirt road we traveled along filled the air around us, lit up by the warm hues of the morning sun, seemed to encompass our vehicle with an inexplicable warmth. This combined with the thick morning soundscape of nature’s silence – rooster calls, cattle bells, and singing birds – felt almost like a warm embrace by the earth itself. Breaking my attention from my concerns of the work awaiting me in Harare, of the millions of things I thought mattered here or there, the embrace brought me into my surroundings, reminding me that all that mattered was what was there, then in that moment.

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Why do I bring any of this up in the first place – this concept of feeling alive, and of allowing oneself to be drawn to those things and people which bring us to feel this way?

Preparing for grad school and working through all the confusing and necessary life lessons and growth that comes with the early career experience, I’ve spent much time reflecting on decisions over the past few months, thinking such reflection necessary in setting a fruitful path for whatever is to come next. But really, I don’t know what the future holds, whether it be 10 years from now or even 10 seconds from now. It is a futile and vain human imagining to think we have any control over our futures – that the decisions we make now will determine exactly where or what we will be doing later in life. I do not know what decisions now will put me in the best position to achieve what I want to achieve in the future. I don’t even know what it is I want to achieve in concrete terms. Or whether I should care about ‘achievement’ in the first place.

What I do know is when I feel alive, and when I don’t. I know what beauty feels like and what the absence of it feels like. I know that beauty – in the world, in other people, and in contributing something meaningful to both – makes me feel alive. I know that I do not want to live a life devoid of actually feeling alive.

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This may all sound extremely basic and simple, and in fact, it is. But how often do we abstract ourselves from those evident truths that are so deeply obvious and glaring in our lives that we forget how important they are to begin with? Amidst so much uncertainty in life and the paradoxical necessity to continue making big decisions anyway, it seems that a useful guiding force (which could be what some already define as ‘intuition’) should simply be whatever makes us feel alive. In making a decision affecting our life context or path, the question to self should always be “does this bring me alive?” and take it from there. This is the accumulation of what the past few months have taught me, and, for the moment, is probably the only basis upon which I feel I can stand firmly with any choice I make affecting how I live my life.

Finding Symbols for the Wordlessness

It’s funny how the times I actually feel most compelled to write seem to be the times when I feel least able to make sense of something in words. In fact, even in starting this post and writing these words now, I don’t know where this is going, or what I want to say, or how to find the language for it, and yet, can’t get over this gnawing sense that I need to say something and find a way to formulate it into words.

For the thing I want to describe not only lacks words but I’m not even sure has managed to surface to the level of a thought. Feeling maybe, but not thought. But then, even the idea of a feeling somehow seems to connote a sense of concreteness and understanding that I have yet to arrive at, since feelings we generally communicate to the outside world and to ourselves through the medium of language, indicating a certain definitiveness about them.

Conveniently enough though, I recently stumbled upon this quote by John Steinbeck that couldn’t be anymore germane to my current sentiments, and has motivated me to continue to write something in any case:

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.”

Maybe the act of writing this in itself is the thing I feel the need to somehow articulate: that deep embedded recognition within all of us of what it means to be human and what it means to make manifest and express it. Like many of the abstract things I’ve clumsily attempted to find symbols for through words (‘reality’, ‘identity’, etc.) this clichéd concept of ‘what it means to be human’ in fact has no meaning in and of itself given its broadness and different associations it holds to different people. However, I recently read a piece with a definition I quite like for the essential component of our humanity: the parts of ourselves that extend beyond the mere mechanical.

While still a rather broad and abstract definition, I think it holds a lot of relevance as an important reminder to self, particularly when we find ourselves drudging through the day to day details of life – those details that more often than not feel overwhelming and vital when in the thick of them – not even realizing just how much our mindless daily actions come to consume our beings until something shakes us from our monotonous routine and reminds us of our core humanness. That is, a reminder that our being in the world is not just a facet of our daily motions and mere existence, but really, of our ability to connect and interact and reflect on our relationship to it; to have an ongoing and active conversation with the world around us and with ourselves.

It is a definition of human identity that is complexly positioned somewhere in between our relationship to the physical reality we inhabit and our interior reality. I really liked the way the poet philosopher David Whyte describes this space as it relates to our individual identities, saying that the “only place where things are real is between the frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you.” In talking about the tendency of humans to abstract themselves out of their direct experiences (and in fact, highlighting this ability of humans to deny their own humanness or fundamental identities as a key feature of what distinguishes us as human, as opposed to all other creatures on the planet which are undeniably and unavoidably nothing more than themselves), he notes that the formation of one’s identity depends not only on looking within oneself, but more on the depth of one’s attention to all things other than himself. It is through deepening our attention to the things around us that we begin to deepen our own sense of presence – in a literal and physical sense, but also probably in terms of the presence we have in relationship to ourselves and the sense of grounding we have in the bodies we inhabit. “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity,” he poignantly states in one of his poems.

Something I think I’ve struggled with of late though is finding the balance between being grounded in the physical and real versus the abstract and interior. In the past couple months, I feel like I’ve found myself wavering between two extremes: from being so fully and completely immersed in my work and allowing it to become the totality of my life and thoughts, leaving no space for introspection or reflection beyond the immediate and present reality, to having something suddenly knock me out of this state – whether by a sudden shift of perspective or even physical relocation – such that I find my sense of reality dislocated altogether, leaving my mind to settle only on the reality within itself.

The latter is where I find myself now, and also constitutes the crux of the ‘wordlessness’ and ‘inexplicable’ that has prompted me to put words on paper at this time. Not necessarily a bad thing, it is a state of being that can be described as nothing else but perplexing, and perhaps also disorienting, all the more so in the frustrating lack of words that seem available to describe it. Still, while I can’t necessarily put words to my current mental state that would clarify what I mean, I can at least describe the underlying characteristic defining it, which is essentially a struggle to ground my thoughts in the present.

Described in such a way, I’m sure this struggle is one relatable to many, but probably with very different undertones and driving forces behind it. While I’m still trying to get a grasp on the unyielding force behind mine, in the hopes that identifying its roots will allow me to regain control over it, I think it is in part linked to the very different realities I’ve experienced lately that have become juxtaposed against each other in such dramatic ways: from spending a month recently in the U.S. (the first time I’d been back in a year) and rediscovering facets of myself and way of being in the world that I hadn’t experienced in a long time, to returning to my life in Zimbabwe and so suddenly and completely becoming immersed into it as though I’d never left, to finally submitting an acceptance to a graduate school offer and having my mind quickly propelled forward into the idea of the new places and physical and mental spaces I will soon be occupying for the next two years (and all the while, still having the recent memory of my two-years lived in Johannesburg, the place that continues to hold the closest association to the feeling of ‘home’ in my mind).

Somewhat counter-intuitively, it is the experience of extreme normality in each of these realities (even the ones yet to be experienced) that feels like the underlying source of bewilderment at any one of their realities. Something about traversing between each of these spaces, which on the one hand feel so normal and natural in and of themselves during the periods in which I am experiencing them, has led my mind to struggle with believing in any of them as ‘real’. It’s not even that the places in themselves are so drastically different from one another, but more that who I am in each of them has felt so drastically different, all whilst underscored by the obvious fact that each has inevitably constituted just another piece of the totality of who I am. For instance, whenever I look back at the memory of one from the viewpoint of another, it almost feels like I’m glimpsing into someone else’s life altogether, but then when I return to one from the other, it deceptively feels as though my present life context has in fact been my reality all along.

I probably sound high in my attempt to describe this inexplicable mental state, or just simply incoherent, but in any case, maybe there is at least some reassurance to be found in the description I’ve recently come across of one of the essential aspects of humanity as being our “fluidity of character and multiple selves.” It’s always nice when someone else’s words seem to succinctly summarize an experience into a context that at least has some connection to something valuable. Perhaps all this disorientation and disconnect from any single reality is just a means of arriving at a greater wholeness in accepting the fluidity between my multiple selves, and relatedly, acceptance of the continuous process of renewal, loss, and new formation of different selves.

Still, throughout all of this, as I fail to find grounding in my present reality, I continue to grapple with the question surrounding the value or danger of having a deeper grounding in the mind than in the exterior. In communicating the value of deep thought and reflection, someone recently expressed to me he was of the opinion that there is no such thing as overthinking. While the sentiment behind his thought was clear and straightforward in the context, it still prompted me to think a lot more about thinking, particularly the kind of thinking that feels uncontrolled and without intention. As much as I agree with the necessity of such thinking, especially in the context of what I described earlier about the core of what even makes us human and truly alive in our own existence, I still think allowing the mind to rest too much within itself ends up actually preventing us from achieving deep connection with the things around us, which ultimately serve to form who we are. Again, it comes down to finding the frontier or space in between, ensuring that we are fully attuned to and grounded in the immediate things outside of us all whilst allowing the landscape of the mind the space and means to reflect.

In thinking about how this interplay between thoughts and action has presented itself in my current work context, I was stuck by this quote from the writer Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” Describing how this affects our sense of time, she goes on to say that “the life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet.”

While not necessarily the most earth-shattering idea, the statement that what we do with each hour is what we do with each day, and ultimately, our lives, was profoundly moving when I first read it. It particularly spoke to my work experience over the past few months, in which it felt as though three months of living had passed in an instant and that time had somehow cheated me as I looked back at all the 12, 14, and 16 hour days spent consumed with nothing but work. All the while through that period, while I’m sure on a deeper level I had recognized that the way I was spending each day would add up to how I spent my weeks and months, by the end of it all, I was left with a memory of the time as something that felt extremely bare and thin.

What it lacked, rendering it devoid of weight and substance, was the spirit. Just as the quote so beautifully reflects, it’s incredible to realize just how much control we have over our experience of time itself, and just how vastly different time can feel depending on the state of mind we inhabit as we experience it. While it’s still very much a work in progress, I think I’ve at least come to realize just how crucial it is to be always cognizant of making sure I’m consciously and consistently infusing the life of the spirit into every day, hour, and even minute. So in this context at least, I can agree with the sentiment that regular thinking and reflection must be woven throughout all that we do, to ensure that we not lose those fundamental aspects of ourselves that truly make us human. Otherwise, we become nothing more than a fixture of our surroundings, alive but not fully living. Even if we manage to be productive in the work or task at hand, the work itself ends up losing its sense of purpose, and we start to lose our core humanness in the process.

I could probably go on for another 50 pages about this but, as with most of my non-structured posts about non-structured things, the lack of conclusion or central point to all that I’ve just written about makes it seem only appropriate to just end it here with an equally non-structured and inconclusive conclusion. I’m not sure if I’ve arrived at any greater clarity in my clumsy attempt to put to words the range of indefinable things that continue to take up much of my thoughts, but if nothing else, thanks to Steinbeck, at least I can say that in the attempt itself I’ve undertaken some form of ‘art’ in just simply putting together letters and sentences for now.

Scratched and Faded Letters

I’ve lived in Johannesburg for nearly two years. I tell people I can’t believe it, that it doesn’t feel like two years has passed, that I don’t know where the time has gone, but the words fall short of the depth of bewilderment which underlies them. I have significant memories from these past two years, no doubt, and I know that things have happened, time has passed, things have changed, the world has been moving, but at the same time, I struggle to fully grasp and feel the weight of what it would seem two-years worth of memories should contain. In my mind, they feel light and fleeting…as if the time barely existed…as if I just stepped foot off the plane into my new country, my new job, my new life. Somehow that is the memory that bears the greater weight, the deeper sense of reality, than the compilation of two years as a post-graduate adult living life thousands of miles away from what once was home.

This sentiment has felt all the more troubling when juxtaposed with the physical signs of the passage of time, the signs that force the resistant mind to admit to the reality of the fact that time keeps moving. And strangely enough, the one that has incited the strongest emotion has been my travel coffee mug: the thin, translucent tumbler with the Northwestern emblem detailed in purple on one side. The tumbler which, when first receiving it, I so distinctly remember thinking “good thing I came to this one,” after realizing I’d get to keep it as a free gift from one of the many graduation ceremonies I went along to mostly for my parents’ sake in my last days of undergrad. The tumbler which sparks memories of the long, decisive and deliberate packing process I embarked on days before my journey overseas – determining it would make the cut as one of the necessary items to receive a spot in my precious luggage space. The tumbler I remember carrying in my brown leather adult-like work bag, filled with sub-par instant coffee, as I walked into my new office filled with uncertainty and expectation my first day of work, and proceeded to carry with me every single morning since that day. Since then, it has become an invisible staple of my surroundings – an item rendered insignificant by its practical utility and regular presence and use in my daily life.

But recently, something about it caught my eye – something which I found more disturbing than I perhaps wanted to admit: I saw that the royal purple enamel which once formed the perfect block lettering spelling out the name of my alma mater now revealed scratched out remnants of letters – the S and H only half remaining, the Y completely etched away; and the ornate and detailed emblem above NORTHWESTERN now reduced to a barely visible outline of circles, its edges traced by indiscernible symbols and letters – a shadow of what it once was.

As strange as I know it sounds to be rendered dumbfounded by the scratched out lettering of a coffee mug, it was in that instant that a realization of something I was already well aware of in some unconscious part of my mind finally forced its way to the surface and refused to be ignored: that this was undeniable, physical, tangible, concrete evidence that time that had passed.

On the one hand, each time I reflected on my own life with the introspective eye of expectation for what the passage of time and growing up is supposed to look like in an individual, I felt unsatisfied with the inability to see and feel what I knew to be true: that I’ve changed, that I have lived, that things are different now. Looking at myself, I still felt exactly as I did two years ago – not in a negative way exactly, or in a way that implies we all must change drastically with the passing of each year or that any certain milestones must happen, but just simply that it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right because we essentially are our experiences. None of us are constant beings – from our physical cells to our brain activity to our ever-evolving souls. And with these experiences that become us, with this constant motion all around us and within us, it follows that something should be evident…felt…noticed.

But this didn’t seem the case when I looked at myself or filtered through my thoughts or sorted through my memories. Only in looking at the scratched out purple letters of my mug…or of the gigantic Builders’ Warehouse that stands erect across from the apartment where I used to live – in a spot where once only dirt and bricks stood…or of the mall which has doubled in size, with shiny new stores and large glass windows down my street where once there was only empty space…or of the friends to whom I once ventured in taxis across town to see every other weekend who are now scattered in all corners of the world…or the fellows with whom I had shared the continent a year ago who have now started degrees, found new jobs, established new lives on other continents…or of the high school friends I have long ago lost touch with who I see getting married or having children as I unwittingly yet instinctually click through their wedding or baby photos on Facebook…or of the dear souls I had the bounty of meeting in South Africa and briefly crossing paths with on this earth who are now no longer on this physical plane…

Only then, for a brief instant, do I feel the true weight of time.

But while these concrete signs of time’s passage each capture my attention and open my eyes a bit wider to their deeper implications, they’ve also made me that much more anxious to reconcile the physical and concrete signs with those less tangible. I wonder as well whether time without the physical markers of its passing, or time without the arbitrary numbers we assign to it in an attempt to make it more concrete and feel as though we wield some control over it, would hold the same weight in our minds. If I could not define it as two years of time that has gone by, or define myself as 24 – a constant reminder of my own time on this earth that comes with its own implications – then would I still expect something from it? Would I let time exercise its control over me the way I know I do now?

Maybe it is the misleading impression that time brings with it forward motion which creates these feelings of disconnect and disjointedness. Forward motion implies motion towards something – a direction of some sort that we have envisioned for ourselves or for the things around us. But time does not inevitably bring us towards anything. In fact, it could even take us backwards (or what we would perceive as backwards in relation to whatever it is we subconsciously – or consciously – thought we were moving towards).

I would try to put this in more concrete terms, but in my own case, I am still trying to figure out what exactly it is I had expected to be moving towards that has left me feeling as though time has deceived me…enlightenment? wisdom? understanding? or something more tangible? something to show for when thinking back at how I’ve spent most of my hours these past two years – impact on other people’s lives? new skills and talents from my work experiences? more confidence, more self-assurance in my abilities? or something more abstract? some new experience of love? the capacity to distinguish reason from emotion?

I don’t know. But I can’t help but look back with a longing for more evidence of time’s marker in myself as much as I see it in the physical changes around me. But in saying this, I also recognize the passivity latent in such a desire….one implying again that time itself provides the force for motion in a direction…if there should even be a direction to begin with. But if there should be, then one of the characteristics of time that I find most frightening is that if we choose to not act towards something or initiate changes or make things happen, our lack of ‘motion’ does not reflect stagnation in the wake of potential progress, but in fact represents regression – because time never stops moving. And if we exist in the context of this ever-moving force that is time, then the act of not moving in some ways becomes backwards motion.

I think I find this frightening because, as is well known, when we grow older, time seems faster as each year becomes a smaller fragment relative to the amount of time we’ve spent living. And with each passing year, I feel myself scrambling to hold onto each piece that meant something to me, to internalize and make something of what has passed and ensure that it does not become lost in the accumulation of too many layers of memory and self. I can’t even fully say why this feels so necessary, but perhaps it is to feel that my time has been well-spent and that I am capable of some kind of forward motion — that I have not wasted the opportunities presented to me by the people and experiences that have come into my life, nor failed to enact some kind of positive change, some sort of progress in the world – no matter how small or insignificant…