My therapist said people who are high on the hope scale (I didn’t know about it, but I think it’s a scale that measures how good you are at being a person) succeed more. There was this study.
I said, “Shit. I’m screwed.”
“No, no,” she said, laughing. “Your hope will just look different. It will be subtle.” I think that’s what she said.
But seriously, it is lame to be a champion worrier, and to wait and wait to check my goals off the list that runs my life. Especially because goals change so fluidly, without you even noticing. It makes it hard to trust yourself. It makes it hard to figure out what’s actually important.
For example, when I was twelve or so, my dad took me to Carnegie Hall to see Oscar Peterson play. My dad is a jazz pianist, and he loves Oscar, and so I loved Oscar, too. I played classical, then, and I took it very seriously, like I take absolutely everything because I am probably a robot. At intermission, I went up to the stage and I touched it. It was golden brown wood, maple? I don’t know my wood colors very well, and deeply scratched, which I hadn’t expected. I’d thought it would be shinier. I whispered, “Someday I will walk across this stage.” It was a vow.
And I kept it, but not really. I sang in a choir once at Carnegie Hall, in college, but that didn’t count. I’d meant that I would walk across the stage to a grand piano, and then I’d sit down alone and play, like the fifteen-year-old girl I’d heard of who was already doing that and who I hated passionately for it. I am not good at keeping my vows, apparently.
But the thing is, by the time I sang with the choir, I didn’t even care who was sitting on the piano bench. I didn’t want that anymore. Not even a little. Instead, I wanted to get into grad school. More than anything, I wanted to prove that I was smart enough for Harvard (spoiler alert: I wasn’t). Recently, it occurred to me that I’m not so concerned with being that kind of smart anymore. And now I want to be this famous writer. It’s always something, isn’t it?
It all seems a little silly when I think about it for a second. Being this kind of person. The kind of person who is always rushing towards something, who is always scrabbling for a handhold, trying to pull herself up a little higher, towards something she can’t quite see.
It’s true, just like the stereotype: this city is full of people who are dragging themselves up and up, and sometimes I feel like every time I take a breath I’m breathing in someone else’s ambition, like secondhand smoke. Sometimes it seems like everyone I meet is a little famous for something, and desperate to be a little more famous. And if they aren’t, then they definitely know someone who is.
“This city is full of every kind of person,” Bear told me a while ago, when I said I felt like we should being doing more of everything, because we’re so boring and quiet and the city is so demanding and alive. “There are plenty of people just hanging out in their apartments right now, being like us.”
And it’s true. But the air is charged anyway, I can feel it.
I fell for New York immediately, like a chump. Like some wide-eyed country girl. I surprised myself. I got addicted. Which seemed weird, because I grew up running around outside, pretending to be an elfin warrior, and I still sort of want that, and I sometimes google “mountains” and then just stare at the photos that come up and my stomach clenches with desire, the way you feel when someone you really want but thought you couldn’t have suddenly leans in and you know they’re going to kiss you.
But then, it’s not very surprising when you consider that I’ve always had this hot need to prove myself, and the city is the battlefield where everyone comes to plant the seeds of their wildest dreams and then stand over them, fighting.
Wildest dreams can be confusingly fickle.
I think I’ve been telling myself for a while now that if I can just get a book published I will be really happy. Nothing else will matter. My name will be on a book and I can hold it up and show the world and bring it back to where I grew up and when people say, “What do you write?” I can be like, “PUBLISHED BOOKS” and then I can live the rest of my life in peace, making iced coffee and trailing string for my cat to chase and raising babies and writing occasional pieces for the New York Times Magazine because they only seem to publish people who have already published books.
I was talking to a woman who has a book coming out. It seems complicated. It seems to take forever. It seems like there are lots and lots of people involved, and they all want different things.
I sent in an outline to the agents who were interested. “Make it catchier,” they said back. “Make it tighter.” I tried to figure out what that might mean. I realized it might take a while, for me to get it right. For me to understand. For everyone to agree.
The crazy thing about goals is they only take like one second when you get to them. One day, there was an email from an agent in my inbox. I read it in a gulp.
One day, I got my Master’s.
One day, my essay went up on Salon.com.
One day, this blog had gotten a million clicks.
One day, maybe I will hold a book with my name on the cover.
You cross that line that was always in the distance, and then you’re in the expansive land on the other side. And if all you’ve ever learned to do was climb, you’ll find something else to climb.
I wrote about it before (sometimes I feel like I have to repeat myself a hundred times before I figure anything out or write it well): I am bad at being in the space on the other side of an accomplishment. I don’t know what to do with myself. I think I should be celebrating, maybe, but instead I feel something more like panic. What do I do now? I should be doing something! Why did I think that was a big deal? Look at Lena Dunham! She’s 26! My god, DO SOMETHING. START A TV SHOW! Why are you just sitting there like someone who isn’t going to start a TV show?!
(is she laughing at me? source)
The thing that suddenly struck me is that crossing the goal lines only takes a moment, when you get there, but the getting there, the rushing and climbing and dragging and endless anxious inbox checking and the buildup of pinching desperation and the dogged sense of impending failure and the suspicion that wherever you are is never far enough—all of that—that is life. That is every day life. That can become someone’s whole life very easily, without them even noticing.
And suddenly I am wondering if that kind of life is really worth it, even if you’re J.K. Rowling at the end. And suddenly I’m annoyed at myself for feeling so noble and long-suffering about driving myself ruthlessly towards the line at the faraway horizon. For allowing myself to clutch this careless belief that once I cross it, I will have arrived somewhere so much better.
I was looking through some old blog posts yesterday, trying to find something, and I got embarrassed because so many of them were bad. I thought for a moment that maybe I should delete most of them. Or at least all of the ones at the beginning. I sound so trite in them, I thought. I sound like a little kid. I sound like I don’t know anything. But then I left them alone because I can see myself learning here, as I keep writing. I can see how far I’ve come even in a year or less. I’ll probably look back at the stuff I’m writing now in a year and think, “Dear LORD. Who gave that girl a laptop and told her she could write on it?” But secretly, that is the accomplishment. The quiet one we goal-chasers so often run right by without noticing. It’s the way you get stronger from all the running, even when you don’t even come close to winning the race. (A mismatched metaphor for me because I’m a wimp and I never get any exercise. But whatever.)
I am probably not a hopeful person. I’m more of a shifty-eyed, scheming doubter. I know hopeful people and I plot their eventual downfall, even though I never trust myself to be able to pull it off.
No. I know hopeful people and I wish I was like that. I have this dim sense that they are better at life. That they are going to be happy no matter what.
When I lay in bed for half of Sunday reading Game of Thrones and then Bear was sad because he was leaving on a long business trip the next day and finally he said something about me not hanging out with him and then I was like, “I can’t be expected to hang out every time you want to hang out,” and he was like, “Why are you getting upset at me for being upset? Can’t I just be upset?” and then I was like, “Maybe I’m just bad at life,” and he was like, “That’s not what I meant at all! I don’t think you’re bad at life,” and then I burst into tears and I was sitting on the couch crying and crying and I kept saying, “I am so bad at life! Why am I not happier? If I was happier, everything would be better.”
He was very comforting. I told him I shouldn’t even worry about my career. It’s not even that big of a deal. Why do I think it’s such a big deal? Why do I feel all this pressure? Why am I so selfish? What if I have something real to deal with someday? What if someone dies? I can’t even handle my career, so how will I handle everything else?
“That’s just how people are,” he said, “We always find something to worry about.” And then he said that people are less happy when there are more options and more happy when there are less options, and when something really difficult happens, sometimes the only option is to keep going, and that’s when people get resilient. I think he got that from the Daniel Gilbert documentary we watched. He said my life is full of options which is why I’m being crazy. Except he didn’t say I was being crazy, because he’s very kind about me being crazy.
I am not one of those hopeful people who will always succeed because they can visualize themselves succeeding so clearly. I am more the terrified, quivering sort. But maybe I don’t actually have that many options after all. I can either learn to pay attention to the secret of the strength I gain through climbing, or I can keep pretending that crossing the line is the only part that matters.
It felt like such a relief, realizing that, that instead of doing a little more work today, I took a long walk in Central Park. In some parts of this city, the air is clearer, and you can almost imagine mountains. And I think my legs feel a little stronger, too.
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Unroast: Today I love the way I feel when I know there’s another brownie on the counter.
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