Wait near the end of September.
Wait for some stars to show.
Try so hard not to remember
what all empty playgrounds know:
that sympathy is cruel.
Reluctant jester or
But six feet off the highway,
our bare legs stung with wheat,
we’ll dig a hole and bury
all we could not defeat,
and say that we’ll stay for one more year.
Bend to tie a shoelace,
or bend against your fear,
and say that you’ll stay for one more year.
-The Weakerthans, “Fallow”
It’s getting cold in California
I guess I’ll be leaving soon
Come and waste another year
All the the anger and the eloquence
are bleeding into fear
around the corners of our lawn
When we see the early signs
that daylight’s fading
We leave just before it’s gone
She said “everybody loves you,”
she says, “everybody cares”
But all the things
I keep inside myself
they vanish in the air
-Counting Crows, “Daylight Fading”
My friend Stina tells me that 28 is way different than 27. That you can never go back again. That no one younger nor older than 27 could really understand a 27-year-old. She was only joking a little.
A co-worker of mine says that 28- and 29-year-olds go through a lot of significant changes. That one sees a lot of life changes of significance and note cropping up right around that age. He referenced some astrology, some experience, some theory. He wasn’t joking at all.
This stuff – what is going on now (whatever it is) – is no joke.
I’m studying poverty at my workplace. More and more, the question of poverty seems to be coming down to a much larger issue of freedom. You could call it control… you could call it “empowerment” (whatever that means)… you could call it confidence. What it really means is freedom. The ability to not be trapped, to not have tunnel vision. To not, as a rider on the subway some two weeks ago was, be “dreaming of zero” financially. To not spend twenty minutes telling a friend how great it would be to just get back to zero and have nothing hanging over your head.
To have nothing hanging over your head. Nothing.
For some of you (most? all?) this probably seems ridiculous. That’s not a definition of escaping poverty so much as escaping life, right? Life is an endless chain of things hanging over your head… we’re all living in a timeless flow of weights and measures. One obligation is just a way of getting to the next and so forth. Or maybe you only see it this way when you stop to think about it… the rest of the time, it’s just living. Meal to meal, chore to chore, time in the seat to time in the seat. You gotta eat, you gotta excrete, and you gotta find a way to pay for that and everything in between.
For the poor and homeless in San Francisco, there’s really no other way to look at it. There aren’t alternatives when one doesn’t have the means. And that’s really the issue – getting people like that back to freedom. Some level or capacity of being able to get rid of the tunneling obligations that crowd our life into long narrow stretches of darkness.
The rest of us, who aren’t poor and homeless, frankly have no excuse. These chains and walls are of our own creation. This tunnel was built up, layer by layer, by our own spiteful hands. The only ones that can tear it down again.
I am reminded of a day senior year in high school, perhaps exactly ten years ago today (who knows?), when I ran screaming through the halls that everyone has the key and they just don’t know how to use it. It’s there, waiting, and we just never grab hold and stick it in the door. But we all have it. Breathless and wild-eyed, I related this revelation to a series of friends. I probably hadn’t slept in a couple days and was clearly in one of my more manic stages. They rolled their eyes, they chuckled about me, at me. “Tell me about this key,” said one as I recall.
It is not dissimilar. Ten years ago. Good God. And for what? What have I done?
It wasn’t the same revelation then, not exactly. It was more about the fact (then) that life leaves us clues all along the way. That we can decipher the messages in our day-to-day existence and string them together like so much code to construct a blueprint of all the answers we ever wanted. Confirmation. Direction. Hope. It’s a key embedded in little pieces of every moment and we just have to wake up and pay attention to watch it fly together in our hand. And then have the guts to stick it in the door.
I had been warned, I realized, at that specific moment. And I had thrust aside chunks of key while trying to throw myself bodily into the locked door. These ideas and others assembled to form many theories of my theology, one of the first times I might’ve coined to myself that awareness is never enough – it must always be wonder.
So it’s a different key, a different brand of freedom that I’m looking at here and now. It’s rooted in the same realities (how many realities are there, anyway?), but carries a distinct tenor and pitch. Take a machete to the things hanging over one’s head. Get away from time in the seat. Shed, shed, shed. This is careening, screaming from the bulwark of my mental fortress.
But what’s in a year? What harm could a year do? Just one more year, needling away, begging for fulfillment.
Is there ever “just another year”? How much time in the seat has been procured with such a false promise? Tomorrow never comes, so do we ever reach the conclusion of that ‘nother annum? Conclusions are always reached eventually, but rarely on our terms and almost universally too soon. There’s no more “just another year” ’round that time either.
Since all this is about time in the seat, it’s worth noting that life is a lot like a college class. In the end, one doesn’t remember most of what was learned. The details blend together and fade, even if one attended every session and studied religiously. What remains, at best, are the core concepts, some key ideas. The big headlines of what one accomplished. And moments. Some really great (or awful) moments of speaking in class, or listening, or laughing. Having something click.
Life is much the same way. We mostly have time in the seat, the drudgery of countless brushings of teeth and eating of food and opening the mailbox. Thousands of hours of work. Thousands of hours of commuting. Thousands of hours of video games or TV or playing ball.
In the end, whatever’s left to remember comes down to the highlights, the accomplishments, the really worthwhile stuff that was done. Thresholds, good and bad. And moments. Little crystallized moments. It’s a lot like what you might remember from childhood now, only more heavily edited.
So doesn’t it make sense to prioritize those highlights over the rest of the drudge?
Somewhat contradictorily, however, I believe that we will all experience a full life-in-review session shortly after death. A spiritual adviser (an angel, if you prefer) will grab a metaphorical seat next to us on a metaphorical couch and enjoin us to a years-long viewing of our life on a metaphorical television. Our Town meets TiVo. It’ll be about as grueling to experience as Our Town, but not optional or selective. And as engrossing as TiVo, in the end. But with no fast-forward, only rewind and pause.
If we all lived with that in mind, how much time would we spend on the rote and the routine? How many “just another year”s would we sign on for? I bet there’d be a lot more spontaneity, a bit more self-awareness, a whole bunch more thought and examination. Just imagine, pretend you believe my theory for a moment. “I’m going to have to watch every single moment of this again, in real time.” Not just analyze and consider and discuss, but freaking watch. I will see this all again. No matter how sick I am of this workplace/school/seat/neighborhood, I will have, exactly, this much time here again, even if I leave this second forever.
What would you change if you knew this to be the case?
It’s one of those Pascalian/Platonic things that I think it might be worth believing even if it’s complete bunk. Internalize it, believe it, live it. I could say “search your feelings; you know it to be true”… but it might not wash for you. Try living one day with that awareness.
Maybe you’ll find it oppressive. Maybe it’ll be another thing hanging over your head. But maybe… maybe not. Maybe it’s just the kick in the pants you need.
I write this all, expound on it, because I need a kick in the pants. I need a kick in the pants. I need to figure all this out. Oh yes, I have my reasons, but so does everybody. At the end of the day, one can believe their own reasons, but really for no more than “just another year”. Really. No more. And maybe not even that. Because, well, see above.
I spent a lot of my life convinced I was going to be a high-school teacher. Talk about your time in the seat. But I was sure that this was where I could do some good, be inspiring, devote my life to change and all. Of course I always really wanted to be a writer, but writers seem to need day jobs, at least for a little while. Day job considerations have never much competed with writing in any real sense – when one knows one’s calling, the rest is just getting by. Fulfilling obligations. You know the drill.
So the priorities for a day job always looked to be (A) not doing harm, (B) doing good, (C) not being suicidally bored. Hooray. What’s not to like about high-school teacher?
It hit me my senior year in college (something about senior years, eh?) that this would be a disaster. I was disillusioned with school, completely dissatisfied with academic experiences. I had spent the bulk of college doing the absolute minimum to keep my scholarship, trying to float by while I debated, spent time with people, and waited for the rest of my life to catch up with me. Grades had been a game for years and the whole institution was looking like a poorly-designed game by the end of it. I couldn’t wait to get out and get into a world that seemed more real.
And it hit me all at once, just like some narrative revelation: the ultimate futility of what I was hoping to accomplish as a high-school teacher. The best thing, the best thing I could ever offer to a student would be the following:
1. Inspire them and raise them out of a difficult background.
2. Convince them to take studying very seriously and embrace academics.
3. Help them get into a good college, where
4. They could have the same revelations about academics that I just did.
Oh sure, there might be some real and tangible benefits along the way and I’m not here meaning to condemn the work of high-school teachers. But the soul-crushing philosophical circularity of that reality, much less of calling that circularity some kind of inspiration or joy, was overwhelming. It was hard to breathe. Out went the gameplan for high-school teacher. The rest, as they say, is history.
Almost six years of history. Trying to become seven… “just another year”. You could call it the JAY theory. Get out your blue crayons and your ornithology books, kids. Or at least your Toronto uniforms.
It’s looking like a blue JAY.