summer goal: a break from learning

Not entirely, really. But a break from learning from external sources. The only reading I’m allowing myself to do this summer is for pleasure, or news articles, but no essays on ethics or the universe or yoga or mental health. No classes (unless it’s something for fun, like salsa dancing), and no studying anything except maybe how the light moves through trees or how the water sounds as it rushes to shore.

The only thing I want to learn about this summer is how I truly feel about my life, and what I want to do with it. I have done a pretty good job of jamming my life with lessons, learning experiences, languages, books, classes, and trainings. It’s been this way for a while. What I realized, just before my trip to Iceland with mother dearest, is that in an attempt to “be a better person and better understand and experience the world”, I’ve stopped looking inward in a healthy way. I realized at a corner cafe in Medellin, Colombia, that all I wanted and needed was to go home: that running around the globe for 4 years was really just a long, slow path back to Western New York. Sure, I love the tall pines of Oregon, and the steamy heat at the equator, and the mountains of Washington, but more than anything, I just love being home. It took four years and three thousands miles between us for me to realize that I didn’t really want to be anywhere else.

I feel I am at a similar crossroads, now. I’ve been looking for answers in so many different directions that my internal compass is spinning out of control. I didn’t choose to have that experience in Colombia, but that little bit of truth was able to make itself clear to me because I’d made space for it. I had stopped trying so hard, I had stopped running from place to place, always hoping somewhere else would provide me with solutions to my problems. And even though I was traveling at the same moment I realized I wanted to go home, I was traveling for fun, for enjoyment. It was not a serious pursuit; I was not looking for a new home.

All I’ve done, for about three years, now, is look for answers outside of myself (just as I’d looked for home in different states and countries when, deep down, all I really wanted was the north east, specifically New York). I didn’t feel at home anywhere and so I looked elsewhere–and what I’d really needed to do was look inside of myself. And these past few years? I’ve been plagued by troubling questions and mounting anxiety–and it’s only gotten worse. I’ve become more articulate, perhaps, and able to understand my anxiety, much in thanks to my classes and books, but I am no closer to any answers, just as I was no closer to home in my endless, exterior quest for it.

I realized something a month ago, in the midst of an anxious meltdown: that for me, and for other people like me, there are no guidebooks. Buddhist teachings are not going to answer my questions, nor are the yoga sutras, nor are any physicists, nor is a religion, or a political doctrine, or a clique or social club. I’ve always been something like a free radical: bouncing from place to place, hobby to hobby, thing to thing, idea to idea, passion to passion, all the while highly reactive, unstable, and almost always unable, or unwilling, to assimilate. I need stillness, I need a break from all the internal collisions, the endless stream of thoughts, the endless pursuit of more information that I so desperately hope will answer all my questions, will quell my nervous nature. But this makes no sense! For as long as I’ve been aware of who I am, I have known that I have to do things my way, in my own time, according to my own codes. I have never been able to buy into anything because it sounds good, even when I wanted to. So what’s throwing me off course, then? Why have I tried, so long, to find answers outside of myself when I know, deep down, that it’s impossible for me? Because they’re goddamn scary questions!

I don’t mean to say I’m some kind of hapless, emotional mess with no direction or ability to function properly or fix her problems. I’m often very resilient, confident, motivated, assertive, and engaged… but there are certain areas of life (or questions about it) that give me a lot of trouble, where my resiliency and assertiveness pale, shrivel, even. “Where do I belong?”, for a long time, was one of these questions. Now? “Who am I, really, if I am not my ever-changing emotions, or interests? What do I really want out of life, in the long run? How do I find the courage to really love?” and, “How will I ever be at peace with the fact that I have to die? That everyone I love does? That loss, in whatever form it chooses to take, is inevitable?”

That last question? That is the oldest one. That is the question that has bothered me since I was eight years old, and I could be wrong, but, I think it’s also the impetus behind all of the other questions, uncertainties, and doubts. And I’ve come to a terrifying conclusion:

Only I can know that, can answer that question. No one can tell me. No book, no doctrine, no rule, no promise. It’s so disappointing. I had wanted to get out of this as painlessly as possible. I didn’t really want to have to look at such scary things square in the eye. I had wanted Buddhism, the possibility of a god, spirituality, yoga, or even another person, to take them away, to give me the answers I’d been looking for. Reading good poetry might be the only kind of “book” that could point me in the right direction, but it still can’t provide me with any answers.

Do I want to teach art? Yoga? Do I want to learn to play a musical instrument? Or take modern dance classes? How do I really want to spend my time? What is most important to me? Do I really want to be a writer, and if so, in what capacity? And, am I even good enough? What on earth do I have to write about? What motivates me? What is most satisfying? What is it that I love most about being alive? How do I accept the uncertainty of life? And how can I accept, with peace, the certainty of my own death? The deaths of those I love? How do I really love? How do I accept others without accepting myself, and how do I at last learn how to do that? What do I really need to be happy?

That’s a lot of questions to answer in two months. And, really, I don’t expect to answer them all anytime soon. What I expect is that I might find one or two answers, and that I’ll feel closer to finding other answers with time because I’ll be more in-tune with myself, and what I really do need and want out of life, rather than desperately searching for solutions outside of myself. I want to feel as if I’m moving forward on a path that will lead me toward answers as I am ready for them, and right now I feel like I’m on a tilt-a-whirl. This summer, I want to get off, get over the dizziness, and start walking assuredly, even if I still feel a little confused about where to go next. This summer, I want to give myself permission to look inward so I can also begin looking outside of myself again, in a healthy way, so I can be more aware, giving, patient, and kind. I’ve been so preocuppied with my “worries and fears” that I haven’t really been living the kind of life I’d like to. I haven’t been as understanding or as giving, or forgiving, as I know I can be.

These last three years of solution-stalking were not a waste; they lead me into and through a lot of really important and defining experiences. They lead me toward some really good people, beautiful places, and new ideas. They motivated me to work hard, study, try new things, and open my mind. But it’s time for a break. Just as I discovered it was time to stop moving and come home in 2011, I am discovering now it is time to stop seeking, and instead slow down, start listening, and start reading the book that is written within me. It’s a little frightening, very uncertain, and at times incredibly uncomfortable. But it’s also the only way.

Here’s an except from Philip Levine’s “Burned” that says it far more beautifully and concisely than I can:

When I looked in my heart and found
only questions, when I walked 
beside the ditch at dusk
and asked the sun,
the answer was curled 
quietly in my pocket. “Look at
them both,” you say, “turn them 
over and place them on the table
before you. Don’t be afraid.
They are you, familiar, at times
overlooked, despised. Now,
go back down the way you came, down
the same old streets where you
grew to a name and a single face.
That was home, you said, and today
it is nothing, not even a closet
of unread books. Here is home.
Close your eyes. You are on 
a dark plain. The hot winds 
breathe in and out. You’re laughing!
You asked for a home, you crossed
the earth, you sat speechless,
you questioned the closed door,
‘Are you there?’ No one answered
because all the time it was you.”

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