Monday, January 14, 2013

Honest Living, or How to Talk Yourself Through Breakfast

For as long as I can remember, unstructured days have caused panic to rise up in my throat. I don't mean the kind of lazy summer days where you finally have time to relax by the pool or call up a friend you've been meaning to call, or the rare gem of a free day in the midst of a busy life that leave you grateful for a moment to collect your thoughts, to sleep in late, to finally buy your groceries.

But rather, it's the kind of day that comes up when you are your own boss, when you stare at the hours ahead of you in the day and at your own hands, realizing that it rests entirely upon your own shoulders whether you'll make the day worthwhile or not. Being a graduate student carries with it so many mixed blessings. Most of the time, I try to focus on the positive: the freedom to set my own schedule, the brilliant minds I have the privilege to mix with on the daily, the opportunity to push myself to my absolute limits, to choose for myself who I will be, what I will make my life's work be about. Truly, I live the dream in so many ways.

But these freedoms carry with them a daunting responsibility, an acute awareness that any failing is my own,  a feeling of flailing around without a clear role model to follow. (The mixed blessings of working from home as your own boss have been well summarized by my favorite web comic, The Oatmeal) These feelings are never so crystallized as they are on an unscheduled day, ostensibly set aside as a "work day" where I have cleared the day of any tasks or meetings or errands so that, in theory, I can busy myself with the reading and research that get squeezed out by quotidien responsibilities every other day of the week. But the tasks of a Ph.D. are so mammoth, so impossibly gargantuan, that these "blank days" can be absolutely paralyzing. Even with sixteen unscheduled hours ahead of me, my to-do list looks something like this:
  • Read 400 books
  • Become proficient in French by October
  • Become a published author 
It's easier just to crawl back into bed than to figure out where to start,  or how to stay motivated on the long road ahead. In moments like these, these free hours become a kind of tyranny, and I hope just to duck my head and wait for them to pass.

Most weeks, I can talk myself out of this panic by breakfast and then spend the rest of my day in responsible productivity. But here in Sydney, the situation is more complex. After all, I'm unlikely to come by fourteen responsibility-free weeks again in my lifetime. Should I spend them reading for my Ph.D. program? Should I be re-inventing myself as the bohemian barista I've always dreamt I would be? Wouldn't any sane person simply plant themselves at the beach each and every day without apology?

But these "shoulds" have themselves become crippling, rather than inspiring catalysts for action, feeling torn between expectations of what a vacation should look like while thinking of all the work my colleagues back at Georgetown are doing right now. 

Nod reminded me yesterday that "shoulds" have no place in our time here--we'll be returning to a world of shoulds soon enough. And he's right. It's one of my deepest-held beliefs that a life lived according to 'shoulds' quickly leads to regret and resentment. My hardest-fought, hardest-won accomplishment in this life has been to learn to separate the expectations of others from my own hopes and desires for myself. It's a lesson I have to re-learn every day; it's the antidote to my anxiety, the way I talk myself down over breakfast.

Today didn't begin with anxiety, however. Walking around our neighborhood last night, Nod and I spotted a Bikram yoga studio just two blocks from the house we've been renting. I recognize that seeking out specialized yoga classes on vacation places me within a certain demographic, one that probably enjoys sushi, organic frozen yogurt, and Amelie. And it's true. But there was something incredibly steadying about joining a group of other students for a class today, a sense of belonging that has been hard to create reading by myself in a cafe and so far away from our home. I emerged from class nearly euphoric, buoyed from a workout high and the joys of human connection.

It was already 2 in the afternoon when I was finally ready to open my books, nestled in a sunny nook of our rented room, shadows from the eucalyptus tree splashing over the window. It really is a beautiful little spot.  But the thought of opening another assigned book turned my stomach. I actually read two required, excellent books last week--a history of America's food aid policies in the cold war, and a global history of population control and family planning. (Quick summary, for those who are interested: both food aid and family planning were based primarily on U.S. political and economic calculations that caused a lot of people to starve and/or be forcibly sterilized). The cumulative effect of reading these books, combined with last week's newspaper headlines, left me unexpectedly in tears over the weekend. I desperately needed a break from anything smacking of eugenics, sexist discrimination, and human suffering. 

I fled to Sydney's Botanical Gardens, within sight of the iconic opera house, with a handful of essays and novels in tow. There I reveled in the delicious deviousness of reading for no other reason than to hear my own thoughts, to be transported to a place I could never reach on my own. Reading anything outside of school feels impishly irresponsible given the number of pages I'll soon need to master and be accountable for, and it's rare that I allow myself the pleasure except for a few short weeks over Christmas or summer break. But as Katie Roiphe herself would argue, there are things more tragic than being irresponsible; there are things much worse for you than choosing to set aside your work, however important or fulfilling it might be. I do not intend to have a mid-life crisis. Perhaps these mini-crises, these moments of panic before an unscheduled work day, help me to remember what it is that I want and to choose accordingly. I do love history, and most weeks, I choose the hard work that this path requires. But today, I choose to sit in the sun, let my mind wander, drink a glass of wine at sunset, and think of all the people I love. 

I also spent the day listening to Macklemore's album "The Heist." It's entirely possible that I talk way too much about Macklemore--you could chalk it up to overblown Seattle pride. But his earlier album, "The Language of My World" was an important one to me in college, and in both of these albums, I'm inspired with his absolute honesty, the standards to which he holds himself, his commitment to his art. And it occurs to me that if I express myself best, most deeply, most honestly in writing, then I need to commit myself to writing more often. And while it's true that writing historical research papers does require creativity and a critical evaluation of where I stand in relation to the past, I think it's been insufficient for the kind of reflection that I crave in life. And so, dear readers, please indulge me a bit as I use this blog to share my thoughts and writing as I journey through the south pacific. And now, I think I hear a glass of wine calling my name.

My sunny afternoon by the Sydney Opera House

1 comment:

  1. Refreshing post. The books - Cullather and Connelly?