International House, late at night. It’s after midnight. I haven’t been around the common areas this late since I got to I-House NYC. I don’t know, I guess somehow I thought they’d all be asleep. They’re not; it’s rooms full of people, almost more crowded than it is during the day. Several rooms away, people are dancing, or maybe the hint of international music just makes me imagine they’re dancing.
In here, where I’m typing, it’s all business and slience. I’m sitting in the middle of a room full of people and nobody is talking. We’re all looking at our laptops. We’re all either happily pounding away at the keys or hoping nobody else says anything to us, one of the two.
A year ago I was an editor in Santa Barbara.
Two years ago I was an author in Portland.
Three years ago I was about to be a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
I’m sure at this time of night it was always empty at I-House Chicago when I was there.
Four years ago I was just about to join the staff at eBay’s Salt Lake City office.
Five years ago I had just graduated with degrees in English and anthropology.
But this is now.
Tonight, for the first time in quite some time, I think, I’m lonely. Not lonely for any person in particular, but lonely for myself. For my own future, for my own past, and most of all, for all of the possibilities and selves that I’ve missed, been, lost, or traveled through, like a tourist looking out the window of a speeding train, watching life rush by in a kind of foreign, colorful blur.
Transitions are the things that let me know I’m alive. I know this as an anthrpologist, or at least someone who once got a degree in anthrpology. They are the markers that sculpt the memory that I construct of myself—the series of facts that I line up, all in a row, that make me at the end of the day, so far as I see myself.
The longer that line gets, the closer I am to death. But that’s not so much the sad part, the part that’s keeping me awake tonight.
The thing that I sometimes have trouble with is the part that says that once something gets added to that list—once it’s a memory—it’s no longer who I am. It’s who I was. And that person can’t ever come back. It’s not the end of life on some future “tomorrow” that sometimes seems unbearable to me.
Rather, I’m forever melancholy about my increasing distance from each of my own yesterdays—yesterdays I realize now, almost invariably and only too late, that I liked at least in some way or another. Yesterdays that will only grow dimmer, more transparent, until they are eventually lost to me entirely—and when they are lost to me, they are lost. They were, after all, my yesterdays.
I saw a documentary on PBS earlier about young boys from the inner city who were given the chance to study in Kenya for a year after finishing grammar school. It affected me. Not in the ways that one might think—not in terms of the feeling of empathy that I was meant to develop for them, necessarily, or in terms of some desire to make a difference or help the children.
The thing is that the documentary followed each of them, not extensively, just in flashes of recognition and narrative, after that year. But somehow (and this is not a new point, nor it is a point that couldn’t have been driven home a thousand times earlier, watching a thousand other late-night documentaries) somehow this time what I was struck by was the incredible arbitrariness of everything: the choices we’re offered; the decisions that we make about them; the expectations that we form about their consequencs without any way of knowing the future; the ways in which those decisions do or don’t play out according to expectation; the ways in which all of these things do, or just as often don’t, matter at all in terms of where we end up next, or a year afteward, or ten years afterward.
But of course we continue to stumble over these landmarks, and continue to make these decisions, and to try to form expectations, and to guide the courses of our own futures—every day.
I don’t know whether it’s an exercise in faith, an exercise in courage, an exercise in boredom, or an exercise in stupidity. I don’t even know whether it’s an exercise at all. After all we’re here, and doomed to be so until we’re not.
And all the while, the past recedes. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful. Everything.
It’s a kind of interminable, unbearable ecstasy of being—always in the present moment, but only able to name or be cognizant of those that are already passed.
So now I’ve come all the way down to the common floor and posted. Maybe now I’ll be able to sleep. Doubt it. Like I said, I’m lonely. But I’ll try.