Sometimes in my life so far there have been these nights… that seem important. I never quite know why, but it’s like on those nights, something gels in my consciousness and I’m really very aware. Not lucid, necessarily, but aware. Aware of everything, able to see in to my future and my past not just as possibilities or unknowns, but as fait accomplis that vary depending on what I do.
No, it’s not that I don’t know what the term means. I do know. I know it’s a paradox, what I just said. But there’s a very subtle shade of meaning that is only correctly thus described.
I have a real diary, aside from this blog, that I’ve kept for years. Many years. Usually the blog is reserved for rants and anger and cleverness and flippant remarks and poems and the real diary contains long entries in prose, typed while thinking, honest thoughts and remarks and whatever else. Tonight that stuff is going here, I don’t know why.
Or maybe I do. Because it’s another night to be awake, and to remember, and to decide.
There are a lot of things in my life right now that aren’t quite right. The problem is that all of it is supposedly perfect right now, the envy of everyone, and they’re all things that I want and have wanted. I know that doesn’t sound like a problem, but there is an addendum: these things aren’t compatible with one another. Each of them is something very important to me, but each of them is also pulling me in a direction different from the others.
Family. I have lots of siblings and two parents that care. We’ve had our tough times, but the family is still together and still cares about me (and I about them) an incredible amount. When I left for Chicago, I thought to myself: I’m not 17 anymore. I don’t want to get away from this. I did when I was younger, but now I feel like I’m leaving behind a support network of love and caring that most other people would kill for, that most other people won’t ever have or understand.
I couldn’t believe I was leaving my sisters, the most important, reliable, caring people in my life, to go on some silly academic quest that would result in nothing but debt and a degree that I’d make fun of later with rhetorical questions like “What can you do with a degree in English, a degree in Anthropology, and a degree in the Social Sciences?!”
They all live in Salt Lake City, a place I hate. Chances are that that city will always be the nucleus of the family I’m lucky enough to have, the family that others would do anything to have. I know that I can’t go back, I can’t live there, but at the same time, it’s very difficult to cope with a world of people that have no tie to me at all but their current feelings and their current whims.
I know that most people don’t buy the “blood is thicker than water” thing anymore, but it’s also true that most people these days (everyone that I know, with the exception of my best friend) had families that also didn’t buy it, and that dissipated as a result. My family won’t. When I’m 80 years old (if I make it that far), they’ll still be there for me. And if I make it to 80 and I’ve built nothing else, it’ll have been 55 years of my life wasted away from the people that always loved me, with whom I could have shared my time — at least some of it — all along.
My girlfriend. Relationships are important to me. More than they are to most people, I think, and probably more than they are to her. I love her. She’s wonderful. She’s also gone a great deal, will likely not be happy in places where I’m happy, and will be happy in places where I won’t. She’s the most magical person I’ve ever met, and despite the fact that we’ve had our problems, it’s difficult to explain how diluted everyone else — certainly all of the other women I’ve ever met — seem in comparison to her.
I’d love to spend the rest of my life with her. Problem is, I don’t know if she’d love the same thing, or if she’s even capable of understanding such a thing at the level that I feel it.
I’m dying to get back to academics. She’s made a conscious decision to leave them. I’m a ruthless critic of everything, most notably those things that are most unassailable, most noble, because they are also the most dangerous, not only to me, but to the world as a whole. She’s a ruthless idealist, willing to put her beliefs ahead of everything else. That’s incredibly beautiful, and it attracts me and fills me with admiration. It also means that I know that at any given time I’m just as likely to play second or third fiddle to noble ideas as I am to be at the top of her list.
Her discipline and dedication are inspiring. But because they don’t match mine, it’s tough for me to play that role — to know that I can never be the most important thing, and that beyond that, we’ll always have to compromise on so many things.
Academics. It’s a love I came to late in life, but lately it’s been everything that’s kept me going. It’s the one thing that’s under my control, thanks very much to the fact that I’m such a ruthless critic (when combined with the fact that I’m brilliant). I know that if I invest myself in academics and make choices that privelege it, I will do well for myself, be at the top of my field, solidify both my future finances, my future life, and the fact that I will always have people around me that are interested in me — a million prospects for social ties and contribution to society, for the rest of my life.
The certainty of success and the power that it embodies are incredibly seductive, especially in the face of the many other things in my life over which I have no control.
But to pursue academics at this level requires a commitment measured not in months or seasons or even years, but in decades. To decide to pursue it means to decide that everything else must take a backseat. It’s not in my nature. To me, relationships are always the most important thing.
But my family relationships tie me to a place where there is nothing else for me. My love relationships are beautiful and I trust them, but at the same time, they are not full of promises; there is no guarantee of longevity. If I decide to follow relationships for academics, I will always wonder what could have been, and will more than likely regret during many moments of my life, perhaps most importantly the later ones, what is, particularly if I sacrifice academics for relationships that disappear.
But at times I worry that that is what must occur if I privelege academics — because to ask someone else to follow me and my decades while I build the academic person is asking too much of anyone that is special enough for me to want to spend my time with in the first place.
Career. From the time I was a little kid I’ve been making books. I always wanted to be a writer, and later, to be an editor. And I still do. I have finally landed the dream job, the career ladder job, the job that leads me to responsibility and decision-making and an illustrious career in words, in truth-making — a career full of prestige and a decent income and the respect that is afforded to no one else save perhaps but the academics.
If I leave it behind now for academics or relationships, I may never get it back. If I don’t leave it behind now, I have chosen career over everything else, sacrificed everything else for the job. I can’t do that; it’s not enough. That’s not who I am and it’s never been who I am; at my core I am the opposite. The career is simply not enough to make me happy if I have to lose everything else.
But I’m not convinced that I will be happy with everything else, or be able to avoid resenting it, if I have had to sacrifice my career to have it.
Place. Above it all hovers around the question of place. Becuase of the nature of all of these things — family, significant other, academics, career — the question of place is perhaps the largest one. And the trick (and perhaps my largest problem) is that they are all in mutually exclusive places.
Where I go will depend in large part on what I decide to do and what I decide to sacrifice. But I’ve always known and sworn, since I was very young, that place is perhaps the single most important thing in the world to my sanity, above and beyond all else. I always knew I was the person who would choose my place first, before anything else — because my quality of life was so tied up in it — and that once I’d decided on a place, I’d look around me and decide what to do once I was there for good.
But now that view of the world begins to make things around me shimmer, like a mirage; what good is a place without my sisters, or without my girlfriend, or without my ideas, or without my books? What good is any place if it’s just another place, no matter how beautiful or how comforting? In truth, no place can induce enough comfort to offset the pain of a distant family, a lost love, a failed pursuit of the higher mind, or a squandered career. A place is just a venue for bitterness if you can’t have in that place those things that make you who you are.
Utah, which I hate (but which offers me family)
California, which I hate (but which offers me a girlfriend and a career)
Chicago, which I loved (and which offers me academics)
New York, which I think I will like (and which offers me academics and a career)
Because New York holds the promise of meeting two of the needs that I must meet in order to emotionally survive and want to wake up in the morning — academics and career — in a place that I don’t think I will hate, and because there is some chance that my girlfriend will be willing to live there for some period of time with me, New York has been my tentative decision.
But I know that she doesn’t want to live there for decades, for long enough to match the commitment to the place that I’d be making. I’m all too aware of the fact that in choosing New York, I’d be putting here in exactly the same position that I’m now in. I run the risk of eventually losing once again or at least being very distant for a very long time from all of the love in my life, having to start effectively from scratch in building a circle of support and caring and identity, something that I don’t honestly think I have the strength (or or the will) to do at this point in my life. I’m too old for that. I don’t want to be making friends and getting over loves, I want to be surrounded by love and working on my castles. The prospect of being distant from my family and potentially losing my girlfriend does not feel like it is offset by my expectation of liking the place, or the fact that it is the ideas and books hub of the entire world.
California seems to offer everything except there is one problem: I hate it here. Every time I am here, I make those around me unhappy. I need extra support and extra patience from others to live here, and in the end by drawing that needed energy from those that I love, I risk losing their love anyway — the very love that would be the only reason I ever decided to live here in the first place.
Salt Lake City holds nothing for me, but at least there in my misery I would never lose those that I love, and the place holds a kind of familiarity that will never be matched. Home towns never are. But I hate it there; it would always feel as though I were living an excuse for my life, not my life itself — as if I were there only because I couldn’t face tough decisions and decided instead to crawl back into the womb.
Chicago? Why do I even consider Chicago at this point? Because it is the number once social sciences division in the entire world, and I am a recent alumnus. It is the foundation of a thousand triumphs in a place that holds many fond memories.
I am torn. I have been torn since I left Chicago. I was torn even while I was in Chicago.
I can’t tear parts of my life out like this. I can’t consciously decide to slice my family, my girlfriend, my academics, my career, or my own personal sense of being in a place right out of my life. I can’t do it. I’m not capable.
But I have to do something. I am in full-on self-destruct mode. My lungs hurt. My liver hurts. I cough endlessly and can’t breathe without nasal decongestants because I have a permanent cold thanks to the fact that I get no sleep and am under incredible emotional stress. I spend too much money because it’s the only thing sometimes that makes me feel better once I can’t drink or smoke anymore and can’t make myself lose consciousness in sleep or any other way. I’ve gained ten pounds in two weeks; I’m sure I’ll gain more, something that is compounded by and will compound in many worrisome ways the other things I’m doing to destroy myself.
This entry will probably be gone by sometime tomorrow. If anyone sees it — family, friends, employers, mentors — I’m sorry for the hurt that this must cause you; for the damning accusation implicit in the fact that you alone, whatever part of my life you’re from, are not enough for me — even though at the same time you would never in a million years want to be important enough to me that I sacrificed everything else for you.
Most worrisome of all is the reality that if I choose any one option, it will be under such enormous pressure that it won’t be able to do anything but collapse under the weight.
How can I continue to love and feel content near a family and in a place for which I have given up love, scholarship, and career?
How can any significant other stand up to the pressure of being the object of a desire and trust so strong that family, scholarship, and career were sacrificed for them?
How can any academic success seem worthwhile when you have made yourself ultimately lonely forever, giving up family, love, and the real world in its pursuit?
How can any career not seem like self-delusion when for it you’ve given up the familiarity of home, the joy of love, and the wonder of scholarship?
How can any place seem right or anything other than a temporary imprisonment when it excludes from your life the majority of the things that you live for?
“Don’t you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making is world a little colder?”
Maybe UC Berkeley (most tolerable place in California, close-ish to girlfriend’s home, solid academics some publishing, intersection with family) should be my first choice. When I read through all of this and think about it rationally, it seems like the best compromise, the best first choice.
New York could be a close second, if my girlfriend really could feel at home there.
I wonder if she’d ever consider marrying me. I told her once I’d have married her already if I thought she’d have gone along with it. I meant it. I still do.
Am I naive?
Something has to give.
Something has to give.