I’m the sort of person who makes lists.
I make lists of things to do. I make lists of things I’ve done. I make lists of books I want to read, clothes I want to buy, tasks I want to complete. I find that lists help me clarify my thinking, focus on my goals. And of course it’s always satisfying to cross items off once you’ve found, achieved, or completed them.
Several years ago, I started making lists of things I wanted in my life — not just what I wanted to read or buy or do, that week or the next, but ultimate goals. The lists contained anywhere from eight to twelve items. I would describe them elaborately, I suppose from the notion that if I could articulate what I wanted, I could have it . . . naming it would function as a kind of magic, a summoning. And it did in some ways — at least it helped me clarify in my own mind what it was I actually wanted (rather than what people told me I should want), and focus on getting those things in my life. I still have one of those lists pinned to my cork board, where I can look at it every day and see whether I’ve worked on the items listed. Today I’ve worked on six of the items — unintentionally, since it’s been such a busy day that I haven’t thought of anything but the immediate tasks at hand. Still, it’s a good way to check oneself . . .
But recently, I sat down to look at those lists again, potentially revise them, and it occurred to me that what I wanted in life could be described very simply, in three words: love, home, work. And that I was doing very well at one of those, somewhat well at another, and at yet another, not well at all.
The one I was succeeding at was work. This goal was about doing the work I love, and I’ve succeeded at that: I’m teaching writing, and of course I’m also writing. The last few years have been difficult, but they’ve been difficult because I’ve done so much. I will soon have had three novels published in three years, and there are all sorts of other projects in the offing. Work can be hard, work can be frustrating, but I’m very lucky to be doing what I do. It’s also the category that I have the most control over — I design my courses and seminars, I decide which books to write. It’s where I have the most freedom.
The one I was doing somewhat well at was home. Recently, I was told the building in which I live would be renovated, and I would need to find a new apartment. I looked around me and realized that despite living here three years, I had never finished furnishing this apartment. There are still paintings stacked against a wall, still furniture that needs to be reupholstered. It’s a charming apartment, but it has never felt like home. I spent two weeks looking for a new one, stressed and worried about trying to find a place to live in one of the most difficult rental markets in the country. Finally, I found a place — the first floor of a house in an old neighborhood with tree-lined streets, where, when I walked down the street, all I heard was birdsong. I was anxious about the expense — it was, of course, right at the top of my price range, the very most I felt I could afford. But it’s large and sunny, with high ceilings, tall windows, and old plank floors that are probably original to the house. It has an office for me, and a porch on which I can grow flowers. It’s not, I’m sure, where I will ultimately end up, but for now at least, it will be a perfect home. And I intend to make it that — this time, I will hang all the pictures on the walls.
Love was the one at which I was failing. I use the word “love” both broadly and specifically, including the wide network of family and friends, all the people one loves, all the significant others as well as any particular ones. In doing all the work, I realized, I had not left enough time for people. There is always this tension in the lives of what we call “creatives” — art takes so much time and effort, and often there is no time to socialize, to form bonds, even to talk on the phone. Last month, when I was finishing up my third novel, everything else fell by the wayside as I tried to meet a deadline. My cat, whom I had rescued from the streets of Boston as a kitten, died. I took time to be with her during her illness, but afterward, I did not have time to grieve. I realized then that there was something missing from my life, and that I would need to recalibrate, to find my bearings again.
So I guess I learned three things. The first was that what I want is really much simpler than I thought, that it doesn’t take elaborate lists. The second is that the things I want are variably under my control. I can seek out and create work, I can find and make a home, but I can really only make space and time for love. Human relationships, and other human beings, are still the greatest mysteries of all. The third is that I need balance — that I need love and home as well as work.
You can consider that my new to-do list.
(This is the park near my new apartment, where I will move in the fall. And that was one of the days when I was realizing all this, when it was running through my head, changing my thinking about what I had prioritized, about how I allocated my time.)
My condolences for your cat. I am sure she had a life full of love with you. And thank you for these wise words; I’m at a point myself where the things that truly matter are coming into sharper focus, and this resonated deeply.
I’m so glad, and the very best of luck to you! I’m sure you’ll find the right path. 🙂
I so enjoyed reading this.
I am at a crossroad also with an almost unstructured future in a few months while I have lived for many years with limited choices. My past will support my future far beyond what I could hoped.
On another note, I fiercely adored your novel The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter and am waiting impatiently for my preordered July release of “European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewomen”. Thank you for providing such a fascinating new world to explore. However, please do seek and share love of self and of others. It will replenish and refresh your creativity and allow you to continue creating amazingly complex characters who wish to speak and are survivors, never victims.
In closing, thank you for rescuing a furry angel. They claim us and enrich our lives until leaving us temporarily to walk the path ahead in order to guide us someday in the future.
Thank you so much for your comment! I’m so glad that you liked Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter — I hope readers who liked the first one will like the second! And there will be a third and final one in 2019. 🙂 I am definitely going to get some rest and try to focus on recovering from a really tough semester. And yes, I know exactly what you mean about furry angels — she was my sweetheart, and I miss her very much. The very best of luck on your own path . . .
First, I admit I have not read your books as yet. Just downloaded The Alchemist’s Daughter based on what I read in the Amazon snippet. Funny, well done. Look forward to it (it’s raining outside so I shall begin immediately!). I am distressed it is only a trilogy. Hmmmmmmm.
You are in Boston? Great Sam Adams’ Ghost and all that! Mixing Eastern Europe and Bostonian traditions sounds like the perfect combination for a Slavic investigation at the building of Fenway or the creation of The Commons! Or some evildoings around a mysterious tea party. Sorry, you are the writer here. I just love Boston, it’s history and dearly understand the issue of finding affordable, comfortable housing . . . . with parking and near a T stop.
Finally, since when does life need to be so structured? Yes, lists keep you organized, but the cyclical nature of good and bad, yin/yang of life is what keeps it interesting. Keep the dumb decisions at bay by thinking, follow your ambitions a bit, and all works out. The optimists view.
Take care, from a new follower.
It seems creatives of all stripes share that trait. While I’m more introverted and not overly social, I do miss the good conversations that can potentially come out of such interactions, and I often feel guilty that I have enough time and/or energy to see all the people I want. I’m so sorry for the loss of your cat. I’m dealing with grief around the same thing. My 14 year old “old man” succumbed to cancer on Valentine’s Day. I’ve never lost a cat before because he was my first, and it’s an unquenchable type of grief. Even though we’ve adopted another to keep my other cat company (and I suppose attempt to fill the hole left), I still miss him terribly. I’ve experienced a great deal of grief in my life, but no two types are ever quite the same.
I’m a list lover, too. There’s something empowering about organization.