Isolation

“Also, I left my headphones on my couch, so now what do I do if I hate people?”

You probably understand the frustration underlying that text and the sense of camaraderie in my friend’s immediate reply: “I have no good solution for that, sadly.”

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Headphones are more than a convenient gadget to me and a gazillion other people—probably including you. They’re not just a nice way to get my Panic! At the Disco fix when I’m in public and can’t blare “Hallelujah” for everyone else to hear. They’re my safe place in a crowded waiting room, my sanity in the chaos of a subway station, my sensory anchor in a sea of abstract finals-week concepts.

In many ways, these flimsy rubber earbuds build a safety barrier between me and the world. They save me from having to make eye contact. They protect against mindless small talk. They lock me into the task at hand when ambient conversations tug at my attention.

But they also isolate.

And in a lonely world full of synthetic relationships, perfunctory “how ya doin’?”s, and long-distance Facebook friends, isolation becomes a real danger—especially for introverts and/or shy people. It becomes a vicious cycle: we’re surrounded by people and pummelled by stimuli every moment of the day, thanks to work, classes, and social media, so we retreat into solitude—but because all of that social stimulation is surface-level, we’re people-weary and yet soul-numbingly lonely at the same time. So we venture into the chaos of crowds, only to reemerge, still exhausted and still isolated.

I noticed this paradoxical near distance one evening as my flatmate and I sat on neighbouring couches in the living room, both sipping tea, both doing homework—both sealed by earbuds into individual cocoons of music. We sat within arm’s length of each other for several hours without once engaging.

To speak—to share an experience—became an intrusion that required pausing music, removing an earbud, emerging from a private world.

In a moment when we could have shared the companionship of background music and quiet presence while we studied, we instead chose to lock ourselves away. For either of us to fill the room with music would be to invade the other’s privacy and convenience—an infraction of the worst kind in a culture where, somehow, steady individual comfort has taken the place of dynamic interpersonal relationships.

I still carry my earbuds everywhere I go. I plugged them in to shut out voices on the bus this weekend, and I will turn up the volume to seal my private world around me in the science building this afternoon.

But in the quiet of my flat, with my flatmates nearby, in those shared moments of doing homework and washing dishes and stealing chapters of recreational reading…in those moments, I leave the earbuds out and leave myself open.

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The Mess of Transitions

Hello, my darlings! I have a treat for you this week: my dear and talented friend Emily is here to talk about transitions and the books that get her through them. I’m constantly inspired, challenged, and encouraged by her writing, and I hope you will be, too.


I’m always caught off guard by how ungloriously messy transitions are. I want them to be Instagram worthy at every turn, but they never ever are. It makes me think I’m doing something wrong: I didn’t plan well enough, or I’m not really ready to make this move, or I don’t deserve it. If I had and was and did, it would be more glamorous, right? The lighting would be better. I would have woken up with enough time to do my makeup. The corners of my books wouldn’t have gotten bent during the move.

I know it’s not true, but I buy the story every time. It’s the one crowding the shelves of every supermarket, eternally on discount.

I’m starving for richer stories, for brave words about messy times. I need a supplement for the weak, over-processed stuff I’ve been consuming.

 During the long interim of preparing to graduate from college and learning how to be a post-college adult, I happened across two books whose words felt so true and nourishing. Their words still echo in my gut, filling me, moving me, growing me, and fortifying me.

Tables in the Wilderness

I read Tables in the Wilderness during my final semester of college. It tells the story of Preston’s college years and his spiritual questioning and formation during that time. College was a time of spiritual upheaval for me as well. Though Preston and I asked different questions and worked them through in different ways, I could see reflections of myself in the words on the pages of this book. I understood the confusion and the shame and the out-to-sea-ness that come with reformulating one’s spirituality.

As graduation neared, I wasn’t finding any of the neat closure or conclusions I expected to have by the time I left college. Doubt does not care about my collegiate time frame, it turns out. But Preston’s book gave me an example of wading along through murky waters, not gracefully, but faithfully. He demonstrated how messy moving through a wild place is, transitioning from certainty to hazardous possibility.

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Bittersweet

I made my way through Bittersweet the summer after graduation. From the first essay I read in her first book, Cold Tangerines, I have been captivated by Shauna’s candid truth telling. Bittersweet moves through the breadth of experiences a person will encounter in her life: job loss, the deaths of loved ones, moving to a new city, fighting to create meaningful contributions to the world.

A few months ago, I wrote about what this book taught me about making time for creativity. Another valuable lesson I learned from Bittersweet is to always always say something when a friend or acquaintance is grieving the loss of a family member or is just going through a rough season. As Shauna says, it is worse to say nothing in that situation than it is to embarrass yourself by saying the wrong thing. I have found myself calling up this reminder multiple times already in my post-college life.

It carries over to other areas as well, I think. I put so much pressure on myself to say the right thing or act in just the right way in a new situation that I sometimes stop myself from saying or doing anything at all. A big part of life is just showing up, even if you aren’t completely prepared—showing up for your friend who is mourning, showing up for job interviews you don’t feel quite qualified for, showing up in the handyman’s voicemail inbox for the fourth time that week asking that he please come look at the leaky ceiling.

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For nearly nine months now, I’ve been in the transition out of college. It’s messy beyond belief, and I’m glad for the few voices who stand in the mud, unflinching, saying, “Me too.”


Emily is a product of the prairies of Nebraska—equal parts poetry, flowers, and wilderness. She studied professional and creative writing at Taylor University in small town Indiana, and is now learning to balance a part time job, graduate classes, and apartment life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
She blogs at expressionsofarestlessmind.wordpress.com and tweets at @emsimily.

Enough

“Enough is as good as a feast.”

Mary Poppins said it, and it was one of those lines I didn’t understand for a long time, just sounds that flowed past me, insignificant in the grander scheme of dancing penguins, flying chimney-sweeps, and talking umbrella handles.

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Now, almost two decades removed from the child I was, I’m remembering that line.

Some interesting habits develop when you grow up poor. Let’s be clear—I grew up a different kind of poor than a lot of kids. I never went hungry. I had medical insurance. We got free food, but not food stamps. Still, when you know you’re poor, you do things to cope.

One of those things is stockpiling.

This isn’t just keeping stuff that has sentimental value. This is keeping everything.

If there’s a free handout, you take it—even if you don’t need it, because someday you might, and you probably won’t have money to buy it when that day comes. I remember stashing food in third grade. I hid apples and half-bowls of trail mix and stacks of crackers on the top shelf, ferreting them away for that moment when I might be hungry and we might not have any snack foods around (until, of course, my mother found them moulding and confiscated my stockpile).

This especially affects things like clothes. If someone gives away free clothes, you take them. When you’re in a large family full of growing kids, you can never have too many clothes; someone always needs your hand-me-downs, and when you can’t afford to go buy a new outfit, having that one skirt you never thought you’d wear becomes an essential contingency plan.

The problem is, I now have more clothes than I can fit in my closet. I have shirts I’ve forgotten about, cardigans with holes in them that I’m going to fix someday, jeans that don’t actually fit but that I keep because do you know how expensive jeans are?!

Growing up, I had regular growth spurts and lived in a country with one season—meaning I wore the same clothes year round. I went through clothes fast. But as an adult, I haven’t changed sizes in years, and I live in a country with four seasons—read: four different wardrobes. The last item of clothing I actually wore out was a pair of jeans I’d been wearing since middle school.

But I keep collecting, because someday I might need those clothes, and I won’t have money to buy new ones.

Lately, I’ve begun trying to curb my stockpiling tendencies and diminish the mountain of useless-but-might-be-essential-someday belongings packed around my room.

Clothes I don’t wear go in bags to give away, even if they’re super nice clothes I’ll never be able to afford replacing—because, let’s be honest, if I’m not wearing them now, why would I ever replace them? Those seven hundred ballpoint pens? Those go, too, along with the broken jewellery that I’m going to someday fix, the buttons that will make a great craft when  (if?) I finally have time, the ugly scarf I’m going to eventually repurpose…

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And as I toss item after item, my heart grows lighter and lighter, and I hear that voice from my childhood: “Enough is as good as a feast.”

And finally, I think I know what she means.

Beginning of the End

Yesterday morning I walked out of my apartment into the chilly winds of my last first day of undergraduate classes. I suffered my last syllabus shock symptoms and filled out my planner with assignments and test dates for the last time.

I wrote “graduation” in all caps across a date in May.

They call it “senioritis”—that inability to focus, that apathy, that odd disease that infects us all toward the end and makes us skip class and let our grades slip… It feels like a disease. Like something is inhibiting my ability to do my homework. I catch myself thinking, “This is important. I should read this textbook.” And then, the next thing I know, a whole minute has passed—or five—and I haven’t read a word.

It’s not a disease. Not really. It’s a culture.

It’s a mindset of looking forward to the next big adventure, of constantly waiting for the plot of my life to really get going. To the end—and the new beginning. It tells me to disregard the events of today, to abandon in equal measure the responsibilities and the joys of this moment. It whispers lies—that my next place will be better, that my next responsibilities will be grander, that my next joys will be greater. Why bother finishing where I am if the next journey I take will outshine this one anyway?

When Will My Life Begin

I shouldn’t be surprised by now. I felt this during the last week of my summer internship and before that, during finals. I’ve felt this shift of focus in the months leading up to every move I’ve ever made, this odd conviction that the next thing will be inherently better—so much better that none of this will ever matter again.

And it’s simply not true.

Today, right here, right now, as I breathe in and breathe out, my life is happening. My life is happening in the jazzy piano chords winding out of my speakers. It’s happening now, here, under the blanket my mother crocheted, in the tap of the keys and the heat of my laptop. This is life. This is living. It’s not a grand adventure, maybe, by comparison, but it’s mine, and it’s beautiful, I’m living it.

My life isn’t tomorrow. It isn’t next month or next year. It isn’t my next job. It isn’t my next move.

My life is now.

So for today, I’ll let the future lie. I’ll live where I am. I’ll smile at the people I pass, listen to their answers when I ask “How are you?” I’ll immerse myself in the moment—in the studying, and the laughing, and the mishaps in the kitchen.

It’s the beginning of the end. But, don’t you know, the beginning is its own moment.