Category Archives: pondering the future

Beowulf

I’m at N’s family house for a few days while he gets his car fixed, a sort of mini-retreat, mini-vacation. N’s grant is taking him to Japan for three months in the fall, to research Soseki’s archives and eat lots of omurice. I’ve rented a room in Sheffield for that same period because I spent so much of last academic year being sick (did I have the Australian flu? Was it spending so much time on the train?) – I need a break from the commute, and without N in Norwich I want/need a change of scene. If someone had told me in 2012 that I would still be in Norwich, six years later, my jaw would have slowly but surely dropped open. I like Norwich a lot, though. Am I staying in England, now that my PhD is finally finished? I miss my parents – they’re getting older (my mom has a milestone b-day coming up), and I want to spend time with them. I don’t know how they do it – travelin’ round the world like a couple of youngsters. I guess it helps that they don’t buy plane tickets that involve two stops!

One of the nicest things about staying at N’s house is the opportunity to examine his bookshelves (not a childhood bookshelf, unfortunately, more like university era). The antique book his grandfather bought in Japan in the 1950’s. The 2005 Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook he bought when he was trying to decide between teaching English there or in Japan. And his Oxford MA books. So many editions of Chaucer! So many Icelandic tales! (I had no idea Iceland had such a rich literary history *embarrassed shrug*) And the Beowulf translation by Seamus Heaney, which I pulled from the shelf since it seemed like a nice follow-up to Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, one of the most pleasant reading experiences I’ve had this year (though it was technically auditory, as it was an audio book – God, does Neil Gaiman have the most soothing voice!). As a bonus connection, Gaiman was apparently involved in writing the screenplay for that weird Beowulf movie in which Angelina Jolie is kinda (digitally) naked but kinda not.

I read the Introduction first which immediately spoiled the “plot” in the second paragraph. Fine by me! I’m the kind of person who still googles movie spoilers (but only of films I plan on NEVER seeing, such as the new Star Wars, which I tend to end up watching on airplanes anyway). N. tells me about how in his Oxford class on Beowulf, he was the only non-Oxford alumni, and thus the only student who hadn’t already read it in the original Old English. He had to teach himself Old English! (It sounds very strange when read aloud) He also tells me about how the only copy of Beowulf was almost destroyed in an 18th-century fire (how many other works of literature have been lost in such random ways? A truly Bolaño-esque question), and how a lot of Beowulf critics sneer at Heaney’s translation for taking “liberties” to be “accessible” to the “layman.” To this I say: Thank you very much, Seamus! And a big, big thank you to whoever wrote the line notes in the margins, helpfully providing clarifying explanations of the text (the ones about genealogy were especially helpful: The Danes have legends about their warrior kings. The most famous was Shield Sheafson, who ruled the founding house.)

As an absolute novice with no knowledge about epic poetry whatsoever (um… is this an epic poem? :O), I thought this translation was absolutely fantastic. Very readable and stark and lovely. In the introduction Heamey talks about how he was inspired by the men of his Irish family, how a simple sentence like “We cut the corn today” could feel incredibly solemn and weighted with meaning. And hence his decision to translate the first word of the poem as “So,” as opposed to “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” “attend,” “listen,” etc. God, isn’t translation nuts? N. told me that the original Old English word for “ocean” is technically “whale road,” which I think is so beautiful! But not exactly layman speak, so makes sense that Heaney didn’t include it.

What a strange ass story this is! Here’s a list of things I found strange (contains spoilers):

  1. Grendel is killed REALLY quickly. Like… in the first third of the story!! I thought Beowulf was ABOUT Beowulf vs. Grendel! What on earth is going to happen next, I wondered.
  2.  Answer: stories within stories! Isn’t it nuts how this is such a common theme of ancient poetry? And yet in contemporary fiction it’s like “lol u r so experimental.” Reading the Introduction first was very helpful in this regard, as it helped me be prepared.
  3. Beowulf is… kind of a dick? He brags about swimming through the ocean with his sword and armour (UM, not possible, she says snarkily). And after killing Grendel’s mother, he CHOPS OFF Grendel’s head when Grendel is already dead, just to bring a trophy back. Not very sportsmanlike!
  4. Beowulf is basically the story of a life – the contrast between a young warrior, and then a warrior past his prime, at the end of his days. Did not expect this!
  5.  The balance between warrior heroic culture and Christian morality. OK, I sort of stole this observation from N., who wrote an essay about it for his Oxford degree (ermagod, so smart rite). Basically… there is this weird juxtaposition throughout the poem between Beowulf being obsessed with his honour, his legacy, his name, with dying a “good” death as a hero, and between characters jumping in and saying “Oh it’s all thanks to the Lord that this was able to happen!” The written version we have of Beowulf was transcribed just as Christianity was an up and coming religion, but the ORIGINAL version of Beowulf was almost certainly pagan. So it’s almost like the story can’t decide what it wants to be. Because if you believe in Jesus… why would you care so much about your name existing with honour, when going to chill with J.C. in Heaven is supposed to be the most important eternal reward? It is… weird. But as Heaney says in the introduction, it is this contradiction, ambiguity, uncertainty, that helps make Beowulf a work of art. I like this idea, that something is more artful when it ISN’T cohesive, when it has these jagged, rough edges.
  6. Parts of this poem are really very beautiful! Especially the parts about death. There’s a big theme of “money and power will not make you happy.” This makes me feel better about my churchmouse income bracket.

All in all, I feel richer for having read this. Ancient stories, man. Why does everything always have to happen in three’s? Can’t wait fo Elon Musk to write an algorithm that explains THAT :/

I also feel incredibly grateful for my university education, and the background it gave me in the classics, even though I certainly wasn’t the best student at the time.

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Filed under books, classic, pondering the future, review

Addiction Literature

There are certain things I try to do regularly, in order to better ensure my emotional, mental and spiritual health:

  • Keep a gratitude journal, in which I write down 3 things I am grateful for at the end of each day.
  • Meditate and freewrite for 5 minutes per day.
  • Try to get enough exercise.
  • Make a long list of good and kind things I can do for others, from the simple (thanking people via email) to the complicated (signing up to volunteer at an event). It is in giving that we receive, etc. So instead of feeling lonely or depressed, I can look at this list and try to do one of these things for comfort, as a way to help myself feel better.

All this results in something like that Linda Gregg poem I love so very much: I’m not feeling strong yet, but I am taking good care of myself. Ideally these actions are more like guides or signposts as opposed to harsh dictator-like orders. I don’t want my life to feel like this endless to-do list, like the only thing that makes me worthwhile is what I end up doing. I want to know that I’m good for being ME, not just for what I DO. But just like everyone else in the world, from time to time I experience intense bouts of moodiness, melancholia & depression, but I can usually bounce back pretty well if I focus on doing the things that I know will make me feel good.

I have a lot of good things here that help me with that. There are some times when I look at this little life that I have built for myself in Portland and it feels like something I can marvel at. I’ve done a really good job at making friends with lots of different groups of people (even successfully combining them at times!), getting out and about, doing work that is important and connecting with writing communities. My job is fulfilling and meaningful and keeps me busy but not overwhelmed. I’ve worked (am working) hard on my writing and it’s come a long way in the past two years, I think. I also think the past two years I’ve done a really good job of learning (am still learning!!!) the most important thing at all: how to depend on and take care of myself, and all of the self-care that entails. Portland itself often feels like that David Whyte poem to me: This is the temple of my adult aloneness, and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life.

I also have a lot of good things coming for me. July 10th is my last day as an Americorps member (ever!). July 11th, I’m driving to Berkeley. July 12th to August 4th, I’ll be working my summer job. Then I get to spend some time with friends in San Francisco, visit my grandparents, hopefully go to Yosemite. At some point I drive back to Portland so that I can do my meditation retreat from August 16th to the 26th. And then the next two weeks are completely unscheduled. I can go to Crater Lake, Opal Creek, Yellowstone. I can visit my best friend in Chicago. I can be a bum, basically, until I fly to England on September 10th and begin what I guess you would call THE NEXT CHAPTER.

(I am really excited about that, obviously.)

This idea of self-care might explain why I’m so into non-fiction books about addiction. I’ve spent the past two years working really hard to learn how to take care of myself, and in a lot of ways (ironically enough!) addiction memoirs feel like effective “How To” manuals on how to do just that. In the past few weeks I’ve skimmed through/read Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Bill Clegg, crack), Lit (Mary Karr, alcohol), The Night of the Gun (David Carr, cocaine and alcohol) and Tweak (Nic Sheff, crystal meth, son of the author of Beautiful Boy). Ultimately, Beautiful Boy still gets my vote for overall best addiction memoir (I also have good memories of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again, but rereading it might give me a different impression).

Portrait of an Addict wins for Best Portrayal of the Addiction Experience. The excerpt that appeared in the NY Times magazine still feels to me like the strongest piece of writing among all these works. I liked reading this book because it doesn’t fuck around with what it’s like to be addict. You want your crack and you want it now, and you’re going to be crawling around on your hands and knees trying to sort the crumbs from the carpet fluff in order to get it. My favorite parts of this book were the ones that felt like Day in the Life of a Crack Addict, i.e. like the magazine excerpt. The author really doesn’t mess around, you are there with him, every step of the way, on his journey to get more, more, more, more, more. It feels like complete and total hell. I don’t really know how I feel about the other sections in the books, i.e. the flashbacks to his childhood and how traumatizing it was that he couldn’t control his bladder (oh boy, does that remind me of my day job, working with kids!). At least these sections were written in a very poetic style, so they didn’t detract too much from the overall narrative. All in all I would say that this is a very strong work.

Out of all of these books, I think I enjoyed reading Lit the most. This is surprising because I REALLY didn’t think this would be the case. To be honest, I still haven’t actually read every word of it. I skimmed to the part where she starts drinking and read/skimmed/skipped around from there.

I didn’t think I would like this book for the same reason I didn’t think I would like Eat Pray LoveI thought I would find the author whiny, self-entitled and narcissistic. This didn’t happen. On the contrary, I would call Lit the Eat Pray Love of addiction memoirs. In the same way that Eat Pray Love came to mean a lot more to me the second time I read it, like REALLY read it, I suspect Lit will have the same effect if I eventually sit down to attentively read every word.

So basically, I liked Lit because of the tone the author used. She reminds me of what Tobias Wolff and George Orwell have said about writing non-fiction: you can’t be afraid to show yourself as shitty, weak or afraid. You’re not always the hero in your own story, you know? Sometimes you’re the bad guy. Mary Karr won points for me for not being afraid to look critically at herself, into the so-called abyss. At the same time, she has this wise, compassionate yet ball-busting tone that reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s the same kind of gentle but realistic tone I would like my own future self to use when talking to my younger self someday.

The other great bonus about this book is that it contains a scene in which the author dates David Foster Wallace. Some google fu also revealed to me that she apparently was a big influence on Infinite Jest. YES!!!! Yet another reason to read this book again, this time with feeling!

Talk about not being the hero of your own story. The Night of the Gun is interesting because David Carr adopts a different technique than the other authors mentioned here: he treats his story like a traditional work of journalism, so the big emphasis in this book is on verifying facts, interviewing sources and compiling information. It works pretty well, and I definitely ended up reading a lot of sentences word-for-word as opposed to just skimming or speed reading.

The other big thing this book deserves praise for is for avoiding the “went to rehab, now everything’s okay” trap. I really liked the sections in which Carr openly commented on the typical structures of “recovery stories”: I had a beer with friends. Then I shot dope into my neck. I got in trouble. I saw “the error of my ways.” I found Jesus or twelve steps or Bhakti yoga. Now everything is new again. (177) This kind of open commentary and clearly expressed awareness on the typical (even boring) structure of addiction narratives is refreshing when compared to books like Tweak that treat the stops along the way like they’re a Really Big Deal.

I also really liked the parts of the book in which he reflects upon the nature of memory, and of memoirs as a form of creation myth. To me, this book is interesting because it’s about acknowledging darkness: as humans, we all have these deep evil impulses within us, and sometimes it seems like some of us are just better at controlling them than others. Carr tells one anecdote about a friend of his who, after smoking crack for the first time, immediately said “no” to the second hit, because he knew that it wouldn’t lead anywhere good. In contrast, Carr (or any of the authors listed in this post) said yes, and then yes again, and again, and again, and again. It makes me wonder if it’s really as simple as JUST SAY NO, or if it’s all just genetic, or maybe deep at heart we would all be raving crackeads if we could. Living from moment to moment, pleasure to pleasure, thinking about nothing else except the next moment of gratification, like in those nightmarishly hypnotic final pages about the epic Demerol binge that closes Infinite Jest. It sounds like complete and utter hell.

Tweak, I am sorry to say, I did not really enjoy. It had a lot to live up to as the companion/shadow work to Beautiful Boy. But I still think that even if I hadn’t read his father’s book, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this one. This book made me think of that apocryphal story about the Beatles, about how the first time they smoked pot or took acid or whatever, Paul McCartney wrote all these lyrics down that he was convinced were really super genius, when they were actually not even that good. I wonder if the same thing happenned to the author here. I think it’s really good if the author was able to use writing as a way to get through/over his addiction. But I really didn’t find the story in Tweak very compelling, at least not the way it was told here. A lot of the book is written in this very speedy, rambling On the Road type style. I didn’t really dig it. Am I biased because I maybe secretly wanted Beautiful Boy II? IDK. All I know is that this book felt like one episode after another, buying, using, selling, having sex with whacked out chicks, in a sketchy house, on a sketchy street, with a sketchy dude… I mean, I guess the life of a drug user is episodic in nature, so maybe the book is very accurate in that sense, but it honestly didn’t make for a very compelling read for me. I got bored after 100 pages and put it down.

“Yeah but except so how can I answer just yes or no to do I want to stop coke? Do I think I want to absolutely I think I want to. I don’t have a septum no more. My septum’s been like fucking dissolved by coke. See? You see anything like a septum when I lift up like that? I’ve absolutely with my whole heart thought I wanted to stop and so forth. Ever since with the septum. So but so since I’ve been wanting to stop this whole time, why couldn’t I stop? See what I’m saying? Isn’t it all about wanting to and so on? And so forth? How can living here and going to meetings and all do anything except make me want to stop? But I think I already want to stop. How come I’d even be here if I didn’t want to stop? Isn’t being here proof I want to stop? But then so how come I can’t stop, if I want to stop, is the thing.”

–Infinite Jest

Here’s one thing that all of these books made me think about: what is it that creates that fine line? What is it that separates me from the heroin junkie on the corner, or from any of the authors in these books? Because I want things too, you know, in the same way that we all do. We all have desires. Oh man, sometimes I even want things very, very, very badly, and I get really, REALLY upset if I don’t get them. My world gets all thrown up into a twist if I’m not getting this supposed thing that I supposedly want oh so very badly. But you know what, maybe living isn’t about about getting what you want all the time. Maybe the ultimate goal of life isn’t just to seek pleasure or to be happy or to avoid pain. What it means to live a good life is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and I don’t really know if I buy into that whole Aristotelean thing about pleasure being the way of the good, or whatever it was (freshman year feels like a really long time ago).

So what DOES make a good life? And how do you live it? Well, according to most of these books the answer seems to be the following: you literally take it one day at a time, and you lean on these corny mantras (like “one day at a time”) as though they’re a life raft. When I read sections like that, maybe it’s weird, but I feel really comforted. I think things like Oh, OK. So that’s one way, then. This is a way that you can live your life. 

It’s like when I obsessively devour these books, what I’m really looking for is a manual on How to Live (not just “How to Survive”). Don’t we all want that, in the end? To live as joyfully and as meaningfully as we can, as opposed to feeling like we’re barely surviving, hanging on by a thread? And I guess one answer is that you just have to take it one day at a time. Try to be kind and forgiving towards yourself; after all, you’re all you’ve got. Don’t waste your time on people in your life who aren’t good for you and make you feel bad. Even if you’ve done bad things in your life that you feel bad about (like almost kill your infant twin daughters by leaving them in a freezing cold car overnight so that you could go into a house and smoke crack), the least you can do now is forgive yourself. Instead of waiting till you feel good in order to take action, act in a way that you know will lead to good feelings later (maybe that’s the definition of faith). Have faith that if you keep at it, and don’t give up, the good feelings WILL come.

Good things are coming soon. Every thing and every feeling ends. Better days lie ahead. At the end of my suffering there was a door; at the center of my life came a great fountain. (Louise Gluck)

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Filed under books, future, non-fiction, pondering the future, really deep thoughts

Chronicles, Volume 1

Reading this autobioography by Bob Dylan was pretty fun. I especially liked his descriptions of living in New York as a young, struggling artist: the dirty apartments, the weird eclectic roommates, the greasy food and the freezing cold weather. There’s a
dizzying list of names and friends and influences and favorite songs and books and politicians and people in this book. It makes me feel the same way I did when I first listened to “Desolation Row“: like, whoa… that’s a lot of names! Or as he sings in the song: All these people that you mention, yes I know them, they’re quite lame. I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name (that used to be my signature quote in my yahoo e-mail back in sixth-grade… ah, youth!). I imagine if you made an effort to look up all the musician names that appear in this book on youtube or wikipedia, by the end of it you’d be a Folk Music Expert.

So needless to say, there’s a lot of good stuff here for the really hardcore Dylan fans that are in the mood to be archaeologists. Just to make things clear, that is not me. I do like Dylan’s music a lot–I listened to him a lot in high school, went through a period of not listening to him at all but have recently gotten really into him again, mostly because of recently seeing the film I’m Not There. I might actually now know more about Dylan and have more of his music than my dad ever did (who introduced me), which is a little disarming.

So in the end I only looked up two Dylan-endorsed artists, Kurt Weil’s “Pirate Jenny” and assorted songs by Robert Johnson (the guy who supposedly sold his devil at the crossroads). They’re both pretty good. According to Bob, they’re what inspired him to start writing his own songs instead of just playing folk covers. Anyway, it’s a pretty neat technique for an autobiography, listing your influences and your interests. What are we if not compilations of the art we seek and crave? (That sounds a little pretentious and perhaps doesn’t quite capture what I mean… I guess sometimes I feel like we are all just crazy kaleidoscopes or collages, cut-and-pasted together like the kids I used to work with would make.)

It was also interesting to read this book for the historical period it captures, that of my parent’s generation. God, it feels so wrong to call it “the historical period,” but that’s what the 50’s and early 60’s are, aren’t they? Bob Dylan is only five years older than my father. I remember a childhood story my dad used to tell us about how he taught Dylan to sing in his warbly voice, after a performance at his high school auditorium. I don’t think I ever thought it was true but I remember begging him to tell it again and again, as though it were a cherished bedtime story. I also remember seeing Dylan on TV once when I was a child and I thought he was handicapped, and that the harmonica thing around his neck was some kind of special brace. Wow, Bob Dylan is so brave for struggling and succeeding despite his handicap! I also went through a period thinking that he was black, and whenever I heard the name “Bob Dylan,” the face that would pop up in my head was that of Bob Marley. Oh, dear.

Anyway, this book does a great job of capturing the feeling of the period, the sense of impending hysteria and craziness that would be the mid-60’s. The fear of the Russians, On the Road, the Holden Caufield-like distaste of the bourgeoise sqaure world that is so horrifying and stultifying in Revolutionary Road, air-raid drills, cowering under desks (which makes me think of grade school, when we had guerrilla attack drills and we all lined up on the football field and boarded orange school buses. It always took at least 40 minutes, if not more, and I remember my second-grade self thinking man, we would have all gotten shot dead. Why didn’t they train us to hide in closets instead? I guess there’s no good answer of how a classroom full of children ought to respond to a guerrilla attack). Communists, freight trains, Woody Guthrie. A world that is beginning to feel increasingly archaic and distant. God knows how the kids at the Boys & Girls Club or of the future cyber generations will view this world. I wonder if my kids (if I have any) will view this period the same way I viewed the era of the Titanic as a girl, or Little House on the Prairie: a lifestyle that is completely remote and alienated from mine, as radically bizarre as though I were reading about people who were living on the moon. I guess every single historical age feels this way, I bet if I did more reading about the Romans or the Greeks I would find similar sentiments expressed among artists and politicians. The only thing that doesn’t change is change.

“I just thought of mainstream culture as lame as hell and a big trick. It was like the unbroken sea of frost that lay outside the window and you had to have awkward footgear to walk on it. I didn’t know what age of history we were in nor what the truth of it was. Nobody bothered with that. If you told the truth, that was all well and good and if you told the un-truth, well, that’s still well and good. Folk songs had taught me that. As for what time it was, it was always just beginning to be daylight and I knew a little bit about history, too–the history of a few nations and states–and it was always the same pattern. Some early archaic period where society grows and develops and thrives, and then some classical period where the society reaches its maturation point and then a slacking off period where decadence makes things fall apart. I had no idea which one of these stages America was in. There was nobody to check with. A certain rude rhythm was making it all sway, though. It was pointless to think about. Whatever you were thinking could be dead wrong.” (35)

My favorite part was reading about what books Dylan liked as a young man. It reminds me of my sixth-grade self making best-of lists, in the honored Nick Hornby tradition: Best Tori Amos songs live. Best Movies of the 90’s. Etc, etc. In Dylan’s view, Thucydides gets a big thumbs up (“a narrative which would give you chills”), as does Balzac (“hilarious”). Faulkner was “powerful” but difficult to get. James Joyce’s Ulysses gets a thumbs down, as does Freud. He expresses a strong fascination for military history, especially the Civil War (man, I need to read me another Civil War book one of these days!).

I also loved the passage about Dylan reading old newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to 1865 in the New York public library, trying to learn as much as possible about what it was like to live in that period. It sounds exactly like something I would do, if I lived in New York. The overall moral seems to be to stuff your head with as much knowledge as posible, it order to “send a truck back for it later.” (86) I like the idea of absorbing experiences and knowledge like a sponge with the hope/faith that it will pay off later on, and just trying to be as open as possible… even if it doesn’t seem to make too much sense at the time.

“What was the future? The future was a solid wall, not promising, not threatening–all bunk. No guarantees of anything, not even the guarantee that life isn’t one big joke.”

It’s also really interesting to read his passages about song writing and creativity. If I had to pick one theme for this book, it would be about forming a relationship with creativity, how to nurture it and make it work throughout a lifetim (I haven’t even touched on the chapters about making his albums New Morning and Oh Mercy, but they’re fascinating, especially the part where Bono makes a phonecall to producer Daniel Lanois. Who’d have thought?) It makes me think of this wonderful video of a talk by Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, about nurturing creativity. I recently re-read EPL in New Orleans, where Corey’s mom had a copy, and I browsed through Committed in Powell’s the other day. It made me fall in love all over again with ideas like “being kind to yourself” and “nurturing your spirit” and so on. Que concepts, no?

“If I was building any kind of new life to live, it really didn’t seem that way. It’s not as if I had turned in any old one to live it. If anything, I wanted to understand things and then be free of them. I needed to learn how to telescope things, ideas. Things were too big to see all at once, like all the books in the library–everything laying around on all the tables. You might be able to put it all into one paragraph of into one verse of a song if you could get it right.” (61)

Anyway, nine days left in Portland before heading to Colombia and the next/chapter adventure. Hoooo knows how things will go. Here’s to the future, the past and the present, to bike rides and books, to plane tickets and the Internet making the world both a smaller/bigger place all at once. “The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.” (104)

Two photos from last year serve as *my* chronicles: one of my working-with-kids job in Portland, one in Mexico…

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Filed under books, non-fiction, pondering the future, quotes, review

a wee bit of a frenzy

Well… I didn’t have time to read any books for pleasure this month. What did I do instead? I “wrote” a “first chapter” for my “thesis” (yes, the apostrophe marks are necessary). I had my oral boards. Today, I have been trying to think about what I want to do post-May 2008. Basically, all the plans I had set up for myself no longer exist. I am not the kind of person who finds this feeling giddy or exhilarating. Rather, it makes me bite my nails down to a state of raw, ravaged crescents.

It can be pretty stressful trying to plan for the future.

Honestly, I know there’s no point to writing about or worrying about these kinds of things, since they seem to change so sporadically, and obviously life is impossible to plan for in general, but still–that doesn’t seem to stop me. Most of the best decisions of my life have been made impulsively, at the last minute, and sporadically. Nevertheless, that doesn’t prevent me from trying to anxiously plan for—not everything, I suppose, but the next year of life.

I always thought that I was going to apply for Peace Corps after graduating. Not only have I always wanted to do it, having grown up with hearing my parents’ stories about it (the story of how my mum and dad met via a rabid dog in Nepal is one of the many key tales in family lore), but it would also conveniently take care of the iffy question of what exactly I was going to do with the next two years of my life. It would be Done For! Decided! Taken Care Of! However, something came up that I didn’t expect, and which has prevented me from submitting my application: I met someone, and I don’t particularly want to spend two years away from him at this point in our lives. He is going to Ecuador next fall to some research work with fungi, and unless something completely unforeseen and unpredicted comes up, it looks like I am going to go with him.

Which raises the big question for me: what exactly am I going to do with myself, once I’m there? Teach English? Work as a Kiva.org fellow? (If they hire me despite no financial or business experience, and complete computer ignorance, and no money to fund myself) Should I apply to grants in order to fund my trip and do things to make my resume look better–take a computer class, take an econ class at Reed, read the recommended books on microfinance and ending poverty, get an internship—why is my resume blank of internships? Why, oh why? What, oh what did I do with my time as an undergrad, besides fretting about my extremely poisonous relationship with my extremely evil ex-boyfriend? These are the questions I try not to ask myself, if I don’t want to drive myself into an absolute existential frenzy. Chances are, my resume is more than okay, even if I never volunteered with Amnesty International or interned at Mercy Corps.

There was a time when I thought I was going to go to graduate school. That changed pretty much in one day, after the orals for my thesis. Hearing my thesis advisor and my first reader engage in a highly theoretical discussion about the difference between the term “knowledge” vs. “understanding,” I had what is called an epiphany: This is not for me. Existing in a world of such abstract language is not for me. I cannot sit in an office and talk that talk for the rest of my life. I will not enjoy it, it will make me go crazy, and therefore I do not enjoy researching. I enjoy writing, and talking about books. But researching and publishing papers (or even writing papers), I have never really enjoyed.

All of this seems to be pointing to the deeper, more fundamental question. The biggest can of beans, if you will—what exactly is it that I am good at? Well—I’ve done some volunteering abroad. I sure did enjoy my job last summer, working in Tijuana with high schoolers. I enjoy being in an international environment. I enjoyed facilitating an international service-learning social justice-oriented project. I enjoy working with people.

I guess I will meet with the Career Services office about applying for some grants, and about job opportunities period in Ecuador. Search the World Learning site a little more. Maybe get in touch with Reed alumni who lived in Ecuador. Take deep breaths. Things will be okay. I still got time.

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Filed under life plans, pondering the future