Updated: Apr 6
This morning when I opened the blinds, the sun was of a different quality. This is summer sun, I thought, or at least the sun of middle spring. Utah likes to drag out the winters well into the official spring (it just snowed a few inches last week), and then pounce right into summer without easing. In this way, the end of cold always seems to happen in one miraculous moment: you open the windows and feel the sudden onslaught of birdsong, the wafting of warm air.
So I slid back the door. Sophie scrambled to pull herself onto a porch chair and then yelled at me, pointing to the other chair. "Sit," she means, and I complied (I too often comply with this strong-willed toddler). She started babbling from her chair, and I spoke in English back, guessing at what she might be saying. "It's warm," I tell her. "I can feel the sun on my skin." "Ball!" she yells, pointing at the playground across the street, which is wrapped in CAUTION tape. "No ball," I tell her, shaking my head emphatically. I am trying to distract her from the playground so she doesn't throw a tantrum when I tell her we can't play there today. The spread of COVID-19 has led to new state guidelines: playgrounds are off-limits.
"Canyon," I tell her, resuming our conversation. "Later," I tell her, "We will go to the canyon." This has been our new social isolation ritual: the canyon almost every evening, unless there is freezing rain or snow. But soon the snow will be over and we will watch the leaves come back, the summer unfolding like winter's barely-believed prophecy.
Perhaps none of these happenings- the warm porch while Sophie learns to speak, the coming leaves- are significant. Perhaps they all are. You could say that this "100 Days" project was inspired by the desperate idea that no ordinary life is without daily flashes of meaning. And it was essential for me, because although writing has long been my passion, I found it nearly impossible to tackle edits on a memoir while working part-time and raising a toddler. So I thought of this idea, daily journals which would tackle the most inconspicuous topic I could think of: my own life.
Inconspicuous because I am a stay-at-home mom living in a suburb, with no car and no friends in my vicinity. Inconspicuous because my days are spent cleaning, cooking, and playing with a toddler, trying to cram in academic reading while she breastfeeds or sleeps, even while postponing my plans to be an academic, my plans to write freely. Inconspicuous, but not without meaning. Inconspicuous, but brimming with joy when I am brave enough to bear it.
Which brings me to my memoir and the added hope that this "100 Days" project may offer a necessary counterweight to the girl I describe. I was wild, in those pages. I was full of passion, adventure, and immaturity as I flew to Europe, ended in Spain, and spent a month deconstructing life beneath some trees near a Medieval city. But I was lonely, there, in the woods. The outward events were exciting, but the inner landscape often felt barren. I wanted committed love- and not for another person, which is unnecessary- but for life. In many ways, the memoir is about a truth which has transformed my life: that acceptance of mortality is the only way to plunge ourselves into a committed love affair with the present. But in spite of the veneer of excitement, I suffered before accepting this knowledge.
Although we must yoke ourselves to our corpses anew every day (this is called urgency), I have come a long way. Most days, I live in a steady peace. This is called conquering, and if I were a good enough writer, I could write it more exciting than the story of a red-haired girl with a penchant for running into wild boars and perverts. In other words, the greater the inner capacity to create, the less excitement the outer world needs to supply. A life of constant-sought excitement may be a symptom of inner death. I know that now, so I will not run to and fro, seeking to fill myself on thrills or on other human bodies. I will sink my roots deep and create from what life has given me.
Which brings me to monotony. I have felt like I'm "social isolating" for a year and a half, living in a suburb with no car and no stores within walking distance, no friends nearby. I was saving up my money to start Sophie in daycare for just two days a week, enough to finish this last round of edits, to get back on track to publishing this year. But now the daycare is closed, indefinitely. Everything is closed indefinitely.
To those who are struggling with this "new reality," let me offer a few pieces of advice:
One: Be open to the idea that your life is not your own. This is ludicrous to the Western mind, steeped as we are in the myth of independence. Now that we are grappling with the truth that a "personal" decision to wash our hands could kill or save someone's life, the reality of our interconnectedness is brought hurtling to the forefront of our minds. But the infinite repercussions of small and "personal" actions has always been true. Deciding whether or not to spend your money on an expensive latte seems trivial, but a few extra dollars donated to a charity instead could provide a malaria vaccine to a child who would have died otherwise. Acting on this realization is what I call "radical responsibility," and it can suffuse your every action with the weight of meaning.
Two: Structure your days. Set alarms on your phone for each segment of the day. Remember that time is a precious dream, rounded by a sleep on either side. Begin to respect the fact of death.
Three: Find your deepest well of authenticity. This is difficult. It may require minor obliteration (which uncovers something utterly pure, something to draw from). I used to work at a wilderness survival program, and each time I entered the thick silence of a week in the canyons and woods, I realized how much of my personality was excess and unnecessary. The feeling always came like a threat, but I let the silence eat away at me. This will uncover a well of authenticity from which you and others can drink.
Four: Exercise (preferably outside). Go outside as often as possible. Try to find a secret canyon/ desert/ forest place where you can sink into an earth that is still safe and beautiful and breathing, as much as we have tried to manipulate it. Let the realization grip you that you are precious as an ant (that is, infinitely, but still an ant), and that the world is complexly beautiful with or without you.
Five: Meditate more than you currently do. We grow up believing that there is only happiness, but this is a lie. There is only meaning. Spiritual practice is a form of alchemy. We give meditation and prayer the cheapest portions of our human experience and they are returned to us with a subtle glow of meaning. This is how our stories are woven. This is how we know who we are.
Six: Don't postpone happiness. This is all we are ever given: a present tense that we don't always earn or deserve. It often doesn't make sense. It is never "fair." But it is good. It sounds so simple as to be trite, but when it is digested, it feels like a wave breaking over you, washing you of past excuses. Try to find the seed of goodness in the present. Learn your lessons from the silence. Make the banal beautiful. And love those who have been given to you.
Sophie, Georg, and I will go to the canyon tonight, and tomorrow, we will move into our new home. It seems fitting that this should end at the close of a life chapter, at the beginning of a spring.