In college, I took a Community Art class in which we sang songs, constructed tiny boots out of clay, read Wendell Berry, painted a mural, learned about yin and yang from a man named Tai Chi Tony, made an ill-advised and half-hearted quilt, and talked a lot about a lot of things. It was one of those situations, I think, where I didn’t even realize at the time how truly I belonged right where I was. The space, the teacher, the things we talked about, who we all were at the time, it was the beginning of something in me, a piece of my growing up. A very discernable piece of my growing up. But, at the time I didn’t know that, I just knew that I was interested in Community Art and it was a class I looked forward to going to. (I’ve come to find that because everything was so lovely in college, I rarely realized just how lovely the loveliest things were. But now I do. Realize.) In the inside cover of my journal is written simply, “Where do we bend?” And, oh, that question reverberates now in a way it couldn’t when I was in college and all the questions were being collected and bouncing around with all the others like in an echo chamber. Now I’m just on the edge of myself and each question booms, loud and singularly, one at a time.
Where do we bend?
On the first day of class, our teacher, Leah (who is legitimately one of the world’s best humans), gave us the homework assignment to go home and journal a response to the question, “What is the good life?” We were to write our own response and also to ask two other friends and record their responses too. On that first day of class, I wrote down something Leah said, which was “Community Art is exploring how to spend your life.”
Oh, oh. More revelation. Retrospective, of course.
I went home and sat on the back porch of my campus house, newly minted for senior year, with my friend Annie, who I had asked to participate in my homework. I remember that we daringly decided to sit in the sun in our bikinis on the back porch, reveling in privacy, when all of a sudden a bunch of freshman-ish boys chose that moment to wander through our backyard. We became sheepish and giggly. But that’s neither here nor there.
My version of “What is the good life?” circa. senior year of college:
The good life is earl grey and a front porch and rain in the evening. It’s ancient prayers and beach towels and raspberry lemonade. It is making something and stepping back and saying, “I made that.” It’s food with friends and figuring out how to get up on the roof and layers of stars. It’s soda in glass bottles and pizza and wine with dinner sometimes. The good life is puns and how everyone laughs uniquely and books of plays and snow. It’s laying next to someone and you’re both almost asleep. It’s being warm. It’s a slight breeze. It’s knowing for sure. It’s kissing. The good life is very many pieces of very many things all muddled together. It’s very lovely things and very ugly things meeting somewhere in the middle. It’s average afternoons and raspberries. It’s having the best day ever. It’s weddings, it’s swimming. It’s chocolate cake and sailing and whole milk. It’s pie. It’s holding hands. It’s your childhood bedroom and a baby deer in the back yard. Pansies and iced tea. James Taylor and grocery shopping. It’s how you feel once you’ve stopped crying. It’s falling in love. It’s hymn-sings. It’s pine trees. The good life. Knowing what’s going to happen next and dancing. It’s stories. It’s blankets and skinny jeans and yoga. The good life means walking around and talking and eating and, most of all, paying attention. Or at least remembering sometimes. That’s what the good life is.
This is what I wrote then. I read it now and I understand it. It is beautiful to me because I feel it in myself. I wrote that. I hear my voice in it, my cadence, the things I hold close to myself. A lot of these things are still the good life to me, or pieces of it, at least. But there’s something else. Something else. When I read the list now, I read naivete. I read a version of me who had not yet lived in Chicago with her husband, who had not yet tried and failed to get hoped-for job after hoped-for job. A version of me who had not yet actually done battle with anxiety and depression, who was really quite young, who had no idea of what she wanted out of the whole of life. Who had not yet considered how fragile everything really is. Who had never really, really been afraid. Who had never even really had to yearn for the good life. A version of me who thought she knew what the good life was.
This whole thing, the whole “what is the good life” thing, came to my mind last week as I sat at the industrial sewing machine I’ve been using on the 18th floor of a building on Michigan Avenue. In my new job I sew canvas bags for a Chicago design firm. It’s a good job, the kind of job that I always sort of hoped I’d find for myself someday, sort of. I’m a part of a small team, the work is relatively interesting, I’m learning new skills all the time and becoming a better sewist, I’m getting paid money to sew, I don’t have to talk too much, I’m good at what I do. I should be thrilled.
I was sitting at my machine surrounded by the canvas satchels that I’ve been sewing six-at-a-time for the past week. My eyes were beginning to gloss over, my wrists aching from holding heavy fabric in place repeatedly for seam after seam, my butt hurting from sitting down for 8 hours at a time. What really came to my mind, instead of the pure question of “What is the good life?” was instead a statement, a declaration. “This is not the good life. This cannot be the good life.”
It’s amazing how quickly and eloquently I wrote the good life in college. I rattled off a list of life’s great pleasures like it was no trouble at all, no, none at all. Pine trees, tea, baby deer, average afternoons and raspberries. Today, I’m not so quick to define the good life. The good life now feels far more weighty, more important, almost life or death. The good life is something holy something terribly beautiful and elusive, something we all, all, deserve.
It terrifies me how much I want it.
Every morning I ride the bus with all the other people who ride the bus, and I almost always think, “What are we all doing here? Are we all okay?” I’m not sure what we are all doing here, in our long hours spent at jobs, in our sad stares out windows. I look at the people on the bus and I don’t see the good life. It feels quite far away as we all lurch our way to work, squished practically on top of each other, strangers, leaving home.
And then I sit at work and I yearn to go home, to be anywhere else, wasting time, free to do as I need or please (even if that means sewing, just on my own timetable). I yearn for the good life, which is something like some sort of freedom or contentment or safety. Something with sky and warmth and tree, something like something I’ve felt before on my calmest days, something like having a good teacher, like having a home, like being at home. I don’t know what it is, I can’t list it at all, but I yearn for it. My soul aches. Oh, far away continent. Oh, life everlasting. Oh, Jesus or spirit or burning bush or angel or whatever form it must embody today! Oh, milk and honey! Oh, promised land! Oh, wilderness! Dove with branch in its beak! Oh, myrtle trees in the ravine with horses all red and speckled and white! Oh, something far away and beautiful and true.
Oh, garden that belongs to me.
I wonder if I’m just soft, if it’s a character flaw of mine that a day at work (such a normal thing!!) feels so oppressive, that it squishes me and my spirit so flat. I fear that I’ve been ruined by the special spaces I’ve been allowed to inhabit, the special things I’ve been allowed to be a part of, the sips of heaven I’ve been privileged to drink. I fear, oh I fear, that my standards are too high, that I’ll never be satisfied by worlds that I am not allowed to create, to shape, that maybe I’m different than everyone else in a bad way. Or that maybe I’m not different than anyone and we are all actually the same amount sad all the time, to varying degrees of noticing. That we are all wandering far from the home we love, east of eden, waiting out our exile on the bus, eyes turned downward.
I know that it need not be this way! I know that there are people who love their jobs, whose lives feel just a little more free, a little closer to that elusive fullness we yearn for. I’ve lived that way before so I know that it’s real. I have dreams of how it could be for me. A handful of hours a day to quilt, a bunch of kids with Isaiah’s eyes and my cheeks, a kitchen window that looks out on a grove of trees or a meadow, a garden, a tomcat, trips to the grocery store, evenings on the front porch, things not too unlike the list I wrote down so easily before the good life felt so far off. I know that life is never easy, but I do know that it can be easier than how it feels when I’m on the bus. I do know that there are other ways to be.
I’ve been reading Franny and Zooey so slowly lately, savoring it, and carrying it differently now than I ever have before. It’s hitting me hard, deep in my gut. First Franny with her panic attack in the bathroom, her knowing exactly what she means and feeling so afraid, and now Zooey with his sharp cynicism, his fear, or maybe just knowledge, that he has been sort of ruined by specialness, by knowing that there are things in the world that are special and true and that most of life does not, can not, touch those things.
Anyway, as Zooey sits in the bathtub and he and his mother go back and forth, back and forth in their way, Mrs. Glass tells him, “You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.” This she says to her entirely special son, her son who is yearning for the good life so ardently, her son whose brother killed himself for want of the good life, whose sister has been mumbling the Jesus prayer for weeks for want of the good life, whose other brother has been writing and writing and writing, living alone in a cabin with hardly a working phone, trying to search through his family history for something somewhere near the good life, all of them who have touched it, tasted, it glimpsed it in Seymour, in Christ, in eastern Spirituality, in their very own souls. (If you haven’t read the Salinger canon, then I’m sorry that I’ve gravely lost you).
You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes, except that you have to if any piece of you wants any part of the good life. If any piece of you has any hope at all. When I fear that I’ve been ruined by tiny glimpses of holiness, by joy, then I realize that I have absolutely been ruined and perhaps it is the best thing about me. My yearning for something true amidst the long days in work that feels meaningless, my rejection of toil, my aching for the good life, my not knowing anymore what the good life is, my breathing of the Jesus prayer on the bus, my stealing extra minutes in the sun during my lunch break as if my life depends on it, my demanding that the future be different than the present. I’m holding onto my strong likes and dislikes, painful though that may be, ruined though it makes me. I’m demanding the good life, though it makes my long days of toil difficult sometimes. I’m refusing to shut down the part of me that yearns.
I don’t know what will happen. Sometimes I’m at my job and it’s really, sincerely not that bad! In just a few months Isaiah and I will be leaving Chicago and everything will change again, maybe for the very good but maybe also not. I’ve just spent a beautiful weekend with my husband, taking long sips together of the good life, feeling at home together, warm and safe. But tomorrow, I’ll climb onto the bus again and ride away from all that. I’ll go to work. In the moment, when I’m at my job and I feel trapped, it always seems that the solution is just to get out and find something else. But out of the moment I know that this is not the way to solve problems, to resolve the yearning that is underneath it all. I have responsibilities, work is work, not everything will always be fun or comfortable, all these things I know. Maybe I am just soft, spoiled, maybe you really can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes. Maybe the best thing to do is just suck it up and go to work. But I’m not sure that I buy that, at least not as a sentence for my entire life. There must be a way to live some sliver of the good life on earth. There must be. Maybe it will always be fleeting, maybe most of life from here on out will be encased in holy yearning, fiery and exhausting, full of long days at the industrial sewing machine (or insert other long-winded pointless-feeling thing to endure here), I don’t know. But I’m going to keep looking for it, fighting for the things I hope, making my quilts in my home where I feel safe and whole, feeling frustrated by flatness, by wrongness. I’m going to feel what I feel unapologetically, I’m going to tell people that love me when things are feeling hard, I’m going to let my likes and dislikes be stronger than ever. Because otherwise I don’t know who I am. Otherwise I’ll be nowhere at all, just riding the bus back and forth, sewing straight lines, passionless and complacent.
Where do we bend?
Pansies and iced tea. Pizza, puns, books of plays, and snow. And holy yearning, painful and needy and strong. Feeling weepy every day on the bus. Quieting my clamorous heart so as to make it through eight hours at a job I’m not sure about, not at all. I can handle it. I am strong enough for it, ruined though I am. I can maybe even call it good.
This essay can also be read on my other blog, Synchronized Swim, which also has other things I’ve written lately that haven’t found their way here. Just in case you’ve missed me. Still navigating what belongs here and what belongs there, so till I figure that out a little better, it may be worth it to bop between fairly regularly. Thank you, always, for reading.