The end of the book
I remember when I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was seven and starting a newspaper out of my bedroom, reporting on the activities of my pets and our neighbor. The former tolerated me and the latter didn’t. It was a good time, being that certain.
For a while, in the indeterminate teen years while many things outside were going wrong, everything inside fit just right, like Goldilocks’ bowl. My talents, faith, life path — I had a plan. I was sure where I was going and who I was.
The exact moment it fell apart isn’t clear to me. Perhaps it was about the time life started to look more conventional on the outside. I don’t know that the universe allows people to have too much convention at once — to be all together on the inside and on the outside.
In a way, that makes sense; if we have nothing left to pursue or perfect, what are we here for? Being slightly restless gives us purpose. It means there is still something to learn, someone to meet, a place to visit and a new skill to master.
Still, I miss my old certainty about things, especially my confidence in my own abilities and life choices. Today, many friends are parents, some of them twice over. I’ve never felt that specific calling (except to our cats, who still tolerate me) but sometimes I envy those who have found at least part of their purpose in being a parent.
We’re the same age, my friends and I, yet we aren’t. They’re responsible for another person’s life and well-being, and I can’t remember to take my library books back without ridiculous fines.
Most of us are just Googling and bluffing our way through the day, but some of us have a clearer map than others.
I have a good job with people I like, and hobbies I enjoy. I know my life is meaningful. Yet often I feel something lacking. There’s something else I’m supposed to be doing, but I can’t figure out what it is. I’m following someone who is always just around the corner from me on a path. I know they are important, but I can’t see who they are or where they are taking me.
Writers are blessed with a tendency to overthink and the urge to document it. It’s as old as human beings, this vacillation between doubt and confidence.
“Why did I write it down?” Joan Didion writes in her essay On Keeping a Notebook (1968). “In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all?
“Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up.
Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant re-arrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
Is being content a learned behavior, something to master like meditation or running? Is it a function of circumstance, something to be attained with enough security or wealth, or by a life marker like being married or being a parent? Or are some people simply more restless than others, driven to question, wonder and analyze, no matter what they have or where they find themselves?
I think it’s the latter, because I’ve seen restlessness pop up in people who should be content, and content people who have next to nothing.
So why write about this at all? Is there any value in such reflection and searching, other than accruing more uncertainty? Didion thinks so.
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.
Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
Maybe in five or ten years I will come back to this entry and realize I’ve discovered my life’s purpose — what it was all for, what I was truly supposed to be doing, what it meant.
I think many wiser people have gone their whole lives not knowing, not being sure of the end of the book, and that gives me some comfort. I may be only partway down the road now, but I know I’ve come far from who I used to be, and most of those changes have been good.
It’s okay not to have all the answers — to be content with a state of uncertainty. That doesn’t equal ignorance or fear — it means there’s room for more to happen. More room to listen, to be open for something we don’t yet realize exists. Maybe that was the point all along.
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.
The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.