The temptation when it comes to sharing socially is to distribute only the best moments, to bring out the brightest spots. A study a few years ago showed a correlation between the number of hours spent on Facebook and the level of personal dissatisfaction. Central to the findings was that most everyone only shares the good moments, leaving us with a sense that so many around us have amazing lives while the rest are, more or less, stuck at home struggling with the things we struggle, feeling alienated despite the continual and overwhelming connectivity with which we have grown accustomed.
There are certainly those who are able to pursue exciting and enjoyable experiences. I, for one, live in a wonderful city with seemingly limitless opportunities. I’ve gotten to see many of my favorite people and explore new places and hobbies. But this isn’t life, its just one part. The good and the bad, sweet and savory are just as important as are the things we take away from them.
So with this long post (don’t get scared), I want to pursue a year from a few angles. Rather than highlights, here’s what each month meant as I thought back to the time period.
But before we jump into the meaning, here’s a quick overview in numbers to set the context.
A Year in Numbers
Of the 8,760 hours I had available 2,500 were spent sleeping, 2,200 working, and a shocking 425 spent online outside of work. I read 56 books and 76 magazine issues, watched 47 movies and 14 series (view complete list here with each movie, book, and show listed). I walked or ran 3,175,000 steps – roughly 1,642 miles (estimated based on daily averages, thanks to FitBit), climbed 1,800 ft of rock gym wall, and spent 38 hours in the water surfing or another activities.
But those are just numbers, building blocks in the same way a painting is more than simply a list of colors used.
A Year in Meaning
The Aboriginals of Australia use paths and songs to move from one part of a desolate landscape to the next, guiding people across thousands of miles. This practice of singing Songlines, as they are called, is, according to their tradition, more than the means of knowing where they are and actually the means by which the universe is continually created. It is required that the Songlines be uttered as they walk from place to place, as their very reverberations summon the world into order: they didn’t just walk, their very walk was the act of creation, and it is up to them to, each year, create the world in which they exist.
In January I became unemployed. The reasons are unimportant. Just know that one week I was employed and the next I was sitting in a coffee shop freelancing while determining what would come next. I felt optimistic, enthusiastic. I had something new in mind and I went after it.
In February my grandmother died and it was remarkable. For some time her memory had failed her and she had grown very old. She was not sure who anyone was, and the last time I saw her she mistook me for her husband who passed away some 27 years earlier. My parents, sister, and I along with two uncles and a cousin sat close to her through the night and early morning as she passed. Earlier the previous day she remembered so much, suddenly. She looked at images of her high school and recognized friends. She got a smile on her face when we each walked in, knowing who we were. She passed from this world the way I hope to one day, surrounded by those who love her, at the end of a long life, warm and at peace having spent the last few days with a lifetime of memories.
I knew her, this woman lying there. And part of me wanted to believe the way I was raised and brought up regarding what came next for her.
Part of me looks at the end as lights out.
Another sees the end as a stillness on the water after a rain. Or to say another way, we are energy moving from one place to the next, like cosmic waves cresting and shifting into whatever we touch.
In traditional Japanese culture a baby is born from the condensing of water in one spot, like energy, that brings life.
In March I began working again, this time at what I hoped to find when we moved to San Francisco 5 years ago: an exciting job in tech at a company I could stand behind. Nearly every day is a good day.
Work is an interesting thing. Do you find meaning in work or find a job that’s meaningful? What of the people picking coal for 40 years? What will I think of where I am today in say 20, 30, 40 years? In one sense work is an action. In another it is personal meaning.
In April I again started attending a Zen meditation group after too many months away and also turned 34. Thirty-freaking-four. For me it is the age I could not imagine not too terribly long ago. I remember being 17. It was half a life ago. It was only a few years, I could swear. It was only a few heartbreaks, a dozen moves, a career, some successes and failures, and a decade of marriage ago.
In one state we have a story. In another meaning behind the story. And lastly there is meaning in the reader retelling their own story quietly as they read that of another. I share my age and you perhaps feel the weight of your years or the lightness of youth. Perhaps you immediately thought back to 34 and the freedom of that year. My thirties has been when things started getting good, personally. I started having these moments of awakening, where I see “myself as I am, not as I’d like to be,” as Fellini’s central character in 8 1/2 also discovers.
Being a human is complicated. We certainly bring good and bad to a situation. And that is, perhaps, part of our charm. I’m told that Natives of the southwest US would intentionally leave a blemish in their woven rugs, believing that it was only in the imperfections that the spirit could enter. Without the blemish, where is the soul?
I don’t remember too much about May after a lovely trip to visit family in North Carolina. But that’s ok. This year was about creating space. Interestingly, space isn’t empty in time or even a vacuum. Space isn’t emptiness, its just open. Ironically, even the very atoms that make up our physical bodies are mostly comprised of space.
I find that I like being alone. Not all the time, but an interesting discovery this year is that I am, in fact, either an introvert or right on the line. I need as much alone time as I do in interaction. And when I don’t purposefully take it, I inadvertently take it anyway.
June… A tough month, in retrospect. At the request of another I will not say why, but this was a challenging, difficult, frustrating month.
A trauma will cause the mind to want to dig in or run. Fight or flight. I dig in closer to Michal and meditation. Anxiety, that feeling of unknown, is like a third person in the room, always present.
The Bhagavad Gita says the mind is an enemy to those who do not control it. To control is not to force but to learn a different way.
Think of the mind as a network of train stations. A three year old has over 1 quadrillion synaptic connections. For every new behavior or pattern, how many stations must redirect?
Distraction. All the time. How many times have I wandered to email during the writing of this post? In July I thought more about the inevitability of my own demise. Don’t think I’m depressed, dear reader. Far from it, in fact. But it is a fact that is not easy to grasp with. We see it happen to others but can not imagine what we have not experienced. So we live in a state of limbo, researchers say. There is a field of science dedicated to these findings. They study terror management theory and suggests that society, culture, art, literature… nearly all human endeavors are a way of distracting ourselves from the reality of our own limited lifespan.
The Greeks were ahead on this. “I gave them hope, and so turned away their eyes from death” the myth of Prometheus tells us.
Which, in a strange way, leads back to the subject of legacy. What will be remembered? I have digested a number of biographies by this point in the year. A biography worth reading is not the story of someone deciding to play it safe and sit tight. Generally they are written about those who have stepped out from status quo, due to necessity or personality - or both. But a common theme was the conquering of a tragic flaw. This is present in every biography I have read. To succeed is to overcome a significant limitation.
Rough Rider and energetic president Theodore Roosevelt had severe asthma. I don’t think the soldiers he led into war would have guessed.
Manhattan Project lead and overall brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer had a number of flaws. He once tried to poison a professor.
Abraham Lincoln was severely depressed and even suicidal as a youth.
In August Michal and I celebrated 10 years. A decade. We spent a few days in Sedona, AZ. I look back and can not remember each day. They came and went and here we are. The emphasis is on we. What a strange concept. Sometimes we look at each other and are amazed to be separate people and see that other person in the familiar we see each day.
At one moment we opened the top on our rental car parked in the middle of nowhere, turned off the lights, and stared at the Milky Way.
Lets just handle September-October together. I learned to surf, spending time in the water as much as I could. There is a rhythm to the water. It rises, it falls. On slower days I’ll just bob up and down, floating in the water with my feet dangling in the ocean. This is water that has made its way across the world and back countless times. Each molecule has been a part of plant and animal many times over. It is as though the earth is one organism, and each of us a part of the whole.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” - John Muir
November finds us building up to the end. One morning I found my self drinking tea at at a Vietnamese restaurant, flipping through a book of poetry by the Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska. And then I begin to walk. I walk for 13 miles around San Francisco, unexpectedly. My feet begin to move and I see thoughts come and go with the rhythm of feet moving forward, landing with predictable regularity. Walking is a joy. And when alone my walk is fully mine. Each step is a speed and feeling fully unique to me and that moment. Walking is remarkable. In the feet alone are over 100 muscles, 26 bones, and 33 joints pulling together to make each step. There is nothing less than miraculous about the act of self propelled motion.
December can be very lonely. We did not travel, we stayed in San Francisco. Even though we are on the same continent, friends and family can seem very far away. When flying across the country I lose sight of the number of feet that separate us. How many steps would it take to move from where I am to where you are?
I thought for many commutes about this year and what it has meant. This is a rather amazing ability we possess as humans: we get to create a story out of events. I get to look at this year and create meaning from the rather disparate pieces that happen in real time. I get to interpret moments as a series of events rather than independent situations. I know what happened, what might still happen. And like a shaman I might peer down into the stack of sticks and pull some piece of truth from the arrangements.
But instead I will say, with great confidence, that this year I was able to be alive. I felt and worked and supported and traveled and ate and drank and walked and talked and drove and read and listened and spoke and built and tore down. And next year I get to do it again. This is my simple Songline.