I need to buckle down

Oh, to strike out bold­ly, suck­ing in deep ded­i­cat­ed draughts of knowl­edge and digest­ing rapid­ly and ener­get­i­cal­ly, then turn­ing and plac­ing with both hands, as far out into the world as I can reach, my own craft of words and think­ing. This is my goal, this my desire: to light a fire in my own bel­ly that will know no quench­ing, to burn with ideas, to labor long and fierce­ly into the night and before the sun ris­es, to be a schol­ar who admits no dis­trac­tion until his work is done. I want to punch myself in the face so hard I cry for a week at the ache of it, to slam my fist against weak flesh and bone and wake me up to the plow­man’s labor I need to have set my hand to years ago.

What? Yes, I want to be a writer, and I have many avenues of that craft that I want to chase my words down, herd­ing them like rabid preg­nant cats, cor­ralling them into the shape of sto­ries, his­to­ries, insights, and truth. We know how dear­ly I still want to tell my sem­i­nary sto­ries, the sto­ries of my jour­ney of faith and reli­gion, and noth­ing would bring me more sat­is­fac­tion than to see that project con­sum­mat­ed, per­fect­ed, and chas­ing around in search of a prof­itable avenue of pub­li­ca­tion. That day will come.

The now of my writ­ing, how­ev­er, is the now of my career — my voca­tion — in canon law. I have not emerged as a stun­ning schol­ar in this my cho­sen pro­fes­sion as of yet, and I rec­og­nize cer­tain sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tions that will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to bar me from the high­est flights of my field. But that does not mean that I have no con­tri­bu­tion to make, and if I can amend even one of those innu­mer­ate lim­i­ta­tions — my fail­ure to apply myself to my work — then I know that there is a depth to my God-giv­en skills and tal­ents that will tear a hole in the veil of obscu­ri­ty my habit­u­al indo­lence has drawn over my aca­d­e­m­ic years. No more of this. It is way past time to put to proof my asser­tion that I have been worth edu­cat­ing. It is time to emerge from the shad­ows where I have been laz­ing and throw my mono­grammed hat into the schol­ar­ly ring. It is time to read hard and heavy, and to pen some jour­nal arti­cles, like a boss.

And the hard­est part is going to be, with­out any doubt, shut­ting out the cycle of dis­trac­tion I have bur­rowed my metaphor­i­cal ass into over these past sev­er­al years. Yes, I mean Face­book, and Twit­ter, and LinkedIn, and Goodreads, and Tum­blr, and all the many, many dis­trac­tions that the on-line, plugged-in life I have embraced is built around. No, I don’t want to sev­er myself from any of those tools, for I believe they are tools both valu­able and need­ed. But they are also addic­tive, and my infat­u­a­tion with idle­ness has latched me deep into them, a latch I must break if I am ever to be weaned from the Mobius loop teat of social media to the harsh but health­ful rations of dis­ci­plined self-appli­ca­tion to my own men­tal and cre­ative work. (Ridicu­lous hash of metaphor, I know, but what­ev­er, you get my point.)

I know I can write. I know I can read. I know I can think. I do not know that I am able to sit down at a key­board or a writ­ing desk and just read through page after page of sources, com­pre­hend and syn­the­size their con­tents, and turn to put my own thoughts in an order­ly fash­ion upon a page. I do not know that I can hold myself to any task, I do not know that I can keep myself focused on any­thing that does­n’t have a “Like” but­ton attached to it some­where. But I want to believe that I can do these things, and since I have (for good rea­son) no more faith left in myself as a pro­duc­tive and ded­i­cat­ed per­former of any task, I have no path oth­er than actu­al­ly doing these things — and then doing them again, and again, and again: of con­vinc­ing myself and those I love that I can tru­ly car­ry myself for­ward into a tomor­row in which I star not as a dis­ap­point­ing lump, but as a vital and dri­ven artist and aca­d­e­mi­cian who does­n’t sit in dream of projects he would like to start, maybe some­day. I want to start being some­one who starts projects, tack­les them day after day, and com­pletes them. That is how dras­tic I want this to be.

Will we have a farm?

My fam­i­ly and I have spent a beau­ti­ful week­end on a work­ing “vaca­tion farm” in rur­al New York. Grow­ing up as I did in a almost-entire­ly agri­cul­tur­al region, the idea that city dwellers would pay good mon­ey to dri­ve sev­er­al hours out of the urban bus­tle so they can wake up ear­ly and feed some chick­ens is more than a lit­tle bizarre to me on the face of it. But, at the same time, I do kind of get it, too. I under­stand the invig­o­rat­ing appeal of the farm rou­tine, the close­ness to the land and the cycle of life, the seem­ing sim­plic­i­ty of it all. Hav­ing been a city-dweller myself now for near­ly half my life, I trea­sure great­ly the years of my youth, and I pray every day that I can some­how find a way to give my own fam­i­ly a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion before too many more years are flown.

But such an idyl­lic goal is not with­out min­gled trep­i­da­tion. I have a uni­form­ly poor track record so far with any­thing resem­bling adult respon­si­bil­i­ty, so I present a pret­ty shady prospect as a landown­er and ani­mal-ten­der. My wife has long shared this dream with me, and now she, too, won­ders anew how fea­si­ble it might real­ly be—whether we might not be aim­ing for more than we can handle—and that maybe the small town life might be close enough to the coun­try to sat­is­fy us: the social safe­ty of neigh­bors and pedes­tri­an acces­si­bil­i­ty to ameni­ties and com­merce instead of the pos­si­bly-risky bucol­ic soli­tude of our our home­stead. And we are speak­ing of safe­ty not from rov­ing bands of post-apoc­a­lyp­tic maraud­ers, but from our­selves, from the trou­bles that iso­la­tion can bring if embraced in quan­ti­ties too great to be han­dled. That, I think, is what we both most fear.

Is that suf­fi­cient rea­son to give up on milk­ing our own goats every morn­ing, send­ing the boys out to hunt for chick­en eggs, watch­ing the sun set over our pota­to patch? I don’t know. Our men­tal and emo­tion­al health, the integri­ty of our phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al lives, the respon­si­bil­i­ty of eco­nom­ic realities—these are big things to have to weigh. The months and years ahead shall be very inter­est­ing for us…

Running to win

What am I run­ning for?

I have real life goals now, for the first time since, well, ever. That’s not true, of course: I have had dreams my whole life, and at var­i­ous points they have even been real­is­tic ones. And there have been var­i­ous points where I felt that I could apply myself and work to make my dreams into real­i­ty. But it has been a while.

Now, after years of pon­der­ing and cop­ing and wait­ing for life to hap­pen to me in a good way (as dis­tinct from the bad way it seemed far more like­ly to hap­pen to me), I am on a path again, tak­ing steps, head­ing toward some­thing. The steps are errat­ic, often painful, and I have to con­tin­u­al­ly strug­gle to keep lift­ing one foot and plant­i­ng it a lit­tle in front of the oth­er. But I am doing so.

But it is not to soon to revis­it the why of my cur­rent efforts. Yes, I have pon­dered a life in canon law for years — off and on for over a decade now. I have felt it as a voca­tion, felt it as such in a way I nev­er real­ly felt a voca­tion to the priest­hood, despite years of try­ing. I have felt myself drawn to what I under­stand to be the pas­toral and min­is­te­r­i­al work that I am now prepar­ing myself to be a part of. And after years of stalling, of being afraid to take the first step, I have final­ly leapt. It is ter­ri­fy­ing, but it is also deeply exhil­a­rat­ing.

Per­haps too exhil­a­rat­ing. For the thrill of being on track after so much long­ing (and more-than-occa­sion­al despair of ever get­ting start­ed) has awak­ened an emo­tion I had for­got­ten I had any capac­i­ty for: ambi­tion. For if I am going to do some­thing, I wish to do it, not just well, or as well as I can, but as well as is pos­si­ble. I want to be a rock star in my cho­sen field.

But I am not alone on this jour­ney. I have dragged my young fam­i­ly along with me, uproot­ing them from what life and com­mu­ni­ty we had built, tak­ing them far from all our homes and loved ones. This has not been easy: in fact, it has been bru­tal­ly dif­fi­cult, threat­en­ing not only our phys­i­cal lives but our shared life and our future as a fam­i­ly. This is, as my wife point­ed out to me, pos­si­bly not too much to brave in the sup­port and pur­suit of my voca­tion, of my call­ing to serve the Peo­ple of God in a par­tic­u­lar, ful­fill­ing way. But it is too much to ask of them to under­go these tra­vails for the sake of human ambi­tion and careerism on my part.

This, I think, is a fair and just dis­tinc­tion to make. I am ask­ing much of those I love at this time, and the rea­sons for doing so can make a great dif­fer­ence in how intact we come through on the oth­er end of this test. I want to do well, but I want to do so with integri­ty, both in myself and in my rela­tion­ships. I want to have a enrich­ing and ful­fill­ing career in canon law and in the Church, but I want to do so with my focus on gen­er­ous ser­vice and the gra­cious use of my God-giv­en tal­ents. This does not rule out aca­d­e­m­ic and pro­fes­sion­al excel­lence, but it makes it con­tin­gent on per­son­al and voca­tion­al integri­ty. I think I can live with that.

I can’t really picture it…

But then, I can’t real­ly pic­ture any­thing. I have no visu­al imagery, no abil­i­ty to con­jure up at will an image of a face or a land­scape. I have no ‘mind’s eye’ with which to look at the world I remem­ber or imag­ine. As a writer this has steered me very strong­ly toward non­fic­tion, and while I don’t despair of ever writ­ing fic­tion, I accept that I will nev­er do so eas­i­ly or nat­u­ral­ly. While a blank inter­nal screen may not be an insur­mount­able cre­ative hur­dle, I am not going to jump off any pro­sa­ic build­ings to prove that I have fic­tion­al wings.

I was sev­en or eight years old when I first became aware that visu­al imagery was some­thing I was unable to do. I had decid­ed that ‘imag­i­na­tion’ meant the abil­i­ty to close your eyes and bring into view a movie of what­ev­er your mind could encom­pass. But when I tried it, all I saw after repeat­ed and stren­u­ous attempts was black­ness, or the warm dark glow of sun­light through my eye­lids, or bright flash­es of light if I pressed my fin­gers into the cor­ners of my eyes. Clear­ly, I was forced to con­clude, I had no pow­er of imag­i­na­tion.

This was a bit demor­al­is­ing for a young child, espe­cial­ly one whose mind is teem­ing with ideas that he is unable to recog­nise as imag­i­na­tion sim­ply because they do not fit into the def­i­n­i­tion that he has bound him­self to. But some­how I remained cre­ative despite the con­stant knowl­edge that I was lim­it­ed, defec­tive. There was­n’t much I could do about it, after all, so I guess I sim­ply accept­ed the fact and moved on as best I could.

It was there­fore an unlooked-for con­so­la­tion to learn, in 2001, that there was noth­ing wrong with me after all. In the fore­word to Patri­cia Lynne Duffy’s book Blue Cats and Char­treuse Kit­tens (a ground­break­ing work about a fas­ci­nat­ing con­di­tion called synæs­the­sia, which falls out­side the scope of this essay) the com­par­i­son is made to anoth­er men­tal phe­nom­e­non that puz­zled sci­en­tists a hun­dred years ago: visu­al imagery. Far from being the norm (as it appar­ent­ly is today, at least anec­do­tal­ly), it was a sub­ject of wide­spread increduli­ty until late in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry when new test­ing tech­nolo­gies final­ly made it pos­si­ble to con­firm that some per­sons could, indeed, pic­ture things at will.

This was tremen­dous. Visu­al imagery was not some­thing every­one could do; most peo­ple, per­haps, but cer­tain­ly not all, not his­tor­i­cal­ly. I was dif­fer­ent, per­haps, but not (clin­i­cal­ly) abnor­mal. If any­thing I was sim­ply reflect­ing a more lim­it­ed expo­sure to visu­al stim­u­la­tion (i.e. tele­vi­sion and movies) dur­ing my for­ma­tive years than many of my con­tem­po­raries, so that my thoughts were pri­mar­i­ly ver­bal rather than visu­al. (I have noth­ing beyond my ama­teur con­jec­ture to show there is any such cause-effect rela­tion­ship. But it is sug­ges­tive that in an age before ubiq­ui­tous visu­al media visu­al imagery was con­sid­ered a phe­nom­e­non, where­as now it is viewed as the norm.) And for the first time I began to talk with my friends about what I had always expe­ri­enced as my pri­vate fail­ing, to ref­er­ence it in con­ver­sa­tion or use it to explain that I some­times need­ed to approach prob­lems dif­fer­ent­ly because I was unable to see them in my head.

Peo­ple were puz­zled by this odd rev­e­la­tion that I could not do some­thing that all of them took for grant­ed, but after the ini­tial con­fu­sion most were accept­ing and intrigued. The excep­tion was my girl­friend at the time. In my expla­na­tion I gave her the exam­ple that I was unable to visu­alise her face, which she took to mean that I could not remem­ber what she looked like when she was not present. This was not strict­ly true: I could remem­ber what she looked like just fine; I just could­n’t pic­ture her the way that most humans, in both our expe­ri­ences, appar­ent­ly can do. I thought it mere­ly a rel­e­vant exam­ple, not a rela­tion­ship haz­ard. But it weighed heav­i­ly on her mind.

My mind is filled with lives and sto­ries — remem­bered and imag­ined — that I strive to bring to life on the page. Whether or not I can see faces and places in my mind, I can think and feel with per­fect alacrity. Emo­tions, reac­tions, opin­ions, mem­o­ries, hopes, con­cerns: these I have in abun­dance, and when I put ink on paper it is to turn my thoughts and feel­ings into writ­ten words. Sweep­ing fic­tion full of mag­nif­i­cent vis­tas is unlike­ly to flow from my pen; it is dif­fi­cult to make oth­ers see what I can­not see myself. I could strug­gle might­i­ly to over­come this hand­i­cap, but it does not feel worth it to me. When there are so many ways I can write, why should I fret over the ways I can­not? I can’t think of a rea­son any­more. Instead I fill the pen, turn to a clean page and press on with my task: writ­ing blind in the world of my imag­i­na­tion.

Where going?

Well, now what do I do? It is a new year, a year that will con­tain, among oth­er mile­stones, my son’s sec­ond birth­day, the fifth anniver­sary of my first date with the young woman who is now my wife, and the thir­ti­eth anniver­sary of my con­cep­tion.

Yes, time is fly­ing. In a year and a half I will turn thir­ty (30) years old. I had thought that my life would look dif­fer­ent at this point. I thought I would be strid­ing down a reward­ing, ful­fill­ing career path by now. I am not, and it is dif­fi­cult to move past tis glar­ing fact, dif­fi­cult not to stand still and stare in dis­ap­point­ment at my cur­rent pro­fes­sion­al state, dif­fi­cult not to dwell on the idea that it is my fault that I am where I am and that I am not where I think I want to be.

Is it my fault? Well, yes, I think it must be, to the extent that I have not done any­thing con­crete or deter­mined to change my sit­u­a­tion, to make any vague dream I might sup­pose myself to have into a real­i­ty, or even a like­li­hood. It is my fault to the extent that I am lazy, exhaust­ed, indo­lent, despon­dent, and it is my fault that I am these things to the extent that I do not move past them, do not push or drag myself to any­thing more close­ly resem­bling a life, the life I almost imag­ine myself liv­ing. It is my fault to the extent that I do not work to change any of these detri­men­tal states for the bet­ter. It is my fault to the extent that I irra­tional­ly reject, even resent, my wife’s attempts to help and/or moti­vate me to bet­ter my life and my self, until she is under­stand­ably ready to wash her hands of me.

But my life is not a bot­tom­less pit. I have a beau­ti­ful and end­less­ly exu­ber­ant young son who fills my life with heart­break­ing joy. I have a won­der­ful and beau­ti­ful wife who still tries to love me, who still attempts to believe in me and my poten­tial despite all my unin­ten­tion­al efforts to prove to her that I am not worth believ­ing in. I have a job that is pay­ing me well enough to live, and to live bet­ter than I had thought pos­si­ble a year ago. We are feel­ing eas­i­er about our finan­cial sit­u­a­tion than we have since I robbed my wife of all the trust she had placed in me by my well-inten­tioned fis­cal mis­man­age­ment. And thanks to unfore­seen gen­eros­i­ty from fam­i­ly mem­bers we will prob­a­bly be buy­ing a car ear­ly in the new year, and a new bed, and con­tin­ue to work our way out of debt.

And con­tin­ue to work our way toward a life that pleas­es us, that inspires us, that ful­fils us. Part of the prob­lem is that my wife can imag­ine such a life, and I can­not. She can imag­ine build­ing a future step by step; I can only see how very far we are cur­rent­ly from where we want to be.

Which means I waste a lot of time and ener­gy dream­ing idly of a ‘quick fix’ to allow us to jump over all the inter­me­di­ary steps I can­not imag­ine straight to the goal. So I day­dream about sud­den­ly becom­ing ‘finan­cial­ly inde­pen­dent’ (i.e. win­ning the lot­tery or some­thing of the kind) or land­ing a ‘dream job’ that instant­ly fix­es all our cur­rent tra­vails and allows my soul to sing in sev­er­al octaves at once.

I long for some such deus ex machi­na to lift us into a life that allows us the space to feel hap­py, to feel alive. I am almost cer­tain that we are capa­ble of such hap­pi­ness, if only we had the chance…

But we do have the chance, every day. I just don’t see it, because I am too lost in a) feel­ing sor­ry for myself; b) feel­ing ashamed of how dis­ap­point­ing­ly inad­e­quate I have proven as a hus­band and provider; c) feel­ing cer­tain that we would be just fine if only we nev­er had to wor­ry about mon­ey ever again; or d) sleep­ing.

How can I effect any pos­i­tive change in this pathet­ic sit­u­a­tion? Well I real­ly don’t believe that I can, but I also believe that might just be the depres­sion talk­ing. So what, then?

Well, I need to work at this life thing — steadi­ly and ener­get­i­cal­ly. I need to work at my, um, job search, not for five min­utes at a time every week or three, but seri­ous­ly, with com­mit­ment, deter­mi­na­tion, and an earnest desire to take back what mod­icum of con­trol I can rea­son­ably expect to exert over this life I am per­mit­ted, graced to be liv­ing. And then I need to place the rest in God’s hands, but not with the expec­ta­tion that He will mirac­u­lous­ly pluck me out of my milieu and instant­ly make my trou­bles van­ish. Rather, I need to rely on God to give me strength and grace to per­se­vere. I need to allow myself to be refined and per­fect­ed, and to allow myself to to be shown the way. And then I must have the courage and for­ti­tude to walk along what­ev­er path I am shown.

But all this is so much talk. I am weak-willed, sloth­ful — both phys­i­cal­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly — and with­out pur­pose. Does this sit­u­a­tion seem very like­ly to change? Or more to the point: do I seem like a per­son who can effect any such change? There is sure­ly no evi­dence, no eye­wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny to sup­port any claim to this like­li­hood.

I know I don’t believe I can do it. And this strikes me as a bit of a stick­ing point that I can’t quite fig­ure a way around. If I don’t believe I can change, am I very like­ly to sur­prise myself? So how do I go about chang­ing my view of myself (for the bet­ter of course!) in order to allow myself the con­fi­dence to actu­al­ly improve my abil­i­ty to live life? I don’t know.

My wife very much wants me to read Whole Child, Whole Par­ent by Pol­ly Berrien Berends— a book she swears by — which I am very will­ing to do; I just have not yet got­ten into it, and I don’t real­ly get much read­ing time these days, espe­cial­ly not suf­fi­cient to accom­mo­date a text that takes some ener­gy to engage. So it remains unread by me, and my wife believes that I don’t want to read, and by exten­sion that I do not want to learn how to improve my life.

I need to reëstab­lish a rela­tion­ship with the Divine, and I have need­ed to do this for sev­er­al years now. I am not con­fi­dent that I can do this on my own, but I am also com­plete­ly at a loss as to where to turn for spir­i­tu­al guid­ance. I know it is out there for me, I just haven’t yet looked hard enough or in the right places to find what I need.

So I sup­pose it could be done: I could work hard and con­vert my life into a life I could be proud of, a life that felt worth liv­ing. With God’s grace I could find the focus and ded­i­ca­tion nec­es­sary to change my out­look and revi­talise my mode of liv­ing (modus viven­di). Will I? I have to want to, and I want to want to, but I still lack the con­fi­dence to believe in my abil­i­ty to suc­ceed at any­thing that mat­ters. If I can change that about myself, then I think it will not be so impos­si­ble to change could into can. And then I can real­ly start to get some­where.