6.11.2007

אי מזה באת ואנה תלכי [or] What have I been doing with my life for the past 5-10 years and where will I eventually end up?

The title comes from the first half of the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter of Genesis, where God asks Hagar, Sarah's maid and Abraham's second wife, after she has fled before Sarah's wrath:
ח וַיּאמַר, הָגָר שִׁפְחַת שָׂרַי אֵי-מִזֶּה בָאת--וְאָנָה תֵלֵכִי 8 And he said: 'Hagar, Sarai's handmaid, whence camest thou? and whither goest thou?'
I feel like I have been asked these questions a lot over the past few days. My tenth high school reunion1 and fifth college reunion both took place this weekend, conveniently enough in the same geographical area.

I had mixed feelings about these reunions, which mostly arose from my discomfort at having to answer: "From where have you come and where are you going?" I suspected that even those college classmates who did not "always know" what they wanted to be or do or where they wanted to go2, had figured it out five years after graduation and were well on their ways to having a career. Along the same (or perhaps opposite) lines, a majority of my high school classmates are engaged or married and some have a kid or two.3 The point is, these people are going somewhere. They have career paths or at least general life paths. They know where they want to be or what they want to be doing in five years.

I, on the other hand, do not. Yes, I have a job, thank God, but it ain't no career. Once in awhile, it is truly rewarding, but not on a daily or weekly basis. Not even on a monthly basis, come to think of it. I'm pretty good at what I do and once in a rare while someone tells me so. The job has some nice perks--a lot of vacation time, a flexible work schedule, health insurance (though no dental--what's up with that?), and a monthly subway pass paid for with pre-tax dollars. The clients I deal with at work seem to love me. I am not looking to leave.

I don't really know why I am satisfied with this uninspired state of being, but I guess I am or else I would do something to change it. Mostly, I think it's that don't know what I would want to do that would be better. I mean, I have thoughts and interests--I like reading and talking about a wide variety of topics--but I have no specific plans to do anything with these myriad interests right now.

Any field I end up in has to support some degree of creativity. It should probably involve research and writing, since I enjoy both of those things. I like synthesizing information. I'm interested in public health, watching little kids play and figure out how the world works, education, how the way we live affects both our external and internal environments, other people's letters and diaries, suicide prevention, effective communication, urban infrastructure and planning, preventing and/or prosecuting child and spousal abuse, social history, legal history, recycling, gender, Jewish texts (especially legal texts), and probably a lot of things that I've forgotten. I don't love any one or two of these things to the exclusion of others such that I would want to go to school and pursue some sort of career involving a narrow sliver of these interests. I accept that I will probably need to go back to school to be known for something other than being a damned good Word and Excel formatter (two of my current areas of expertise at work). Ideally, I would like never to have to wear uncomfortable shoes to work. I'm quite scared of math, although I seem to have some aptitude (but no proficiency) for it. I suspect that I would enjoy being in charge of something, although probably not enjoy being in charge of someones. I would like to always be able to pay my bills fully and on time, and to have money left over for tzedakah and travel. I would prefer not to have a boss, or perhaps to have a very, very good boss who was actually good at inspiring people and managing them. Is all of this possible? You've got me.

Moving onto other areas, because surely I do not and hope never to define my entire being by my work, what do I do besides work? During the week I mostly read the newspaper, do laundry, eat dinner, or go grocery shopping. On weekends, I sometimes catch a movie, shiur/panel/lecture, museum exhibit, performance, or party. I like to come home at night and blog or talk to my sister or friends on the phone. Sometimes I chill with my aunt or grandmother. I go on a date once in awhile, when someone who is intelligent and nice comes along. (When I'm in a relationship, as sometimes happens, I go on dates more than once in awhile.) Sometimes I make a big pot of brown rice to serve as the basis for my lunches for the week. When I'm feeling responsible, I file the backlogs of paper/mail that seem to accumulate with astonishing speed on all horizontal surfaces of my room. Sometimes I just collapse into bed and sleepily flip through the ever-present Macy's sales circular, idly wondering who in God's name spends $1500 on a diamond ring.

My not-too-exciting life has allowed me to spend a lot of time with my grandmother in California, as well as weekends with friends in other cities. I've gotten back into creative writing through this blog and my journal. I walk through Central Park every day and marvel at the cycle of nature. I've managed to make a few wonderful new friends (people who get me, support me, enjoy hanging out with me [and vice versa], people I can talk to about almost anything) and remain close to old ones. The little children in my life look forward to my visits and I adore buying small gifts for them. Sure, I've been working on learning Masechet Makot with BZ for far too long (i.e., we should have finished awhile ago), but I feel good that we've been more consistent lately and are set to finish it soon(ish).

Sometimes I feel like I should "go out" more, but then I remember that I am spending my time mostly the way that I want to, not the way other people enjoy spending their time. I would much rather have a chill dinner at a yummy Japanese restaurant with a good friend than go out to a movie with a few acquaintances. At the end of a day of work, I would much rather read the Science Times than shlep downtown and pay $15 to hear someone speak. I love hearing live music at small venues, but it usually needs to be someone whom I've heard and think is good (or someone recommended by someone else) for it to be worth my money and time.

I guess my life might seem a little bit boring and uninspired to others and sometimes even to me, and I wasn't entirely looking forward to sharing last weekend with other people who have led what I imagine to be fantastic, exceptional, inspirational, or merely procreative or lucrative lives since I last saw them. The people I went to college with, especially, all seem to have either gone and gotten themselves more edumacated4 or gone to Africa to help the poor or started their own businesses.

Reading over how I spend my nights and days here, it doesn't seem so bad to me. I don't know why I feel bad about all of this sometimes. I'm sure it seems quite restful and lovely to anyone who is in the throes of early parenthood's sleepless nights and dirty diapers. I think it's partly a matter of expectations produced by television and movies of the charmed lives that some people live in New York, combined with only seeing the superficial outsides of most other people's lives. If I could walk around seeing other people's small unhappinesses and disappointments the way that I see my own, I think I would feel less dissatisfied with where I am and how I live my life right now. Fortunately or unfortunately, we are mostly privy only to our own minor miseries.

In the end, though, I had a very nice time at both reunions. I found that some of the more emotionally unpleasant memories of elementary and high school (see "Embracing the Nerd Within") and college (see college transcript) have dissipated, leaving lots of warm fuzzies in their place.5 I called up a high school English teacher who was delighted to hear from me. I ran into many nice people who I failed to keep in touch with after college. I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me.

In talking to everyone about what we had done since we last saw each other, I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that nobody was doing anything so spectacular that it made me think, "I wish I had that life" and nobody was doing anything that I couldn't more or less decide to do also, if I wanted to. (And, really, there's little point of being jealous of people who are doing things that I don't actually want to do, is there?) I mean, yes, there is something enviable about people who have already gone to graduate school and finished or are about to finish, but through conversations at my college reunion, I realized that many of those people still don't really know what they're doing or what they want to do. Going to school was mostly a way to buy time for them. Now they owe lots of money and still don't know what they want to do. And while there is certainly something envious about high school classmates who are married or engaged--I am at the point of my life when I would like to meet someone worthy of marrying--it would have to be to the right person. I figure that he must be pretty special if I haven't found him yet. And, sure, people's babies are cute, but if I had a baby right now, I would be no closer to figuring out what I ultimately want to do (I mean, besides having kids, which I already know that I want to do) and I would be responsible for another human being on top of that. (And I would be getting less sleep, and puked on more.) And while one baby at twenty-seven seems somewhat desirable, I have high school classmates who have three children, and I am absolutely sure that I am not ready for that stage yet.

All in all, the weekend made me less envious6 of the generic "other" and happier with my own humble lot. I didn't expect that outcome at all. I know that I'll figure out where I want to go one day, and when I do, I'll go there. Until then, I'm happy7 right where I am, heading nowhere in particular but not satisfied to be staying still, leaving open the possibility that I might go anywhere at all.

That said, the realization that I can frame my life as going anywhere rather than going nowhere is sometimes only small consolation. From the ages of, I dunno, five to twenty-two, I always knew exactly where I was going and why. My expectation has always been that I would go to college and then to graduate school. If I wanted to take some time off in between, fine, but of course I would going back and do something great with my life.8 The past five years have not gotten me substantially closer to figuring out what I want to do with my life, other than to be self-supporting and to spend time doing things I enjoy. They have, however, brought me somewhat closer to figuring out how I want to live my life.

I certainly haven't been stagnant. I've undergone personal growth in leaps and bounds and professional growth in little, hesitant skips and hops. Looking back, it's clear that I've come quite far since I was 22, and even farther since I was 17. I'm a much happier person, with better relationships with friends and family, than I was five years ago, even without planning it that way. Given how things have gone over the past ten years, I'm banking on knowing where it is I've gone and where I've come from once when I get there, and that's good enough for now.

How would you choose answer the question, "Whence camest thou? and whither goest thou?"

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1. The school that I graduated 12th grade from was K-12, and I was there from 3rd grade through 12th grade, so these were more than just people I went to school with for four years.
2. "Always know" is in quotes because I generally distrust people who have known what they wanted to be since third grade. It suggests to me that they are stuck in a certain mindset, or only want to do what their parents did or what their parents expected them to do, and that they haven't considered the myriad alternative fields they might excel at. Most of these people who know exactly what's what seem to end up as doctors or lawyers. Those who don't know or aren't sure become bankers. This is probably only the particular experience that I have had at the rarified institution from which I received my "AB," but there you have it. Ugh.
3. Or three, in one case.
4. Here [PDF] is an academic paper about "Homeric infixation" for those of you unfamiliar with this grammatical construct.
5. The only thing that bothered me was some reminiscing that went on amongst some male high school classmates about people they used to make fun of. Sorry, I didn't think it was funny in 5th or 12th grade, and I don't think it's funny now. And, yes, I know I am a party pooper.
6. This is not a new problem for me. Now I'm mostly jealous of people who have spouses and careers. As a kid, I was mostly jealous of people who had more money. In all cases, it turns out that there is no guarantee that such people are happier than I am.
7. Fine. Who am I kidding? Amend to read: "trying to be happy" or "working at being happy." I am actually a firm believe that the happiness that you work for is just as valuable, or maybe more valuable, than the happiness that just falls into some people's laps.
8. Before my maternal grandfather died, the main piece of advice that he bestowed upon me personally was to go back to graduate school before too long. He waited until he had three children and that was very difficult.

1 comment:

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

yay for homeric infixation!
(someone had to say it)