Last year, I let go of a goal that no longer seemed important enough, or certain enough, for the strain it caused me to long for it.
The goal was far too specific, really, and relatively few who try will achieve it: I wanted to be a self-sufficient, day-job-free, well-paid and traditionally published author of novels. Unfortunately, after twelve years of trying, it wasn’t happening, and the angst of wanting it so much and not knowing how to reach it was, in popular self-help terminology, not working for me. The angst was exhausting, and the writing wasn’t fun anymore. It hadn’t been fun for years, but all the writing books tell you that’s just how it is so I didn’t question it.
I wrote a manifesto one year that I titled, Angsty? Read This. I wrote it (and update it) to help me return to center – to remind me what really matters, what I care about, who I want to be. When I let go of the very specific, full-time author dream above, I revised the writer part of my manifesto to this: Write when you feel like it. That’s definitely not in the writing books. God forbid I “wait for my muse” or write when I’m in the mood instead of putting my butt in a chair at exactly the same time each day and with a certain number of words as a goal.
It seemed risky to give myself so much reckless permission around the thing I thought I cared about the most, but I did it anyway. I write when I feel like it. I’m not getting a novel published any time soon with that philosophy, but I’m a much happier person. I love writing again. I remember it as the thing that “keeps me from wanting to jump off a bridge” as Austin Kleon says in his post about doing art for the joy of it. That’s where I live now – un-miserable at work, happy in life, still writing, and barely striving for anything.
What do I do instead of striving? I try to like the day. That’s it. It’s all I wanted anyway. I wanted to choose what I did in the day, how I spent my hours, what I got paid for. I don’t get paid to write books like I wished at one time, but I’m pretty okay with what I do get paid to do. I still write, but I do it here or in my journal or occasionally on a novel manuscript I haven’t totally abandoned yet. I write what I want when I feel like it, for the not-jumping-off-a-bridge (joy) of it.
What I strive for now is delight. I ask myself what I can bring to the day, and I notice what to savor. Recently, while thinking about how much happier I am with this new goal, I worried about all the years before and how much time I spent striving too much to delight. Then, I remembered these guys – the three beautiful boys who’ve been saving me from myself from the moment the first one was born.
I thought about the tee ball, flag football, baseball, basketball, and football games at which I had no role except to be there. You can’t fight against the day job or strive for a writing career at a tee ball game. I dare you to try. You can’t become somebody in the blogosphere, on social media, or in publishing while counting first graders to make sure everyone gets the same number of plays in a flag football game coached by dads. You can’t do anything at a 98-degree baseball field but sit, cheer, sweat, and try not to notice how much sandlot you’re wearing on your bare arms and legs.
I’m so grateful for those sweaty days, those 9-year-old pitchers, throwing all the walks to create the longest sporting events in history. I’m so happy I had nothing to do but be there.
I’m so grateful for the football games where I didn’t know enough to hope they veered or blocked or beat the secondary – only enough to hope for that next first down, pass, catch, run, or tackle that would let me hear the beautiful sound of one of my children’s names over the loud speaker.
At basketball games, I was a little more in my element. I love everything about that sport – the sounds, the grace of a good zone defense, a no-look assist. I invented a chant once because I thought how funny it would be to hear rowdy teenagers yelling something surprisingly polite. A friend of John’s added it to the student section’s repertoire, and one glorious night I got to hear a section full of his peers shout my chant, “We re-spect-fully disagree,” after John had been charged with a foul. The referee laughed. I beamed.
It was a thousand moments or more, a thousand moments my boys got me to stop striving and just enjoy the show. A thousand times I managed to be present and feel delight, and I will never forget them.
I won’t forget what they looked like when they won.
I won’t forget what they looked like the night they had lost so much that winning brought them to their knees.
I don’t like to remember the few times I couldn’t be there, but I’m so proud of how very often I was.
It’s not just the sports, either. There were a hundred other things. Do you know how hard it is to get a good picture of a second grade play in a gymnasium? The lighting is terrible in a gym. What you get instead is being there and seeing them perform without a lens between you.
As they got older, the school plays became Browadway productions. I cried at more choir concerts than I can accurately remember. You can’t worry about your writing career when you’ve had a rough work day (or week or year) and your son and his peers sing “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord”. It’s not possible.
When Jake first joined the yearbook years, with all the risers and Saturday games, he learned You Are My Sunshine for a preschool concert and practiced it so often that he began switching genres and singing it around the house in rap or hard rock versions of his own making. The night they performed it, they did an entire verse with KAZOOS and I thought I would die from the sheer, unadulterated delight.
This I know: I had too much angst as they grew up. I was far too focused on striving, but I wasn’t any of these things with them. I was enchanted. I was undivided.
They saved me from myself again and again and again.
I love them for it.
I’m so grateful for the delight.