Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bonfire of the vanities

The school holidays are here, and my workload has dipped down to part time. For the last month, my imagination has been leaping forward into this mystical neverland where all my most utopian dreams will be realised and my everlasting school holiday to-do list (which could be titled: Things That Are Not Work) will be fulfilled, every last item.

(The devil on my shoulder is laughing sardonically. You can guess how things have played out).

Nevertheless -- and we are one week into the holidays now, so I speak as an older, jaded realist -- today I broke one of the leviathan tasks on my list down into a manageable chunk. "Declutter my house, clean everything, and become one of those minimalists whose flats look fashionable and welcoming, not coldly Spartan" became, "Let's go through the files in that one cupboard under the desk."

The Files turned out to be fourteen trees' worth of printouts from my uni days. Short stories, literary theory, analyses of spiritual themes in everyone from Tolkien to Terry Pratchett, academic readings on the women of Sparta, the mechanics of dialogue, philosophy of history, Australian editorial standards, Immanuel Kant, the Bible as poetry, examinations of grief in children's literature, more, more, more. All of it sounded wonderful. All of it called out for full immersion (Drop Everything And Read was something my primary school teacher instituted and I often wish it applied to adult life). And all of it swept me into an intense state of wistfulness.

Looking at this mound (a literal mound; I took pictures) of learning, this living, breathing, inspired stack of thought, made me feel a stranger to myself. It's only been a few years, but it feels as though I don't know the Danielle who studied, who wrote academically every day, who rolled words around in her head and on her tongue and tasted for the right one. She seems more intelligent than me, and with a significantly longer attention span. She followed thoughts through from their inception to their conclusion. She had ideas. She had opinions. She dreamed. She actually expected that future Danielle would have the time to reread thousands of pages of handouts.

I had to trash those mounds of magic and mystery, and part of me felt proud of my practicality as well as appreciative of the cupboard space I'd generated. But another part of me felt like I was trashing the Danielle who once was, the girl who dreamed and wrote and had big ideas -- the girl I worry I'll never be again.

It would have been satisfyingly symbolic to make a small bonfire and let those pages burn to ash and float off on the air. It appeals to my sense of drama, and isn't there a symbolic bonfire in every great coming-of-age story?

Instead, though, I dumped them into the recycle bin -- which perhaps carries a greater symbolism. Those pages are going to be remade and turned into something new, just as former Danielle is constantly being remade and turned into something new, just as you are being remade and turned into something new. I'm reminded of the biblical 'to everything there is a season,' and the reality that although autumn turns to winter and spring turns to summer, autumn comes around again, every year.

Just now, I'm looking back at the student life with longing for the constant intellectual feast. But back then, I looked forward to being employed and actually moving into what I saw as legitimate adulthood. My friends with little ones might once have looked achingly forward to having children, but now, in the endless cycle of feed, clean up, repeat, they look back with nostalgia on the days when their schedule was their own and they could fix a quick meal at 10pm, if they wanted to. The friend who was once desperate to travel the world would now give anything to feel at home somewhere, while the friend whose struggling health keeps her at home thinks back to the teenager who would go anywhere, do anything, at the drop of a hat.

What am I saying? That there is no joy in this world that comes without a cost? Not really, though perhaps that has some truth. Nothing will ever be entirely whole in a world that is broken.

I think what I am scrabbling to articulate is that we keep all those selves inside of us, the selves that once were and the selves we are today, so that the experiences we had then become part of who we are now. Which means that nothing is lost forever. Those former selves are not gone just because life has moved on. Instead, we grow and are shaped by our experiences. Even though we are not where we once were, it doesn't mean that "once" was wasted. And because we don't know the future -- wonderful, terrible truth that this is! -- we don't know just when winter will turn to spring and we will get to experience our own renaissance as the things we once loved or excelled at become the things we again get to practice and treasure.

To everything there is a season.
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