It is a nice day today during this vacation week so I went for my usual walk while listening to an audiobook on my MP3 player. Any book I listen to is downloaded from the state library. I grow tired of the usual YA vampires, zombies, werewolves and other supernatural stuff. Today I decided to listen to Alan Alda’s autobiography Things I overheard while talking to myself. I have grown a new appreciation for Alda, who has seemingly walked with me through life: as a kid watching M*A*S*H* to today catching The West Wing on DVD, also from the library. I’m sure I’ve encountered him in between those times, but much like that time period, it’s all a blur now.
Alda recounts a moment in a Times Square coffee shop when a young man of 22 (Alda himself 25) put down his coffee cup and in a very matter-of-fact manner said “I’ve been thinking that I might kill myself.” Alda attempted to convince him his whole life was ahead of him and he had a lot to live for to which the man replied “I may go for that, but I might kill myself. I haven’t decided.” Alda never knew what had become of this man. Later on when he was a TV star, he received letters from people who shared the same sense of distraught. Alda responded to all of them as best he could, and never knew what became of many of them, if they had ever found meaning in their lives. Later Alda found himself in one of those nighttime moments when a question came to him from a voice in his head.
So tell me, are you living a life of meaning?
To answer that, he tells a story I can relate to of faith and doubt and how a life of questioning opens things up for you, but provides little meaning. The meaning is not external; you must create it yourself. Make something of nothing, as the existentialists suggested. At his daughter’s graduation he spoke this:
Move with all of yourself. When you embark for strange places, don’t leave any of yourself safely on shore. Have the nerve to go into unexplored territory. Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. It is not previously known. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. You can’t get there by bus, only by hard work and risk and by not quite knowing what you’re doing, but what you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself. (Alda, 2007, p. 21-22)
Knowing what you care about and then devoting yourself to it is just about the only way you’re going to be able to have a sense of purpose in your life. (Alda, p. 36)
I find comfort in the “not quite knowing what you’re doing” part. The second quote is the troubling one. Knowing what I care about, then devoting myself to it. I’ve been there and done that, realizing not only ministry but also faith itself was something in which I didn’t fit. But at one time I knew that was right, then discovered I knew nothing. So now to pick up the pieces. The library world fascinates me. I feel at home there. But what happens when you go home? How do you answer the question “What do you do for fun?” “What hobbies do you have?” Questions I cannot seem to confidently answer.
I struggle with these things perhaps more than some. I’ve been a spiritual “leader” who provided guidance for others, while at the same time not understanding myself. Now I can help people find a book on the shelf or convert a document, but what am I truly devoted to?
I struggle because this is vacation week. Now I have time to catch up on work for my Masters, do some reading, and other stuff. I went to a college on Monday to observe a library reference desk so I could write a paper. Done. I decide to treat myself to an old bookstore and find a good book for $6. I come home and decide it’s a good day to treat myself to the Chinese lunch special for $7. Now I realize with a week and a half to my full-time job payday, I have $95 in my checking account and an $85 bill. I deposit my part-time job check tomorrow for $60. This week I was to put together all the documents necessary for removing my ex’s name from the mortgage. My printer is out of ink, so that means waiting another week to buy a cartridge or take money out of savings, which I deter but am having to do more of. Of course to submit these documents, I need to send in nearly $300 to process it. So that’s now on the back burner anyway. The documents also tell me that I will not be eligible if the mortgage is over 33 percent of income or 38 percent of current debt. I am not positive but it’s going to be close. So in other words, I have been paying a mortgage on my own for 8 months now and will possibly be told I cannot afford it.
$30 for my cheap phone plan comes due in 3 days and I need that to hear if I have any interviews for jobs with more money closer to home. Then there are groceries, which maybe I can limit to $20 for next week. Then there is gas. Since I haven’t traveled to work this week, it will be less and if I use a sick day I may make out okay. But then there is the $10 co-pay to see my counselor, which is a must, and the tolls to get to and from there. Since I already pulled money from savings to cover car registration and inspection (and need to put off the oil change for another week), I don’t like to again. I have enough in savings, but try and stay off it as much as possible, and know a major car repair or water heater or plumbing problem is always right around the corner. And when I go to the counselor’s I like to get a chai and cookie, which comes to all of $4, but then I feel guilty for a treat like that, but isn’t life too short not to? So the game my life now is involves trying to see how little I need to pull from savings to meet regular expenses since it’s hard to get a roommate in a 690 square ft condo in which the mortgage is far higher than the value, take even quicker showers, stay in the dark as much as possible, and drive only when necessary.
No idea what this all has to do with Alda’s book. I am not bemoaning life. It can always be better. I don’t give up. I just like being honest in saying it is hard to find something you care about and devote yourself to it when the basics are a struggle. Patrons come to the library in even worse shape and we smile and wish them well. I’m supposed to be heroic and pull myself up by the boot straps, but how do you afford those? You can’t tell people these things because you are not looking for handouts. So you struggle alone and no matter how frugal you are, there is an unexpected expense lurking somewhere. Perhaps this is what life on the edge is. Is this living a life of meaning? I suppose I could give a great speech on this someday or write a great book. But what of those who will never have that chance?
I should be doing something librarianish and review Alda’s book, so I will do that now.
It’s a great read. Or listen.