“Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” -John Lennon
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” -Thoreau
I encountered both of these quotes when I was an idealistic teenager trying to carve meaning out of life. For years I had shielded myself from pain by fixating on school, or my weight, or books. I felt like a square peg in high school: a sensitive introvert surrounded by Aqua Net and acid-washed jeans. One thing was clear: I wasn’t going to lead a life of quiet desperation (whatever that was). And I wasn’t going to get so busy making other plans that life happened while I wasn’t looking. I went off to college and invested four years in unraveling the complex knot of Meaning. When I finished college I had an eating disorder, an engagement ring, and a degree in philosophy.
Setting up housekeeping as a young married woman while attending graduate school kept me busy. I beat back my vague restlessness with term papers, poetry seminars, and watching early-morning junk TV. I gained weight. I lost weight. My mother died suddenly, right in front of me, and life immediately overwhelmed me. There was no time for self-reflection; all the postmortem work consumed my life. I lost more weight, moved into my mother’s house, cared for my younger sister, started law school. I commuted, studied, forgot to exercise, obsessed over fashion magazines, forgot to read poetry or fiction, gained weight, and let the weeds grow in the flower beds. After law school, I worked briefly and then we began our family. Our son was born three months before I turned 30; our daughter was born three years later.
This autumn I will turn 40. I have come to see just how easy it is to be murdered by the minutiae of life. It’s not just the meals, dishes, and laundry; it’s returning phone calls to the piano tuner and the car repairman, managing the pieces of clutter, keeping up with the relentless details of adult life. My goal is responsibility, but responsibility takes energy. And when we’re not Being Responsible for the Details, there’s the distraction of the television and the internet and the omnipresence of social media. These distractions help us fritter away our remaining minutes.
The minutiae are often necessary and frequently lovely. A well-prepared meal, fresh laundry, and a clean home are their own rewards. We have to go to the dentist and fill the car with gas and balance the checkbook. We should weed the garden, teach the children to ride a bike, send the graduation gift, call the piano tuner. Connecting with friends or family over social media is sometimes fulfilling.
So what beats back the quiet desperation? What saves us from murder by minutiae? I think it’s attentiveness and awareness. I think that’s what Thoreau set out for Walden to do: to pay attention, to stay aware. And to write it down.
As I stand on the edge of a new decade and survey the landscape ahead of me, I see a thick fog below; I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t have a career trajectory or major professional goals to accomplish. But I know the clock ticks. Life is happening. So I’ll use this corner of the world to write about paying attention and staying aware, and about joy in the midst of the minutiae.