Essays, Poetry

Feeling Stuck

[Image: black text aligned left over a white paper background that reads, "I don't think the answer is out there In the next town over, At the new job, In the new school, Coupled with the new lifestyle Or routine. I think it's right here, Staring me in the face. I think it's always been." Instagram handle in grey in bottom right corner].

Lately, I’ve been feeling stuck. I’ve grown tired of the repetitiveness of my routine. I’ve been asking myself what the point of it all is. Where is this leading? Why am I doing it? What’s the purpose?

When you’re a young person, you’re taught to structure your life around your future rather than your present. You’re meant to perform well in school so that you can apply to do more school. You’re meant to decide on potential careers to pursue. You’re meant to engage in clubs and extracurriculars to bolster your resume. You’re meant to work part-time to save money for future you, who’s gonna be really fucking broke. They don’t tell you most adults change careers several times in their lives. They don’t tell you it’s okay not to go to university, that college and trades are fine too. They don’t tell you the real world often isn’t as stressful as school can be. In your mind, the real world is a terrifying place that will take one taste and then spit you out, which is why you spend the entirety of your youth preparing for it.

When all was said and done, it was actually pretty anticlimactic. You finished your undergrad and declared that you were done with school forever. You wanted to do “something real” with your life and school didn’t feel real. You got a temp job two weeks after you wrote your last exam. Three weeks went by and they extended your contract. A few weeks after that, they hired you on permanently. You got an apartment alone—finally, no roommates—because you were making more than minimum wage for the first time. This would change, of course. Rents continued to rise and wages stagnated, making having your own place difficult to swing.

You stayed at that job for well over a year. A few months in, you started to ask yourself, “Is this it? Is this what I want to be doing? Is this what I’ve been preparing for my whole life?”

You felt dissatisfied, stuck. You were living in your hometown and that didn’t feel quite right. You had left to travel and for school and then returned without intending to stay. You decided to leave again and began making escape plans. You talked to a close friend who lived in a nice little town you had visited several times. You asked them about it. They said it was a great place to live. You needed to leave your town, you didn’t want to go too far, and you weren’t interested in living in a big city again. You decided on a date and handed in notice at your job. It felt good to have plans again, to pin your hopes on the future once more. It felt familiar.

You moved to the new town. You stayed with your friend until you found a job and your own place. You got a part-time job and a side gig. You explored the new town, connected with the communities there, and settled into your new life. Moving was the right call. For awhile, things felt good, better than good, actually. You revelled in contentment.

The clock kept ticking and another year passed by in a blink. They increased your hours at the job so you were no longer reliant on side gigs. You moved two more times within the town, struggling to find decent affordable housing, but eventually landed in a nice (though overpriced) two-bedroom apartment with your partner.

Week in, week out, you go to work. You pay rent. You cook dinner. You take out the garbage. You write in the mornings. You try to get published. You finish another zine. You see your friends. You go to events. You attend weekly meetings. You go for walks. You call your mom.

You feel those questions come creeping back up: “Is this it? Is this what I want to be doing? Is this what I’ve been preparing for my whole life?”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice life. It’s comfortable and relatively easy. It reeks of familiarity. Not too much has changed since you first arrived here, and yet, your contentment has waned away. You’re beginning to resent the things that once made you happy. You’re looking for meaning in it all and not sure if you can find any. It might actually be too easy. You’ve settled down into a routine and none of it is exciting or challenging. You think back to the plans younger you had: get a Ph.D., become a professor and a published author. You gave those dreams up during your undergrad when the big city you studied in made you feel like you were drowning and the school that was meant to support your development was apathetic about your dissolution. While in school, you felt alienated by the competitiveness, the institutionalization of education, and the pretentiousness of accreditation.

Maybe I don’t need to reach those heights, you thought. Maybe I can have a smaller, quieter life.

So that is what you built for yourself, and here we are: something isn’t quite right.

I resent the way I was set up to always think about the future as a young person because now I can’t stop focusing on the future. I seem incapable of being comfortable with the present. I am constantly looking elsewhere for satisfaction; looking to escape, explore, and go on adventures. I resent routine, repetition, and familiarity. I am happiest when I am learning, having my limits tested (within reason), and being challenged by life. I believe that part of this is just the way I am. I thrive on newness and change. I need to feel like I am growing, and if I am not being challenged by life, then I feel stuck.

I also think that part of this is learned and it isn’t healthy. I have a hard time being in the present and I am constantly searching for happiness elsewhere because it never feels attainable in the moment. I am always pinning my hopes on the next town, the next job, or the next school, as though a little change is all I need to be happy. Though change is an important part of the recipe, I don’t think I should just pursue it for its own sake. Sure, I might be happy for a little while if I get a new job, a new place, or a new routine, but that will eventually wear off and I’ll be back where I started.

I need to pursue a life where I feel challenged and invigorated, to some degree, by my surroundings and by what is expected of me. This is something I have to give some thought and attention to. I will never be happy just getting up and doing the same thing over and over until I die (because let’s face it, millennials don’t get to retire). I need to respect and attend to the part of me that thrives off of change, challenge, growth, and development.

But I also need to heal something within myself that is unable to fully engage with the way things are.

I have to learn to live in and appreciate the present, even as I make plans for the future. I wrote a short poem recently about this:

I don’t think the answer is out there
In the next town over,
At the new job,
In the new school,
Coupled with the new lifestyle
Or routine.
I think it’s right here,
Staring me in the face.
I think it’s always been.

I’m not going to find satisfaction by constantly running around like a chicken with its head cut off, running towards this or away from that. I need to figure out how to be in my life as I build my life. I need to hold space for the discontentment as I learn to live with the discontentment. I need to think about and plan for the future, but I can’t keep only ever living for the future, because eventually, I will run out of future.

I think I am going to try two things then: explore my options for the future and start meditating again. I have a love-hate relationship with meditation, but I need a practice that will help pull me into the present and that seems to work for some people. I’ll give it another go and see if it works out. I was reminded about meditation as something potentially useful while reading Transcending: Trans Buddhist Voices edited by Kevin Manders and Elizabeth Marston. So many of its contributors cite meditation as a practice that, albeit difficult, enabled them to get in touch with themselves on a deeper level. There is something important about being still and I am missing stillness. I race from one thing to the next with little mindfulness and it’s having a negative effect on my overall life. So, fine, I’ll try it again. Thanks, I hate it, but I need to find a way to strike a balance between coming home to the present and respecting my need to plan for the future.

 


Note: I’m referring to myself with the use of “you” in this piece, not trying to generalize or dictate your experiences, which I recognize may be quite different from my own.

Essays

The Cat is Here

 

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[Image: ginger tabby curled up on a rock outside, sleeping]. Photo by lisaleo
CW: mentions of death, various social and environmental crises, and apocalypse.

The cat is here.

The cat next door came for a visit and is over here now. The cat without the hat. I’m always nervous that the cat will fall when she comes over. Now she is looking down at the world through the balcony’s bars to the left of me. Now she is sticking her head between the bars. Now she is walking to the other side of the balcony. Now she is looking through the screen door into my apartment. Now she is sniffing stuff. Now she is looking at where she came from like she plans to go back. Now she goes back. She sits back, looks up, pounces, and lands perfectly on the eight-inch platform, and then her body disappears behind the barrier.

You can have all the worries in the world and then there’s just a cat that will come over and investigate your space. Everything can be so chaotic. Everything can feel so broken. Your adrenal system can be completely shot and your mind can be a dark cloud of fear. And then it can get quiet again, even though the problems and chaos are still all around you. It can get quiet for a few minutes, quiet enough for a cat to slip over and curiously sniff around.

Every single moment has the potential to be quiet enough for a cat.

In every moment, you can focus on the chaotic swirl in your head or the cat curiously sniffing around, pausing to take in all the details of the balcony you’ve never given much thought to. The cat is unaware, it would seem, of the housing crisis, the opioid crisis, the government crisis, the climate crisis… She is just here to check things out, get the lay of the land, and then leap back over to her own balcony⁠—seemingly unafraid of whether she will make the landing on an eight-inch platform nine stories in the air.

Perhaps this is why we love cats so much⁠: they’re nothing like us.

They show us what we aspire to be with our writing, our mindfulness practice, or our meditation workshops. They do it effortlessly. They are simultaneously detached from and deeply involved with the world. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Cats are enlightened but they don’t really give a fuck.

The cat left fifteen minutes ago and here I am, still writing about her. She isn’t writing or thinking about me. She isn’t here, she’s over there, in a new moment, exploring different surroundings. She came, caught my attention, and then left me to dwell on her without looking back⁠—a little Buddha, a god, a teacher. They’re all around us in every moment, these Buddhas, these gods, these teachers. Whether or not we tune into them is up to us. I could have ignored the cat and kept on writing like she wasn’t here. I could also choose to ignore the sounds of cars driving by, the playfulness of the rain-filled air, the clink of dishes being moved around in my neighbour’s apartment, the light on the leaves of the trees, the white hairs on my knee, the damp plant smell, the machine-beast noise of a transport truck revving up the street, the itch on my neck, the quiet birdsong underneath everything, the beeping of a vehicle backing up, the dishes again, the quiet shuffle of leaves on a not-so-windy day, the utterly shocking silence of hundreds of humans piled on top of each other at this intersection of space, the sound of my neighbours opening their screen door, someone on the sidewalk saying good morning, or the squeaky wheels of a car that hits a bump and slams. I could choose to ignore all of this or I could choose to engage with it.

“Peaceful, isn’t it?” I heard my neighbour say to his wife when I first came out onto the balcony to write. Isn’t it? This is peace. All of this noise and bustling and activity.

Yes, this is peace, peace in the heart of a city.

An airplane flies overhead and a bird does too. The plane goes straight while the bird flies in circles. Have the birds ever laughed at how we copied them? Have the birds ever laughed?

A motorcycle chugs by and is gone. Most of these sounds last for just a few seconds. Can you feel it? No one is yelling at anyone, that I can hear, and some people may still be sleeping. There is so much going on and there are so many of us and no one is fighting right now. This is peace.

We’re nearing the apocalypse and the cats couldn’t care less.

Why should they? What can they do? Sniff around, hunt for mice, or perhaps jump nine stories in the air. What else?

You have to live in this world. You can try your best to fix it, to do something to make a difference, but the hardest thing about life is just finding a way to live it, to be with the chaos and the peace and the systems and their inevitable collapse and the change and the fear and the pain and the trauma. The hardest thing is to figure out how to live in a world that is constantly ending. You can’t ever get comfortable with that, only curious. You may or may not ever make a substantial difference. Regardless, the world you were born into will not be the one you die in.

The cat isn’t here anymore. I am. That will change. In fact, it already has, as I sit here editing this piece several days later in an entirely new moment.