This Deceptively Short Life.

autumn, leaves, australia, lake

I do not update this blog a whole lot. It’s a shame, because at several points in the past year and a bit of its existence, it has been one of the most important things in my life. Neglecting it was a sin, and to do so felt dirty, like I’d gone a few days without washing. Nowadays, I only post something here when I’m feeling particularly emotionally addled.

These days (the non-travelling days), my blog is just not a priority. It should be, but it’s not. I know very few people will read this unless I become a raging social media groupie, but I’m just not. It’s not what I desire to be — and really, the past few years have been one big exercise in doing what I desire versus what I need, or ought to do.

Of course, there were things I wanted for the wrong reasons, and times I failed to live in the present because I was too busy thinking about the bigger picture, and squandered the bigger picture for getting carried away in the moment.

I just read the most fantastic article on Brain Pickings. (As I said on Twitter, read it if you value your time, and indeed, your life). It begins with: “‘How we spend our days,’ Annie Dillard memorably wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on the life of presence, ‘is, of course, how we spend our lives.'”

With something similar in mind, I’ve made a priority of filling the non-travelling days with creativity, productivity, and spontaneity. These are things that come pretty naturally in travel: in day-to-day life, you have to find them and lasso them. Alas: I go to work, now, sometimes (and actually get paid for it — hallelujah), and then encounter the unique conundrum of not quite knowing what to do with myself on days off.

There is a lot of possibility and expectation when one is determined to live life with C, P, and S — and, I’ll be honest, a hint of fear. Just a hint, that one day I’ll succumb to languor and apathy, and then curse myself for having wasted one precious day in this precious, precious life.

“Presence is infinitely more rewarding than productivity.” That’s what the article says. I’m in two minds about this: on one hand, I believe presence inspires productivity. When I’m feeling particularly (but not unnervingly) self-aware, I find that’s golden incentive for getting shit done and discovering new places, skills, and things.

On the other hand, I understand how productivity can become a trap. Things like careers and chores are incredibly mitigating, albeit dull or stressful at times; it’s as though the whole look-at-me-I’m-an-adult-ness of it all sweeps the fear of presence under the rug, and we can carry on pretending to live and knowing exactly what that means.

This is not supposed to sound cynical. I just wonder if, sometimes, I’m falling into the same trap.

I do not fear mortality. If someone offered me a drink from the Fountain of Youth (oh, what am I saying — the Philosopher’s Stone), I would quite likely turn them down, opting for a nice cabernet sauvignon instead. I do, however, fear complacency, aimlessness, and wasting the time we have. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said in On the Shortness of Life:

Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

Or, to use a reference from popular culture:

Aragorn: What do you fear, my lady?

Eowyn: A cage. To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them, and all chance of valour has gone beyond recall or desire.

Of course, I’m not planning to battle Orcs or the dark forces of Mordor in my time — though the battle against complacency, against humdrum, against the woulds and shoulds of society? That is a likelier prospect.

Seneca defines busyness as “that dual demon of distraction and preoccupation”. Right now, in the non-travelling days, I try to remain busy enough, but without the preoccupation, if at all possible. (The distraction will never go away — before writing this post, I sat completely transfixed by the curling and rolling of incense smoke, forming shapes of parchment scrolls and DNA chains, for at least three minutes). I fill waking time with writing fiction, documenting quotes and inspiring tidbits on my bedroom walls, painting, market trawling, yoga doing, and alarming amounts of chai tea drinking.

Is it all pointless? Perhaps. Does it help me fulfil a sense of self? Superficially, arguably — but yes.

But I believe it’s important (and now we’re spiralling down to what I believe was the crux of the matter in this whole spiel) to maintain presence in all of our activities — no matter where we are in the world, no matter what we’re doing in the scheme of things — and that is an astonishingly difficult thing to do. I forget it often, and find I get a swift kick up the bum with life’s tough love boot.

Maintaining presence in the thing, in yourself, reminds us how to live…and to me, that is one of the harder things, because it also introduces the notion that there is no overarching point — no bigger picture, just whatever piece we’re focusing on at the time — and to live means to fully engage in the present moment, without wavering, and see it through. I have lived beneath the coat-hanger of “my purpose” for years — something a wiser friend told me long ago was silly — and without it I’m strangely loose and transient.

But then, if I’m to view this differently, I could also see myself as completely free from any confine.

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return. New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition. They do not look for an end to their misery, but simply change the reason for it.

That’s what purpose ultimately is, isn’t it: a tad preoccupying.

So learn to value your time, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. It is the most precious commodity we have (along with words, love, silence, and  avocados — give me a break, they’re really expensive here at the moment), and to spend it mindlessly is as reckless as blowing your rainy day fund on a Mercedes or gambling. To embrace time is to be present, and to be present is to live and enjoy.

Heed Seneca: don’t procrastinate. Pursue your aspirations, live your truths. Make length out of this short life.

Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

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