A hundred years ago, when I was still married to my ex-husband, I would spend a lot of time fretting about life, full of ennui, wanting to quit my job but never knowing what else to be besides an academic (not yet knowing that my job can “be” without me “being” the job). The ex-husband liked to find obscure alt-music and one day he came across this song by Juan Loyola and thought it fit me:
It so resonated with me that I learned to play it on the guitar which I had been learning to play for about 5 minutes or so. In fact, it was one of two songs I really learned on the guitar; the guitar my mom bought me with mother pearl in-lay that I named Loretta and sold on Kijiji years later to pay my divorce attorney. The other song I learned, I had commissioned my guitar teacher to write the tune for and I had written some lyrics to, to play at the then husband’s 35th birthday party I was throwing to prove to him that I loved him. I invited everyone we knew including contacting old friends of his whom I didn’t really know to travel in from far and wide and I prepared a million and one elegant hors d’oeuvres to feed all these people. I had a diagnosed anxiety disorder, drank alcoholically, and was usually miserable, so I was so anxious when I played it at the party that I barely remember it. I do remember panicking about what the right social etiquette was and maybe the whole thing was a dumb idea to sing in front of all my work colleagues and everyone in town, so I ended up not asking everyone else to share what I had asked them to bring to share about him after I sang. Later, when drunk, he told me that all of that was just for me to show off and that, really, I was just as selfish as he always said I was. Playing the guitar didn’t seem so fun anymore. But I digress.
Because I want an easier life, I usually try to claim priority on access to our one shared vehicle, but sometimes, my new love needs to do things like take kids to school or the baby to daycare. The nerve. On those days, if I can’t come up with a way to work from home, I ride my bike to work. Let me say, that I love my bike. I love riding my bike. And, I have a beautiful bike ride almost entirely along the Rideau Canal. Here’s a picture I took the other day when I paused to really notice it:
It’s the kind of bike ride that I used to wish I could take when I lived downtown and could only ride along city streets. Now I complain internally because my ride is now twice as long as it was before. I wish I had a shorter ride but still as pretty. I want an easier life.
I realized the other day that partly why I try to finagle the van instead of wanting to ride my bike everyday is because I always arrive sweaty and exhausted whenever I get to work. I then observed that maybe it’s because I’m always trying to go so fast, biking as though there’s a trophy and stacks of cash just waiting for me at the end of every trip.
I decided I would ride my bike slowly, like REALLY, REALLY slowly. I would ride fast enough to defeat the gravitational pull of my bike to the ground but slow enough that I wouldn’t break a sweat. It was really fucking hard; not physically, but emotionally.
I realized that it really bothers me to let other people pass me when I’m biking. I internally mock the people decked out in pro-cyclist gear, to justify my own existence, but if a regular person passes me that means I better speed up or start telling myself what a piece of garbage I am. I also really stress about what other people are thinking of me. I did not like the idea that people would think that I was going as fast as I possibly could at the snail’s pace was I trying on for size. I wanted to whip out a marker and make a sign for myself saying “THIS IS A CHOICE! I’M DOING AN EXPERIMENT!” as if I were so important that any person on earth could give a shit at all about the speed at which I ride my stupid bike.
Because my bike ride is beautiful and a good 30 minutes each way, I became very self-righteous in my mind about the fact that there was nothing new to see by going slower. I always notice the canal and the trees and the birds and the flowers and the beauty that surrounds me. Don’t tell ME to stop and smell the roses, I smell them every God damned day, so take your cliché and shove it up your ass.
But actually, by slowing down, I did see and smell some new things. I think it might have been happenstance due to a rainstorm earlier the night before, but the canal had all this floating garbage in it, which I don’t usually see. There was this layer of natural scuzz but also some old beer cans and a water bottle, sitting quite still on the top of the surface. See, I took a picture to prove it:
And then a hundred meters or so later, the air was thick with the smell of skunk. I don’t think the scuzz is usually there. Maybe it is and I’m just riding my bike too fast, but seriously, I’m not actually all that fast. I’m faster than little kid fast, but please, let’s be real. And the skunk smell would have been there regardless of how fast I was going.
This little experiment in slow bike riding made me realize not that I need to appreciate beautiful things more, but that I am practically panicked to get to anywhere other than where I currently am. Maybe it’s to avoid seeing the ugliness that inevitably will come about if I slow down. Maybe it’s because I can better identify the source of the pain in burning legs and I can own it better than the pain that would come from gravity pulling me crashing down. I really don’t know.
What I do know though, is that despite kvetching that I want an easier life, I actually make my life a lot harder than it needs to be. My bike ride was maybe 5 minutes longer than usual, even with stopping to take a few pictures. Okay, maybe 7 minutes longer. I don’t need to be a sweaty mess. I’m choosing to be a sweaty mess. No judgement, it’s good to raise my heart rate and all that, but it’s a choice I’m making, not a sentence I’m forced to bear due to being a one-vehicle family. I *chose* to throw that party for the ex-husband and write the song and perform in front of others and make the canapes and all the rest. (He was still a jerk, but I still chose to stay married to him and do all those things to try to get him to say he appreciated me.)
My problem is not that my life is or has been hard. Granted, there have been some curve balls thrown my way, but that’s true in everyone’s life. My problem is not life, my problem is me. I’m uncomfortable letting other people be better than me. I’m uncomfortable not appearing to be hard-working and successful. I’m uncomfortable feeling present if that present isn’t really pretty. I’m uncomfortable not being in control and in charge. I choose to push hard and ride fast because I want people to see me a certain way, not because I actually have to.
What I have learned a million times (and keep forgetting) is that when I let go and stop trying to make things happen a certain way and happen right away, my life is easier. When I don’t try to pass some kind of impossible test to prove to the world that I love everyone (and therefore they should love me back), I have an easier life. When I say no to things that are a ton of extra work for me (like, I dunno, taking on an extra class and teaching a doctoral seminar in a second language for the first time and deciding to learn an entirely new statistical point of view and saying yes to every request to be on a committee/take on a student that has come across my desk this term, so that everyone will think I’m so great), I have an easier life.
Every single time in my life when I have put down my list of goals & plans, took a breath, and approached the future with acceptance and curiosity, I have been given miraculous, unthinkable gifts I would never have planned for myself. And yet, more often than not, I make choices that will make me look good in others’ eyes; so I start making a new list about what I have to have right now that will make my life better, and then get resentful when life feels so hard. Perhaps what I need is not an easier life, but the humility to accept the limits of the life that I already have. And maybe then I can slow down to see the possibility of beauty even when there’s a bunch of muck floating at the surface.