pebbles and sand

One of my dear friends and I were talking a few weeks ago about ambition, and busy-ness, and our relentless drive to fill our days with goals that need to be met and lists of items that need to be checked off.  We're both pretty motivated ladies, successful, educated, eager.  One of the reasons we so appreciate one another's company, I think, is that we don't have to apologize for striving.  We know we're going to work hard to get what we want.  We know we're busy.  We expect it from one another.

She was telling me about a friend, someone I've never met.  "You ask him what he's been up to, and he says things like, 'Well, I ate some really delicious ice cream the other day.  And then I found an amazing swimming hole.'  Everyone else answers that question by telling you how busy they've been and how stressed out they are.  There aren't very many people who focus on the deliciousness of ice cream."

No, no there aren't.

There's a story, about a philosophy professor who stood up in front of his class holding a glass jar.  He filled it to the top with several bulky rocks and asked, "Is the jar full?"  The class answered that yes, of course it was - obviously, there was no room inside for more rocks.  Then the professor pulled out a bag of pebbles and poured it in.  The small stones filled the nooks left by the rocks, and the professor asked again, "Is the jar full?"  Oh, yes, it's definitely full now, the class answered.  Then the professor pulled out a bag of sand and shook it into the jar.  The sand wound its way into the tiny spaces between the pebbles.  "How about now?"  This time, certainly, the jar was full, the class responded.  Then the professor cracked open a can of beer, and poured it into the jar.

The jar represents our lives, the professor explained.  The rocks are the most important things - our families, our friendships, our health, the things that, if all else were lost, would still leave us feeling
fulfilled.  The pebbles are other, less important things - our jobs, our cars, our houses.  The sand is everything else - whether the kitchen is clean at the end of the night, whether you remembered to
buy shampoo, whether your lawn looks as nice as the neighbors'.  The little things.

If you put the sand in the jar first, you might be able to layer some pebbles on top, but you'll never fit the rocks inside, he explained.  And the same goes for your life.  If you spend your days focusing on
the thousand tiny annoyances on your checklist, you've got no room left for the things that really
Pay attention to the rocks, he advised.  Everything else is just so much sand.

(Then, of course, one of his students asked what the beer represented.   "Oh, well," the professor replied, "that just goes to show that no matter how full your life might seem, there's always room for a beer or two."  Ba-doom SHA!)

This moment, when I'm questioning the validity of my own striving, seems as good a time as any to also question what, exactly, I'm striving toward.  The thing is, I've achieved a lot of the goals that people my age are "supposed" to be aiming for - I have two degrees, a good job, an awesome spouse.  I own my own home.  There are kids on the horizon.*  I'm doing the things I'm supposed to be doing, and I should be happy, but that feeling of not quite being there - wherever there is - is ever-present.  It just doesn't let up.  I should be more successful! the voice in my head says.  I should be published by now!  I should make more money!  We should start saving for a bigger house!  And nicer stuff!  And I should be a more productive person!  Why is my living room so messy?  Why do I watch so much TV?  Why aren't I more responsible with my time?  Why don't I exercise more, eat better, call my friends and family more often, use more of my free time for writing, keep to a chore schedule, answer emails promptly?  Why don't I blog more often???

Suffice to say, when people ask what I've been up to, my answer doesn't involve the taste of ice cream.

The truth is, I'm afraid to let up on myself.  I'm afraid that if I stop pushing, all of my goals will fall away and my life will feel... meaningless.  There's a big black hole of fear - fear of failure, of disappointment, of inadequacy - that sits right there in the middle of me, and it's easy to fill that hole with pebbles and sand, because there's no shortage of pebbles and sand.  It feels good to feel busy.  It feels useful.

But the true purpose of my life is not to fill that sucking black hole.  I know what I have to do, which is turn away from it, to resist the pull.  Because of this much, at least, I am sure: I cannot expect a life built on a foundation of sand and pebbles to carry the weight of me and everything I am and
everything I want to be and do and see and feel in the course of this small but incredible existence I have been granted.

What would my world look like if I used all of my ambition, all of my crazy type-A motivation, to point myself in the direction of a life that would make me truly happy, instead of prioritizing all the trillion little pointless things that I'm told are supposed to make me happy?

What would it look like to push myself, hard, to find joy?

What would a life built on a foundation of rock feel like?

I don't know.  But I'd like to find out.

Stay tuned.

*Blog post for another day, but no, nobody's pregnant or anything.  Farther horizon than that.  :)



The lovely and talented Suze over at Subliminal Coffee just tagged me in a blogging game, wherein I'm to take my current manuscript, search for the word "look," and post the surrounding excerpt.  Except I'm breaking the rules a bit, because I'm not really ready to post something from my current WIP.  Instead, I thought I'd follow Suze's lead and take a lil trip down memory lane.  So... here's an excerpt from my very first attempt at writing a novel.  This thing wasn't sure what it wanted to be - YA?  MG?  Something with a coherent storyline?  (Okay, definitely not that last one.)  It veered around a lot, and did a lot of crazy things.  In any case, this is a little scrap of that rambling behemoth. 

For context, our teenaged hero, Declan, has just been released from a jail cell where he was being held for shoplifting; a strange man in a top hat claimed to be the owner of the store and declined to press charges.  Declan is confused (because he most certainly was shoplifting) but he's also grateful.  Until they head outside and the man starts saying some weird things to him...

"Are you feeling it yet?”

“Feeling… what?” Declan asked.  He was definitely regretting his impulse to speak to the man.

“The yearning.”  The man peered at Declan, studying him.  “The calling must have started by now.  We have to move.”

He remembered the flash of longing he’d felt a moment before.  “Hang on —”

"I’ll explain later.  We don’t have much time," the man said.  He grasped Declan's arm with his narrow fingers and beginning to pull him away.

"Whoa, dude - let me go!"  He jerked his arm out of the old man’s grasp.  I should get out of here, he thought.  This guy was obviously crazy, and besides, he had to make it home before his dad noticed he was gone.  He didn’t have time to play guessing games with a lunatic in a top hat. 

But something was happening.  As soon as the man had named the feeling - yearning, he had called it - it had roused something in Declan, something that had until that moment been napping, fitfully, but quiet.  But the moment the man  uttered the word, Declan felt it roar to life, growing in his stomach like an ache.  He had good, logical reasons for walking away, he knew that, but the yearning… there it was, stirred to wakefulness swift and sudden, mushrooming in him like a cloud, swelling in his lungs, plunging into his limbs, holding him fast.  He wanted… he wanted to stay.  He had to stay.  He couldn’t explain it, but it was a truth that infused every part of him.
Or almost every part of him.  There remained the smallest fragment of his mind not yet inundated with longing, and that part began to buzz with panic.  That part of him, the part that suddenly realized something was very wrong, flashed like a neon sign: run.  RUN!   For the briefest second the impulse to flee overrode everything else, and he turned, gathering his strength, but it was no use: the longing gripped his heart with fingers like ice, and his body refused cooperate.  He tried to take a step and his feet tangled beneath him.  He crashed to the ground, breathing heavily.

"Oh dear," the man tutted, towering over Declan as he lay splayed across the asphalt.  His eyes darted around, searching.  “Oh dear, oh dear.  Well, don’t just lie there - get up.  Get up!”

“What’s happening?” Declan asked, pulling himself to his feet. 

“The calling,” the man said.  “They've started.”

Declan noticed that the fog had been growing steadily thicker in the past few minutes.  It was dense as brick now; the whole world had shrunk down to a distinct sphere just large enough for the two of them to stand in.  An eerie silence fell, punctuated only by their own ragged breathing.
And then a whisper, from somewhere outside their circle. 

Declan jerked his head around, looking for the source of the sound. 

“Did you hear that?”

The old man's voice cracked.  "Don't listen to it.”  His long fingers worried at his throat, and for a moment he seemed unable to speak.  But then:  “You have to run.”

Declan was vaguely aware of the man tugging on his arm, trying to get him to move, but he swatted him away.  The yearning had finished its job; there was no more panic.  He was rooted to the spot.
"No," he told the man authoritatively. "I have to wait here."

He sat down on the asphalt, jaw set.  He had never felt more certain of anything in his life.  The thing he was waiting for - it was on its way.

The old man hovered over Declan, wringing his hands and tugging at him, trying to coax him into standing, but Declan ignored him. 

“You don’t understand… it’s your blood they’re after, Declan, your blood - you have to run…”

But Declan wasn’t listening.  All around him, he could feel the swirling fog that carried the voice of someone calling his name, carried it to him in a sickly sweet voice.  The fog brought him his name, and it sounded like molasses.