I was asked to write an article on the nature of change (or something, I don’t really pay attention) for the January double issue, which has now turned into the hulking January-February-March triple issue, of New York Moves Magazine. I originally felt it best and most appropriate to write one of those “the problem with you lot…”-type pieces and keep myself out of it, but then my editor suggested that it would be more convincing if I at least pretended to use myself as an example, which I did, in part. This is for anyone wondering about the inaccuracies of my life story as told hereafter.
“How few the days are that hold the mind in place; like four or five hooks holding up a tapestry. Especially the day you know you’ve stopped becoming, the day you know you merely are. What ought to be moves far away; what is comes close.” -Arthur Miller, After the Fall
Much commentary has been devoted to the infamous New Year’s Resolution and its hurried evanescence in the weeks following the New Year. Its inherent, doomed optimism is the stuff of sad jokes and wan regrets, yet every year, people resolve again to lose that weight, to quit smoking, to save more money,… as if they haven’t made these promises to themselves every previous year, and broken them through neglect, lack of discipline, or plain unwillingness. I’d wager most peoples’ New Year’s Eve resolutions didn’t survive their New Year’s Day hangover, let alone the ensuing weeks that have brought us to the threshold of spring. We are accustomed to breaking the promises we make to ourselves, and it is almost touching to see how innocently we go on making those promises, not just every New Year, but every new day.
But is our eagerness to make these abortive resolutions a sign of hope or self-delusion? As a country we descended from people who were willing to drop everything and sail thousands of miles into unknown and dangerous territory in order to pursue a lifestyle they dreamed would be better than the one they were stuck in, and we pride ourselves in our touted “ingenuity.” Change is an integral part of our makeup, and probably the makeup of any healthy human being, but what does it say about us that we seem to be constantly on the hunt for newer, better, and often unrealistic versions of ourselves, only to abandon the hunt with such ease most of the time? We spend thousands of dollars every year on fad diets we know must fail. Most of us can’t afford a new wardrobe every season but strain our credit limits chasing this tantalizing image of our chic new selves, hoping (and knowing full well it is an empty hope) that by “bettering” our appearance, so will our social, professional, and romantic lives be bettered too. We spend years in psychotherapy, only to find that, though we’ve “learned” a lot about ourselves and our atavistic compulsions, our ability or even willingness to change those habits somehow never caught up. Whose bookshelf isn’t crowded with half-read self-help books?
This isn’t to say that people don’t or shouldn’t change at all; New York is indeed the place to find people who have made real and lasting changes to their lives and themselves. But it seems that change—real change, not the kind bidden in a drunken vow made at 12:01 on New Year’s morning–can only happen a few times, those “four or five hooks holding up the tapestry” of one’s life. And it also seems that those few true changes only really happen, conversely, when we rid our minds of unrealistic pipe dreams and face up to our situation, and the changes that are indeed possible to make in that situation.
Some years ago, on another coast and after receiving yet another rejection letter for a story of which I was rather proud (the sort of defeat which always reminded me of my other disappointments: financial dependence, empty love life, facing a lifetime of obscurity, the usual), I came to realize that, by my own standards, and I’m sure, those of anyone with any sense of reality, I was a failure. But in that moment of crying into my pillow, it occurred to me that I had been in the same position, crying for basically the same reasons, more times than I could bear to count. And I also realized that the reason I hadn’t made any drastic changes to my life in any aspect was because for the past few years I had fooled myself into believing that if I made little changes, the bigger gains I dreamed of would magically come to me. My love life would fix itself in time if I just “improved” myself: I read constantly to sharpen my intellect, I worked out often, even did ballet, to stay in superior shape, I developed an eye for vintage fashions and always dressed elegantly. My career would blossom if I refined my skills and made myself into a great writer—some important commissioning editor or agent was bound to glimpse one of my stories or be charmed by my pitch letter and want to represent me. Basically, the changes I was making to my lifestyle were too timid to have any real impact because I was convinced that my real life—my destiny! was somewhere in the future, and it was my task to endure the nowhere life I was in and prepare for the coming miracle by making twee adjustments to my fundamentally defective modus operandi. I would not admit to myself that the paltry life I was enduring those years was indeed my life, my real life, and that unsatisfied, flailing girl, the real me.
I won’t go into the details of what happened after my revelation, but hope it suffices to say that I have experienced real change, several of them, even, since then, my move to New York being the primary one, and catalyst to all the others. And I think these changes were only made possible the moment I let go the cozy platitude that I was becoming, and embraced the ghastly truth that I was.
We are obsessed with becoming, and perhaps this has to do with our youth-fixation (for when we are young it is our duty to devote ourselves to becoming) or maybe it is the epic pressure of the American Dream which bullies people into disdaining their lot for a more dazzling one. Whatever the cause, it seems the constant encouragement to chase an idea of how much better, happier, more perfect one could be, provides a convenient and ever-renewable distraction from recognizing, and making peace with, who one is to begin with. Your first day of maturity is not your 21st birthday, or the first day of your job, or the day you first make love, but “the day you know you merely are.” Vital to change is the recognition that your real life, your real self, is not some perfected being waiting in the distant future for you to grow into them, but who you are right now, shortcomings, discontents and all.