Gradually I’ve made progress on my to-do list. Today I submitted my thesis for final approval. Once my advisor gives the OK, I defend it. My graduate applications continue in a steady stream. In time, those will be done.
I can finally see the horizon of the next projects: my coming-of-age memoir for an honors project and a short story I’ve had simmering for a few months now. I’ve got some reading piling up as well. From one project to another, I guess.
Last week, I spoke to one of my professors. He had just finished his dissertation and felt an odd sense of freedom. Without the project tugging him along, he didn’t have anything to direct him. It was liberating, but disconcerting. An open horizon. A void.
I can relate. When I changed my major to philosophy, I didn’t know where I was heading. That summer I stayed and worked for 9 weeks at a Franciscan retreat, which I’ve written about before, to figure things out.
Getting a modest stipend, two other students and I slept in tents and lived like friars. Over the course of the summer my girlfriend and I broke up, I fell into a depression, I met a retinue of guests–including a Buddhist monk and a Native American mystic who struggled with alcoholism–worked for long hours in the hot sun, prayed, realized I didn’t believe in God, and saw some beautiful things.
Crisp memories still linger from that time. Each evening, I’d go down to a large pond at the foot of a hill to watch the swallows weave and dance, gulping up insects in silent swirls. Their whimsical flights made me laugh. The sun stained the sky blood red and the wind rattled the pines. The flaps of wings and the croaks of frogs punctuated the steady silence.
One night, I saw a stick drifting on the pond across the reflected sky. Its detached, aimless wanderings resonated. What was I doing? Where was I going? Who was I? Why was I here?
I really didn’t know. Like my professor mentioned last week, I had nothing tugging me along. I was mired. No projects, no plans for the future, no people to direct me. I felt like a lose thread dangling from a sweater. Somehow I had slipped from the stitching and couldn’t get back. I was utterly alone.
The feeling continued deep into the fall. And even as plans for grad school gathered and solidified in the spring, I didn’t really “know” what I was doing. Senior year hit, and I had some ideas, so I decided to try to fill in the lines, send some applications, write my thesis, do some more reflection.
Now, I feel grounded. As one professor mentioned, “I’ve grown roots.”
I’m not sure when it happened, but the change makes me wonder what it means to be lost. For me, it’s a definitive experience, a “mood” that solidifies into a distinct perspective. It lingers until it’s settled. Camus said he could see his stars when he had direction. If not, the sky was blank. His ideals motivated him.
But what really grounds me is “me.” Everything comes and goes, but for the most part, something retains that sense of selfhood. Perhaps the self is an illusion, as Buddhism says, but even as an illusion, the experience is potent and hard to shake. Memories collect with attachments, values, and principles. They unify into a whole. That whole starts calling itself a name, developing habits, asserting its own authenticity.
As William Blake said, “States change, individuals persist.”
Perhaps one piles qualities them on a void. I can’t refute that. Those long months lost amid life, the void was the only reality I knew. But for me, even within the void, a quiet melody sounds, a sense that purpose must be sought, even if it leads us on tenuous tracks to find it. For now, my track has lead me here. Following my own road I find my own future.