OK, I know this is coming from someone who hasn’t turned any of his dreams into things he can put on a shelf or take a shower with lately. But a leprechaun came into my bedroom last night, stood on my windowsill, and told me exactly how I should be. I listened. And recorded a voice memo. And here it is.
When you graduate college, there’s the feeling of rolling, like the rollers on a conveyor belt, and becoming part of the belt’s underbelly, going in reverse. You’re still moving, but things don’t look the same. You think: this is the end of leaning your face over an oatmeal-colored original copy of Great Expectations on a Thursday. The end of big milk machines with metal cylinders you tug on so milk erupts from thin plastic tubes. The end of time divided into clusters of months for which you fashion new goals/identities/role models. The end of waking up to a clearly written two-page list of activities for the day/week/next six weeks. The end of peanut butter nights.
Through those four years, we look forward to the end – we’re like mayflies who know they will probably die in the next 48 hours. And so they fly around like crazies. And so we hate them and call them annoying but can’t fucking stop them from living their crazy fucking lives! We can learn a lot from insects. They’re the ultimate Buddhists.
This kind of the-end-is-near-I-am-not-going-to-sleep mindset peaks somewhere around September/October of freshman year. At least for me, it did. This has been said before, but fall is one big piece of performance art about death. Things are falling down, and your body is getting all frenzied as it knows parts of it – little inconsequential parts and pigments – will die in a few weeks.
Freshmen feed on this imminent sudden death. And, quoth the leprechaun, you can be a freshman anytime you want! Don’t wait for the leaves to fall. They’re always falling. If there’s a way to sum up this freshman/insect/all-of-the-metaphors-above mindset, I’d name four pillars that really make this mindset possible:
1. This Is Finite
Do you remember the feeling in college where shit would happen – oh, fuck, gotta stay up until 4am writing about The Mayor of Casterbridge! Make sure I’m sitting close to a vending machine! – and for some weird reason, you would be totally OK with it? When I stepped out of college, I was suddenly not OK with shit like this. I thought everything should be in order, laundry folded, groceries bought, because Jesus, this was the rest of my life. I can take some insanity for four years, but I wasn’t going to admit it into My Life.
Freshmen don’t care how the speck of time called “now” reflects on their future/past, and I think they’re better for it. Thinking like a freshman, we can be fine running to catch the train, or staying up too late to do something that actually isn’t due until…never. We only have four years, why not exert ourselves a bit! College is a sprint. Then we get to the marathon of Career, and we start walking slower and forcing ourselves to lie on beaches and die. I think, if you can just imagine it, you can keep sprinting. Stop sometimes, yes, and take a drink of water, you fool. But keep sprinting. To God, our lives are sprints anyway. (Imagine how it must look to him/her/them! Little foolish hearts beating for ~10 seconds and then stopping, suddenly.)
2. You Are Nothing
Freshman year, I expected to be pissed on. (I wasn’t, but if I had been, it would have been fine.) I expected myself to be bad at whatever I was doing. The point wasn’t what I had done, but what I would do in the future. It also wasn’t who I was or what I had inside me (because I was basically just an empty eye socket at that point), but what I did, and what I decided to fill myself up with. When you accept that you’re nothing, all of a sudden it’s fine to fuck up. In fact, there’s nothing better. Go ahead and try to write that paper/ask that person that thing/learn that sport – if you can’t do it (which you probably can’t because you are nothing), then just do what you can to keep trying, or don’t. It will all be over in four years, anyway.
Not everyone thinks this way. You see this a lot. Look around. You know the people who sign their name to everything they create like it’s a culmination of everything they stand for and will ever be? The people who spend more time creating the template than actually filling in the template? Those who try to find the perfect spot on the subway and then arrange themselves on the seat like they’re some kind of publicly commissioned sculpture? These ones have moved far beyond what it is to be a freshman – they’re seniors, standing on massive piles of past accomplishments. Which is fine. I guess. But I never want to tie myself to myself like that. If I ever win an award for anything, I’ll draw on it or something.
3. You Can Do Both
Everyone thinks you have to pick one apple off the tree and fucking eat that apple so hard you eat the core as well as the flesh. Get your 10,000 hours! Get them! Read Malcolm Gladwell and then go out and be an outlier!
Umm…no. I object to the dedicate-your-life-to-being-a-master-at-one-thing philosophy. And not just because I have 2-4 things I want to be masterful at, and couldn’t imagine leaving any of those things crying on the curb like baby Moses, but because I know real people with real blood/pimples/etc. who are actually doing more than one thing and doing both things well! They’re writing a play that I think is good in the morning and building roads in the afternoon. Or starting a business and also cooking ten-course meals for twenty invited strangers at night. The do-one-thing-forever mindset is an illusion we’re made to believe in by the megaphones of the world telling us that everyone famous is only good at one thing, or one genre of things. Did you know Sylvia Plath was a painter? Paul Newman was an actor before he was a salad dressing (I know, I should know that, but come on). I bet Lady Gaga moonlights as an actuary! Or something.
Also, you’ve already been doing one thing since birth. Maybe you can’t name it in a word, but we’ve all been engaged in something since birth. My mom, for example, has already put 10,000 hours into worrying-about-things-that-will-never-happen-and-using-that-worry-to-increase-her-motivation. So she’s an outlier in that regard. Another friend has spent 10,000 hours in the field of making-minute-distinctions-between-different-shades-of-primary-colors. Yet another has been injecting-calculus-and-various-higher-math-concepts-into-ordinary-conversation for long enough to make him an expert at it.
It’s also not all about being famous, or making money, or being at the top of any single pyramid. The best things in this world were created by people who held two opposing poles in their souls and leveraged the tension that came from those two poles to propel something forward. Think of a bow and arrow, the first universal weapon of any real merit/craft. It’s the strength of the tension between two opposing ends of the bow – the ends actually have to pull away from each other for the bow to work! – that creates enough energy to shoot an arrow through a man’s heart.
I didn’t make this up. Read The Odyssey, Book 21, lines 386-411 (Lattimore translation). Then think about how “bow” and “life” are almost homonyms in Greek.
Think of what those two poles are in you. Find them. Then, carefully string a piece of sinew between those two ends. Figure out how to leverage both to make that arrow fly.
4. No One Cares
No one cares what the fuck freshmen do. My freshman year, I was in a play and portrayed a chrysalis in a cage. I literally was writhing around in a cage for a solid hour. My character was never offstage. And to top it all off, I was wearing a green tie-dyed jumpsuit.
And of course I had eaten too much peanut butter and gained 15 pounds, making the jumpsuit rather unflattering.
I also took out thirty books on Robert Frost from the library – some of the books were published before 1930 – and lugged them to my dorm in plastic bags from Northwestern’s University Library. This was stupid, because the bags broke and made me late to my next class. I was picking up fusty books written in the nineteenth century from a sidewalk outside a sorority. Wonderful.
The thing about being a freshman is you know not to give up. You know you’re a freshman and what you say will probably make little sense, and no one’s even listening. You have to examine your thoughts/words, and try to polish them. And this is just for you, until you can eventually (maybe) get good enough that people will start looking up from their lives to give you a second of attention.
The thing about being a freshman is you know you’re at the beginning. For a whole year, you’re at the starting block. You expect others to be better than you and further along, because they are. You have to arrange your life like the Titanic before it sank. You have to be the best, and you have to be the best at thinking you’re the best, to counteract all the negativity and down-nosing everyone else is doing at you.
This is not Your Life. It’s just life. Not really yours. Stop thinking you can control things and make everything just so and accept that this will end, the leaves will get brown and fall, and you’ll step on them and get the flecks on your feet. You’ll trail them into your apartment and no one will know or care what color they were when they were born in April.
So, spake the leprechaun, take this cornucopia of metaphors and go forth in your fresh soul/mind/body. Become a fresh man.