Over the past year or so, I’ve developed some habits that I’m not particularly proud of. Books, once piled high on my nightstand, have been replaced by the sheathes of catalogs that appear, four and six at a time, in my mailbox. The New Yorker and The Paris Review have lain waste to magazines targeted at parents and homemakers. Even the Web, once a resource for inspiration and occasional distraction has now become almost entirely recreational. (Just now, as I typed that sentence, my phone buzzed to let me know that Houzz, a home improvement app, had published a new newsletter. One of the subjects in today’s issue, tucked neatly between “A Prefab Modern Farmhouse Rises in Vermont” and “Unlock Your Smart Phone’s Front Door Powers” is “What Chihuahuas Can Teach Us about Interior Design.”)
I think it’s fair to say I may need an intervention.
The shift happened slowly — over the course of the past five years as we added three children to our number and I found it more and more difficult to gather the energy to think clearly past 7:00 p.m. But it is unfair to blame entirely on parenthood the erosion of my thought life and the absence of any aspirations beyond surviving today. Perusing design blogs, Pinterest recipes, and perfectly staged photos of a stylized life is just easier than doing the real thing, and it always has been.
I tend to feel intimidated by the prospect of truly aspiring to greatness — a weakness I’ve harbored for as long as I can remember. If I don’t believe that I can achieve at the highest level of whatever sparks the competitor in me, I sit it out, turning instead to things that don’t engender feelings of competition or striving. I would love to create a lovely space filled with the aroma of delicious, beautifully prepared food for our family and friends, and I do hope to be a positive, intentional force in the lives of my children, but I am not tempted to compete with others or even pursue self-defined greatness in making an artful home or parenting. I suffer no agony over poorly styled bookshelves or the fact that I do not labor, even for one second, to turn the red and green peppers in my child’s lunch box into a field of flowers.
I understand that at least some people who obsess about bookshelves and bento boxes are using them as channels for their creativity and that’s fine, but for me, things of that nature are entirely voyeuristic and devoid of aspiration. The effort of thought-life, though, is something I once worked hard to polish as a writer. I would go so far as to say that the foundation of my identity rests in the work of reflection. And while I don’t feel I need to have the “best” contemplative thoughts, I do like to have good ones, and I like to communicate them. Even more than all that, I simply like to have the time and space to form them. Somewhere along the way, something about the absence of that space in my daily life caused me to let go entirely, leaving me with an expansive feeling of wanting. For what, I did not know.
The truth is, I’ve been granted most of the things I always hoped for — a happy marriage, three lovely children, a comfortable home — but in the midst of that, I’ve lost track of what I’m truly longing for.
In 2011, the artist Candy Chang transformed the facade of an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood into a giant community chalkboard and stenciled the words “Before I die . . . ” onto it. Anyone could finish the sentence with the chalk she left there. What emerged was a portrait of her neighborhood’s hopes and dreams —funny, poignant, resolute, and witty — written in black and white and color on a space once vandalized with graffiti. In a TED Talk she presented last year, Chang said that the project became about “knowing you’re not alone, understanding our neighbors in new and enlightening ways, making space for reflection and contemplation and remembering what matters most to us as we grow and change.”
As I watched Chang’s TED Talk, I had to wonder: if my life were that abandoned building, what would be its facade? Would it be plastered with unattainable images of homes and food, unlikely kiddie craft projects, and Patagonia’s entire Fall 2013 catalog? Maybe it would be filled with more specific things that are so easy to think about wanting: new furniture for our living room, a closet filled with adorable clothing for my children, or one of those awesome slicers that can cut zucchini paper-thin. Or maybe, just maybe, if I were brave enough to voice to the world the things I actually want and hope and dream to do, it would be painted the color of a peony and covered with wishes. Wishes to travel fearlessly, to write without regret, to live in such a way that it’s clear I’ve found a way to give volume to true love, a life lived bravely, heart-full and in search of an adventure — all while diminishing the nagging, anxious voices leading me down paths of constant petty distraction.
That last sentence sounds pretty ideal. And the perfectionist in me, the person who actually wants all of that, hesitates to pursue it. Why? Because it’s hard. And it’s unlikely that I could actually do it without falling down a couple hundred times. And I don’t like falling down. But I think I might like writing my wishes on a wall better than pinning things on a virtual pinboard, and who knows what would follow. It may be time to give that a try.
Towles Kintz is a mother of three and a pursuer of beauty in all its forms. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her family and blogs, on occasion, at www.towleskintz.wordpress.com.