thoughtwisps One commit at a time

forking paths and extenuating circumstances

It’s almost half past five here and I can’t sleep. The streets are empty, the sky cold and clear. Here, away from the big city and its glittering carpet of lights - cold blue and yellow and red, the eyes can turn to the sky and pinpoint the Big Dipper and the Small and a brilliance of other constellations whose names I don’t know. Their old exhausted light started its journey to this moment long before I walked or talked, long before this field where I stand and look was plowed and sowed, aeons before this country where I am now was formed and fought over. Someone else will be marvelling at their beauty long after I am gone.

2017 was hard - not because I was alone and in a foreign country. That, by now, has become my de facto mode of existence. My accent has been whittled away to nondeterminate lilt in the way certain words step off the tongue and it now leaves the listener with more questions than answers about where and when. Pasts can now be used and discarded, a paper-cup convenience. But being alone together with millions of people, meeting their eyes awkwardly in the rush hour Tube crush just seconds before they give their attention to whatever is going on in the little simulacra running on their phones, the feeling of being untethered and not being able to read a map of whatever terrain I was travelling on, was not why this year made me feel as though I’d aged 40 years instead of one.

I left my job. On the surface, it was, of course, a voluntary decision, and yet, below the surface, I was paddling too hard to stay afloat in the crisscross of currents. It broke me and left me empty and edgeless, a piece of discarded wood spat out by the lowtide Thames. I wasn’t sure I could swim the water again or even dip my toe. But more than anything else, I was a disappointment, a let down, a quitter. In the immediately aftermath, I spent a few weeks staring at the muted grays of a ceiling (one assumes it had been white in another lifetime) and replaying those words and images of failure on repeat. A sickening feeling made a home in the pit of my stomach. I had destroyed everything (career, future, financial security etc etc) and I wasn’t even sure how or why I had done it. What felt like an aeon ago (even though only 3 years have passed), I had made a choice to try technology as a career. Like all choices made with incomplete information and infatuation with an image, the reality of the daily papercuts (with my infinite gratitude to Julie Pagano for first introducing this phrase into dicsourse about an individual’s lived experience in technology) has been hard to reconcile with the initial joy of producing programs.

I can’t help but think all of the things that I hoped would but didn’t happen, did so because I never tried hard enough. The mind’s natural defense against this is, of course, to make a laundry list of ‘extenuating circumstances’, something to point to and say ‘here, xyz is why I failed at abc’. It’s the kind of spirit that lives in the canned response we sometimes get from a good friend who has lent her ear to our troubles, whose sympathetic voice says, ‘But you could not have known about cde, otherwise you could have done fgh’. This is not to say everything is in our control, when it is obviously not, but this idea of being powerless in the face of the nebulous ‘xyz’, the ‘circumstances’ that slowly, sometimes suddenly and violently, drift beyond our control, has seduced me into thinking that I am not responsible.

Whether I made the mistakes I made this year because of ‘xyz’ or because of faults of my character, I want to make the next year about responsibility and focus, about carefully curating the no’s and yes’s. In the infinitely quotable, 1961 Vogue essay ‘On Self-Respect’, Joan Didion writes, ‘Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.’ I’ve been infatuated with so many things, I’ve hardly stopped to think about the price of any (this can be applied to work, technology, conferences, writing projects - the etc’s here are infinite for sure). There is a cost (that ever-present spectre of the FOMO) to saying no. What the FOMO-obsessed of us don’t know, is that sometimes the price we pay for always saying yes is even higher. Saying no forces one to think about what is important, what really matters, what really ought to be the focus of our fleeting time and skittish attention.