The children are asleep. I sit in a comfortable house a stone's throw from the ocean after finishing a short Neil Gaiman novel called The Ocean at the End of the Lane. On any given day if you asked me what I would most like to be doing and where I would like to be doing it, my answer would probably center around reading a good book at the beach. It's been nearly three weeks since I last had to work, and I still have over three more weeks of leave before life resumes normality. I'm growing a beard. This morning I woke up just in time for a lazy jog on the beach as the sun rose.
A few months ago I ached for this experience, and yet here I am and how do I feel? Restless and discontent. Nothing so strong as despair or depression, mind you, rather just a quiet impression in the background that things could be better.
In Gaiman's fanciful novel, the seven-year-old main character encounters powerful beings that live down the lane from his family's country home in England. First as an unwitting participant, and then mostly as a spectator, his life becomes briefly entwined with theirs and the thin veil of reality is peeled back to expose a world much larger and stranger than rural England. As the novel concludes, however, the otherworldly crisis is resolved and he returns to his life, forgetting entirely those few days of wonder and grandiosity. This left me pondering whether those few days changed him, or whether the absence of memory means they may as well have never even occurred. One would hope for the former, but sad experience suggests the latter may be closer to the truth. How often I have complacently discarded life's lessons by the wayside, unremembered as the now and later stole all attention from what had been.
In fact, this thought reminded me of an evening in Mexico City less than a year and a half ago. I was in the middle of a three month assignment in that country which provided me with generous amounts of free time to explore the country and spend as I wished. Although apart from my family, we communicated frequently and my wife was even able to visit for six days and celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. By all outward appearances, life had given me all that I asked of it. And yet, echoes of those same feelings of restlessness and discontent tugged at the edge of consciousness.
I believe that restlessness has its roots at least in childhood, or perhaps even before that, to times disremembered by us all. Do these moments that I had worked so hard to craft for my own pleasure reflect my true desires? Or are they things settled for, mere compromises of the deeper longings within?
As a child I dreamed big. I loved to read, and I knew that one day I would write books that other people loved to read. The books I read told stories of exceptional people living above the everyday, mundane existences I saw in the lives of those adults around me. Most of the adults always seemed a bit sad to me. As I child I never dwelt on this too much, but as a mid-thirties adult I think I misrecognized sadness as resignation. Or perhaps I am incorrectly assuming that my own feelings and experience are universal. If so, don't judge too harshly, and brush off my egotism as naïveté.
In fact, none of this is about anyone other than me, but I still feel compelled to write about it. What occurred to me that night in Mexico, and reoccurs tonight by the beach, is that I have strayed from what I intuitively knew as a child. That principle is that true happiness is only found in creation. None of the creations of my youth would have seemed very impressive to an outside observer. A friend and I converted two rooms and a hallway of my parents' home into a haunted house for our friends to tour; another friend and I collaborated over the phone for hours, designing the perfect video game in excruciating detail that we hoped to one day bring to life; me, alone in my bedroom, putting my meager artistic abilities to work for several days as I reproduced the cover of a favorite comic book with colored pencils. I choose these three seemingly random memories because, in spite of how insignificant their initial appearance, to me they are each quite important because of the satisfaction they provided (in fact, still provide, though it is only the memory of contentedness).
Creation doesn't have to be one hundred percent original. All it has to be is uniquely yours, something that no one else can lay claim to. Sure, the comic cover I laboriously copied was conceived and created by a much more talented artist. And yet, somehow that didn't diminish my experience of recreating the cover as my own (vastly inferior) artwork. Do we discount the creativity of the pianist simply because the work he played was composed by someone else?
Creation doesn't even have to be physical - in fact, I believe that intellectual and spiritual creations will outlast all others. The video game my friend and I developed never became anything more than a very elaborate, imagined plan. But for our purposes, imagination satisfied our childhood needs, and there was never a serious purpose on our part of turning it into a physical creation. That didn't make it any less real, however, and it helped strengthen an invaluable friendship that helped a couple of teenage boys survive the trials of adolescence.
Indeed, this reminds me that the greatest creation of my life is the loving relationship between my wife and I. Though intangible, this has led to the quite tangible creation of six children, each unique and beloved individually by us. They provide my life with its greatest meaning. In the most treasured moments of my adult life, I lose myself in the joy of living with them and loving them.
While creation provides me with true fulfilment, I have found its opposite to be far more common in my life - consuming. The latter is more frequent and much easier in today's world. The next post was mostly written as an email to my wife that night in Mexico City, and shares some of my thoughts on creating versus consuming.