What if you just choose a life you really like?
That's the big question.
I've been asking myself this question a lot lately, as I cobble together a life for myself in LA. I lay awake at night asking that question. What if you just choose a life you really like? And it keeps me up, because I think, more often than we care to admit, we are afraid to do anything so smart and good as that.
And when I say choose a life you really like, I don't mean figuring everything out perfectly so you're never sad or unsure again. I just mean saying thank you more than please. I mean surrounding yourself with people who brighten you. I mean letting go of the fear of being unsettled sometimes.
We come up with all kinds of stupid reasons not to do it. Reasons like: Yeah, but what would people think? Reasons like: What if I'm not sure yet what I really like? Reasons like: What if I thought I knew what I liked and now I'm wrong? Reasons like: What if I end up alone? Reasons like: What if I fail?
And ultimately what it all comes down to is the reason: This life I have, this one that I don't quite like, is so much easier.
Today I was sitting in my bed eating guacamole and feeling sorry for myself. Half watching TV and half thinking about this question over and over. Wondering, is this the life I really like? How completely pathetic. And then the phone rang.
"You're never too broke to pay attention," my father's cheerful voice assured me. And he said it with such ease that it sounded like a punchline.
Never too broke to pay attention. It's a cute pun, sort of clever at best. Even my father couldn't get it out with a straight face. His wheezing laugh followed the statement out of his mouth, but then, suddenly more serious, he asked "You got me?"
"I have been trying to figure out what my life is going to be like," I had confided in him. And he'd told me it was a good pastime that he was still enjoying himself. "It's terrifying," I admitted.
"Oh yes, baby girl and it will keep on being terrifying. But you'll be okay. You just pay attention, you'll be okay. There aren't a lot of things I know, but I'm old enough to know this: You're never too broke to pay attention... You got me?"
"I got you," I said. But I didn't. I was mostly annoyed at being placated with a cliche. What does that even mean? I sat there, guacamole in hand, thinking about it after we got off the phone. I wanted this to be a revelation, but it didn't feel like one. I thought about it through my shift at work. Late into the night.
Sometimes I think my father is a soothsayer, and sometimes I think he is just full of shit. But today I needed him to do his magic, to explain something to me that I couldn't explain to myself. So I replayed his every word, trying to decode him.
And as I relived the phone call again in my mind, it became clearer. It became obvious.
"I wanted to call you," he says, "because you're so far away. And now I've got you right here on the phone. It's sort of like a miracle to hear your voice. I like talking to you when I can make you laugh. That's why I call you, to make you happy. And now I've done that. I'm telling you, it's a miracle."
To the smallest kindnesses you're offered. To the miracle of someone you love being happy to see you, or hear from you, or take the time to wish you well. Pay attention to the way you feel right when you wake up in the morning, to the luck of being alive. To the beautiful things you walk right past without noticing. Pay attention when someone tells you they love you. Pay attention to how it feels to feel good, and focus on feeling it more. Pay attention to the small moments you're allowed to breathe deeply. To the phone calls that make your day. To the tiny miracles.
"I listen to that album you gave me--Surf?" My father is smiling, and I can hear it. "I listen to it all the time, Nick. It is so good. And when I listen to it I brag out loud that my daughter gave me this. I brag even when nobody is around to hear me. You know how it was when I used to play music? This album is like that for me."
Pay attention when you have something to give, no matter how small it may seem. Pay attention to the ways you can be kinder to the people you love, to yourself. Pay attention to the things that make you feel like you haven't felt in a long time. Pay attention when your heart is open, and pay attention when it breaks. Pay attention when you're letting yourself get hurt. Pay attention when you get to look someone in the eyes and smile at the very same time as them. Pay attention to the songs that make you dance.
"I'm trying to think of something funny to tell you. Something good I can tell you, but I'm coming up dry," he says.
"Me too," I say. "I wish something funny was happening in my life, but it doesn't seem to be."
"Well then," he says with a laugh, "aren't we some shit."
Pay attention to how it feels to be accepted for exactly who you are. Pay attention to the people who challenge you to be better, but love you whether or not you take them up on it. Pay attention to the first breath of fresh air when you leave your house in the morning. Pay attention to how good food is when you're hungry. Pay attention to all the stupid small shit you love, like putting on ridiculous socks, or that Instagram account about a raccoon named Pumpkin. Pay attention to the words people say to you, and the way they say them.
"Do you know that I love you very much?" He wants to know.
"Yes I do. And I love you too."
"Yes, but I love you more, and I said it first." And then I hear that smile again.
There are a million ways to be disappointed. When I sit around for too long, in my bed eating guacamole and not amounting to much of anything, I can come up with most of them. And it is mortifying to wonder what my life is going to be like. Who is going to be in it and who isn't. Where I'm going to work, and where I'm not. How I'm going to pay rent, and what other kinds of bills I might come up with.
I worry sometimes that I have done everything wrong. That people don't like me, or that I am a nuisance. I get in my head about almost everything. I stop paying attention most days, most of the time. And so I miss it. This life that I really like. I miss getting to be me, and I miss getting to feel alive. I stop looking and I miss all the opportunities to fall in love and fall out of love and take a walk and take a shit and take a bath and be disgusting and awesome and ugly and dumb and perfect. I spend my whole life being sorry for what I didn't do right, or didn't say, or didn't mean. I stop paying attention to the fact that right now I am alive, and I can make whatever the fuck choices I want.
What if I just choose a life I really like?
"Now, my dear. Take a deep breath."
"Okay? Okay. Now. You just go back to being Nicky."
I laugh. "Okay, Dad. And you go back to being you."
"Who, me? I never left."
Pay attention to the joy. Fuck all the reasons not to try something different. Fuck being comfortable and easy. Be stupid, and uncertain and happy. Live, because you get to.
You'll be okay. It's terrifying, but you'll be okay.