23 Oct 2015

on regret and losing time

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For a man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his? So remember these two points: first, that each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle, and that it signifies not whether a man shall look upon the same things for a hundred years or two hundred, or for an infinity of time; second, that the longest lived and the shortest lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing…As for life, it is a battle and a sojourning in a strange land; but the fame that comes after is oblivion. –Marcus Aurelius

I’ve had the most extraordinary few days in Seattle. I spent time with old friends and bought a tower of new books written by new-to-me authors. I wore bulky sweaters; I feasted on sandwiches that had both bacon and prosciutto, and I cuddled with all the animals. Yet…I feel really sad. And old.

I came to Seattle to see Sarah Hepola read. Reading her book put my heart on pause because I felt as if she had described my life-long love affair with booze. Like Sarah, I thought it was perfectly normal to pre-game (economics!), drink hard and fast (I can keep up with the boys!), and lose time (because everyone has blackouts when they drink, right?) Drinking was fun until it was no longer fun and by then you’re finding excuses to remain in a committed abusive relationship rather than make plans for escape. I’ve spent nine years sober with one really bad two-month relapse, and not drinking has been the best gift I’ve given to myself. And although it doesn’t do me any good to think about regrets, to talk about what I’ve lost, I can’t help but feel as if I lost so much time, and I’m now racing to fill the gaps the drink edged away. I have to write because there were so many years I didn’t write. I have to create, produce. I have to…I have to…

And then I sit in a chair, by myself, before Sarah’s reading and a woman next to me makes small talk. She’s new to Seattle, new to books, and talks about all the people she needs to meet, all the people who are good to know. I nod and don’t say much, only that I live in Los Angeles and I was moved by Sarah’s story of addiction and recovery. The woman smiles and it occurs to me that she’s young, nearly half my age, and I spend most of the evening talking to friends, enjoying readings and parties, but all the while thinking–you are not young.

You’ve lost so much time.

Trust me, I know all of the antecedents. All the ways in which I could respond to those words: you’ve lost so much time. While others are frightened of aging, so much so they’ll slather cream on their faces and inject botulism in their body, I don’t mind my age–I only regret the time I lost. All the years I simply do not remember. All the mistakes I’ve made, people I’ve hurt, words and time I can’t get back.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day in my friend’s co-working space, working on a new story. I met a recent transplant from New York, and as it turns out we both worked at HarperCollins and we know many of the same people in book publishing. We talked about the business of books, but mostly books, rattling off authors we haven’t read and the many we’ve yet to read. Our refrain: There’s not enough time! In that room of three, I felt the most at home. I felt like when I was 24, right before I started the Columbia program, and I read books for the simple pleasure of enjoying them. I didn’t read them to social climb, to know the sometimes unseemly details behind the books–I read books because I felt less alone. So for a brief moment I tried to forget the fifteen years that span not knowing and knowing and it felt good to be suspended, trapped, in a kind of guileless wonder.

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And while I spent an evening with really lovely people, heard a host of talented writers read–I felt…small. And alone. I listened to a young spoken word poet and I envied his fresh face and verve. His was a world filled with so much possibility, while I felt like the old woman in the back smoking a cigarette, coughing that deep guttural cough, telling the kids there’s no Santa Claus. No fairy comes down and swoops under your pillow. It’s your mother exchanging your teeth for spare change. New doesn’t exist anymore, and if it does it’s hard to find. New is what you need to create for yourself not what you so casually encounter. Because, by now, people have their opinions of me and my work, and much of that is hard to change or undo and depending on the person I don’t have the energy to do the work. To say, yeah, this was me ten years ago but I’m not that person now. I’m this person, who writes these things, and lives this life. And even though I met extraordinary people, part of me just wanted to crawl home and under the covers, clutching my pile of books.

And this image, my want for it, made me so fucking sad.

I read an article last week, about a man who died alone. A whole life reduced to mystery. I read the piece, heartbroken, and the first thing I said after was, ha, that’ll probably be me. There will exist a time when everything I write here will be erased, my small books will be out of print, the stories I write which few people read will be replaced by some other social network, and I will have no children because I’ve made a conscious decision to not have children. Because you don’t have children because you’re frightened that your life didn’t have meaning or won’t be remembered and passed on. You have children because you want to shepherd a new life into the world and hold their hand along the way.

My friends in their 50s and 60s still call me a kid even though I’m in the nascent stages of talking about purpose. Even though I lament about what I lost and how little time I have left to do what I need to do.

Do I wish I could be that young spoken word poet who has the privilege of having the world unfurl in front of him anew? You better fucking believe it. Do I wish I could have done so much over? Yes. Do I know the antecedent story of all! the! things! you! can! do! now! Yes, yes, yes. Of course. But it doesn’t make this sadness, this loss, any easier to bear.

I stayed up late last night curled up next to my friend’s cat (below–isn’t he ADORB) and felt a kind of peace.

And yes, I realize this post is self-absorbed, emo, and kind of sad, but that’s how I feel right now. Sad.

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22 Comments

  1. Thanks for your honesty. Having recently turned 39, I find myself at times feeling loss and sadness, not about my age (which I’m fine with) but about all the shit I haven’t done (I feel like I’m finally getting my stride in terms of what I am doing and want to do with my life), and all the time I wasted with nonsense and self-destructive behavior. It’s hard to sit with sometimes. I can totally relate.
    Also, that cat is the cutest ever and I want to cuddle him.

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
  2. ohomsremi wrote:

    Loved your post. Been having emotional and physical ups and downs for some months now. And lots of regret about time lost.
    I realise that all I can do is make the most of NOW but its so difficult not to long for ‘what could have been’. So I take it a day at a time, and try to enjoy the good days.

    Love the cat, btw!

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
  3. mineall6 wrote:

    Cute kitty, looks like he enjoys those cuddles.
    I understand where you’re coming from, I’ve been feeling the same way recently. Especially as I watch my oldest daughter going through it as well.

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
  4. I can’t say I have the same experience with addiction, but I do have regrets over lost time. I spent too much time with people who didn’t really add value to my life, and now I always wonder where I would be now and how I might be different as a person if I had realized this and sought out better relationships sooner. I didn’t know better- most people don’t until it’s too late. I hope things get better for you! Thank you for sharing and always being so sincere.

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
  5. Time! Where did the time go. I turned 40 and I think that was my wake up call. That’s when I realized surely there’s more to this. Surely I’m here for something much greater. Regrets? I have thousands. But life won’t be life without regrets. Without falling. Without failing.
    Great post!

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
  6. I also read the article about the man who died alone and had the same thought. I’m alone…and I will die alone..While I brought a female into the world, we are currently estranged. I have stopped being a mother. Now that has been the lonliest experience of my life. I read your book because of it. I devour your blog as a result of what young women your age are thinking. Keep writing. I will continue reading. You have given me much food for thought.

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
  7. I’m 44 and can relate so much to how you feel, having wasted over 9 years in an abusive relationship on someone that wasn’t worth one day of my life. I look back on those years and have punished myself so much for having endured what I did in the name of ‘love’ or ‘commitment’. I have had to practice a great deal of self-forgiveness in order to slow down now and accept that I can’t make up for lost time. NOW is the only moment I have, and I don’t rush through it anymore. Great post, as always!

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
    • So true, Tanya! I actually wrote a short story yesterday where I quoted (or butchered, to be honest) this from Buddha:

      “The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live, and that is the present moment”

      I try to read this daily. I try to say it out loud even on those dark days where it’s so easy to slip back into the past.

      Posted on 10.24.15 · Reply to comment
  8. I too am childless (and sibling-less, no nieces or nephews for me), and I only truly started writing at 38. I read that article in the Times and I saw myself in there; I sit at readings and conferences and feel like the crone in the room. At times it feels like everyone who is where I am writing-wise is ten, twenty years younger, young enough to be my child even. And it all is what it is, but the sorrow is real, the regret is real, the irrevocable-ness of it all sometimes feels like the most real thing in my life.

    Which is all to say I saw myself in your words as well.

    Posted on 10.23.15 · Reply to comment
    • thank you, L.S. There is something really magical about that time we took for granted. And while I don’t admonish my years and the age I am now, I’m trying to recreate for myself that magic I knew then. I know it won’t be the same because it would be disingenuous, but I hope for you and for me, that we can find it 🙂

      In solidarity, f. xo

      Posted on 10.24.15 · Reply to comment
  9. Janet wrote:

    Even people who lived “well” (by whatever arbitrary standard) can look back and wonder what they could have done differently. Who we are now is formed by what we did in our past, good or bad. Just because the time feels lost doesn’t mean there wasn’t something gained.

    I read George Bell’s story and while his life and death sounded very sad and plays into the worst fears of many of us (dying alone surrounded by piles of newspapers…) it did have meaning – think of all those who read this article and are resolving to live life differently because of it. Plus the beneficiaries who could pay off medical bills – even those who didn’t know him will be thinking of him fondly and he won’t be forgotten. And he did have friends in his local bar who miss him. It’s an important reminder to look at those around us – really look – who is on the periphery of our lives who we maybe don’t pay much attention to but would miss if they were gone? Do they know that? If we reach out to each other no one would need to die alone.

    Posted on 10.24.15 · Reply to comment
    • Janet — Thank you for sharing all of this. While I know all of this logically (and did in coming to write this post), it doesn’t make my immediate fears and temporary sadness easier to bear. I’m sure I’ll get out of this funk soon. thanks again.

      Posted on 10.24.15 · Reply to comment
      • Janet wrote:

        Whatever happened in the past you certainly have an impact now, even to strangers on the internet reading your posts for the beautiful prose and valuable insights.

        Is some of this funk from the move? Even when it’s all good there’s a sense of disconnection and impermanence that can happen anyway, especially when the novelty has started to wear off.

        Posted on 10.24.15 · Reply to comment
  10. Barbara wrote:

    I don’t think there is one person out there who doesn’t relate to this. We’ve all felt we’ve lost time whether it’s been through addiction, laziness, illness or just too much time spent being angry. And as corny as this sounds, it’s ok to be sad. I tell this to my ten year old and then I tell her that the sadness will go. The harder part is telling it to myself…!

    Thanks again for your words.

    Posted on 10.24.15 · Reply to comment
  11. kwake wrote:

    Youth is indeed wasted on the young. If I knew then what I know now, I would have woken up earlier, spent less time partying, and allowed the toxic relationships to fall apart. Anyone over the age of 30 with an ounce of maturity can relate to this post.

    Posted on 10.25.15 · Reply to comment

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Characters are delicious. When I was small, I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with books and my imagination. It’s a strange, magical thing to live your life inside your head, but this is what I did. Long, sultry summers formed a backdrop for one of the many worlds I’d created, complete with a cast of characters who felt so real you could touch them. This was more than inventing an imaginary friend or anthropomorphizing a stuffed bear; my characters were fully-formed people who had their own personalities, a particular way of talk, and facial features I’d cobbled together from television shows and magazines. They clasped pearls around their thin necks and wore sweaters and shoes made of silk and dyed blue. They were carriers of credit cards, plastic rectangular shapes I’d only seen on TV — a far cry from the crumpled bills and pennies we hoarded. My characters were breathing Frankensteins, only far less frightening. What made them real was they refused to follow a script — they rarely behaved the way I wanted them to.
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Denis Johnson once said that dialogue isn’t about what characters are saying, but what’s left unsaid. The leaner the dialogue, the bigger the bite. Darkness fell. The summer in 2005 was unseasonably chilly, and we wrapped ourselves in light jackets and thin cotton sweaters, watching the author of Jesus’ Sonchain-smoke and dole out advice with humor and humility. We were at a writer’s conference where we workshopped our stories during the day and mingled with boldfaced names in the evening. This would be the summer before I sold my first book and I was floored that my teacher at the time, Nick Flynn, found something honest and worthy in my essays that would become my memoir, The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here. Back then, I was painfully shy and prone to giving violently awkward first impressions, so instead of the cocktails and conversation, I chose to sit on the wet grass and listen to writers whom I admired. One evening, Denis Johnson gave a talk on dialogue.
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Dialogue is difficult. I often think of it as the power-lifter of novel writing because it has to operate successfully on several different levels. Not only does it have to move the story forward, convey information quickly, and grant narrative breathing space (because who wants to plow through pages without an exhale), but it also has to reveal core character truths. Dialogue delivers what narrative can’t — a voyeuristic, in-depth look into the minds of characters through what they say, and more importantly, what they chose not to disclose. Characters come to life when they speak. We visualize them as living, breathing people who have a particular way of talk, a specific view of the world and their place in it. While the author has dominion over the narrative, serving as your tour guide through the story, the dialogue serves as the wild card, the wrench that could usurp everything you’ve just read and what you’re about to read.
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These podcasts invite guests who look and sound just like them. They regurgitate the same bullshit business advice that Seth Godin wrote a decade ago, and pithy platitudes because it got that influencer turned entrepreneur rich on Instagram, and now she sells courses for $600 a pop when she’s never done the thing she teaches for anyone other than herself. These people are so obsessed with building their brand that they forgot to be human.
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