I am caught in one of those periods where I cannot focus or concentrate for longer than a few minutes. There are piles of books and articles to be read, pieces to write, work to get done, but I find myself watching endless tape loops of the devastating earthquake in Japan, or the people of Libya rising up against that odd looking tyrant.
It does not help matters that I am struggling to breathe. For the last few weeks, what started as a chest infection blossomed into a pneumonia-like conflagration. I have completed my cycle of antibiotics and still, the hacking cough lingers. It is one of those coughs where you pull muscles trying to clear the airway. So I cannot breathe, I am sore, and the fatigue is overwhelming. Writing the last sentence requires a rest.
Outside, we are experiencing perfect spring weather here in Los Angeles. No doldrums between winter and the first buds here. We have jumped right in with both feet: eighty degree temperatures, bright sunshine, and beautiful blue skies. This weekend, we moved the clocks ahead an hour for daylight savings, so now we have what would constitute summer for many parts of the country.
I have been struck over the last months that things are changing. Of course, they are always changing, but I have felt this change in my bones, on a profound level, but what puzzles me is the nagging question: changing to what? I sense movement, but I cannot ascertain the destination. At heart, I am a control freak, I guess, because when on a journey, I like to know where I am going. Of course, we never know where we are truly going, but I like a trip with an announced destination, even if we do not wind up there. All I know is that things are moving, I am along for the ride, and there is no telling where we will end up.
The other thought that keeps circling my brain is that in America, we are defined by our jobs. I am a writer or a teacher or a content-provider. Right now, I feel like Paul. That’s it. Just Paul. When I am thrust into the role of student, teacher, writer, I don’t feel permanently those things. I feel like I am in Burlington Coat Factory and they are having a sale. I am trying on different coats and looking at myself in the mirror. Sometimes, when someone calls my name—“Paul!”—I want to stand there and see what happens, as if a ghost me will come bounding into the picture and respond. My name does not feel it belongs to me anymore. This weirdness started up when a colleague of mine kept confusing me with another person named Daniel. I actually emailed her to tell her I was not Daniel because she kept labeling my work as “Daniel’s Report.” Both names are strong and biblical, but if she were going to rename me, I would have liked Ezekiel, or Elijah. Paul was Saul who had to have God knock him off his horse because he was too stubborn to mend his ways, and Daniel hung around with the lions, and I hate cats, but Ezekiel and Elijah were prophets, seers of the future. Plus, how cool is this dialogue: “What is your name?”
“I am Elijah.”
That would stop conversation at a party.
I am not Elijah. I am Paul, a distracted writer living in Los Angeles, recovering from a chest infection, and trying to refocus his attention on the world. Just last week, someone was saying how bloggers are clogging up the universe with too much navel gazing. Sorry to reinforce the stereotype.
Occasionally, we must all take a time out, a moment to breathe and let our attention wander. We reassess, refocus, redouble our efforts, set new goals, and off we go. We are not defined by our jobs, but often our work gives shape and heft to our lives, and although work pays the bills, it often informs our existence and gives us purpose.
I also think that when things are too overwhelming, we have no choice but to become distracted. The pictures and stories from Japan keep haunting me. Yes, we could have something like that happen here in Los Angeles, but it is more than just self-interest that paralyzes me. Once again, real life trumps anything we could create. We are so proud of our evolution, our higher order thinking skills. We are civilized. Yet, who really runs this planet? In the end, like sheep or gazelle, we are at the mercy of nature and the forces of the universe. And the disaster may not be over. The coup de grace may come at our own hand: our desire to harness the power of nuclear fission. Not the earthquake or tsunami, but the exploding power plant will be the one to get us all in the end, although the earth shaking and the flooding killed their fair share on Friday.
So maybe it is the waiting for the ax to fall that gives me the temporary attention deficit disorder. Maybe it is the fragility of life, the perilous way the future might unfold that gives me pause. Like I didn’t know these things before?
There is only one defense against the awesome power of fate, the destructive force of nature: the story. We must tell the story. That is what the poets and the prophets do. They tell us what it means to be alive. They tell us of heroes, of battles on the horizon, of strength in the face of adversity. We must lift ourselves out of the malaise and go on. These are the best of times, the worst of times—isn’t it always that way? We are human, and often, humans must be knocked from the saddle on to their asses and struck blind to see the error of their ways. Then we get up and shoulder on. In the midst of immense tragedy and destruction, the story continues, and so do we. That is the way of the world