on anniversaries and the moral bucket list

// Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Last week was a weird week for me, full of anniversaries and birthdays and histories. My boyfriend’s birthday was earlier in the week, which was lovely and wonderful and we spent Sunday up in Portland in celebration, wandering around in the sunshine (and finally seasonally appropriate warm weather!) and heading to Duckfat for the first time (might make a post about it soon: I know it’s not a ~new thing~ but man, it was good).

But then midweek, last week, was April 15th. On a personal note, that date is the anniversary of a personal matter that I haven’t figured out how to write about in this space yet: I probably will, eventually, but now is not that time. But it’s a day for me that has a huge spectrum of emotions, and it puts me in sort of a odd headspace. And on a much larger, much more emotionally complicated anniversary scale, April 15th is the second anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombings. Boston is my home, in the broad sense. I’ve grown up (and spent my whole life so far) in Massachusetts, and I work in downtown Boston. And I was at work in downtown Boston two years ago – I work about a mile away from the finish line, and it’s a Day, for Boston and for Massachusetts and for the country. I’m lucky: I’ve only peripherally felt the effects, in that I know people who know people, but nothing happened to anyone in my immediate circle of family and friends. It still has impacted me, absolutely, but I’m lucky. At least, as of last Wednesday, Tsarnaev was found guilty on all counts in the Marathon Bombings. So that’s something. But regardless, April 15th is a Day.

And because of all that last week was, I’ve been out of sorts. I haven’t felt like writing, haven’t wanted to write, other than when I accidentally filled three journal pages writing about something that happened a million years ago, and even then, it was Facts versus Writing, just because I wanted to see if I could. I haven’t been writing the way I want to write, lately. I’ve been overthinking and overanalyzing, and even just on here, I’ve got a half dozen drafts in various states. None are where I want them to be: I can’t find the right words, can’t get the feeling right, can’t translate what I’m thinking in my head to words on a computer screen.

But the reason this post is coming out of drafts and into the world is this: I really want to write about the “The Moral Bucket List” by David Brooks, an excellent piece from last week’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times, which has been circling the internet some already, but I want it in this space, too. and it was exactly, precisely, what I needed to read. It’s long, but it’s worth it. If it weren’t bad form and a crappy internet thing to do, I’m pretty sure I’d just paste the entire article here. But it is bad form to do so, so as such, here are a couple parts of the article that really resonated with me:

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.


Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?

Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.

The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.


External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.

There’s lots to do ahead. And so many people fit into the “stumblers” category; we’re all just figuring out what works and what doesn’t and trying to find those moments of great joy, whether collective or personal. That’s what I want to focus on. That’s what I am focusing on. Because anniversaries and the memories and histories that go with them are easy to get lost in; but the fact of the matter is that the past is something to remember, not live in. And there are wonderful things in the future, even if a lot of the future, right now, is unknown and not fixed – but that, in and of itself, almost makes it more joyful, because the possibilities are endless, even the if the unknown is and can be frightening in the best of ways. This last week might have been difficult, yes, but, as above, those pieces of time are part of something bigger, a story that is and always will be unfolding, because there’s always another page to read, to live, to experience. And that’s the important thing.

Today, I’m drinking coffee out of a mug covered in hearts, literally, and that’s about where I’m at. Here’s to forward and futures.

on reading and goals in 2014

// Friday, January 31, 2014

A week ago, I read a New York Times article/opinion piece, “Reading Books is Fundamental” by Charles M. Blow, that cites a recent Pew study regarding Americans and reading in 2013. The study is primarily examining the growth of e-reading and its relationship to how books are consumed, but the study also provides telling information about the amount Americans read. According to the study, the ‘typical American’ read five books last year, but what’s more interesting is the breakdown of people who read a certain number of books [p. 12 of the report]:

PIAL2. During the past 12 months, about how many BOOKS did you read either all or part of the way through? Please include any print, electronic, or audiobooks you may have read or listened to.

None – 23%
1 book – 5%
2-3 books – 14%
4-5 books – 12%
6-10 books – 17%
11-20 books – 13%
More than 20 books – 15%
Don’t Know – 2%

The fact that twenty-three percent of the Americans surveyed did read even one book all the way through is depressing. Only thirty-one percent of those surveyed read between one and five books, and the survey doesn’t even ask them to specify if they read them through to completion. I think we should do better than that.

That said, in 2013,  I didn’t do much better, honestly, than the majority of Americans, now that I’m thinking back on it. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman in its entirety, but I’m not actually sure if I completely read anything else that I previously hadn’t read. I’ve read and reread bits and pieces of books I love (Good Omens, also by Neil Gaimen, is the first that comes to mind, but there was also The Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais and Free Fall by Robert Crais, and others that I can’t think of).  I started The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver back in March, but I’ve still yet to finish it. I’m in the middle of a super simplified introduction to statistics book, because I’ve realized that’s an area in which my knowledge is lacking. That said, though, the amount of serious books I read has diminished considerably. There are too many other things able to distract me: the internet, largely, but also an ever changing social life and figuring out how to better distribute my time (which is to say, the shift to working full time and a frequently changing commute (I moved twice in 2013) made it such that it took me longer than it should have to develop a routine).

I’ve set a lot of tangible goals for 2014 without specifics to which I need to adhere: for instance, I am determined that I’m going to use this blog (and purchase this domain one of these days, as well as decide if it makes sense to move to self-hosted or just purchase the custom design upgrade), but I haven’t set an “x post per month” rule or guideline. I am trying to be realistic about it, because I think if I do set an “x posts per week” rule, it’s too easy to feel like I’ve fallen hopelessly behind, which can end up spiraling downward. (See: a few failed blog attempts in the past, the fact that my daily journaling is now 21 days behind.)

Reading more books falls under that same category of ‘goals set without specifics’. Reading in general does as well. Because my grandma is wonderful, I now have unlimited access to the New York Times website and apps, so I’ve been at least marginally better about reading articles daily. I’m not reading varied enough articles yet, but it’s a habit that had fallen by the wayside; it takes a little time to redevelop the discipline. Academic reading is on that list as well, and thanks to Coursera and edX, I’m inspired to do more. I’ve signed up for two free* courses, a counterterrorism course through Coursera and a introductory computer programming course through edX. I love my job, but in some ways I miss taking classes (for the learning aspect; I have no desire to still be in college), so essentially free, relatively self-paced courses are a great way for me to start using that part of my brain again.
  [* While both courses are free, I’m taking the Coursera course as a Verified Certificate Course, which means it costs $50. I think it’ll be worth it.]

In spite of the lack of specifics re: the goals I’ve set, however, a friend and I have decided to hold each other accountable for our writing; as such, starting February 1st, I’m committing to writing for at least half an hour every day with one skip day allowed each week. Provided that goes well, I’m going to up it to an hour. I’m looking forward to this. I know there’s some author that said writing is a muscle; said muscle is something I’m working on strengthening again. (In related things, one of my best friends is planning to be in the best shape of his life by age 25, and I’m inspired to work out physically more as well. His goal is a good one, and I’m latching onto that momentum a little.)

Point being, basically: here’s to getting in all different kinds of shape this year. 2014 is going to be a good year.