A few weeks ago, my therapist said she imagines me sitting at a way station, awaiting the train to the next stop, wherever that may be. I’ve been biding my time, sometimes idly, sometimes not, at this station for months now, having rather abruptly departed life-as-it-was in Hargeisa earlier this year, and now expecting at least several more months until the next train rolls in to pick me up. (For insight on how to really excel at impromptu—and extended!—-train station accommodations, with livery, tea service, and all, read this extraordinary story). The metaphor feels apt, except that most train stations have a firm schedule, and mine seems to be anything but. In any case, I find myself living in the home where I grew up—or rather, one floor down in the lower apartment—and really feeling the between-and-betwixt of the situation.
I’m mostly, though reluctantly, moved in but unwilling to invest in a proper nest because, well, it seems wasteful for an impermanent roost. On the other hand, without the trappings of a home, I feel listless, unmoored, things that only amplify my way-station state of mind. And there is an increasingly lengthy list of things to do around the house; small repairs, tweaks, bits and bobs, the chores that require just enough energy to be endlessly relegated to tomorrow’s to-do list. The chain of an overhead light has sprung loose; a tattered lamp shade needs recovering; a few pictures need hanging; doors removed from hinges for the sake of space should probably find a resting place beyond the dining room. I sit on a bench at the way station, swinging my legs, gazing at all the things around me that are also in a transitory state.
When things are broken, it’s easy to fixate on the fix. You get consumed by what should be, and start to imagine things that way, overlooking the cracks, the stains, the dead light bulbs, the mess. Much of the time, we live in denial of how things are, right now. We press forward into perfection, buoyed by craving and delusion. How many things do you do that are geared toward results, geared toward an ideal that doesn’t exist yet? Exercise plans, work, beauty regimens, even financial savings, sacrifices left and right. Motivation has its rewards: the only way to better oneself is to imagine “better” and then strive for it. But sometimes the better fills our vision, engulfs the gap between reality and objective.
I believe that American (U.S.) culture takes this to an extreme—we impatiently strive for the biggest, fastest, richest, superlative version. So racked are we with inferiority, even guilt, when we fail to achieve lofty goals that we get comfortable faking it–buying objects we can’t afford, claiming accolades we didn’t earn, and inventing achievements out of the blue. Not everyone is like this, of course, but dissatisfaction with the present average is in our (myself included) cultural DNA. We salivate over what’s just beyond our reach, and do whatever it takes to attain—or at least appear to attain—the ideal. It’s a double-edged sword; the same impetus that built prolific industry and leadership also blinds us to some of our deepest institutional sins.
I think a lot lately about the concept of renewal, and what it means in the face of brokenness—broken relationships, broken plans, broken pasts. Sitting quietly in the house where I grew up, observing the same views out the windows, turning the same corners from room to room, memories of my mother and my childhood emerging from the floorboards and the closets, I feel like I’m on a looped train track, and I grasp for evidence of change. In a consumerist culture, renewal is bought and sold with an emphasis on the external: get a new job, a new car, a new hairstyle, and believe yourself reinvented, somehow transformed. But there must be more to it, renewal seems multidimensional. What does inner renewal feel like? Is it turbulent, a wrestling with discomfort or pain? Is it stillness? Does it feel sparkly, or more like a heavy foot taking a labored step from darkness towards light?
Maybe renewal is more like an unfolding of new realizations that broaden the picture into a panorama, enlightening the laborer. Maybe it’s the act of closing doors that were letting the draft in and chilling the heart. Maybe it’s the startling discovery of pockets of patience you hadn’t noticed before—reserves that get you through days, months, moments that seemed insurmountable. There are elements of newness in each of these, and they are ripe for endless iterations—new, and renew, and renewal. When you look around at a broken scene, what is new about it? Letting go of perfection, rather leaning into the hardest, sharpest bits, coming around to them in a few hours, tomorrow, next week—what is new each time you sit with the mess? You are. In tiny, even imperceptible ways, you are not who you were yesterday, or five years ago, or ten. What’s broken may be broken—and one day, may be repaired—but you bring the light of renewal to it every time you acknowledge it.
Renewal is so often used synonymously with improvement, but I’m not sure it’s true. When was the last time you worked at a really tough problem? A mysterious leak, or a glitchy spreadsheet formula, or a persistently challenging dynamic with a loved one. How many attempts did you make to fix what was broken? How many unique approaches towards a solution? What did a solution look like, anyway, and how many fixes revealed but more problems underneath? Each stab you take at smoothing rough edges, whether it succeeds or not, whether it makes things worse or just makes them different, is new. Your imperfect self doesn’t manifest perfection just by willing it. Instead, you break things a little more sometimes, and patch them back together other times, and carry them as carefully as you can. In this way, renewal and failure can coexist. Every time you come around to the same challenge, you shed renewed light, and take a new approach, aiming for building instead of breaking.
Anyway, I’m trying to take this sort of approach to life at the way station, until the train comes. Same station, same tracks, same bench, new day, and my own capacity for change. Here’s hoping my personal evolution includes a handy knack for household repairs.
*For further, and breathtaking, tales of steadfastness in the face of crumbling surrounds, I highly, highly suggest that you dive into this wonderful article (same as the one linked above), “The Jungle Prince of Delhi” (NYTimes).
Photos from Woodstock, Kingston, and Saugerties NY as well as Austin, TX and Ontario, Canada.