“You still on vacation?” the waiter at my favorite caffé asks me when he sees me stroll in on a weekday afternoon. I smile and tell him what I’m up to, and he remarks on the economy as he brings me my caffeine fix. That $2 coffee is often my big expenditure for the week.
The waiter is not the only one to refer to my extended unemployment as a vacation. Many people have told me that they’re jealous that I have the time to do what I want to do. Sometimes, especially when I’ve found myself on a sunny beach during the week or reading an interesting book while the Employed toil away, I think they’re right to be jealous. And I sigh with happiness.
However, a vacation this isn’t. Vacations usually have a start point and an end point. Even extravagant vacations don’t last a year, at least for people like me. Most people save up at least a little bit of money for a vacation. There’s a job to go back to, so you know how you’re going to pay the rent after you get back. And, despite the Staycation fad, most people plan travels for vacations. I know I did. These days my passport gathers dust as I contemplate whether or not I can afford a T pass this month.
So, no. My adventure bears precious little resemblance to a vacation. I didn’t steal a few hours away from the daily grind. I was flung overboard into an endless sea of time.
When you have all the time in the world, what do you do with it?
In addition to other personal failings, I am not a goal setter. I used to sit through seminars in high school where people would go on and on about the importance of goals. My eyes would glaze over, and I’d start thinking about lint. When asked about goals, lyrics to a Waitresses song would spring to mind: “My goals? My goals are to find a cure for irony and make a fool out of God.”* I had to catch myself before I spit that one out. Needless to say, I didn’t graduate with a shit ton of stuff I planned on doing other than going to college.
In the intervening years, I haven’t changed much when it comes to goals. I don’t have a five-year plan. I always laugh on the inside when I’m asked that question and think, Sorry, I’m not so into Stalin, before making up some kind of bullshit answer, tailored to the situation at hand. Oddly enough, I’m an expert at planning things for other people and making those plans happen in an orderly fashion. I just don’t like doing it for myself.
Going through life with no real plan can work out just fine. I like to think that by not focusing so narrowly on accomplishing x or y by the time I turn 40 that I’ve been a little more open to good things as they come my way. Given that, however, after a month or so of Unemployed Life, I wasn’t floating merrily through my sea of time. I was drowning in it. So I asked myself a few questions:
What do I want to do? What would make me happy today, and maybe tomorrow? What do I want to do that costs nothing or very little and will still make me happy?
I’ve always been a reader. I’m also a nerd. One day while browsing through the Harvard Bookstore with the guy formerly known as Date, it occurred to me that I hadn’t read a philosophy book in years. I had nearly forgotten how much I love the challenge of reading a head-scratcher. Huh, I thought, I have time to do that now. Why not? So I picked up The Phenomenology of Perception, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.** And I read it, all 530 pages of it, cover to cover. It took me about five months.
Like I said, I’m a nerd. A question that’s been swimming around in my fuzzy brain is how do we know things? It seems to me as though we trade too much in ideals at the expense of our lived experience. Here I am. I’m an American (sigh) woman, living in the twenty-first century. I suck at mediating, so I pretty much live my life here on Earth. Growing up in a family that believed in an afterlife, I’ve thought a lot about spiritual things, but if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’d rather think about what to do here in the world.
When you think about it, it’s amazing that we are here. Now. We have these bodies that somehow work well enough to let us wander about. We live in time. We were born. We breathe, we eat. We have sex (well, we want to, anyway). We laugh. We cry. We worry. We get pissed off. Sometimes we’re happy, really and truly happy. Our existence is going to come to an end. We’re here for such a short time, why are we so obsessed with thinking about things that we have no way of knowing are real? Why worry about transcendence? Isn’t it a lot more interesting to think about how we experience life now? It seems to be more useful, in any event.
I don’t claim to have understood much of what I read in The Phenomenology of Perception, but I picked it up because he was writing about bodily experience as our source of knowledge. I also picked it up because I knew it was going to require some real attention if I was going to get anything out of it at all. And I could give that kind of attention for the amount of time it would take me to read five pages a day. So that’s what I did.
Truth be told, I didn’t always read five pages a day, but most days I cracked that book over my morning coffee. I puzzled, I thought. Sometimes I understood. What was really important, though, is that I did it. After I finished that book, I picked up another one.
Right now I’m reading The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, by Michel Serres,*** and am giving some thought to the limits of language to convey reality. Serres argues that our bodily experience is the only way that we know anything and that language cannot possibly describe what we sense. I haven’t gotten that far into it yet, but I can say that so far it is the sexiest philosophy book I’ve ever encountered.
I caress your skin, I kiss your mouth. Who, I? Who, you? When I touch my hand with my lips, I feel the soul like a ball passing from one side to the other of the point of contact, the soul quickens when faced with such unpredictability. (p. 26)
Maybe I should read this one at night.
Reading philosophy isn’t the only answer to the question of what to do when you have all the time in the world. It isn’t the only way that I’ve spent my time. Yet reading philosophy makes me happy right now. And when you think about it, now is really all we have.
*The Waitresses. “Jimmy Tomorrow.” Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? ZE Records: 1982. Great song, great record.
**Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. New York: Routledge, 2002.
***Serres, Michael. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. Translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. New York: Continuum, 2008.