My mother does not believe in frivolity. Or rather, I should say, she believes that it exists, and firmly rejects it as an evil with no value or utility. True child of the Depression, she lives in constant fear of scarcity, despite the fact that she and my father have paid off their house, have substantial retirement savings, and have always lived with moderate frugality. I remember one year for her birthday my father bought her a color TV, their first ever, and she was horrified and angry, chastising him for spending ‘so much money’—this even though one of her chief pleasures, as he knew, was watching nature shows on PBS. How much more enjoyable, he thought, for her to see them in color instead of shades of grey on the old Heathkit behemoth he’d put together decades before. A few years later, there was a repeat performance when he bought a VCR, though now she wouldn’t do without it, and has a vast collection of tapes she’s made. The move to DVDs was also prompted by my father, who as an engineer enjoys the opportunity to harness a bit of good technology to his advantage.
I think she must fear that punishment, swift and terrible, will ensue for any hint of joy, of bliss, of self-indulgence: these are not just luxuries, they are sins sure to bring down retribution. So when I told her I was burned out on my career, and that I was not happy, I should not have been surprised at her reaction, which was—as the phrase turns— ‘less than enthusiastic.’ Ever the Presbyterian (though the church they attend now is vastly more liberal), she listened politely and poked gingerly around the edges while fastidiously avoiding anything that might resemble confrontation—or truth.
The message I’ve gotten my whole life is pretty bleak, the Calvinist worldview fortified with a jigger of Depression-era apprehension: life is not fair. Work isn’t meant to be enjoyed (‘that’s why they call it work’—sound familiar to anyone?). Be responsible. Don’t toot your own horn. Be restrained; don’t make a scene; don’t call attention to yourself. Repeated over and over, it’s powerful stuff—pretty tough for a kid to avoid internalizing.
So I did the responsible thing, turned away from dreams toward security, and tried to sublimate. I wrote poetry and essays, and published quite a few in literary journals, some in medical journals too. I designed and conducted research projects and wrote scientific papers. I worked hard to find creative, novel ways to teach that would keep my residents interested and engaged (I think, by the way, that I did a damn fine job of it). I learned to scuba dive, and studied ethnobotany and punta dancing in Belize. I did volunteer work in Mexico saving sea turtles, and in Namibia studying leopards and cheetahs.
That only works for so long, however—or maybe it’s just run the course. In any case, here I am these years later frustrated, thwarted, longing for escape from the security I’ve carved out so carefully and tirelessly. The gilded cage shines brightly, yes, and beautifully–till you’ve spent your life inside. So where to go from here? And how?
I still don’t have answers, but having questions is a more than decent start.