Things left unwritten
I'm turning 40 and wondering what is still do vs. what remains to give up
That time between Christmas and the New Year has always been fraught.
Somewhere in there is my birthday. Exactly which day I do not often divulge, because I do not like getting birthday messages. Could be today, could be another—who is to say? Besides, time is but a human measurement, so said the late founder of the religion of my birth.
I agree with her on that much: time is a human measurement. To Mary Baker Eddy, that meant that time, along with matter, is an illusion, and thus not to be taken too seriously. For me, though, it means time is everything.
Maybe time is the only thing.
We only have one swirl around on this rock, that is true, and however you want to measure it—in birthdays, in minutes, or in moon cycles—it dwindles away for you as it does for me, never to come back.
This year, my birthday marks forty years on Earth. In the first twenty, I was barely conscious of time as a resource. I floated with the tide, as Thompson would put it.
In the next ten, those halcyon years of growth they call your 20s, I felt I lived many lifetimes. Each new career, each move to a new city, each time I formed a sense of self and was then forced to revise, each new relationship where I fell in love and then out and then back again—all of these felt like I had been given more time on this Earth in more variations than anyone had any right to expect.
Then, six months before the end of that decade, when I was 29, I became a father, and everything started all over again. It was a role I had always wanted, and I am glad it happened then, and not, as many of my friends and peers have experienced it, toward the end of the next decade.
In year 30, my son’s mom and I split up, and life was pain for quite some time. I rebuilt, made a new home, made money. I took myself to the DR. I learned to kitesurf. I fought for shared custody and got it. I learned that I was me again: reasonably intelligent, charming when I wanted to be, and yes confident in my own judgment.
And then, once the bottom part of the hierarchy was fulfilled, I began a tear into the thing on top: self-fulfillment. I went on a creative tear: wrote a story, wrote a screenplay, wrote another. Started producing and directing them, went to film festivals, met other filmmakers, grew, created.
In my 30s I made plans and wrote down goals and reached them, most of them, though there was one—is still one—that hangs out there. Write a book.
In my life, my identity has always been as a writer. I wrote as a journalist, then I wrote as a marketing professional. I wrote for politicians, wrote for campaigns, wrote for nonprofits, and still write for companies and clients. I wrote screenplays, and even for that brief time when I started calling myself “a filmmaker,” really I was a screenwriter who had learned a bit of how to direct and produce.
A few years ago, I started writing this newsletter. It is my playground, and needs no producer or director, or agent to realize its final form. There is no point or goal, and few earnings. Readership: hundreds, not thousands. Stakes: low. I wish for this particular creative activity to be more or less disconnected from profit. Which is what I also wish for my life: to have it be about time and not money.
What will I do in the next decade? How will it feel? It seems the answer will have a lot to do with what I decide is still left to do, and what I decide it is time to give up on doing.
I once told a group of people during a retreat in Medellín—digital nomads most, thinkers some—that I felt my legacy was to be inextricably bound up in whether I could write, how well I could write, and what that writing could or would do in relation to the world. We were workshopping the idea of Ikigai at the time, a concept I have since come to revile, but which some may find mildly helpful in a childish sort of way to think through different life options.
It was a little while after this conversation that one of the women who had been listening to me wax on in my self-serious way about how important my writing was to me turned around from the front seat of a car and just blurted it out: what if you were to give that up?
I think I must have looked at her kind of funny.
“Give up what?” I asked.
“Give up this need you have. To write all the time.”
“No, I can’t. I won’t.”
And yet, her words have stayed as a kind of shadow in the back of my mind, calling to me. There are times when writing becomes so difficult and miserable and pointless that I think to myself: you know, there is an option here. Just stop… Stop thinking of yourself as a writer. Stop thinking you must write. Do something else. Dig ditches. Build homes. Teach kids how to kitesurf or climb. You can become an electrician and install mini splits or solar panels. After all, if there’s one thing I know for sure, Russell, it’s that the world needs more solar panels.
It’s roughly five years since I had that conversation.
And what remains, as I turn forty, feels mainly like a choice: what is left to be done vs. what is left to give up.
Sometimes, when I feel as if I should write or publish but do not have a particular topic in mind, I go to my Substack and look at the list of drafts started but not finished. The list grows longer and longer. Here’s a partial view — all of these have drafts and notes waiting for my attention one day:
David Hume and living in the matrix
The choices we make for our kids
I was wrong about my depression
Fox thinkers and hedgehog thinkers
Euphemisms for money
On commoditizing your time
Marketing is dead; long live marketing
Fear and waiting
How to write about yourself
Making decisions amid uncertainty
Our relationship to government
The anti-life coach
The superpower every man should learn
The brave face
Substitutes for religion
I am not your writing coach
The Ninth Path
What will be your “legacy”?
Can you be yourself when you’re around other people?
How NOT to write a personal mission statement
Yes but should you make money writing online?
Growing up in the 90s didn’t prepare me for this
Idolizing Hemingway (TBD in aforementioned book)
It’s an attention economy and I don’t care about your attention
Paying attention to women
Why I’m not taking vacations anymore
Rock climbing in Paklenica
Notes on Anna
On losing guy friends
Do not go gentle
As I said, this is a partial list. There are thousands of words still unpublished waiting in those drafts. Ideas to be developed. Or abandoned.
And there are other life goals (the phrase is beginning to seem quaint), as I turn 40, that I think I am ready to give up. And others I’m not. Some countries still to visit, mountains still to climb, and others I’ll never see. Business enterprises to embark on, and others to cut loose. Languages to learn, or give up on learning. People to go see or give up on seeing.
Perhaps in your 40s, you begin to triage time.
Or perhaps I will find some kind of grace so that it doesn’t feel like a triage. Wouldn’t that be nice.