The Anti-Crap Crusade: Minimalism’s Dark Side


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Image of tea ceremony implements

Get your sh*t together folks. We have TEA CEREMONIES to perform.

I think people are missing the point of Marie Kondo’s book. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up came out nary a year ago and unleashed a flurry of gushing testimonials and a smaller but not insignificant collective eye-roll. The point is not to have less for the sake of less, to get on some smug millennial “I’ve figured out the secret to happiness” high horse. The point is to keep the things you like.

I think most people’s homes are full of crap. But that’s because it’s not my crap. I don’t know what value it has or doesn’t have. Of course, people accumulate years worth of junk because on some level, we buy into other people’s value systems that say “you need this! You need this! You need this!” But feeling like you have to chuck it all, as if not owning things is some default moral good, is—guess what— just another way of superimposing someone else’s values onto your own. That is not really useful.

If any decluttering program is going to have any value to you whatsoever, it has to be based on your values, not some Elite Daily bullshit guru’s. On the one hand, it sucks to feel overwhelmed by stuff you don’t want. On the other hand, it sucks to feel bad about yourself for having things. While it may sound obvious, it’s your home. It should feel like your home. It should support you in the things you want to do. This, to me, is what makes Kondo’s book special. Shinto animism aside, your gut won’t lie to you about what you actually value.

If you need to build yourself a nest of first edition books and yard-sale pottery, DO IT. If you need an apartment that feels like a contemporary art museum where your thoughts are free to echo in the chasm surrounding a half-dozen carefully selected objects, DO IT. If you need to live in a tree, DO IT. If you don’t f*cking care, GOOD.

A few years ago, I went through a major stuff-related guilt trip. I felt downright shameful at the thought of having too many things. Aghast at the error of my free-spending ways! Guilt seeks punishment, and thus began many apartment purges and trips to Goodwill. As it turns out, depending on where you are emotionally, decluttering can be a very soothing, liberating activity, or it can be a cleverly disguised form of self-flagellation. If you decide to do a declutter, let it be an exercise in being honest with yourself, not beating yourself up.

One trend that concerns me is that having the ultimate, consecrated pristine home is just another item to pile on top of all of the other things you have to do as a young person with an internet connection. You know, once you make your daily Soylent green smoothie and get back from two hours of CrossFit or whatever it is you’re supposed to do to be merely adequate in the world, who the hell knows. If you’re not performing a daily tea ceremony off a spotless floor, I guess you can just resign yourself to never actually becoming an adult. You can continue to slink through life as a kind of wretched impostor teenager, dreaming of actualization while a single tear falls into your coffee mug full of Lucky Charms. I guess.

image of a landfill

This is your life now.

Jesus. Sometimes I hate the world. But you know what I don’t hate? Everything in my apartment, because I liked it and decided to keep it. Truth be told, I really do still love a good clean out, but only because I don’t feel bad about it anymore! Do I need 20 kinds of tea? No! But I like tea! I will never use this samovar, but I like looking at it because it reminds me of my mom! I also like these fake flowers and Christmas lights and Sailor Moon box set and this lamp from Ikea that glows in the dark and looks like a giant pear! Hooray! I never wear these little Korean stick perfumes, but they look like tiny people in bunny suits and that makes me smile. I will never read this Soviet history book again, but looking at it reminds me of the good parts of college.

Honestly, I love Marie Kondo (and Karen Kingston and her team of Feng Shui genies). I hate it that people feel down on themselves for not living in Pinterest-ready homes. But God almighty does it feel good to let go of the stuff that amplifies your guilt—guilt about other things, not about having stuff to begin with. Perhaps the good lord will strike me down, but I recycled my beaten up study bible from high school that filled me with a sense of failure and dread whenever I saw it. When I got rid of letters, cards, mix CDs, and gifts from a nasty ex-boyfriend, I felt like a f*cking exorcism had been performed. Over the winter holidays, my sister and I gave our rooms at our father’s house the Kondo treatment, and it took a while, but it was a huge relief. Bad experiences from the past have their value, but there’s no need to constantly dwell on them and look at their remains. You don’t have to hang on to the dross of bad memories in order to grow from them. Having the time to clean and declutter is a gift, to be sure, but there’s something meaningful about being able to sort through the material side of your life and actively choose what matters to you and what you consciously want to let go of. Having more space and being able to move more easily are also worthy bonuses.

I am firmly on team declutter. But I will never be on team “make your life look perfect because the f*cking internet.” If you’re thinking about decluttering, go for it. Or don’t. Do whatever you need to do. The only real value in decluttering is gaining clarity on what is meaningful to you.

Generation Lifehack


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As it turns out, it takes a hundred years to become a hundred year old oak.

As it turns out, it takes a hundred years to become a hundred year old oak.

Spring comes late to Chicago, which is mighty frustrating after the long winter. I get impatient, walking down my street, waiting for the satisfying little splorts of green to finally peep out of the trees and the ground. “Why did I move somewhere where nature is such a grouch,” I wonder.

But until about the end of April, it’s just not time yet. Spring has been in the making all winter, and all the necessary ingredients are still brewing. Heat and light are still building. Leaves are still asleep in branches.

The other day I asked myself if I would get angry at a little sprout for not being a tree yet. I don’t, as it turns out, walk down the street and scowl at individual saplings. But I do it to myself a lot, and I get frustrated for not having more leaves and branches, so to speak, not blooming enough, not being there yet.

All over the internet I see articles and pitches for books that are supposed to speed things up. There is a seemingly infinite number of Ted talks and blog posts aimed at increasing productivity. There is a profusion of new age, new thought writings that at best are a modern retelling of ancient wisdom, and worst are a verbal swill that implies that all you have to do is wish. For the left brain, infinite lifehacks and clever strategies. For the right, affirmations galore.

Some of these pieces are truly useful. But not all of them. Taken together, in that way that information hits you so fast that you can’t think critically about it all, it leaves me with a kind of gunky residue of the mind, and what it says is, you should be doing more. You should have accomplished more by now. Because the things you want can be accomplished quickly. Other people’s accomplishments are also more visible than ever. Any image, video, or article can go viral, and being immersed in social media gives the impression that so many people, especially young people, are accomplishing so much, so quickly. So what about me? What about you?

Not everything that moves fast always moved fast. What looks like an overnight sensation or a breakaway success often has quite a lot of energy built up behind it, which is easy to overlook. A plant may bloom overnight, but what about the heat, the light, the enzymatic reactions, all building until they reach the absolute right point? When a new singer reaches the charts, I wonder how many voice lessons and flopped auditions they went through. When a new DJ starts getting booked at festivals all over, I wonder how many crappy gigs they played and how many hours they spent in their basement breaking needles and blowing fuses. (Of course, there will always be the Paris Hiltons of the world, but that’s another blog post!) Even when someone has raw talent, it has to be refined through practice.

The things that are big and epic—the mighty oaks of the business and art worlds—spent plenty of time just being regular oaks. Still providing shade and oxygen and acorns and nesting sites, but on a smaller scale. One of my favorite things to see in museums, for instance, is artists’ sketchbooks. We get used to seeing masterpieces on display, but I love seeing the sketches, all the evidence of practice and persistence. I like to see the gradual evolution, the grit and fire that goes into producing something great.

It’s a good thing, overall, to look for better ways to do things. Efficiency, strategy, and rethinking old paradigms are all good things. Keeping house and managing offices benefit greatly from these tricks and hacks and tools to cut out the extraneous. But even adopting new strategies for things like time management and positive thinking still take time to implement. New habits take time to form. It’s painful to assume that everything can be done quickly, and that if something can’t be achieved quickly, it’s not worth doing or it can’t be done.

The things I really value and want to master—writing, drawing, meditation, being a good partner, and so on—are lifelong pursuits. Some things, by nature, take time, and taking that time is scary because I’m used to instant gratification in so many other areas of life. So the challenge for a member of generation lifehack like me is not to be afraid of the alchemy of time and the risk of trying. Not to be afraid to be devoted to practice, and let it grow.


If Strong is the New Skinny, is Fit-Shaming the New Fat-Shaming?


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Wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to weigh 90 pounds, and now I'm supposed to lift 200? (Image via

Wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to weigh 90 pounds, and now I’m supposed to lift 200? (Image via

About as early as junior high school, I sensed that there were two feminine ideals vying for supremacy. At very least, there seemed to be two acceptable options for middle class white females:

Splayed across the pages of Vogue and Elle were the model types, emaciated and amazonian. Squatting and sprinting their way through Shape and Women’s Health were the athlete types: not much bigger than their model cousins, but more muscular.

The first type, the fashion ideal, represented the long dark road toward anorexia; it suggested passivity, superficiality, artifice, and being a fashion victim. We were warned against it early on in school.

The second type, the fitness ideal, was touted as a kind of liberated solution: the “healthy,” active, superheroine type. A butt-kicker who could still rock an evening gown.

It didn’t occur to me that both were, in many cases, unnaturally and unsustainably thin, and that perhaps neither was particularly healthy.

Growing up, my heroes were women like the Spice Girls (for better or for worse); later, they were actresses like Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element, Carrie-Anne Moss in the Matrix, and Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I marveled at these lean, thin, women in active, action-oriented roles. In their carefully scripted and choreographed worlds, women not much taller than me could wield power; they could be spectacular fighting machines. They were principally beautiful, but endowed with supernatural strength. I didn’t see Bend it Like Beckham until I was in college, but when I did I noticed how curious it was that the two leads, Keira Knightly and Parminder Nagra, were substantially smaller and thinner than the other women playing the rest of their soccer team. Over time I sensed that while people loved the idea of strong, athletic, powerful women, they still preferred for them to look like more like models and less like serious athletes.

The olympics, to me, are always a great example of this. The more a female athlete looks like a model, the more excited we get about her. The more she looks like a man, the more our enthusiasm wanes. For instance, look at the ratings for beach volleyball versus weightlifting. It’s tempting to say that an athletic body is inherently beautiful. But that line of thinking hasn’t always applied to women, and from what I gather, it didn’t so much until the aerobics boom of the 80s, or perhaps a little before.

As a kid of the 90s, I’m surprised at how recent the phenomenon of women’s athletics is. It stuns me to think that for most of western history, women were discouraged and even forbidden to train their bodies in any capacity like what we do today. Our participation in sports and training is undoubtedly good. Yet when I see any kind of women’s fitness magazine or clothing retailer, I feel a great deal of skepticism about what they are really promoting. I think we need to be wary of what exactly we are cheering for here: are we really admiring the strength and ability of women–women who may not be small, lean, or conventionally feminine–or are we just admiring a new spin on a previously established ideal of ultra-lean femininity?

It is good to move from language of passivity to activity, and from value based on appearance to value based on ability. But I don’t believe that’s what’s truly happening yet, at least not on a widespread cultural scale. Many women, through sports and athletic training, have developed both a physical strength and sense of self-worth that would have been impossible in previous generations. But I don’t believe this is what’s really being promoted in any of our mainstream media outlets. As people continue to rebel against the ultra-thin beauty ideal and push new paradigms of beauty, fitness seems to be supplanting mere “thinness” as the ultimate goal. But what does fitness really mean? Does it mean being powerful? Or does it just mean being lean? I see an unsettling convergence in image-based pressures between men and women, where nobody gets a break: athletic leanness is becoming an aesthetic mandate for men, while for women, the ever-present aesthetic mandate leans toward athleticism.

So now we have Victoria’s Secret angels with six-packs. Is this inherently bad? I don’t know. But the emphasis on leanness, on a lack of body fat,  is a strong common thread between the fashion and fitness ideals, and they evoke for me what I call the “no curves rule,” which says that if you are white or Asian, you need to have as little body fat as possible, or risk being seen as lazy, gluttonous, and shameful. Traditionally in the west, white and Asian female bodies have been seen as a kind of coveted, private property– in contrast with brown and black female bodies, which have been treated as literal property, hypersexualized, and considered a kind of decadent public good. Discipline, work ethic, and purity are mainstays of America’s white, Puritanical roots, and on a subconscious level, I believe many women are relying on their fitness (and really, a very white, moneyed beauty ideal) to remain in a more privileged and protected class, or to work their way into it. What’s at play is the notion of the “disciplined body,” by which a person conveys their status and worthiness of respect by showing how dedicated and restrained they are (in addition to having enough money and free time to maintain their body shape). The fashion ideal demands discipline through rigorous dieting; the fitness ideal prioritizes discipline through rigorous exercise.

Even when it uses the language of activity, equality, and empowerment, any commercial media I see that involves women’s fitness still feels focused way more on aesthetics than ability to me. I still sense a deep undercurrent of the fear of fat, and everything fat has come to represent: laziness, ignorance, idleness, poverty, carelessness…things that are an affront to the values of our Puritan heritage. I’ve written before about how preoccupations with how we look often go much, much deeper than that, bleeding into territories of how we are treated, valued, and even our physical safety. So I have no doubt that when I see other women striving for a level of leanness that is exceptionally difficult to maintain, many of them have goals beyond just beating a PR, whether they are conscious of it or not. I myself am in the uncomfortable position of wanting to milk this sizeist, classist system for all it’s worth, and yet at the same time wishing it never existed so that I (and everyone really) could feel less anxiety and fear, or even none at all regarding body image. What I would love to see is a diverse range of healthy body types receiving representation and admiration in mainstream media. Little by little, I see it starting to happen, but it still feels like a pipe dream.

Part of what complicates this discussion of fitness is the insistence on “health,” that specifically, this is good because it is healthy. But “health” has always been the cleverest and most convincing disguise an eating disorder can take. It certainly was for me at the apex of my obsession with food, when I sincerely believed what I was doing was healthy, even though it was causing me a great deal of physical and mental suffering. So again, are we really encouraging health, in its beautiful diversity of forms, or are we taking this modified feminine ideal and proclaiming, “this is healthy”?

Health, like beauty, means something different to everyone. To some people, health is being alive and not in any great measure of pain; to others, health means ultramarathons! I personally prefer Igor Boutenko’s definition of health: having the energy to accomplish your goals. I like this, because it places health in the camp of an individual’s needs and values, and takes it out of the realm of commercial images and cultural stereotypes. The idea that someone could have all the energy and vitality they need and yet have a body we consider overweight is unfathomable to some people. On the other hand, I know from experience what it’s like to be technically thin, and struggle to function.

There’s a level of functional fitness that makes life substantially easier and more enjoyable; I support it unequivocally, and pursue it for myself. But I’m wary of the point at which training actually gets in the way of life, rather than serving it. I believe Americans have a unique obsession with self-improvement that does an excellent job of keeping us so focused on our own perceived shortcomings that we take our attention and energy away from our communities and civic life, and even away from real progress within our own lives. As Naomi Wolf writes in her book The Beauty Myth, a secretary who can lift two hundred pounds is still a secretary. I’m not trying to make light of the meaningful personal accomplishments that athletic training brings. But there’s a scary irony in that this training, which for so many people is a source of health and confidence, for others becomes a source of taxation and anxiety, and a distraction from other meaningful, worthwhile goals. Mindset is critically important, and I am not convinced that most mainstream fitness advocates are truly in an empowered or empowering mindset.

There are times when I see images of fit women, and I feel motivated and encouraged. But more often than not, I feel I’m being given yet another set of standards to judge myself by, and I’m coming up short. Wait a second, first I thought I was supposed to weigh 90 pounds, and now I’m supposed to lift 200? Is this merely a new type of pressure to apply to myself–in the form of literally applying as much physical pressure as possible?  Because as much as I appreciate and admire strong, athletic women of all sizes, I myself am not, at this moment in time, one of them. And frankly, I don’t want to have to beat myself up for not being able to lift more. My life has simply not yet required me to drag a hundred-pound tire across a field.  What it has required me to do is develop confidence and self-worth, and to whatever extent exercise will help me in that process, then I’m all for it! But if it’s going to be another self-flagellation contest, then I’m out. I’m skipping that extra hour at the gym and spending it with my friends. Or writing.


What a Maroon.


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Actually, the plant life was the best part.

I’ve never felt so courted as I did when colleges started sending me and my sister letters and brochures during our senior year of high school. At one point, mid-fall, I hauled a stack of mailers that was nearly three feet tall out to the recycling bin. Whereas I imagine previous generations of women agonized over the finding the perfect husband at 18, my classmates and I agonized over finding the perfect college. For those of us on the honors/AP/IB fast track of elite education in Atlanta, it was a kind of holy grail we chased after, plowing through chemistry homework while our classmates smoked joints at Lake Burton.

I went into college sincerely believing it was going to be the absolute best four years of my life: a distillation of the most engaging and empowering moments from high school, minus all the stuff I didn’t like. We would have profound philosophical discussions under trees. I would discover my passions. I would meet my soulmate, and my best friends for life. I would study abroad and speak perfect French. It would always be autumn. I would emerge from UChicago like a maroon and gold butterfly: complete. Ready. Automatically ushered into a high-paying job that I found satisfying and enjoyable.

I wonder if it was dumb to have such astronomical expectations. But then I think back to that huge stack of mailers: all the artfully designed brochures, created to sell the most glorious possible image of each school. (It finally dawned on me that they only interview you for the brochure if you had a super great time at your school, and you like to talk about it.) And I remember the frenetic enthusiasm of all the adults in my life who had gone to college, and how much fun they had. I don’t believe they were being disingenuous with us. Trying to encourage and motivate us, they chose the rosiest of their memories to talk about.

For a long time, I felt terror at the idea of expressing any shred of dissatisfaction with UChicago. I had worked my ass off to get in (f*ck you, AP Chemistry). It cost a fortune; it was my big, expensive decision. I needed to defend my choice of schools: my special, fancy-pants school in the North. And the bus ride back to campus from Midway airport, through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, underscored what an absurd privilege it was to be there in the first place. To have any complaint whatsoever seemed heretical, disgustingly entitled: like sending a lobster tail back to the kitchen at a five-star restaurant because it had a spot on it. And I realize that this entire post may come off that way: the complaints of a girl who can’t see just how good she has it.

But what if in spite of this real privilege, my classmates and I also experienced something truly negative? I wonder how much of my anxiety, fear, and self-doubt is unique to me, is a gender issue, and is the result of an environment like UChicago. It would be a cop-out to blame all of my insecurities on the school. But what if our lobster tail has actually given us food poisoning, and we have been retching up the results of our college experience ever since? Just how much of the culture at UChicago is genuinely toxic, but escapes scrutiny because enough students assume their bad experiences are “just them?”

I assumed my bad experiences were a character flaw: maybe I didn’t have the guts for the school I chose. Maybe if I’d been a little smarter, I could have sorted myself out. After all, the unofficial motto was “where fun goes to die.” But I expected that I’d actually have a great deal of fun not worrying about mere “fun.” No sorority frivolities or sports-related debauchery for me. Oh no. I was at school to learn. I was there for my kind of fun: feeling important. Never mind the fact that genuine fun, things done purely for their own sake, are actually a hugely important part of life. Maybe I should have done the Scav Hunt after all, if I hadn’t been so tunnel-vision focused on grades. (And that brings me into a fairly common complaint about difficult schools: we might have really enjoyed learning if we weren’t so busy studying.)

I suspect I chose UChicago precisely because of my anxiety. I didn’t consider myself Ivy material, mostly because I developed a distaste for math. But I craved, more than anything, to feel smart. And when I got the “thick envelope” in the mail that fine spring afternoon senior year, I felt like I had gotten an official seal of approval from the universe. If I could get approval from a high enough source, I would be forever safe. Golden. Congratulations. You are good.

When I arrived in the fall of 2007, I beheld the strangest collections of characters I’d ever met in my life. I saw students who were supposedly brilliant, but were completely miserable. By the time I left in 2011, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if we were really, truly, intelligent, we would have figured out a way to make ourselves happier. In fact, I realized how incredibly easy it is to be unhappy: to be surrounded by resources and opportunities, and miss out on them all together, pooh-poohing things in order to feel important.

I divided up my classmates into five distinct groups:

I. Those poor kids. The ones who were obviously suffering, who were obviously miserable. Stressed out, lonely, unhealthy, homesick, painfully awkward. They moved about the campus like wraiths. Like unkempt children in need of a sandwich and a hug.

II. Insufferable hipsters.

III. Econ majors.

IV. The eternally busy. Emotionally attached to their workload, their all nighters, their piles of Red Bull cans and 5-Hour energy bottles. It gave them a sense of purpose, belonging, something to talk about. Perhaps the hamster wheel brought them such satisfaction because it staved off painful questions about why they were working so hard in the first place. These were the ones who wore the t-shirts with slogans like “where fun goes to die,” “where the only thing that goes down on you is your GPA,” and, perhaps the obvious warning I should have heeded: “you will be unhappy here.” (But, you know, in a way that actually makes you kind of happy.)

V. The all-inclusive UChicago experience. The kids for whom it was always autumn. Or perhaps more accurately, always Scav Hunt. College life was one nerdy adventure after another. I felt jealousy toward these kids, for two reasons: they were enjoying themselves, and presumably, they felt smart.

God. All I wanted was to feel smart.

In some ways, that’s really all I want right now. To feel accomplished, like I achieved something worthwhile, especially in the eyes of the baby boomers who may be writing my paychecks again in the near future.

Please. Please look at my resume and validate my existence. Sense that I have done the work, that I have jumped through the hoops of fire, that I deserve something beyond an unpaid internship. 

But even more than that: tell me how smart I am. 

I expected that I would graduate feeling, at very least, confident, and with some idea of what I was Going to Do With My Life. I didn’t expect to have the same experience that my parents did at the University of Georgia in the 70s; I had chosen to eschew typical college “fun,” but I thought that I would feel better because of it, more focused, driven, and capable. I don’t think that’s asking for a ton, especially not after all the time and money invested. But I shook Zimmer’s hand with a feeling of abject dread and utter incompetence.

I believed that if I just had good enough grades, the job offers would roll in the same way the college mailers did. Never mind seeking experience, building skills, or even better, building a community. The numbers were what mattered. (Why get an internship, or volunteer, or get to know people when I could memorize these Russian verbs? Russian verbs I have since forgotten?) On the one hand, that seems ludicrous. On the other hand, that’s the game I sincerely thought I was playing: you get the brand name degree, and then you coast. You do all the work at once, and then, you are forever rewarded with lucrative work.

Such was not the case. Cue collective panic and feelings of failure from much of the class of 2011 (and 2009, and 2010, and I suspect, a good deal of ’12 and ’13, if I’m not overstepping my bounds). So I received a very pretty piece of paper with a red faux-leather cover and a gold phoenix on it. And an overwhelming need for validation.

There’s no doubt that I had anxious tendencies before I ever set foot on campus. But they reached previously unknown heights during the four years I spent on it. I attribute this to several distinct experiences of loss.

The first was a loss of community, and that meant an overall loss of perspective on what was healthy, normal, and typical. We were in an environment saturated with “smart” people, but many of them were used to being the only “smart” person in their home community, and coming to campus created a serious identity threat. I suspect a great deal of hostility cropped up between classmates because of this. UChicago students are notorious for their antisocial tendencies; we had little sense of what was really going on with each other. We heard each other’s pithy remarks in class. We didn’t see the quantity of tears spilled into boxes of Hutch sushi, sandwiches eaten alone in the A-level. Hours and hours spent scrolling through Facebook and wanting to drown in Botany Pond. I have heard it said that we run into trouble when we compare our raw footage to other people’s highlight reels. U of C kids are very adept in the cutting room.

In place of a community of friends, I resigned myself to one toxic partner for three years; someone whose feelings of jealousy and insecurity tormented him, and eventually tormented me as well. Over time, I did make friends who supported me. But I suspect this process took a while because most of the time, we were just too tired, too busy, too apathetic, too competitive, too bitter to really take the emotional risk of making friends.

The next loss I felt was that of my spiritual life. The “life of the mind” seemed to have very little patience for matters of the spirit. Granted, my Christian faith had been heavily tinted by feelings of uncertainty and judgment beforehand. But it was still a source of identity, structure, comfort, and meaning. Over time, however, I came to regard my spirituality as something degenerate and shameful, a kind of superstitious crutch that exposed me as incapable of rational thought. I began to disregard my direct experience, gut feelings, and warning signs from dreams. In general, I trusted myself less. I took my opinions less and less seriously, doubting my ability to form them in the first place. When a recent acquaintance described me as “analytical,” I just about laughed in his face. At school, I had felt about as “analytical” as a hippie woman shaking a tambourine.

I started to buy heavily into the mythos of objectivity, of rationality, of the materialism that I have since seen brilliantly and gracefully debunked by scientists and spiritual teachers alike. The result at the time, though, was to cut me off from what was actually a profound source of information and power, albeit one that went discredited and unrecognized. Religion in particular could be approached in three ways: as a historical artifact, a body of literature, as an ethnographic eccentricity. But to embrace it as a way of experiencing and interacting with the world seemed pathetic, absurd. I realize now that it took a great deal of guts for my classmates who, sincerely and unironically, observed Shabbat, Ramadan, Lent, Imbolc. Later on, I realized that quite a few of my classmates clung to their belief in their own rationality with more dogmatism and fervor than some of the most ardent Born-Again Christians I have encountered. To this day, I am stunned at how easily some people believe they are not influenced by their own feelings.

(Veganism did a surprisingly good job of replacing the identity and structure I’d felt I’d lost. But I still had a strong feeling of emptiness and disconnection. Eventually, I did take advantage of meditation workshops offered by the school, and that helped initiate a slow return to meaningful spiritual practice.)

Finally, I lost my love and excitement for art. As a child, my notebooks were full of magical creatures and an endless rotating cast of characters. I loved drawing, designing things, inventing whole worlds. Drawing gave me a symbolic language I could use to process grief and loss, it gave me a chance to stretch my creative muscles when I felt bored at school. It was a way to get to know and explore myself, and a way to know other people, across time and cultures, on a non-verbal, holistic level. As a kid, I didn’t know precisely why art mattered to me in the way that it did. That occurred to me later, when I realized once again how severed I felt from something that used to be a source of power and support.

I did the coursework for a minor in visual art, but never followed through on getting department approval, because by that point, I had given up all together. The need to look and sound smart, to have something intellectual to say about everything, to analyze a piece of work to death–had completely supplanted the moments of genuine fascination. In the fall of 2007, when I saw Hamza Walker’s curated exhibition Meanwhile in Baghdad at the Renaissance Society, it made my blood run cold, in the best possible way; the commentary he gave my class made my head spin. But by the time Trisha Donnelly put up four measly drawings in the same space in the spring, I had lost the confidence to say that I thought it was the dumbest shit I had ever seen. In some ways, I’m impressed with the job I did convincing myself that I cared about art that meant nothing to me at all. While Mucha, Miyazaki, and Moebius whispered to me tantalizingly from a distance, I dared not touch, almost as if the staff of October would personally show up at my dorm room, and spit on me if I did. Needless to say, the stream of sketches that used to flow freely onto all paper within my reach dried up completely, and has just recently started to return.

With these three major supportive factors gone, my self-esteem dwindled to the point where by the winter of my “fourth” or senior year, I began to feel afraid to leave my apartment.

I suspect that at some point when I was a kid, I began to shift away from the things that piqued my curiosity, and toward what would bring me the most praise from adults. I have come to crave praise, to thrive on it. What confuses me the most is why I seem to have lost the ability to declare myself good enough for myself. There are certain things I miss about being a kid (Pokemon, Halloween, making s’mores in Girl Scouts), but what I miss the most is assuming that I will be able to do things, and eventually, be good at them. Perhaps UChicago was the last stop on a train line I’d been on for quite some time. And perhaps I have become the ideal employee after all: capable, but unconvinced; willing to go to great lengths, for low pay, to prove myself.

I resent that the first thing I feel when I think of college is a sense of embarrassment and loss, and not my appreciation for the buffet of ideas and brilliant minds I had access to. Part of what is so distressing about this process is not that I didn’t gain any skills or abilities– in fact, as I’m writing this, I’m remembering more and more of what I learned and gained. The kicker is that I seem to have lost the ability to activate and make use of it. I’m like a robot without batteries, or an unplugged computer: the risk of failure keeps me from switching myself on.  I was shocked to realize that in the jobs I worked after graduating, I gravitated toward the easiest tasks, the ones with the least risk of failure. I felt lost without any more feedback than “well, they didn’t fire me this week, so I guess I’m doing ok?” I’m not sure which is more threatening: to actually be a profoundly capable person, who doesn’t realize it and feels timid and paralyzed; or to have never had any real ability, to have been shepherded along by money in a system that gives every kid a trophy.

To feel this way is like being stuck on an island because my custom-built yacht went down in a storm. Or like having a special kind of hangover one only gets from drinking the rarest and finest of wines. Again, it’s the food-poisoning from the lobster tail: a special type of insecurity that comes from having been heavily invested in, and feeling terrified of not being able to make good on that investment. It’s also, fundamentally, a feeling of great entitlement. “So you feel like a failure because you didn’t have fun at your notoriously not-fun college, and you didn’t get your super perfect dream job at 22?” Well, yes, actually, because I really thought I would. 

It’s possible, and highly likely, that my education heaps status and privilege upon me–and I just don’t see it yet. I admit potential myopia here. At this point, it’s too early to tell whether my time at UChicago was worth it, and I would be lying if I claimed to have gotten nothing out of it. But it was also not remotely the experience I expected, the one I bought into. It was a rich experience, to be sure. It was absolutely not a palatable one.

Ironically, it may propel me to greater success precisely because of how unbelievably bad it felt. The biggest conclusion I take away from it is that without the health of the body, the strength of the soul, and lightness of the heart, the “life of the mind” is frankly, one big intellectual masturbation session, hollow and useless; it preserves the feeling of elitism that rakes in cash for the university (I am never going to buy those stupid f*cking Kant socks. I will not be donating money this year, don’t give me that “Honor Roll” bull crap). If anything, it is a screaming reminder of how badly I need my “power sources” in order to engage all the intellectual material I’ve been exposed to. Raw information and ideas are not enough; I need my community of friends, my spirituality, my creative outlets, my direct personal experience. And those things, taken together, have been doing a remarkable job over the past year of reviving the parts of me that felt deadened and numb. For as much anguish and embarrassment as I’ve felt about college, I also feel a great sense of excitement moving forward. And that means a lot more to me than gargoyles.