Saturday, June 26, 2010

What do we do now?

After dropping my younger daughter off at the camp bus today (the older one left two days ago),  I was suddenly reminded of my touchstone movie line, from the amazing 1972 Michael Ritchie/Jeremy Larner film The Candidate(If you've never seen it, here's the trailer.) In some primal, existential way, it's the question that confronts us every day, in our jobs, our parenting, our relationships, our purpose between cradle and grave. (I'm sure others, depending on their age, find their touchstone lines in CasablancaThe Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Finding Nemo....)

In The Candidate, Redford has been on an arduous, absurd, Quixotic journey, which has all been about the process. Suddenly he's confronted with what happens when you get to the end, and he asks his campaign manager "What do we do now?" A very different inquiry than The West Wing President Jed Bartlet's confident, "What's next?"

Sometimes the plan is less clear than you thought it was.
I have had to confront this question more than I thought I would in my 30s and 40s. Jobs ending abruptly, a marriage ending, suddenly being "orphaned," all can be very stranding experiences.

For me, this week's process was trying to give my kids quality time + their last taste of New York for two months, + all the last minute purchases and packing  (the required books, the contraband candy, the first razor, the stuffed animal). Suddenly when the bus pulled away, the tasking completed, I felt more than just sad, I felt unstructured -- no physical contact with them for seven weeks, no more shuttling and feeding and comforting and arguing. My first impulse was to just take a nap. (And I'm just a part-time custody parent.)

Modern life is full of tasking. Get from point A to point B, hand in this form, pay these bills, see these friends, read this book -- the race is on.  Especially in New York City, you can feel like a shark, where if you stop moving, you die. As a freelance writer -- what I've basically been since leaving Vogue in 1995 -- it's very easy to live from assignment to assignment without formulating a bigger picture.

In the past few years, I have had to shoulder a lot of processes I wouldn't have chosen: moving back and forth across the country, arranging both parents' funerals and the diaspora of their house and worldly goods and my dad's law practice, starting more speculative writing to prove myself yet again.

You get so busy getting things done or selling yourself that you sometimes lose sight of the purpose of the process, and you can wake up older without being wiser. So I have to keep remembering that "what do we do now?" means that under the maelstrom, and past the prize of the moment, to have a bigger plan, and not be caught by surprise.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I identify with all this. Boy, do I.

But where do I get a plan from? Is there some sort of Big Plan store?

Instead, I stumble from task to task, day to day, and whole weeks, nay, months, seem to go missing. (Hey, that's my life you're stealing there!)

Well, at least if I'm busy, I'm not depressed. Hopefully, that's good enough.

Carl said...

I find that, as I read the musings of older people, the graduation speeches by notables, etc., that the startling truth is: there is no purpose. It's all journey. That's why you get all those valedictory "I should have spent more time smelling the roses," and such - there *was* no greater meaning, and this always comes as a big surprise late in life, especially among the most focussed and motivated people.

Jacob Slichter said...

Very excited to see this smart blog up on the web, David.

As to the topic at hand, my sense is that the plans of mine that fall through are the plans that essentially call for me to become someone else. However doomed to fail those plans may be, I find that pursuing them always yields a decent consolation prize, often better suited to me than the grand prize I had in mind.

David Handelman said...

Sounds like everyone's saying the same thing, really. Like Henry Gibson sings in Nashville: Keep a goin'.

Maria Grasso said...

You expressed this conundrum exquisitely! One of the myths of youth is thinking that at some point you have it figured out, but in truth the process of asking "what do we do now?" is ongoing and a perhaps a way to know you're still alive.