Tell Me What to Do
When Living The Good Life Feels Less Than Good
by Rachel Monroe
How do you make a day that feels like a harmonious unity instead of a chaos?
—Scott Nearing, letter to Helen Nearing, circa 1928
Not everyone has the problem of too much time. Some people are in medical school. Me, I am a freelance writer, which means that every day stretches out in front of me like a wide sheet of butcher paper. On bad days, blank is the best word for it; after all, blank is just a neutral version of oblivion, one emotional inflection away from utter despair. The desert, the moon, Antarctica: these aren’t places anyone lingers long, if they can help it. Too often, you end up with a stitched-together creature of a day, the long hours an unmarked landscape in which you’re chased around by a monster of your own making.
These days, I’m not the only one in the coffee shop with a haunted look, a complicated relationship with my watch. But it’s not that we don’t have anything to do. It’s just that absent babies and/or a full-time job, the days feel loose and baggy around us. We work from home, or we moved back in with our parents. We’re on food stamps; we’re part-time at Starbucks for the health care; we’re hiding out in grad school, getting a master’s degree that will actually make us less employable (experimental theater!); we’re home for a few weeks before we go out on tour again; we have half a job, or three tenuous quarter jobs; we’re twenty-eight-year-old interns; we’re our more-successful friend’s personal assistant.
And we are always on the computer. It used to be that staring intently at a screen meant that you were busy and important, but the person who fills up her own days knows better. For us, the internet is a sneaky marketplace where we exchange perfectly good hours for stupid facts (did you know Michael Crichton was six foot nine?) and come away feeling like we’ve made a bad bargain. If you had to conceive of the exact opposite of a harmonious unity, the internet would do nicely.
This mood makes me thirsty for memoirs, for the comfort of the inevitable through-line of a life. Reading Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life, their self-mythologized account of their time as New England homesteaders in the 1930s and beyond, with its purposeful chapters on terraced gardening and stone-wall building and dealing with ornery neighbors, you get a sense of two lives organized by fate, pushed forward by smart decisions. Whether this brings you comfort or despair depends on your personality, and what you’ve gotten done today, perhaps.