Strange days in Cape Breton. The winter churns our thoughts with blasts of wind and dumps of snow. Today it was so icy that S’s car skidded off the highway and up onto a windrow. Snow and ice mean cancelled classes, which means grownups’ schedules are upended as the kids stay home. January is the month when Atlantic Canada peruses our daytimers, smirks quietly to herself, and throws everything up in the air like a game of 52-Pick-Up.
My big project this winter is “Natural Selections,” a collection of animal scenes which I’ve cast with high school students. We have a performance scheduled for mid-April, but I am already worried about whether they can possibly be ready in that time. We were meant to have eight rehearsals this month, but due to weather and/or sickness, we had four. Doubly frustrating: a guest movement coach was in town this week from Toronto, but the weather made it impossible to get her in the same room as the students.
I should care more. But the wind disperses my priorities, too. I began the year feeling depressed and spiritually empty, whether due to midlife crisis or SADS or something more. And I knew that, if I wanted to bootstrap myself out of darkness, I’d have to take a long, clear-headed look at my values – my priorities for living. Yet every time I think I’ve found something to feel strongly about, 15 centimeters of wet-blanket distraction drops on my head.
Every time a blizzard lets up and the skies begin to clear, the landscape has shifted. My current job, for instance: this term at CBU, I’m teaching a grand total of one course to a grand total of five students. That number has stayed pretty steady since the first week of term, but strangely, the students have not: as soon as one drops, another turns up. It’s an Arts Management course, and while a couple of students consider themselves artists, most admit they really have no idea what they want to be when they grow up. I sympathize; but then, I’m not 20 years old anymore.
CBU’s enrollment has declined nearly every year since I began teaching there, in 2009. Currently, we have about 2,500 students, over half of them international students seeking degrees in business or hospitality or electrical engineering – anything but drama, basically. I could, if I wanted, cook up some half-baked values that justify continuing to work part-time teaching subjects that nobody on the island wants to learn. But really, why bother? I’d be putting a rickety cart in front of a moribund horse. The idea is to create values, and then seek out a vocation, not the other way around.
Other reverse-engineering prospects include the Fortress of Louisbourg, which lit a decently-sized fire under me for the three months I was working there. I enjoyed bringing history to life, getting visitors stoked about culture in two official languages, working outdoors – and yes, wearing swords and firing muskets. But I didn’t enjoy commuting 40 minutes a day, or reciting the same facts day after day, or working full-time away from my family. Where do my values fit into all that? And which ones matter most?
A year ago, I bailed on my plan to write a novel, and instead ended up writing eight scenes about animals. While researching climate change for the final scene, I discovered an uncomfortable fact: we’re doomed. I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, but I never did get around to reading those “greening your home” books that I bought when I first moved east. Now I realize that all my values, jobs, and projects amount to nothing if the planet becomes uninhabitable within a century. How does a YA novel, or an 18th-century fortress, or a Drama course help my child prepare for that future?
The natural, forgiveable, human approach would be to nestle in, nurture ourselves and our community, and make our lives the best they can be for as long as they last. Staying on the CBU/Louisbourg path might do that, at least until CBU shrinks into oblivion (Louisbourg has been around for 300 years, so it, at least, should last). But I’ve applied for another job that could potentially provide even more security, community engagement, and opportinities to enact change. The biggest obstacle is, I don’t really want it.
That, right there, should indicate my values are misaligned. When a job comes up that would seem to fulfill all my core values, I should feel excited about it. My ambivalence either suggests it’s not the right job after all… or my values aren’t true values… or I’m just generally despondent and nothing will ever make me happy. I’m not quite ready to accept the last option, but I’m so split about the first two that Option Three starts to feel easier by contrast.
Because, really, wouldn’t it be so much easier to not care about anything? You’d never get drawn into internet flame wars. You could read the news without panic attacks. And you’d never experience the anxiety of having all of your eggs in one basket, because who needs eggs, anyway? I wonder if this is why most of the “heroes” on film and television for the past two decades have been nihilists – Walter Whites and Don Drapers and Rick Sanchezes and Tyler Durdens – people (mostly white men) who have the courage and conviction to say, “Fuck it.”
I have a loving family, including an amazing kid. I have a great job – two, in fact – and more security than most of the people around me, thanks in part to my wife. And I have pastimes that may not help save the world, but at least give me some passing joy – and let’s face it, what type of joy isn’t passing? So I have absolutely no reason to say “Fuck it.” And I don’t. I just don’t know what I do say these days.