What is a life if not a collection of days?

Damien and I were travelling most of the summer. Leaving Montreal on July 1st we drove across the country, destination central Alberta, where we stayed and visited with family. We started driving back on August 10th, arriving home on August 15th.

When we returned home after six weeks away the kitchen garden was a jungle. Thanks to our youngest at least the yard had been mowed. This small patch of urban landscape cannot be called “grass” since it is neither grass plants or other typical lawn plants, like clover. The herbaceous foliage constituting the mowed real estate of the yard is what's commonly called “weeds”.

The echinacea were dominating the perennial beds. The tomato plants had fallen over with the weight of their fruit, the cages a resounding functional failure. The lettuce all gone to seed. Mammoth yellow zucchini lay bright on the ground, beacons of garden inattention.

Gratefully, the same child who mowed the ground cover also pulled the garlic. Garlic is a very satisfying garden crop for both its ease of growing and its addition to nearly every savoury meal we prepare. The fact it can grow in benign neglect makes it a keeper.

Except for the harvested garlic, drying in wire baskets under the back stoop when we arrived home, the garden was largely ignored in my absence. There was no expectation that our young adult children would tend the plants. It was never their responsibility.

The vegetable garden, the perennials, the medical and culinary herbs are wholly my vision, my hobby, and my effort. Except when I’m gone for weeks on end.

I love creating garden spaces of sustenance and beauty, which is its own kind of sustenance. I love flowers. I love the “idea” of our garden feeding us, though I am admittedly (and obviously) not committed to the diligence required to produce and process that harvest. I love the magic of gardening, making something out of soil and seeds. And I even love the bodily effort of it all, the benefits both physical and mental.

Even in its current state of gardener neglect there is plenty that could be harvested from the backyard. Years’ long supply of culinary sage. Mucilaginous producing comfrey leaves, ideal for tissue healing compresses and salves. A veritable forest of kale. Thick clusters of chokecherries begging to be juiced and jellied. The drupes ignorant of the fruit I picked and carefully washed last August, recently transferred from freezer to compost. Never juiced, never jellied.

The overgrowth and abundance of my backyard is a visual reminder, which I don’t need, of the constant tug-o-war between my diverse, and at times divergent, life priorities and interests.

I admire the vision, the doggedness, and the outcomes of people who apply their lives to a discrete set of goals and tasks. From what I see, focused attention and a narrowed scope seems like a prerequisite for achieving noteworthy success.

I lack a discrete and narrowed focus of interest and I feel this will prevent me from achieving noteworthy levels of success.

To which I ask myself: is a noteworthy level of success my goal? What defines “noteworthy”? What do I really want?

I want to garden. I want to travel and have experiences. I want to think, read, and write. I want to undermine empire and dismantle exploitative and oppressive systems. I want to tend our home. I want to care for people. I want to contribute to human flourishing within a relational context.

Of course I want to be successful in those things. I want the people to feel cared for. I want the garden to produce. I want the writing to have impact. Bring down the Empire!

But it feels like my achievement potential is reduced, because my energy and interests are spread out. Coming home from traveling to an overgrown garden is both metaphor and literal example of how this plays out.

Why do I fear insignificance in outcomes? Why does it matter? Why am I hung up, in this moment at least, on achievements? Where is this coming from?

As a quick answer, I know where some of this insecurity comes from. I work in marketing for one thing, where it’s all about outcomes. I spend time on social media where curation fuels comparison. I regularly rub shoulders with career-successful folks as my social and professional world keeps expanding.

One of my critique de jours is of capitalism, which I could easily assign the blame for a fixation with achievement, but it’s not that simple. My own proclivities are definitely part of the puzzle.

I follow, look to, and am inspired by people who excel or have achieved significant outcomes in their fields of study, interests, and pursuits. I’m always scanning the horizons for role models in the things I value because, like I’ve already said, I want to be successful in growing flowers and food, making an impact with my writing, loving people well, and advancing liberty and care for all.

I see people achieve significant outcomes in the domains I’m interested in. And I wonder, will the outcomes of my own efforts, divided as they are over many interests, be significant enough to provide me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment?

I understand that there are stages in life for planting and then reaping the harvest, for building and then the letting what you’ve built sustain and house you. The main thing I planted was children, the main thing I’ve built is family. These feel like my most significant accomplishments and I’m very proud of them. These provide me incredible satisfaction and fulfillment. But I can look around and see plenty of people who do this and much more.

I’m onboard with the principle of seasonality, an obvious truth from nature, that different priorities and possibilities will be experienced in different life stages and seasons. But I kind of thought that after raising kids I would have sustained and uninterrupted time and energy, or maybe just focus, that I could harness into a notable effort, ideally a career. But I’m as diversely interested as I ever was, filling the space left by child raising with increased devotions, not necessarily focused devotions.

Maybe I just need to give it time. I’m in the early stages of my post-homeschooling life and growing the as-of-yet-undetermined-next-thing will take years. But what if I remain a dabbler in diversity for the remainder of my days? In which case my potential in any of those areas feels limited by the time and energy I give to the other interests and needs of life.

Maybe the question isn’t how do I define success? Or, what do I want to achieve? Rather, how do I want to live my days?

Ah, now here’s a question I know the answer to!

I want to tend my home and nurture the relationships it supports. I want to be in nature. I want to study and harvest plants. I want to travel and have adventures. I want to read, write, converse, and think about Big Ideas, especially those that challenge and disrupt systems of oppression and power over others. I want to care for people and see them flourish.

Nothing new here. How I want to live my days is the same list as what I want from life.

I don't know what kind of success, accomplishments, and achievements will be possible with pursuing diverse interests, some of them with apparent conflicting aims. But I definitely know how I feel when how do I want to live this day? guides my actions.

I feel grounded in home and its relationships. I feel awe, endless curiosity, nourishment, and kinship in nature. I feel expanded and connected in travel and adventures. I feel energized and stimulated by engaging with ideas. I feel deep satisfaction when contributing to and supporting the well-being of others.

In pursuing a hodge-podge of interests and desires I don’t know that I’ll reach any “noteworthy” success, be “accomplished”, or have the “significant” outcomes I observe in the role models I esteem. (At least the parts of their life they allow others to see!) But holy-moly, articulating how I feel when pursuing what I love is very instructive.

Turns out that how I feel, while living the answer to the question - how do I want to live my days? - is its own success.

I don’t know what the impact, outcomes, or legacy of my life will be. (Is the hype around these ideas another thing I can blame on exploitative capitalism?) But I do know I want to live interesting, grounded, expansive, connected, nourished, energized, stimulating and satisfying days.

Honestly, that sounds amazing to me.

I know we can’t look to how we feel at the end of each day as the measure of success. Some days are crap. Some seasons are brutal. Sometimes it’s just overwhelm. But I do believe that a consistent practice of checking-in, re-orienting, and fine tuning our thoughts and actions in response to the question “how do I want my live my days?” is a very doable practice that will yield days well-lived (by your own standards and values) over the course of seasons and years.

And what is a life if not a collection of many days?

I didn’t set out to come to the conclusion that I’m already living my own definition of success when I started writing this post a couple weeks ago. I had no idea where I’d land. I was feeling overwhelmed in the transition space of returning home, disappointed in myself that I couldn’t fulfill my highest vision of gardening while also pursuing travel, two conflicting interests.

Maybe this was all settled in my unconscious and I just had to write through to find it. I never know how much of the writing process is a discovery of something new, outside of self-knowledge, and how much is simply excavating what already exists but is currently hidden.

I’ll accept it all with deep gratitude. The uncovering or discovery of knowing, the overgrown flowers, the garlic harvest, the opportunity for new experiences and connections. That I get to live a life with these tensions and on these terms at all makes me inordinately lucky.

Renee Tougas participates in affiliate marketing, including the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. Whenever you buy something on Amazon from a link you clicked here, I get a (very) small percentage of that sale. See disclosure for further explanation.

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