One Thing

Welcome to 2017!

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.  It seems to me that if you’re going to do something, DO IT.  Don’t promise it for a year.  Decide and go.

So my 2017 goal is the same as my 2016, my 2015, all the way back to the fog of…whenever I started thinking about it, I guess.

To follow, unflinchingly, my version of what a slightly-cheesy 90’s movie so aptly sums up as the One Thing.

There’s a movie I used to watch with my parents a lot, and probably before I was old enough to really be comfortable with all its subject matter (hooray for discussing issues of adultery and the male gaze at age 12!).  But it’s one of those things where 80% of the movie was about something fun and meaningful and 20% was about something even more meaningful if entirely opaque to a kid.  It’s not a *great* movie by any means, but it was important.

Because City Slickers taught me about the One Thing.

(Spoilers for the movie from here on out, just in case)

Basic synopsis for those not willing to Google: 3 friends in their late 30’s take their vacation on a cattle drive where everything goes wrong and ultimately figure out how to return to their lives and live them with enthusiasm.  Billy Crystal is the main character, backed up by Bruno Kirby and Daniel Stern, and the three of them are challenged, threatened, terrified, and finally inspired by an old cowboy played beautifully by Jack Palance.  They get saddle sores, they rope cattle, they ride badly and then less badly, and they face down the vapidness in themselves to find something worth bringing home.

There’s a scene that takes place between Billy Crystal’s character Mitch and Jack Palance’s cowboy Curly when the two of them are out on their own before they catch up to the rest of the herd and its hapless vacationers.  Mitch is wound tight and is on the brink of despair in his life and Curly, in a moment of insight, just shakes his head at him.

Curly: You city folk worry about a lot of shit…  Y’all come up here about the same age.  Same problems.  Spend about fifty weeks a year gettin’ knots in your rope.  Then you think two weeks up here’ll untie ‘em for you.  None of you get it.
[pause]
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?  [points index finger skyward]  This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.
Mitch: That’s great but, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles and points his finger at Mitch]  That’s what you gotta figure out.

 

By the end of the movie, Mitch figures out that his One Thing is his family, his wife and kids, that they are what he is living for and what gives him reason to breathe.  That they make him his best self and give him back his smile.

It’s a noble place to plant your flag, but there’s a problem with that choice — he’s set his sail to a star that will fade.  He ends the movie triumphantly happy, with no note of what is to come.  But someday, just as he says rather despondently at the beginning of the film, his life won’t look like it does when he is 39.  Someday his kids will grow up, leave home, and maybe not be the people he hoped for.  Someday maybe he will be a widower, or his marriage won’t be what makes him happy.

Mitch designates his One Thing at a single point in time — and the only way that works is either if his family literally never changes from how they are right now, or  if he is willing to adjust its definition as life frays his current reality into the future.

On the other hand, that is enough for some people.  How many people want to become something, like a doctor, a grandparent, a *success* however you define it?  How many people, mainly women, unfortunately, claim that their wedding day is the best day of their life?  Or that high school, or college, or one free summer is the best time in a person’s life?

It seems to work for lots of people.  But it never worked for me.  How could it?

That mentality means that you’ve hit your peak before you’re even partway into your potential lifespan.  Does that mean you are condemned to nothing but disappointment from then on?  Like, yay, I lived everything worth living before I was 25?  I’d rather not.

Time happens.  Life happens.  And it changes.  The people we love and live for might not always be there.  The success or job we set our hopes on may change, or fade, or turn out not what we wanted after all.

It always seemed to me that if you set your One Thing on shifting sands, someday it will fall.

Ultimately, I think a safer One Thing is one that isn’t tied to circumstances but rather movement or perspective.  If a person decides to walk the path of a religion, or a philosophy, no matter who comes or goes from their life, they will have their dedication and their beliefs and ideas to lead them on.  There’s an argument to be made for ‘what if your philosophy changes?’ which I think means that you might end up with another One Thing to find and follow eventually.  But overall?  A One Thing which isn’t a *thing* and is instead a path has a better chance of staying with you while you walk through the changing, unexpected years of messy, real life.

My One Thing isn’t a goal.  It’s a trajectory.  It’s not pointing at the fence, Babe Ruth-style, and hitting the single shot I called.  It’s choosing a spot on the horizon and heading for it, unflinchingly, without stopping.  For me, my One Thing could never be a single state of being, nor a single achievement.  My One Thing had to be a journey, the arc of an arrow shot through the sky — not its landing at the end.

It’s true that there are people I love with deep and abiding affection, people I would die and live for.  There are people who are my friends and family without whom my world would become cold and ash and empty.  And I do live for them.  They are my foundation.

But they can’t and shouldn’t be my One Thing because my One Thing must sit deeper than that.  Before I can be a friend or sister or wife or aunt or anything else, I have to be myself.

So my One Thing is to become the version of myself I want the most — from that comes everything else.  If I am the self that burns inside, the self I have chosen, then I can be an artist.  I can be a wife and friend.  I can be a citizen of the world.  I can be a defender and a refuge.  I can be a home.

And the truth is that this One Thing actually did unknot my rope, as it was.  Because making that one choice, following that one star I found to be my Polaris, had consequences.  To follow it, to stay on the path forward, I had to let other things go.  I had to BECOME other things.  And every step towards my one point on the horizon brought me closer to everything I wanted — and farther from everything keeping me from it.

Everybody’s One Thing is different.  But mine, for my own reasons, has to live within me.  It’s the one thing that is utterly constant, with me at every breath.  And it means I never have to face resenting pinning my life to One Thing that turns out to be transient.  It means there is no crisis of faith to be had, because I am still alive in myself.

And if I’m not, well, I’ve got bigger problems than a loss of direction.

So my goal for 2017?  To keep following my inner star over whatever lands await me.  To live my One Thing which gives me the power and clarity to be the person I want to give to the people who matter, the art that matters, the world that matters.  To be the soul which is only mine — and to help it shine in the world alongside my 6 billion neighbors.

When I am honestly myself, bruised and proud, running between some mix of integrity and disaster, that’s when my rope unknots and everything else really don’t mean shit.

That’s when I get to be myself for everyone who needs me.

That’s when the noise of the world goes quiet and all that’s left is what I put into it.

Thanks for the advice, Curly.

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