Decisions, Decisions

I was discussing how to we decide whether or not we are going to adopt “new” music into our listening repertoire with someone, which led to me thinking about all sorts of choices, and writing this reflection, which the bookworms amongst you should be able to relate to! How do you make your decisions about music, or anything else?

I was 14 when I first stood inside a university library. I’d gone there for the day because our school had a staff development day, which meant the students had a day off. I was in the city for senior high school, had just started Year 11, and could take a bus to places like this. From the age of six I had spent much of my spare time in school libraries, browsing and then borrowing voraciously across fiction and non-fiction alike, books like treasure to take home. I could open them up and jump in, thresholds to other worlds, and to this world too – but like in Gulliver’s travels, where you could see things both in finer detail and from further away than your everyday perspective.

So a building reputedly with several floors of books drew me like a pilgrim might be drawn to a cathedral. I’d never been to a place like this before. I walked through the sliding glass doors; two university students smiled at me. I was struck by that because generally, older age groups in school hadn’t been that welcoming. These people were old enough to vote, were doing degrees, and they were friendly, acknowledged me. It gave me a good feeling, on top of being about to see more books in one place than I ever had in my life.

And it was extraordinary. The ground floor alone was ten times the size of our high school library, the shelves much taller, rows and rows and rows of books, and long, wide tables in the middle with people sitting at them, books piled around them, writing furiously into notebooks. Ground floor, sociology, philosophy, theology, history, art, literature. Basement, botany, zoology, physics, chemistry, geology, geography, a section of coffee table books filled with photographs of the world.

After a reconnaisance through the building, I settled into the sociology/philosophy section and browsed. I pulled titles that intrigued me off the shelves, opened them to the chapter index, flicked through randomly, and got shivers down my spine as entire new ways of looking and thinking opened up to me and tripped open trapdoors in my mind. Eventually, I chose a handful of books on the American civil rights movement, and on the philosophy of nonviolent action, and carried them to a distraction-free study desk tucked away by a window. And I read, and read, and read, electrified and barely breathing. When I looked up, the sun was setting, and my stomach was growling at me – I’d completely forgotten to have lunch. As I returned the books to their shelves, I was suddenly struck by a piercing realisation: Even if I lived to be one hundred, I could never read all the books in this library.

Two years later, I returned to spend four years doing a double-major science degree at this university – Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia – and even with all the required subject reading, and taking home recreational reading predominantly from the literature, art, and philosophy sections, I wouldn’t have read 0.5% of the books in that library. And it makes you think, about how you might make your choices, both in books and in life.

Brett always says to me, “Life is too short to read books that don’t interest you.” Like me, he’s very aware that the amount of worthy reading material on offer vastly exceeds the amount of time we will have to read. And the same is true for movies, and art, and music as well – we have to find ways of choosing from the vast sea of these things, and that tends to make us very selective. Also, cultural forms of recreation and self-education need to share space in our lives with other priorities, like physical activity to keep our bodies in good shape, enough sleep, doing our part-time paid work, managing our farm, and growing and preparing food.

We often wish for 40 hours in the day, as a sort of bonus life, to fit more in, but when we look at it, we actually do fit in amazing amounts, and tend to use our time well. At midlife, you tend to review how things went in the first half, and make priorities for the second half. We’re both happy with what we’ve achieved in our first 40 years on this planet – and then we tree-changed, of course, owner-built and downshifted, so we no longer work full-time outside our home, and we finally have enough time for each other and for the important things that were always on hold before we quit the rat race.

We’re pretty happy with our decision-making protocols – I know I’ve become very much the kind of person I aimed to become, when I was a teenager, and I’ve contributed in ways that mattered, and continue to do so; and if that weren’t enough, I also found a sort of personal Eden – the thing I didn’t have as a child, and not until I met Brett a dozen years ago – namely generous lashings of love, support, connection, camaraderie in the household I live in; and a microcosm run according to our own shared values and preferences.

So in the context of that, making decisions over which music to listen to is just one small piece of the puzzle. But how do we decide? Well, here’s what I want from music: I want it to be nourishing in some way – either emotionally, or by making me think. I prefer it to be beautiful, although I also have time for experimental music. If it is those things (and much of this is subjective), it will find a place in me. I’m the kind of person who prefers to have deep engagements, rather than more superficial ones – I will re-read books I like many times, knowing it means there will be some books worth my while I will never read at all; but I really want that deep engagement with things that have especially moved me, instead of endlessly chasing all over the place for more things that might. Same with music, films, art. With that approach, I get a balance of continuing dialogue with “old friends” from whom I am still learning, and picking up new material from the as yet unfamiliar.

And I’m with Brett on this: In general, if it doesn’t make you sparkle, don’t waste your time – not when every yes to something is a no to something else. So for us: Don’t eat Cadbury’s chocolate when you could be eating one square of Lindt. Climb a real mountain if you can, walk a real shoreline, instead of just exercising in buildings which make exercise one-dimensional. Pick the things that are good for you off the smorgasbord, and be confident in your instincts. It’s your life, be responsible for it, live it.

Of course we all have chores to do in life, which may not be so pleasant, but even there we can choose our attitudes, and our reward systems. When we do housework, we are both motivated by wanting our partner to have a nice environment to live in, good food to eat, etc; and often we will do a particular task so the other person won’t have to do it when they’re tired. Brett usually won’t let me wash up; he turns into a growly bear at the sink and tells me washing up is man’s work and I should go sit down and relax. Since I do most of the food preparation, which I really really enjoy, that’s fair – although doing dishes is dull, Brett says not to worry, he has audio dramas on his iPod especially for this purpose. It’s so much easier to do your chores when you’re doing them out of love, as well.

That’s chores… and as for listening to music or reading books, for us that should be a joy, or at least highly thought-provoking. So those are some of the values we live by, and each person must decide for themselves what their values are, and how to live by them.

Sending best wishes to everyone out there for living your own lives authentically.

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