Looking Back and Moving Forward

Well, another summer has come to an end. Last Thursday I went back to work – to department meetings, professional development, beginning-of-school year speeches, classroom setup time, jammed photocopiers, and a brand-new curriculum for a class I’m teaching for the first time. But while I valued every moment of my summer break, I’m also content to return. My students, who materialize tomorrow, help keep me young and remain a (mostly) constant source of inspiration. I don’t think many people can keep a career for eighteen years and say, almost without hesitation, “I’m happy to be here.” But I still love what I do for a living, even during the darkest, coldest February mornings, even when I grumble and mutter, and even when I’m teaching the damn Scarlet Letter.

I once knew a person who said, with complete seriousness, “I can never see myself settling into a routine. There’s no way I could do the same job year after year. I just want to travel and do new things all the time and see where life takes me.”

That’s great, but the stability of at least a somewhat normal routine can also be profoundly beneficial. There’s a difference between a rut and a pattern: one is limiting, the other beautiful. And if you do good work, worthwhile work, and work that you enjoy, then the pattern necessary to afford that travel, and to do those other things, won’t seem like a burdensome routine, but an essential method of putting your talent, whatever it may be, to meaningful use.

So some of what we have to do can also be what we want to do. Having a career you can take pride in is always something to be grateful for, even when the pressures mount or you have a bad day, week, or month. And I still take pride in mine.

That said, it’s also worth taking stock of what I did, didn’t do, and learned over the last nine weeks, when I was much more free from my traditional routine. It’s healthy to take a brief look back now and then and get a “track record” for how things worked out. That way you can (hopefully) grow from what you find, and move forward with a bit more confidence and wisdom. I think this conscious process is always a good idea, but even more important when recovering from something like a depressive episode, which clouded late winter and all of spring for me.

To begin with, I created daily and weekly goals for my summer writing routine…I wrote, on average, six out of every seven days for nine weeks straight, no breaks, no excuses. I’m at my most productive when I become a creature of habit, so chose to do most of my writing in the evening at the local Starbucks…I remember mentioning my plan to do that in an earlier post, and that’s exactly what I did. (In fact I became so habitual that every one of the employees there now knows exactly what I order. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I couldn’t say.) So no matter what my daily plans were, if I was in town and had nothing else to do in the evening, I’d be there writing. And if I did have evening plans, I’d write in the morning or afternoon instead. One way or another, the work got done. I can’t write much during the school year, so that summer schedule is precious.

And I should add that I do view my writing as work…I love it, but it isn’t something I ever take on casually, or without total dedication. The reason I don’t write during the school year is because I can’t devote the time and concentration to it that it deserves and demands. The results would be sub-par, and I won’t allow that. Just like teaching, it’s good work, worthwhile work, and work that I enjoy. And just like teaching, it must be taken seriously and undertaken with rigor.

In total, I calculate I wrote just over 32,000 words this summer. That includes nine new stories for the third Uncanny Valley book and eleven essays for this blog. I enjoyed every minute of the process, and the more some of the stories challenged me, the more I gained from creating them. Again, good work is rewarding, and “difficult” can also mean fun.

But I also made sure that plans with friends and loved ones came first. If someone invited me to do something, I always did my best to go. And if I found myself with some free time, I did my best to fill it with the presence of others. I feel that over the last few years, for a variety of reasons, I’d slipped up on really being present in the lives of a lot of people I truly care about, and also didn’t work hard enough on forming relationships with new people. So that’s an area I’m now doing my best to focus on, because nothing matters more than spending time with people who really care, who can really be counted on, and who make your life better just by sharing theirs with you.

As a counterpoint, I firmly cut ties with some people who proved toxic to my life. I simply won’t pursue or cater to personalities like that any longer, regardless of whatever past experiences we shared. Now they get less of me – or none of me at all – rather than more. A sad truth I’ve come to recognize is that some people are like ghosts. They have no lives of their own, so haunt those who do, and do their best to drag you down to their level in the process. Those are the ones you have to exorcise completely, leaving them behind to haunt others instead. It’s a hard-won lesson, but I’m better off having learned it. Let those bridges burn, and don’t look back.

Finally, I also like to travel. The trips are not usually to exotic places, but that doesn’t matter, and this year I really amped up those “little” visits, starting in late-spring and continuing all through the summer. Among others, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Seattle, New York, Annapolis, Gettysburg, Cincinnati, Richmond, and my old home town of Columbia, Maryland are all places I’ve connected or reconnected with over the last four months. I went to each for various reasons, but they all ultimately boil down to one: when we travel for pleasure, it’s to deepen our well of experience and have some fun doing it. That says it all.

But now that I’m back to work, each of those areas – writing, time with people I care about, and travel – will be affected. I won’t have as much time or energy for any of them. Even so, I still plan on making those three things more of a priority – to even the balance a bit more than in years past – not only during the coming school year, but indefinitely. Back in May, in the midst of my episode of depression, I shared a favorite quote by Ray Bradbury: “Doing is being.” At the time, I forced myself to write, to spend time with people, and to travel a bit. I did this not because I wanted to – I really, really didn’t – but because I used to want to. I had a tiny bit of hope, in the gray haze that hides and buries hope, that doing what usually made me happy would eventually lead to being happy again.

And holy shit, it was hard. Brushing my teeth was hard. Talking was hard. Opening the front door was hard. That’s what depression does – it’s a goddamn Dementor straight out of Harry Potter. But slowly, eventually, it actually started to work. Then kept on working.

And now that I’m enjoying those things again and being more proactive in pursuing them, I’m determined to never again slip back into complacency. Sometimes it takes a difficult time or crisis, in whatever shape or form, to make us realize just how much we take for granted and miss when things are relatively stable, and how important it is to embrace opportunities when they present themselves. I’ve always tried to be proactive…to work hard, do the things I really want to do, and achieve my goals. But everyone can backslide a bit, and I won’t let that happen again.

Most of us have heard the famous lyric from The Doors, “No one here gets out alive.” There’s also a darkly hilarious Onion headline I sometimes think about: “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100%.” It’s never something we like to dwell on, but facts is facts. With that in mind, the last 18 months have witnessed a number of deaths and serious illnesses of friends and family – the list is longer than I care to think about. And what I’ve realized is that by saying I don’t want to take what I enjoy and value for granted again, I’m actually saying I don’t want to take life – precious, unpredictable, and brief – for granted again. Because it’s all life. All of it. And the pain we often have to live with and through isn’t overwhelmed by inaction, but by doing what you love, and with the people who care about you, whenever and however you can, while you can.

So, that’s what I did this summer. And that’s what I learned.

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5 Responses to Looking Back and Moving Forward

  1. John York says:

    Excellent, Greg Miller!
    Your friend,

  2. Alessia F. says:

    Hi! Previous student of yours here. I just kinda stumbled on this blog after I realized both of my brothers are starting school today. In fact, I don’t have much time left before I, too, go back to the world of schooling (and better yet, debt). But with that aside, I wanted to say that this post resonated with me.

    In a few short days, I’ll be on a flight to Sarasota, Florida. I’ll be entering my sophomore year at the Ringling College of Art, where I study Game Design and draw until my fingers fall off. I don’t know if you remember me doodling away in your Accelerated English 11 class – I submitted a few projects here and there (one was for the “damn” Scarlet Letter. I’m glad you think that book is a chore too). I didn’t talk very much in that class, which I regret wholeheartedly… But I digress!

    I work in the creative field pretty much daily, especially during the school year. Rigorous as the program is, I feel like I’m constantly learning and enhancing my skills as an artist. I’m surrounded by people who understand my goals, career, and *me* better. Though a chronic introvert by nature, I’ve made a good few friends. But after the year ends, I come home. To my family and a few friends from high school, sure, but home feels weird now.

    In a word, seasonal depression is… a bitch. Sleeping in until 11:30 feels good for the first few weeks of summer, but eventually those “mornings” kind of mesh together. The heat and humidity creep through the vents and constantly remind me how terrible the insulation is in my room. I can drive, but I’m left with no car for most days. So I draw, play video games, or play D&D over Discord on the day to day. Escapism has always been my best friend, but here in Pittsburgh, even that can be defeated. I feel confined in my house in the middle of the suburbs. The routine grows old, so sometimes I just sit. Without the rush of assignments and responsibilities, intrusive thoughts infiltrate my mind and brew up a really foul brain soup. Time is at a standstill.

    So I’m ready for the rush again. School is a helluva drug, I guess. But again, I really resonate with this essay. Even when I felt at my lowest, I still got myself to work – whether it be a 2 week stint at an art studio or doing commissions for friends. I hung out with some of my closest friends for the last time (until winter break) yesterday. I made a schedule for myself, and it felt great.

    College and the summers that follow are life-changing experiences. So I’m trying my best to go with the flow, do what I love, and cherish what I have while it’s there.

    Thanks for this essay, I hope you’re having a great day.

  3. Alessia, thanks so much for your response. Of course I remember you, and it’s great to hear from you! It sounds like you’re doing really well, and I’m so glad to read about your work in Game Design at Ringling College. A close friend of mine is one of the lead Art Directors at Firaxis, and also an animator for them, so that’s a field I respect and admire very highly. I’d love to see more of your work sometime.

    Seasonal depression is insidious, and you describe it very well. I hate the general malaise that comes with it. Everything just feels stagnant. Mine always kicks in during Pittsburgh’s “five-month winters,” and is always worse in February and March. And honestly, that’s one of the yearly hurdles I’m hoping this summer helped to prepare me for…If I can maintain some of that balance during that time of year in particular, and continue being proactive even when I just want to hibernate, then I’ll know that whatever I learned this summer actually stuck with me.

    I also believe that keeping busy with good work is a very positive thing. It’s not just spinning wheels, but moving you forward. It sounds like your school schedule is “good” work, and I totally understand that without that to motivate and stimulate you during the summer, you can end up in that same sort of funk I often feel during winter. But it’s great that you still pushed yourself and put yourself out there to do what you needed and wanted to do during those months, and that you’re already planning out how to make the most of your busy school year ahead. It makes all the difference.

    Keep in touch, and it’s great to hear from you.

  4. Noah Lynch says:

    Hey Mr. Miller, a former student from two years ago. You ate my croutons one day in class! Thank you for sharing this, it’s always interesting to hear about your teacher’s lives and what they experience. I’m in my first year of college at the University of New Hampshire, and it is a lot of writing! But I’m excited for the next 4 years. What is the new class that you are teaching?

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