When I was nine years old, I learned about a way to twist up different colored pipe cleaners into spirals, then combine them to make cute designs. I soon started making refrigerator magnets and selling them to all the grownups I knew … but a few months in, I got bored and started collecting weird stamps instead.
As a teenager, I had a massive crush on a dude who was super into Allen Ginsberg, and I got super into Allen Ginsberg, too — so into him that I wrote my junior year history paper about him and won a shit ton of awards and got to go to Washington, DC. I even sent the paper to AG himself, and he marked it up and sent it back! <3 After a few months, though, I lost interest in Beat poetry and that boy, and moved on to my next obsession, Les Miserables.
One weekend in my early 30s, I suddenly felt the urgent need to make purses out of old album covers, and I started a business, and I got to travel around the country selling them to fabulous shops including the Liberace Museum in Vegas!!! But within a couple of years, the thought of making another purse out Madonna’s first album made me want to kill myself, and I lost all my desire to dig through dusty old racks looking for album cover treasures, and I quit.
I went through these cycles of obsession and disinterest so much that my friend Michelle and I developed a term for them — Fuck Fish — after a scene from Adaptation. In this scene, Chris Cooper’s character talks about how he, like, falls in love with a succession of things — turtles, fossils, mirrors — then suddenly just can’t deal with them anymore. At a certain point, he always gets to the place where he’s just done. Fuck fish.
And, yep. I’m the same damn way. I used to feel bad about it. Shouldn’t I want to develop mastery so that I can be super duper great at something? Don’t I need to put in my 10,000 hours or else I’m a useless dilettante? Don’t I need to focus on one thing or else my life will be a rambling, ramshackle mess?
But, as in so many cases in life, “should” doesn’t matter a whit compared to “is.” Maybe I should want to devote my life to just one thing … but I don’t.
At the beginning of the Fuck Fish cycle, I gulp down enormous amounts of knowledge and do huge amounts of practice and I grow so quickly that it’s almost amazing, and I’m super productive and having about as much fun as it’s possible for a nerd like me to have.
But after I reach the Fuck Fish point, I just … can’t. Continuing to knit, or play in a band, or whatever it was that I was so recently gung-ho for feels like trying to walk through slowly hardening concrete. So, even though I know that I should buckle down and keep trudging, usually I don’t. Usually my eye is caught by some other shiny object, and I levitate toward it.
My beloved Elizabeth Gilbert is the opposite of me, one of the mega-focused, single-pointed souls who find one thing they love and never deviate from it. When I saw her speak last fall in Brooklyn she talked about how when she was sixteen or something, she lit a candle and took a sacred vow to devote herself to writing forever. She just knew and that was that.
She calls her type of person a sledgehammer, and says that these are the folks who tend to be rewarded in our culture, and their focus can make them capable of truly amazing feats. (99% of Olympians are sledgehammers.)
But there’s another kind of person, too — the hummingbird. This is the kind of soul whose natural process looks like this — they go up to a flower, they drink deeply, and they are satisfied. Then they move on. THAT’S A-ME. And though it’s true that hard work, determination, grit, focus, yada yada yada … sorry, I just nodded off there for a second …
Anyway Liz reminded us that hummingbirdness is also important, because of cross-pollination. Hummingbirds inject calligraphy into computers and puppies into healthcare. Hummingbirds are how you get chocolate into peanut butter.
But, you may ask, isn’t it true that hummingbirdness is basically the same as flakiness? Yes and no. I will be the first to admit that there can be a wide overlap between the two, and this is something that all hummingbirds need to be on the watch for, including me.
At the same time, I would not characterize myself or many other hummingbirds as flaky people. Over the several decades of my life, I have developed some ability to knuckle down even when I don’t want to, and I do enormous amounts of work very quickly and very well, and I do my best to honor my commitments.
Still, I can’t ignore the fact that my nature loves freedom. The experience of liberty motivates me more than the possibility of becoming an expert. I love to be able to drink those first extra-sweet, brand-new flavors from a blossom and really, deeply enjoy them … and then I love moving on to the next one.
You have to understand that I tried to change. For years, I tried to push through the end of the Fuck Fish cycle, and sometimes I have been able to. And these, I guess, are the loves of my heart that ebb and flow and always come back to me — mostly writing, singing, and making pretty things with my hands.
But there are lots of other times when I just can’t find a way to push past my natural stopping point, so I just move on. And if I’m honest, I have to admit that once in awhile I feel a tiny twinge of regret. Like … if I had focused on writing songs or upcycling album covers or sewing dresses for the last twenty years, who knows where I would be today?
When I look at my life now, though, the regret dissolves away, because I am already living my damn dream. I have a level of freedom to do what I want that almost no one in history has ever had — especially a woman! And I’m surrounded by so much love and so many opportunities to enjoy myself and be of use. Fundamentally, I really do treasure my capacity for learning and connecting the dots between lots of different, tasty parts of this world. And I’m grateful for all that has flowered from it.
So who knows whether my brief love affairs with knitting, the musical Hamilton, using technology to make custom clothes, Vipassana meditation, creating album cover purses, Beat Poetry, writing songs, or Jane Austen movie adaptations will ever flare up again. If they do, I will be ready.
For now, what’s got my heart is walking through the yummy-smelling pine forests of Colorado. Coming up with ideas that feel smart to me, for work and for my book and for my life. Playing with paint and pastels and iridescent inks. Filling old books with fresh new paper. And noticing, and appreciating, the almost magical way in which everything I’ve done infuses and inspires everything else I do.