Though E.B. White said those words more than fifty years ago, they seem to have been written for us today, in our hour and our era. In this world where we cannot turn around without a sign or a screen reminding us of 10 Ways to be Happier, or 11 Ways the World is Going to Hell, we want to feel better, and we want to do something about the problems we are seeing…but in our paralysis of being caught between, so many of us, so much of the time, somehow seem to do neither.
Stars and Jars is the effort of a failed pessimist to explore how we can live full, fulfilling lives, and make the world a better place, using stories, pictures, science, and the words of sages.
About: Exceedingly Unabridged
Part I: About (Many of) Us
How do we spend our days? How do we spend our lives?
These are the kind of questions that can make your heart drop and your stomach sink, and make you reach for your phone or to-do list, or start cleaning under the stove burners, even. Anything to distract ourselves from the realization that the answers aren’t what we want, and more importantly, what we really need.
An old friend wrote me recently. “This is adulthood?” he wrote. “I ask myself that question frequently. My plan thus far has been to stay almost unbearably busy, so I don’t really have to answer to it. I thought, in general, that adults would know more and be better at life.”
That same week two female friends spoke to me on different days. Both of them were caught somewhere between what was expected of them, what was demanded of them, what they felt they should be doing, and what they felt they could be doing…if only. Both of my friends cried.
Sometimes it simmers under the surface, other times it bubbles up and boils. Either way it happens to nearly all of us—this feeling that our time and choices belong to someone else, that our hours are not ours. So many of us have felt our lives slipping by as we spend one day at a time watching it happen, seemingly helpless to do anything to change it.
We have all had that moment upon waking, when we know what the day is going to bring. Again. We all know the feeling of looking into the mirror, into our own eyes, and asking questions we wouldn’t dare ask another. We know how it feels to see the response in our reflection.
So we avert our eyes, turn our heads, look quickly to something else. We wash our hands, dry them off, and tidily arrange the hand towel. You could do better, our reflection tells us the moment before we look away. And in the same moment we answer, I know. We know.
The truth is we all know things need to change. We know our lives could be better. We all know the world around us could be better, too. The hard part, and the part we do our best to distract ourselves from, is knowing that we could actually do something about it.
Each one of us has our unique yearnings. But if we are human, and if we care in any way for humankind, we tend to share two. The first is the desire to live full, fulfilling lives. The second is the desire to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. That is where we all know we can do better. This is how we want to spend our days. This is how we want to spend our lives. Deep down, we know this. We just don’t often know how to do it.
Quick, surface fixes are touted to us all the time, from all angles—this technology, or app, or life hack. But time after time these fixes are short-lived at best, ineffective and counterproductive at worst. Either way, they tend to leave us looking for more.
And so even though our days are just packed, so often, somehow, they manage to feel empty.
Part II: About Stars and Jars
But what is meant by a full life? What do we actually need to do to get there?
There are so many sources to guide us, from great leaders, to literature, to life experiences. Yet some of our best learning comes through stories. Stories can often reveal truths to us that would take years to explain or understand using facts or evidence alone.
Stories can speak to the part of us that does not have a political affiliation, the part of us that does not have any labels, the part of us that recognizes a common ground with every other human being in this wild world, the part that knows when it comes to some things, we are all on the same page. Stories speak to the part of us that knows truth from fiction, and also knows truth from reams of facts.
The Starfish Story is one of these stories. The Jar of Life is another. One story is about saving the world, and the other is about saving ourselves. Both stories seem not only to speak to all of us, but to belong to all of us; both have been written by many hands in hundreds of ways. This site is called Stars and Jars because these two stories seem to me to say more about living full, fulfilling lives and making the world a better place than all the stats and hacks from here to the horizon could ever hope to. There are so many stories out there that can help us understand some of the greater truths. I hope to include many stories here, or pieces of them, as Stars and Jars unfolds.
And yet. I am a researcher and analyst by education and trade, and (embarrassingly, perhaps) by passion. I love learning, and I love digging down to learn as much as I can about a given issue. Then I love connecting the dots between seemingly disparate issues. I do this for my paid work, but I also do this to an alarming degree in my spare time.
I am telling you this because this means Stars and Jars will have stories, but it will also have science, it will have statistics, it will have citations. It will contain quotes and references to countless others much more well-equipped than I, who have explored similar issues in the recent-to-distant past. After all, as they say, everything worth saying has already been said. All real truths have been said before, but in this wild world in which we live, we need all the reminders we can get.
“Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” ~André Gide
My thought is that if we take some time to delve into all of these sources together—the stories, the science, the statistics, the sages—perhaps they can help tackle the dilemma raised by E.B. White. Perhaps we can learn how to better shape our days. Perhaps then, too, we can reshape our lives, and the world along with it.
Part III: About Me
I recently read a quote that calls to attention some concerns I have about writing what I just wrote in the About Us section. This is how the quote, or joke, goes:
“What do you mean ‘we‘, masked man?”
I will admit that when I write “us”, or “we”, I am referring to struggles I have faced in the past, or continue to face. But I have also seen, perceived, felt, and read about these same struggles in the people around me, and people throughout the world, now and throughout history. So I know I am not alone in this—there is a ‘we’.
But this is not the meaning of “What do you mean ‘we’, masked man?” As I read it, it asks “who are you to say ‘we’ when you haven’t shared anything about yourself?”
I’m unsure what to share or write about myself in an About section that would adequately explain how I came to create Stars and Jars, or why I am compelled to do it. I can’t decide what is relevant to share at this early juncture, and what isn’t.
I will start here: I love to research, read, and learn. I love to draw. I love seeing humor in things that perhaps are not entirely appropriate to laugh at. I love thinking, analyzing, and synthesizing, and I get an almost perverse enjoyment out of playing the contrarian.
My hope is that more relevant and (one hopes) interesting information about me will surface in context as Stars and Jars unfolds, in the form of my own stories and struggles. For now, I will tell the story of one moment I recall, which was one of the major stones paving the path to where I am now.
Several years ago I was a student in a writing workshop. At that time, my professional life was extremely data- and spreadsheet-focused, and I was what would probably be called a workaholic (My sense is that one might be considered a workaholic if “Vienna” by Billy Joel comes on Pandora and one starts crying to oneself, and yet one continues sitting at one’s computer working well into the night.)
I have been a lifelong bookworm (as a young teenager I used to say that books were “my drug of choice”), yet in the time leading up to that workshop I am not sure I had read a book for pleasure—or any fiction, any stories—in years. I had loved to draw and paint since I was a kid, and I’d lost track of the last time I’d attempted to put pencil or paint to paper.
I had loved to play outside since I was a child. I spent roughly 95% of my childhood with my best friend in the woods or water, and yet at the time of the workshop I was spending far too much of my life, day and night, in front of a computer, doing work and analyzing data on a world I no longer had time to see. Nor did I have time to see aforementioned best friend. Nor did she have time to see me.
I was spending far too much of my life, day and night, in front of a computer, doing work and analyzing data on a world I no longer had time to see.
I do not recall the exact topic of conversation, the exact question asked in the workshop that incited what was to follow. This is what I do recall: crying uncontrollably in front of a group of strangers because I felt I had abandoned so many of the things I was, things I loved, and things I cared about.
But I did truly care about my work, and I felt in my own small way I was helping to improve the world. I cried because I felt that I had to choose one or the other—I could enjoy the world, or I could improve it. I could live a full life, or I could do my part to make the world a better place. I felt that since I was an adult, I had made my choice in terms of my life path, so there was no looking back.
And there was another thing. I was starting to have misgivings about certain aspects of my work. Right around the time of the workshop, a friend had played for me on the piano Coldplay’s The Scientist. The song came on Pandora yesterday, and in listening to it I was struck how much one section of it seemed to encompass where I was at the time, whether or not I had consciously acknowledged it.
I was just guessing at numbers and figures
Pulling your puzzles apart
Questions of science, science and progress
Do not speak as loud as my heart
To put it simply, I had come to a point where I believed in nothing that could not be proven with science or statistics, and I was finding it to be a dark place indeed. On top of this, I increasingly had doubts that the kinds of solutions my work supported were the only way, or even the best way.
And then there’s the predictable part of the equation. In terms of traditional measures, I was successful, especially for my age, and especially given my expectations when I’d gone into the field. I was quite successful by conventional, visible or measurable standards—the parts people can see on the surface—and I would be lying if I didn’t say I was pleased about this.
But there was something that was happening to the part of me that no one can see. I was harboring suspicions that perhaps I was not so much a part of the cure as I’d hoped, or as I’d set out to be, but rather I was part of the disease. A small and previously silent part of me felt lost and helpless and frankly in despair.
So I’ll tell you one of the ways I was most successful, as I see it from where I sit now.
I had done an excellent job, up to this point, in hiding my internal struggles. I had been successful hiding it from others, and I had been almost as successful in hiding it from myself through an extensive layering system of repression, sarcasm, cynicism and detachment, among others.
But something started to crack at the surface of my many shells. For as long as I could remember it had been my dream to write. Writing was always something I would do later, though, or this is what I told myself whenever the thought arose. I wrote all the time for work, but that was writing journal articles and reports, which is a different monster altogether (especially when we are talking about head versus heart, which I suppose we are). I wanted to write about what I think and care about, as opposed to what I am paid to think and care about. That year something had finally nudged me to at least try creative writing, to take one workshop and see what happened.
Soon after—in response to some unremembered question raised, and my attempt to answer—I found myself sobbing in a room full of strangers. The game was up, the shells no longer cracked but officially irreparably open, and with witnesses no less. The other participants in the workshop were extremely kind to me, and as I recall even handed me tissues. They were kind and they were patient. But they knew, of course, that they couldn’t fix it for me. They could tell I had a lot to learn.
Part IV: More About Us (and Me, and Stars and Jars)
In the years leading up to that workshop I had spent untold amounts of time and energy constructing a character based on others’ answers to the big questions—these agreed-upon, but often unexamined ideas about what is important, and what it means to live well and do good in the world. Now that the character was crumbling before me, I had a good deal to learn, yes, but I had more to unlearn. That is what I have spent much of the past decade doing—unlearning, which is really questioning what I had and have learned, and questioning what I believed to be true.
One thing I’ve unlearned and learned during this time is that if we make the effort to dig down and look at things a little differently, many of our debates and dilemmas—including the one posed by E.B. White—are actually false dichotomies. The other day my friend wrote me to tell me that Eric Idle calls himself a “failed pessimist”. My friend shared this because that is what he thinks I am, a failed pessimist, and I suppose I am. I used to look around and see these enormous problems in the world, and feel hopeless and helpless. Now I see it differently. Now I see enormous challenges, but almost endless opportunity as well. I’d like to use Stars and Jars to share what I have learned about this, and what I’ve unlearned, and how.
A good deal of what I’ve learned has come from researching and reading, but I’ve also used myself as a guinea pig, intentionally or not. I have made many mistakes (and let me be clear by this that Mistakes Have Been Made), but I have also stumbled into some mini-miracles, too. All the time I have been questioning what I thought I knew, and what I believed we knew to be true. I certainly don’t claim to have any answers. But I have learned a lot about the power of questions.
There are years that ask questions, and years that answer. ~Zora Neale Hurston
Questions, then, will be a crucial part of our work with Stars and Jars. I say our work because we will be asking ourselves the big questions—the ones we’ve somehow allowed to be answered for us without noticing. We will be asking ourselves the questions we’d never dare ask another, and we will be taking the time to answer them.
Otherwise we are going to keep wearing these masks, even at the mirror. And that is how we will spend our days, and that is how we will spend our lives. Perhaps we can live with that. But when we don’t even know who we are, what we need, what we truly care about, or the work we want to do in this world, it does make it difficult to plan the day.