Pick what you like, see how it grows.

Recently, at the recommendation of a dear friend with whom I go way back (way back), I read Emily P. Freeman’s The Next Right Thing.

My friend recommended this book a few months ago, after I’d been making a little quiet fuss for a while about not being sure about my long-term plans. The book sat on my total chaos bookshelf (the one where new arrivals languish horizontally, their spines not even showing, no doubt shortening my librarian boyfriend’s lifespan every time he glances at the horror) for a month or two.

I picked it up just in time for reading it to coincide with a Big Freakout. Isn’t it funny how that often happens? The universe senses a freakout coming and throws a tiny life preserver out into it. Or maybe I was providing for myself, sensing the brewing eruption. Either way, I was tearing through it on the metro on my way to and from work, waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting for Emily to tell me what to do with my life.

Spoiler: the book doesn’t do that. If you ever find one that does, please send it to me immediately.

And don’t we all think we want that book? A recent poll I saw on Amy Young’s Instagram story had 95% of responders feeling stuck. So there’s nearly all of us in our own private occasional freakouts, wanting someone to come give us a little pull or shove, get us un-stuck.

In parachutes Emily, like a firefighter into the wildfire of my panic, bearing short chapters, each of which is a little inspiration, a little way in to the unknown. She dropped a few buckets of calm water onto me with each chapter.

One, in particular, has stuck with me. Remembering a time she was trying to zhuzh up her garden, Emily tells us her strategy: “Pick what you like, and see how it grows.” You don’t have to have the whole vision for the garden. You don’t have to have all the research done about how each plant will fare in each corner. You don’t have to know how it will work over the winter. You just have to pick what you like, and see how it grows.

Reader, that little line is part of why I’m writing this now. I’d been unsure of how to go forward in my life, how to find my vocation, as though it were some kind of prize hidden under some disguise in some unknown spot, and if I only knew how to find it it would be waiting for me. But it’s not like that. It’s all right in front of me, right in my hands and my head and my heart, because in every moment I can pick what I like and see how it grows. So in this blog, I’m picking what I like and writing about it, and we’ll see where we get.

Even at risk of beating this poor metaphor to death, I’m starting to think of everything in my life as a little seed being scattered. Every conversation, email, interaction with a stranger, passing thought, scrolled-by post, is a seed being scattered across my mind. Some seeds grow. These I chase down, researching further or noting down for future reference, or I get them stuck in my mind and can’t stop thinking or talking about them. Some don’t. These I immediately forget, even if I’d rather not, and I might require reminding. When I notice that something didn’t stick, maybe instead of worrying I’ve done something wrong, or telling myself I should buckle down and force myself to be more interested–maybe I can shift this. Maybe the seed fell on the wrong soil, or it was the wrong seed for the soil, or something. Maybe I can let it go.

And maybe I should save my attention for the seeds that did take root. Sr. Joan Chittister, who has literally written the book on vocation (well, a book on vocation), reminds us of Honoré de Balzac’s words: “Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colors, on the whole of our existence.” Not to light a fire under planting that garden, but it’s worth considering. You may as well do the things you like. Not doing so can have disastrous results.

I’m also going to be gentle with myself about what doesn’t grow, and about what I don’t pick in the first place. For example, here I am writing about The Next Right Thing, rather than Autumn. I liked Autumn, perhaps a little less than I liked another of Ali Smith’s books, How to be Both, but I did like it. Yet as I was reading it, and especially as I thought about writing about it, there was this nagging suspicion that I was being dense, not understanding it on some level that would be obvious to most. So how do I pick what I like and see how it grows? For one thing, by not forcing myself to write about Autumn if I don’t want to. (As it happens, I’ve read more about it now and I think I do “get” it; I just don’t have anything in particular to say about it, and that’s fine.) (Another side note: is this not a terribly Enneagram-9 problem to have, worried that my very thoughts and preferences are wrong?)

Now, when you find what you like, is it guaranteed to grow? Absolutely not. Nor are my tastes guaranteed to stay the same. But just as Emily parachuted into my life with little morsels of wisdom, I’m realizing that there’s no mega-parachuter coming with All The Answers. Or, at least, it’s highly unlikely. So instead I’ll just be down here in my garden, picking what I like each day, and watering it, and seeing how it grows.

A note on the book: Emily comes from what I would call an evangelical Christian background, and the book is pretty religious in its orientation. It might not be for everyone (especially those who don’t particularly want to hear about Jesus or read gospel quotations.)

Enneagram basics

Right out of the gate, let’s talk Enneagram for a second. I can tell already, based on my inability to not bring it up at inopportune times in meatspace, that I’m going to have a hard time not inserting bits of it here with some frequency. We may as well get squared away about it.

The Enneagram is a particular nine-pointed figure, from ennea- (nine) and -gram (shape). Compare it to an ordinary nine-pointed figure (nonagram) here.

The Enneagram of Personality is a personality-typing system that maps nine core personality types onto that figure. In addition to the nine core types, it includes many subtypes and dynamic movements between types of sometimes-Byzantine complexity. On a basic level, the types are as follows:

  1. The Idealist, Perfectionist
  2. The Helper, Lover
  3. The Achiever, Performer
  4. The Individualist, Romantic
  5. The Observer, Investigator
  6. The Loyal Skeptic, Loyalist
  7. The Enthusiast, Epicure
  8. The Challenger, Protector
  9. The Peacemaker, Mediator

Each of the nine types is especially distinguished by its core motivation and its core fear, not by its behavior. As a result, the Enneagram is intensely personal and internal. It is a cardinal sin in Enneagram circles to try to type someone else, no matter how well you know them and what makes them tick. (This stops almost none of us from doing it.)

And because the Enneagram is so personal, people of the same type can have dramatically different behaviors. They may have little in common. They may dislike each other. What is making them tick similarly to each other on the inside will make them act very differently, depending on their upbringing and environment and whatever other things make us all unique.

Like the Myers-Briggs (MBTI), the Enneagram is not scientific. As far as I’ve heard, the Big Five is the only research-based personality analysis. (Fun fact: although the Big Five is primarily directed merely at describing each person’s individual endowment with each of the five traits, recent research has begun to show four main grouping types: “role model, self-centered, reserved or the rather uninspiring ‘average.'” Query whether these types will continue to develop through research.)

But despite the Enneagram’s lack of scientific basis, for me and many other people it has been a tremendous tool for self-understanding, self-improvement, self-compassion, breaking unhelpful behavioral patterns, understanding others, improving relationships, and (in my case) writing fiction. So I’m into it.

I heard of the Enneagram years ago from my mother, who was and is very interested in the work of Fr. Richard Rohr. But I didn’t begin to investigate it further until last year.

It was a very difficult time. Life was throwing me for all kinds of wild loops. I didn’t understand what was happening to me or why I felt powerless over my future. In times like these, many of us (myself extremely included) seek solace in numbing agents. These can be television, video games, drugs or alcohol, shopping, oversleeping–

–and in my case, often, online content aggregators, the Hot Cheetos of the brain. I felt most sedated in front of a long row of tiny unopened browser tabs of Wikipedia articles or Buzzfeed listicles and quizzes. During some idle Twitter scrolling, I came across a quiz. Great joy! I took it. It said I was a 9. Luckily, this presented another opportunity to delay my return to my life: I opened a few more tabs to read about what 9 meant.

And, for the first time in my life, I had words to answer a question I didn’t even know I needed to ask. Among all the other aspects of being a 9 that I do (and often don’t) identify with, one knocked me flat: I am conflict-averse to the point of utter dysfunction. As the Enneagram Institute summarized (and as I read like someone had smacked me directly in the face): Nines “are usually creative, optimistic, and supportive, but can also be too willing to go along with others to keep the peace. They want everything to go smoothly and be without conflict, but they can also tend to be complacent, simplifying problems and minimizing anything upsetting. They typically have problems with inertia and stubbornness.

So it goes for some of us when we first read about our true Enneagram type: we hear someone putting words to forces we thought were just universal features of being human. In my case, this included the fact that I had been contorting myself into various shapes to suit what I assumed were the agendas of people in my life, often to the point that I didn’t remember who I’d been before, and not everyone does this. It’s optional. It’s not even recommended. Imagine!

Then, once that shock wore off, once the feeling that someone had been reading my diary passed, once the slight energizing rage that someone knew I might be doing these silly things and didn’t tell me had settled, I spent some time learning what else might be true. What other patterns was I acting out blindly? Where else was I weak where I could grow strong? How was my neighbor, my friend, my sweetheart, my coworker seeing the world (and themselves, and me) through very different lenses?

Then, you can begin to practice it. In my case, I practice letting myself figure out what I want (often, in my past, a hopeless task best not attempted, best left to others with stronger, knowable preferences). I practice being clear with myself about the fact that I want it. I practice saying it out loud. I practice feeling freer to take up space in the world and maybe even doing things people might disagree with. I notice when I start to feel frozen or paranoid, which are warning signs. I find ways to do fewer of the things that make me feel that way. I chase down the things that make me feel vibrant and noisy. I do more of those things.

More later, probably, on other related topics of interest:

  • the history of the Enneagram (and, more generally, my investigation into the past of things that claim to have no past (or an immeasurably long past, which is roughly the same thing));
  • the complexities of the Enneagram (wings, subtypes, arrows, countertypes, childhood wounds, relationships);
  • my fear that as it gets too complex it’s just like detailed astrology that gets so individualized that you’re just acknowledging, quite wordily, that everyone is different.

But for now, if you’re at all interested in doing some self-growth (or numbing procrastination), I recommend reading with an open mind about each type here, perhaps after a detour through a test to narrow down your most likely types: this one and these two are free to take.)

Let’s get started.

The psychopomp.

From the Greek psycho (soul) + pompos (conductor). A soul conductor. Traditionally, this is a figure who leads souls into the land of the dead. It arrives as death is imminent, then leads the soul to the afterlife. A terrifying, comforting, ambivalent creature. Like death, I guess.

So, this is sounding morbid. But bear with me.

It comes in the form of a bird, a fish, a dog, a bee, a horse, a man, a woman. In ancient Egypt, it was Anubis. In the Finno-Ugric tradition, it’s a weeping woman. In ancient Greek mythology, Hermes. In Judaism, the angel Azrael. The silent grim reaper. The Valkyries, who chose on the battlefield who would die. The lists go on, with varying degrees of relevance.

It’s a fundamental theme: we all die, and we all love stories and characters, so why would we not have developed stories and characters to fill the journey to the inevitable unknown?

Grayscale Photography of Angel Statue Under Cloudy Skies

There’s another meaning: Carl Jung saw the psychopomp as a mediator between the conscious and unconscious, the figure that guides us in dreams between our states of being.

This much I’ve learned recently from the internet. I don’t pretend to be an expert on psychopomps; I’m learning about them essentially as we speak. So, why is it the name of my blog? The most direct and honest answer is: it’s a neat word. A word I must have heard at some point, because when I was casting about for a name for this blog I wanted to start, I found it on my always-handy list of cool words and phrases and it called to me.

Indulge me, though, as we get a little less mundane: there is something perfect about it, as I hope we’ll see. It hints at several themes that interest me and that I intend to write about here. First, books: the reading, and the writing, thereof. I’m spending more of my time doing creative writing these days: so far, I have drafted a historical novel, and plan to write a different project soon. I also read a lot, and sometimes I write about what I read. Second, there’s something interesting to me about the idea of entities who are in two places at once, and who can mediate between them. I like ideas that cross over the ordinary boundaries. Third, there is the spiritual element of the concept of the psychopomp. To make a reference that has absolutely no chance of becoming dated any time soon, it might get a little Marianne Williamson in here, but also a little fussy and high-church. Fourth, I’m interested in and likely to write about psychological ideas, as I’m very interested at the moment in personality typing systems with limited scientific value, especially the Enneagram. In short, we’ll be doing high and low; serious and silly; sacred and profane; etymology and puns.

A brief introduction before I go: I’m a lawyer by day, dabbler at other times. I write novels in my spare time. I spend too long on Wikipedia fairly often. I love the outdoors, food, beer, travel, books of almost all kinds, languages, genealogy, beauty, peace, and other fairly unobjectionable things. I’ve never had a blog before.* This should be interesting for me, and hopefully for you as well. We’ll see what we get up to.

*Anyone who remembers my high school LiveJournal is hereby sworn to secrecy.