One of my favorite writers, Connie Willis, in her funny and insightful “Bellwether“, coined the term ‘itch’, as in “I feel itch.” And it means just how it sounds: when something is coming, when something is going, when something is changing, but you’re not quite sure what it is or what to do about it. Kind of like being “restless as a willow in a windstorm”, which is from some song or other. (And no, I’m not going to look it up.)
That’s where I am these days.
There’s an aspect to itch that might be called boredom. There’s an aspect, for me, that is particularly Estes Park. This time of year (winter, that is) is very hard to cope with up here (gee, like it’s easy in Minnesota). We used to call it ‘cabin fever’, which is a lot like ‘itch’, except that cabin fever can result in some pretty spectacular responses. Just like the Santa Anas in Southern California. There’s a quote in Raymond Chandler: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. . . . Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” Here in Colorado we call such winds ‘Chinooks’ and they’re a proximate cause of cabin fever. You feel like if you’re cooped up with whomever or whatever for ONE MORE MINUTE, something really awful is going to happen. And you can’t get out. Not until spring. What with cable and Internet and DVDs and better cars, we don’t see so much cabin fever these days, but itch? Oh my yes. I think you’d call it situational itch. You’re going nuts within your own four walls and you want to be anywhere else. Anywhere. Else. Even Arizona.
But there are other aspects to situational itch, too. Some of it, I suppose, is the new year. January was so promising, wasn’t it? After all that holiday excess and celebration, we were all going to lose that weight, get in shape, de-clutter our houses. And, of course, figure out what our lives are supposed to be about and go out and DO things. And here it is February already, and how many of those wonderful promises have we kept? One-twelfth of our chance to become The Best Person We Can Be is gone for another year.
Everybody goes through these times and, yes, they’re good for you if not very much fun. It isn’t that your life has turned upside down because you won the lottery or lost your best friend. It’s just that something within you needs to change. You feel kind of stale. You know that anything you think of to do–isn’t it time you folded the laundry?–is displacement activity, yet you can’t just turn into a mushroom growing out of your most comfortable chair. Even retail therapy doesn’t work because you’ve tried to ‘fix’ whatever is going on by buying something, and it turns out when you analyze it that what you were trying to do was to fix your life. And now you have to let the well refill before you can buy something else to distract you from itch. And by ‘you’, of course, I mean ‘me’.
When it gets down to it, itch is about something deeper. It is about finding your purpose in life, your reason for being. It’s about engagement, not distraction. This is existential itch. Whether purpose is something we create for ourselves or comes from Somewhere Else, our deepest minds and hearts always search for it. If you’re fresh out of purpose, that’s your itch.
Have you ever listened to a lecturer who is in love with his subject? I remember one in particular, who taught the history of Ancient Egypt. This man is absolutely in love with ancient Egypt. For him, this is not a job, or even a life’s work, it’s fun, it’s a lot more fun than working. Find something you like that much and you’ll never work another day in your life (that is, if you can figure out how to get paid for it). So that’s one way to deal with existential itch. Find that something. Whew, that was easy.
Except, of course, it’s not. Because if you’ve figured out, hooray and hallelujah, that what you want is a glorious job or a glorious partner or a world cruise, that’s wonderful, I’m happy for you, but there’s one little hiccup. You still feel itch. If you know what you want, then itch comes from not knowing how to get from here to there. I guess we could call that procedural itch.
Procedural itch lets you know that your tactics and strategy are off, not your target. Let’s say you want to star on Broadway and you’re doing everything you should be except you’re doing it in Michigan. You may have to face up to several years of waiting tables in Brooklyn. Or maybe you want something internal like wisdom. Then your strategy must be more indirect. You need to treat an abstract inner itch as if you were trying to catch a butterfly. Crush it in your hands and it is gone, all its luster lost. But if you hold your hand out, open, perhaps it will land, so lightly that unless you look carefully you can’t even be sure it has touched down.
And then there’s a simple fact. Itch keeps on itching when we think we know what we want because we often fool ourselves about what we need. Aesop was a wise old Greek when even Greece was young. He told the story of the fox who wanted the grapes growing at the top of the arbor. But no matter how the fox leaped and snapped and tried to climb, the grapes stayed out of his reach. Finally, disgusted, the fox said that the grapes were undoubtedly sour and he didn’t want them anyway. We all have a tendency to give up, to say the grapes are sour, not worth having. And that’s probably not what the itch was trying to tell us. You see, sometimes the grapes that are out of our reach aren’t sour, particularly, it’s just that if we reach them, actually get them, we find out in the process that what we really wanted was an orange, not grapes at all.
Itch can be about holding on, even to a fixation that all around believe to be foolish or even crazy (we look at Steve Jobs‘ success, and we don’t remember how long everybody called him that crazy geek with the weird ideas), and yet itch can be about letting go of the grapes we didn’t want after all, and finding the orange we did. But what itch is never about is giving up. The real world may slap you down, may force you to face that this one particular thing, a starring role in a particular play on Broadway, a best-selling novel, the one person whom you just know would fulfill all your deepest needs (which doesn’t happen, no one person can do that and it is unfair to ask it), a teaching job at a university, is not going to happen. Just not. What do you do then?
That’s where itch is your friend, your subconscious working to bring you home and give you what you really want, way down deep, which is what you really need. Itch will keep you discontented until you find your own distinctive path, and itch will push you, pull you, down that path.
If you are fixated on the one person you can’t have, then itch will let you know what you can do about it–if anything. Victor Hugo once said, “Loving another person is to touch the face of God.” Sometimes that has to be enough. Eventually you may realize that your love embodies what you need in a partner, and by accepting your love of the unattainable (the grapes) you may open yourself to the attainable love that is waiting out there for you (your orange).
And itch will keep on itching until you find your life’s work, or until it finds you. Then your job is to notice that your itch has gone away and you are content. Or something odd that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what you think you want will happen and only by looking back will you realize that your itch helped you find what you’re really supposed to do and now you’re doing it. Blessings. And a tiny bit of advice. Even as much as love, you need work to do, your real life’s work, so don’t ever give up on finding it, no matter how far away it may seem.
Or you may just have to get used to itch. I am coming to the disconcerting conclusion that while discontent is uncomfortable, it is a much more normal state of mind for me than content. I keep looking for a life that will make me content and since I have some (small) financial resources and good friends and a few smarts, I have been able to create that life time and again, and each and every time I do, I become discontented by that life or I screw it up. Recognizing that I am basically discontented and that I need to be so was a big revelation to me. A good deal has happened in my soul this past year, and I feel that I have woken up in several ways. Portions of my life that I thought I had successfully and rightly shut down are awake and itching again. But I hold onto the hope that this time I’ll find the wisdom not to engage in displacement, or distraction, or excessive retail therapy. (Let’s be realistic here, after all.) This time, I hope I won’t exclude the oranges in a fruitless (pun intended) quest for grapes.
There’s a tarot card called The Moon and it’s a tough card to get in a reading, because it usually means inner work, a pathway to understanding that is going to be a hard climb. I’m on that pathway, itching all the way. And nothing I can do will get me off that pathway until I reach the top and find what it means for me. If itch is filling your thoughts and feelings, my only suggestion is that while doing laundry is a good thing in itself, if you’re folding the clothes only so you won’t think about what is bothering you, maybe you should stop and sit down and really ponder your itch. See if it will let you know what it is and what it wants for you, and let it give you what you need. And may you find your orange.