Updated: Nov 19, 2019
My final semester in college I sequestered myself on the third floor of the library every afternoon. My whereabouts had little to do with preparations for an exam or presentation. I was researching snow leopards.
Weeks prior, while preparing for an actual course assignment, I stumbled upon a host of information about endangered species. My heart ached for these defenseless creatures losing habitats or being illegally hunted, especially the snow leopard, just trying to raise a family on the slopes of the Himalayas. During my environmental enlightenment, I spoke incessantly about endangered species to anyone with ears. I joined international organizations, earned tote bags and stickers, and vocally obsessed over the future of our planet and questioned how any of us could sleep at night knowing that somewhere in Namibia an adorable African penguin was dying.
One day after a three hour investment in gorilla protections, I stepped onto the second floor of where my sorority lived to see signs on everyone’s doors that read, “Save the Inch Worm.” Clearly while they thought snow leopard cubs were cute, too, saving them was my interest and not theirs.
I could have protested the smartass of my friends. But to be honest, it was funny. And also, it brought to light a quote from Annie Dillard that I had had taped to my mirror since I was seventeen: “We do what we do out of our private passion for the thing itself.” I didn’t need them to appreciate my interest in order for me to pursue it.
There is a theory that depending on how you are re-energized, either by being with people or alone, you will know whether you are an extrovert or an introvert. Once you know this, you’ll know how best to keep you motivated. My gut says that I am a dead ringer for an extrovert. You might be, too, but I think we are overlooking something very important. Things re-energize us, things we do within the privacy of our time, whether alone or alone surrounded by people.
What will you do tonight when you shed a day of work or classes? What will you do the next Saturday that you are free of commitments? The correct answer is not a chore. I’m also not referring to the quality time you’ll make with your partner, your children, or your friends. We get it. We adore the humans in our lives. I’m specifically speaking of that thing that doesn’t pay the bills. Maybe it’s listening to your playlist while planning a week’s worth of wardrobes. Or cutting back hydrangeas for spring? Or a tap class, baking, crafting, or combing through costume history for an extravagant Carnival look? Whatever your thing is, it re-energizes you, and that’s gold. We are at once fully alive—when our drive makes us more ourselves than ever before. It’s that moment when we fall in love with ourselves and stop looking outside for affirmation.
Sometimes the very thing we need to live among others is to live alone. Sometimes in order to keep going, we must first stop. Others may not get it. Just keep living.
I go through phases on steroids. That’s my private passion. Some paint, some antique; I’m a compulsive researcher. I must know all the things. Before snow leopards it was the Challenger and Annie Oakley in grade school, followed by Jackie O and the Titanic, then the Tudors, Balenciaga, Brunelleschi, and gem properties. My mother fed my interests with books, but she also held back her enthusiasm. Some of my interests just weren’t her thing. But looking back, it’s also almost as if she knew I was getting to know myself, and that required my undivided attention. It was mine alone to savor and mine to cultivate with the liberty she gave me.
I know enough to know that the freedom to explore what re-energizes us is like an exhilarating affair—with ourselves. We tingle at the prospect of these solitary moments of discovery. We long for them while trudging through menial tasks, and sometimes we keep them secret because privacy keeps its authenticity. These private passions are as impactful as dream jobs, only maybe better because we are the sole measurer of our success and the limits of our possibility. No one need question the progress of our things.
My latest research phase is Baroque style and Louis XVI court fashion, thanks to a certain krewe membership. When I have devoured enough, I will place my books alongside all the others. Some people tell their life in pictures. Mine is in a home library with every phase of my life in succession. Ask me about it. I’d love to share, but I’m okay if you don’t ask.
You do you, and I’ll do me. Neither of us has to understand anything more than what makes us live.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.