I can’t remember exactly when, but let’s say it was ten years ago. I do remember it was a Saturday in September, the perfect Newfoundland day with sun and just enough breeze to keep you cool. I went with Andrew and Stacey to Bell Island for the day. One of us had a flier for a bicycle rental place, which turned out to be somebody’s backyard shed. We spent the day riding all over the island, nowhere in particular, retracing some spots more than once I think, stopping occasionally to take photos or eat snacks. And occasionally to rest our bums, because when you don’t ride all the time, bikes can hurt Down There. At one point, Andrew said, “I’d love to be able to just ride bikes around Bell Island like this,” to which I replied, “You’re doing it right now.”
But I know what was going on in his head when he said it. Part of it is that when you’re so high on sun and ocean views and endorphins, your happiness swells and starts pressing against your longing. (You may have noticed in your happiest moments, there’s a tiny sadness that you can’t make sense of?) But also, when Andrew said “I’d love to,” even while he was doing the thing he wished for, he was confusing achievement with experience.
Let’s be clear on the terms. Achievement is a thing you accomplish, something you start out not having and then through trying or learning or some other kind of effort you get it. The word “experience” sometimes gets confused with “achievement” because we like to use “experience” when we’re trying to get a job–but in fact the experience on my resume is really just things I’ve accomplished. In the real-living world, experience is the thing that I am going through right now, the sound of the fridge buzzing, the tick of my watch, the onions from supper still on my tongue, the almost-sneeze working its way through my sinuses.
Achievement is a clean car; experience is the rainbow soap on the windshield, the big rollers pushing past, the blow drier making the rinse water tremble.
What good is achievement if not to improve the quality of our experiences? I want to get that higher-paying job because it will enable me to get the things that make me feel happy or secure. I want that degree because it will give me a sense of pride. But with or without achievements, we are in a continuous state of experience. The 3:00 pm coffee run, the weird microwave smells in the lunchroom, learning how to do enough html coding to keep the company website updated, the research papers that have you spending hours in the stacks smelling the gorgeous fousty book odours hoping the person at the next table doesn’t hear your stomach growling. Sometimes we’re paying attention to our experiences; sometimes the experiences go by unnoticed, like John Lennon said it, “while you’re busy making other plans.”
Achievement says, “been there, done that.” Experience says, “now would you look at that” or “what’s this” or “Yikes!” or, my favourite, “oh yum!”
I sometimes tend to get hung up on achievement and forget that experiences are where life is actually lived. I look at the things I wish I could be doing, the things I want to do in the future, the things I failed to do in the past–living life in all those other dimensions and forgetting to pay attention to here and now. There are things I want for my future, and of course it’s important to set goals and to make decisions that will make a space in my life for the things I hope to achieve. And in the meantime I prepare myself, like an athlete prepares for the Olympics before she’s ever chosen for the team. I prepare myself by trying to acknowledge what’s here and now. Because should that day come again, when I’m on a bike and distracted by the pain Down There, I want to be skilled enough in experiencing life that I can look around and smell the ocean and feel the sunshine and know that this already is the best kind of accomplishment.