Tell Me What to Do

When Living The Good Life Feels Less Than Good

by Rachel Monroe


How do you make a day that feels like a harmonious unity instead of a chaos?

—Scott Nearing, letter to Helen Nearing, circa 1928

Not everyone has the problem of too much time. Some people are in medical school. Me, I am a freelance writer, which means that every day stretches out in front of me like a wide sheet of butcher paper. On bad days, blank is the best word for it; after all, blank is just a neutral version of oblivion, one emotional inflection away from utter despair. The desert, the moon, Antarctica: these aren’t places anyone lingers long, if they can help it. Too often, you end up with a stitched-together creature of a day, the long hours an unmarked landscape in which you’re chased around by a monster of your own making.

These days, I’m not the only one in the coffee shop with a haunted look, a complicated relationship with my watch. But it’s not that we don’t have anything to do. It’s just that absent babies and/or a full-time job, the days feel loose and baggy around us. We work from home, or we moved back in with our parents. We’re on food stamps; we’re part-time at Starbucks for the health care; we’re hiding out in grad school, getting a master’s degree that will actually make us less employable (experimental theater!); we’re home for a few weeks before we go out on tour again; we have half a job, or three tenuous quarter jobs; we’re twenty-eight-year-old interns; we’re our more-successful friend’s personal assistant.

And we are always on the computer. It used to be that staring intently at a screen meant that you were busy and important, but the person who fills up her own days knows better. For us, the internet is a sneaky marketplace where we exchange perfectly good hours for stupid facts (did you know Michael Crichton was six foot nine?) and come away feeling like we’ve made a bad bargain. If you had to conceive of the exact opposite of a harmonious unity, the internet would do nicely.


This mood makes me thirsty for memoirs, for the comfort of the inevitable through-line of a life. Reading Scott and Helen Nearing’s Living the Good Life, their self-mythologized account of their time as New England homesteaders in the 1930s and beyond, with its purposeful chapters on terraced gardening and stone-wall building and dealing with ornery neighbors, you get a sense of two lives organized by fate, pushed forward by smart decisions. Whether this brings you comfort or despair depends on your personality, and what you’ve gotten done today, perhaps.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Rachel Monroe lives and writes in Baltimore, but hopes to move to a commune very soon.

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