The Unbearable Paradox of Deadlines

By Monica Busch

One of the best things to ever happen to me might have been the ebook catalog at the New York Public Library. Not because of the immediate access to its contents, not because it’s easier to tote my Kindle around on the subway, or even because I didn’t have to worry about damaging books, but because I cannot for the life of me, no matter what I do to set myself up for success, manage to return books on time.

I’ve been this way all my life and I’m certain that it’s both equally nature and nurture. I’m a scatterbrained Type A, which is its own specific kind of hell, but if I am the reigning monarch of returning borrowed books late, my mom is the Queen Mother. 

Reader, I have paid so many late fees. I’m blacklisted from at least two library networks. I am not kidding.

It’s not just books, of course. It’s anything in a library’s collection. One of my most formative childhood memories is of me sobbing helplessly as I searched my family’s two-bedroom apartment for a misplaced copy of Miss Piggle-Wiggle on VHS. That was exceptionally bad because late fees were like $2 a day or something for videos, substantially more terrifying than the 5 cents a day charged for late reading materials. (The VHS was under my dad’s computer desk, by the way.)

After this became a pattern, when I was about eight or so (my parents somewhat problematically believed I should manage my own calendar in elementary school), I started to relish moments when I did not need to think about due dates. Or late fees. Or finding lost items. (I am a terrible finder.)

I remember the first time this happened. I was laying on my parents’ waterbed (yep) one afternoon, staring vacantly out of a ground-level window, which was mostly covered by shrubs. I don’t remember what I’d been thinking about until that moment, but an intrusive thought elbowed its way to the front of my mind: Do you have any overdue books from the library?

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say the relief that washed over me when I realized that I did not felt as cathartic as passing in my thesis during grad school.

I was thinking about all this in the context of Our Current Situation this week, as I struggled to remember what it was like to be able to make plans to do anything, literally anything without worrying whether you’d have to cancel them because someone got a sore throat or because you got a sore throat and COVID tests can take a week to come back or because there’s absolutely no way of knowing what norms will be like three weeks or six months from now.

There’s a reflex right now to joke about the last things you did before everything went to shit, but lately, I’m wondering if, when all of this is over, will I take a moment every now and then to breathe deeply and soak in the intoxicating, weightless feeling of knowing that at least I’m not stressed about that? And will that just evolve into its own form of anxiety? A recurring appointment in my Google Calendar for unknown, future calamity? 

It’s strange, after all, to realize you are weightless — to pass in the thesis, to pay off your library fees, to make your deadline, and immediately look for the next tether. You let go of a thing that you spent so long wanting to get off of your shoulders, only to find yourself preparing for the next unbearable weight to take its own turn trying to crush you. Enjoy this, I tell myself during those fleeting moments of easy-going, but be prepared for what comes next. 

Of course, that’s probably impossible. If it is possible, I’ve never once succeeded. Living in the moment and “savoring the now” is for momfluencers who do digital detoxes and the bad poetry I wrote in the ninth grade. I’m not sure if it’s real at all. And it’s certainly, certainly never stopped me from opening new library accounts in new networks, as I move to them. Not once. Not ever. 

Monica Busch is Talk Vomit’s prose editor. She is also a journalist caring for two rambunctious dogs and two standoffish cats.

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