Andromeda: Resolved for 2016–To Practice Tolerating Ambiguity

This week I arrived in yet another new Mexican town, our new
home for six weeks. Staring out the window at the nearly impossibly beautiful
landscape: colorful houses and majestic churches, rising hills, flowering
bushes, bright-blue sky, I felt a little panic-squeeze in my chest. Here I was
in paradise, but I was worrying about a few big things and a whole lot of
everyday crap.
A big deposit on which I’d be living for the next three or
more months still hadn’t arrived in my checking account, though it should have.
A big review of a forthcoming novel that was supposed to
appear in a major publication, hadn’t.
I had an uncomfortable itchy lump in my breast that had
shown up overnight—most likely a weird insect bite—but given all the cancer in
my family, always worth some lost sleep.
I love my life, and I’m especially grateful for the risks my
family and I have taken over the last two years, the experiences we’ve had, and
the opportunities we’ve received. Most days are full of joy and satisfaction.
People who know us probably think we are good at embracing risk and tolerating everyday insecurity.
But I still get that horrible tight-chested feeling at
certain times and this week, as the beauty of my surroundings continued to
contrast with the imperfection of my mental state, I felt the need to do some
At first, I attributed my tight-chested feeling to fear—for
example, fear of running out of money, fear of a bad review, fear of creative
failure, fear of illness. (Fear is boring but unavoidable, says ElizabethGilbert. She’s absolutely right.)
But having dipped in and out of self-help books and watched
a few good Ted Talks, I realize it isn’t always fear that sours my mood and
makes my heart race. Often, it’s simple uncertainty—the discomfort, both mental
and physical, of facing ambiguity and the unknown. How to tell the difference?
I can get just as skittish about unknown-could-be-good things as well as
unknown-could-be bad things. Sometimes, I just want the bad news to roll in and
get it over with. Which tells me that I like control and certainty just a bit
too much for my own good.
And yet: art thrives on ambiguity. We writers cultivate it
on purpose. Neither suspense nor psychological depth could exist without it. As
readers, we all enjoy being held in its thrall.
And on the practical aside, off the page and in the real
world of manuscripts and revisions and reviews and royalty statements,
uncertainty is unavoidable. You start a novel with no idea of whether the story
will take off. You publish a novel with no idea of whether it will sink or swim
in the market. You raise a toast with an agent or an editor not knowing if she
will return your email one year from now. Every single time you sit down at the
keyboard you don’t know if the next hour or three will yield anything useable
at all.
A few days later, I can report: the deposit arrived. My
editor said she’d look into the review and find out if it will run next week. The
weird insect-bite-lump-thingy vanished.
Heartbeat: returning to normal. Small stuff: taken care of.
Bigger stuff: still unresolved. There will always be bigger
stuff unresolved.
As a writer, I must learn how to embrace ambiguity, in my
work but also in my life. (But how? That’s the question. I have a book on the subject waiting on my TBR list, but if you have any other recommendations, let me know!)
As a traveler, I have to keep forcing myself to stay
comfortable with not understanding how to do the most basic things in each new
town: get around, buy food, procure safe water, avoid or deal with unsafe
situations. As someone learning a foreign language, I have to keep trying to
talk and listen without freezing up every time I don’t understand.
As the daughter of someone dying from cancer, I have to keep
accepting we don’t know how or when things will end, or whose life-threatening illness
turn will come next. 
As a human being living in politically volatile times (but
what period in human history was not volatile?), I have to resist embracing
easy answers and yearning for closure when those desires only lead to
falsehood, superficial understanding, and often, alarmist rhetoric and public
I tried making some new year’s resolutions a week ago, and
they were not very inspired. After this week, I have a more urgent one to put
on the agenda: spend this year attempting to better tolerate uncertainty. Not
to be fearless (impossible), not to be even more rigorous with my goal-setting
and decision-making (the wrong direction, at times), but simply to accept
ambiguity for what it is: unavoidable, uncomfortable, and sometimes—no
guarantee, of course— rich with possibility.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a co-founder of 49 Writers and the author of the forthcoming novel, Behave (March 2016). She is also a book coach and teaches in the UAA MFA program. 

1 thought on “Andromeda: Resolved for 2016–To Practice Tolerating Ambiguity”

  1. Thank you Andromeda. Your thoughtful and insightful posts are always some of my favorites.
    Happy Ambiguous New Year!

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