By Carine Zambrano
When I was growing up, I heard from older relatives that time was relative: that after you turn 15-years-old, the years start to blend together. In a heartbeat, you get your university diploma and start your career. Then, suddenly, you wake up and have a spouse, mortgage, and two children. As a kid, I thought this was impossible; time always felt stagnant. My birthday only seemed to happen every other year and Christmas only seemed to happen once a decade. Even though it was frustrating for my five-year-old self, still-time gave me the opportunity to enjoy my childhood, to learn how to cover the wall with drawings, and to read all my comic books twice over. But as the number of candles on top of my birthday cake increased, so did the echo of my relatives’ words. The thought that time would abruptly start slipping away, the thought that my own life could pass me by, started to terrify me.
In my family, our day-to-day lives followed a very structured layout. It was only fitting that the solution I found to that agonizing idea was to make to-do lists. In addition to Christmas lists, I made reading lists for eighth grade, hobby lists to become a well-rounded person before I turned 18, and even a list on how to become popular before high school. Some worked — though that last one definitely did not — but crossing off each item was a way to assure myself that I was present, that I had counted that moment in my life, and that I had not conjured it in a daydream. My strange ability to break down goals into small tasks started to seep into my perspective of life, keeping my hands busy as time ticked by. Through history and research, I wholeheartedly believed that any monumental thing could be accomplished if all the necessary steps to get there were thought and followed through.
Growing up as an only child of a divorced woman and a gay man in Northeastern Brazil also played an important role in shaping my ambitions. Although I have been surrounded by a supportive and close-knit family, society’s whispers still found a way to my ears. I heard from distant aunts and uncles that my mother’s independence eroded the very tradition they worked so hard to uphold. I heard from close friends that my intelligence would be wasted considering my lack of family structure. I even heard from a person or two that my father’s sexual orientation was going to be a heavy burden in my life, limiting my platonic and romantic prospects. Needless to say none of that is true, but I have yet to meet a 13-year-old that understands such complexities. My reaction at that age, as any stubborn tween, was to plan a way to prove these people wrong, to show that I was not damned, that I was not caged in their rules, and that I had the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be and to live however I wanted to live. I pledged I would become like one of those young women I read about so often in my books: always traveling, speaking multiple languages, proficiently talking about history and politics. It was especially fitting considering I had a natural aptitude for those topics, so I thought to myself, why not try, right?
On August 2016, I crossed the final item off my five-year-old list, finally leaving my home country behind to attend university. While I was staring down at the fading skyline of my hometown on my way to New York City, I thought to myself, “I’m done.” But the more I realized how far I had to stretch my legs to make that leap of faith, the more I realized I had to come up with a new to-do list. I had proved the people of my hometown wrong, but now I had to prove to myself that I was as good as the Americans I would go to school with, that I could accomplish as much as they could, that my admission to NYU was not a mistake.
Right there, I drafted my path to American success and exceptionalism, which would eventually culminate in a Latin honors graduation. I read Ancient texts in my second language, lived in my grandmother’s home country to study abroad, learned about European and American international relations, and discussed Russian authors I would never think of reading without prompting. My legs will always carry the chair indentations from all the times I stayed at my desk analyzing the essays, papers, and journal articles that required more time in the dictionary than the actual text. But I did it. I worked hard, I graduated early, and I crossed off that entire to-do list too. My diploma with its fancy cursive lettering is one of my most prized possessions and a personal symbol of resilience, resting safely on the top of my drawer.
By the time I received it in the mail, I had created another to-do list. This one was set to be the biggest, most important one yet. I started off the year waiting for my admission letter to attend a master’s program at Columbia University with a job opportunity lined up and a lot of networking-related items to cross off by my own looming deadline. But what happened in my first 12 weeks as a college graduate was what no one expected in their next 12 lives.
The winds had shifted, and I saw myself lost in the middle of the ocean. My broken compass was irrelevant next to the waves of endless pain, suffering, and death that were in front of me. Many times, in those first quarantine weeks, I heard ghostly ambulance sirens on dead streets out of my window. One time, I gathered enough courage to take a walk around my block. Spring was starting to appear, and I enjoyed the shy sunshine down Columbus Avenue, so I kept walking towards Central Park West. I saw white tents on the grass in front of Mount Sinai, and I came back home instantly. I constantly thought of my family and even my distant relatives, who taught me to fear time from such a young age. The clock was not only ticking for me, but for all of them too; their time was more important than ever now. My constant anxiety and uncertain future, then, drove shotgun all through this curved and bumpy ride.
For the entirely of this quarantine, many thought that this would be a perfect time to write that book, to lose those ten pounds, to put that plan into action, to change your life. I, on the other hand, have just tried to keep myself afloat. I thought about drafting to-do lists of socio-political movements that I wanted to learn more about, essays I wanted to write, and even yoga poses I wanted to master, but it simply just did not happen. I did not even cross a single item off my post-college list. It just seems… unfair.
What has been happening in 2020 has proved that there is a lot to amend to the mainstream idea of accomplishment. Like American exceptionalism, success is not perfect, constant nor linear. Sometimes, it is just breathing and getting through the day. Other times, it is making sure that someone else does the same. There is no perfect recipe, no foolproof to-do list, no one to prove right or wrong. Understanding that has been life changing, if a little daunting.
The only real given is that life is unpredictable. That our lives are only as valuable as the value we give to other people’s lives. That we should never take grandparents’ hugs nor summer travel arrangements for granted. So why waste our time planning every single step of the way if it makes us miss the sights? Sure, my lists are one of the reasons you are reading this right now, but that does not mean that achievement is a product of consistent, methodical processes. Achievement is the process itself, regardless of outcome. Success does not depend on societal expectations, but rather on empathy and self-awareness. I must confess that it has been a transition living without overarching to-do lists. But I have noticed that whenever I lead my way with self-compassion and understanding, time neither slips away nor stagnates: it stretches. And, let me tell you, I cannot wait to see what happens next.
Carine Zambrano is a 2020 New York University Phi Beta Kappa inductee. The essay above is the winner of this year’s PBKNY Essay Contest. NYU is home to the Beta of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.