In other words: Forget about the dots

“Wanting an intimate relationship doesn’t mean I get one. But to paraphrase Stephen Stills, if I can’t be with the one I love, my best insurance policy against a sad, lonely old age is to love the one I’m with. The one who will never leave me, no matter what, for real. That one, of course, would be me.”         — Meredith Maran The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention

 

You take a step. Make a choice. Decide.

You never know exactly what to expect, how it will “turn out”, where it will lead. But you think you’ve looked at it from every angle you can, and it seems like the next right thing to do, so you think you know approximately, at least, what will happen.

In Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech, he said ““You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” You know this is true, but even hearing Jobs’ wisdom in your head at each decision-point doesn’t stop you from trying. Doesn’t keep you from thinking that, maybe, this time you’ve managed to connect the dots forward. This time you’ve mapped the trajectory of your own future correctly and all will proceed accordingly.

But it doesn’t.

You fail. Someone you rely on fails. Markets fail. You get sick. Someone you love gets sick. You calculated based on certain assumptions, now proven incorrect. (Donald Trump gets elected President proving all bets are off.) People refuse to act according to your predictions. Life refuses to act according to your predictions.

You feel disappointed, disillusioned, depressed. Alone.

Now what?

Self-recrimination (what did I miscalculate? how could I be so wrong? I must be missing a crucial gene!)? Shut down and spend days, weeks, just getting through until I can sit in my easy chair at night and fall asleep? Blame everyone else for not meeting my expectations (which, of course, are perfectly reasonable)?

I don’t have any prescriptions for fixing a life that goes off the rails, for solving the endless riddle of “how did this happen?” or “How did I end up here?”  But here’s what I’m learning*, or at least what I think I’m picking up on right now:

Whatever happens, wherever I go – I am the common denominator. Blame, anger, self-loathing…not helpful. Helpful? Compassion, forgiveness, self-awareness. If I have to live with myself, I prefer peaceful, loving cohabitation.

Whether I am proactive and take-charge or reactive and passive, I will experience the results. In which case, doing is preferable to wallowing; action preferable to waiting; woke-ness preferable to somnolence.

Endlessly ruminating on what happened yesterday or last week or four years ago, trying to pinpoint a moment “where it all went wrong”, is a waste of my energy. If I had known when I was 29 what my life would look like at 49, I might have chosen differently. But I didn’t know. And I chose what I chose. Move on.

Endlessly ruminating on the future, on my fears of being old and alone, or getting sick, or…just not ending up where I wish I would end up…only paralyzes me and wastes my days in longing. “Stop gazing at your reflection in the Mirror of Erised,” I practice saying to myself; step away, then step onward.

 

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”       —Ranier Maria Rilke

* Like most important lessons in life, these “learnings” are not new to me. I am simply spiraling through them on another curve. Right now, it is helping to read a bunch of books about women my age reinventing themselves, changing their lives (whether forced to change or choosing to change).

 

 

What Shapes Us

Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

On our recent road trip to New Mexico, my family took Mike and I to Kasha-Katuwe, better known as Tent Rocks. The unique landscape was originally formed by massive eruptions in the Jemez volcanic field, which “spewed pyroclasts (rock fragments), while searing hot gases blasted down slopes in an incandescent avalanche called a ‘pyroclastic flow’.”  The resulting formations are spectacular.

We climbed a little over 1100 feet (from an altitude of 5570 to one of 6760), taking in the most amazing views of both the tent rock formations and the surrounding New Mexican landscape.

Tent Rock formations
Tent rocks in foreground, mountainous New Mexico in background

One of my favorite parts of the hike, both on the way in/up and on the way back/down, was the trail leading through the slot canyons. Over time, wind and rain have carved canyons and arroyos into the rock, creating passages (like the one pictured at the top of this post) of surpassing beauty. For most of the morning, we hiked through 100 degree temperatures, thin air and a burning sun. These canyons of layered rock were hushed and cool by comparison.

The stillness of the canyons gave rise to contemplation. Like the rock, which was shaped by the forces of nature, we too, are shaped by the vissicitudes of life. Our choices, our experiences, who we love and how we learn – all have a role in shaping us. Therefore, it seemed especially poignant to share this experience, and these thoughts, in companionable silence with Mike.

We met when I was 18, Mike 19. We were still fresh, unmarked clay. Our faces shone with, as J.D. Salinger put it when speaking of college students, “the misinformation of the ages”. Over the next few years, we shared some powerful experiences as each of us attempted to discover the direction of our lives. Eventually, though, we found that we were bound in different directions, and we parted ways.

The weathers of life – births, disappointments, marriages, jobs, successes – had their way with us over the next thirty years. Molding and shaping us into mature adults, careworn and wiser (we hope). And then, surprisingly, bringing us back onto each others’ paths. Under the extra pounds, the gray hair, the wrinkles, the familiar past could be glimpsed. Only now, the layers and textures add depth and surprise. They offer possibilities that didn’t exist in our earlier friendship: wisdom and generosity of spirit, compassion and forgiveness. Human capacities with which youth is often barely acquainted.

So tonight, back home in my little house in Iowa, I am thinking of Kasha-Katuwe and the lessons it taught me. Time makes shape-shifters of us all. I am grateful for this learning. I am grateful for this earth which teaches me. And yes, Mike, lest you think I left out the most important part (again), I am grateful for your company on this path.

Mike and I, at the top!

too late

Last Saturday, I knew I was about to head into a stressful few weeks, so I planned to take it easy in the morning: a pot of coffee and some magazines while I enjoyed the cool temperature on my patio. Seemed like a perfect idea. Have you ever had a moment when you were happily moving through your day and suddenly, WHAM! you slam up against something that, unexpectedly, takes you to a place you never intended?

As I read an article recommending summer reading, and offering reviews of a variety of books to fit different summer moods or locales, it happened. The book being reviewed was You Are Free by Danzy Senna, a collection of eight stories, each of which “…surveys the dangerous fault line between parenthood and remaining childless.” The reviewer goes on to quote Livy, one story’s protagonist:

“And sooner or later all women know this,” says Livy. “You won’t know what it was you gave up until it is too late to recover.”

As soon as I read that line, it was too late for me to recover my emotional equilibrium. My mind was suddenly full of things I gave up and realized, too late, that I wanted. That beaded mask I made; certain relationships; my sense of self as an adventurer. Gave away. Gave up. Gave up on.

So, there I was on a lovely Saturday morning, on my patio in my pajamas, crying into my coffee.

Then I remembered something important: I am not my past.

I’ve watched too many movies about the perils of time travel, and the chaos that would result from even the tiniest change, to attempt to go back. And revisiting past choices with regret is like picking at a scab – viscerally satisfying in that moment, perhaps, but not good for the healing process in the long run. So, I do know what Livy says all women eventually know. But I also know this:  if it is too late to recover, it is definitely too late to cry about it. Especially on a beautiful, tranquil Saturday morning.