I like to think of myself as a free spirit, as someone who can coast on top of the tumult of life, who can change her plans at the drop of a hat, who can roll with the punches.
When I told this to my best friends, the ones who’ve known me since before I was a teenager, they all burst out laughing. Obviously, I was wrong.
Everything is relative, of course. Some people, perhaps Virgos or those suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, might look at my filing methods (dump everything in a drawer and clean it out maybe once every two years) and shudder. But deep down inside, my friends are right. I crave order and structure, and I don’t think I’m alone. When we know what’s going to happen, we can plan for it. Fear of the future, with all of the uncertainty that not knowing what the future will bring, is so debilitating that it keeps many people frozen in uncomfortable situations. The demons we know are more manageable than whatever waits for us on the other side of the door. And so we close ourselves off to spontaneity, risk, and the unknown. We are safe and if we are not happy, at least we are content and secure in our cocoons.
Today is my birthday. I’m fifty-two. And I never, ever planned to be this old. I watched my mother die five months shy of her fifty-first birthday and, at the age of twenty-three, taught myself that was the span of a life and that I should plan accordingly.
Fifty-one seemed an awful long way away when I was twenty-three, but I started planning anyway. I did some things my mom did, like marry and have kids and live in a house in the suburbs. I did some things my mom never did, like try pot brownies and open a business and appear on Jeopardy (I came in second place and won a trip to Hawaii). Although I put money away in a 401(k), because that’s what reasonable people who plan for the future do, I didn’t worry about it growing because I knew that I wouldn’t be relying on it in the future. I wore sunscreen but wasn’t neurotic about covering every patch of skin, because I figured that by the time I got wrinkles or a melanoma, I’d already be gone. I planned for my youngest child to be out of the house, happily ensconced in college, before I turned fifty-one, just in case. My mantra became “why not,” not in a breezy, rhetorical sense, but as a real question: if I thought of something I wanted to do and there was no good reason not to do it, I did it. I took chances and vacations, figuring that the clock was ticking down and I needed to fit everything in before I died.
As I eased my way into my late forties, I started getting ready. I cleaned out a lot of old clothes and possessions, just like my mom did. She didn’t want us to have to go through all her crap from two decades of fashion (those Pucci dresses would’ve been worth a fortune on eBay had she kept them), and I didn’t want to leave any incriminating evidence behind. It was nice to have organized shelves. My husband and I went to Bora Bora and India. I accepted every birthday party invitation I received from old friends. I tried not to give a shit about stupid things, like what people would SAY and how things would LOOK. I kept going to the doctor, waiting for the diagnosis.
It never came.
When I got older than my mom, I got my nose pierced. It was the last thing I had wanted to do before I died. I thought it would look cute, and it does.
My bucket list is done, for the most part. My kids are well on their way to being the type of human beings who will make the world a better place—compassionate, kind, smart, and driven. Teaching yoga, which started out as adefault career (I couldn’t imagine how embarrassing it would be to have someone ask me what I did and have to answer “nothing”), wound up being something I was good at. I’ve achieved a certain level of professional success. I have every single material thing I’ve ever wanted, as well as loads of things I neither want nor need, things I always assumed my heirs would have to deal with, not me.
What I don’t have is a plan, and that is very, very uncomfortable.
I don’t have excuses. If there’s anything I want to do—teach yoga in India, write a book, learn neuroscience and sustainable agriculture—I don’t get to say that there’s no time. Knowing I was going to die young gave me an exit strategy, a way to bow out gracefully without having to try that hard. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I do now: living each day fully is very, very different from planning to die the next day. I must risk having unfinished business if I choose to embrace life.
I spent more than half of my life planning to die, and now I have to spend the rest of it—however long that is—figuring out how to live. Coming to terms with this over the past five months has, frankly, freaked me out. When my mom was alive, when she was sick, and then after she died, at least I had a benchmark. There was someone for me tocompare myselfto. Whether it was following in her footsteps or not, I had that choice. Now, it’s just me. I’m older than my mother and will never be able to look at how she lived her life to inform my plan as how I should live mine.
But not having this guidance can also be a gift. Being able to create my own story, free from the echoes and constraints of my mother’s older, shorter story, isboth daunting and intoxicating. Whether my mother would have done the same or different, whether she would have approved or disapproved, whether she would have laughed or cried…who knows? And does it really matter? It’s all so speculative. And irrelevant. I get to forge my own path now.
I don’t know what the coming year will bring. But I know that I will be spending the next few months doing a lot of hard work on myself. I will make plans; old habits are hardto break, and planning is not abad thing in and of itself. But I will also practice NOT planning. Instead of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, measuring out my life in coffee spoons, I have the opportunity to be like Jimmy Buffett’s cowboy in the jungle, rolling with the punches, making the best of whatever comes my way. I like this. And I think my mother would have liked it too.