I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.
– Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
The other night I was thinking about what I would blog about for Friday’s entry. I have several irons in the fire, so to speak, but none fully formed to post. I told myself that I can always “go fishing” again if I wasn’t inspired. And then my sister Heidi called yesterday morning, and in our conversation she marveled at the fact that three months ago she would have scoffed if someone had told her she would be spending her retirement from elementary school teaching, at age 53, investing and working on new business ventures. We were talking about what we had planned to do and what things we stumbled into. It got me to thinking about my “seven-year plan,” which I had never told her about but shared with her on our call.
When I was a senior in high school, my two older sisters were already in college. My mother told all of us that she and my father, retired since I was 10 years old, could not afford to send any of us to a four-year university. We had to attend the junior college in the next town over for two years and then transfer to a university. Fair enough. I held a 20-hour-a-week job at a dry-cleaner shop and loaded up on classes every semester. There was not much to do in either my hometown of Terra Bella or the next town over, Porterville, but I was bound to be productive. And I was bound to get over my painful shyness and introversion, and bust out of my small town. I dreamed big and developed this seven-year plan, which commanded that after graduating from Porterville College, I would attend UC Davis, join the Peace Corps for two years, work for a year to earn money since I wouldn’t have any after volunteering, and then go to a creative writing program (see my Welcome to the Dress at 50 page).
I ended up staying in school three years at Davis, working a year at the UCD law library the year after graduating, and going to Alaska and then San Francisco for my two years of volunteering with the Jesuit Volunteer Corp. instead of Africa with the Peace Corps. Minor adjustments. But I would stick to my plan of attending a creative writing program, which I did. I had met my first husband while a JVC volunteer in San Francisco. Our organization, a prisoners’ rights union run by a Jesuit priest, worked with my husband’s criminal justice nonprofit, and I very much admired his passion and commitment to social justice. His family was from Syracuse, and I chose Syracuse’s creative writing program because of a certain well-known writer in residence and the fact that the university paid my way via a teaching assistantship. The location ended up being central to cementing the relationship, as I grew very close to his parents.
After graduation, I returned to San Francisco. It was the natural thing to do. But it was also the end of my seven-year plan. I did not have goals or concrete plans after that very precise list of things to accomplish. I assumed I would get married, get a job, buy a house, and raise a family. Indeed, on the cross-country drive home, my husband proposed to me. I have asked myself a number of times long ago – and then recently while on the phone with Heidi – why I slipped into the pattern of get married, get a job, buy a house, and raise a family. It was a comforting life plan, and perhaps I didn’t trust myself enough at the time to think I could really succeed as a writer. Sure, I could write stories in an undergraduate fiction class or get into a creative writing program. That wasn’t hard, and at times it didn’t seem like “the real world.” It seemed, at least or me at times, that we were just pretending to be writers in this artificial environment. But could I get published? Could I be bold enough to say, I am a writer, and really mean it? Did I have the perseverance and patience?
The short answer was no. I was too much of an amateur. I didn’t trust myself or have confidence in myself, especially after being told in my last semester by a cantankerous poet and professor that I didn’t know how to write. This manifested itself in my not writing at all. I remembered the nervous laughter my fiction-writing friends and I exchanged when we told one another to keep writing after leaving Syracuse. Of course, we would. More nervous laughter.
There is a certain comfort, after going bold, in burrowing in a secure place. What if I had stopped myself and said, this is not where I should be going. When I told my co-worker – at her wedding reception, no less – that my husband and I had separated, all she could say was, “Oh, Patty!” in a forlorn yet knowing voice that deflated me. Months later, she brought up a time during my wedding planning when we were riding up an escalator at the Union Square Macy’s during our lunch break. I had looked off into space and said to no one in particular, “Is this all there is?” My heart broke when she told me. Soon other co-workers reminded me of the many times I showed up to work in the mornings with red eyes and a swollen face from crying. We were not compatible in marriage and indeed had different ideas of marriage. I was unhappy, stunted in every aspect of my life, and I did not know what to do.
I remember scoffing at my husband at the time of our separation when he concluded that one of the problems was that I had married too young, had only been in two serious relationships, and had never really lived on my own. I was 29 years old at the time; how could that be too young? But he was right. I should not have stopped at seven years with my dreams. I should not have entered a place that I wasn’t ready to be. In fact, I had retreated to this place.
To be clear, I am not advocating not getting married or having a family. I am advocating getting married because you and your partner love one another very much and want to spend the rest of your lives together, learning, exploring, sharing dreams big and small, and helping each other achieve those individual and combined dreams. And if one of those dreams is to buy a house and raise a family, that’s fantastic. But at the same time, job, marriage, home ownership, and family should not be taken on because that’s what people do, that’s what our parents did. Or because at the time it was safe and comfortable. All of those things should not blunt who you are or want to be.
The dreams, the goals, of becoming the person we are meant to be should never end. Don’t stop at a certain timeframe. First and foremost, take time to bloom as a person – the other stuff will either happen or not. But don’t force it. Instead, focus your energies on dreaming big. Go bold. Never give up. It’s never too late, no matter your age, so long as you are young in spirit.