“I don’t get to make a list,” a friend contested this weekend after viewing my list of Thirty Things to Do in My Thirties. Struggling under the weight of a thorny marriage and balancing career and childcare responsibilities, she believes that the best of her life is behind her. She doesn’t dream anymore. Doesn’t plan for the future. She moves through life in “used to be’s” and “maybe someday’s”. She’s like Sleeping Beauty, existing in the plane between life and darkness.
Last weekend, Charming asked me to share my greatest accomplishment. Before a little prompting, all I could venture was that I must not have one yet, because something like that would certainly come to mind. I finally offered, however unconvinced of its greatness, that it was surviving my divorce. I remember being too immobilized by brokenness to brush my teeth. I’d awake from vivid dreams to the staunch reality of my childhood bedroom and remember again, each day, “This is my life now.”
So I empathize with Sleeping Beauty. Her life doesn’t change. The myriad of issues we talked through the other night mimic a conversation we had a year ago. There’s still not enough storage space in the house. There’s still no marriage-saving tip to heal all wounds. There’s still no hope that things will get better. She used to be more, someday she might be more, and this is her life now.
Beauty really is beautiful. I know her better than Charming. I took a risk on him with that name, which he accepted as a challenge and continues to live up to. Beauty has a contagious laugh that echoes in the recesses of my mind even as I imagine her now in my living room, coupled with throwing her hands up in surrender to fate or providence. Her daughters are a testament to her dynamic personality, each emulating those qualities I admire most in her: thoughtful and persistent, smart and stubborn, and there’s no doubt from which gene pool those pretty girls emerged.
Unfortunately, you can’t see with your eyes closed. Sleeping Beauty is so blinded by disillusionment that she cannot glimpse any hope for the future. I get it. I cried with her on my couch, in between weak attempts at encouragement. I get it. I don’t just sympathize. I empathize.
My very first words in my first blog post were a list of all my used-to-be’s. I was afraid I’d start to write only to come face to face with my own fear that the best of my life was behind me. I had survived my divorce, one day at a time, one exercise at a time, one shrink session a week, one new friend, one desk job. I adjusted to my “new normal” and accepted my most major failure, but I still avoided childhood friends at the gym. I believed I had nothing to be proud of anymore.
In fact, I remember responding to my mother’s similar encouragement with the phrase, “I don’t get to have that.” A fiftieth wedding anniversary. A child. Forever and always. In my youth, I approached those as entitlements. I was smart. I was talented. Id’ be a good wife. A good mother. I’d majored in education, the closest I could get to a motherhood degree. And when I earned that, with honors, I believed the best was in front of me.
Eight years later I had moved clear to the other side of the optimism spectrum. It was enough to put together an outfit and drive to work. My free time was spent playing Candy Crush and watching recorded TV shows. Last year, I moved to Hampton, and that added in some promising career and family elements to the existing mix.
Then in March, I started writing again… one fewer item on the list of things I used to be. And until I met Charming, that was enough. For a man afraid of falling in love, there is no limit to his lust for life. When I consider the vast accomplishments of his post-divorced life, I’m in awe. I admit to a smidgen of jealousy; while I was playing Candy Crush, he was filling up his lifelong bucket with some thirty potential personal achievements. My mom’s best friend Joanie reminds me to find God sightings at every turn.
Charming was a God sighting. So is Sleeping Beauty. He inspired me out of survival. She needs that inspiration. I challenged her to make a list of just five things she wants, and despite objections, Beauty succumbed. You can’t see when your eyes are closed. But it’s the perfect state to dream.
So I believe that when you’ve reached the point where you’re surviving in “used to be’s” and “someday’s”, when life seems to happen to you, when your eyes are closed to the prospect of the day’s darkness… that’s when you need to dream a little. I see the effect that Charming’s accomplishments have had – not only were they valuable experiences, but the byproduct of achievement is a springboard for future investments.
After considering which, “I always wanted to’s…” I was going to add to my list, I was initially saddened by the immensity of choices. From an idea of Charming’s, I made another list, a past list, of life dreams and goals I had already achieved. The catalyst activated. In several hours poring over my keyboard, I had successfully altered the course of my life.
I can’t explain the outcome any better than this. I’m adding number 20 to my bucket today: Buy a piano. Closely tied to item 26: Write another song on the piano (I think I know the ideal muse). Readers who’ve known me only in my thirties would likely ask, with incredulity, “You play the piano?” I used to. Like being a writer, that answer can change in an instant.
We cannot expect change to springboard from inactivity. Beauty cannot sleep through a year of her life and expect to wake up to a renewed hope in tomorrow. Her struggles will not be resolved without a catalyst. We can spend our extra moments playing Candy Crush or tackling a new language we said we always wanted to learn. Tackling is an active verb. Passivity amounts to little improvement of circumstance.
Long after I gave Sleeping Beauty a good night hug, I was consumed with her plight. In church on Sunday, our pastor brought a message from a new series, “The Best is Yet to Come.” I have to believe that for her. For me. I can’t fathom eternity, but the next thirty years is in focus. Why would I ever wake up and favor reality over dreamland if I’m certain no joy is in store there?
A cherry Young Chang French provincial piano now hails home from my rented house in downtown Hampton. While I realize some items on my list are beyond my reach to achieve this week (like marrying and having a family), the piano was attainable. Crushing candies felt like wasted time when there were thirty commitments to honor.
If Charming asked me now what about my greatest accomplishment, I would have a different answer. Surviving my divorce was a starting point. My greatest accomplishment is making this list. This list is proof that I’m past surviving. I am living again. Beauty will, too. This list means that the best is yet to come. Embracing that is a change, a freedom from inactivity. I can take pride in a will that boasts, “I get to…”, “I am,” “When do we start?” I’ll say, “This is my life now,” with hope and satisfaction as my fingers pore over ivory keys.