I have enjoyed my life, but for a few years I think I lost the ability to really appreciate it. After my encounter with Esther I began to take stock and do some re-evaluating. I have done a lot of things over the years and most of them were interesting, some exciting, a few scary, some costly and some just plain desperate. At the time it was hard for me to be objective, and looking back it seemed that being ready and willing to reach for the proverbial stars may have created an interesting life, but more often than not it had spawned concern, criticism, exasperation and condemnation – first from my parents, then friends – not to mention my ex-husband and four children. But perhaps that’s the cost of living an “interesting life”.
Over the past several years I have met a number of people who have said much the same things that Esther did six years ago and I have found myself looking in the mirror, trying almost desperately to see the person these people believed me to be.
And now in the summer of 2008 I find I have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on some of these conversations, my life in general and why I so often see that wistful look in a lot of older women’s eyes. What I have discovered is that too many women from my generation were taught more about caution than taking chances, about being safe rather than seeking to explore or try new things, and for the most part, they were certainly no encouraged to find new ways of looking at themselves or the world.
As a result of all this I’m rediscovering a feeling of gratitude for the things I have done and as a reminder for future dark times, I began making a list. For starters, in my twenties I worked for an airline and took advantage of cheap travel opportunities to spend a lot of time exploring the East coast, particularly New York City and Boston. I enjoyed a Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a romantic weekend in Boston watching Harvard and Yale play football with a handsome Navy lieutenant that I had met in New Orleans during that same Mardi Gras. I returned to college when I was twenty-eight and became a teacher. I married an Olympic Silver Medalist and later when he returned from Vietnam, we lived in Germany and Spain for three years. At a formal ball following a fencing tournament in Heidelberg, which my husband’s team won, I was toasted by and invited to dance by the Commander of the French armed forces in Germany at the time. A “Cinderella moment” to be sure. We sailed among the Greek islands and visited temples in Delphi and saw the site of the original Olympics. I gave birth to four healthy, incredible children and adored being a full time mom in Montana. Of having the adventure of traveling with my family in our Winnebago up and down the entire west coast and Canada. Much later I cruised the Western Caribbean, marveled at Chichen Itza and learned how to snorkel off the coast of Cozumel. I lived for a year in San Miguel de Allende, a 450 year old Colonial City in the mountains of Central Mexico where I had the opportunity of watching their version of the running of the bulls, exploring the other colonial cities with a wonderful guide, enjoying fabulous food, meeting many delightful people and learning to speak Spanish with relative fluency. I took up ballroom dancing in my sixties and learned to dance a wicked tango. Over the years I have worked at a number of interesting jobs in addition to teaching. I helped to set up one of the first Independent Living Centers in Montana and was able to be on the ground floor of a Japanese silicon wafer manufacturing company that was building it’s first plant in the states and learning to speak Japanese while I was at it.
I was always willing to take chances, try new things, and even pursue the dream of maybe some day being a writer – in spite of the odds against success. None of these things are out of reach to anyone, but unfortunately the emphasis was always put on the dangers of falling on your face rather than the excitement of discovery. And the consequences of failure were painted pretty graphically. Granted, you do run the risk of stumbling and/or falling on your face – I can testify to that, but you just pick yourself up and try a different strategy and do it again. Failure isn’t the end of the world, just the possible beginning of a new one. I think many of us were more or less victims of our parent’s “Depression mentality”. Caution, being sensible, that was the advice – well, a little of that is good, but a little goes a long way.
But that same spring there was something else that crept into my mind as I sat around watching Oregon’s eternal rain and reflecting – I was on my own, had been for over twenty years and sometimes I would find myself looking at other women with their husbands and homes and security and for a moment I’d feel just a little wistful myself. But then when I talked to many of these women -- not all -- or overhear their conversations, I’d discover that many of them only remained married to their husbands out of fear of being alone, not because they loved and were loved with joy and passion (yes, passion at our age is possible), and not because they actually shared their life with their best friend, but more often than not it is just to keep from being alone. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty sad. I don’t object to my own company that much and I don’t feel that alone. I guess for me the worst thing would be feeling that I’d settled for second best and I’m willing to bet it’s less than what most people, men or women really want.
There are times, however, when in spite of filling your life with wonderful and exciting things, you can find yourself floundering in a quagmire of some kind and you’re not exactly sure just why or how you got there. That’s where I’ve found myself when I first met Esther and the question I wanted to throw at her was: “Yeah, a great life, but look at where I am now.” Some days it’s hard to see these situations as just another challenge, but I’m beginning to realize that’s all they are and I’m climbing out of this hole just like I’ve climbed out of the others in the past. The rocky cliffs to scale and the cavernous caves to crawl out of are just put there to make the journey interesting. I’ve always wanted it all – I haven’t changed in spite of skinned dreams and bruised hopes.
Looking back to September 11, I remember thinking that it was a wake up call to all of us who are wasting time with things, jobs, or partners that don’t fill the empty spaces inside. But maybe the worst of all is fretting over the past – it’s dead, folks, hang a wreath on it and move on. We’re each given one life, one opportunity to make it the best it can be and that’s going to mean something different to everyone, but the important thing is to not waste anymore time in finding just what it is that lights your fire. It’s reassuring to realize that the joy of discovery and self-realization is possible at any age and it has helped me reaffirm my belief that it doesn’t matter if I’m late getting to the station or that this may be the last train, it’s not leaving without me.