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Letting Things Get Messy


When I was about 5, my mom and dad and I would occasionally climb into our 1954 beige and brown Ford Ranch Wagon and go for ice cream. I don’t think they ever actually ordered anything for themselves, but I’m sure the trip was designed more as a way of entertaining a fidgety child than procuring desert. We didn’t do it very often, and this enhanced the majesty of the whole event for me.

On the way home, I worked on that cone, mesmerized by its taste, its shape, and the seemingly endless task of keeping it from dripping down my hand and arm. Without fail, before we would reach our driveway, I’d lose my battle and have to ask my mom for help. “Lick it and trim it,” I would say, handing her the sticky, creamy mess. She would take the cone, clean it up and give it back to me so that I could once again enjoy its flawlessness.

I’m sure I can’t attribute my long-held love of things being neat and tidy solely to those trips for ice cream, but I know they influenced it. My mother was a big believer in the dichotomous notions of “good and bad,” and bad was always sloppy, ambiguous, and unpleasant. Good was when everything was as it should be, orderly and predictable. Where her motherly teachings really went awry was when she gave the very strong impression that a well-ordered, immaculate life was not only favorable, but possible. The problem for me was that I carried that with me for a long time, figuring that, once I got everything in order, my life would be perfect.

I can’t help but wonder what my earlier life would have been like had I been able to be this open to all of these wonders.

Anybody reading this will surely see the fallacies in this kind of thinking—though I don’t think I ever consciously said, “I’m working on making everything perfect in my life so that it’s exactly as it should be, with no aberrations and few mistakes.” It’s just that I always felt more comfortable when things were in their place—my job, my relationships, my house, my desk. Like keeping that ice cream from melting, this was a never-ending effort. I think now that part of that must have been some unconscious method of quieting the machinations of my busy brain. But, whatever my reasoning, I felt safer not trying new things, nor being much of a risk taker, and I prided myself regularly on my manageable existence.

Now that I’m retired, and re-building a big portion of my life from the ground up, I’m seeing how much I fooled myself by prescribing to my mom’s theory. Still, it was such second nature to me that, when I first stopped working, I figured that was the end of one set of orderly behaviors and the beginning of another. I would now work on my writing and would complete necessary tasks I hadn't had time for when I was working. I would be at my computer three or four hours every morning, read in the afternoons, relax in the evenings, do home repairs on the weekends, and travel when my partner could get time off. That would be my life—neat as a pin, all licked and trimmed.

In reality, it looks very different from that. I’ve actually gone back to work at my old college a couple of times for a month or so, and done some work for a couple of other colleges. I've been helping to look after a friend's mom, I wrote a grant, and I conducted a few student focus groups. I’ve spent lots of time on my own essays and a book idea, published a few things, embarked on a fun photo project, helped a teenager with homework, and I've earned enough mad money to travel when I want to—sometimes with my partner and sometimes alone. I’ve read some amazing books that I just happened upon and weren't on my "To-Read" list, and I've had a lot of spontaneous interactions with people my earlier, more prudent life might have kept me from encountering. I’ve finished an MFA program (where I met some brand-new, lifelong friends), taken French lessons in Paris, gone to a couple of writer’s conferences and led workshops at others. Not feeling as if I have to control everything has even allowed me to enter into difficult situations and conversations more readily and less fearfully than I ever did before.

None of these are necessarily things I wouldn't have done earlier in life, but I would have spent a lot of time and energy resisting the potential chaos and then neatly fitting these unpredictable occurrences in between other events that were planned, re-planned, and vetted by my friends. There would not have been the seemingly random order to things, and I would definitely not wake up most days and think, "Wow, what new thing will I discover today?" as I do frequently in my current life.

Since I imagined something much more simple and precise, this life doesn’t look at all like I thought it would, which is great. But it’s also a surprise and even occasionally sparks a bit of disappointment when I think about how careful I was for so many years. I can’t help but wonder what my earlier life would have been like had I been able to be this open to all of these wonders. I honestly had no idea how many possibilities were out here and I can say almost confidently that I only feel slightly compelled to tidy it all up when it gets to be a little bit too much.