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More Room, Fewer Rules

I’m a rule follower. Generally speaking, I do what I’m supposed to do, with my emphasis on not doing anything to draw any extra attention to myself. I grew up this way, and I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I met deadlines, said “excuse me” when I walked in front of someone, and drove within the speed limit. I tell the truth, pay my taxes, and only water my lawn on my designated days. Of course I've even come up with whole sets of my own imperatives to follow, things like answering the phone whenever it rings even if I don’t feel like talking, going grocery shopping on Sundays, and finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle at least three days a week without looking up any of the answers. At 65, though, I realize I don’t have much to show for always doing "what’s right.” In fact, it occurs to me now that, although I took pride in following the rules, I was really probably doing it more out of a sense of fear and control than anything else.

As I’ve mentioned here before, like a lot of people, the home in which I grew up was often chaotic. As many kids did in households such as mine, it provided a nice sense of order for me if I did certain things on assigned days, if I finished my homework ahead of time rather than the night before it was due, and if I made myself read as much of the newspaper as I could on Sunday before I would let myself look at the comics. Providing my own structure and system no doubt allowed me to breathe a little easier and not worry constantly that the world was going off its axis at any moment.

I tell the truth, pay my taxes, and only water my lawn on my designated days.

Strangely, though, I kind of thought this was how everyone lived. They had their own lists of right and wrong, good and bad, and they made sure to stay on the good side whenever possible. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized not everyone was like me. I was, frankly, a little shocked when it occurred to me that not everyone made their bed every day, or kept their spices in alphabetical order, or ironed their clothes every Sunday for the week ahead. Now that I’m retired, no longer fitting myself into the somewhat narrow slot of work, and much more comfortable with my life than I was as a small child, I’m finding that lots of my rules are no longer necessary. That’s kind of scary on one level, but nicely freeing on another. But it took awhile.

In the early days of not working, I convinced myself that I needed to get my exercising out of the way early in the day and be sitting down at the computer to write by 9. When it occurred to me that no one in the world cared about that but me, I got a little “lazy” and started letting myself do my work whenever I felt like doing it. My fear that I would never do it if there were no schedule and that the world would then soon fall apart were all for naught. My universe is still standing and I’m realizing that there is a lot more to feel and do and see without quite so much structure.

Of course I’m also seeing how many rules I’ve put in place for other people, too. Again, I know now they were all there to provide structure and order, but it’s funny how certain behaviors—being late, not returning a phone call, talking too much about themselves and not asking questions—have always stood out as red flags for me. Somewhere in my primitive make-up, I saw these as unsafe circumstances for myself and made plenty of distance between me and these savage rule-breakers.

The worst part of all of this is realizing the error of my ways at such an advanced age. Looking back, though I’ve had a wonderful life and many great adventures, I have lived within some very thin lines. I’m adopting the “it’s never too late” mantra now, though, and stopping myself every time one of those rules comes to mind. But I’m no fool. I’m not tossing it just to toss it. I’m taking a good look at each one, trying to remember what made me set it in the first place, deciding if it needs discarding or just editing, and starting to truly relish a life that feels much larger and roomier.

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