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The Size of Things

Sometimes I cling to cynicism as if it were my last friend. In truth, it is just fear in a shabby, disappointing costume, but some sad little fourth grader inside me still believes that if I don’t expect anything, I won’t be nearly as let down when I don’t get it.

Through the years, I have viewed this skepticism as a quality to be honed. It protected me from being caught off guard when teenage plans fell through; it gave me a unique affect in college when others were impossibly positive; and in early adulthood it separated me from my mother, who was such a magical thinker that I swore I wasn’t related to her. Even now, I round down when Jodi rounds up—literally and figuratively—because I’m sure that no one as open and positive as she could ever possibly be right.

It is not always easy or relaxing to try new things or set bold goals.

Being in my mid-60s has brought so much into focus. For one thing, it has made me realize how small my world could become if “that will never work” becomes my default response. I am not foolish enough to think that saying yes to everything is prudent or even possible. Still, I am beginning to see my attitude in the same category as my quadriceps. Though I have no illusions that I will start entering and winning races, that doesn’t stop me from running on most mornings. I understand fully that I need to “use it or lose it” when it comes to my bones and muscles and lungs. It’s just taken me a long time to realize that the same is true for my approach to the world. If I make a practice of being small and scared, being open and brave will only be that much harder.

And frankly, as I grapple with creating a life that doesn’t include work (I swear, eventually I really will quit going back), I’m more mindful than ever that size really does matter. I don’t need a huge, three-ring circus of a life anymore, as I might have once enjoyed when I was in the choosing and experimenting phase of things. But I don’t want an existence that stands still completely, all the vistas remaining the same. The scenery depends on me, though, as does my level of comfort.

This is where cross-purposes sometimes shove their way into my neat version of things. I want to have a full and rich life, enjoy new experiences, and keep pushing the limits enough to appreciate the challenge and grow my skills, no matter how old I am. I want to continue to develop agency as a human, to ask for what I want and need. The problem, of course, is that all of that can be nerve-wracking. It is not always easy or relaxing to try new things or set bold goals.

In the bright light of a cool fall afternoon, I feel buoyed to do it anyway, to figure I’ll meet the challenges when they appear. I set my imagination free and let myself dream of publishing a book or two, or living for a summer in Arles, or becoming a body builder, or even learning to make a perfect sourdough bread. When I’ve had a tiring, hard day, and I can barely see the streetlights outside my dark bedroom window, that cynical woman shows up, leans against the wall in front of me, and takes a long drag on a cigarette. “Go ahead and waste your time dreaming,” she says with a sneer. “You might as well wish for world peace while you’re at it.” Fortunately for me, by morning she has almost always taken her leave and I feel open and positive again.

It’s a dance, I think, this work we do with ourselves to stay present and open in the world. I have to remind myself almost daily that beyond what feels like a safe, tightly closed window is always something big and wonderful. Let yourself try it, I think. Let yourself be brave.

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