When I was in high school—one of the bleakest periods of my life, I should add—lunch hour was dreadful. Not only did I face the sad search for a table with at least one friendly face, but I also had to find sustenance among the few choices available to eat. I’m sure there were several selections offered to those of us whose moms were too busy to make us a lunch, but I remember only two. Right at the front of the row of foods behind the plexi-glass sat two small wooden salad bowls. One had two puffy, greasy dinner rolls. The other had two perfectly round scoops of gummy white rice covered with brown gravy. That combo was my lunch for most of the four years of high school because I didn’t have to choose, I didn’t have to ask questions, and I didn’t have to get involved. I just pointed to those little salad bowls and left it at that. Even at 16, I was aware that risk-taking was probably not my strong suit.
I have made an art of opting for the thing that would bring the least attention to me, cause me the very least stress, and require the absolute least courage.
Fifty years later, I can’t tell you how much I wish that I’d tried a few other items, if only to begin flexing my adventurous muscle. Amazingly, I turned out to be a versatile and healthy eater after the carbohydrates of my youth, but my default move—regardless of the situation—is still to go for the easy, known, simple choice right at the safe edge of things. I have made an art of opting for the thing that will bring the least attention to me, cause me the very least stress, and require the absolute least courage. To put it kindly, I’ve been careful. Nowadays, with this many years of wisdom and experience under my belt, I might put my toe in the water of the unknown from time to time, but always with a good deal of consternation.
Still, as I’ve said more times than anyone who knows me wants to hear, the road ahead seems much shorter now than it did when I was crowded into that long cafeteria line at Rio Americano High School. Even if I start choosing one of everything right this minute, I might not have time for it all. These days, this urgency tends to override safety, and being prudent is beginning to seem silly.
I already have a long list of jobs I wish I’d been brave enough to try, exotic places I would love to travel to or live in, people I long to have been bold enough to chat with, to ask for advice. At 66, I’m also aware that I don’t mind nearly as much as I used to if people think I’m an idiot. This sounds, of course, as if I’m heading off on a hike into unknown territories, but nothing moves that fast, even in these days of trying to grab everything I can to make up for lost time.
I considered making a list of everything I’ve ever regretted not doing and then starting in on it, one by one. But choosing pizza instead of rolls in the high school lunchroom seems pointless. And being all in is really more about fully engaging in what I do choose than it is about choosing everything. In truth, for a million reasons, I have let wariness set the tone for the better part of my life. Whether it’s because I just didn’t have the emotional energy for a conversation, or I couldn’t predict exactly how something that seemed risky was going to turn out, I’ve spent more time on the sidelines than in the game.
I’m sure this sounds like the regret-filled musings of an old woman—or even the newly optimistic battle cry of someone making New Year’s resolutions—but it's more than that. It’s a little like realizing I'm late for a party I really wanted to attend. There’s so much I want to do and experience and say, and yet I’ve made a deeply rutted habit out of standing back and waiting to see if it’s all going to be OK. This new phase of life I’ve been poking around in for the last three or so years seems pretty wondrous. I’m sure there is peril here and there, but the clock is ticking now and I'm jumping in with both feet.