Navigating A Clearer Path
I remember lying on my couch when I was in my late 20s, staring at the ceiling and feeling horrible. I had finished grad school, I wanted to be a writer, and I had no idea how to get there. I could recite the steps, but I couldn’t seem to put my feet on the ground and walk myself over to my typewriter and make it work. I was freelancing for a local magazine, which was a great learning experience, but the act of making my way from those $30 articles to something that represented being a real writer seemed overwhelming. It involved a tremendous amount of hard work, connections with larger markets and publishers, and finding a path to making a living doing it—the most difficult aspect of working at something creative.
What I want to do is to be outside, use my body, challenge myself here and there, and have fun doing it.
It wasn’t too long after this that I found my way to teaching, and a lovely and meaningful career in higher education. There was a steep learning curve at first, of course, and I did nothing but plan classes and grade papers for years before I felt like I knew what I was doing. Once I had my footing, though, I returned to putting “Be a Writer” on my to-do list—along with a few other things, like “Learn to Play Golf,” “Create Better Closet Storage System,” “Get in Shape,” and "Spend a Month in Europe." I listed and re-listed those items—and a revolving collection of others—for the next 40 years that I was working, but I never made much lasting progress on any of them. Careers take time and energy, and there is frequently little of either left over for other interests. And then, as you move closer to retirement, you imagine that this will be the time for all of those unfulfilled dreams and fantasies. Without the huge boulder of work in the middle of my path, I’ll finally be able to move forward freely and do all of those little (and big) things I’ve longed to do all of those years.
But I’m discovering a lot now that I can see down that road where work deadlines, impossible schedules, and weekends crowded with chores used to exist. One of my biggest realizations is that our buckets lists can be long and random when it feels like we have forever to make our way through them. Now, though, when I might have 20 years—if I’m super lucky and mindful about staying in good shape—what I truly want to do with that time changes. Do I honestly care if I get to be a better golfer? Not really. What I want to do is to be outside, use my body, challenge myself here and there, and have fun doing it. If that means an occasional 9-hole round with patient and forgiving friends, I’m in. But if I am going to spend time improving my skills at something, I’d be much happier thinking of myself as a good writer than a good golfer.
I don’t necessarily feel like it’s either/or, but having a long list and less time than ever is a little like moving from a big house into a smaller one. It's definitely time to chuck that stack of boxes you’ve hauled with you to the last three houses you’ve lived in. So I’m pickier now and more focused on how I genuinely want to spend my time. I would like a better system for organizing my closet, because I’m tired of my running shirts being in a messy pile above my head. But I’m discovering that just tossing out about half of them—like those that I haven’t worn since I was in my 50s—is as good a method as any. I still want to be a writer, though, and I'm exploring and discovering all of what that means for me at 70.
I love the fact that I can decide how I want to spend my days, my weeks, and my energy. The decision isn’t all that much easier than it ever was, but now that I don’t have to fit everything into a narrow window on a Saturday afternoon, these to-do items all become more real to me. Some of them need the big heave ho, and others require much more attention and respect. I’m figuring out that distinction one item at a time now, and it feels good to see it all so much more clearly.