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Next Steps

I’m one of those people who always wants a plan. Despite what I’m learning in meditation, and the constant reminders from my therapist to stay in the moment, some part of me is perpetually considering my next steps.

What’s my schedule for today? My plan for the week? My goals for the year? I’m sure I developed this habit out of a need to protect myself from chaos, and many, many times it has served its purpose. Still, I’ve done it so long that there is sometimes a quality of torture to it, as if I can’t really let myself just doodle around and appreciate whatever lies ahead.

Once, many years ago, I ran a marathon with my best friend. As you do when you prepare to run a long way like that, we added to our mileage each week, increasing our long run every Sunday. And we had to organize these runs around whatever jobs we were each doing at the time, along with other life commitments. The result was a pretty regimented few months, which felt good, naturally, to my structure-loving brain. When the day of the event came and went, we were proud of our accomplishment, but then we took a big dive emotionally. We had done a fabulous job preparing for this feat, but really hadn’t thought of the blank space ahead of us when the marathon was over. It was a big lesson for both of us and, for the most part, I think we’ve been pretty mindful of needing to keep a bit of a carrot out there to continue moving forward.

I love that learning feels even bigger and more important at this end of life—a fact I never considered when I was younger and struggling with both algebra and social skills.

I will say that I’ve also gotten more relaxed over the years—thanks to meditation and therapy—but not enough to brag about it. And I was reminded of that on the morning after Thanksgiving when I sat down to write this. I was very aware of an aimless feeling that made me feel simultaneously relaxed and nervous. Part of me just wanted to go with it, lie on the couch, read a good book, and take advantage of a few days off. The other part of me thought I needed to make a to-do list, clean my office and get ready for the rest of the semester.

I ended up doing a combination of those things and, of course, Barack Obama’s book is pretty irresistible. But I realized that I actually am learning. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I’m trying hard to just pay attention to my feelings of needing order and structure, and I'm being generously supportive to myself about why I might be drawn to this kind of thinking. If you have a plan, I’ve always felt in my bones, then the questions and worries and anxieties can’t torment you. Of course, that’s actually never proven to be fully true, but the failure of the plan has frequently just prompted me to plan more. I have used scheduling and goal setting like a survivalist uses cases of water and matches.

Needless to say, the unknowns of 2020 have not helped any part of this. Planning does nothing, and there are so many opportunities to go with the flow that they exhaust me. Add to this uneasiness the idea that my “re-retirement” lies ahead and it makes me want to create a to-do list a mile long. Still, I know in my heart that the true beauty of life lies in those unknown moments. That’s when I see an egret on the canal, or read a passage of Mary Oliver poem, or watch Remy dive for the tennis ball. Those are the things that make me grateful—not just for those moments, but for any ability I have to just be.

I love it that learning feels even bigger and more important at this end of life—a fact I never considered when I was younger and struggling with both algebra and social skills. I once imagined that life in our 60s and 70s would be informed by a wealth of experience and life lessons, and it is in many ways. But I’m also realizing that this is when each step holds the power of unpacking 10 more. This is the real show I’ve planned for, and I’m hoping that I can turn off the watcher at the gates often enough to be here for it as fully as I can.


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