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The Layers of Life

If it were possible to see our lives in layers, with real life happening on the bottom, and our fantasies and imaginations and greatest fears occurring on the top, I would say I have lived most of the time in the middle. I suppose most everyone does, but getting older reminds me that this is not the best place for me to mill around aimlessly. It might be the easiest, but it’s definitely not the most fun or interesting.

I lived much of the earlier parts of my life in that top layer, the one in which I was mostly in my head, dreaming of what I wish my life would look like, planning very impractically for some impossible future. Because I was so far off the ground—so distant from real life—it was also the place where I was hardest on myself. Despite my reveries about the life I might one day have, because it was all in my head, I also spent a lot of time listing all of the reasons I wouldn’t be able to achieve those goals. When you make things up, the roads you can take are endless.

The best life is the one that happens right here, on the ground, in the real-life layer.

Getting older—including buying a house, having a career, and forming long-term relationships—dropped me into a life in that middle layer. You can’t just fantasize about paying the bills or do whatever you want to on your job. You actually have to do real things and be responsible in the hum-drum everyday world. But, without much effort, you can slip into a “going-through-the-motions” life and you can end up almost as removed as if you are still back on the fantasy level.

What I mean by all of this is that the best life is the one that happens right here, on the ground, in the real-life layer. It’s the most challenging one to live in, but I’m discovering that it is also the most rewarding, engaging, and fulfilling. It’s one of the things I’m learning in meditation. Despite my brain automatically racing off to fantasies and fears, just sitting in my living room and being present feels so much better than I ever imagined it would.

Spending a lot of time kind of hovering above real life can also contribute to us all being disconnected and even a little irresponsible about what actually happens in our lives and the lives around us. If I check all the boxes and do all of the things that I’m “supposed” to do, I don’t really have to get that involved in much else. I can let racism and sexism and classism run amok if I write thank-you notes and mow my lawn. It’s a stretch, I get it, but I still think that slogging through the difficulties—and the joys—of really engaging with the world is where the greatest things occur.

These days, when I'm moving out of the world of work and into retirement, I find myself dreaming of being able to speak French, live in another city for a month, publish a book, and even grow a garden. I also wish I were more involved in helping other people and in changing our culture. These days on my fantasy level, I’m really good at these things I’m longing to know how to do. I grow lovely carrots and green beans, and I’m a brave and bold canvasser that even Stacey Abrams would be proud of. I know what I need to know, I’m not shy, and I have everything I need to be really good at whatever I try. But wishes aren’t reality. Reality comes from living in that ground level. It means not being perfect but trying anyway. Real life is where we can practice and learn and grow.

If you’re like me, you had enough media influence growing up that you set your sights on something “bigger and better.” I’m realizing now that the bigger and better are in me—not in something out there in the ether. But I’m thrilled to recognize that it’s not too late to do the things I really want to do—to stumble, fall, be embarrassed, look silly, and make mistakes. With each one of those efforts, I’m walking on the solid ground of my own life and I’m living more authentically than ever. It’s where real life is.


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