Yesterday one of my children asked me how you figure out how to get what you want. This is a kid who was worrying about finals and grades and getting into college and what kind of career he would have if he couldn’t learn to take tests. At fourteen and about to graduate from the eighth grade he is still more boy than man but when he gets off the bike and stops bouncing the ball it turns out there are some worries in there. I started out by telling him that I don’t always get what I want. No one does. But then I realized that was an old tape that really doesn’t belong to me anymore. Because as it turns out I think most of us make the choices and do pretty much wind up getting what we want. This may not be true if you are born in a poor country with starvation and survival on the menu every day. But in America most of us start out lucky and go from there. Oh we might not get the shiny thing we want in any particular moment, but overall I think our choices, our deepest desires are met by our intentions. When I hear someone say she missed having children I generally think she wanted other things more. We are all the sum of our choices. Life happens too. People we love get sick and die, friends and husbands can leave, (they get to make choices too), children make mistakes and disappoint us, and businesses flounder. But none of that changes the central point. There are always choices to make and we get to make them for ourselves. And so I told him about falling in love, getting crushes and following them.
When I was about thirteen years old I loved Jesus and David Cassidy in about equal measure. I was raised in a good solid Methodist home and Jesus of Nazareth, with his piercing blue eyes and made for TV long flowing hippy hair was a young teenage girl’s dream. I imagined myself married to him and on alternating days, especially Fridays when the Partridge Family was on, David Cassidy. They both had great hair. For the one I tried to be good and for the other I tried to be something else.
Then somewhere along the way I gave up Mr. Cassidy and Tiger Beat magazine in favor of the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. This led to a lifelong era of politics mingled with culture. Not long after my relevant spell began I gave up on Jesus too, or at least on his followers. (He and I would get friendly again a few years later) There was a Wiccan phase and an Ethical Society stretch, followed by a long relationship with the Unitarians. Then there was therapy and for a while that too became my religion.
I have always been someone who liked thinking big meandering thoughts. And when you are looking at the questions it is also nice to listen to others who have thought about it all before. I had a crush on Rilke and then Thomas Merton for a time too. I wanted to live a valuable life. Later as my feminism emerged it was Grace Paley, Noddings and MacKinnon whose writings informed my thinking. I didn’t fantasize about marrying them so much as being them. It was during that time in my life that I began to realize I got to shape the story I was living. That I got to pick what kind of life I had was a radical concept. I had grown up hearing that life was hard, and you did the best you could and relied on God. Only I had relied on God when I was living in a dirty little racist steel town, with a bitter mother and a whole bunch of opinions that like my Gypsy clothes did not fit in. God was pretty quiet on the whole subject.
So unlike the Methodists who relied on prayer to solve things I turned to books. Psychology was a revelation and after that so was the notion of a simple and good marriage. I was sitting in my therapists’ office looking out the open window and listening to the birds when she reminded me that the simplest questions are usually the most profound. Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going? (Ask yourself these from time to time and watch the answers change).
From that moment I began to live with intention. I was going to be happily married to the man I was with, surround myself with clever authors, beautiful music, and live closer to the beauty and rhythms of the natural world. I was going to be the kind of mother I wished I’d had. Our kids would go to good schools that would expand their minds beyond our doors. There would be animals of course and since I loved to travel I would make money in a way that required visiting new places. I just started picking. There have been lots of errors. I bought a silly business badly and then promptly ran it into the ground besides. I made friends with people I didn’t much like and lost a couple I will always miss. But it is the trail and error that got us to Vermont. I am married to a man I am crazy about, have a couple of friends I would swim in shark infested waters for, and I am the kind of mother I intended to be. I wish that I’d had more kids, but you know I wanted to do other stuff too.
There is a lot to fit in and not a lot of time to do it I told him. So start picking early. Chocolate or vanilla or mango. Keep your eyes open and pick. When you don’t like one flavor spit it out and try another. And don’t let inattention make your decisions for you. Own them and make them. If you want to live in a city go to one for college. If you want to live on a beach get a job near one and try it out in your teens. Most of the choices won’t matter much on their own but they will begin to make a pile that will add up. And some of them matter right away. If you marry and who are big ones. So is whether or not to have kids and whether you will raise them or give them over to someone else during the day while you do other stuff. These are the serious ones with real ramifications.
So start picking kid. Take piano lessons or skip school. Spend all your money on a ticket to Louisiana so you can see the wetlands while we still have them or save up for a car. Ride your bike with Timmy or go on a date with a girl. It all adds up and one of these days you will be glad you did that instead of the other and the whole picture will start to emerge. Start picking. I mean it.
Wanna barbeque tonight and play some cards on the porch?