This article first appeared on SHE'SAID' and has been republished with permission.
When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time daydreaming about the future.
Maybe we all do that — but having weathered a fairly traumatic childhood, I feel like I spent more time than usual with my head in the clouds, dreaming of a day when life wouldn’t be terrifying and miserable by turns.
I imagined numerous, wildly different, scenarios: I’d be a doctor and rush off to save lives every morning, I’d have a huge house and five children, I’d live in Manhattan and work at a magazine, I’d be an archaeologist and travel the world. Somehow I believed I’d look completely different when I grew up; I spent hours in front of the mirror imagining how my face would morph into someone unrecognizable over time.
But as the years go by, you slowly come to the realization that who you are now is pretty much who you’ll be forever.
At 40, you feel like a 12 year-old trapped in a rapidly aging body, wondering if this is how your parents and grandparents felt, too — like they were somehow masquerading as adults.
I’m writing this from a house in the Catskills, where I’ve spent the last two days lying in a hammock reading, cuddling my daughter, chatting with friends, relaxing by a river, riding bikes, making s’mores over a campfire, and watching deer wander by. If my 10 year-old self, or even my 25 year-old self, could see me, they’d probably think the future was pretty sweet. And it is. But this is also not my house. I’m not a doctor or an archeologist, I don’t have five kids or a mansion, and Manhattan is not nearly as glamorous as I’d imagined; it smells like garbage and is crawling with rats.
Over the past few months, several things I was fully expecting to happen failed to happen, one after another. It seemed like a bad joke or a prank: that old saying about how to make God laugh (make plans) never seemed truer, or more cruel. I cried more than a few angry tears, and spent many anxious nights wondering why nothing was working out the way it was supposed to. But eventually, I started to notice something.
Every time something fell through, something else shifted into place.
Someone would let me down, and someone else would step up. Plans came together in unexpected ways. I thought of another saying about God – that when he closes a door, he opens a window. (Maybe it’s more like, he unlocks a window, and you have to hunt around and try to pry all of them open before you find a cobwebby basement window that finally gives way when you put all your weight behind it. But still.)
I remembered something else, too — something I realized the last time I went through a very rough patch. It’s only when your life falls apart that you find out how many people love you. Because if you never need anyone to pick you up off the floor, how will you know whether or not anyone really would? My life may not look the way I hoped when I was younger, but I have a lot of people willing to pick me up over and over again.
My childhood fantasies revolved around the things I’d have: career, kids, husband, home, beauty, material possessions, power. But the kind of people I’d spend my days with never even entered the equation — and that’s what makes my life rich. I know some pretty miserable folks with fancy apartments, lasting marriages, successful careers, big bank accounts, and zero joy in their lives. I wouldn’t trade places with them.
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Ariel Levy, author of the memoir The Rules Do Not Apply, writes about interviewing New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd years ago and asking whether she regretted never having children. “Everybody doesn’t get everything,” Dowd replied.
As my 30s fade further into memory and middle age appears on the horizon, I’m making peace with the fact that I’m not going to get everything, either.
I can visit my friends in their cute Catskills cottage, but I’m never going to have a summer house of my own. Ditto the beach house I always dreamed of retiring to. Probably, I won’t even ever be able to retire; I’ll always be scraping by, struggling to afford to live. And it seems likely that I’ll never have a partner who adores me and will always be there for me – someone to kiss me awake every morning, and go on vacations with, and hold my hand when the doctor gives me test results. That probably makes me sadder than anything else.
But look at what I do have: two gorgeous healthy children who are thriving, devoted friends who make me laugh and comfort me when I cry, good health (I’m training to run my third marathon), and unshakeable faith in the goodness of the universe. I have a job that pays me to write about things I’m passionate about and constantly challenges me to sharpen my craft. And in the midst of this most recent season of loss and change, I spent some of the best days of my life. I traveled the country, hiked to a secret cave in the mountains, swam under a waterfall, visited with family, and reconnected with old friends. If things had gone the way I’d wanted them to, none of that would have happened.
Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun whose writing brings me comfort in dark times, would probably tell me not to give up on that beach house, or on finding a life partner. “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there’s a big disappointment, we don’t know if that’s the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don’t know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don’t know.”
Okay — so I don’t know anything. But I do know that nothing is working out the way I dreamed it would when I was a kid. And I also know that at this exact moment in time, I’ve never been happier.