I have a memory of being a child, driving back from vacation at the beach with my mom and stepdad, and the car breaking down. They worked together to push it out of the road and then we sat on a patch of grass in the hot August sun, waiting.
“What are we going to do now?” I had asked.
The answer: “We don’t know.”
That was scary for me. I assumed parents knew pretty much everything about anything, could answer whatever question I came up with. Eventually, someone rescued us from the side of the road and our car got to the mechanic. But it was a long, hot day that stole a piece of my innocence, the part of me that thought adults had everything figured out.
I still do, sometimes, think adults have everything figured out. And then I remember I’m an adult. I turned 39 this past weekend, and I still feel like 20 inside. When I hear someone else say how old they are, I measure their age and success against mine, calculating how much time I have left to do all the things I want to do, how much time has to pass before I feel like an “adult.” And yet, on a daily basis, I do or have done all the things adults do: I’ve held multiple jobs, owned a home, cared for a pet, been married, been divorced, had kids.
When I started my job a couple of years ago and befriended someone who was still in her twenties, I was reminded of myself by her own flashes of innocence. She looked to those of us who were older and assumed we’d be able to tell her how to handle any problematic life situations that came up. When I had to tell her I didn’t know, that I was just as in the dark as she was on many things, that unfortunately, life didn’t necessarily get easier the older one got, she looked defeated, scared.
For some reason, we’re not taught this truth about grown-ups from an early age. Instead, we’re taught that if you do everything “right,” good things will come. You just have to follow the rules.
What are the rules? Do well in school so you can get into the next school, and the next, so that you can find a good job. Find someone to marry and stay together even if you’re unhappy. Move up through the ranks in your career, accepting more money even if it makes you tired and glued to a device all the time. Buy a house in a good school district. Go to the gym, keep your body toned. Put a nice, hot meal on the dinner table every night. Go to frickin’ Disney World. (Dear God, save me from that last one.)
Essentially, our assumed life trajectory is follow all the rules, figure everything out, and die.
I always thought I was a rule-follower, but the older I get, the more I see that the opposite has been true for me. It turns out that when I follow someone else’s rules and don’t listen to my own inner voice, I experience setbacks. The goal, then, for me, at least, has been to align with something larger that helps guide me and root me to my own unique journey. And then accept the challenges and joys of my life, however it turns out to be.
See, I did everything I was supposed to do. I got good grades in high school, which led to a scholarship for college. I did well in college and got a stable job teaching when I graduated, but the public school pension and salary I worked toward weren’t all they were cracked up to be. I bought the house in the suburbs and had the 2.5 kids (okay, let’s round that up to 3). Yet I ended up divorced and with a mortgage that was too big to handle. I ended up single. I ended up working at a job unlike any I ever imagined for myself.
The times I haven’t followed the rules? I got pregnant with my third child when it made no financial sense to have another baby. (And boy, is she amazing.) I traveled alone to Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and met strange and interesting people who filled me with hope and love. I chose not to date and instead invest in my friendships, so that now I have a group of people who are so generous and caring and fun, I had the best birthday this year than I can ever remember.
The problem with the rules is that they’re about what we deem “right” and what we deem “wrong,” the should’s of life. And the should’s make life suffocating, when life can be joyous and open and filled with bending, flexible light.
Now that I’m more than three years on my own, living what appears to be a fairly unconventional lifestyle, I have new ideas about what life can be like. I’ll admit it’s hard because I feel like I’m on the outskirts of a society that’s catered toward a certain way of living, but a lot of problems stem from focusing on the idea of something rather than what it actually is. Is it so hard to fathom that our lives might look completely different than we thought, and we might still find happiness? What would we choose if we could create a life for ourselves from scratch, without any familial or cultural expectations of how things are mean to unfold? Who would we be? How might the world open its arms?
What does life look like when we give up on the futile effort of figuring everything out, on following the rules, and accept, instead, the beauty of what already is?