How often I’ve seen the image lodged in my brain. Someone is standing beyond a fork in the road, alone and presumably dismayed, studying the divergent routes. Looking back at the place where the road breaks off to take a completely different trajectory, I can hear the familiar person mutter, ‘but I’d planned to go this way!’
As James Barrie (Peter Pan’s creator) stated so well, it’s a major contest to reconcile the life story we wrote in our heads with the one that seemed to write itself. Yes, a huge contest with ourselves, but surely one that if met on a dare, can show us things we never even dreamed might be there in that first narrative about ‘us’ we made up so long ago. We mustn’t let those old assumptions bully us. We might not have had much trouble letting go of some of the fictions—Princess, or Olympic gold medalist come quickly to mind—but broader types such as mother of many or accomplished business executive with undeniable expertise are harder to let go of. I believe it’s because we don’t actually know what we want when we start the narrative, so the story telling becomes muddled in the middle.
We writers know that problem intimately when we write a novel. The great muddy middle haunts us because our characters don’t really know what they want (the author often in denial about the role they play in that conundrum), making it impossible to get ‘IT’. But do we really want ‘IT’? Robert Fritz, in his book called Your Life as Art, tells us if we go after ‘IT’, we’ll be sorely disappointed. What we’re after isn’t conditional and has to come from inside.
All the embellishments we use to decorate our lives over time get in the way of what lies inside; embellishments are meant to distract from the plain structure beneath, after all. But often the impact of catastrophic change (including something as seemingly innocuous as retirement) can demolish the surface stuff and leave us a clean slate to figure out the rest of our lives on. That’s not at all bad. It can be threatening and scary and upsetting, but not bad.
So do we continue the old narrative, trying hard to make it clearly more of the same with a few small adjustments? Or do we start up a new one with all the mess and lack of confidence doing something unfamiliar includes? Do we admit we still have time to ask questions and learn? Lifelong learners always ask questions, as do artists. The answers lie in knowing what we want, and oddly enough, very few people do. Mr. Fritz can tell you what he thinks are the best ways to figure ‘IT’ out, but you’ll have to read his book to learn them from him. What I’ve found on my own has come more with the cleansing effect of upheaval and change than anything else, and I’m happy to share them.
The struggle to learn new things, to start over, to deal with loneliness in a life filled with people, to appreciate truth for truth’s sake, and to stay open and exposed has brought me to the realization that I’ve had ‘IT’ inside all along and even recognized ‘IT’ at an early age. The urge to live creatively is common to us all, but often lies in a dark corner of our spirits covered with all manner of flotsam and jetsam. Do we have the courage to write a whole new story when we’re given the chance late in life? Can we make our lives and relationships works of creative art? Do we take the unplanned route even though we’ve never pictured ourselves on it? Can we become risk takers? That remains to be seen. But if we don’t, it’s the last chance we may have; and I think most of us know when the story we’ve written in the past isn’t the real one.