It literally just hit me, with one month to go. We’re not coming up on a new year, we’re coming up on a new decade!
A bit poleaxed by this.
How did this happen? Where did the time go? Am I going to be feeling this same way ten years from now, when I am... *gulp*... 54?
Here I had just been worrying whether I would finish all my resolutions for 2019, and suddenly I’m snapped into a whole next-level perspective.
I spent my twenties being broke, big-time broke, but I somehow managed to finish out that decade of my life with a college degree and a driver’s license. (And a divorce but who’s counting)
Then I spent most of my thirties with my husband. That was an extremely dramatic change from the previous decade of my life. In fact it is helping with this time-shock that I am feeling right now, to think of when he entered my life and the fantastic contrast between His Time and any Time Before. We often say, “I can barely remember what it was like before you came along,” (to our phones) and it feels very true.
Now let’s compare 2009 to 2019.
Um... what else?
2009 was the year I got married again. There probably won’t be as dramatic a change in my life again, unless we get a grandkid (?) or until we retire. That part of things feels solved. For someone who is single, I would say, don’t worry. I hope you always feel that being single is better than being with the wrong person, or being with someone for the wrong reasons. Marriage is either the best thing to ever happen to you, or the worst...
I continue to not own a home. I’ve never bought a house or owned property, and I wonder if I ever will. We’ve moved [counting] eight times since 2009! We’ve also traveled to nine countries together. That part is starting to feel pretty standard. For those who have lived in only one home in the past decade, take a moment to consider that in the context of someone who moves a lot.
Not only do we not own a home, we also don’t own a vehicle. I sold my car shortly after we started dating, and my husband’s pickup died somewhere past 200,000 miles. Then we had a compact car for a while, but it was recalled and we elected not to replace it. That’s something to consider in a ten-year context as well: your main form of transportation.
Ten years ago, I still had a student loan, we were paying for our wedding, and my husband was still paying both alimony and child support. Fast forward to today and we’re debt-free, living in a completely different financial world. (Saving half your income will do that). Ten years is an ideal block of time to consider your finances. Are you on track to be free of any financial burdens that you have today?
Or, realistically, are you going to continue to spend beyond your means, like most people, and find any thoughts of money and debt scary or depressing?
(There’s still time)
Ten years ago, we lived in a suburban house that was roughly 1800 square feet. We had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a yard, and a two-car garage with loft storage. We had two couches and two dining tables. Now we live in a 650-square-foot apartment. We’ve been sub-900-square-feet for the past five years, tiny house territory. We got rid of easily 80% of everything we owned, possibly more like 90%. While it seems weird to imagine having all that stuff again, and I strongly doubt we ever will, we will probably expand into a bit bigger home again within the next decade, more for the yard and a possible guest room than anything else. Also because tiny homes are harder to find!
Ten years ago, my husband was at the same job he’d held for the previous ten years and he thought he would be there at least until his kid finished high school. We had no inkling whatsoever of the direction his career would go only two years later. He’s been sent around the world and he’s working on his fourth patent. He went from a shared cubicle quad to a private office with a door. Me? I went from a basic secretarial role to whatever the heck you call what I do these days. International woman of mystery. Ten years can be a very, very long time on a career trajectory.
Ten years ago, I was unfit, a lifelong non-athlete, homebody, and shy person. Somehow in the past decade I’ve run a marathon, become a Distinguished Toastmaster, self-published a book, visited four continents, climbed a rope, done standup comedy, jumped over open flames, and otherwise completely shocked myself.
I’ve also been bit by a fire ant and gotten into the stinging nettles, sing Hey for a life of adventure...
In 1999, I wore a size 14. In 2009 I wore a size six. In 2019 I wear a size two. Twenty years ago I was a chronically ill, overweight young woman with a brunette pixie cut. Now, weirdly, I am a thin middle-aged lady with long blonde hair, boxing gloves, and a collection of adventure race medals. I look like a completely different person, I have a different name, I live 1000 miles away from where I started, and the only thing I really have in common with myself is my reading habit. Who am I??
Ten years ago, we had our pets, Spike and Noelle, and we were afraid to leave them alone in a room together for even ten seconds. Today, not only is it amazing and a little tearjerking to think they are both still here, but their decade of friendship is something beautiful to behold. He finally let her snuggle him for a couple of minutes the other day, fluffy breast puffed up against his side. We never had anything to be afraid of, other than the day they say goodbye. Whatever else ever happens in our lives together, we’ve had eleven years of the Spike and Noelie Show; we’ve loved them always. Heaven will be the two of them napping side by side forevermore.
Ten years ago, and certainly twenty years ago, I could not have imagined anything about my life today. Not where I lived how I look or my social life or how I spend my time, certainly not the technical innovations that are an ordinary part of my day. Only the love in my heart for my man, my little animals, and my family, that’s all I seem to carry.
What will happen in the next ten years? Where will we be and what will we be doing? Who will still be here and who will not? Will we have said everything we should have said to them? Will we do everything we’ve intended to do, or will we do more, or will we squander the days and years? We’ll burn through them one way or another, so let us burn through them lovingly and with all our hearts.
That restless feeling is upon me, the feeling that the winds are changing and it’s time to do something new. What will it be?
A lot of people channel this feeling into something pretty specific, like shopping, changing their hair, breaking up with someone, or changing jobs. I suspect others feel compelled to have a baby or adopt a new pet. For me, it’s usually moving, rearranging the furniture, and/or getting rid of a bunch of stuff.
We just moved two months ago, though, so it’s probably going to have to be a new workout.
It’s important to recognize restlessness for what it is. It can be used wisely or poorly. It can turn into a short run of sleepless nights, a quarrel, or any of the not-cute types of impulsive behavior.
Things I’ve seen people do impulsively:
Bring home a puppy, a 15-year commitment after a 15-second decision
Quit jobs without having anything lined up
Join the Army
Run a half-marathon with zero training
Go off their meds
Relocate and cut off communication with their entire extended family
Get married “in France, so it doesn’t count”
Eat at Chipotle
Of course, plenty of people have done all these things after a great deal of deliberation. There’s probably a married, tattooed, dog-owning French Army veteran somewhere out there eating at Chipotle right this minute. Well, maybe not that last part; that’s not so very French. Still. It’s not so much what you do as when and why you do it.
Does it make sense for your life?
One thing I’ve learned from coaching is that people always feel like they have an issue (probably), and they can’t deal with it alone (doubtful), but the real issue that they describe has nothing to do with the approach they want to take. It’s not that they need “accountability,” whatever that is, it’s that they need help getting perspective on their situation.
The one who wants a tougher workout, but really needs about 30% more sleep
The one clearing clutter whose household has zero income
The one who is manufacturing projects in order to delay a divorce
Everyone has a blind spot. Everyone who knows how to drive also knows that something as massive as a sixteen-wheel semi truck or a cement mixer can easily fit into said blind spot. In this sense, we’re our own worst enemies, toodling along without realizing how we are setting ourselves up for trouble.
This is why the desire for a fresh start can end poorly. We have all the emotional energy we need to make amazing changes, and we squander it on the wrong things entirely.
A serious life review can help here, if we are able to do the hard work and if we can assess ourselves honestly. It can help even more if we’re willing to seek outside perspectives, but here again we often tend to listen to the wrong people.
Just the other night, I was talking to a sweet young bunny about her college major and what she wanted to do after she graduated. She said she was a theater major so she didn’t know, because “there weren’t that many jobs in theater.” “I don’t know about that,” I replied, “think about where we live. Some of the highest paid people in our region work in theater.” (Film, comedy, music, other sorts of performance art and the tens of thousands of support positions in sound, lighting etc). “That’s not what they’re going to tell me at Thanksgiving,” she said. I told her to ask herself how well “they” were doing in life before she took their advice.
Seriously, what does my friend’s wife’s grandfather’s next-door neighbor know about me and my career path? (Wishing that were hypothetical).
If I ever say one thing that anyone ever remembers, let it be this:
BEWARE OF NAYSAYERS
(Especially at Thanksgiving)
It continues to astound me how many grown adults out there are still running their decisions past their parents, or their family as an assembled council. I hear it all. The mom trying to convince her daughter to get back together with an alcoholic who cheats. The son who is over thirty who lets his mom pick out his furniture. The brother and sister who live together in their forties because the family pitches a fit whenever they talk about moving on.
I worry when I hear about families with adult kids who are compelled to eat together every week, or more often, because this is what always comes of it. “Kids” in their thirties, forties, or beyond who genuinely feel that they can’t make a decision if they know their extended family will disagree. These are almost never smart decisions!
Whether to buy a house or vehicle, change jobs, go back to school or drop out, have kids or not, get married or divorced - why does the family council always steer people wrong? Why do people keep trusting that tribal advice when it ends badly so much of the time?
The family council is always going to push everyone to get married, have a baby, stay local, buy a house, and choose only the tiniest possible sliver of career that they understand and approve.
I feel fortunate to be solid in my contrarian convictions, because none of those choices
(except marriage) would have worked for me. When I picture my alternate lifestyle, the path not taken, it makes me feel like crying because it would have ruled out my life today under the palm trees.
It’s really the big decisions that matter, the ones we shouldn’t make impulsively but also shouldn’t make because someone else approves. Are we making them when we need to, though, or are we delaying or ignoring them in favor of the superficial?
It’s probably better, then, to use the desire for a fresh start as a sign that it’s time for an assessment. How are things going? Is my most obvious problem, what: financial, dental, situational, relational, physical, social? While I think it out, would it be a good idea to also do some space clearing and update my resume? Should I stay away from pet stores and tattoo parlors just in case?
Every day really is a fresh start. It’s never too late to ditch the naysayers. It’s never a wrong time to take full accountability for your life.
When is that book going to get read?
I’d really rather ask WHAT is that book you’re reading? To me it’s a mark of courtesy to hold up my book in public areas, so those who are interested can at least see the title. My husband has even learned to do this for me. When he travels on business, if he sees a woman around my age who looks like one of my book group buddies, he’ll text me the title of whatever she’s reading.
The most interesting books are getting read. Right now, today.
If it is so good that someone is carrying it around town and actively reading it rather than stroking their phone, something is going on. I need to know, What is that book??
On the other hand, if a book is sitting around, midway through a stack, with a bookmark poking out, then something is not going on. For whatever reason, that book lacked the mysterious something, the je ne sais quoi that I can’t describe and my autocorrect can’t spell.
In those cases, the question is, WHEN is that book ever going to get read?
Chances are, never.
There is nothing quite so aspirational as a bookshelf full of unread books.
It’s October and I’ve just gone through a purge of my active reading stack. I like to dedicate the month to spooky stuff, and anything I didn't finish in September is therefore getting pushed off at least a month.
This policy gives me a moment to ask, Would I choose this book again?
Now that I’ve had it sitting around for a week or more, if I haven’t felt compelled to drop everything and read it right away, would I choose it again? Am I feeling any kind of pressure to read it just because:
Someone else wants me to read it
My book club is reading it
I paid for it
I already read at least one volume of the series
I met the author
I’m a completist
Books feel like homework to me
I’m working from a list
I’m emotionally invested in the Sunk Cost Fallacy
I simply can’t bear to let go of books, from tractor manuals to travel guides from 2008
As an example, I have a developing friendship with a woman I think is awesome and very interesting. She invited me to her book group (yay!). They’re reading a hit novel (good) that is historical fiction (ugh) and representative of kinda pedestrian picks. Am I really willing to start reading books that don’t appeal to me for the sake of a cool chick I’d like to see more often?
(Here I remind myself that the first book group I joined read a lot of books I had loved, but the members never finished any of them and also never liked them).
If you come over to my apartment, you will see two types of books. One, my husband’s aerospace and robotics textbooks, and two, my books. I keep books that aren’t available in ebook or audiobook format, because I can’t get them any other way. Then I never read them because I actively hate reading paperbacks. Quite the quandary. There are novels I’ve had since before we got married, and I still can’t bear either to get rid of them or to break their little spines.
Am I going to feel any more in the mood to read them ten years from now than I am today?
One of the things I have noticed is that my favorite authors keep on publishing new books. I can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least 500 new books every year that will catch my attention. I already know I can’t read that many books, especially not if I have to factor in the reading list I already have. Choices have to be made.
At a certain point, you’re either into a book, or you’re not.
Gone With the Wind was the first one that really got me. I stayed up all night, three nights in a row, trying to finish it the summer I turned thirteen. I melted my book light! I cried at a few points and couldn’t get over the ending. At that age I would start a book and it was like climbing inside to live among the characters.
That’s a pretty high standard to set, but an interesting one. Aside from not having much sense of whether a book was problematic for some reason, what qualities made books so much more immersive? Was it just youth? Or were we more likely to grab something, dive into it immediately, and read according to whim rather than some kind of task list?
This is the direction I’m moving toward. I want to feel like:
within a twenty-minute window.
My husband literally does this. We go to the bookstore, he buys something, I write down a list of two dozen new titles, and we’re off. He’s finished his choice a week later and my picks are still on hold from the library.
I’m sometimes reading something four months after it initially caught my attention.
What I’m doing when I write down a list that long is pre-committing Future Me to at least two weeks’ reading material. It seems that in practice, I really only get around to reading maybe 10-20% of these picks. What am I doing?
When is that book going to be read? In the afterlife? That’s assuming I get to go to the sort of afterlife where I have eternity to read random novels.
I advocate doing a clean sweep and starting over. I advocate avoiding the remainder table or otherwise discounted books. I advocate buying your most anticipated books by your favorite authors as soon as they hit the shelf and then reading them while you’re still walking out of the store, maybe even bumping into a pole along the way.
When is that book getting read? Why do you ask? I’m already a hundred pages in.
It’s my birthday, a time I like to think about what I’ve done over the past year and what I want to be doing by this time next year. Typically this includes asking myself why I keep trying to plan something special, because somehow or other I always seem to manage to mess it up.
Classic birthday fun: Discovering stinging nettle the hard way, getting a second-degree sunburn in a weird pattern that didn’t fade for two years, stepping barefoot in puppy leavings, and now, sitting around for forty minutes at a bus station in Aberdeen because nobody updated the website with the school holiday schedule.
In a way, I think of it as good luck. If whatever dumb and annoying thing that’s going to happen to me through my own ineptitude is going to happen on my birthday, then maybe I can avoid that sort of thing the rest of the year?
Also, it’s raining, something else I try to see as a sign of good luck. It rained on our wedding day (Northern Hemisphere in August) and there is a superstition that this brings prosperity. After ten years I can tentatively say that this seems to have been borne out.
At some point in the last year, I made a list of “43 for 43” - things that I wanted to do for fun, to make the year special. I can only claim to have completed a dozen of the 43 items. That’s because this thing called “fun” doesn’t come all that naturally to me. I tend to be an intense, driven, restless sort of person and if I don’t plan and calculate, all the fun tends to get left off the list.
Sixteen of the items are fitness-related and I didn’t do any of them.
One thing I can say I’m proud of crossing off that list: I helped celebrate my brother’s fortieth birthday. If I hadn’t started nagging everyone about it almost five months in advance I think it probably would have been a last-minute family dinner, rather than a memorable vacation weekend.
I am good at recognizing spontaneous opportunities when they come along. That’s why I can claim to have done a bunch of random fun things in spite of myself. For instance, since we came to the U.K. I have taken serious advantage of the widespread availability of vegan food. I’ve had a sausage roll, a Magnum bar, and a Jaffa cake, and I even tracked down a bag of Starburst! (With blackcurrant!) We’ve walked fifty miles in five days, including days when we spent 9-10 hours on a plane or a train, and I’ve spotted twenty species of birds for my life list so far.
Eat, walk, look at birds, repeat. That’s sort of me all over.
If there’s one thing to do on a birthday, it’s to think about your favorite people, favorite places, and favorite things. Are you spending time with your loved ones and doing what really matters to you?
I realized when camping last month that I hadn’t been in a forest in two years. It took five minutes to commit that that should never happen again. I had forgotten who I was.
That brought up a series of thoughts about things that are “really me” that I haven’t been doing much lately, if at all. Traveling, cooking and having dinner parties, distance running, spending time in the woods, heck, even doing cryptograms. Too much focus on goals and self-improvement can eventually crowd out everything else.
Then I remember that it’s been a tough year. I spent a lot of time ill for about eight months, started having the occasional episode of migraine or night terrors after a four-year hiatus, and then rounded it out with a bunch of oral surgery. Whee. I can forgive myself for not having some kind of “perfect year” or hitting every single benchmark.
Of course I can also say that I feel like I deserve better from my physical vessel and that I’m hoping for better health, vitality, and well-being in the coming year. I want to get back to running again. I miss hills for breakfast. Also I can hardly wait until our lease is up and we can move to a place that doesn’t have loud, early-rising upstairs neighbors. I’d prefer to be thinking about more interesting things than why my neighbor feels the need to do her vacuuming at 8:00 AM.
When she was a little girl, did she dream about being the world’s most meticulous housekeeper?
When I was a little girl, I wanted to read every book in the world and I wanted my own parrot. One down, one to go.
Incidentally, Noelie just had her 21st hatch day. I owe her a berry.
I’ve been nodding off in the middle of writing this, on a bus with the heater on, having slept poorly in a sleeper car on a train last night. Snapping awake made me feel like a doddering elderly person. If I’m lucky that will happen one day! One day I’ll be quite old and I can tell patient young people what it was like in the Eighties, when phones had cords, VHS tapes cost $99, and you had to go to your friend’s house to play games or watch music videos.
I might be halfway through my life, I might go tomorrow, and maybe I’ve got another 65 years. Who knows? Who knows what sorts of dramatic changes and technological innovations I’ll see in my time? What will become of me?
All I know is what I’ve learned, which is that it’s good to be grateful for what you have, it’s good to stay in touch with your values, your family, and your old friends, it’s good to see the world, it’s good to save money, and it’s good to take care of your health and your teeth.
Now I’m off to start my personal new year with some travel, some time in the woods, some more intensive journaling, some birdwatching, and the absurdly early bedtime suitable to a lady of my age and station.
I like a good euphemism, especially for self-talk. When I tried to come up with a better way to think about oral surgery, the term “dental reset” came to mind. Works for me. There’s a lot going on, and I wish it was already over (and paid for), and grouping several procedures into one batch is helping me deal with it.
Dentistry is amazing from an historical perspective. I remind myself of this. Not very long in the past, the best available option for even the wealthiest person would be to have a tooth removed without anesthesia of any kind, that or let it decay in place over a few years. Poor dentistry was probably a factor in decreased longevity because of infection and the difficulty of eating while mostly toothless.
That’s why I can still smile while signing off on a copay of over a thousand dollars just to not be awake for all this.
I’m straightedge, I won’t drink a beer, but go on ahead with that IV and the oxygen!
My image of a root canal, before I had my first one last month, was a vague and nameless horror. People speak reverently of root canals in the same way they do of automotive collisions. All I knew to expect was misery. IT WASN’T THAT BAD THOUGH!
Resorption repair: not that bad either.
In neither of these procedures in my dental reset have I been offered painkillers, which is great because I wouldn’t want them anyway. I was prescribed Vicodin for the extraction of my wisdom teeth, and I quit taking it on the second day because it made me feel so ill. That, and my mom found me passed out on the bathroom floor... In my opinion, painkillers don’t treat pain, they just make a person too incoherent to complain about it.
Sometimes you have a problem. Then you get a prescription and you have two things: the original problem plus a pill problem.
I woke up in the same dental chair where I started, which was an improvement over my wisdom tooth experience. Then I had been taken to another room and laid out on a cot, which was disorienting and upsetting. Waking up alone in a strange room without being told this would happen! This is why I think one of two things. Either anesthesia has improved as a practice over the past 25 years, or I’m better at tolerating it.
Or my endodontist is a genius, which is likely in either case.
Okay, so the anxiety. We got home from the airport after 11 PM, knowing I would have to be in the dental chair at 8 AM the next day. The first thing they told me was that they might not be able to save the tooth and we’d have to deal with that later.
Hitting all my buttons:
Large bills, due in full
Dying under anesthesia
Being moved around while unconscious
Going around toothless, even for a day
Wondering how much more of this I will confront in the next 40-50 years
Teeth are the sine qua non of the middle class. I really didn’t want to be losing three teeth, especially not on the same row, and I didn’t feel all that impressed with the alternatives. Isn’t 43 a little young for a bridge?
Basically what happens with resorption is that the tooth starts to sort of dissolve. It doesn’t hurt and you can’t see it with the naked eye, so the only way to find out it’s going on is with an x-ray and a smart dentist. I love horror movies but come on. The procedure involves cutting into the gum tissue to fix the damaged root and then voila, sutures in your gums.
The biggest struggle with willpower that I have ever had in my life has been to keep my tongue away from those sutures.
I sat in the dental chair and, I kid you not, the song playing was “Band on the Run.” Paul McCartney singing:
IF I EVER GET OUT OF HERE
I woke up and they helped me into a wheelchair, where I immediately started shivering, an aftereffect of sedation.
I felt basically fine, though I think my appearance alarmed the rideshare driver.
My husband had to take the day off work to be with me, which was actually good because he was able to catch up on work email accrued during our trip. It turns out it was also helpful because he paid attention and remembered all the specific details about flossing and brushing and anti-inflammatories and the prescription medicated mouthwash.
I didn’t realize until about twelve hours later, after sleeping off the residual anesthetic and reading all my brochures, that there are a lot of reasons why someone can’t be alone right after this stuff. Apparently anesthesia makes a lot of people violently ill and it can even make you stop breathing. Yikes!
In actual fact, I had some of the best sleep I’ve had all year and woke up feeling refreshed. I went to check myself out in the mirror, expecting bruising and puffiness and circles under my eyes. Since all I did all day was drink fluids and nap on and off, I looked... rather dewy. If anything, if there is any swelling, it seems to be making me look younger.
If you’ve been contemplating this kind of endodontic magic, obviously your experience might not be the same as mine, but don’t be scared. I haven’t really been sore, or dizzy, or nauseated. I’m hungry and not loving the soft foods diet, and the suture is mildly distracting, but I’m sleeping fine. I can get the stitches out next week.
It seems fair to mention that, especially for my age, I’m in pretty great shape. I didn’t have any of the health problems listed on the intake form, such as diabetes or heart disease. I’m at a healthy weight. I work out. Circulation and respiration matter here. I also suspect that I’m having a relatively easy time because I’ve been a vegan for 22 years. I may not be experiencing the standard amount of inflammation as someone who regularly takes in a lot of sugar, coffee, alcohol, salt, and saturated fat. No idea.
They were able to save my tooth! Sweeter words were never heard. This is probably the best and smartest thing I’ve spent money on all year.
Root canal: Fine
Resorption surgery: No big deal
Crown: To be scheduled
Someday is Not a Day in the Week. Sam Horn wants to remind us that we can find a way to live out our dreams today, rather than waiting until “later.” First of all, later doesn’t always come. Second, by the time we retire, many of us don’t have the health or freedom to do the things we’ve been waiting for decades to do. Whatever it is, let’s figure out how to do it now.
This book is centered around a “Year by the Water,” Horn’s way of living what she teaches. She decided what she wanted to do, gave away all her stuff, and hit the road. This sounds like something for kids in their twenties, and of course it is, but Horn is a mom of a kid that age. Pay attention, non-kids, because the message that Someday is Not a Day in the Week is aimed at us.
Horn reminds us that we can’t take our mobility for granted. She has a few examples of people who worked hard their entire lives, only to be unable to enjoy their freedom once they had earned it. So many of us are such workaholics that we don’t know how to unplug. We don’t take our vacations when we’ve earned them, and we don’t retire even when we can. How would we feel if we had to look back and realize that we never took the time when we had the opportunity, and suddenly we never can?
How can we make more time to live out our dreams and be more consistent with our values? How can we restructure our commitments? If George R. R. Martin isn’t obligated to finish writing Game of Thrones, then how much are we obligated to do?
I loved Sam Horn’s book, which is full of practical advice and exercises. I’m taking the advice that Someday is Not a Day in the Week and building my semi-annual review around it.
I hope you choose to stop waiting and start creating the quality of life you want, need, and deserve now—not later.
Are you overthinking your dream?
....when we focus on what we don’t want, that’s what we’re going to get.
Get crystal clear about what makes you laugh and enjoy your life, and schedule it on your calendar.
...meaning makes us happy, not money. And everyone can afford that.
Have some of your dreams come true and you’re not even noticing them?
Would anything have been different if I had known sooner?
I went to a destination wedding with my family. I was about to turn thirty. I was painfully single, at least as broke as I had ever been, and recovering from an illness in which I temporarily lost half my lung capacity. As I sat in a rental car with five relatives, it felt like I had nothing going for me.
Little did I know, in exactly three months I would meet the man who would become my second husband.
I had no way to know that not only would I get my breathing back, I would eventually go on to run a marathon.
I couldn’t really imagine it at the time, but I would also pay off my student loans one day. My credit limit on one card would be higher than my loans ever were.
I didn’t even know that I would one day live with my little love, my gray parrot Noelle.
I couldn’t see three months into the future. It just felt like one day after another, the same the same the same, with this little blip of the family vacation. I felt like I would always be broke and single and ill.
This is why I wonder what would be different, if I had known what was coming.
If I’d known I would eventually be debt-free, would it have helped me sleep better at night?
If I’d known I would get my health back, and fairly soon, would I have started working out sooner? Would I have started losing weight sooner? Today I understand that having an extra thirty-five pounds on my chest wasn’t doing my lungs any favors, but I didn’t then. I would have been shocked and angry if anyone had suggested it. If I had seen the future, would I have taken action?
If I’d known I would meet a future husband in only three months, would I have felt less lonely? Would I have skipped the handful of painful blind dates? Would I have avoided dating the couple of guys I dated in between?
What would I have done? What would I have done with the time that I spent crying at night? The time that I spent writing hundreds of pages in my journal, trying to wring something out of my existential pain?
There were a few things I did that worked very well. These were things I did for myself, comforting actions born of optimism. These things helped set me up when I did embark on the relationship that became my second marriage.
The first of these optimistic actions, the one that mattered the most, was to pay down my debt. My frugality and focus on building financial security helped me to feel stronger and more confident. It also turned out to be the single factor that my hubby found most attractive! For anyone over 35, every decade that goes by makes this even more important.
Any marriage-minded person has to take into account the question: Did I save enough for TWO retirements and can I afford to pay off someone else’s debt as well?
(Hint: probably not)
The second thing I did for myself that paid off in my future relationship was to fight for my health. When my hubby and I met, we were both... well, to put it bluntly, we were both fat, broke, and angry at our exes. In other words, we were on the same emotional wavelength. Getting fit together helped to build our friendship. I was trying to get both lungs back and he was recovering from herniated disks in his spine. Two wildly different problems both helped by increasing mobility and cardio endurance, and dropping body fat.
Now we spend our vacations walking 8-10 miles a day, climbing multiple staircases, and backpacking into wild areas. Old Us couldn’t have had this kind of fun, either alone or together.
The third thing I did for myself when I was single and lonely was to prioritize domestic contentment. This is by no means the only type of love and romance in the world, but it’s a pretty darn good one. I had my own apartment again for the first time since I was 19, and I definitely made the most of it! When I signed the lease and got the keys, I showed my landlords the door, shut it behind them, and started doing the Sound of Music twirl through all the (four) rooms. I believe I even rolled around on the carpet and kicked my feet.
What attracts a friendly kind of romance is that confidence and domestic contentment. If you don’t like your life, why would anyone else? If you aren’t happy by yourself, how could you be happy with anyone else? Domestic contentment is the radical act of taking responsibility for your own happiness. Guess what? Having a partner means that your happiness is still just as much your own personal obligation and responsibility as it was when you were alone. You can’t outsource it, you can’t delegate it, and you can’t abdicate either.
Three months from the click, the main emotional commitment I had made was a solemn belief in poverty, illness, loneliness, and misery. All I thought I had was myself and I didn’t even want me.
Three months from the click, I had a travel disaster. I wound up spending the night in a downtown hotel that I couldn’t afford. A kindly desk clerk shifted a few things and got me a half-price room. In the room that night, at the end of my trip, I soaked in the bathtub for two hours. I made myself the internal commitment that I would do whatever it took to improve my situation. I couldn’t know just how much better things would be in three months. As a matter of fact, everything got at least ten times worse shortly afterward! It wasn’t certainty in a brighter future that brought me that future. It was nothing more or less than a blind commitment to work at it. To keep my head up and to keep trying.
The question that arises out of all this is, if I could see three months into the future (or three years, or thirty), what would I do differently today? Am I doing everything that I know I can to move me in that direction?
Time is the only thing we all have in common. I didn’t make this up. Of course I didn’t! Anything to do with the time dimension always has me running up last, late, to the end of the line. It’s given me a lot of pause lately. Think it out.
We all have different personalities, different families, different incomes and tastes and habits. Even people who work at the same job, keep the same shift, live in the same building, or come from the same family tree are not alike in every way. We do, though, have the same 24 hours a day in common.
That’ll be a bit different after we establish a colony on Mars, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Here we are at the change of another calendar year. It’s arbitrary. Why so many of us are following the Julian calendar instead of some other system is an accident of fate. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a scaffold around all our days. We might as well accept that time is a standard that applies to everyone equally, since nothing else does.
Time passes by the hour and minute, and I don’t feel it. It’s like being color-blind. Direction is another sense I seem to lack, and I struggle with maps in the same way that I struggle with clocks. That’s part of why I take my yearly and seasonal planning so seriously. I like having some kind of metric to measure my progress. What am I doing with my time on Earth?
A year is also a useful benchmark for comparing one physical state to another. Haircuts are the easiest to spot in a timeline of photos. Fashion trends, puppies, kittens, small children. I’m more interested in my personal condition: my health, home, finances, and relationships.
Am I still in touch with the people who matter to me? When’s the last time I talked to them or saw them in person?
How do I feel when I’m at home? Can I relax there? Can I have people over? Does my home feel warm, comfortable, and welcoming? Am I proud? Does it look intentional?
How are my finances? Am I busy spending money I don’t have living a lifestyle I can’t afford? Am I being fair to Future Me? Are Big Banks sucking my marrow?
How is my health? Am I sleeping well? Am I drinking enough water? Can I get down on the ground and get back up again without holding on to anything? Can I run up a flight of stairs? Is my energy level more like “kick down a fence” or “fell down a hole”?
Compared to last year, compared to two years ago, compared to three years ago, how am I doing?
It would be nice if we could see some pictures of the future from time to time. How am I doing today compared to Future Me? If I knew more, would I change my behaviors? Would I save more money? Would I strut my stuff, realizing I’ll never look quite so fly ever again? We can’t know the future.
We can, though. We can know the future by creating it. Things we do today can affect our setup for tomorrow. We can send ourselves stuff in the future, like journals and money and muscle and real estate and specific effort.
If I want Future Me to get a PhD, I have to apply to school and do all the homework in the now-today.
If I want Future Me to be married, then Today Me can’t go around verbally abusing Today-Husband.
If I want a lunch to eat on Tuesday, then I have to go grocery shopping today.
It seems so dumb and insignificant on the day or week scale, but on the year or decade scale it makes all the difference. Can I play a musical instrument, can I touch my toes, can I speak another language, am I up for promotion? Am I giving as much love and kindness as I wish to receive?
Other people do such impressive things with their 24 hours. Other people out there are playing the cello or going to the culinary institute. I’m sitting here trying to figure out why I have bookmarks in thirteen different books.
Most of what we do doesn’t matter. Most of what I do doesn’t, anyway! A hundred years from now nobody is going to care if I left dishes in the sink or made a scene at a party or won the lottery. A hundred years from now, even my own descendants won’t know my name or give a lick about me. They probably won’t have seen my photo or heard a recording of my voice.
In some ways, that’s liberating, ever so freeing. It gives a certain license to behavior of all sorts. We’re judged only in the moment and only by how we made other people feel. The metric is whether we take responsibility for the effects of our words and facial expressions.
In other ways, it’s a tall order, trying to think of something that matters enough to be significant on a longer time scale. Am I capable of more? Am I capable of leaving a legacy of some kind? Have I been working on it? How can I tell if I’m making progress?
In time, in time, certain names stand out for their work and the impact they made. They participated in the great conversation and played a bigger role on the world stage, for good or ill. Could we be among them, you and I? Are we making as much use of the same 365-day year as they did?
Time is the only thing we all have in common, the queens and the killers, the poets and the pop singers. Let’s just pause at least once a year to check in and see if we’re using our time as well as we’d like.
Panic over routine events such as Thanksgiving is something that Future You can avoid, but only if Today You is willing to help. Do you think you can do that? It’s really pretty simple. Every time you find yourself feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, make a note. Figure out a way to send some kind of reminder to Future You so you don’t find yourself in the same situation next year.
The last time I did this, it was summertime. There’s a weeklong event that my husband and I go to every year, and I notoriously always get myself wound up by overcommitting. I set a reminder on my phone for about a week before I will be packing for that trip. In the notes section, I wrote myself a little letter reminding Future Me of all the entirely predictable things I will inevitably try to do. Some of those things include: trying to do housework on the day we leave for the airport, trying to pack more books than I can read, and getting dehydrated. When I see the note, I’ll be surprised, because every time I do this I’ve forgotten all about it.
Sometimes I leave myself a voicemail, even though Today Me hates voicemail exactly as much as Past Me always has, and presumably Future Us does too. I’ll say, “Hi me, it’s me.” Blah blah blah. For some reason this never fails to crack me up, both while I record it and while I listen to it as a future iteration of myself.
Here’s the thing. Thanksgiving is basically here. The next six weeks are going to be holiday madness. Nothing goes at the same speed, whether that’s traffic, shipping times, travel delays, or any line at any store or facility. Our stress levels go up at the same time that everything takes longer and gets more complicated. It’s the perfect recipe for a total emotional meltdown. That’s before adding in family visits, bad weather, a packed social calendar, and cold and flu season. The only things that can help are patience, better planning, or perhaps chocolate.
I am a bah humbug of the first water. I’ll just say that right now. The only things I enjoy about the winter holidays are eating a fabulous meal with my family, and knowing it’s time to start my New Year’s goal-setting extravaganza. Because I don’t like the color combination of green and red, because Christmas music makes me break out in hives, and because I object to the concept of a one-day holiday being stretched out over a minimum of two months, I tend to see the shady side of the season. My skepticism and many petty annoyances help me to plan like I would plan any other chore, say, a remodel or bathing my dog. Ugh, let’s just get through this the best way we can.
As a result, sometimes my cynicism is brightened by a genuine moment of kindness, friendship, or family togetherness. Aww.
For holiday junkies, though, all the anticipation of the sparkling lights and tinsel streudel or whatever the heck makes people live for December, well, it can lead to unrealistic expectations of perfection. Being stuck in a slow line or getting a tired sales clerk seems not just ordinary but positively unholy. How dare you ruin my snow globe image! This is MY MONTH!
As the song says, The weather outside is frightful... let it go, let it go, let it go.
Anyway. Family are coming, people are going to start putting us on the spot by springing non-reciprocal gifts, materialistic pressures are going to start building, and things are going to get tense. Let that be the expectation. Let that reality sink in. Accept it, and plan around it, and maybe smooth out the rough parts.
Every time I have a less-than-ideal time, it tends to be a result of a poorly planned transition. It’s almost always me who is responsible, because my husband likes to be everywhere half an hour early (at least) and he has never bought into many of my weird guidelines and expectations. Whenever we go on a trip or have anyone come over, and I include the plumber who is here to fix the garbage disposal on this list, I feel this inner need to deep-clean our entire home from top to bottom. A maintenance person was here the other day to test our smoke detector, and I even cleaned out the fridge just in case. I have all these high hopes about entirely handmade dishes and vast, complicated menus. If I extended my food fantasies to interior design, floral arrangements, or gift wrap, I’d go around the bend. You know what isn’t festive? A hostess with bags under her eyes and a flour-coated shirt, trudging down the hall with a migraine, making the guests feel bad they ever came.
If you’re anything like me, or if you spend a lot of time looking at Pinterest, which I don’t because I pressure myself enough already as it is, you can have it one way or the other, but not both. Either lower your expectations and take some pressure off yourself, or extend your planning session further back in time next year. Add at least a day, preferably three, to what you consider “the season.” It might seem that adding time allows for raised standards as well, but it doesn’t, due to the planning fallacy. It’s simply human nature to be poor at guessing how long it takes to do things. Adding one more item multiplies the complexity.
I got rid of most of my holiday jitters by downsizing into a studio apartment. True, I have to travel a significant distance if I want to party with anybody. The advantage to that, though, is that the travel itself counts as a contribution, so anything I do to help cook or set up is a bonus. Because I’m in someone else’s home, I don’t feel responsible for the overall level of cleanliness, planning the menu, or staging the view of every room from every angle. It’s almost like... it’s almost like other people don’t really care that much about whether every single thing gets done?
The metric is joy. Almost all of joy consists of stepping out of the moment and forgetting all the background troubles and worries of daily life. The more of those concerns we can drop or discard, the closer we can get. Whenever we think about whether to take on a holiday project or chore or special dish, we can pause and ask, Is this going to give joy a chance, or is it going to make it less likely? There isn’t a complicated joy. Simple joy is the goal.
What’ll I do with my time if I live to be one hundred and eleven? Maybe it won’t happen, but then again, maybe it will. It always made sense to me to plan ahead just in case. I can’t tolerate forty seconds of boredom now, so what makes me think I’ll like it better when I’m ancient? How exciting is it to make a really long bucket list, realizing that there might actually be enough time to do it all, taste it all, try it all, live it all?
I’m making a bucket list by the decade and setting aside certain things for the age when I think they’ll make the most sense.
I’ve learned that I can only really focus on a couple of things at a time if I want to give them enough attention to make any progress. Basically I have enough brainpower to work on one artistic or intellectual goal and one physical goal at a time. That’s why it makes sense to save certain things “for later,” because trying to do everything all at once ensures that none of it is done well. At my current level, I tend to think of goals on a three-year time horizon.
I spent most of my twenties in poor health, and as a consequence (or a cause) I was totally inactive. Realizing in my thirties that I could regain and rebuild my strength, and then that I could surpass anything I ever thought possible, I started to feel more hopeful. Also, it was immediately obvious that I’d better weight my physical goals toward my younger years. I’d have more stamina and agility, and it would also help to extend my active years further into the future.
Prioritizing those physical goals naturally calls for shifting other sorts of goals toward the other end. Artistic and educational goals? Travel goals? Relationship goals? Philosophical goals? I start to wonder, what kinds of things might Future Me: Eighties Edition be into?
There are some overall epic goals that call to me, and if I haven’t gotten around to them any sooner, then I’ll make a point of tackling them in my eighties. One of these cherished goals is to teach someone to read. I just feel like that would be one of the coolest, most incredible feelings, to give someone the gift of literacy. This is something I could do no matter how much money I had or how mobile I was.
I also like the ideas of becoming a chess master or finally getting somewhere with mathematics. Both of these seem like big enough, deep enough projects to hold my attention for several years. I can save them for later, knowing that Old Me will have plenty of time.
In my twenties, I flailed around. In comparison, my life was so filled with struggle and drama, and I felt that I was barely making it. I was unhappy, confused, ill, and scared a lot of the time. Somehow I got it together, and by the time I was twenty-nine I had finally graduated from university, learned to drive, and gotten onto a career path, in that order. I also learned to knit, crochet, and use shop tools and a sewing machine, read hundreds of books, and got fairly good at ballroom dancing.
In my thirties, I started feeling competent. I learned to cook, eliminated my consumer debt, paid off one of my student loans early, got promotions and raises, adopted a parrot, moved into my own little house, got married, helped raise a teenager, ran a marathon, traveled to eight countries, and finally reached my goal weight. I became a minimalist, got into backpacking, self-published a book, started a blog, had basic A1-level conversations in a couple of foreign languages, and learned to play the ukulele.
Now I’m in my forties. I finally realized that when something interests me, I can choose it, focus on it, plan around it, study it, and maximize my experience of it. I also realized that it’s worth my time to do so. When something interests me even a little bit, I find that it’s even more interesting when I learn more. When I set a goal, it’s my own goal, a goal of my own selection. Because of that, I’ll give it everything I have.
Knowing I have the focus to carry out my goals, and assuming I have the time for them, what shall I do?
Forties Me: Become a competent public speaker and Distinguished Toastmaster. Start a podcast. Get a black belt in a martial art. Learn to swim and get over my fear of the ocean. Do a triathlon. Take gymnastics classes. Do a cartwheel, handstand, and the splits. Be completely debt-free. Make younger friends.
Fifties Me: Run a fifty-mile ultramarathon. Get serious about yoga and weight training. Do a major through-hike like the Appalachian Trail, maybe the Triple Crown. Make younger friends.
Sixties Me: Open my own gym. Compete in the Senior Olympics. Buy a house. Be financially independent. Make younger friends.
Seventies Me: Study chess. Have snow-white hair like my Nana. Make younger friends.
Eighties Me: Teach someone to read. Wear a tiara. Make younger friends.
The only one of these goals that I couldn’t potentially cram into a single decade, this current decade, would be entering the Senior Olympics, because I’m still too young.
Multi-decade goals: Travel to every country in the world (five a year for the next forty years). Write books and become a thought leader. Become a world-class listener. Learn to love my friends properly.
I hesitate to post many far-out goals, because there’s one thing I’ve learned about goal-setting. That is that once you’ve achieved a goal, it changes your vantage point. The goals you set from that point are different than goals you had set before, both grander and more specific. For instance, after traveling in Spain and using rudimentary Spanish to communicate, I understood ever so much more about how to focus my studies and where I would benefit the most, which was about 3:1 in favor of listening comprehension and memorizing nouns. This also enabled me to see that intensive study over just a couple of months could rocket me forward in my skills.
I look at my goals and feel that maybe they are too ambitious, and yet again, maybe they aren’t nearly ambitious enough. I look at my goals and think of some of my senior friends, and how they’re routinely doing a lot of this stuff. I’ve met and befriended people who’ve been to every country in the world, started businesses, adopted children, trained service animals, served in public office, become fluent in multiple languages, run foundations, and indeed, medaled in the Senior Olympics. What legacy will I leave with my life?
How about you?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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