I am a planner. I like to write my plans down in my paper calendar, and I derive great pleasure in looking ahead at the calendar to see what’s on the horizon. This past summer, in a massive purge of old boxes in my basement, I found a slew of calendars from my past. I laughed out loud at my younger self, perusing through my high school wall calendar, which included such events as History test, school dance and sleepover at friend’s house.
Those calendars almost always included some sort of colorful count down to the next big thing—the end of the school year, the first day of camp, a graduation, the start of a new school. I seemed to always be waiting on what came next. I remember telling myself that my life, my real life, would start whenever that next thing happened.
At first that was college, but once away at school, I convinced myself that real life would start after I graduated, had a real job and lived on my own. Those things came and went, and then I started to believe that real life would start once I got married, once I had kids, once I lived in my own house.
Somewhere in the midst of my newly married, pre-kids, pre-house life while I was in graduate school, my mother explained to me on the phone one day that I should enjoy this time right now or I would miss “the best years of my life.”
I can still feel those words reverberate through my flip phone into my ponytailed head as I walked in the autumn gray morning Michigan air on my way to economics class. It felt too cold to be only October. I wanted it to be spring and graduation so that I could move on to the always-looming next thing. My mother could hear the angst in my voice that day.
I didn’t know it then, but less than two years later, my mother would be gone. Cancer would take her, and there would be no more next big thing for her. Her life, her real life, was over. At practically that exact same time, my once-so-coveted real life was just beginning. I earned the graduate degree. I had a new job, a new baby, and even an old house that my husband and I made to look new.
I thought more and more about my mother’s words, about the best years of my life. Were they behind me? Did I miss them? Were they in front of me? Would I ever have them? When would this life, this real life happen?
She couldn’t give me an answer on this one. No one could.
I found myself thinking less and less about what was coming up next. I gave up the notion of real life being right around the corner. It occurred to me that my real life was happening right then and there—in the sleepless nights of new parenthood, in the frustration of trying to figure out how to put together a desk from IKEAIkea and in the pleasure I derived from discovering that a Starbucks had finally opened up in my town.
My real life had been happening all along, even when I was waiting, sometimes patiently and sometimes not so patiently, for it to begin. Real life, I discovered, does not come with a long-winded introduction or a loud starting whistle. It’s just there in each and every moment that we are living in it
Sometimes real life is messy, as I burn the panko- crusted chicken dinner while running late to shuffle my kids off to soccer practice—all the while feeling guilty for not having my father over for the burnt dinner.
Sometimes real life is peaceful, as I sit next to my husband on the couch while he works on his Sunday crossword puzzle and I nod my head and smile in agreement while reading an essay from the Style section. My feet covered in fleece socks are on his lap, and they feel like they were made for that space.
Sometimes real life is unremarkable: the monotony of the emptying of the dishwasher, my morning coffee, my walk home from the kids’ bus stop, my opening my computer and, later in the day, my shutting it.
Sometimes real life is painful, in the disappointment I see in my children’s faces over something I can’t explain away or in the heartbreak I feel for a loss I don’t think I will ever get over or in the worry I can’t shake for issues I can’t control on the world stage.
And sometimes, real life is just pure joy, when I laugh uncontrollably with an old friend until my eyes start to tear up and my face starts to hurt, or when my daughter flashes me a giant smile, and my son hugs me super tightly for no apparent reason.
Then sometimes, just sometimes when the stars align just so, those old friends, the new friends, the kids, the extended family gather together to celebrate a truly happy occasion–a child’s birthday, a bar mitzvah, a backyard barbecue or a backyard wedding, and I can’t help but know and feel how real that moment is.
That is life, as real as it will ever get. The trick is in the living it and not looking ahead to see what’s coming up next.