Do you ever wake up and wonder: How the heck did I get here?
As though it weren’t necessarily a series of steps, a string of choices, but rather a falling-into the life you seem to be living.
As though you have had no agency at all and have merely shown up to the party, hoping to get some free chips and maybe a half-decent conversation.
And it doesn’t seem to matter how many good things are in your life, how many moments are beautiful or poignant or meaningful, because still you wonder what if?
I try so hard not to live in a dream world, but that is exactly what I do. I’ve created so many different plot lines to this one little life that they’re hard to keep track of. As each experience, each door (whether opened or closed) occurs, I watch a plot line drop off like an untethered dory, drifting further and further away but somehow, no less dear.
Like the time I thought I would be a big-shot editor at a publishing house in Boston.
Or the time I thought I would marry a boy down the street (whom I never met but hoped to, someday) and we would buy a house in my hometown and walk the kids to school every day.
Or the time I thought I would teach English in South America, discovering another culture all on my own and overcoming my fear of living far away.
Or the time I was sure I was supposed to move to Europe, maybe get my Master’s in Christianity and the Arts (this one’s still tantalizing, I have to admit), and get some challenging and amazing job that combined everything I loved into some sort of mythical dream.
Or the time I would get paid to write, and somehow the ideas would flow endlessly from me. It was always effortless, as though I were a pool of creativity, knowledge, and wisdom.
Or the time I would teach voice lessons from the comfort of my home, making music with friends, performing in operas and living the life of an artist.
Or, if we go way back, the time when I thought I’d live on a farm with no electricity (yes, no electricity. or running water.).
The first winter I was out of college, I discovered the Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 2011, he’s what I would call a winter poet: a little narrative, a touch of melancholy, along the lines of Seamus Heaney. The poem that made me buy the book was “The Blue House”, and some wouldn’t even call it a poem. Prose poem is the term, I suppose, since he doesn’t use line breaks, but it does the work.
It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I began to understand what was happening, what the point was of all this description of some imagined house. On and on he goes about joy and death, painting a house without brushes, a child who “too early abandoned the task of being a child.” It wasn’t until the last paragraph that I realized what Transtromer was really experiencing:
Both joy and sorrow swell in the magnifying glass of the dew. We don’t really know it, but we sense it: there is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.
And there it was, the way I have felt my entire life – all the what-ifs and maybes and if-onlys rolled up into one simple sentence. There is a sister ship to our life which takes a totally different route. You can stand on the deck of your life’s ship and watch as the life you could have led sails away, perhaps less real but all the more provocative.
This path we take (or find ourselves on) is a string of choices. It’s also a matter of opportunities and missed opportunities. It’s luck and blessing and shoot that’s terrible. It’s the real-life route while we still sometimes cling to the ghosts of those other ships.
How many are there?
For me, quite a few, of varying possibility and varying audacity.
The ship I’m on is beautiful and challenging and surprising. But those ghost ships can stay even more magical and enticing for the very fact that they’re unknowable, beckoning to me from the horizon.