I’ve kept a copy of “A Light in the Attic” by Shel Silverstein in my office since I started practicing. The copy I keep is the one I’ve had since I was a little girl; it’s missing the dustjacket, it is unimaginably beat-up. Scrawled inside in brown marker is our first phone number that I knew by heart, seven digits — before 10-digit dialing was de rigueur in most big American cities and suburbs.
It has always been a sort of quirky, comforting addition to my bookshelf.
Throughout this difficult…decade, I’ve been gripped by a fierce case of the Whatifs. Do you know them, the Whatifs? In “A Light in the Attic,” there’s a poem called “The Whatifs.” The poem is a silly litany of childhood fears: what if I’m dumb in school? What if they’ve closed the swimming pool?
As an anxious child who grew into a perfectionist adult, this poem resonated with me, and I frequently enumerate my “whatifs” — usually to later laugh at myself.
But then there are others — more serious ones: whatif people never get to know me? whatif i never get over believing the judgment of others make the woman? whatif i’m alone forever? whatif i never do this right? whatif i mistake happiness for blessings? whatif i mistake blessings for happiness?
There is this misconception in my head and the heads of others, maybe, that a woman in finance, a woman who has a dog and no children and no husband, cannot live a simple, graceful, purpose-driven life. That “busy” is, by definition, not “simple.” And that “busy” is necessarily “bad.” (Because YOU said so. Whoever the hell YOU are.)
I let that eat at me; I let that drive me nuts. I wake up at night with my stomach churning, thinking that I am not enough because I do too much, or I don’t do enough. Then there’s the one that has gnawed at me since I was a little girl: whatif it’s bad that i’m different?
but whatif I’m not the woman you think I am?
whatif i think my life is very simple — despite that it seems strange, and on its face, complex? whatif, at the heart, it is a story of a woman who made difficult choices because she had faith in the wholeness, and in love, and she chose to accept nothing less — even if that was painful; caused pain?
whatif one cannot be a full person without recognizing that choice, and choosing it?
and whatif choosing was not a bad thing, or a selfish thing, or a by-product-of-indulgent-parenting-thing? whatif i couldn’t stand the thought of waking up every morning next to someone who resented me for every jetbridge and stairway and boarding pass and tollbooth? whatif that wanderlust was so ingrained in the fabric of me that i had forgotten whether it was fight-or-flight-or-fancy?
whatif it is really simple? whatif i like flowers, and dogs, and the color orange, and am merely making a life of chasing fragile, beautiful things?
whatif i can’t stand to sit in these terrible moments anymore — the moments where i’m reminded of the mistakes i made?
but aren’t “learning experiences” just “mistakes” with a better PR person?
A few weeks ago, as I was thinking about having been blogging for seven years, I cracked open one of my journals from law school — one of the ones I never open — from about a deacade ago. It was one of the journals that was less a litany of “whatifs” than it was an illustrated guide on how to completely fuck up your twenties. The girl who dwelt in those pages (whose penmanship was, admittedly, much better than mine is now) was abjectly terrified of committment, but was trying to convince herself she wanted to settle down.
And one day, she wrote: I think I want to run a marathon. I think I could do it. But Andrew says no. He says he’ll take back my engagement ring if I do.
And for years after that, I was still writing about my need to run; the challenges I wanted to face.
whatif i never listened to that girl?
Years later, and mere weeks after I filed my separation papers, I ran my first New York City Marathon.
whatif i never left; i’d never gone back to washington; i’d never gotten on that phonecall? whatif i’d never gotten on the plane? whatif i never crossed that first finishline?
On Sunday, I will run my third New York City Marathon.
While I run, I think about what I want, and what I need, and who I love, and I write a little in my head. I think about where I am next headed. And it occurs to me now that all the sturdy medals hanging from my bedpost are merely fragile, beautiful things.