Me in Yosemite, 2005. Baby fat, oh boy!
My idea of what my life should look like was very linear before April 2016. I started a career, we bought a house and got married, had children, and then…I don’t know. I didn’t have another destination mapped out after that. I became lost in a deep ocean of motherhood and family life, our days marked by trips to Costco, diaper changes, and admiring the latest developmental milestone that one of the kids made.
In hindsight, my old life seems hideously boring. There is nothing wrong with being proud your children, or snacking on free samples from Costco, but if that’s all you do, it does feel rather one-dimensional. Nowadays, I’m a strong advocate for having your own passion in life–not attached to people or things. I don’t believe your children or significant other should be your hobby. It sets yourself up for disaster.
Because one day, your children or significant other might not be there for a variety of reasons. But you’ll still be there. And then what? You have to live with yourself until you take your last breath in this world.
It took an unexpected freight train to come crashing into my linear path, destroying what felt comfortable and familiar to me, to make me realize that I was short-changing myself by letting domesticity and narrowly defined concepts of happiness swallow me up.
At first I hated it. Widow and single mother were vile words that made me feel deep shame. I felt like a failure for something I had nothing to do with. I saw a future that was bleak and difficult. It felt like a death sentence.
I had one foot in the family life, and my other foot in the single life. I didn’t belong in either world. As confusing as this initially felt, it gave me the opportunity to eventually realize that neither world was better than the other. I also began to realize that I wasn’t the only one living an unconventional life. We are all living lives that are different degrees of messy.
One of the most profound lessons I learned in the past 16 months is the concept of everything having its pros and cons, and losing the mentality that there is a right way to live my life.
And if everything has its pluses and minuses, then mathematically it cancels itself out.
Which in my mind means that it’s not good or bad. It just is.
Being a widow and single mother isn’t good or bad to me anymore. It just is. In an existential sense, there is no meaning behind it.
I feel like we are conditioned to view life as good or bad, though. We must get this job, or everything is BAD. We must get married, or life is BAD. We must have children, or life is BAD. There are a few problems with this.
One, we have an endless number of things that we want. It literally can go on forever. We can get our job, our spouse, our children, our dream house, and STILL want something else. Or become restless with what we have.
Secondly, we are being naive to think there is such a thing as “bad.” I’m starting to realize that life isn’t black and white. It took me almost 4 decades to figure that out. What we once thought was “bad” might actually have potential for a different kind of happiness we couldn’t previously envision. We have got to stop thinking we have everything figured out. It only sets us up for disappointment.
I’ve come to terms with the unfortunate hand of cards that the universe dealt me. I’ve accepted that this is what I have to work with. Since I can’t change any of it, I might as well strategize my next move. I started to focus on looking for the potential in what is still available to me.
Mary Engelbreit said “if you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”
When you accept the things that can not be changed, it frees up brain cells to start looking at the silver lining of a situation.
There are many positive things about being married, like companionship, financial incentives, someone to squish bugs, somebody to run your errands…you know. Very important stuff.
On the other hand, there are also a lot of negatives, like somebody snoring next to you, finding dirty socks on the floor, somebody to question what you just ordered from Amazon (again), and other nuisances of the like.
Being single is the same. There are good things about it, like being able to do whatever you want, and bad things like not having that steady companionship.
I’m not saying that losing my husband was a good thing, or something I wanted. It’s just something I can’t control. And for other people who have dealt with a life that did not go as planned, you might be able to relate to the moment you realize: wow, things aren’t always as bad as I thought. Maybe I can work with this.
I try to focus on the possibilities in my life. A major theme for me is treating my life as a re-do, with the opportunity to try new things. I even actively look for opportunities and experiences that I never thought about before. Why not? That’s one of my new favorite phrases. Why not try?
I’m traveling more frequently. I’m playing tennis. I can go out with whoever I want. I write a lot. My house stays clean and organized. I have new friends I probably wouldn’t have had before. I can connect and empathize with people in ways I was never capable of before pain ripped me in half. I feel more deeply. I don’t have to compromise and can listen to my music on full blast whenever I want. I take a lot of time to reflect. I make lists of things I want to do. I have bucket lists.
I want to go white water rafting. I want to play better chess. I want to always keep improving as a teacher. I want to take the kids to Plum Village. I want to watch oral arguments at the Supreme Court. I want to become a NICU cuddler. I want to be one of those people who show up to the ER with a box of tissues when a family has experienced death. I want to see more shows at the Pantages Theater. I want to go to concerts. I want to join a travel group. I want to learn a language. I want to help people. I want an Andalucian patio. I want to travel all over the world. I want to spend lots of quality time on a regular basis with my family and friends. I want to write and write and write until I die. I want to meet new people. I want to go see TED talks live. I want to spend an entire summer in Paris and live like a local. I want to make contributions to important causes. I want to start backpacking again. I want to raise happy, productive, resilient children. I want to be healthy and active into my 90s.
There are so many things I want to do.
When I think about all of the possibilities, it makes it hard to dwell on what didn’t go right in my life.
I often refer to a poem my 5th grade teacher made us memorize. A poem that meant nothing to us in the 5th grade, but a poem that has become important to me. A poem by the great Robert Frost.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost wrote this poem with his friend in mind. This particular friend apparently fretted over decision-making, overanalyzing situations to the point of it paralyzing his ability to make a decision. This poem was supposed to make a statement about people overstating inconsequential decisions. Meaning, we spend too much time worrying over the minutiae in life. You can scrutinize every decision, every option, every possible choice you could have ever made, and inevitably find good and bad things about anything. If you get bogged down in the details, you will miss out on living.
This is how I feel about my life. I could spend my days thinking about what I could have done differently, the choices I did or didn’t make, or dissecting how I got here, analyzing every possible detail.
But I don’t want to.
My path veered off from a traditional one. I am probably missing out on a lot of things by not staying on my original path. But I’m going to experience a lot of other things, including experiences I can’t even envision yet.
In my current journey, I can choose to live an intentional and reflective life. I can’t control everything, but I can control my attitude. I intend to have flexible expectations and an open mind, and I look forward to the many possibilities that will continue to unfold. Life has so much potential.
I’m choosing to let this new road I travel on make all of the difference in my life.
If I could go back in time and talk to 18 year old Teresa, I’d tell her that so many things won’t go the way she thinks it will go. I would tell her that she needs to experience more of life to know what she really wants. I’d try to convince her to have an open mind, to seek varied opportunities and challenges, to lean into her pain and learn from it, and to trust her gut feelings. Most importantly, I would tell her to become a master at letting go of the disappointment that inevitably pools inside of us when something doesn’t go as planned and to make space for new possibilities, because life is chock-full of an infinite amount of opportunities. Life is the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure book.
As the great Dalai Lama once said, “sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.”
We don’t always want it. We can’t always see it. It feels bittersweet and sometimes downright painful. But somehow one road leads to another road, and these unexpected detours can become the best chapters of our lives.