The last time I was in Spain was with my boyfriend (the man who would later become my husband). We stayed in Barcelona because he liked the 1994 movie. Somehow we got a hotel in the seedy part of Las Ramblas, where cheap souvenirs were hawked at every turn and our most (un)memorable meal was at a greasy hamburger place that had a fish tank so dirty you couldn’t see if anything was alive in the water. We were frustrated with our food options (sea creatures perched atop piles of rice wasn’t our thing), and I remember a lot of bickering and contempt toward the over-hype of Gaudi’s masterpieces. I suspect we were probably just hangry.
Fast forward to 2019, 11.5 years later.
Me: widowed mother of three, late thirties, going back to Spain with my 20-year-old friend during the month that would have been my tenth wedding anniversary.
I hadn’t traveled unattached and with a friend since I was 22 years old, and being in Europe without my kids or partner made everything feel full-circle. For fun, I sometimes like to contemplate what my past self would have thought about my present self. If I could go back and give a crystal ball to the version of me who was tiredly nursing the baby and chasing after toddlers with unwashed mom hair and bags under her eyes, what would she say?
In a full-circle moment, a part of you thinks: are you kidding me? I get a RE-DO?! What? Really?! And it is great. Even though you don’t look 20-years-old anymore and you have children, your re-do is better because you’ve been around the block a couple times and matured into a wiser and more confident version of yourself. You know exactly what you want. That 20-year-old was always so unsure about her footing in the world, but the 37-year-old has lost her inhibitions. She doesn’t have time to waste and she’s going to have a good time whether she’s in Spain or in some podunk town in the Midwest.
Full-circle also has its moments of mourning the loss of who you used to be. The family unit with the reliable partner, even if that included bickering and socks on the floor. You miss the relentless days and weeks and months of having a sleeping baby on your chest, the smell of milk fermenting on your shirt, and the angst over not being able to go anywhere without packing a giant bag full of crap and lugging heavy strollers out of the back of your minivan. You miss the trips to Costco where you negotiated what to buy with the co-owner of your bank account, and you especially miss falling asleep next to him while watching Netflix.
There is a stark realization that this part of your life is over: the baby years, the husband, the safety net, the effortless way that you did not have to try too hard with somebody else.
You remember the sadness that pulsed through your veins and the agony of having to rebuild a broken life. Those memories are fading; time and mental gymnastics have hardened the pain into scars that now lie dormant beneath new layers of growth.
To get to this point, you had to learn how to reconcile all parts of a human existence. The joy. The sadness. The new and the old and the plans you had for yourself with the unexpected detours and disappointment. The story of your life. Every part of it. This is how we make space for new happiness.
On my recent trip to Spain, we spent most of our time in Seville, where they take long siestas, are prone to burst out into singing traditional flamenco songs with friends at a restaurant, and are known for their colorful buildings and Andalusian patios. We had a vague game plan in mind and an agreement that the pace of this trip would be meandering.
A part of me didn’t know what to expect. I had baggage from the 2007 trip with my late husband. Feelings. Sadness. Joy. Memories. Would it linger like a bad taste in my mouth, or could I forget it? Should I forget it?
I’ve learned to adopt a mantra of “flexible expectations.”
You can plan out your entire life and work hard, only to lose those dreams in a split second. That’s when you learn that the universe doesn’t care about your plans. It might actually even laugh at your plans.
When you accept this truth, you begin to understand that living doesn’t happen in the thoughts swirling around in our heads– living is all about what we do with our right nows. Not the expectations, but the actual doing.
I don’t know what I expected on that trip back in 2007. Maybe I wanted the happily-ever-after relationship with a whimsical, easy vacation in Spain packed with good times and romance– you know, the stuff we gulp from the pop culture fairy tales constantly shoved in our faces. The fantasy would, of course, end with a giant diamond ring in front of the Sagrada Familia and a champagne toast waiting nearby.
In real life, we were in his loathsome studio apartment about a year later when he said to me, “We should get married, huh?”
“Okay,” he agreed, but he didn’t think to get a ring in advance. I didn’t think to even tell him what I wanted.
When real life inevitably doesn’t match the version of our lives that we concoct in our minds, we often feel that awful, downward spiral of deflated expectations.
He didn’t say the right things.
The food wasn’t what we thought it would be.
I didn’t look very cute in those pictures. Why did I pack those outfits?
The main sites weren’t that great. Did I miss something? Did I really travel 12 hours on an airplane to see this giant wasp nest of a cathedral?
It wasn’t romantic enough.
There was no ring.
We expect a certain euphoria when we leap into the world. We want the romantic, floating-on-air sensation of everything we love in the universe perfectly aligned in one magical moment while nothing else matters.
That did not happen for me in Spain 2007. Instead, I concluded that the food was terrible, Italy was better, and maybe I shouldn’t marry my boyfriend.
But I did anyway– a year and a half later– without a romantic proposal, in a courthouse, and we even took separate “honeymoons.”
Not the fairy tale I imagined.
Nine years later, his unexpected death wasn’t in a million years how I thought our story would end, with me suddenly cast as the 34-year-old widow and single mother to a 1-year-old, 3-year-old, 6-year-old, and of course his life tragically cut short.
But this is how we learn to live– in the right now– floundering in the sludge of the messy middle. We must experience the agony of crushed expectations and a life that did not go as planned before we truly understand what is important.
Take everything about your life that you have ever planned out in your head: conceive baby during ____ month, go on a vacation next year to ____, finish “x” number of projects before the end of summer, and by some miracle your husband will wake up tomorrow and suddenly stop being a slob and acquire the ability to read your mind.
Put all of these plans for your future into a box. A ceramic box.
All of it– including how many more pounds you want to lose by what date, the new friends you’ll start having over for dinner, the promotions you’ll get at work, the way your children should behave, the dates your husband will want to take you on, the money that will appear, the neighbors you’d rather have, how you think your parents should act– just go ahead and put it all into that beautiful, intricately painted rare ceramic box from the 6th century that only an heiress would own but somehow you have.
Go ahead, put it all in there. Anything your heart ever desired.
Once you have a well-rounded repertoire of expectations, you then stand back and watch helplessly as an invisible force swoops into the room and shoves that precious box forcefully onto the ground.
Watch in horror as everything gets smashed to smithereens, all of your hard work and hopes and dreams and expectations breaking into a million shards that scatter in every direction.
Now you can cry about it.
Stare at it in disbelief.
Feel the despair of hopelessness.
Sit there and wonder who you even are anymore without your beloved expectations. Have your existential crisis.
And then figure out how to piece your life back together.
It won’t look like your former life, but this version of you can still be wonderful. Maybe even better, because you made it, piece-by-piece.
When we arrived in Seville after several hours of travel, it was a short Uber ride to our apartment located in a busy square. It had gotten late enough that the locals were already starting to drink and eat outside. It was loud and warm. A giant Jacaranda tree was in full bloom in front of my bedroom window. I knew I had found my kind of place.
That week we rode bikes. We ate tapas– the good stuff, not the greasy hamburger joint food I had in 2007. We shopped. I thought about my late husband, but I also didn’t think about him. We drank. We drank some more, which one should do when a beer and a glass of wine only costs 3 Euros. We listened to jazz music and ate with the band after their show. We got massages in a 16th century bath house. There was no competition: this trip blew away my 2007 Spain trip without even trying.
After I returned to the States, a few days later I took my children on a roadtrip to Arizona and Utah. First we stopped in Phoenix for a family wedding on my late husband’s side. It was a bit surreal to have jet lag from my single woman trip overseas, to then hanging with my former in-laws without my late husband, while also texting the new guy I had been talking to. An intersection of everything.
We continued on to Arches National Park, which is really like suddenly finding yourself on the moon. This park is known for having the most natural arches clustered in one area in the entire world. If it mesmerizes even my wild 4-year-old, well, that should tell you how captivating these natural monuments are.
It was not lost on me that the beautiful, mystical arches are the product of weather erosion on sandstone.
I mean, that was amazing to me.
65 millions years of rock formation in various stages of erosion.
Those brilliant red, hulking rocks made me feel like a teeny, tiny insignificant blip in the history of the earth. I may never understand how or why, but I know deep in my bones that I am grateful to be here, right now, pieced back together just the way I am.
The arches are a reminder of impermanence. We are amazed by their fragility and unusual formations, but it feels like sometimes we forget that they will not always be here, or even how they attained their shape and beauty. One day they will crumble into the sand and disappear into the dustbin of history despite the fact that today you had them on your maps and in your sightseeing plans.
We assume invincibility. We cling to the fairy tale idea of everlasting. Love. Rocks. People. Things.
And that’s when we suffer– when we are too attached to those expectations.
Life is constant erosion and regrowth and erosion and regrowth.
It isn’t good or bad.
It isn’t happy or sad.
It’s all of it.
You can be disappointed and still try to make the most out of a situation. You can be happy with a new person or on a different trip to Spain or with a change in circumstances and still have sadness for the parts of your past that will never exist again. It’s healthy to experience a wide range of emotions and feelings.
Let yourself feel everything, but don’t get stuck in a single emotion.
Have expectations, but learn when to let them go.
It’s a life-long struggle, a balancing act in which I am constantly reminding myself not to get too attached to any one version of how things are supposed to be.