Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

"Life is a journey, not a destination." 
                                           - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I'm a planner. Literally - it's in my job title (actually, it is my job title). This isn't a skill I taught myself or developed over time; it's in my DNA, and has been evident since I was a kid. During family road trips, I often engaged my mom in the following conversation from the backseat:

Little Erin: "Do we have a hotel for tonight?"
Mom: "No. We'll just find one when we get there."
Little Erin: "How do you know they have hotels in Bozeman?"
Mom: "Every city has hotels."
Little Erin: "But how do you know???"
Mom: "I just do."
Little Erin: "Do they have restaurants?"

You can imagine how the rest of that conversation went. 

So it shouldn't surprise you that when I moved from California to Texas and my mom and I drove my car halfway across the country, I had a Google map and directions for each day's drive and motel reservations for every night before we even left the driveway. Some people explore. I plan.

Generally speaking, all this planning serves me pretty well. I usually know how to get where I'm going, I don't carry excess debt, and I always have clean underwear. I think these are all good things, which is why it's still a little hard for me to believe that my planner's instincts are part of how I wound up divorced at 29.

When I turned 20 I had the sort of freak-out most women reserve for their 30th birthdays (I always was advanced for my age). Along with numerous birthday gifts, I acquired a heightened awareness of all the things I needed to accomplish in the following decade. I had to go to graduate school and then start my career. At the same time, I needed to find The Guy, date him for a couple years, and then marry him. Ideally, we needed to tie the knot by my 27th birthday so that we could be married for two or three years before having our first child. Baby #2 would come along a few years after that. There was a little flexibility in this timeline, but our second child could arrive no later than my 35th birthday, as after that is when the incidence of Down's Syndrome and other birth defects spikes. Also, that would mean the kids would be out of the house by the time I was 55, and done with college by the time I hit 60, giving me plenty of time to enjoy what I imagined to be a comfortable retirement characterized by world travel and giggling grandchildren.

(I told you I was a planner.)

When I met my ex, he fit into my plan perfectly. I was 24 and wrapping up my last semester of graduate school, and he was 28 - just the right ages for us to date for three years before we said, "I do." Our (my) plan was that we'd enjoy the newlywed life for a couple years before starting a family, which we would have done riiiiight... abooouuuut... now. Except that instead we got a divorce.

Looking back, I realize now that I spent most of our relationship planning for whatever came next. When we were dating, I was thinking about when we would move in together. Once we entered the world of cohabitation, I wanted to know when we'd get engaged. And after I got that ring on my finger, I was in planner's heaven: an entire year of wedding planning! I had dresses to try on, color schemes to nail down, and guest lists to make. At every step along the way, I was looking toward the future and never at what I had right in front of me.

It wasn't until we were married and settling into our scheduled two years of newlywed bliss, with nothing in the immediate future to plan, that I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of, "Is this all there is to married life?" It wasn't that anything had changed or that we had become different people overnight. It was that for the first time, I was forced to experience the present and I realized that it wasn't what I wanted after all. For the previous three years, I was so focused on my destination that I hadn't paid enough attention to the journey, and somehow managed to wind up at the wrong destination all together. It's like planning a trip to Tahiti, obsessively checking the flight status before you leave home, being so focused on getting to Tahiti that you don't even realize you're getting on the wrong plane, and the next thing you know you're standing on the runway in Poland wondering where the warm waters and white sandy beaches are. 

Everything and nothing went as planned. 

I could never stand to live my life without planning. The idea doesn't just make me anxious, it makes me physically uncomfortable - my chest gets tight, my heart beats faster, and I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin. Yet I'm terrified that I'll repeat my mistakes. My biggest daily struggle is to reconcile my desire and need to plan for the future with what I now realize is the equally real need to experience and evaluate the present. I worry that even if I can stop to reflect on the here and now, I will lie to myself about whether or not I'm happy with it because I so desperately want to get where I think I should be going. And ultimately, part of me is afraid that I don't really believe - or even have the framework to believe - what Emerson says about life being a journey.  I just don't know how to live my life without planning for a destination, even if it isn't really where I want to end up.


Katherine said...

As you know, that's pretty much EXACTLY the way my plan for the last decade was laid out. But in the end, things changed, and I found myself seeking solace in lyrics about things not going the way you planned and in quotations about finding your way in the world. Cheesy, perhaps, but it worked.

For a while I mostly just gave things up to stargazers on the home front and kept my planning bug focused on work. And after a while, I didn't need to hold on so tightly to my plans. It terrifies me to consider living without plans, but as my sister reminded me, plans are just that - plans. As much as you might want to stick to them, it's okay to scratch them and make news ones. Just like drafts of a paper. It doesn't mean they were wrong, just that as time went one, a better version occurred to you.

I still absolutely cannot do without planning, but I've come to terms with the fact that sometimes the train just takes you someplace else. You rally and recover, and then you go on. And sometimes you end up where you didn't even know you wanted to be. I mean, isn't Poland the birthplace of vodka? Can't be all bad!

Rena said...

You know...I'm much the same way. Ironically what freed me was losing/surrendering my control over the situation. With BL's job, we CAN'T plan. When we first started dating, I truly thought I was going to have an aneurysm. Seriously...we don't know if he's working (for sure) until literally 3 hours before he goes. For our wedding, there was a brief moment when we thought we were going to have to fly him in from Salt Lake City (engineer training) JUST FOR THE WEDDING.

Dealing with this lack of schedule? Best thing that ever happened to me. While I did have to be medicated (darned family history of anxiety and depression):), I find that, by and large, I am waaaaaaaaay more able to roll with the punches. We celebrate holidays when we are together, rather than the physical day at times.

We planned to have two kids. I had the exact same plan as you...before 35 and everything (adequate spacing, time in case we didn't conceive right away...etc.) Life flipped us the bird again...I got pregnant two weeks after going off the pill, had major complications at the end of the pregnancy, ended up with a baby in the NICU and a wicked case of postpartum depression. And the realization that my family was complete and that our plans of two had drastically changed. And it was okay.

Am I rambling now? Oh yes...the point...

Obviously it's never as easy as just telling yourself "1-2-3...let go!" But with me, particularly with love/life, it boiled down to deciding whether I'd rather live with my plan or live with the life that just felt right.

Crazy-ass Bryan and equally crazy-ass Evan won. Eff you, plan.

P.S. This isn't advice. I'm just narcissistic enough to talk about myself for several paragraphs.


Erin said...

Clearly, I surround myself with similarly neurotic people.

@Katherine - Excellent point about Poland and vodka. This might explain why I was drinking so much of it immediately after my separation.

@Rena - I'm pretty sure being narcissistic enough to talk about oneself for several paragraphs is the entire basis for this blog. So really, don't feel so bad. ;-)

Julie said...

I'm a planner. And I'm OCD. And I'm ADD. Can you see how these 3 things might not always work so good in a (dys)functioning person? I love my lists, my plans and my order. And then I have this life that contradicts all that. Any wonder I drink?

I don't have any sage advice, I'm as neurotic and jacked up as can be. Well, except this: Believe in yourself enough to experience joy. When it's present, revel in it. Planned or unplanned.

"As We Speak" said...

Certainly, a well written, thought provoking post. Your openess and honesty is remarkable!

Streetlights94 said...

I think... that it's okay to plan along the journey. It's not as if we are going to be roaming around willy-nilly, expecting for life to just fall upon us. Heavens no. Perhaps your need for destinations ought to just be re-evaluated. I think it's okay to have a destination in mind. Else we all wander aimlessly. However, it is also okay to alter our journey in how we get there, and have small destination stops along the way. It's okay to give ourselves permission to wander off the path and even completely change course if something in the horizon looks better. I think that what Emerson is saying is that the destination won't matter to us if we don't enjoy the work or journey it takes us to get there.

(This is Streetlights94, by the way, from Twitter)

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