The obstacles to achieving a comprehensive sense of contentment in my life are all hand-made and carefully crafted, built slowly over a lifetime of opting, at crucial moments, to do not what I wanted but what was expected of me.
It wasn’t that, as a young man, I ignored big dreams in favor of dependable drudgery. In fact, my big dreams didn’t materialize until I was much older than the stereotypical “big dreamer.” The big dreamer, by the way, is the person who overcomes all the odds stacked against him to follow his passion. I never became the big dreamer. Like everyone, I had the capacity to become the big dreamer. Instead, I became the little dreamer, the guy who allows himself to be locked in to a hand-made channel, a channel worn into his life’s path as deeply as any channel into rock by a river’s relentless drive to reach the sea. That hand-made channel is deep enough to hide the passion just beyond its banks.
As a young man, I was uncertain about what I wanted to accomplish, what I wanted to be. I retained that uncertainty well past middle age. Even to this day, I take it out on occasion to polish it in an attempt to make it look fresh and new again.
So, you see, it wasn’t a matter of setting aside big dreams; it was more a matter of making hundreds upon hundreds of less significant choices, choices to follow the common path instead of my ill-defined desire to go another direction.
The houses in which I have lived have never been fully mine, because I’ve always taken into consideration the day I might want to sell them, probably to someone who didn’t share my sense of what makes a house a livable delight. So I have lived in predictable places, the walls’ color palates and compositions limited by the parameters of acceptable drabness, safely distant from vibrant colors and unique textures.
That is unfair. And it’s arrogant. It suggests other people have drab, pedestrian, predictable tastes and that my taste is edgy and unique and “better.” No, it’s just that my tastes don’t always mirror theirs. Yet, I find myself thinking derisively about the lifestyle choices of “the masses.” Those same masses whose lifestyle choices I frequently adopt as my own, albeit reluctantly in many cases. Yes; unfair, arrogant, and hypocritical.
I have largely ignored the yards and gardens of houses in which I’ve lived, unable or unwilling to force myself to compete with neighbors to create outdoor spaces that epitomize, to me, the symbols of the stark sameness of suburban life. There I go again; unfair, arrogant, and hypocritical.
To be sure, I’ve spent many hours mowing and trimming yards, but those have been hours of labor dedicated to safeguarding the sterility of the landscape, not creating a wondrous place in which to enjoy nature.
During this lifetime of permitting myself to hide safely behind cultural norms and social convention, I’ve missed so many opportunities to express myself in ways that might ultimately reveal to me who I really am. But, then, some would say that’s exactly what I’ve revealed through my choices; how can I argue with the facts? The facts suggest I am someone who takes the easy way out; I think of myself as someone outside the main stream, but I fail to execute that identity in the real world so I can safely live among the “normals.”
Life is lived through action; dreams that do not manifest themselves in action are just fantasies. It’s not just about the houses in which I’ve not lived, of course. It’s the person I’ve not become. Just recently, I read an article about a woman in her early sixties who had written a book about her experiences working at fifty-two jobs in fifty-two weeks, an idea that paralleled a plan I had not long ago that, like so many plans, did not get executed. I called my idea the “New Tricks Tour.” The idea was to work for a week at each of fifty-two wildly divergent jobs, writing about my experiences at each one. I obtained a URL for the blog I would use as the contemporaneous journal of my experiences; today, that URL is being used by its current owner as a revenue-generating placeholder for a blog for 4×4 vehicles.
There are so many perfectly reasonable reasons I did not pursue the New Tricks Tour. And just as many equally good reasons I haven’t yet sold my house and hit the road for new experiences. The reasons I’ve never truly set down roots to make my houses truly my own are just as reasonable and just as good. But ultimately they must be viewed not as justifiable reasons but, instead, as what they are: excuses. Excuses for not doing what I wanted and, instead, doing what was expected of me. Or, perhaps it’s more honest to say excuses for doing what was safest.
Now that I think about it, maybe I’ve not been looking to set down roots. Rather, I’ve been dreaming about uprooting myself from a life of adequate predictability in favor of a life of adventure. Maybe I’ve been dreaming of a life in which “adventure” is not defined by something as pedestrian as the “danger” of riding a zip line in the forest, but rather a life in which adventure is real and untethered to a safety net.
Even the New Tricks Tour, with its limited exposure to fifty-two opportunities to fail, would have been closer to the real adventure I’ve dreamed about. But it, like so many other ideas, remains a dream. But it remains such an exciting possibility! The idea of working as a dishwasher in a hotel one week, getting to really understand what that life is really like, is so appealing to me. And then, the next week, working in a city planning office reviewing zoning requests, and then a week of teaching English as a second language to a group of new immigrants…and on and on.
Most of my dreams are the dreams of a younger man. I should have had those dreams when I was younger, at a time in my life when it wouldn’t have been irresponsible to act on them. Today, having been married for 33 years, it’s hard to justify leaving my wife to fend for herself while I’m off exploring my dreams. I can’t lay responsibility on my marital obligation for my failure to live in houses that satisfy my sense of what makes a house a home, though. It all comes back to choices I’ve made. And when stark reality and honesty are dragged out of me, kicking and screaming, my choices have not been to do what is expected of me but to do what I have allowed myself to do.
I wonder when it’s too late to reinvent oneself. I imagine it’s a lot of work to pull up the roots anchoring oneself to stability and to set down roots that will just be yanked up again when it’s time to move on. Once this house is sold, it will be time again for us to decide how different we want our lives to be; maybe I’ll surprise myself and actually do something that takes courage and requires risk, provided my wife is willing to take the ride.