My sister and I used to play the Milton-Bradley board game Life, moving a plastic car along the predetermined path (adding pink or blue pegs to represent spouse and kids), and marking the “mileposts” of American living by paying or collecting money for various events. I suppose this game is intended to represent how life is “supposed” to proceed—go to college, get a job, marry, buy a house, buy insurance, buy stocks, get a dog, get a promotion, fix your roof, pay off student loans, pay property taxes, pay income taxes, pay for kids’ education… And eventually retire—either to the Poor Farm or to the Millionaires’ Estates…
In retrospect, it’s not a very interesting game. A player’s individual outcome depends entirely on the spin of the wheel (and the specific “events” on which the plastic car lands), rather than resulting from any choices or actions on the player’s part. What is interesting about this game (again, in retrospect) is the picture it paints of American assumptions—specifically, the events that are expected to compose a Life. (That, and the fact that a player’s success is ultimately measured in money.)
I didn’t question those expectations as a kid counting board-game squares with a game-piece populated by pink-and-blue pegs, and still wasn’t questioning them when I turned thirty. After all, I seemed to be squarely set on that standardized and circumscribed track—complete with husband, house, and a pair of “pegs” (one pink, one blue) in the back seat of my minivan… But this week (my 40th birthday!) I find myself reflecting on the unexpected twists my life has taken in the course of the last decade.
Ten years ago I probably imagined I could write my life-story, at least in its outlines, all the way to the end without waiting to live it. I didn’t foresee any drastic deviations from the proscribed path, and that vision didn’t vary much from the Milton-Bradley version. But God, in his infinite wisdom and humor, had other ideas. (As my A.A. Sponsor says: “If you want to make God laugh… Make PLANS!”) Instead of the conventional course I had calculated, my map of the last decade consists of curves and curlicues, spirals and swivels, U-turns and dead ends and leaps of Faith… I have definitely departed from the predestined path of the presumptive game-board.
I’ve been entertaining myself today by imagining a game-board re-write to reflect the reality of my thirties. It’s altogether a richer journey than my designs of a decade ago, but not at all what I’d imagined… Here’s what some of the squares would say in a “Kana” edition of Life…
[We begin at Thirty, with stay-home-Motherhood and two small children...]
- You hit your limit on watching Sesame Street and decide to get back in the (outside-the-home) workforce. Take a full-time job teaching English and science for the state-sponsored online high school.
- Spend a week aboard a sailboat in the San Juan Islands, earning your sailboat Skipper’s Papers. Charter a sailboat Christmas week in the British Virgin Islands with two small sailors-in-training.
- Defend your Master’s Thesis in Creative Writing and publish some poetry. Discover that you prefer writing nonfiction! (Although your Master’s program doesn’t offer a “nonfiction” emphasis, this bit of self-knowledge will come in handy down the road, with the invention of the Blog!)
- Move into an administrative job as Curriculum Director for Idaho’s online high school. Fly around the country giving presentations, publish academic articles, co-author a book chapter, and establish a national reputation in your field.
- Move out of your house and your marriage and reimagine yourself as a Single Mom.
Take your first-ever solo vacation: another live-aboard sailing week to earn advanced sailing certifications.
- Buy a house of your own, to be christened “The Gingerbread House” by your kids. Demonstrate to your kids (and to yourself) that you can mow your own lawn, change your own flat tire, and generally Take Care of Things by yourself.
- As Taking Care of Things takes its toll, your alcoholic tendencies get increasingly out of hand. You get sent home from work and suspended, pending a review by the Board of Directors after a month of outpatient rehab treatment.
- Having been given a generous second chance at the job, you blow it almost immediately and get sent home again, this time with a termination letter.
- Go to jail for Driving Under the Influence. (Do not pass “Go,” definitely do not collect $200. There is no get-out-of-jail-free card.) Embark on a year with suspended license (get to know the public bus routes!) and brace yourself for two years of Probation and peeing-in-cups.
Two days before Christmas, call your ex and ask him to take the kids so you can check yourself into an inpatient rehab center. Spend the evening building a gingerbread house with your kids and then drop them off with their Christmas presents. The artificial Christmas tree will never make it out of the box.
- Check yourself into Rehab, subject yourself to a strip-search and confiscation of your toiletries (including feminine hygiene products—although why you need to be protected from those is a mystery). Meet the Old Hawai’ian Guy, introduced by the ward-nurse as “the guy who takes care of everybody.” Engage him in a gripe-session about having to ask a male nurse for your “female supplies;” because this is your first-ever conversation with him, he will dub you “The Maxi-Pad Lady.” Spend Christmas day constructing the exact same gingerbread house you just built with your kids, playing badminton in the hospital cafeteria, and singing a karaoke duet (with the Old Guy) of the Beach Boys’ Kokomo. Fall asleep clutching your childhood teddy bear, hating Rehab, and missing your kids.
Check out of Rehab several weeks later with no earthly idea what to do with your life. Offer to rent a room to the Old Hawai’ian, who needs a new place. Begin addressing the “what-next” question as a team. Get your first tattoo: a honu (turtle) with the Hawai’ian words Huaka’i Kapono—a reference to Recovery that translates loosely as “Spiritual Journey.” Realize that you love Ink.
- After five months of fruitless job-hunting (your impressive resume no longer being worth the paper it’s printed on in the field for which you trained), you beg your parents for a business-start-up loan to open a Hawai’ian BBQ restaurant with your Hawai’ian Guy. Your parents are blessedly willing to believe in you despite yourself, your recent history, and your lack of business background (or, for that matter, kitchen skills; your mother had already given up on you in this regard when she sent you off to college with a cookbook titled “How to Boil an Egg”)…
- Creativity, Desperation, and Determination seem to make for a workable business plan. Several months after opening, your new restaurant holds a top spot in the BBQ category of UrbanSpoon, and you begin catching up on your bills.
- Call your Sister and your Guy’s best friend on a Monday night and ask them to meet you at the courthouse before work the next morning. Marry your Hawai’ian with those two cherished witnesses, and then head over to open your restaurant for the day.
- Enjoy the restaurant’s success, and family life, for a year before throwing everything away (not “losing it”—throwing it away) by picking up the bottle again. Your house goes into foreclosure, car repossessed, business gone, and (WORST!) you lose your share of custody of your kids.
- Sober up again, find a trailer to live in, eke a living by freelance writing, and fight your way back to the most important thing: time with your kids. Learn how to blog. Find joy in writing, and in simple things that don’t require money. Practice gratitude. Remember, in this round of Recovery, to continue nurturing your marriage and praying with your husband—things that helped you both to stay Sober before.
- After a couple years of bartering and scrounging and scraping by, your husband ages enough to cash in his retirement account (from the career he crashed-and-burned through drinking), and that it’s enough to re-open the restaurant. Immerse yourself for a year and a half in a second round of (successful) restauranteuring… And then remember again, just before your 40th birthday, that you love to write, and “dust off” your dormant blog…
I suppose it’s a common enough (if self-indulgent) urge to take stock of your life when you hit a birthday ending with a zero… And I wonder if it’s also common for people to find themselves shaking their heads at the unexpectedness of their path so far. I’m betting it’s far more common than a “Life” boardgame (or a million other cultural and media messages) would have us believe. (And I’m damned sure that “more money” doesn’t constitute an automatic win.)
Sure, some of the events of the last decade are things I hadn’t yet planned at 30, but they at least fit with my ideas about myself (like the career in online teaching & the move to administration). But there are so many more things that I never, never would have believed (at 30) a part of my future. Divorce. Arrest. Career termination. Academic failure. And that “unexpected” category includes the positive twists as well; I would have laughed my ass off at anybody who foretold I’d own a restaurant!
If I’ve become any wiser in the last ten years, it’s a simple matter of acknowledging the Journey. I accept now that God’s plans are better than mine; that even trials and tough spots can contribute to growth and joy; and that (even when I think I have a plan) I truly have no idea what’s in store for me on the road still to come. Today, I’ll focus on today’s segment of the Journey, and whatever it brings. Huaka’i Kapono.