I think it’s time for another story.
Four years before I was born, my oldest sister died of leukemia. She was eight.
I was born into a family with History. And a very different perspective than probably most of yours. Adding to that History and that Perspective, a year after Patty died, my sister Eileen was born. She had Down Syndrome.
Now, when you ask just about any expectant parent if they want a boy or a girl, most of them will smile and say “I don’t care, just so long as the baby’s healthy.” Meaning not just born without a cold, but with all the fingers and toes in the right place, the requisite number of chromosomes and not one more. Which is as it should be. We want our children to get the best start in life. We wouldn’t wish extra challenges or disabilities on anyone.
And yet I am the person I am today because I was lucky enough to have Eileen for my sister. She taught me compassion and joy and the importance of a really great pair of shoes. I learned different definitions of success and failure from her. I learned not to hold back my joy or my affection.
She had an ability to focus on the good that still takes my breath away.
Life was not easy for Eileen. People are not always kind. But she scolded the people who needed scolding, ignored those who were not worth her time and loved the rest of us fiercely and well.
A child with a disability is not what any parent would choose. We would avoid that, as we would avoid illness and unemployment. We plan for our interpretation of the best and call it a success when we get there.
And yet it’s the times that life sandbags us that we see what we can truly become. Or what others can truly become for us. It’s the wabi-sabi people with their wabi-sabi lives who make this a world worth living in.
I would never choose those moments of crisis and grief. No one would. You make plans for happy Christmas dinners and great vacations, not gathering the family in hospital corridors or down at the police station.
And yet without these moments we are nothing. We are merely successes.
It’s not that I don’t make plans, that I don’t try to move my life in directions that seem like a good idea to me. I apply for good jobs. This week alone, I’ve been a job-applying machine. And if any one of those tantalizing possibilities works out, then yay me! There are times when I can rock a To Do list with the best of them.
Making plans and getting things done are fine, are great. They’re what you do to fill the time between the really big adventures. But life sends you opportunities, moments that strip away your defences and your successes, that leave you wide open and heart-broken and amazed. And it seems to me the height of arrogance to think that my plans, my ideas for how life should be are wiser than that, are wise enough to rely on.
Eileen died thirteen years ago. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and miss her. I’m still learning the lessons that she taught me. And she is probably why I cannot ever fully get behind any kind of lifestyle design/productivity/reach for the stars stuff. People say that your life is of your making and I hear Eileen’s gleeful snort of laughter.
Yes, you CAN build your ideal life, but no matter how big your dreams, I think it will still be a small life. You can ask: what do I want my life to be? But what if life is wiser than you?