In her latter years, my mother used to ask that a lot.Â I never knew what Â to say, so I usually said something trite like “We still need you here.” Â At which she would click her tongue against her teeth the way she did when I disagreed with her politics.
What was she asking, I wondered. Â Did she still dream of unrealized ambitions in her nineties? Â I always found the question unsettling and frankly, a little annoying.
But now that there are many more birthdays behind than before me, I think I get it. Â I think she wasÂ reflecting over her long life and trying to make sense of it. Â And I find myself doingÂ the same. Â Â What has my life meant? Â At the finish line, will I be able to say I haveÂ Â Â “fought the good fight” ? Â Â Did I miss my “calling,” my high purpose?Â Â The olympic swimmer, Â the nuns of Calcutta, the Nobel Laureate, the musical prodigy; Â they had a calling, didn’t they? Â AÂ custom madeÂ life-suit, Â into which they fit perfectly. Â Their one true path. Â Is there one for me?
In my early life, I was sure of it.Â Â Â My life would be exciting, full of high purpose, awe-inspiring. Â Â Unlike my mother’s. Â Especially, not like my mother’s.
Mind you, my mother Â was not a slacker. She was a strong and intelligent woman; a school teacher, an avid reader, a seamstress and amazing gardener. Â She make great chicken and dumplings and rhubarb pie. She survivedÂ two husbands and lived independently for 92+ of her 93 years.
But. Â She never wrote a book, climbed a mountain, ran a corporation (or a marathon) Â or held public office. Â For most of her life she lived in the same community. Â To my impatient, arrogantÂ 18-year-old eyes, her life lookedÂ mundane, Â aimless, pointless even. Â Not mine, I vowed. Â I would Â setÂ goals for myself and goÂ about achieving them. Â Simple as that.
But it didn’t quite work out that way.Â Â MyÂ path took unexpectedÂ twists and Â turns. Â Â ItÂ didn’t Â lead steadily Â to aÂ nobleÂ destination, but instead Â wound Â through brambles, tangled ravines and rocky boulders. Â I ran, I Â stumbled, Â I climbed, I Â tripped, Â I fell and I recovered, Â with varying degrees of grace.
Admittedly, onÂ its surface,Â Â my life looks radically different from that of my mother. Â I left home at an early age, attended Â universities in distant states, Â managed a demanding career, Â travelled the world; accumulated a modicum of recognition for my work. Â But at its core,Â Â like my mother’s, my lifeÂ was made of the usual stuff;Â Â education, career, marriage, children,Â retirement. Â And my path, like hers, was not the work of destiny, but the result of choices.
And Â my path has Â led me…. here. Not to a mountaintop and not to a swamp. Â As it did my mother.
It’s tempting toÂ Â fall for the “one true thing” Â pitch. Â The idea that Â we are Â entitled toÂ Â the one true love, the one perfect career, the one true happily-ever-after is very appealing. Â And perhaps it is true for some. Â But my life didn’t Â come with a blueprint; I made choices, sometimes wisely, sometimes foolishly, that in the aggregate defined my path. Â I wasn’t always sure of my choices,Â Â and Â theyÂ didn’t always lead to the mountaintop.
IfÂ I could answer my motherÂ Â now, I would reassureÂ herÂ that she didn’t miss her calling. Â Like me, she simply made choices that led her to her destination. Â And Â at the end of the day, it was not our accomplishments, as my teenage self thought, Â butÂ the accumulation of our everyday thoughts and actions that defined us. Both of us.