My brother used to say, “if you’re going to be particular, you’d better be specific.” I had forgotten how much I loved the phrase until I heard it repeated at his eulogy. I’m not sure it’s meant to be, but I think it’s a profoundly beautiful statement. It grants permission to be particular in your desires while also demanding you to take ownership of the steps necessary to obtain them.
Sitting in the front row of my brother’s funeral at the age of 37, it occurred to me that I’d been doing it all wrong. Since I was a child, I’d had a very particular sense of how I wanted my life to be. Full of beauty and wonder and unbridled curiosity. But I’d had no specific plan for how I might create such a thing. Like casting a fishing line, I would shoot out in various directions hoping it would yield results. It seldom did. More often than not, I ended up with an old boot or fallen tree limb or broken rod.
I erroneously believed that wanting a thing was all that was necessary to having it. Not surprisingly, I spent much of my early adulthood befuddled and dismayed. And then, suddenly, half of my life was behind me.
I was born in 1982 and raised squarely across the landscape of the 80’s and 90’s. My childhood was bumpered by televangelists and Disney fairytales- the old and politically incorrect kind where a poor girl with a heartbreaking amount of hidden potential, while doing nothing more than scrubbing floors, was suddenly recognized for all her brilliance by a white guy on a brave horse, plucked out of her life of obscurity, and delivered to a more meaningful existence full of mansions, fancy clothes, and global recognition. I literally, actually, believed this was how one met the man of their dreams. Anytime I found myself doing dishes, I was certain some dashing, slightly broody hero was covertly peering through my kitchen window to observe my selfless labor (and the way my hair fell across my cheek as I tilted my head toward the discarded pile of uneaten lasagna floating in the sink). My future dreams would be realized through a trespassing stalker.
I took to heart every classroom poster that said, “be anything you want to be,” or “dream,” or “believe and succeed.” These sentiments were inevitably accompanied by pictures of mountain peaks, open fields, and luscious wildflowers, as though a hard hike or a contemplative stroll through nature were the only necessary ingredients to success. I do not recall any posters explaining that I would need to plot a clear destination point and subsequently educate myself on every hard-working step it would take to arrive there. It is a wonder anyone in my generation made something of their lives.
Church didn’t help matters. The God I was raised on was akin to a divine Santa Claus; if you were really good and wanted a thing hard enough, he would make it happen. It was all a matter of discipline. The problem was, I struggled to be good and, like Santa- who frequently seemed to take issue with my Christmas list- God failed to present me with my dreams-come-true when I stepped into my adult life. I eventually concluded that Santa was a fraud and God didn’t love me. Neither of those convictions moved my life forward, but at least I had some resolution.
I can’t really blame God (or Santa), because the truth is, I never actually articulated what my dreams were. What I wanted my life to look like was inextricably tied to who I wanted to be, and who I wanted to be was inextricably tied to an inarticulable series of beliefs around self-worth, and love, and belonging, and goodness, all of which I was not yet aware. I only knew who I didn’t want to be, and that was: 1. The kind of person who hurt others 2. The kind who lacked empathy 3. The kind who valued things more than people 4. The kind who forgot the profound, incalculable beauty of life.
I had no language by which to guide the process of not being. Every day I woke with a peculiar sense of disorientation, as though I had been freshly delivered into my body and was not quite sure what my operating instructions were. I was waiting to feel as though I owned my own life. As though I had finally become whoever it was I was meant to be.
I write this as I turn the corner on 40. It is only recently, in this last year before middle age, that I have realized… this is it. Whatever my life has been until this point is my actual life… and will continue to be unless or until I intentionally create something different. All these years, I had been waiting for it to start. Meanwhile, it is halfway over. What kind of trickery is that?
But here’s the real revelation. The person I am today is the person I am going to be tomorrow, to varying degrees of betterness or worseness. Modern culture talks a lot about becoming, as though we will one day embody some perfected, ephemeral version of ourselves. I don’t love that idea. To become simply means to begin to be. And to be simply means to exist. How can we begin to do something that began the day we were born?
Perhaps what we really mean to say is that we are at the beginning of our existence. That we are learning the lessons necessary to fully and authentically inhabit our own lives. To begin to be. To be. Be. Just Be. I guess Nike was the one fourth-grade poster I should have listened to.
The crux of it is that we are taught it all in backwards order. What those fourth-grade posters were getting at, and what our culture presents to us the day we are born, is that in order to be (happy, fulfilled, successful, etc.), we must first have (career, money, house, marriage, kids, dog, etc.), and in order to have, we must first do (study, compete, strive, etc.). We do so we can have so we can be. But the truth of it is, we can only learn what we should do when we have first learned to be– to hear and honor our own voice. It is the being that informs the doing and the doing that informs the having. It’s an idea as old as time, touted by philosophers ancient and new. Yet still, humanity insists on learning it the hard way.
I spent much of my adulthood building myself around the vision of the life I thought I was supposed to want, according to Disney and whatever other influence had bled into my psyche.
Now, as I learn to be present to the voice within me- to simply be- I am more able to accept and love the life that I have now. I am able to recall the particulars… the beautiful elements of curiosity and wonder and awe…. that were once so important to me and that reflect who I truly am. More importantly, I am able to identify the necessary specifics to create space for those particulars within my life.
The Specifically Particular Guide to a Wild and Wondrous Life is an exploration of the lessons I’ve learned to get here, the lessons I desire to learn in the future, and the lessons that I hope you, dear reader, will share with me. Welcome to the adventure!