The Life I Signed Up For
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Third Degree of Freedom .
Is this the life we signed up for? Maybe the life we signed up for before we incarnated this go-round, but it’s not what we aimed for in high school, and that’s often where our expectations are created.
Every May, I love reading the high school graduation edition of my hometown newspaper back in Georgia. They still print the senior photos and a list of students, their parents, and their post-high school aspirations. Talk about fantasy! Older and wiser now, I find it sad, amusing, and optimistic to see their wild hopes and dreams in print.
I think back to my own graduating class, and it’s not much different from now. My class had its share of wanna-be senators, college professors, aspiring billionaires, and the next rock star or country music star. Oh, and me, of course. The “famous writer.” In my spare time…at least I got that part right!
What we got instead? Substitute teachers, ticket-takers at theme parks, department store clerks, and waitresses. And Bohemian types like me who had to settle into the restraints of a staid career that would put food on the table for the family.
For most of us, life didn’t turn out as expected. And for next year’s graduating class, it won’t as well.
In the exhilaration and innocence of youth, we overestimate our importance and what we’ll be able to change in the world. And then after we’ve been shattered a few times and grown weary of picking up the pieces, we underestimate our importance and what we’ll be able to change in the world. It all seems so hopeless, so useless. Like we can’t win, no matter what we do or how hard we try.
All those long-haired teen boys I adored with their lanky jeans and late-70’s garage bands—the boys who dreamed of a future full of money and girls and, most of all, complete and utter freedom—they face their middle-age with a bitter taste in their mouths if not a full head of hair. The women didn’t stay. The fame—if there was any—was fleeting. They didn’t make their first million by the age of 25 and worse, they’re not as far along now as they’d thought they’d be in their careers or their family or their lives, and now they’re starting to gray and there’s always someone younger and more ambitious to compete against. And they’re wondering what the point is, when back in high school, it all seemed so easy and so attainable if they only worked for it…if they had to work for it at all.
A friend in her twenties recently told me her “life plans.” She—like me years ago!—had every year mapped out. Which advanced degrees to study for while she completes a year off with pay from our employer (yeah, right…snicker). Marry next year, even though she has no boyfriend and not a preferred candidate in sight. First child by 30. Take time off from work again to stay with child at home for the first year while she patents a new thingamajig because babies sleep and she’ll be able to get plenty done (yes, I’m still laughing over that one). Then she’ll continue to work out of her home office and her husband will, of course, be very successful at whatever profession he’s in and make lots of money, and he’ll launch his own business around the time they’re both 35 with the intention that they’ll retire rich at 40 and travel the world with three kids in tow.
When I grinned and said nothing, she responded, “Well, at least I have a plan!” She meant, “…unlike you.”
She didn’t know me in my teen years or in my twenties when I had the same kind of map she does now. I always loved to plan. Not just for the rainy day, but for everything about life.
My planning for things meant I got a lot done. A lot.
As for my friend, someone had asked her what she planned to do with her life and I’d suddenly found the question irrepressibly funny. The best-laid plans, and all that. I think I said something about planning our lives not being possible because we don’t have control over our lives, we just think we do. My 20-something friend had disagreed wholeheartedly. In fact, she’d gone into an unbecoming rage about how well-planned her life was and how she was in control, goddamnit, and she’ll make things happen the way she wants. We weren’t talking about quantum physics or What the Bleep? either. We were talking about control over the uncontrollable forces of life and death around us. And she doesn’t even believe in witchcraft.
I pissed her off further by suggesting she give me a call when she hits her 40’s and we’ll talk.
Back in high school, my own dreams for the future were a dichotomy. I loved music and wanted to write songs, but I felt pushed to be a church musician or a concert pianist because that was my mother’s dream and one I had to pry loose.
Me, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write things that would change the world. I let the dream get lost in the plan, though. There was always a plan to write, write, write, but other things had to be set in motion before it became a priority or a full-time job. I was extremely prolific but I felt I had to get established first. I couldn’t just write. I had to have a regular profession, be a businesswoman, establish some financial momentum, and then I could write. I could write my heart out in my spare time, but I had to keep the day job to plan for the future. If only, I felt, if only I could sell five books in a row to my big-time publisher, then I’d have a steady foundation of royalties coming in to replace my non-writing income and I could quit my day job and write full-time because I could produce…and I could produce four to six novels a year and I could make a steady and progressive living off my writing, but I needed that launching point. Now the market’s in the dumps and print runs that used to be in the 100,000 range have fallen from the 50,000 range last year and are now closer to 10,000 and fiction sales have dropped inexplicably to the point where many commercial author friends of mine who turn out four books a year can no longer afford to write for the industry giants and have taken up waitressing instead. The launching point I was waiting for never came and probably never will now because life intruded on my plans.
So my plans in high school and my plans throughout my 20’s and my plans in my 30’s—all good strategies—didn’t work out. But the dream hasn’t changed. The dream and the plan are not the same thing. The plan is there to help make the dream happen, but the dream has happened anyway. I am a writer. I write things that entertain, that educate, that enlighten, and when I’m very, very in touch with Spirit, things that change people’s lives. I haven’t made a million at it. I don’t make a living doing it. The kind of books that I’m most impressed upon now to write aren’t even considered commercial, but they do feel sacred. The money’s not in what I want to do, but then, money’s important to me not for the prestige or the power or the image but only for the freedom it can buy—freedom to create, to experience, to love, to be. Authors who survive off their words and feed their children off their words sneer when I say that, as if it diminishes them somehow, but then this is my truth and not theirs.
The most life-changing things I’ve written to date have been the least-selling. Much of it, I put online for free, such as the “Grief Book,” as everyone calls it. Yet, I am paid in the emails and notes I receive, the touching words wrung from other hearts that tell me how my book changed their lives forever or gave them hope or gave them courage or gave them comfort. Or made them realize that they aren’t crazy after all. I can’t eat those notes or pay the mortgage with them, so I keep my day job. Not exactly the plan I developed for my life back when I was in high school.
But as for my high school dream of being a writer, I’m there.