Reclaiming Wife: On Goals & Growing Up

This week, I’m heading down to Palm Springs, to go to Camp Mighty and think about life goals. Camp Mighty is the bigger, public, offshoot of Mighty Summit, the conference for women leaders in media that I attended last September. It’s been a crazy, exhausting, enormous year, and I’m really ready to go on a retreat to do some thinking about my life and about where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going. I’m planning on having some drinks by the pool and taking some naps, if we’re being honest. I’m really looking forward to some quality time with other smart women (and ok, men, too) discussing how we want to change and take control of our lives. But I’m not just wanting to think about taking control of my life (arguably, I’ve done enough of that). I also want to talk about the way surrendering to the bigger picture is powerful, powerful stuff.

To get ready for the retreat, I spent last week going over my Life List. To understand my massive list obsession, you need to go back a little bit. The first blog I ever read was Superhero Journal, starting in very very early 2002. I read it every single day, and Andrea’s five-years-plus ahead of me point of view helped me muddle through the tangle that was my early 20s. (I’m pretty sure everyone’s early 20s is a tangle of figuring out what you want, who you are, and what you’re good at… and that particular state of confusion was not limited just to me.) So in 2004, when Andrea first suggested the idea of Mondo Beyondo lists, I was in. I took a piece of paper and wrote down every dream that I could think of, that I really, really wanted. Now, as a 24-year-old flat broke, New York City artist type, these goals seemed huge and impossible to me. Go to Europe? With $800 in the bank? Not likely. Move to San Francisco? Not in reach. Have a career working for myself and running a creative business? I knew it was the perfect blend of my skills, and my heart’s desire, but I had no clear way to get there from where I was.

But I wrote down the goals. And now, in 2011, it’s not just that all but two of those impossible goals have been crossed off, it’s that the goals now look like an outline for my life: live in San Francisco, get married, start a blog, run a creative business. So, long ago, I discovered the power of lists. And then in March 2008, just one week before I got engaged, Maggie Mason of Mighty Girl posted her list of “100 Things To Do Before I Go,” and I was hooked. So I played around. I expanded my list. I worked with David as part of our pre-martial counseling exercises to come up with a joint list, our ambition squared list. And right after we checked “get married” off our lists, we checked off “drink whiskey in Scotland” for our honeymoon.

Which brings me back to last week when I was curled up, updating my list.

Different people work different ways. But as someone who is a hyper do-er and always has approximately one jillian things on her plate, I’m not fantastically interested in letting my Mondo BeyondoLife List become yet another string of things I have to do. So every year, I take a crack at updating it, and then I tuck it in a drawer, where I basically don’t look at it for a year.

So last week, I was going through my list. My plan was to add new goals, but as I went through it, I realized I needed to check off things I’d done. So I started crossing things out. And crossing things out. And crossing things out. First, I realized that out of 100 items on my list, I’d done 46. FORTY SIX. Then, I realized that I had done 26 of those things in the last year. TWENTY FREAKING SIX THINGS. And these were not small things, mind you. They were huge things. Quitting my job to work for myself, writing a book, taking a last minute trip, going to Mexico, watching my husband argue a major criminal case, swinging on the trapeze, going to the Greek Islands, drinking tea in Turkey.

(Which felt like flying, by the way. The big goals always feel like flying, once you push through the terror and get it done.)

So I started thinking about how on earth I could get that many things done in a year. And I started really trying to figure out why these lists work for me in the first damn place and what about the transition to married life has put me in hyper drive.

And this was the best I could come up with. For me, the darkest, scariest times in my adulthood have been when I had no idea what I wanted, not when I had no idea how to get what I wanted. I remember being at my lowest point my junior year of college because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my experimental theatre education, or where I even wanted to live. By the time September 2001 had clobbered me over the head and changed my life forever, I knew that I wanted to stay in New York and work in theatre. I was terrified, not having an apartment or a job two months before I had to move out of my dorm, but I remember telling someone, “I don’t know where I’m going to land, but I figure you have to land somewhere, right?” And I was right. You do.

I was at a place of existential dread when I knew I needed to leave theatre, but I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do with my life. I was 27 and prone to wandering around my apartment muttering, “So much potential, wasted.” But by the time I knew that I wanted to leave my corporate job to be a professional blogger and write a book, I was miserable, but I knew that selling and writing a book was a series of steps, and I just had to do them (even if I didn’t have much time to sleep in the meantime). And doing things was something I knew I could master.

So for me, I think these lists work because they make me do the hard and terrifying work of identifying what I want to do, and they make me be brave enough to write them down on paper. And once you know what you want, there is a lot less magic to it than you’d think. After you know, you just have to figure out How To Get It Done, and go after those dreams like a motherf*cker. Dreams don’t come true any other way than massive amounts of work. The magic is in the dreaming them up and claiming them as yours.

Which brings me back to the whole marriage thing. I’ve talked before about how getting married launched me into the realm of ambition squared, and about how choosing a life together made me serious about consciously choosing, well, a life. But I think, maybe, it’s a little more than that. I said once long ago (though I’ll be damned if I can find the link) that you can be a grown up without being married, but you can’t be married without being a grown up. And recently commenter Edelweiss emailed me and said, “I read an archived post yesterday because one of you brilliantly connected it to one of the grad posts. Being lazy, I tried searching for the words ‘growing up.’ I got a bijillion results. I’m sure you’ve all already realized you’re really talking about growing up here through the common ritual that marks adulthood. But it was the first time I realized concretely that people love the Reclaiming Wife posts and Meg’s personal updates and the comment threads not just because it relates to being a healthy partner in a marriage, but because our generation doesn’t have a cultural script to follow for all the periods of life where we are expected to redefine ourselves.”

And that, I think, is it. Marriage is a huge transition, and in talking about the transition of marriage, what we are really talking about is what it means to grow up. And for me it means about what I said after I turned 30, a year and a half ago, “I know what I want, more or less, which is huge. I spend less of my energy stressing out about basic survival and money. I’m fairly financially secure, I’ve got a pretty serious and wide ranging skill set. And while I don’t have exactly what I want, I’m willing to fight hard for it. And I think, really, that’s what living the f*ck out of my 30s is going to look like. Fighting for it.”

And that’s what growing up has meant for me. Thinking long and hard about what’s working and what’s not, putting down on paper what I want, and then putting every fiber of my being into getting it. So I’m looking forward to pondering that a little more this weekend.

And also, frankly, to lying by the pool. Because sometimes surrendering to what the world has in store for you is the most important part of finding happiness. And I’m down for that too.

Pictures: My five goals for the year, in Greece; Drinking Tea in Turkey (Personal for A Practical Wedding)

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