It’s an ordinary Wednesday, lunchtime, on an escalator. I head up and down this escalator countless times a week, and don’t really pay much attention to where I’m going. Up and down. Down and up. In between the jumble of multi-tasking that goes on in my brain, on this particular day, a Talking Heads song burst forth and quieted the noise.
“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful
And you may ask yourself-Well…How did I get here?”
On this day, I had a sudden freeze-frame moment. I saw myself, a girl wearing non-descript black pants and sensible heels. Green sweater, ponytail. A girl, on an escalator, thinking about a job that she used to like a little bit, that she now hates and feels trapped by. A lawyer, on an escaltor, a banking and finance lawyer that doesn’t understand banking and finance. A girl, on an escalator, that lives on a lovely, tree-lined street and has a baby, a black lab and an SUV. A girl on an escalator in a big city, but not an important one. A girl with a good life, an enviable life. An ordinary life. An ordinary girl, with an ordinary job, in an ordinary city.
And some days, I am grateful for ordinary. I am lucky, and blessed to have an extraordinary baby and husband. We both have good jobs, and live in a great neighborhood, with neighbors we actually know. We are healthy and don’t want for much. I watch the news at night, and look over at my husband and think, Thank God. Thank God for him, and for O, and for our life together.
“And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself
MY GOD!…WHAT HAVE I DONE?
But. There’s always a but, isn’t there? I didn’t want an ordinary life growing up. I wanted a super-sized, extra-ordinary life. I wanted magic. I found a journal recently, one that I kept in my early 20’s, when I was living in California and was perpetually searching. Searching for the perfect job, the perfect boy, the perfect life, searching for who I was or was going to be. I had no idea what that meant, or what I wanted, but I had some pretty definite ideas about what that did NOT mean.
And this particular entry said “I don’t know what I want, but I do know that I DON’T want to be a lawyer or doctor, and I don’t want a big house with a white picket fence. I want more.” As I read these words, words sent across time from young me to not as young me, I was 8 months pregnant, a lawyer, and I had just moved into our big white house. It doesn’t have a white picket fence, but it might as well. How things change.
I chose this ordinary life. I got to a point, in my search for the un-ordinary, when I craved ordinary. I was anchor-less, adrift, going nowhere. There was no captain of my ship. I was 28, living pay check to pay check, with no real career to speak of. I wanted a house. I wanted someone to grow up with, grow old with. I though I might want the options of kids someday. I didn’t see any of that on the horizon, at least not from where I was sitting.
I decided to make the ordinary life happen. I moved back to Texas, went to law school. I met an amazing guy, was smart enough to marry him. I got a job working at a big national law firm, making craploads of money. Living in LA since I was 18, ordinary was refreshing to me. I felt like a girl in a movie who was mistaken for someone else and liked it, and let people assume she belonged. Though knowing all along that one day the jig would be up, that her real self would show up one day.
On that escalator, I had a Sliding Doors moment, my two futures passing each other. I saw the young girl I was, dreaming of extraordinary, saw the life that she didn’t give up on, passing the girl who gave it up for ordinary, for safe, for love. The two futures passed, and collided in the one present that exists.
So would I be here anyways? Did fate bring me here, or did my choices lead me here?
I think about this a lot. I tend to believe in fate. I tend to believe that things unfold in certain ways, ways that we can’t always understand and ways that we can’t see. If you get out of fate’s way, sometimes you get exactly what you need. There are certain things in my life, that I’m not willing to share about and that you probably don’t care about anyways, that I believe will happen. And for the most part, they’ve happened.
On the other hand, I strongly believe that you have to take control of your life, that you have to make choices and choose paths and not wait for someone to do it for you. I used to get paralyzed by making decisions, committing things, because of this tension between fate vs. choice.
Do I choose or do I let fate take its course?
When I moved back to Texas and went to law school, the plan was to move to NYC or back to LA and do entertainment law. Which would make sense, as that was my background, and it was a language that I spoke fluently. But I didn’t do that. I let myself float. I didn’t actively try to move to NYC or back to California. I let life happen. I dropped my resume at big Texas firms, because it was easier to stay there for the summer. I got a few offers, clerked, enjoyed it well enough. I clerked in real estate and was surprised when I wasn’t totally bored. For the first time, I actually understood what my father and his friends were talking about. I got a thrill out of doing something so practical and smart and well, ordinary. It felt good. So I went with it. Got a job offer that was too much money to turn down. The boyfriend (not yet the husband) got a job in Texas too.
As I let myself fall into this life, I can’t say I didn’t have doubts that this would happen one day, that I would wake up and say “How did I get here?” I’ve always known that my real self would perk up and say “Remember me?” I hoped that being a real estate lawyer would be enough. I’m not surprised that it’s not.
So I’m left wondering. Fate? Or an ordinary prison of my own making? I certainly chose this life, by NOT going after what I really wanted to do. Inaction is as much of a choice as action. But isn’t that where fate swoops in? If it’s fate, then it didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, this is where I would end up anyways, right? Asking myself “how did I get here?”
I don’t think there is an answer, or at least one that matters much. I can play the fate vs. free will game all night, going round and round. It won’t change where I am. And I’m not so sure I would change any of it. I wouldn’t change my husband or my son. I wouldn’t change a single decision that led me to them. Even if I knew that I was choosing between an extraordinary life and an ordinary one. I will choose an ordinary life with them, over an extraordinary one without them, everytime.
I like to think of it this way. In the best circumstances, fate and free will synch up perfectly. If you are true to yourself, and make decisions based on what you really want, fate does lead you to where you are supposed to be. But if you just sit around, refusing to be bold and take action, refusing to choose because you believe fate will lead you, well, fate is going to deliver you one hell of a lesson.
For me, I let myself be carried by something that was not authentic to me. I let myself play a part that was not meant for me and I knew all along it wasn’t right. And the gig is up.
On the other hand, who is to say that this isn’t exactly where I need to be in order to make this writing thing happen? That had I not chosen ordinary, perhaps I would have been satisfied with my career and not needed something more? That had I stayed in LA or moved to NYC, I would be living an exciting life filled with wondrous restaurants and sparkling happy hours and sophisticated dinner parties and not have time or the desire to write?
Clearly I won’t be settling this debate anytime soon. So what do you think? Fate? Free will? Do we choose our own destiny, or are some things just meant to be?
The end of the song goes something like this, which I think is a pretty good answer…
“time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us
time isn’t holding us, time doesn’t hold you back
time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us…”
Songtrack to this post: Once In A Lifetime, The Talking Heads.
Poem: Invictus by William Ernest Henley