When I was small I wanted to be a lawyer, writer, actress, neurologist, and a baker of many fluffy vanilla cakes. It had never occurred to me that I couldn’t be all of these things at any given time — the word impossible was foreign to me. Children build beautiful kingdoms that adults find ways of ruining with their reason, cynicism, and age. And the once stalwart kingdoms become impenetrable walls we build for ourselves. We cloak ourselves in the familiar and the known, and all that childhood beauty falls way to doubt and fear.
We start out believing we could do everything until we say, well, maybe we can do these three things. We mock that wide-eyed openness and arms outstretched. We say things like, stop acting like a child, as if wonder is something we have to abandon as we age. We’re desperate to get older, to posture and collect years like trading cards until we realize we’ve compartmentalized beauty. All that’s left are pragmatism and reason.
I believe in a life in three acts — the middle is where we make a mess of things and the third is our passage to return to that from which we’ve come. There’s a different kind of wisdom and wonder that comes from the tacit acceptance that we have fewer years ahead. I think about this a lot as I’m still stuck in the betweens, that messy second act. I’ve been in three-decades of the I Can’t Do That, There’s No Time For That, and Why Would I Start Over training programs, and it’s only recently that I’ve stepped back and said, quietly, why not that? Why not return to that kingdom, the mess of children in the wet streets of summer running every which way, but really they’re moving toward what moves them. What makes them happy and whole. There’s something tactile and immediate in that, and it’s something that puts my heart on pause.
For most of my life, I was a wearer of masks. There was the overachieving student, the ambitious writer, and the career executive. All of the masks carried the weight of perfection. The stakes became higher. You didn’t send out manuscripts to editors unless they were polished. You didn’t go on an all-night bender before an exam. You kept your grief out of the workplace and replaced it with a smiling mannequin of yourself, a waxed facsimile of the pained original.
You made calculated, informed risks. You debated. You considered by committee. You reviewed the data and the story it told you.
It only just occurred to me that the masks I wore were walls. The overthinking and obsession with perfection pulling me away from the things that move me.
I’m 42, which I’m told in certain circles, is the new 32. While I’m not entering my third act, I am feeling the weight of mortality. I am thinking about how I’m writing my story and the legacy I leave behind. I’m also conscious of how tightly wound I was for most of my life and now I’ve embraced a different kind of mess. One where I start and stop many projects, and, at times, I’ll have multiple projects going on at once. I’m reaching out without fear of losing face. I’m trying not to obsess over my laundry list of failures. I’m slowly unbinding myself from shame.
I don’t want perfection anymore. I want progress. I want play.