I will be forty-five tomorrow.
I’ve probably lived more days than I will live going forward, so the bulk of my life may be behind me. It is 3 a.m. on an oddly warm autumn night in New York City, and I ask myself, what have I accomplished in forty-five years?
If I pay attention to the cacophony of Allison Trivia that quickly pops into my head, a partial list might read like this: I learned to fly a Cessna; was an aerial acrobatic; surfed (even in a dry-suit in the brutality of a Northeastern winter); snowboarded; moved to NYC; mountain-biked; created a career as a food stylist with no prior experience; learned ASL; took fencing lessons; tapped maple trees in Vermont; gazed at wondrous things around the globe such as yakamoz off the coast of Turkey and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow; studied Farsi and promptly forgot it all once I stopped taking lessons; got married, and divorced; spent a night locked in a garage in Milan; got into and out of debt; spent a day helping out on an alpaca farm; worked a curious range of paying jobs from photographer to perfume-sprayer to hair model, telemarketer to tele-surveryor, executive assistant to research assistant, manicurist (without a license – sorry clients) to newspaper article clipper to front desk clerk at a hotel - which still remains one of my most favorite jobs and, if it didn’t require working on holidays and weekends, I’d probably still be doing it; and, and, and…
None of that defines me, it only proves to myself that I was adventurous, and knew how to make a buck.
I graduated from high school, but never attended college. I was out on my own in my teens and, perhaps, that is my greatest accomplishment. I may have gone hungry and homeless as a child, but as an adult (even a very young one) I’ve seen to it that I’ve always had a roof-over-my-head-and-food-in-my-stomach. Amen.
But is that all my life has been? Survival? The reaching of the goals of a child determined to care for herself better than the adults around her did?
There has to be more than that.
When I was little I thought I wanted to be, in no particular order, an actress, a ‘deliver-baby’ doctor and a 2nd Grade teacher named Miss Day. I am none of those things, though I did change my name when I moved from my mother’s home, tired as I was of her marriages and divorces changing it for me.
I didn’t pick the surname “Day”, but instead chose “Tyler”, because it sounded similar to the last name of my favorite of my mother’s married lovers, the only man in my childhood whom I recall treating me well, even buying me shoes and sending me a post-card from Disney World where he spent a week with his wife and children.
But what has my life been about?
If there is an underlying theme, perhaps it’s based in my standard answer when asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up. That answer was always, “Happy.” Happy felt huge, and elusive. I had no idea where to find it, or what it was, but I desperately wanted it.
Growing up, the people around me weren’t happy in any way that I could discern. I can’t recall what exactly happiness looked like for me, but I knew it involved “getting out” of my home and away from my family, something confirmed by a hospital psychologist at age 15 after I’d taken 144 pills and survived to tell about it.
She’d told me, “You’re not crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you, and I can’t help you. You need to get out of your house and away from those people, and you’ll be fine.”
I’d replied, “Yeah, I know. I’ve been telling myself that for 10 years.”
From the ripe old age of five, “getting out” was my main goal in life; but when I’d achieved it, working three jobs to rent a furnished room in a house in Somerset, New Jersey, where other under-aged teens lived, too, I can’t recall being “happy” then, either
On that first night, I laid in bed staring at the ceiling, thinking my mother was going to barge in the closed door at any moment. Although she’d removed my bedroom door in her home, she’d still ‘barge’ in at night and demand I clean the kitchen floor immediately, or rant about some craziness or other, because that is what she did, that was my normal. But no one barged in now; and it was weird. I didn’t sleep solidly that first night, or for the first few years. The realization that although I’d indeed “gotten out” but still had no idea how to relax and be happy, was a heavy one.
I had periods of what I considered happiness, usually when traveling, and I came to believe that was happiness, those fleeting good feelings in between shit going wrong and worries about money and the fear of never living up to my own standards for my potential. I lacked essential things – self-esteem; trust in myself; knowledge that I had a choice in everything – I could choose my reaction, if nothing else; and understanding that if a guy tells you he’s not good enough for you, he’s probably right.
I spent the next few decades almost always in that same uncomfortably-comfortable childhood pattern of waiting/wanting to “get out” so that I could be happy…out of relationships, jobs that didn’t suit me, obligations I didn’t care to keep. I didn’t like being in that state of waiting, the holding off of my life until I finally left something or someone, the trying harder to make an impossible situation work, the promises, the lies, the perfect built-in excuse to never get where I thought I wanted to go…but there I was, again and again.
I know now that it was all necessary, my own way of working it through, but when I look back at the myriad years spent waiting to leave, I wish someone would have shaken that young woman and told her to JUST GO! JUST GET THE FUCK OUT! NOW! GO LIVE! GO BE HAPPY! BECAUSE YOUR TIME HERE IS SHORT! As I sit here thinking it through, it seems that the thing I’ve spent the bulk of my life doing is waiting to leave, waiting to be happy; although, getting myself into situations I wanted to get out of took up a nice big chunk o’ time, too.
And decades went by, just like that.
I never knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up, though I always did something, and I often did it well. I was usually choosing to be too busy ‘in love’ to have much energy left to focus on myself, but I always had some grand plan of which I’d grow quickly bored when it didn’t pan out because I was overly involved in getting out of yet another something I’d gotten myself into.
Maybe my life is simply about being a student of the human condition, of my human condition. Maybe that is my purpose, since life thus far has been a continuous series of beautiful and difficult lessons.
Any circumstance for which I’ve judged others harshly has played out in my own life to school me hard, including sending a married man home to his wife and children, just as my mother had done to the man whose last name inspired my own. I’ve walked a mile in your shoes, my friends, and it sucked, and I’m sorry I judged you. Mea culpa.
And then I got sick; the kind of sick that changes who you are and who you will be for the rest of your life. The kind of sick where you find out a year afterwards that your funeral was being discussed. During that time of healing I asked myself if there was anything in my past that I would change if I could? Would I go back and do anything differently? Were there burned bridges that I needed to re-build while I was still able?
There were none. My life had rarely been graceful. I had hurt people probably as much as I’d been hurt myself. I had done a lot of apologizing, and not always been forgiven, yet I knew that I’d come from a place of love to the best of my abilities, and I knew that I could not have done anything any better than I did when I did it. I had given it my best, and I had no regrets. Everything had unfolded in divine right order, messy as it was.
So, what do I know about myself now?
I know I’ve loved and been loved greatly. I’ve left and been left. I’ve earned an admirable living. I am good to people, animals and our planet. I’ve traveled. I’ve never stopped learning. I’ve learned how to be a good friend and partner. I’ve created a family of loved ones not related by blood and, very recently, added some blood-relatives back into the mix. I have hobbies I enjoy. I am always curious. I am strong and independent and possess a great sense of humor that saved me in the worst of times. Somewhere along the line, I stopped getting into situations I wanted to get out of. I am now that thing that I said I always wanted to be…happy. And happiness is a much quieter experience for me than I once thought. I am happy, and lucky, and what else is there to want?
Still, as I’m staring 45 in the face I’m thinking, wait, is that it? Is that all there is? Forty-five years of life and that’s all I’ve got to show for it? That I’m happy? That I make good choices, finally? Is that enough? Wasn’t I supposed to have accomplished something more than that?
I haven’t changed the world, I haven’t left my mark, where’s my greatness, my fame and fortune, my grand purpose? Shouldn’t there be a reason I’d come into this world prematurely forty-five years ago to a twenty-one-year-old mother who told me she was raped twice by my heroin-addicted father, once to get me in there and once to get me out; a man, as family legend tells it, who said, upon taking his first look at me, his first daughter, “Oh great, a girl. Now she’ll grow up and marry a bastard like me”? He wasn’t actually wrong about that one.
What had I been doing all this time, all my life, besides working through my familial bullshit? And what exactly had I set out to accomplish that now feels unaccomplished, because I can’t quite put my finger on what it was I felt I was going to become and haven’t.
When I repeated these statements to my boyfriend, he countered with questions, including: Have you ever helped a friend who was in trouble? Have you helped a stranger? Have you taken an animal off the street and given it a safe and loving home? Have you published a book? Have you overcome adversity from your childhood?
Well, yes, I said. You know that I have, but so have lots of other people.
These coming years, he said, can be the best years of your life.
Even now, re-reading his words, I find myself holding my breath about them. These coming years can be the best years of your life.
I’ve thought about it, hard, and I’ve decided that it is the truest thing I know; and that blessed opportunity feels overwhelming. It’s as if none of what has passed really matters at all, and yet it matters immeasurably, too. I’m right here, right now, and these coming years can be the best years of my life.
Tomorrow I will be 45. The well-worn baggage has been put down some time ago. I know who I am and how I got here. I don’t forget where I came from. I still fuck up. I learn my lessons and count my blessings daily, and there are many of both. I have a long list of things I want to see and do and experience, but I am more than the sum of what I have done or what I might do. There is nothing I currently want to get out of. I love and am loved and I am grateful.
I feel no clearer today on the course of the grand plan for my life, if even there is one; and maybe there isn’t. Maybe for me this really is all there is…to know that happiness is a continual destination, to know that I am willing to keep achieving it. These coming years can be the best years of my life, which means that life is still happening, and that is enough.