Building A Life: A Start

Where did you learn what life should look like?

Many/most of us, I would say, learn from our parents and families what is acceptable, brilliant, deplorable, embarrassing, commendable, and worthwhile to do with ourselves. One part is explicit – they tell us.

The other has to do with observing and trying to piece things together. We look at the grown-ups around us, and decide which parts we want to steal and which we never want to be. We grab at bits and pieces  – ideas and images of who our adult self will be – like children running after balloons released to the air, grabbing their strings and holding tightly before they can slowly float out of reach. This one’s mine – you can’t have it. We look around to see who has the most, we tie ours together, enjoy seeing our reflection in their shiny rubber surfaces. We make, bit by bit, our own bouquet and cling to those strings. Sometimes the balloons pop. Sometimes over time they shrivel from within and implode, sad and wrinkled. Sometimes we realize we fucking hate balloons and they’re scary and we give the whole bunch to a kid in the park and move to Guatemala.


All of this to say that my sense is many of us make a collage of what Being A Grownup looks like; but we eventually find that collages aren’t great roadmaps. They usually don’t include things like sexuality, spirituality, creature comforts, logistics of daily life. They have job titles, life milestones, and images, which bear personal significance,  but don’t give us a real sense of what to do, or how to live.

When we were little, we  painted pictures of the future with broad strokes; it can be upsetting to realize that none of the details are accounted for once you get here. And so, we become obsessed with the details, mired in them, unable to zoom out. While we used to plot in finger paint, now we dream via Excel spreadsheets. Id’ like to believe there’s a way to still dream in color and bookkeep in code. But it’s hard, and uncomfortable.

Which leads me to my second question: Where did you learn how to build your life?

I suggest that actively, and purposively building a life-in-the-round, is something we’re not really taught that much. I’ll speak for myself;  my sense was that you build a few pillars and the rest of the structure follows. Get involved in work you care about and you’ll figure out the rest; your work will dictate where you live, how much you make, the life you can afford, maybe even the friends you have or the partner you find. Do that one piece right, and everything else will fill itself in, and then you can tweak accordingly to get closer to happiness.

What about you – what were you taught? Did you learn what life should look like, and how to build it – or just one or the other?

As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that when it comes to building a plan for life, different folks have different styles. Some like to make a map and follow it. Some wander and observe their surroundings, taking notes and making field drawings along the way. Still others run screaming and half-naked into the forest, stepping on branches and tripping over stumps, only stopping once they’ve run out of breath to look down at the scrapes, pluck a few twigs out of their hair, and finally look around and think “how the hell did I end up in the woods?”

I’d say I’m somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd. Maybe a little more of the third, if I’m being honest.

Until I met Husband, I didn’t have much of a life plan. Well, in some regards I did – again, pertaining to work, which was the only thing I believed I needed to plan. Graduating from college, there were a few things I knew I wanted: I wanted to be financially independent as quickly as possible; I wanted to work in arts education in the non-profit world and help make life more beautiful and tolerable for poor children; I wanted to be happy. There were many other things I wanted, but I decided that they were either silly, “not me,” or unattainable. Some of the dreams and desires that ended up in the compost bin included (in no particular order): living in Philadelphia or Chicago (weird – right?), living in London or Buenos Aires, being a writer, resuming cigarette smoking, having many pansexual dalliances with Spanish artists and tattooed authors, becoming an interior decorator/feng shui specialist, becoming a wedding planner, and going blonde.

Those didn’t happen. I focused on planning for work.

I decided to try my hand in public schools as a teacher, so that I would know what the hell I was talking about once working for non-profits; and I went to a one-year graduate program in order to get a higher paying teaching job upon graduating, as quickly as possible, thereby inching towards the financial independence I craved. I made getting work settled my main priority, and assumed the rest would sort itself out.

And it did, somewhat. Life hit me in the eye socket a few times with some, um, hiccups – the dissolution of a relationship I thought would end in marriage, the death of my grandmother and then my mother in a four-month span, and the ensuing repatriation of my childhood home, which I returned to unwillingly and with a great big helping of horror. But I rolled with these punches and tried to make life as happy as possible. In truth, I was just trying to keep my head above water – happy was not so much an option as was avoidance-of-total-nervous-breakdown, and I tried to make life as nice as I could while holding myself together.

But it wasn’t until I met Husband that I thought about making a plan for life. I had assumed that I would hop from one job to another until I got it right and figured out what would make me happy; the rest, again, would fall into place based on the work that I did.

But he had a plan. A real plan. One that he had laid out in detail, and – to my total shock, delight, terror, amazement – had actually accomplished.

  • He would get his Master’s in Computer Science (check)
  • Next, he would focus his behavior on his three guiding principles: 1) match deed to word, 2) be a being for others, 3) authenticity
  • Consequently, he would live in Ecuador and teach there, and become fluent in Spanish (chequé)
  • Afterwards, he would get his Master’s in Education in order to teach in the USA (check – and at Harvard, the bastard…)
  • Finally, he would teach in public schools to serve the neediest students possible (check – and, by the way, how we met…)
  • And this would all happen by his 30th birthday (check check check check check)

When he shared this all with me, I was floored. It was adventurous, yet practical; altruistic, yet ambitious. It was based on principles, and included two different continents. My plans had to do with extricating myself from my mother’s wallet and not sounding like an asshole when I told other people what to do. I hadn’t ever thought about using ages as planning benchmarks – I had thought that was reserved for girls who had deadlines on marriage. But I liked his approach – it put you in the driver’s seat. I was going to try it.

I bought books; I had endless conversations; I wrote lists; I drew pictures; I took quizzes; I interviewed. I was on my way.

But once I started thinking about approaching life as a cartographer instead of a shipwrecker atop the waves on a plank of wood, it opened a Pandora’s Box. Actually, it was a Pandora’s Box full of cobwebs and strange smells. What is that odor? It’s familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. Why are there so many cobwebs in here? Hasn’t anyone opened this in the past decade? No? I realized that there had been dreams in there, but I couldn’t remember what they were; all that lingered was a scent of what had once taken up significant space. I hadn’t bothered to consider what was in my little box-o-dreams for such a long time that dust and webs had gathered in all the corners. It was one part scary, one big part sad.

That was four years ago – and these past four years have been one crazy long journey of trying to clean out the dingy corners, air out the box, and fill it with things I love. It’s been hit & miss, but figuring out what I want in that damned box is now my top priority.

Why do I mention this all now? Well, Husband & I have spent the past eight months working on the plan for the next phase of our life, which has made things feel exciting but ungrounded, and tumultuous. We have spent the past three days together going to various meetings and working on the next looming piece of the plan, which involves his work and taking steps towards actualizing some of our dreams which we have previously deemed unattainable. I have been so caught up in thinking about it all and spending time on our meetings that I’ve had a hard time thinking of things to write about that pertain to Civicization – but, perhaps this all falls within the purview of what belongs here.

It’s uncomfortable to share it, because I’m so afraid of judgment. I fear that our families will not approve; I worry that our friends will think we’re too impetuous; I wonder whether our plans will come to fruition.

But at the same time, we’re moving forward. This is kind of what I was mentioning yesterday – we’re scared, but brave.

So – want to see our life plan? Here she is. I decided, in honor of my inner Little Justine who didn’t yet hate balloons and loved markers, to show it as a colorful drawing instead of a chart:


In the next few days I’ve decided to write about the different steps we’re going through in order to map out this life plan and try to bring it to life, just as we did when we decided to uproot ourselves and move to Philadelphia. I’m going to unpack one step each day. Along the way, I hope to hear your thoughts on your own struggles and successes with these various processes – join in the fun, my friends!


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