Building A Life Part II: Packing A ToolKit for Fantasy Island

I don’t know why, but I am kind of convinced that anything – well, almost anything – is possible if you work hard enough to figure things out. Not if you “Believe” or “Dream” or “Persevere” or any of the other empty words we paint on the sides of public school buildings and hear in hip pop jingles. But really, just laser-focusing on figuring it out. Picking at the knots in the string. Following the trail of clues. Problem solving.

I suppose I look at the world as a series of puzzles. Some are brain melters; others are a cinch. But they are all solvable, if you plug away at them for long enough.


Sudoku is my favorite puzzle, and I believe the best life-metaphor brain teaser as well.

As with any puzzle, we can become frustrated, overheated, lose faith, or feel incompetent and decide that it must be impossible and throw the pieces on the floor. Most often we decide one of the pieces must fit here, because this is the only place where there’s a hole left, and the piece must have been made defectively with an extra lump which needs to just be squeezed in to finish the damned puzzle. OK – maybe this is just how I solve puzzles; but the metaphor applies to our approach to life glitches as well.  If we can keep a cool head, and maintain faith that the puzzle is solvable, so long as we use logic and imagination and keep perspective and patience, then pretty much any puzzle can be solved.

I’m not sure where this notion comes from – patience and optimism aren’t exactly my calling card. I suppose my own life experiences have shown me that even though you might feel like everything is broken, forever, irreperably, it isn’t; it never is. When I found myself an overgrown yet unprepared orphan at age 23, I felt like I would never be happy again; I would never be really normal. All my smiles would be bittersweet. All my happy moments would be tissue paper laid delicately on top of a hole in the earth – a strong breath, let alone a step, would rip them in half and send me falling. And yet, it was in the midst of this misery that I fell in love, and started a new chapter in my life. It was in the wake of this gut-twisting sadness which seemed to have no beginning or end – a black ocean in the middle of which I bobbed, gasping at air but not sure for how long I could keep it up – that I finally became free of depression, changed my city, changed my job, got my dogs, married Husband: in short, built a life.

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So, why am I sharing all of this? Well, so far you have dreamed up your fantasy life. You’ve put it on paper. You’ve allowed yourself a quick departure from reality. You’ve thought about what you would do if money were no issue. You’ve let yourself imagine. You’ve perhaps mourned the space between the life you’re living and the life of your fantasies. But now what?

Well, now it’s time to figure out the puzzle. How do you make your fantasy life come to life?

I don’t have the answer to this, of course, but I do have some ideas for how to proceed. I have done this for a few things in my life – from creating my own job three times to  figuring out how the hell I was going to get out of that sad black ocean and somehow ended up in Philadelphia.

My magic word? Research.

Facts are scary until we own them – then they’re incredibly empowering. I have found facts to be the greatest slayers of terror. But they can also be the insurmountable wall.

Let me ask you this:

Have you ever been afraid of something that wasn’t real? Your fear was real – you were sincerely terrified. But the things you were afraid of were chimeras – you were certain someone would get mad if you did something. You knew you’d be ostracized for speaking your mind. There was no doubt you would not have enough money, get in trouble, never find a new apartment, be single forever – whatever it was, you were sure it would happen and the world would cave in.

But did you, at some point, learn that the thing you were afraid of was made of smoke instead of concrete? How did you learn this? Perhaps you spoke your mind and were met with a listening ear instead of fury; perhaps you broke your lease and the landlord was fine with it; perhaps you took a deep breath, did something risky, and came out unscathed – or, perhaps, even came out better for it. The facts of the real results triumphed over the terrifying unknown, assumed, and imagined.

I have found that when you’re trying to animate your fantasy-life-plan, finding out the facts is the best place to start. It’s also the most nauseating.

For example, I have a terrible habit of not opening the mail, because I am terrified of it. This comes from when I was younger, and would let the mail pile up for weeks; I was so anxious about the bills and notices and letters that were in there, which were long overdue, that I would avoid the pile for another day because I didn’t want to face the mess I had made for myself.


You know what always made it better? Opening the damn mail. Those bills didn’t bite. Once I could see how much damage there actually was (which was always less than my imagination had concocted) I was able to deal with it in a matter of fact manner: pay the five biles. File the twelve invoices for my records. Done. Mail gone. Demon slain.

Getting up the nerve to confront the pile, though, is a doozy for me still – so I’m not going to sit here and say that working up the nerve to figure out what facts you want to collect will be easy, but I will say that once you start, it will flow for you and be the best way to start figuring out how to make your fantasy life plan a little more tangible.

Alors, let’s begin with: Packing a ToolKit for Fantasy Island. Here are some of my favorite questions to ask myself:

How much money will I need in this new life?

How will I be spending my time in this new life?

How will this new life make me feel?

How will my family and friends react to this new life?

I find that dealing with the money question head-on is incredibly important, and a move most of us try to avoid. We’re so afraid that our dream-lives are going to be unaffordable that we abort them before they can even start to develop. This question is the one that requires the most immediate research (more research will be a’comin’ tomorrow for the other pieces).

My suggestions for determining how much money you will need are:

1.) Write down all your fixed expenses (i.e. the ones that don’t change each month). These may include rent, memberships to organizations/gym/etc you care about, utilities, insurance, cell phone, etc.

2.) Look at your last two bank/credit card statements to see how much you spend on the following, and take the average for:

– Travel/transportation

– Groceries

– Restaurants

– Entertainment

– Self-care

Write a new list that includes all your necessary costs – the fixed expenses, and any of the other variable expenses which are essential to you. Be real with  yourself, too – if your museum or gym membership is something that brings you deep joy, keep it in your budget. If you know that you could spend a little less on organic grapes or perhaps go out to dinner four instead of six nights a week, trim where appropriate. But don’t amputate a category or decide you can never get another haircut or buy another latte; that will result in instant depression and anxiety and, more importantly, it won’t help you create a realistic budget for your fantasy life.

Remember – there is no right number. There just is the honest number for what you need in order to live comfortably.

Moving along to question #2 – asking yourself about the way you will spend your time is also essential – it’s the quickest way to see whether the plans you’ve laid out inspire a feeling of excitement and joy, or not. The follow up question is also in place to make sure that you’re planning a fantasy life that you feel good about, not just one that sounds good or makes sense.

Finally, the family and friends piece is also incredibly important – you might be wrong about how they’ll react, but you will inevitably censor or adjust your fantasy life based on the way you imagine those you love, respect, need, & cherish will respond to it. Unless you are completely able to divorce yourself from the perceived opinions of others and live in a self-affirming bubble, in which case you should probably not be reading this blog.

So, that’s my next suggested step – answer those four questions, and make that preliminary budget.

What do you think? Doable, or not? Other suggestions for a good step to take at this stage of the fantasy-life-building?

Let me hear your thoughts!


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