"What do you want to do with your life?" It's a question I ask my college students this time of year to help them define their goals, and I'm beginning to realize the silliness of the question. It's almost like asking people casually at the grocery store what they did over summer break -- expecting them to sum up 10 weeks of their lives in a sentence. Not an easy task.
And sometimes the answer can't be summed up anyway. For instance, this summer I went to Disney for the first time, which would be easy to convey. I also learned that I have no idea what I want to do with the rest of my life, which might take more than the time allotted in the checkout line.
The summer began the same as it always has, with vacation plans and weekend plans and cookout plans; having the summers off with my kids has always kept me busy, and I enjoy being busy. This year, however, they started making their own plans as well -- to hang out with friends and sign up for sports camps and go to the pool.
And they didn't need me to help them.
The boy, of course, has been pretty self-sufficient for a couple years. But by virtue of her status as the youngest, I've continued to "service" my daughter -- filling every role from cook, maid and chauffeur, to professional watcher -- sports camps, afternoons at the pool, flashlight tag -- I was there. Until this summer.
This summer, she was old enough to be at the pool by herself. She rode her bike both to the pool and to the daily recreation program, as well as to her friends' houses. She cleaned up after herself and folded her own laundry. She went to overnight camp for a week. She stayed home by herself if I needed to do errands.
And while she discovered her independence, I discovered something about mine: I have no idea anymore what to do with it.
The first morning that both kids were gone for the day, I sat in my comfy chair with my coffee and thought, "Wow! This is cool! A whole day to myself!" I went to the driving range, did a little shopping, a little cleaning... a little of everything.
The second day, however, I sat in my chair and thought, "Huh. My 'little of everything' is done. The house is clean, the shopping done. And I have all day to fill. What do I do now?"
And that's when it hit me. I don't know what I enjoy anymore. I hadn't anticipated that it would ever come up, apparently, because in the grand plan of my life, I didn't plan for this. I knew I wanted to have kids, and I knew I wanted to be a writer. I've done both, yet suddenly they're not enough.
When I was a kid, we essentially chose a career, worked toward it, and if we wanted to have a family, we worked on that too. But I don't remember ever thinking beyond that, as though, in my head, once those goals were met, life was complete. Done. Fini. Evidently I assumed that people retired at 50 and eventually just died, because I don't remember ever thinking beyond that point.
Now, at 50, I could conceivably have another half century ahead of me, with no idea of how I might want to spend it. Volunteering? Horseback riding? Fostering dogs? I don't know. I will always be a mother, although I'm seeing now how that role can change over time; I will always be a writer, and I'm beginning to see how that role can change as well. But if I have these extra years, this found time, I'd like to make use of them.
Maybe I shouldn't ask my students what they want to do with their lives. Maybe that's where I got hung up all those years ago, thinking that there must only be one right answer. Maybe I could help them more by asking them what I'm now asking myself:
What do you want to do first?
"I have over ten thousand names in my [genealogical] file and am hooked on not just the facts, but the story-writing. I reconnect with cousins I haven't seen since I was a teen. I meet new relatives online and in person, even fifth cousins, who I never know I had... There's nothing like knowing that you had an ancestor in the Battle of Saratoga..." -<em>Jean Benning</em>, 75
"I traveled with the Hershey (Pennsylvania) Community Chorus to sing in Wales. When you visit the valleys in the east it's like going back in time; people aren't attached to their computers and mobile phones. I started renting an apartment in the city of Pontypool for six months a year. Now I have a lot of friends there and even volunteer at a shop where the proceeds support cancer research." -<em>Judith Emmers</em>, 69
"I'm lucky enough to live across the street from a gym. I go over there two mornings a week and work out for an hour at 5:30 a.m., and then see a trainer for another hour. I also do water aerobics three times a week. I do it so I can keep doing the things I love, not because I love the exercise. I didn't start exercising until I was sixty-six." -<em>Corinne Lyon</em>, 74
"I spent my seventieth birthday in a hot tub six thousand feet up Mount Hood. I didn't want my kids to think they had to do something special." -<em>Carolyn Rundorff</em>, 71
"A group of us organized a trip along the Natchez Trace from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi. We researched stops and places to stay, and every day one of us was the designated driver to haul the gear. You want to know the people fairly well before you set out on something like this. We covered 444 miles in less than a week." -<em>Bill Dunn</em>, 65
"We started the Canetti Literary Society in December 1981. [Elias] Canetti...had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have a Masters in Literature and had never heard of Canetti. So I thought it was a good time to read his work, and the best way would be to have a book club with other women who might be interested in reading good literature. We are still in existence." -<em>Anne Richtel</em>, 95
"I'm training to be a museum docent at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The training to be certified is rigorous -- six hours a week for six weeks, then shadowing a certified docent, then delivering your spiel to two different staff members in two different areas of the museum." -<em>Therese Wilkin</em>, 63
"I began morris dancing in 1984 and long sword dancing in 1989. These forms are English and date back several centuries. I get exercise; a very close bond with a group of people of both genders and a variety of ages; the challenge of learning and performing a wide variety of rather complex and demanding dances; and the satisfaction of helping keep ancient traditions alive and growing." -<em>Robert Orser</em>, 79
"It is lovely to come to this physical and spiritual, scientific and creative body of knowledge at this point in my life. When I talk over the back fence with my gardening neighbors or give someone a bouquet of flowers from my garden, I know just how my grandmother and mother felt when they did the same thing." -<em>Ally McKay</em>, 68
"We had one piece that we were doing at a festival, which we had only a short time to learn, and we rehearsed on the bus to Abilene. We were the last to perform, and our director was very nervous. We rehearsed one last time before going on, and everyone in the choir got every note right. It's a pleasure you can't understand if you haven't done it. It really keeps you going." -<em>Mary Roberson</em>, 70
"The best part of community theater is that no one cares about your politics, your religion, or your money. Everyone's on the same bus. I've gotten so much out of it. My closest friends come from there. The ones I depend on, the ones who have my back, come from the theater." -<em>Ellen Kazin</em>, 71
"When I retired I took several Road Scholar watercolor trips and subsequently read everything I could find on Winslow Homer... My wife suggested that I had uncovered so much material on Homer that I should write a book... The rewards are beyond my fondest dreams...I believe that has brought me as close to the Master as one can get." -<em>Robert Demarest</em>, 83
"I started [studying Italian] when my husband and I were planning our first of four Road Scholar trips to Italy. I have found other people -- over two hundred of them, to be exact -- in an organization called Il Circolo Italiano on the Philadelphia Main Line, who come together to speak and promote the Italian Language and culture... They are the warmest people you would every want to meet." -<em>Jean Benning</em>, 75
"I wanted to do something in retirement that would give back to the community and to people in need, and this seemed to be an excellent candidate... The major reward is seeing families that are living in great need...partner with us in building first other people's and then their own homes, and then move into what in most cases is the first home they have ever owned." -<em>Robert Bond</em>, 75
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