May something good happen to you today that you didn’t plan. That’s what I saw written on a sign in front of a building as my daughter, grand-daughter and I walked along Bank Street in Ottawa a few days ago. It was one of those ‘ah ha’ moments for me. Something about that sign kept drawing me back and so we drove by it again today as we were heading for the airport for my flight back to Ottawa. It wasn’t the wish for something good to happen today; that kind of sentiment is generic and pretty much always there. It was the ‘that the you didn’t plan’ part that really caught my eye … and my heart.
Have you ever heard the saying “life is what happens while we’re making plans”? In my case it would be more like life is what happens in spite of the plans that you planned to make. Sure, I knew when I was young that you were supposed to have a plan. As early as primary school we kept being asked what we’d be when we grew up. I didn’t give it much serious thought, preferring to see it – then and when this exercise was repeated a number of times in high school – as a creative exercise. What could I respond that would get a rise from my teacher? As a young child I wanted to be a nurse, but that was mostly because one of my first books was Nurse Nancy in which the line “Nancy was a nurse, so Nancy knew” was repeated over and over and knowing seemed like a good thing. The book also came with bandages in the back cover which was most impressive to a 5 year old. By Grade 7 I remember that my answer was that I’d like to be a nuclear physicist – a radical notion for a girl in 1959. I didn’t have any idea what that was but it seemed that nobody else really knew either and it was the kind of response that didn’t generate any follow-up questions which suited me just fine. In Grade 9 my response was “a high-class madam” which also ended the conversation quickly.
I thought about this more seriously when I began university and for a while wanted to be a clinical psychologist. That was until I saw the movie Charlie which so horrified me by the way people’s lives can be manipulated in the name of science that I dropped that idea. Journalism appealed to me for sure for a while but when I dated a journalist who’d just returned from Viet Nam (in the late 60’s) I changed my mind because it, too, seemed too manipulative. I worked as an assistant to a psychologist who was writing a book during my first couple of years of university and writing appealed to me. More than anything, and more enduring than anything else, was the idea of becoming a doctor. After all, as a doctor friend said, what else can you do that’s really about life and death. I never really made a plan for how to get from point A to point B and as my life unfolded directions were limited by other exigencies and I ended up in teaching.
I didn’t really plan a family either, at least not in a very thorough way. Sure, I guess I always thought that someday I’d have children but beyond that generic thought I didn’t spend much time speculating about when or how many (although 6 was a number that kept popping to mind). One summer we house-sat for a couple with a young child and suddenly that seemed like a really good idea. Just a bit over a year later my first son, Josh, was born. I did think that one child wasn’t quite enough and since I’d already given up the spontaneity that you have only before you have children I couldn’t see any reason to wait to have a second; 13 months and 5 days after giving birth to Josh my daughter Nili was born. A few years later, not feeling quite “done” yet, Motti was born. It was more a stirring in the heart than a planning I think.
So, no careeer plan and no family plan.
Before many years had passed – when Motti was just 18 months old – I was a single parent with three children under the age of 5. Planning now became a mainstay in my life. Not big planning but endless little planning. How would I get them all to daycare/school and get to work on time myself? How would we schedule piano lessons, ballet lessons, Hebrew school, baseball practice, hockey practice … and buy groceries, clean the house, do homework, make/eat/clean-up dinner, complete homework, and have what was then called “quality time” in any given week? I became an expert organizer, a skill that revolves around planning. As often as not the plan wouldn’t actually unfold the way it was meant to, but I came to understand that having a sketch of a plan was better than dealing with the anxiety of no plan at all.
When my children started to enter adolescence (here’s where planning might have been a good idea since single parenting three adolescents is not something I’d necessarily wish on anyone … talk about hard!) having a plan became just a lightning rod for dispute. They had their own plans and they mostly, I thought at the time, were structured to drive me crazy. So I tried to become a negotiator of planning; seeking ways to have everybody able to live with some adjustment to their own idea of a perfect day. We had weekly family meetings to try to iron out differences and somehow we all survived. Having earned a doctorate in education by this time I planned to move my family from Toronto to Peterborough where I’d accepted a full-time teaching position at the university. Just days before leaving my oldest son announced he’d be staying in Toronto with his Dad. Plan B kicked in and I moved with two of the kids. A year later Nili had returned to Toronto to be closer to her boyfriend; time for Plan C. So there were Motti and I living in a 6 bedroom house! So much for planning.
Here I am now, 60 years old, and retired. I thought I was being so wise to think a lot about retirement before leaving work, actually attempting something remotely like planning. What I’ve discovered over the past year is that planning has gotten much better press than it deserves. It’s far too akin to control I think and, in the same way, leaves you believing that your plan has something to do with how things turn out. It’s that old expectation stuff again; you plan, you anticipate, life happens, you struggle. Or not.
I didn’t plan for my website to crash yesterday. I didn’t plan to be spending this time figuring out how to retrieve all of my postings and get things back to ship-shape. My sister Molly, bless her heart, didn’t plan to spend much of her down-time yesterday trying to get to the bottom of the error that caused this crash. That’s life, right! So, please bear with me. We’ll get this up and running again before too long. For now you can find all of the postings before October 2009 when we moved to the website; we hope that the missing ones will be back within a few weeks.
Meanwhile, there’s something so freeing in just being happy with what I didn’t plan. Takes a lot of pressure off, doesn’t it?
May something good happen to you today that you didn’t plan.