On life: possibilities, choices, and opening and closing doors

As I have gotten older, I’ve realized just how much it means that we as human beings have choices in our lives. I believe God put us all here on this earth for a certain number of years for a reason, and he gave us the gift of choice. He allows us to do what we want to do, and we get to learn from what we decide to do and be.

In saying that, I think much gets made of that part of the equation: hey, we have free choice! Whee! We can do what we please!   It sounds so exciting, so liberating. And it is. But the flip side of that “free” coin is this: once we make a decision, we are faced with the consequences of that decision, be they “good,” “bad,” or “neutral” consequences. And part of those consequences is that once we open a door and go through it, we can’t go back through it the other way. Life is constantly moving forward. Once the door opens, it closes behind us, and here’s the kicker … if we’re standing looking at choosing among ten different doors, or just two, we can only pick one. And we can’t go back and pick one of the other doors once we’ve gone through the one we chose.

Let me try to explain and qualify: yes, we may face many doors during our lives that are pretty much the same ones we had to choose among previously, but they’re not exactly the same doors; time is always moving forward, and things change in small and big ways. We’ll never choose again, at age 18, 3 months and 5 days, which college to attend. We may decide a year later, at age 19, 3 months and 10 days, to switch to a different college, but it’s not the exact same choice. We’re not the same people, and we don’t have the exact same options as before.

I think of life as this path along which I walk. The path is constantly branching off, and there are forks always. Some are big, with large roads to choose among, and some are just little footpaths with grass tamped down by a few travelers. But we’re always at some kind of crossroads. And at each of those decision points lies a door we pass through, which closes behind us.

Me as a baby, with my mom: my whole life was ahead of me.

There are infinite numbers of paths the younger we are, from my experience. And as we choose paths and corresponding doors, we tend to have fewer big paths to choose among, and doors tend to shut more permanently the older we get. Sure, we hear “success” stories about people becoming athletes at decidedly older ages than usual, or becoming famous painters at 80, or some such thing, but those are well-known stories precisely because they are rare and unusual. (News means something out of the ordinary, and that’s what stories like this are: news.) For most of us, once we choose at 20 to pursue a career in business as opposed to chasing a dream of becoming a pro baseball player, the sports door is shut tightly behind us, and we won’t see it ahead again.

I think back on all the things I did as a young person. I acted in plays, sang, played piano, played French horn in band, went to various competitions for different academic pursuits, took all kinds of classes, dabbled in drawing, wrote, read like crazy, and baked and decorated cakes. I went to college as a chemistry major. I stood on the threshold of university life full of hope and excitement and the thrill of embarking on a grand adventure, a dream.

1988: My dad and I on our way to the airport to get me to college.

But once I was out of college, I had shut many doors behind me. Acting, playing French horn, academic competitions, drawing, even chemistry were all behind me. I still baked, I still read and wrote. I just changed my mind about being a chemistry major and focused on journalism. As life progressed and I made decisions to major in journalism, my other minor interests had to be sacrificed as I took more and more classes in my major. Then when I graduated, I worked 40 hours a week as a copy editor, further narrowing my journalistic interests, at least for the time, on editing rather than writing. As an adult and a college graduate, I had work to do. I had less time to explore and be general. Of a necessity, some interests had to be sacrificed.

My life further was changed when I decided to marry and when I decided to have each of my four daughters. Each of those choices opened up gorgeous paths with all kinds of interesting and beautiful plants along the road (not to mention some thorns and hills, let me add). But when I chose those doors, many others closed behind me. There were just certain things I would never do.

As a mother with children all at home, some teens, one just about to start school, and one in the middle, I have a road full of carriages to push along or to supervise. I can’t leave this path and try another one. When they’re all grown, I’ll have some different paths open up to me, some different doors to try out. But they won’t be the exact ones I might have tried before I went down those paths at ages 18, 23 and 26, for instance.

Sometimes I feel the loss of those paths never taken, considered but left behind. I admit I do envy others on different roads, on occasion, when my choices and their choices have put us past very different doors. Some have what I might consider “exciting” or “glamorous” lives. No, I am not talking about celebrities or anything like that. But I might have really enjoyed going into the foreign service as one friend did. I love to be in different places and get to know them, as well as the people populating them. I love languages and find different cultures fascinating. I would have loved to be a book editor at a big publishing house in New York. But either of those options would have been very difficult either with children or with the lifestyle I have decided is the way I’d like to raise my children, and where and how. (Yes, there are diplomats with kids or editors with kids, but I don’t see myself doing either of those jobs the way I’d like to do them at the same time as raising my children the way I’d like to do it. It’s as simple as that.)

I know there are still some interesting doors ahead of me, and I look forward to them. But I am now trying to really come to terms with the fact that the doors coming up are not going to be as plentiful or the same options as the doors I had ahead of me 20 years ago. I think that’s much of what aging and maturing and growing up really means. We come to grips with the naked truth that we are not who we were when we were young. Life is not an endless stream of possibilities anymore. We’ve already chosen many of those possibilities, and they are no longer dreams ahead of us but memories behind us. Our bodies are not the same as they were, our faces and hair not the same, our hearts and minds are not the same. On the first count, our society today, unfortunately, doesn’t allow us to gracefully accept that our bodies and faces are going to age and not look “fresh and young” anymore. In fact, society is urging us to do all we can to fight that fact. But all we can do is postpone it for a bit, not ignore it or stave it off entirely. On the count of our hearts and minds, however, I would like to think that despite missing some of those fun things I dabbled in as a young person, and just having the entire panorama of possibilities still ahead, that now I can be mostly satisfied with the paths I’ve chosen and where I am now. I got a good education, I’ve done some interesting work, I’ve traveled and lived in a variety of places and met many wonderful people, I’ve raised (so far) some amazing daughters. I’ve loved and been loved. I’ve experienced life, and I’ve been happy.

Me and my daughters, 2010. So much promise, so many doors.

Now, I see all the doors standing open to my daughters and feel pangs of memory of how it feels to be in their shoes. But I am excited for them and all that lies ahead in their young lives. I’m doing what I can not just to make interesting choices among the options available for me, but to support my girls as they make their own choices. What a gift that is.


I think about the idea of “enough” so often that I considered using it as part of the name of this website. In the end, obviously, I didn’t, but the concept comes to my mind frequently.

I’m not the type of person who wants more things. In fact, I’m usually working to get rid of things. Years of moving have taught me to pare down wherever possible. (I’m not a minimalist, however: I love my kitchen gadgets, and I use them. That’s a topic for another post.) I’m satisfied to keep a computer for seven or eight years or a TV for 10 or 15 years, even if they’re getting snazzier, wider and thinner. I have some clothes I’ve worn for years; I have a sweater I just adore that I bought in high school (guess it’s stretched out over the years…). So “enough” doesn’t apply to stuff. Well, it does, actually: I can say with confidence I have enough stuff.

No, “enough” applies to actions. I worried in high school if I had enough on my list of activities to show my dream university I was fit to enter. (I did.) Mostly, I’ve worried over the years if I’ve done enough. As a mother for about 16 years now, I think I worry the most if I’ve done enough for my four daughters, who are truly the most precious gift I’ve been given. I have generally been of the opinion that children will do best if given plenty of free time to find their own way, to keep themselves occupied and use their imaginations and their own inner resources. I haven’t scheduled them in lots of activities or sports or lessons. I haven’t spent all of my free time finding ways to keep them busy or happy. Even knowing that this strategy seems to have worked pretty well for them so far, I have moments of wishing I could just do more or be more for them because they are so amazing, so talented, so delightful. Because they are my only offspring, and these years I have of them living at home with me are my only chance to raise them: I just get this one shot. Because they deserve everything I can offer, everything the world can offer. Again, not stuff, but opportunities.

I’ve given my girls time. I’ve read with them, countless hours curled up on our beds, usually at bedtime, with countless books, many of which are now well worn, pages slipping out of their bindings, bits torn off corners. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve just sat and listened to them talk, telling me about their days, about their friends, about all kinds of thoughts swirling in their heads. I’ve not generally considered that a sacrifice, especially now that I have a high-schooler. She in particular has so much to say, so much that’s entertaining and interesting, at turns humorous and sweet. I cherish these tete-a-tetes. We’ve had “the talk,” we’ve talked about life and the big things, about faith and family; we’ve also talked about all the hilarious things that boys do and all the tasty morsels she ate for lunch. It’s been a pleasure; it’s been a treat.

Perhaps it’s a direct result of that time I’ve spent with them that I feel the urgency to do more, to give my girls the world. I’ve seen inside their souls and seen all that is possible, and I want to give it to them. Now that my oldest has realized how much she enjoys dance, she’d like dance lessons. But when would we fit those in among the band concerts and rehearsals or church activities or that extra class she’s taking in the evenings? Or as I see how much is lacking in our educational system nowadays (thanks to legislation, lack of funding and the bad economy, you name it…), I wish I could home-school or supplement with some somewhat structured lessons of my own. Oh, there’s so much I wish I could do.

But time limits me. Energy certainly limits what I can give. My budget limits me. My own needs, weaknesses and limitations keep me from being able to give all. (If you read about my struggles with my mental health, this will seem even clearer.) The number of children I have limits how much I can give to each, in some ways (I can’t be two or three places at once, sadly). But those things don’t limit how much I love.

At the same time, I know when I think about it seriously that my limitations are just part of life, even part of my children’s lives. They live in the same world I live in, where you can’t get everything you want, where you can only do so much, where the people around you aren’t perfect. No one should be handed everything on a silver platter, now or ever. Life isn’t perfect. There are always disappointments, always choices to be made between two or three good things. Giving my children everything would be doing them a disservice.

So I know in my head that I really am doing pretty well by my girls, that they are happy and well-adjusted, that they truly feel loved and secure. It’s just I struggle on some days when particular things crop up that I wish they could have or do. I wage a battle in my mind and — eventually — conquer my feelings of “not-enough” with the knowledge that they are happy, that they are loved.

I also struggle with that feeling of doing or being enough outside of my small family sphere, with the wide world around me. Every day, I see people and organizations that desperately need help, that need money, that need volunteer hours. There are children all around the world who need food; who need clothes and shelter; who need a strong, loving parent. And I don’t have to look far to be aware of those children. Teachers I know have those children in their classrooms. My daughters have these children as peers. Every time my oldest, in particular, mentions to me how grateful she is that I cook healthy food for her, that she has a comfortable house and plenty of clothes, that she has two parents in her home who love her, it’s because she has been reminded at school that all too many other kids don’t have those things. And my heart breaks, it just starts opening wide and trying to send feelers out to all those other children who don’t live in my home, to show them that someone cares. Oh, how I often wish I could parent so many other kids. Practically, however, I know I’m at my limits with the four I have right now.

There are so many worthy organizations out there that I could give time to. It’s hard to limit myself to just a few. Even as I say yes to one, I know there are many others I simply must say no to. It makes me feel bad to have to choose, to say no. It breaks my heart. The need is great so many places right now, especially, with our economy the way it is, but the need is always great in terms of hearts that need healing, souls that need to be nurtured.

I can only keep reminding myself of a story that I’ve heard a few times over the years. A man goes walking on a beach early one morning and finds a young man on the shore, bending down and picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. He keeps bending to the sand, grasping one starfish at a time, and throwing. The beach is just covered with starfish, who are likely going to die if left where they are, washed up on the sand. It seems a ridiculous endeavor, this picking up starfish one at a time and throwing them back. So the man asks the thrower, “Why? Why do you bother? You can’t possibly save them all. This won’t make a difference.” The young man’s reply, as he threw yet another starfish wide into the ocean, “It made a difference to that one.”

That’s the philosophy to which I cling in those times my heart breaks because I can’t possibly save the world. There are so many people in need, so many causes that are worthy. But I have to tell myself, what I do matters to “that one.” I just read about Mother Teresa’s similar thinking: “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” I am making a difference to the four children with whom I’ve been entrusted. I hope to make a difference to the women I’ve been assigned to watch over in my church’s visiting teaching program. I hope to make a small difference in what I write here, that if what I say helps just a few readers, I’ve spent my time wisely. You, my friends, are my starfish. I wish I could rescue all the starfish lying on the beaches of the world, but I’m throwing back one at a time.

I watched this video for the first time yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope that I can just make one person’s burden lighter each day because I’m willing to share. Enjoy this beautiful, inspiring message.