The Agony and Ecstasy of Choice

I’m a first-born. So of course my parents thought I walked on water (until my siblings came along at least) and they sent me a clear message—I could be anything I wanted if I put my mind to it.

The trouble was I heard it wrong. I thought they said I could be everything I wanted.

Which led to anxiety and frustration once I reached my twenties and had to make some pretty momentous decisions. What to major in? Where to live? Who to marry? Whether to have kids? What career to pursue? I don’t think I’m alone in this – books like The Midnight Library and The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano have hit the best-seller lists this year, exploring this very subject. What alternative direction might our lives have taken? What was down that other road Robert Frost found in the woods?

But since that early message remained implanted in my brain, I did my best. Switched from journalism to teaching to psychology (why have one degree when you can have three?) Worked as a child therapist and then founded an art company (why settle for one career?). Married three times (why settle for one husband?). Moved from my home state of Oklahoma to the upper Midwest of Milwaukee and Chicago. But somewhere around the age of forty-five, it hit me.

We have to make choices.

That’s what makes life poignant and leads to sleepless nights. Did we make the “right” decision? Did we take the easy way out? Did we let life carry us along instead of seizing control of our life? In short, what might have been?

Many of us come to writing late. Oh, sure, we penned poems in grade school, put on little plays or thought up stories we told our friends. But once we became adults, we pursued careers that would pay the bills and in most cases, keep our brains engaged in interesting ways. It’s only later, when those careers become humdrum, or we’re replaced by AI, or we retire, that we ask ourselves that age-old question “is that all there is”?

I reached that point three years ago when the company I founded had become a chore to manage, not a joy. I found a willing buyer and declared myself a writer. And this spring my debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, will appear on bookstore shelves after several years of writing, editing, and searching for a publisher. And at the same time, I’ve had a couple of health scares that put my mortality front and center in my life. So now, as I look down the road to the years ahead, I realize you can’t do everything you want. If you’re lucky, and if you work hard and smart, you get a chance to do some of the things you want. But there are always choices which once made, effectively cut off other possibilities.

And I’m okay with that. I’ve reached the point where that fact doesn’t frustrate me anymore. Yes, I could be living in a pied-a-terre in Paris or in a cottage by the ocean. I could have an MFA or work as a district attorney. I could have five kids and twice as many grandchildren. I could own my own restaurant or bookstore. But none of those lives were the one I wanted enough to pursue them. And now I can always invent a character who owns a bakery, or is a lawyer, or lives in Europe, and crawl inside their skin for a while.

So in a funny way, becoming a writer means I’ve achieved that childhood goal.

I can be everything I ever wanted to be.


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