On my 27th birthday I realized that I would never be Miss America. When I shared this disappointing epiphany with a friend she asked, one eye half closed, “Was that ever actually a possibility for you?”
I never entered a single pageant, or even gave serious time to thinking about perhaps looking into considering trying out for one. Not my thing. Never was.
And I would’ve required coaching and polishing and charming-up that were orders of magnitude greater than those received by the pre-Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen if I ever hoped to make it past the handing-in-my-application stage of the process.
But when it hit me that the max age for a Miss America contestant is twenty-six, and I’d just crossed twenty-seven, a door I never intended to pass through slammed shut. That ship had sailed, like it or not.
Now I’m deep into my forti—I mean, it’s been a few years since my 27th birthday, and I’m finding myself more frequently pessimistic, cynical, and tired than I ever did in previous decades. Am I well on the path to becoming a crotchety old lady? Is a mid-life crisis right around the corner? Have I already outlived joy?
When I compare my present self to my younger self, I discover that the youthful me possessed something my ripened psyche has unintentionally abandoned: expectation.
Back then I believed that all possibilities stood wide open. Because they did. My future potentially held anything I hoped it might. I could become an ambassador to a foreign country. Or study dance and achieve prima ballerina status with a world-famous troupe. Or marry a prince. (Which I kind of did, actually.) I could climb mountains, study archeology, win a Pulitzer.
The world was my bowl of cherries, and I only had to pluck out one after another, pop them in my mouth, and feast on their sweetness.
But at a certain point the concept of opportunity cost begins to figure into life decisions: selecting one cherry means disregarding another. Walking through a certain door means not exploring the rooms behind others. Sailing into the great blue on one schooner means leaving all the others back at the dock. Time, energy, and money are finite resources: every 'yes' uttered to one pursuit necessitates either a ‘no’ or a ‘not-yet’ to everything else.
And options start to disappear all on their own, like the Miss America thing.
However, I am not yet old and spent. I should still expect to have quite a bit of time and health and strength left for the second half of my journey.
But if the long years of life are merely a narrowing hallway of ever more doors closing ever more quickly, what kind of expectation is left to me? That of watching my face and body and soul slowly shrivel? The hope of a little peace and quiet and maybe an annual vacation to Florida after the kids launch? An eventual series of hospitalizations that lead to internment in a home for the useless and easily forgotten elderly?
Egad. That’s not for me. I will not go gentle into that good night, thank you Dylan Thomas.
Although many doors of youth and beauty and impulsive zeal have closed and are closing, there are still other winding hallways, hidden alcoves, mysterious spaces left to explore. In the rooms I have chosen to investigate thus far I have discovered maps, treasures, and keys to new and different places, chambers whose doors only open to those who have learned the secrets necessary to broach them.
I may never give birth again, but I can come alongside a new mom and walk with her through post-partum depression because I’ve been in, around, and back out of that miserable, dark room.
I can write stories about the pain of abandonment and the grace of redemption, because I’ve sailed those seas and I’ve met the monsters and miracles that swim out there.
And every single day I can add something new to my bucket list to offset the experiences beside which I’ve already put a checkmark: did scuba-diving, do surfing; studied Japanese, learn Spanish; practiced cake decorating; try sculpting.
The world is still my bowl of cherries, but my appetite is more refined now. I may have less time and appetite to gorge myself, but I have greater appreciation for the choicest, tastiest, sweetest morsels.
Instead of racing through the halls and diving frantically through one door after another, I’ve constructed a better map of the grounds, and I know which rooms hold things I enjoy and things I need, and which ones are merely distractions or wastes of my dwindling time.
Rather than trimming the canvas so my ship gets to its port of destination as quickly as possible, I can stroll the deck and breathe in the sea air and practice the pleasure of simply sailing the thing.
There’s still plenty ahead.
Therefore, I’d like to invite expectation back into my life, so we can wonder together at what the days ahead might hold for us. I want to recover the ability to look at the world through the hopeful, fascinated eyes of a child, who sees innumerable possibilities and opportunities, and fewer problems and obstacles. Who lives with delight and fascination and surprise rather than despair and frustration and cynicism.
Who practices hope.
Then, when I do get to the end of things and my last door is creaking to its close, I can look back and say, with a sated appetite and a trail of joys and blessings and laughter in my wake, “Who needed a Miss America crown? I had the whole wonderful world.”
With a cherry on top.