“It sounds like you don’t know what you want.”
He wasn’t wrong, but his words stung and I sat in silence holding back tears until we pulled up in front of the house.
I had gone on a day trip to Mazamitla with a new acquaintance, an American from Arizona who sold some kind of relaxation device I was skeptical of. It’s easy to make acquaintances in expat communities.
We’d had a great time on our outing, visiting the church and photographing the dramatic, vividly painted statues of Maria and Jesus and various saints. We drank cervezas and ate fish tacos and talked, though about what I don’t recall. I want to say that he knew why I was in Mexico. That he knew it wasn’t because I was an expat there, or because I had some kind of wares to sell.
On the way back, just as we were heading into the gated community in Ajijic where my parent’s house was, I spoke about the decisions I had to make. I talked about their beautiful Mexican home with its terracotta floors and its cozy enclosed garden, about how happy they had been in it all those years, about all my fond memories from previous trips out, before they fell ill.
I was reminiscing, but I was also lamenting. I didn’t want to let go.
I had been renting it out, but it was becoming difficult to maintain from so far away. Things were falling apart and in need of repair.
“It sounds like you don’t know what you want.” His tone was patronizing, as if not knowing what I wanted was something to be ashamed of. As if everyone should know what they want all the time. As if that were the important question. What I want.
I did know what I wanted: I wanted to not have to be making those kinds of decisions. I wanted for my parents to be alive. I wanted to not have to let go. I wanted this acquaintance to have a little compassion for what I was going through, for what I was feeling.
All of those things were too much to ask.
What I want
My generation was told from a very young age to figure out what we want. I would guess that this is a post-war phenomenon for the Western world; I don’t imagine that my father, who grew up during the Depression, had such indulgent notions.
Our parents bounced us around from class to class so that we might explore our talents. Dance classes, theater, gymnastics, synchronized swimming, flute, piano – what might we want to do to otherwise occupy our time outside of school? What did we like? What were we good at?
I liked watching television (and I was really good at it). I particularly liked cartoons, and while I don’t remember much about them, I do remember the public service announcements that punctuated my favorite shows on Saturday mornings. They were short and catchy with their clever songs, and they tricked me into learning things.
Zack of All Trades was one I remember well. “Don’t pout, check it out, Zack’s gonna show you what work’s about,” sung by the sultry voice of Luther Vandross.
He encouraged us to identify things we liked to do or were good at, to prepare to find a job later in life.
“Jenny benny bo benny, you’re gonna make a good penny, when you know you have many talents.” He was literally speaking right to me.
So it was easy, just look at what you like to do and what you’re good at, and you can turn it into a job.
Besides watching television, I loved to dance. It stuck more than any of the other extra-curricular activities I’d tried, so in high school I joined the School of the Arts, and continued classes in college. I was a good dancer, but not a great one; I was lazy and under-trained compared to the serious dancers, but it was what made me feel good. It was what I wanted to do.
So I told my mom, “Mom, I want to be a dancer.”
But she saw someone who was lazy and under-trained and replied, “The only way you’ll make a living dancing is as a stripper.”
I declared a major in journalism.
You get what you need
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped thinking about what I want. Maybe it was after I didn’t get into graduate school, probably because I didn’t want it badly enough, and ended up going to a private photography school instead. Maybe it was when I stopped working as a photographer, the thing I had wanted for years, to dedicate myself full time to my budding web agency. Maybe it was when I broke off the relationship that I thought I wanted so much, the one I thought would last forever.
I envy people who know what they want, those people with such a singular and unwavering focus who become surgeons and concert pianists or who’ve been practicing a same skill since they were four years old.
Envy is not the right word. Marvel is more accurate. I also marvel at how much importance we give to knowing what we want, when life doesn’t actually seem to care much. When things rarely work out how we plan, when we rarely get what we want, when what we think we want ultimately isn’t what we want at all.
I must have talked about bucket lists with friends in the past, but when he brought it up, it sounded completely foreign. I could tell that he really wanted to talk about his, but he was shy coming out with it. I inched up and brought my ear close to his face. “Go on, whisper it to me.”
He admitted that he dreamed of living on a tropical island, and starting a family there.
It didn’t really sound like a bucket list. It sounded like a lifestyle. I was glad that he shared it with me. We’d only just met. I love the feeling when someone confides in me. It’s such a great responsibility and a great honor.
I told him that not only did it sound lovely, but it sounded attainable. “Do it!” I encouraged zealously.
After the effort he made, I felt I owed him my own story. So I thought about it. What did I want to do before I die?
I wish I could remember the name of the author who said that she hoped to live long enough to write all of the books in her head, because that way I could borrow her quote and give her proper credit.
This text is originally from my newsletter, Making Connections, and may have been modified for publication here.