Have you noticed how something unpleasant almost always follows that phrase? It’s like “What if everything goes wrong”, or “What if s/he doesn’t like me?”, or “What if I oversleep, miss my appointment, get there late, mess up the sale, fail the exam, get that lousy teacher that hates everyone, or die young?” When have you ever had the thought “What if I’m the prettiest girl at the dance?” or “What if I score the winning goal?”, or “What if I am elected the first woman President of the United States, win the Nobel Prize at age 40, never get bald, manage to do everything in my life right?” Not often, huh?
My un-favorite “what-if” is: What if I made a mistake? This is not a little what-if, unless applied to my latest culinary endeavor which is not very frequently. No. It is applied to things like BIG decisions or -when I really go for the kill- to life itself. Something like this: What if I arrive at the end of my life and find out that I made a mistake, in other words, that I’ve done it wrong. This thought used to be enough to send me crouching into the corner, speed dialing my therapist on the phone, while my heart took the plunge and ended up somewhere around my heels. It’s a bad one and I have had several in my life.
The first time I actually remember feeling as if I were going to die under the pressure of “What-if I’ve made a mistake” was the summer after my first year at Barnard College. I was home for the almost three months that vacations usually lasted then and my plan had been to return in July to the United States, attend my best friend’s wedding in Pennsylvania and then fly back to Mexico for the rest of my vacation until the new school year began in September. My parents thought otherwise and said something like “unnecessary expense” and “college costs enough anyway”, so I was not only frustrated but faced with a decision.
The first year of college had not been what I had expected. I thought the freedom was going to be the best thing ever and, actually, I was terrified. Being able to do whatever I wanted with no one setting any rules or observing if they were obeyed had turned out to be the most devastating experience of my life till that moment. My whole first year at Barnard looked like a downward spiral of drinking, smoking, necking and petting (in those old days one DID NOT have sex which was called “going all the way”) that in my eyes had nothing to do with preparation for living a purposeful life. Somehow, attending my friend’s wedding and returning for my second year of college had become one and the same decision in my mind. Now that the wedding thing was a no-no, I took a new look at returning to college and found that I was terrified of facing another year of dissolute living. A few mornings after receiving the negative about the wedding, I announced to my parents that I wasn’t going to return to Barnard in September. I don’t remember what reason I gave –it certainly wasn’t the truth as expressed above- but I remember being very definite about it, leaving no room for discussion or persuasion. That very same day I wrote the college informing them that I was ‘taking a leave of absence’ for a year and would not be back in September. I knew damn well I wouldn’t ever be going back. I mailed the letter and went about enjoying what no longer was a vacation, but the beginning of the rest of my life.
That night, when I closed my book, turned off the light and shut my eyes to go to sleep, the WHAT-IF loomed gigantic in my mind: What if I was making a mistake? What if my father was right when he said that I was giving up the chance to get a good education and I would regret it someday? What if I had just messed up the rest of my life making a mistake that I would never ever be able to amend? The night –transformed into a Pit of Darkness- closed in around me and I felt as if I were drowning. Horror is a word that took its meaning from that night. Every imaginable misfortune in life was awaiting me behind that decision: I would never be happy, worst than that, I would always be a nobody, no one would ever love, I was doomed forever and ever. The meaning of “eternity” became very concrete and all I could think was that I wanted everything to go back to the moment before the making of such a dire mistake. I wanted to die. Fortunately, I fell asleep instead and the next morning things did not look so terrible. My parents –obviously- still loved me; I still had a home; and I had all summer to decide what on earth I wanted to do.
As it turned out, the decision was neither good nor bad but, of course, it did determine my future in a way that would not have happened had I returned to college, so it left a whole ream of possibilities to the forever unknown. I can know what wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t made the decision (I wouldn’t have married the father of my children, I wouldn’t have had those precise children, I wouldn’t have… had any of the life that I up to now have had), but I can never know what WOULD have happened if I had not made the decision so there is no way that an unknown possibility could be better or worse; it just wouldn’t make sense. This is the reason why years later I positively knew that the phrase I read in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was absolutely true: “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes”, the note said: “they don’t exist.”
So yesterday, as I was glancing through past posts on this blog, and read into the one where I was about to sell all my furniture in the apartment in Madrid, and felt the nostalgia of my past life, I could feel the “what-if-I-made-a-mistake” peeping over the edge of my eyebrows, and I smiled.
“Not possible, sweetheart” –sometimes I call myself that- “mistakes don’t exist”, I said, placing my hand over my heart and giving myself a little hug. Then I breathed deeply and looked around, and as my gaze settled on each new object that has nestled itself into place, as I noticed how the Ming Aralia (which everyone thinks is marihuana) is growing beautifully in its new surroundings, I smiled again.
“Welcome to your future,” I murmured: “you’re living it today.”