I think the most pernicious thoughts in my existence start with a “what if…” and then the death sentence: “What if I’m doing it wrong” (it being life itself), and what if I don’t find out till the day I die. What if I have made a mistake and there is no going back. What if I have lost the opportunity to… what? Do it right!
Although it can happen at any moment, panic loves to arrive about 3 a.m. when there is nothing around to distract me from that drowning feeling that everything is all over, that I have had a chance and botched it, no more chances: I’ve done it wrong.
It was shortly after having moved to Salies that the last remembered “what if” panic hit. Everything gone! The apartment rented! No going back! OMG! What if it was a terrible mistake; what if I regret this for the rest of my life. What if, what if…
As I sat alone in the restaurant of a local hotel waiting for my plat de jour, looking out the window at the leafless trees and paling grass of a cold January day, the “what if” crunched my heart. What if I had made a mistake and now it was too late. Even if I did go back to Madrid, there was nothing to go back to. I heard in my head my daughter’s voice: “Why do you always have to be so drastic?”
Then I remembered another time. I was 18 and had come home from Barnard College for summer vacation. I had not been happy at Barnard –as a matter of fact I had been terrified of the way my life seemed to be going there- but I was planning to go back for my 2nd year, solely in order to attend my best friend’s wedding. My parents, however, informed me that this was not to be. I could not go to my friend’s wedding because it meant an extra expense that they couldn’t or wouldn’t cover at that moment. Without the wedding, there was nothing to make me want to go back to college, so I decided not to continue my education but rather to stay home where I felt safe.
Once the decision was taken, once I had faced my father’s disappointment, once I had sent the final letter, the horror set in: “What if I have made a mistake and my whole life is ruined.” It was then, in the middle of the night, in the dark and quiet room where I lay realizing that all of my Destiny had changed with that one decision, that panic set in and “what if” became the key to my own private torture chamber.
Of course, it is not possible ever to know what would have been if I had not taken that decision, so there is nothing but horror at the end of the question. Every single one of those unimagined and unlived moments, that vast ocean of ignorance for one to drown in again and again, the future that might have been and now will never exist, turns into a living hell in the terror of the moment: What if I have made the wrong decision?
The second time I remember it happening was a week before my wedding: What if it turns out I don´t really love him, what if he is not the One? What if I am terribly unhappy, what if it doesn’t work out? My mother heard me crying and came to sit with me on my bed. She told me we could call the wedding off if I wasn’t sure. But what if I called it off and then discovered that He was the Right one and it was too late? What if no one else ever wanted to marry me? Eventually, the mind must find peace in the what is, and leave go of the what if. I was married a week later.
Then again, when my second husband and I decided to move from Mexico to Madrid, there was another what if? Panic! In the middle of the night: What if we don’t like it, what if his business doesn’t work, what if… what if… it is the wrong decision?
I remember calming myself with the thought that if it didn’t work out we could always come back. But we had sold most of our furniture and put the house up for sale. We had shipped the rest across the ocean and signed a rent contract in Madrid for two years. My husband had closed down his business, hoping to start a new one in Spain. There would be no coming back, at least not for me, although my husband left after nine months. There is no going back ever. Change happens and nothing is ever the same. The past doesn’t exist; we could never go back to it.
So in four life-shaping moments I have felt the what-if panic and yet never been sorry for any one of the “decisions” that led to those moments. And I have put the word “decisions” in quotes because, as Shakespeare would say, “there’s the rub”. The whole posing of the question is downright wrong from the beginning. What if is short for “what if I take the wrong decision”. But did I ever really decide anything? What if there is NEVER any such decision to be taken?
The Barnard “decision” hadn’t been mine. The only reason I was going back to college was because I wanted to go to my friend’s wedding; it had nothing to do with the college. What I was doing and experiencing in Barnard was terrifying me, I felt I was losing myself. When my parents didn’t let me go to the wedding (and how could they know it was the only reason I wanted to go back) there was no decision to take: my whole being balked at the thought of returning and the decision had been taken for me.
The “decision” to get married… I was 20 and from the photographs, pretty good looking, but for some strange reason, I thought this was my last chance; my father had the bizarre notion that if I didn’t marry this candidate, I would become a nun. I had already broken off our relationship once and then spent 3 days crying before coming back to it; another break would be definite. It was a no-brainer. I got married. What decision? I had thirty years with the man who fathered my two beautiful children and most of them were pretty good.
Long before I moved to Madrid, I had visited the city and gone with a cousin for a card reading. Towards the end of the session (and everything the woman said I wrote down and watched as it happened) she said “You aren’t going to die either in Mexico or in New York (where I lived and where I had been born)” and in my mind I immediately heard “I’ll die in Madrid”; it was like a certainty, like an announcement. At that moment, it seemed absurd; I even thought that it would have to be in a plane crash when arriving here from Mexico. But I can see now that the decision was already taken, so that a year later, when my husband said that, due to the economic crisis in Mexico, he wished we could go and live in the United States, I simply pronounced the words that would seal my fate: “I don’t want to live in the US but if you want we could move to Madrid.”
And Salies, well that was even more obvious. It was the third time I was coming up to spend August here. I was a couple of hours out and thinking about being bored with the experience I had had the previous two summers because there were no French courses to take and my one-month visit didn’t give me time to get to know anyone or integrate in the town’s activities. I was wondering in my mind if I should look for a new place to spend summer months, when a voice asked: “Why don’t you move to Salies?” Again, as in other life-changing instances, it was not ‘my thought’; it wasn’t anything that was in my conscious mind: it was a question that came from nowhere, and that even seemed absurd at the moment as I was in the process of judging the place dull and boring.
But then, during my stay in Salies, I found myself drifting past Real Estate offices and looking at the ads in the windows. Finally, I went in to one that announced Spanish and English spoken and said I was interested in looking at some apartments. After seeing three or four that were absurdly expensive (I calculated I could rent one for about 60 years for the price I would pay to buy it) I apologized and said I really wasn’t interested in buying and probably would rent something.
“Oh, that’s great!” the realtor exclaimed; “I have just the thing for you.” And he took me to the perfect bachelor’s apartment and I rented it on the spot, paying a whole year’s rent on the condition that they redo and equip it. There was no decision: I just found myself going through all the motions. After that was done, I told my children in an e-mail not to worry, I was not going to move to Salies. Now, I couldn’t have done that if I had taken a decision could I have?
It was not until driving back to Madrid from Salies, with no idea in the world why I had just rented an apartment, that the realization came to me (I had nothing to do with it) that my dream of getting rid of all the stuff I had accumulated over the years was now possible if I moved to Salies! Not only that, but as there was a perfect someone to take over the workshops I gave in Madrid, someone who was a dear friend and had trained with me, well I was free to go. Such a joy entered me that I didn’t doubt, even when I saw all my things (grandmother’s dining table, mom’s sideboard, pictures, books, sofas, chairs, rugs… everything I had been given or bought over the years) leave with other people. It was a gift to see how happy they were to have all my old stuff (I say stuff but there were very nice antiques, and lovely bronze and glass furniture, beautiful sculptures and paintings, and almost all my books). The sale garnered me over 36,000 euros and there was so little left that the movers only charged me 500 euros to take it to France.
After my brief “what-if” moment during that lunch in the Casino, I soon found all the delights of living in a small town surrounded by countryside of rolling hills and deep forests and I am going on six years since that life-changing… I was going to say “decision”, but that isn’t possible, is it?
Far from regret, I find only joy in what life has chosen for me. Will I stay here, some people ask? How would I know? I am not the one making the decisions, so I don’t worry about it. A higher consciousness is at work here: No mistakes, no what-if’s. Only peace and –as Katie says– ‘following the simple instructions’.