Check. Next.

  • Graduate high school in the top 10.
  • Get into the perfect college for me and go there.
  • Set up a group of lifelong friends.
  • Pick a major.
  • Study abroad.
  • Pick a career.
  • Get married.
  • Be a mom.
  • Etc.

Check, check, check, next: the endless loop in my brain reminding me that it is time to accomplish one thing, push it aside, and tackle what comes after. It is systematic and orderly and seems to offer a clear path to all of the things I have envisioned myself doing and being. With a list, you can’t get lost. With a list, you can’t miss something. But that list is as dangerous as it is satisfying.

Through high school and the beginning of college, I was a rigid, black and white thinker. I didn’t enjoy traveling (too stressful); I didn’t enjoy cities (too overwhelming); I didn’t enjoy nights out (too loud, and drunk people are unpredictable); I was even- brace yourself- the CONSERVATIVE Martin. All that rigidness and fear of the world was not cute. College was exactly what I needed. I, relatively quickly, relaxed. I am now a proud adrenaline junkie with a consistent urge to flee the US. That said, I haven’t fully let go of my roots. It’s not so much that I’ve become immune to stress, but that I have accepted the variation in certain situations. I’ve had travel plans change, spent time in cities, and been out enough times that I no longer fear it. I understand when the overwhelm is coming and I lean in. It’s a familiar wave; I know that if I brace my body and hold my nose, the water will come crashing down in a way that is almost fun. Look at me- I am adventurous and smart and strong and external forces don’t throw me.

It’s the seemingly big, uncontrollable, uncertain change- the change not part of the understood footnotes in the list- that still gets me. And because I can’t anticipate that change and/or plan my way out, I worry about it. What if I don’t get the internship I want next semester? Then maybe I won’t be set up for the right career path and I won’t follow the list. What if I haven’t found “the one” by 35? Then maybe I won’t be married and I won’t follow the list.

But the worrying is nearly useless. I don’t know what will happen, and bringing stress to myself about it now certainly doesn’t change the inevitable outcome. Around this time last year, on Holy Cross’ silent retreat, one of the chaplains talked about our “white-knuckle” grip on the steering wheel of life. She suggested not that we take our hands off the wheel altogether, but that we loosen our grip. We should guide our lives, but sometimes be ready to gently swerve, or to let a higher power move us. This is abroad. There are too many variables; I can’t micromanage here and home and my relationship and friendships around the world. What I can do is what I have always done: follow my instincts. I will know if something is off-kilter. I will know if it is time for a 180 degree turn.

I don’t want my life to be a never-ending series of tasks. Each stage must be lived. And life means laughter and heartbreak and gratitude and tears. We shouldn’t be able to fit our stories into lists.

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