* Editor’s note: Marion is off this week. This column has been edited slightly since it first appeared in 2007.
At a birthday party, a man I’ve known for 30 years made a comment that got me thinking.
He said, “My life divides up according to my physical injuries. You know, the five years after I broke my leg in two places, the 10 years after I was injured on the job, the seven years of back trouble.”
A life divided by illnesses is not unusual.
Does my life have markers like that?
As I mulled that over, another friend spoke up.
“Mine divides according to what I ate. There was my Southern food period, while I was growing up, the macrobiotic diet when I became aware of ‘health food,’ and now an Ayurvedic diet, based on my body type and lifestyle.”
My husband wasn’t in on this conversation, but his life divides according to his enthusiasms. In youth, photography. When I met him, cooking and whitewater rafting. During our marriage, he added breadwinning, music, woodworking, kayaking, and now a fishing obsession.
Sometimes I wish he’d just spend a day on the couch.
It’s hard, however, to see my own pattern.
Superficially, my life can be divided by schools and their locations: grade school, secondary school, and college on the East Coast, graduate school in the Midwest, and finally UC Davis, although I was a staff member here, not a student.
My life can also be divided by jobs: secretary and editorial assistant in my mid-20s, then a staff consultant at UCD, and finally a lecturer, first in rhetoric and later in English composition. When that job ended, I turned to writing.
But listing schools or jobs makes me feel as if I’m describing a skeleton, not the real me.
Maybe I can get closer to my own life dividers by thinking about relationships.
I had a six-year longing-for-a-boyfriend phase that ended in 11th grade when I found one, a 10-year wild-girl phase in my 20s, five years of marrying and getting used to it, 20 years of raising children with my husband, and five years of adjusting to their leaving the nest. My husband will be my main companion in the next phase, God willing, and I wouldn’t mind a grandchild or two.
I don’t feel I’m describing a skeleton when I talk about relationships — nothing is more important than my family — but I’m not sure that other people can be my life dividers.
Maybe I need to look at my life in terms of decisions. I’ve made a bunch of conventional decisions — go to college, marry, have children, build a retirement home — but they never felt conventional to me. Some of these decisions were difficult and felt like major markers in my life; others were easy but turned out to have significant consequences.
An example of the latter was my decision, at age 25, to follow my then-boyfriend Jerry to California when he was called to the Air Force. We broke up a year later.
I stayed here anyway, which turned out to be a momentous decision. Everything important and lasting, from my husband to my passion for the river, started with moving to California. At the time, it seemed as if the Air Force got the ball rolling, but in fact the key decisions were mine.
Sometimes I think of my life as if it were map, a map of a river. At its simplest level, the map shows a squiggly line. But over that line, a cartographer could place a second map, perhaps on clear plastic, that would show the elevations of the mountains surrounding the river. Onto that he could add a layer of botanical information, or something about the animals or the climate.
Pretty soon such a map would become very complicated.
When information becomes too complicated, people seek a way to simplify and, describing their lives, might say “mine is divided by injuries” or “mine is divided by food.” Each of these is a layer on the map: the truth and yet only part of the truth.
Looking at the lives of my friends, some seem divided by career, some by marriage and divorce, some by moves from one place to another. You have to know a person better to see divisions by injury or diet. You have to know them better still to see the decisions they made and even better to know how they made those decisions.
Here’s my wish for myself now in my 60s.
Even though I won’t be able to avoid my life being marked by illnesses and death as I grow older — I’ve already seen my parents’ deaths, my own eye trouble, the health problems of those near and dear to me — I hope my life will fall into phases according to some other pattern. Not injuries. Not what I eat. Not illness.
Decisions would be nice.
My husband’s style — enthusiasms — would be even better.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org