I recently saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which stars Ben Stiller in the role of 42-year-old Walter Mitty. Walter is a quiet, mild, play-it-safe kind of guy who frequently escapes into vivid daydreams in which he is a superhero doing all the daring and admirable things that he can’t or won’t do in real life. And then one day he changes. It was a sweet, silly, funny, inspiring, predictable Hollywood movie which the three middle-aged people in my party enjoyed, in large part because we could all see a bit of ourselves in it. Or, perhaps, I should speak only for myself.
I was that quiet, play-it-safe kind of gal, for a very long time. Circumstances created her just as they had created Walter Mitty, who was a mohawk-bearing, skateboarding teenager until his father suddenly died. Left with little savings, Walter picked up two part-time jobs that same week, and the seed of the risk-averse and conservative adult was planted. Early on my immigrant parents had drummed into my head that security was #1. Save money and stay close to home. Find a career that offers lifetime stability. Marry a husband from the same ethnic group and same city. Change was bad, as were uncertainty and excitement.
I went along with all of this, until I no longer could.
I still remember a recurring dream that I had for a year, one that awoke me with my heart racing every time. I was in an enormous place – a building, or a house – with no visible exit. The owners of the place were planning to kill me, but they would also kill me if I tried to escape.
At the end of that year, a series of opportunities fell into place and I won a one-year traveling fellowship to Japan. The moment I made that decision to move, my recurring dream stopped. The owners in my dream were my parents, whose expectations of me to stay close to them and to follow their instructed path were beginning to stifle me.
One year in Japan turned into eight, and it was there that I met Max, became a mother, created a professional name and started a business. Because of what I experienced and how much I grew, I will encourage Fred to one day consider living abroad, even if it means having him an ocean apart.
So I have my break-out adventure under my belt, a handful of experiences checked off my bucket list. But now, in my 40s, I feel that I’ve come full circle. For the last ten years, ever since I became a parent and a work-from-home business owner, I’ve retreated…retreated from the larger world I used to be a part of and from the larger person that I used to be. Instead of wanting more, I want the same. I wonder where that hunger has gone, that almost insatiable craving to live out of my comfort zone.
It’s a natural progression, you might say; maybe evolution or biology requires me to crave and create security during my early mothering years. In Japanese the word for wife is okusan, literally, “the one deep within/inside.” Without conforming to anyone’s expectations, I have become her, the one deep inside.
The other reasoning, equally valid, is the fact that my eight years in Tokyo were so intense. 70-hour work weeks. Constant pressure under the gun of being terminated to produce and to add to the company’s bottom line. Elbow-to-elbow everyone and everything and everywhere. Language barriers, cultural adjustments. Every minute of every day was a trip beyond my comfort zone. I think I’ve since swung the other direction because I’ve been seeking equilibrium.
The problem now is that, after nine years of this quiet life – which, to be quite honest, I very much enjoyed the first eight years – I’m starting to feel a bit Walter Mitty-ish. I like my lifestyle but I don’t; I’m comfortable but I’m not. What I do know is that I don’t want to go back to my previous life. I don’t want to work 60 or 70 hours a week; I don’t want the stress of networking and being “out there” and making a name. Maybe my life cycle is eight years in one direction, eight years in another. Maybe it’s also the fact that my son is turning ten. He no longer needs my constant care; he’s growing, and so am I, or so I have to. The question now is, in what direction do I go? How do I want to live? Because that young woman in Japan, the one who reveled in being free and unencumbered and in securing each new professional rung on the ladder, no longer exists.