When we were getting ready to move, my 10-year-old daughter and I walked through the new house just after closing. That day, as we went from empty room to empty room, we talked about where the furniture would go and which walls we would paint. As she left the bedroom that would be hers, she spoke in a voice both hesitant and hopeful: “I think I could be neater here.”
Amelia is congenital pack rat. The most generous way to describe her natural habitat is as creative chaos. Other terms include health hazard and pigsty. But that day, in her imagination, she would be transformed by this new house, morphing her from Oscar to Felix. (It didn’t work out that way.)
So many ways I’ve had the same fantasy! It’s always an outside stimulus that magically makes me better: a great outfit will make me sophisticated and graceful instead of klutzy! (I still trip over air.) The upgraded kitchen will inspire me to cook better meals! (Only sporadically.) It usually lasts for approximately 20 minutes after the purchase has been made, at which point you look around, and there you are.
There’s a passage in one of my favorite novels, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, that touches on this phenomenon.
…I bought a new Dodge sedan, a Red Ram Six…just the thing, it seemed to me, for a young Gentilly businessman. When I first slid under the wheel to drive it, it seemed that everything was in order…. [Yet] I discovered to my dismay that my fine new Dodge was a regular incubator of malaise. Though it was comfortable enough, though it ran like a clock, though we went spinning along in perfect comfort and with a perfect view of the scenery like the American couple in the Dodge ad, the malaise quickly became suffocating.
There you are. The things we buy and the adornments we choose do nothing to stave off our essential condition. The magic is gone.
In all of these examples, we imagine we will be changed by external forces; acted upon as if by magic spell. Given our magical thinking about Cinderella transformations, it’s stunning how difficult it is to truly imagine changing. Being different.
Without the magic wand, how could we? Our essential selves seem so fixed. It’s a bit like when you’re depressed, and you can’t imagine ever feeling happy again. It’s hard to think, then, that a therapist or antidepressants could possibly make a difference — it just seems permanent. So it is with so many things we believe to be true about our deepest identities. I am the class clown. I am the life of the party. I am a drama queen. I am a loner. Something different might happen to you, but actually being different? Not so much.
I am a person who deeply loathes sports. Sweating is my kryptonite. I am not an athlete.
Those are some of my fixed characteristics — or at least fixed since I was 12 or 13 years old. That’s why what I’m about to show you is so amazing to me.
I am resisting my impulse to explain that it’s easy to be “most improved” when you start all the way in the 14th subbasement level of ability. I am currently deciding whether to bring it to work to keep on my desk, display it prominently on the mantel in my home, or sleep with it under my pillow. That right there, my friend, is an actual TROPHY for a thing that involves sweating and (mostly) not tripping. A TROPHY.
Day to day, I’m usually taking the road in front of me on autopilot, assuming that the route today is exactly the same as the route I took yesterday. During harder times, it feels like you’re lost in the woods, wandering aimlessly, looking to get back to your campsite. (This is metaphorical camping: I am not a camper and never ever will be.)
And then one day, someone makes you stop and be still and look around, and you realize that you’re not where you thought you were. Each of the tiny steps of the days preceding have led you to somewhere new — someone new. It wasn’t a magic wand. But it’s a little bit magical.