This afternoon I am attending a baby shower for my daughter-in-law, Ashley, who is giving birth to my first grandchild in March.
A year ago today my son didn’t even have a girlfriend; he and Ashley hadn’t yet met.
A year ago I was teaching as a visiting professor at a small college in Indiana, wondering how I was going to navigate my return to a decade more of teaching at a large research university in Colorado.
Now I am counting down the final days of my last semester as a professor at CU. I ended up applying for and accepting an early retirement offer that I didn’t even know existed a year ago, so that I could devote myself full time to my career as a children’s book writer.
2013 was for me a year of surprises: massive, mega-surprises. Surprising things happened to me and my family. I was equally surprised by the things I myself did.
Many authors report that they are constantly surprised by what happens in the books they are writing. Their characters end up doing and saying things their creators never imagined. This hasn’t happened to me all that often. The one most striking time was when I wrote my middle-grade novel Dinah in Love. I had planned on writing a novel of unrequited sixth-grade love, as unrequited love has been quite a personal specialty of mine. I sat down to write chapter 1, where Dinah Seabrooke would meet Nick Tribble and fall in love. But instead, when Dinah met Nick, she fell in hate. In fact, she hated the very “marrow of his moldy bones.” So the book became a traditional romantic comedy, where the two protagonists hate, hate, hate each other all the way through the story, right up until the moment when they . . . don’t.
Dinah did surprise me. But more often than I’ve been surprised by my characters and what happens to them, I’ve been surprised by myself and what happens to me.
Of course, this prompts the thought that 2014 has the potential to be filled with its own massive, mega-surprises, surprises that could be either heartwarming or heartbreaking. One of my books could become a runaway bestseller (exceedingly unlikely); I could have a beloved editor vanish on me (vastly more likely). Doctors could deliver bad news. My other son could run off with a new love and blissfully start his own new family. I could find myself hankering to write a book in some genre I’ve never yet tried: creative nonfiction, poetry.
It doesn’t do to dwell too much on life’s radical uncertainty. It generates too much vertigo to peer too deeply into that dizzying abyss.
Instead all we can do is take all-purpose measures to prepare ourselves for whatever comes. I know I maximize my chances of surviving life and career surprises if I write every day, walk every day, read as widely as I can, and prioritize close connections with friends and family. It’s a good idea to keep my weight under control and make healthy eating choices, to spend less than I earn, and engage in meaningful spiritual practices. I’ll never be sorry I did any of those things, whatever comes.
For the one thing I know with certainty is that I can know nothing with certainty. Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Ain’t that the terrifying – and wonderful – truth.