I know other people have these too, these other selves, these other lives they have, that come out in aching moments in their dreams, or when they are driving to some familiar place and they do not have to concentrate on the roads, and so their active mind rests and out comes another self that could have been, another life lived.
Is it that other person you could have married? Is it that other place you almost lived? Is it that one job you almost took? Sometimes too, sometimes it’s not aching, sometimes it comes across in a joyous rush, that you could have taken that one path that was so terribly, plainly destructive for you, and you didn’t. Those moments are cause for celebration.
Usually I’m altogether too aware of a different self I could have been, if I’d made one slightly different choice, if I’d given that one person just one more chance, if someone, somewhere, hadn’t changed their mind.
It happens most for me with places, maybe because I’m a place person, maybe because the military made it happen so often that we had so many choices we could have gone each time, so many places where people said, ‘yes, this is the plan’, but then it wasn’t, and somewhere else glided in instead. And maybe it’s my active imagination, but while I’m waiting I always build whole lives there. It helps me see myself in these places, it gives me joy to know these paths that I may never walk.
I research houses, I look up stores, I study the culture. Even when I know it is not certain, it gives me something to hold on to, and even when it doesn’t come to pass, it gives me something new, a different me that could have been, a whole long string of imaginations, a whole pack and parcel of different versions of myself.
Most recently, it happened for Kenosha, Wisconsin, when for a month or so we thought we would be heading there. I looked up all the schools, I found the bike trails, I mentally walked the boardwalk down the lake.
I looked at houses. (The best was a wooden white one, seeing distance from the lake, big trees in front.)
Some people might say it is a waste, all that time spent doing something I would never end up living. Some might say it gets my hopes up, only to bring them down again, only to start at nothing again after I have planned out a whole life.
And rarely do I get the chance to actually see in real life the places where I have lived these imaginary stories, vivid as they are. But Joe got put on training in Kenosha the last couple weeks, so the boys and I went up to walk the streets of the lives we could have lived.
We found the boardwalk where I knew we would often go. We gasped at the coldness of the dark water. We saw the trolley lines, which because of all the research that I had done, I know is one of the only still working trolley lines in cities in North America.
We watched the sea gulls and silhouetted ourselves against the lighthouse on the point that I knew that we would find.
And just for a second, just for a couple of times in the morning, when the light was vague and distant, I thought, if I turned my head really quickly, I’d see us in the corner of my eye, the versions of ourselves that lived there that I had planned for so carefully.
But I don’t see these different lives I don’t live as a waste. I see it as a way to be a bit bigger then my small finite self, my one self that can only be in one place at one time. It’s a way of adding to my life. It’s not concrete, it’s not substantial.
But I have walked Joliet, thinking about how I would live there. I have found the perfect house in Washington, and I know the parks where we would go. I know the flight prices off the island of Puerto Rico to the neighboring Caribbean islands. I know what beach house and where exactly we would live on the sea in North Carolina. I know the neighborhoods of New Jersey.
I haven’t lived those lives, but if just one thing had been different, if just one thing had changed, I might have.