It’s always been very important to me to have a detailed, well thought-through plan for most anything that I do. It is an obsessive need for me to make a game plan and stick to it, to the best of my ability. This can be for everything from vacations to date nights, including my daily grocery store errands. If things have to change: a restaurant is closed, I get rained out, or my ingredient is out of stock; it is most often out of my control, and I’ll even have some kind of contingency plan in place. That way, I don’t panic.
This is why my life gradually became filled with guestless meals and solo-outings. Once I moved to Tennessee and lived on my own, I realized one thing very quickly: I was now the master planner. No one else but me could change my agenda.
If I search my heart, the earliest plan-related angst I can remember was in my preteens. It was over something mundane, like where we would go for dinner on a night out. I remember getting so excited for this one particular place; maybe I’d even pre-decided what I would eat, drink and wear based off previous experiences. It was all set. Then, at the last moment before going, the restaurant changed: maybe to an old staple nearby that was easier for takeout and faster overall. Maybe my parents were tired and no longer felt like going out. Maybe no one had bothered to check if they would be open that night, or to make a reservation, arriving to the place only to discover there was a 45 minute wait for a family of four. Too long to stay. We would leave, my dad looking for the nearest thing to grab on the way home. Normally a taco place like Rosa’s, or a sandwich chain like Corner Bakery. I’d be in the back seat, in my blue shirt that had been lying out on my dresser since Wednesday, trying to keep from crying. You know how brutal teenage emotions can be. We were still going out and buying food, after all. Only five years later, living on my own, would I realize that food was a harder thing to come by than I had previously assumed.
It would have been impossible to convince my parents of how big a deal our plans changing was to me. This is no one’s fault. The cosmic joke of child-rearing is that you sometimes produce offspring to whom you have no chance of relating. Maybe your brains share the same genetic material, yet you can’t for the life of you understand how they think, or why. I used to blame my parents for changing our family’s plans at the last minute, for not realizing how much mental striation it caused on my young, pliable character. Now, I can see that all they wanted to do was to get back home and take their shoes off. They were tired, and stressed from their workday, just hoping to get the family fed as nutritionally, quickly and economically as possible. After clocking in a meal, it was time to turn in, to let that stress ease off their shoulders and leave the sandbags they carried in a pile by the garage door, next to the bowl with the car keys.
I think this desire in me to plan is so strong because at some point, something or someone brought me to the conclusion that the same thing, day in and day out, is boring. If I spent my life repeating the easy, convenient things each day, I would be wasting the time I’d been given not living my life to the fullest. Sure, sometimes experiencing the new comes with road bumps and misadventures—the occasional long wait in an entryway or a bad cocktail at an unfamiliar establishment—but unless I knew that this was the best thing out there, I could never be sure.
Some have thought that this tendency means I insist upon only nice, expensive experiences: 5 star hotels, 3 Star Michelin restaurants, exclusive vacation spots that cost a boatload to get to. I need only remind them of those first five years in Nashville, which were, to say the least, lean. Instead of going for perhaps the easy, far less balanced nutritional option of $1 Mcburgers, a large supreme pizza that could feed me for several days, or a various sundry of frozen Lean Cuisines; I opted for something more thought-out on my shoestring. I would Google the hundreds of churches in town, sleuthing out the free-to-the-public potluck dinners on different nights of the week. Not knowing how to cook at this point, I had no clue that these collard greens stewed for hours, now sitting in a heated crock pot on a card table at a Church of Christ in Franklin, could be made at my apartment for cents on the dollar. That came later. Next, I noticed I was being sent tons of free coupons to the local Smoothie King in my mail each week, in a packet with other coupons for family-style bulk buying. Then, I saw in the nearest recycling bin next to the complex mailboxes, that most were recycling their coupons and not using them. So...I pooled those, and an extra large smoothie could give me enough calories for half the day, and the vitamins I needed for the entire day.
When I started touring a few years later, the same lessons applied as I traveled to new places. Sure, maybe I couldn’t go to many movies (too expensive) or local nightclubs (not safe alone in a strange city), but I could plan ahead and find the best parks or lookouts the areas had to offer, or, because for me it always comes back to food, that one crab shack on the coast that sold the freshest shucked meat that side of the Appalachians, for cents on the dollar with a cup of melted clarified butter on the side.
I saw historic Indian reservation grounds nestled in the oceanic cliff sides of the Pacific Northwest; was called “Baby” by an old woman who served me a plate of fried catfish sold from a stand on the south side of Memphis; I found the original city that Mayberry from the tv show The Andy Griffith Show was based on, complete with several commemorative bronze statues, and the real versions of the historic soda parlor and barber shop recreated in the show. I went mushrooming in the hills of northern Ohio, watched a silent, fiery sunrise alone on Virginia Beach, and tasted fresh-pressed olive oil from an orchard in Ojai, California. It was all free. And the places I found to eat, dotted all across the country in each city through which I passed, were always the best I could find for the little money I had, and most of the time, they were the best experiences that little town had to offer. I planned it all.
I sit here on the couch next to C, pouring through articles and scanning maps for locations we could visit in the coming years, cities nestled in the vast, historically dense landscape of Europe, amongst the vineyards, deserts, and mountainsides, bursting with secrets and traditions hidden to most that I am eager to uncover.
We had a date night last night, at one of the nicest dinners we’ve had since my birthday, and at one moment, blissed out on a glass of sunshine-and-orange-water-scented Chablis and clutching a special tool for holding curved shells in place with my left, while I gingerly twisted a tender escargot from its butter and parsley-encrusted hiding place with the tiny fork with my right; I marveled at the festive, historic dining room of the Grand-Chène Brasserie in which we ate, still with its original countertops and railings from its initial opening in 1914. I heard voices, all in French, chattering mirthfully around me, the streetscape outside adorned with glowing light cast off from the thousands of tiny bulbs cascading down from the rooftops of the Lausanne Palace Hotel. This was something I could never have planned.
Sitting at the table alone for a moment while C went to wash his hands, I was transported to a baby grand piano on a sunny afternoon in Dallas, in the front parlor of our home in Flower Mound. The keys warmed by the hot 4 o’clock rays, my young mind racing about school, and boys, and that inescapable feeling that there was something I couldn’t foresee, and I therefore couldn’t outrun. I penned a song that day called “Changing My Plans”, which had an intro and ending that sounded like the tick-tocking of the clock inside my head, and contained the phrase, “Time, tying my hands, changing my plans...” which echoed what inside me I knew to be fact, yet I found so impossible to come to terms with: for all my planning, I would never be fully in control. And that was the God’s honest truth. Time is the only real decider there is. The thing that shapes us all, destroys the invisible barriers between children and parents, and builds up the confidence of a woman who still sees the world out of the same eyes she did as a girl. That girl who watched plans change, her future she so perfectly laid out before her crumble. In the years that passed, she saw that things may not have mattered as much as she once thought. It was never wrong to dream, however; childlike wonder doesn’t have to be shed along with baby teeth.
I could never have planned any of this. I just had the desire to see the world, and I got very, very lucky that this was the result.