At my last workout at the gym in Santa Monica, my trainer introduced me to a new client, an entertainment lawyer in her midforties.
“This here’s Melinda,” Jason said, “but don’t bother her getting to know her. She’s going off to be a nun.”
“I am not!” I said, swatting Jason’s bicep. “I’m just going to Yale Divinity School.”
The woman looked stunned, almost stricken. Tears popped into her eyes. “Are you really?” she said. “I’ve always, always wanted to do that.”
“What, go to Yale Divinity School?” I said.
“No, just go do something really adventurous and brave and…and tall like that.”
I nodded my understanding of what she meant. My fear of squandering my life on short-range plans, skimpy hopes, and shrimpy dreams figured prominently into my opting for Yale’s Divinity School over convenient local seminaries.
Poet T.S. Eliot said much the same thing as the woman at the gym when he asked, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” And a yardstick of being there is when you find yourself thinking, “What on earth was I thinking!”
This state of mind is not the same as being blindsided by the unexpected, as in, “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it is sometimes difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.”
No, a la the title of Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion, what I’m talking about is a matter of extreme inspiration or, sometimes, inspiration in extremis. Think Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, hitting the trail—the Pacific Crest Trail no less—to get hold of her life.
Or take my friend Robin, who felt compelled to go and teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Arizona that was 20 miles from the nearest post office and a 90 minute drive from home and husband in Phoenix. Oh, and did I mention that she had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old at the time? And that the schoolhouse was actually a trailer—not a double-wide, just a trailer—and that she had twelve students in first through fourth grade?
“What on earth were you thinking?” I asked her.
“That this was a once in a lifetime opportunity!” she said.