I was going through some old papers and found a list I’d written before I’d gotten married six years ago. It said:

Write a book
-nonfictional – about my experiences
-fictional – use experiences I have had or heard about to create a novel

Live in 10 different cities

Live outside of the U.S. at least twice

Own my own business/co-run a small business

Learn to use another language
-read books
-talk to people

Create artistic purses and handbags using recycled materials

Learn how to cook gumbo and orange cake like Grandma, learn how to make sushi, and some ethnic foods, like paella. Learn bartending skills.

Be able to comfortably wear a size 10

Have sex 3 or 4 times per week

Learn to drive stick shift

Do something to inspire political awareness in the general public

Learn to play at least one sport regularly and enjoy it

Stop letting obsessions cancel out joy

Learn how to dance and keep time to music

Enjoy the moment, look forward to the future, and stop living “in the meantime”

Realize if I want things done I will have to be the first to start, and not by comparing what I do to what everyone else does

Reading this list made a few things clear to me. First, that I’ve accomplished more of it than I realized. Second is that if I was to write it again today it would be changed a little bit. Third, these are all things that I wanted to do, not things I felt obligated to do or compelled by others to accomplish, and somehow that fact changes everything, in a good way. Fourth, I realized that most of the things I haven’t done or currently aren’t doing are still goals of mine, and not pie-in-the-sky ones, but ones that I intend to accomplish.

Then I thought about what wasn’t included on this list, what I’d want to add, what I noticed that I’d left off. My list didn’t include my husband. I was surprised that given the mindset I’d had back then that it didn’t, but it makes sense. After all, it was my list, not his. I had hoped he would be there in my life and we could share and enjoy these things together but now we are getting a divorce, he is not there, and my life can and still will go on, can and still will have quality experiences, love, and meaning, stuff that I always wanted.

It was a heartening thought, made me feel more confident, and also got me thinking. Women raised in the Quiverfull movement were never expected to write lists like this and I imagine most were actively dissuaded from it, such things being viewed as “selfish,” “self-serving,” “careerist,” “feminist,” and “not God-honoring.” Instead the kinds of lists you were supposed to write were about what you wanted in a future spouse, or what you could improve about yourself, or stuff about how you could get more out of your grocery list or meal plan. Because everything was supposed to be about the domestic or spiritual sphere, focused on self-sacrifice and self-denial as personal improvement, what was viewed as “best” was essentially being like Jesus on the cross, silently suffering, shedding your wants, desires, personal dreams, and your very own skin if need be, in a perpetually tortuous state. This martyr glorification inspired a lot of self-loathing, self-doubt, and fears of not being a good person simply due to having more of a self-preservation instinct than that mindset allowed.

When influenced by this extreme perspective, the rational idea that before you can take proper care of others you have to take proper care or yourself gets ignored. Everything becomes a spiritual battle and the physical side of life, the real flesh and blood parts, are what get portrayed as fleeting ghosts and shadows.

So I was raised in this world where the prevailing idea was that self-denial, self-sacrifice, and consistency in them were the best traits that a woman could have, that they would help you be the right kind of wife and mother since all other ways of living were described as terrible women senselessly harming their families. I always feared that I would never be any good at relationships because I refused to give up my “selfishness.” According to that narrative I deserved to have the worst punishment – be alone, never loved, an “old maid” with the scarlet letter of being far too self-absorbed, opinionated, oppositional, and non-traditional to find any decent man. After all, there were many more women out there that were better than me, less selfish, more submissive.

I heard this narrative so much that I kind of believed it. I ignored red flags in my relationship, pretended like everything was fine when it wasn’t, and when I thought about leaving my mind prepared for extreme misery and the perils of forever being alone.

I’d gotten someone better than I’d ever imagined I could as a girl, but looking back perhaps that wasn’t so hard since the main example I had of what a husband was was my father. I had a husband who never yelled, who had a decent job, who didn’t curse, smoke, drink to excess or cheat, and he was handsome too, tall and healthy. It was only later that I realized that you don’t give someone a cookie for that, that in the real world there are no prizes for all the negative things that they’re not. You don’t define them as being awesome, the best you can get, the nicest guy, simply because they don’t do certain awful things or have certain terrible problems. A good partner should be supportive, communicative, passionate, well aligned with you in terms of shared life goals, and have a positive impact on your daily life more often than not, or else they shouldn’t be there – else you shouldn’t be in the relationship.

Fact is I was staying in a painfully underwhelming relationship because I was afraid that I would be even more painfully unhappy to lose it. I had been raised to be more scared of the concept of heartbreak than the idea of a limb being amputated, and that has turned out to be an irrational and seriously overblown fear.

I am in transition, which is stressful, but the pain has faded a lot faster than I imagined it would. Heartbreak sucks but its not the end of the world. I am already much happier today than I was a month ago or six months ago, and I’ve come to realize that if what I had was so awesome that I don’t miss it at all, it must have not been that awesome.

Maybe this seems like a giant “duh” to some (and total heresy to others), but to me the idea has been freeing. I didn’t want this impending divorce to happen. I never got married thinking I’d ever file for divorce, not in a million years. I loved him. I still do. I just now know that the relationship was slowly killing who I was and something had to give.

I grew up hearing those stories about the pharaoh and his hardened heart and all the times I knew that my Mom was praying for my Dad, that God would “unharden his heart.” I know one thing to be true: never wait around hoping for a man to change when there’s little indication he’s going to do it. I wanted to change the dynamics but instead had to end it, since what I was trying for wasn’t ever going to work if I was the only one wanting it.

I had to be free to be a real person, a whole human being, with my quirks and issues and strange fascinations being ok, not confined to some role with a little bit of my personality on the side as a garnish. So I made the decision to leave. I still hoped me leaving would shock him out of it, make him realize what he was missing. It didn’t. So I’m getting a divorce.

I have since wondered if he and I ever had true love, and if I could ever trust another or myself again, especially with me being so sure that he was “the one.” I now figure that love is real even if the relationship doesn’t last, that the only constant in life is change, and that there is no such thing as “the one.” If there is such a thing as soulmates (and I do figure the feeling that word describes is real, because I’ve felt it) its because every human being has a soul and if you get close enough you can feel that connection with many.

A relationship is based on mutual choice, not fate, but somehow that’s a scary thought. Because if it was fate to be together forever then it couldn’t be messed it up. It couldn’t end, could it? But fact is relationships run their course and end all the time and mine did as well.

Seeing my list from six years ago was heartening at this time of need, made me feel that I am on an upward trajectory when I take the long view. I saw this diagram posted online and felt it described how I see things pretty nicely.

Despite hardship and unforeseen difficulties, I know that life is worth truly living, not just existing in, waiting for some promised reward at the end of the journey, the final destination. Everything can mess up, everything can end, heartbreak and disappointment and struggle can get you down, but there are always things you can find that are deeply meaningful and can keep you moving forward.

This old list reminded me that because I still have big dreams and goals I have a lot to do, a lot that I want to do, and today I am sure that no matter what anyone tells me, I can choose to live my life very differently than I was raised to think I could. I can broaden my horizons, keep track of what I would do if I knew I could not fail, and then add those things to my new to do list.