The Christmas I was 8 or 9, I longed for two different dolls. One was a nun, the other a bride. I knew Santa would bring me one, but not both, so I was forced to choose.
The nun doll came with a starched habit, miniature rosary beads and sturdy black shoes. Her face was pale, her gaze steady.
I imagined her beside me when I said my prayers. It was hard to picture actually playing with her but just having her in my room would make me better. I’d never pull my sister’s hair or lie about having done my homework, not with her serene and virtuous eyes watching.
The bride doll wore a long satin dress with a sparkly net overlay, a veil (of course) and silver sandals. She had a blonde bubble cut, rosy lips, and eyes glassy and blue as a Milk of Magnesia bottle.
Unlike my nun, who required only her chaste habit, the bride came with a second dress with a red velvet bodice and flirty flowered skirt for life before and after the wedding.
Brides had limited scripts, too, but I could change her clothes, something it was impossible to imagine with Sister.
I finally went with the bride doll. Yet I never stopped longing for that little nun.
Many years later, I still hate making decisions. Faced with one, I agonize. I pace. Toss and turn. Make up my mind one minute and unmake it the next.
I’ve tried telling myself that having a choice is a good thing. So long as I hold options, I’m rich. I’m privileged. Italian, Thai or Ethiopian? The red boots or the black heels? A film or a book? It’s up to me, and that is wonderful. After all, it’s hard to think of a phrase more depressing than, “I have no choice.”
And yet, the very nature of choice is letting all the other tantalizing possibilities slip through the fingers. Choosing so often feels like saying goodbye — another thing I’m terrible at.
I’m not alone in this. Not everyone has as much trouble deciding between eggplant Parmesan and pad thai as I do. But when it comes to life’s momentous choices, we’ve all spent sleepless nights. Decisions about jobs, money, relationships, children or aging parents are the big, scary ones. When you’re lying awake at 3 a.m., making a choice can feel much more like a curse than a blessing.
If only we didn’t have to choose either-or and could keep every possibility open. Ask a preschooler what she wants to be when she grows up and she’ll calmly recite, “An astronaut, a gymnast and a mom.”
Yes! Me too! I’m pretty sure I became a fiction writer because I’m greedy for more than my own experience. I long to live more than one life.
Here at my keyboard, I’m always imagining myself into other skins, walking in other shoes.
(My most recent novel has a character who’s a nun. I loved writing Sister Rosa. Although I’ve been a bride, I’ve never written one.)
If only real life could be more like those choose-your-own-ending books I gave my daughters when they were growing up, back when I was (mostly) in charge of their lives.
I also gave them puzzles and blocks, shovels and buckets, clay and paints. No Barbies, definitely no bubble-headed brides. (The anatomically correct boy doll, forever naked, was a favorite, but that’s another story.) No princess-y, girly-girl stuff in our house. I wanted to bring up creators and builders, young women who knew their own strengths and who’d claim places in the world on their own terms.
And lo and behold, they did. They’ve earned advanced degrees and work in male-dominated fields like medicine and architecture. The oldest traveled widely, lived in places with names I couldn’t pronounce and had more hair-raising adventures than I ever want to hear about.
Yet when she got engaged, she immediately began planning a traditional wedding: formal hall, caterer, flowers, and, most important of all, The Dress. What? My out-of-the-box child chose to go conventional? It was the last thing I expected from her.
Her sisters went shopping with her and giddily texted me photos. The dress they all loved was floor-length with a train and a lacy, sparkly overlay. A veil. Crazy expensive and she was paying. I bit my tongue and said it was beautiful, when what I wanted to cry was, “Really? You want to look like a bride doll?”
When she came down the aisle on her wedding day, she forgot to walk slowly. She was that eager and happy. It turned out to be a wonderful day, one of the happiest in all our lives.
As I watched her dance in that silly, gorgeous dress, it came to me that maybe life is more generous than I’d thought. Maybe we don’t always have to choose. We can be both strong and drop-dead beautiful, rebellious and old-fashioned in turn. We can lead lives that are spiritual and contemplative, assertive and active, at the same time.
Something inside us will always resist choosing, because the human spirit resists boundaries. Its capacity is infinite.
Part of us will always reject either-or and want both, want all. Maybe, I thought, that’s the part we should cherish most.