Each winter, I wonder how many brain cells I surrender to central heating. With my sinuses growing ever drier as I huddle indoors, I find my mind playing tricks on itself. My brain, like my body, longs for sunshine and outdoor activities. Amidst the gloomy gray of these January days, perhaps what we need is a bit of mystery. Something to ponder, a puzzle to solve. I have found mine in the form of an umbrella, and that object has become a befuddling yet exhilarating way to start each day.
I first noticed the distinctive umbrella—black and white polka dots with red fringe—cast into a neighbor’s yard during our first major snowfall. No surprise there… surely it had been discarded and forgotten. A couple of days later I noticed it in a similar position. Again, no mystery—evidently the residents of that house seemed to think the front yard an ideal umbrella stand.
But then I began to notice the umbrella’s distinctive positioning. First pointing to the house and the next day pointing away. Rotated 90 degrees. Then counterclockwise. On my morning walk with Reese the blue heeler, I began to ponder the possibilities: Pointing toward the front porch: my husband is home. Pointing away: coast is clear. Pointing to the neighbors: I’m looking to score some cocaine. Pointing to the other neighbors: cash is under the ceramic frog. Pointing straight down into the ground: well, I can’t even imagine.
The fact is that the umbrella never appeared to be simply tossed down; it always seemed to be placed precisely. What was the meaning behind this? Was there a clandestine communique taking place? Was my neighbor secretly a Soviet spy?
As I said, too much time indoors with the heat blasting.
It occurs to me that one certain trait of our middle-aged years is the lack of mystery in our lives. It’s as if we’re reading a book whose last chapter we already peeked ahead to see. We know how far our hair is going to recede and how much or little disposal income we will have; we realize that our children are not going to be Einsteins, despite having been able to discern the color teal at age two. We know which friends remain for the long haul and which ones come and go like spring breezes. We know all the flaws of our life mate, and that we love them anyway. We can innumerate the number of times we’ve stumbled on our paths, and we know it’s possible to catch ourselves.
My mother told me once that she had reached the point in her life where there was nothing left to dream about, work for, or wonder about: All the mystery was gone. At the time I found the notion preposterous, but I think I have now reached that age. I may not know the ending to my story, but I’ve gotten past the exciting climax. My characters are all well established and basically just treading water until my metaphorical book is shelved.
I can understand my mom’s position—it’s invigorating to be saving toward a bigger house, a nicer dinette set, to feel as if you’re molding clay with every bedtime story, each hug. However, a lack of mystery is not all bad. Despite the emotional harm I may have done my children over the years, they have not (yet) been approached by Jerry Springer. And although I have fleeting daydreams of refinishing my dining room table, well, why? It’s really just fine the way it is.
Recently I was approached with a career opportunity. I considered it for a few minutes, only out of respect for the person who had contacted me. I knew the answer would be no because although it sounded like a dream job, it was a dream for the me of ten years ago. It’s not that I have an aversion to learning something new; it’s not that more money or a higher position is not inherently desirable. It’s that I know where I am, and I’m content to dog paddle. I find myself at peace with this chapter of my book and want to spend as much time as possible with the characters who have lived this story with me. Basically, I’m okay with the way things have turned out. Perhaps our goal in life should not be obtaining our dreams, but in vanquishing any regrets.
And yet, in the midst of our winters, it is natural for us to crave excitement, mystery. Sometimes I wonder what life was like before I could mimic the snores of my partner, before I could predict his response to questions before I asked. I can’t remember when I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to be. And so we still look for little mysteries that come our way, like the neighborhood umbrella.
The other day the umbrella was gone from the yard; a hundred yards later I saw it hooked to a street lamp. It made me smile: life’s predictable routines still breed magic. And mystery. Treading water is underrated.