On a wild, fanciful impulse, I bought a Polaroid camera during the week I graduated from college. Classes were over but our actual graduation ceremony was still days away; I had turned in my thesis that morning and, bereft of further purpose, felt oddly adrift. I wandered with a friend to a yard sale held by another graduating senior: books, clothes, furniture, everything was on sale to make way for a new, unknown life. The Polaroid camera, sitting on top of a small stack of environmental science textbooks, caught my eye.
In the midst of so much change and uncertainty, that Polaroid camera struck me as just the neatest thing. At the time, I could no more tell you where I’d be four months from then than I could fly, but I could take a picture, shake the little card, and poof! Instant gratification. A picture, fully developed. It was magic.
I bought the camera on the spot and spent the rest of the day reveling in the joy of it.
Some days I still feel like that — an intense longing just to be able to shake a card and see, right now, how it all turns out. But life doesn’t work that way. It takes a long time in the developing, and more often than not, we’re all stuck in the darkroom together.
While home for the holidays, I cleaned out part of my childhood closet and stumbled upon an old “where will you be in ten years?” essay that I had written in the fifth grade. I had to laugh out loud reading it. My vision for where I would be at age 20 was exaggeratedly glamorous and, ultimately, far less interesting than what the reality turned out to be. Among other things, my hoped-for “future self” spent a lot of time speaking archaic languages, perhaps the early influence of Indiana Jones movies, and enjoying kittens and swimming pools. That part was 100 percent fifth-grade girl. It’s nice to know that we can’t cause the future just by wishing it the way we want it. Limiting our lives to the scopes of our own imaginations would make them much more boring.
If I could go back and meet my 10-year-old self, I’m fairly sure she’d find me inconceivable.
In the apartment adjacent to mine lives a family of recently arrived immigrants. One afternoon, I asked the mother how they came to live in Baltimore. “I never planned on it,” she told me. “But it just kind of happened this way. Things happen, things that you would never expect. But here we are, making the best of it.”
Things hardly ever work out the way we plan for them to. This seems to be true for everyone, even those who had never looked for anything out of the ordinary or unexpected in their lives. One of the best parts of life is its ability to surprise you, time and again.
Andrei Linde, a physics professor at Stanford University, wrote that he once had predicted his own future. “I had a very firm prediction. I knew that I was going to die in the hospital at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow near where I worked. Why? Because I knew I would always be living in Russia. Moscow was the only place in Russia where I could do physics. This was the only hospital for the Academy of Sciences, and so on. It was quite completely predictable.” But Andrei ended up moving to the United States, a world away from his ironclad predictions. “On one of my returns to Moscow,” Linde said, “I looked at this hospital at the Academy of Sciences, and it was in ruins. There was a tree growing from the roof.
“I looked at it and I thought, What can you predict? What can you know about the future?”
When I think back today to that day with the Polaroid camera, I can still remember the delicious feeling I had of instant results, of finding out right away how the picture turned out, like stealing whipped cream off the pie hours before Thanksgiving dinner. But, despite my wishes for less uncertainty, I also remember where I did end up four months later — and that place was the geographic South Pole. Ultimately, it really is better to wait and let things unfold. If I had gone with my 10-year-old ideas — or even my 20-year-old plans — well, things just wouldn’t have been so interesting.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org