The Last Word

Expecting the best and preparing for the worst is a worn cliché for a reason. We have each heard it perhaps 10 million times in our lives. Planning is a good practice — it’s a valuable life skill we all need.

When it comes to planning for the holidays, many of us envision well ahead of time where we will spend Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve and Day and with whom — maybe what we will eat and share, and where. The deep planners figure out their outfits. (And yes, I am one of them, so there are no fashion repeats in the photos posted on Facebook.)

I came to this ritualistic overplanning naturally. My mother raised the six of us in the 60s and 70s with lists, meal plans and itineraries so thoroughly detailed that deviating from them seemed ludicrous.

Our family vacations were planned months ahead with my mom sending away in the mail for reservations at museums and restaurants after reading about them in city and regional guidebooks she checked out from the library. The night before our family vacations, my father was in the garage placing eight pre-packed suitcases on the luggage rack of the Chrysler station wagon, with a diagram of where each suitcase would go.

Winging it is not in my DNA. Living in the moment was reckless and not what good parents did — not what responsible sons and daughters did.

I still put the names of the side dishes (stuffing, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes) to be served in the appropriate dishes on the sideboard in the dining room a day ahead of the main holiday event. My sister Maureen does it up to two weeks ahead.

I plan what to pack for a business trip. I plan what to pack for a weekend getaway. I plan meals for the week, noting what leftovers can turn into a lunch reheat. I plan my haircuts just under the wire before someone asks innocently, “What happened to your hair?”

My middle son, Brendan, is planning his wedding next fall. And I am trying not to exert my overplanning habits onto his life event, but I have already secured the spot for the rehearsal dinner.

Yes, a well-planned life is a well-lived life. But recently what I have learned — no, what has been forced upon me — is that planning leads to expectation and expectations lead to disappointment if you don’t allow for the possibility that everything you planned might get jettisoned out the window.

All you can control is yourself and your behavior — nothing and no one must bend to your plans.

If the pandemic of the past nearly three years has taught the world anything it is that you can’t plan for much. You cannot anticipate an illness, a sudden death, accident, severe weather event, change of heart, shock, or even a blessing that changes your life forever.

You can have everything diagrammed and labelled, but unless you leave the door open for mercurial happenstance and sudden change, you are bound for disillusionment and sameness.

At first glance that may seem pessimistic, but when you immerse yourself in the possibility of life unfolding instead of being pressed and starched into folds, it is freeing. You can enjoy what happens spontaneously and stop prepping for disaster. Instead, you are hoping for daily miracles. For the record, my late mother would never approve of living in the moment.

Yes, I still take photos for the family holiday cards in the summer because one year I did not and ended up taking the holiday photo on Christmas Eve when all of us were together in one place. But I am new to lowering expectations for myself and understanding that planning doesn’t always make it so. Since the holidays for my family were cancelled last year due to COVID, I learned that planning ahead was to my detriment. Concentrating on what did not go as planned disallowed me from celebrating what was right in front of me.

What I plan to do going forward is applaud the joy I can create for myself and others in stolen moments, unexpected and unchained from rigid prescriptions. I cannot plan for every eventuality. But I can plan to embrace whatever comes my way with generosity, forgiveness, an open heart and unscripted possibility.