What's In Store For My Future?

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What's In Store For My Future?
It wasn't logical for me to be so bereft when I sent my youngest off to college; he'd been a busy high school student, out more often than not. But, as I explained to the friends willing to listen (who all still had kids at home and responded by rolling their eyes and saying things like "What I wouldn't give for three days alone!"), it's not about the empty house; it's about the way you think about the empty house. With both of my children gone, I saw hours and days and years of nothing stretching into the distance.

I was busy enough—I'm a writer, and was in the midst of a new book—but I needed something else, something new. The previous year I'd helped my son and some of his friends with their college applications, so I called his high school and offered my services to the program that helps first-generation students pursue a degree. I told these kids what I told my own children: Go with an open mind. Try things out. Sure, you're planning to major in history—why not take, say, astronomy? You want to be a doctor—sign up for a poetry class. It moved me to imagine their futures, full of possibility.

But I couldn't see my own future in the same way. The emptiness I felt persisted. I glanced into my kids' bedrooms a few times a week, as if something might have changed. Always, the neatly made bed. Always, the dresser drawers fully closed.

It was time to get radical. Because I work at home and am single, I could go anywhere, so I decided to do exactly that—I would relocate temporarily to New York, where I'd lived at that other time of immense change, the first few years after college. I found a lovely couple from India to rent my house in California, and I sublet a small apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There, when I wasn't working, I immersed myself in the life of the city, reconnecting with old friends, making new ones. Flying back to San Francisco at the end of my two-month stay, I thought I'd do it again, maybe even the following year.

And that's when it came to me. The future shouldn't be about finding just the right thing to fill the void left by my children. I didn't need a specific solution; I needed a new outlook. For most of my life I'd lived according to one program or another: go to school, find a career, start a family, work hard. Maybe the program for this next part of life was to let go of programs, as much as I could—to embrace the practice of trying new things. Go with an open mind, I'd told the high school students I worked with. Try things out. Good advice at 18, still good at 55. My future can—I'm determined that it will—hold activities and adventures and people I haven't yet dreamed of. We turn a corner, see a row of doors. We can open them all.

—Ann Packer, author of, most recently, the forthcoming novel The Children's Crusade