Before my parents moved from my childhood home, they deposited in my entryway a stack of boxes. I had unsuccessfully lobbied my mom to dump everything. I didn’t want to sort through my collected “stuff” and figured I had lived this long without it. But, I knew she would reject that. Her own mother had been quick to trash outgrown toys and books, and reactively my mom became the type of parent who kept everything. So, decades after I moved out and as a 40+-year-old mother of two, I begrudgingly accepted the last of my dust-covered belongings with the grace of a sulky teenager.
While much went straight into the recycling bin, there were small treasures to be found. I excavated the day planner from the year I met my husband and an acceptance letter from the internship that changed my life. And then, I found a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go.
It was beautifully inscribed by my best friend’s mother for my high school graduation. I vaguely remembered receiving the present but as I flipped through the pages, I was startled to realize I had never read it.
In one sense, that was perfectly understandable. At 17, I wasn’t the target audience for Dr. Seuss. I was distracted by friends, dance classes, and – true story – trying to manifest my own “Empire Records” summer while working at Blockbuster Music (which, yes, was a short-lived but real thing). The book was set aside as I packed for college, unaware of just how fast the next twenty years would fly.
What was truly odd was that Oh, the Places You’ll Go continued to turn up in my life.
Working in higher education, I would see themed bulletin boards with the familiar font and swoops of pastel color. At graduation, the book appeared in store window displays. My five-year-old even received an Oh, the Places You’ll Go t-shirt when he graduated from preschool.
I must have assumed I didn’t need to read it. We got the gist, right? Life is full of potential. You are capable of great things. If you build it, he will come. (Wait, no . . . scratch that last one.) It was a sweet, colorful tribute to a future full of success and happiness.
Well, not quite.
After upbeat platitudes about being “the best of the best” and soaring to new heights, the book takes a surprising turn. He writes, “Except when you don’t. Because, sometimes, you won’t.”
For your sanity (and that of my editor, who apparently doesn’t favor quoting 500+ words of someone else’s work), I’ll summarize. Twice in the book, the pacing slows to acknowledge that failure, confusion, and loneliness are to be expected. While the last pages promise success is “98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed,” that assurance follows tough love about facing up to our problems.
At 17, this would have meant absolutely nothing to me. As a 40+-year-old mother of two, it was jarring.
You know how Friends opens with “So, no one told you life was gonna be this way? . . . ” Well, someone literally did! We were told what to expect, repeatedly, in graduation gifts and book store displays. All along, the advice waited, buried deep below old planners and acceptance letters.
The part of Oh, The Places You’ll Go that lives in my head rent-free is “the waiting place.” Two pages are dedicated to Seuss-like characters pictured against a dark night. They are motionless, waiting for a call, an answer, or an opportunity. It’s a place from which to escape. And while I’m fully aware I’m getting too deep about a Dr. Seuss book, that part was just . . . wow. I know that place. I’m in that place.
Over the years we’ve waited — for more money, for more time, for kids, and then for those kids to be older. I returned again and again to the waiting place, putting trips and even shopping on hold until I could shrink my plus-size body. And of course, for the past two years, we’ve waited for vaccines, test results, quarantines, and most of all, for normal.
We all end up in the waiting place occasionally. It’s natural and sometimes even advisable.
The key is to not get stuck.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot because at present I am quite literally stuck. A severely herniated disc brought our spring plans to a screeching halt. I’m waiting for recovery, plotting a slow and steady escape toward improved mobility and independence. Unable to work, tidy up, or cook dinner, I’ve had a lot of time to think about life outside the waiting place. There are hikes to take, flights to book, and adventures to be had. I have so many places left to go.
I know it’s a little silly, and truth be told, I’m not even that big of a Dr. Seuss fan. But I like the idea of advice lying dormant, revealing itself at the moments we are ready to listen. You may not find it in a children’s book, but there are lessons to be discovered in surprising places.
Just in case, though, you should probably pick up those boxes from your parents’ house.