Tucked into the corners of the mirror in my bedroom are two photos of me. In the black and white photo, I’m a young child, reaching across the table to dip my finger into a bowl of sugar. In the coloured photo, I’m a twenty-six-year-old, standing next to my sister, with a large backpack on my back and a smaller one on my front.
Mostly, I forget that the photos are there, but sometimes I catch sight of them and then I pause for a moment to remember those younger versions of me. When I’m feeling particularly reflective, as I am today, I wonder about the thoughts, fears and dreams of each of those younger versions of me.
They are both, in their own ways, reaching for sweetness. The young child, with a guilty look on her face, is trying to sneak some of the sugar before the grownups notice, snatch it away, or shame her for it. She’s already grown accustomed to being called chubby, and if she didn’t know by then, it wouldn’t be much longer before she’d find out just how undesirable it was to be fat and how shameful it was to want a little more sweetness in her life.
The young woman is standing on British soil on her first grand adventure. She’d reached for sweetness across the ocean, backpacking across Europe to feed her wanderlust. What you can’t see on the photo, though, is the engagement ring on her finger. She’s coming home from that trip to get married and settle down. It will be years before she crosses an ocean again.
Beneath the sweetness of both photos, there is an undertone of sadness. When you peel back the layers, they tell the story of a young woman who’s learning about the limitations of what she is allowed to reach for. She’s learning how far she can go before she gets pulled back. She’s learning not to want too much. She’s learning about shame and expectations and acceptability and responsibility and… all of what it means to grow up a woman.
In the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn Wang is a Chinese-American woman who runs a struggling laundromat with her husband, Waymond. Through a strange turn of events, she discovers that she’s living in a multiverse and that every choice she’s made throughout her life has created an alternate universe where another version of her continues to live out the consequences of the other option of that choice. (For example, in one, she chose not to marry and is living a successful life as a movie star.) In the Alpha Universe – the original universe – people have discovered the existence of other universes and they have found a way to “verse-jump” between them, to access the skills, memories, and bodies of their parallel universe counterparts. They have come to Evelyn for help.
The multiverse is being threatened by Jobu Tupaki, who turns out to be Evelyn’s daughter Joy, whose mind was splintered in the Alpha Universe when the Alpha version of Evelyn pushed her to extensively verse-jump and inhabit other bodies. Evelyn (the laundromat version) is tasked with stopping Jobu Tupaki in order to save the multiverse. To do so, she must verse-jump and briefly inhabit other versions of the person she could have been if she’d made other choices.
In the end (spoiler alert), she must repair a breech with her daughter and talk her out of a nihilistic, destructive view of life so that she doesn’t destroy the multiverse.
As I stand in front of the mirror, remembering those other versions of me, I can’t help but wonder what life could be like if either of those two younger versions of me had made other choices. What if young-child-me had chosen not to accept the shame imposed by a fatphobic culture and had learned to live a life of radical self-love right from the beginning? What if young-adult-me had admitted to herself just how much she loved to travel and how much she doubted that marriage was the right path, and she’d sent back the ring and extended her stay in Europe?
Where would I be now, if I hadn’t been trying so hard to live in a way that was acceptable to my family/community/religion of origin? What if I’d had – right from the start – the kind of safety and belonging I needed to know it was okay to make different choices?
I used to think it was wrong to have regrets, but then I listened to Dan Pink talk about his new book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, and now I’ve changed my tune. I’m letting myself see the places where I could have made other choices. I’m holding that regret with tenderness, not with judgement, so that I can make more conscious choices going forward.
What we only see a glimpse of in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the long-term impact of laundromat-Evelyn discovering the alternative outcomes of the choices she made throughout her life. I want the sequel, the rest of the story. Does she simply accept the status quo, accept that she’s doing the best that she can, or does she recognize the possibility for making new choices that free her from some of the restraints of the old ones? What adjustments does she make in order to live a more liberated future? How does she learn to love herself into her own wholeness?
That begs the question outside of the multiverse… Is there a moment when a person can wake up and see the past, present, and future through less clouded lenses? Is there a moment when you have both the vision and the strength to hold the possibility that your life could still turn out differently? A moment that doesn’t bury you under the weight of regret over the intervening years since those original choices were made? A moment (or, more likely, a series of moments) when you can choose a path toward a life more free of the burdens of other people’s expectations and rules, and the weight of the cultural systems that have shaped you?
I believe there is. Like Richard Rohr in the book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, I believe that most of us reach a threshold in midlife when something happens – a fall, a tragedy, a failure, a relationship breakdown – when we can choose to cling to the life we’ve worked so hard to construct (a life that lives up to the standards we thought were acceptable and that offered us safety and belonging), or we can lean into something more ambiguous, more openhearted, and more authentic. It’s a liminal space moment, when we can choose to fall into the abyss – to release the past, deconstruct the rules and expectations we were working so hard to follow, and dare to become more fully ourselves.
Like a giant game of Jenga, we construct our lives out of the pieces we’ve mostly inherited or constructed based on what we’ve been taught – belief systems, values, rules, cultural practices, relationship patterns, identity, career path, gender expression, and so on. Then, somewhere in the middle, a few pieces get knocked out of our foundation, or we choose to remove them, or we see that they are made of nothing but vapour. Then suddenly what we’ve constructed begins to tumble. Suddenly we see that what we’ve built is precariously balanced and not as sturdy as we’d imagined it to be.
We can choose to accept the deconstruction of the tower, sit in the messiness for awhile, and then find the courage and strength to carry on. Or we can desperately cling to what was and keep plugging the holes and propping up the tower.
Easter weekend always brings back memories of a particular moment when I knew my Jenga tower was about to crash. In 2011, on Easter weekend, we got confirmation that Mom had cancer that would likely kill her. At a family Easter gathering, just after we’d learned about the cancer, my former husband and I got into a big fight. On the way home, while I tried to keep the conversation restrained so our sleeping daughters in the back of the van wouldn’t hear, I told him I was ready to end the marriage and would only give it another chance if he would take the initiative to find us a marriage therapist. Then, on Sunday morning in church, after years of trying to hang onto the shards of my faith, I finally admitted to myself that I no longer knew how to find meaning in the version of the Easter story I’d always heard in church.
Two years earlier, I’d quit my job to start self-employment, but didn’t yet have a stable income. A few years before that, my dad died. That meant that the four foundational pieces on which my Jenga tower was built – marriage, faith, career, and parents – were all at risk simultaneously, some by my choice and some by forces outside my control.
I woke up on the Monday after Easter with an all-consuming sense of dread, terrified that my whole life was about to be destroyed and that my daughters would be taken down with me. For the next few years, I tried desperately to plug the holes and prop up the tower. I kept going to church and I kept trying to save my marriage. Five years later, though, everything was gone – mom had died, my marriage ended, and I stopped going to church. There was nothing but a pile of Jenga pieces on the floor at my feet.
In a game of Jenga, the toppling of the tower marks the end of the game. Life is not like that, though. Instead of marking the end of the story, deconstruction offers an invitation to write a whole new narrative. It’s the moment when you learn that you can let go of the pieces of the tower that don’t belong to you, and you can begin to build something much more sturdy, beautiful, and true. It’s the moment when you realize that the tower was probably also a cage.
My life was not destroyed the way my anxiety told me it would be. It was wobbly for awhile, and I woke up many mornings with that familiar sense of dread, but then I discovered that my deconstruction was liberating me from my tower/cage. It allowed me to tell the truth and to free myself of the parts of my life that didn’t feel true. I discovered I could build the kind of work that gave my life purpose and joy. I could grow relationships with much deeper and more authentic roots. I could search for the version of faith that felt most alive for me. I could say yes to what I loved and no to what limited me. I could find healing for the wounds left behind by the cage and I could grow in ways I never dreamed possible.
Today, when I look at those two photos of younger-me, with the reflection of current-me in the mirror between them, I invite them back into my life and I tell them that, from now on, I will do my best to be true to them. I will build a life that their dreams can be proud of. I will not let them be shamed for the ways in which they reached for sweetness. I will not let them be tethered to other people’s fears or limitations. I will continue to dismantle any of the pieces of the tower/cage that might still bind them.
Unlike laundromat-Evelyn, I can’t step into a parallel universe to discover the alternative outcomes of the choices made by either of the younger versions of me. But I can make choices on their behalf that honour and liberate them, choices less bound by whatever kept them caged.
If you find yourself at any stage of tower deconstruction or reconstruction, you might find support in my new course, Know Yourself, Free Yourself: Self-exploration as a path to liberation and love. I hope you’ll join me!