I have a class at the moment that seems woven together with a thread of pessimism. Cynicism, if it is actually accurate to say people can be genuinely cynical at such a young age. I asked them this morning – the last class before Christmas break – to focus on the future. I asked them to think about what would be a “good life” by their own definition. Then imagine a Christmas ten years from now and describe it in detail.
One student just wrote: I will be old.
So since my writing time today was turned on end and I’m sitting here with a glass of wine instead of a cup of coffee: Here is an open letter to my student, whom I am choosing to assume was not trying to insult me personally.
(And I will caveat that with the fact that this interpretation is not an obvious, or necessarily reality-oriented choice to make. But I believe it is the adult choice.)
Yes. If you are lucky, you will be old. By someone’s standards, at least. And old will mean whatever you think it means. But in my case – well past what you consider the threshold of old – I would not trade old for young for the world. In part, because doing so would be trading away “the world” as I know it – as I move through it, and as I experience it: within the context of all the stories I have in my head, in my heart (if I’m going to be sappy about it).
I don’t envy you the expanse of unknown you face when your heart is broken for the first time and you don’t know it will fill with love again.
I don’t envy you the overwhelming possibilities and expectations to sort through and choose – or choose by not choosing – and begin a tally of regrets.
I don’t envy you the luxury that is to “not give a F***” because you know someone else will pick up the slack to make your world maintain its status quo, someone will push or pull your resentful a** in front of the deadline so you will still get there on time. This time. For now. It is a passive – and fearful – way to live.
Your terseness, your bluster, your pain. I wouldn’t have them again.
It’s not that I don’t have my own pain. My body moves painfully in the mornings. My shoulders, my neck, my left hamstring. And I know that nothing in my moving physically through this world will get easier from here.
There is the pain of bonds stretched to a singing tautness, and bonds broken. Because the status quo, you will come to learn, is this moment and it is already gone. There I times when I am surrounded by melancholy-sweet echoes and silence, but there’s less and less noise.
My world is so much bigger than it was when I was 17. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to places that made me recognize my illiteracy, made me recognize my privilege, made me recognize my irrelevance before my own culture deemed me irrelevant. I’ve loved enough people in my life to know the limits and the limitlessness of love.
I think I have learned what perspective really is, though I’m not claiming to have mastered it. I’m not the center of the world. I know that now. But I also know that no one else has the center-of-the-world perspective, unless I give them that power in my own mind. Unless I surrender my own perspective.
These days, when I catch my reflection in the mirror I can be overwhelmed by a sense of strangeness – and a simultaneous stab of recognition: my grandmother looks back at me. A flash of memories rise: stories that are my own and not my own.
These moments used to frighten me. Now, they fill me with compassion. I suppose for who she was in my understanding, but also for who I am now and for who I have been over the years. Even the me at 17.
You. At 17.
There are movies about old people waking up in young bodies. And the often expressed dream of: if I could go back knowing what I know now. But I wouldn’t go back. I wonder how many mornings waking up without a grinding shoulder before I took it for granted. How many evenings looking at a wrinkle-free reflection in the mirror before I would worry about being “relevant” again.
Perspective isn’t a fixed state. It is a moving vantage point. It is this moment, then it is gone.
Today? I’m good. Seriously good.
A., you have no idea. And maybe – I sincerely hope – you will be lucky, and you will be old.