High school graduation happened for me on a hot, sticky June evening in 1999. As I sat on stage sweating, my hair growing larger and frizzier by the moment, I cared not what was being said at the podium. Instead, I was thinking about my looming escape from the shit small town where I grew up (an adolescent tale as old as time, right?). I had it all planned out: college, law school, a move to Boston (or other major metropolitan area) where I’d become a rich, high-powered attorney. It should come as no surprise that Ally McBeal was informing a lot of my understanding of what adulthood should look like, at the time. Being 18 is embarrassing, in retrospect. What did I know? I had an EYEBROW RING.
It’s 23 (!) years later, and I never went to law school. Or moved to Boston (or other major metropolitan area). And I spent many years bemoaning those facts, while also looking to some vague idea of the future as to when my life would “start.” I’ve made a fulfilling career of serving others and I know at my core it’s what I was meant to do in the world. But I could never shake the thought that I had this path, and I didn’t follow it.
I’ve spent a lot of the past 3 years really working on myself (i.e., paying for a lot of therapy in which I had to get very real about life and also cry/rage a lot to a woman who I am lucky enough to have found). It has not been a linear process; in fact, often times I felt like I was moving backward. It has frequently felt terrible, but the net result has been healing. I know myself now, I fully inhabit who I am and what I want and need and expect. This has allowed to re-examine existing beliefs, narratives, and ideas about my life, the lives of those I love, and those maybe I don’t love so much, anymore.
I went away a few weeks ago, alone, to stay with my friends who were renting a country farmhouse in the Hudson Valley. And while I was there, I came back to myself, as just me. Not as a mom, or a wife, or a professional, or any other identity I possess. Only me. The noise (metaphorical and literal) ceased, and I could think-hold myself in my proverbial hand and examine who I am, who I was, and who I want to be. And in those days, I realized something.
There was never any path.
Or more likely, there were many paths, and I had ideas about what I wanted mine to be. That’s all–ideas. And mine have changed many, many times over the years, as I experienced things and cracked open, making space for deeper understanding of the world and my place in it. I realize now that the expectations I had for myself when I was younger would’ve never made me happy. They seemed like a necessary blueprint for getting away from that town, those people, that mindset, that life. And while I maintain that I needed to do that getting away to have a shot at being who I am, who I wanted to be, I understand now that doing that can look like a lot of things. It was and is education (formal and informal), trying and failing, keeping and open heart and open mind, nourishing my self-worth and love, traveling, moving away from the black-and-white and into the gray, being clear on my values and moral compass. I’ve done that. Mission accomplished.
You know what I want, now? I want a home in the woods, where I can’t see or hear anyone else but my husband, son, and all the wild things we share our land with. I want to grow my food, make art through photos and writing, lavish the people I love with time and attention, and build a life around connection and meaning. I want to keep serving others as long as it feels good and does good. More analog living and less technology. I hope to work toward these things…maybe some of it will happen, and some of it won’t. But in this second half of my life, it will be more of a guiding philosophy in decision-making, and less prescriptive.
Am I getting older? You bet. Maybe this all sounds like the rambling of someone settling into middle age. But it feels so good, so warm, so right. There is so much that matters so little, and even more that matters a lot. And I think I may have confused those things, for a long time.
I’ve been talking about this with my friends and peers, and I’m finding that many of them share a similar sentiment. We were all sold the idea of a very narrow path toward and into adulthood and what success and happiness should look like, which really amounts to hustle culture. Competition, money, throwing yourself into being the best, having the best, doing the best. And I think we’re tired and finally realizing that for many of us, it wasn’t reality. We want to be present in our lives in real ways, to approach our work as something that funds our lives, not dictates it. You can do good in this world professionally, and still maintain personal boundaries and identities. There is nothing noble in losing yourself to the hustle, no matter what it is.
What did 18 year old you want? And how does grown-up you feel about where you landed? What matters most?