I don’t know exactly when it happened, but something changed. Something shifted. It’s hard to describe, but I’ve felt it more than ever over the past few weeks as my feed is filled with kids holding signs and smiling for their first day of school, and especially as I’ve watched this new batch of graduates head off to new adventures. “Isn’t it wonderful?” I think as I hear about where they’re going or what they think they might study. “How fantastic!” I practically explode with joy thinking about all the adventures waiting for them in the world. “Aren’t they all so beautiful?” I think as they’re unpacking boxes in their dorm rooms or first apartments.
That’s where I’ve felt the shift the most. In my teens and 20s, I felt like I was in constant competition with everyone around me. I would use someone else’s success as a motivator to outshine them. (For the record, this was not successful and, if you have a similar tendency, let me save you a lot of time and energy here: just do what you do because you love to do it. End of story. Full stop.) I remember in my late 20s, sitting in a café with my voice teacher, who was in his 50s at the time. A bunch of girls came in, totally decked out, clearly grabbing some water or energy drinks as their first stop on their way out to a fun night ahead. I looked at them with a mixture of envy and disdain. “I mean, who wears five-inch stilettos and a mini-skirt to a coffee shop?” I scoffed, accompanied by the world’s largest eye roll. “Aren’t they gorgeous?” he responded. I looked at him skeptically. “I’ve found that the older I get, the more beautiful young people look.”
I did not have any idea what he meant then, but I do now. That’s the shift I'm talking about. When I look at young graduates in the spring or kids starting school again in the fall, I am no longer my imperfect self vying for one-upmanship. I see them, in all their youthful glory, their whole lives ahead of them like a wonderful treasure hunt. Or I sometimes see my own kids in a flash-forward kind of way. Maybe it’s parenthood. Maybe it’s age. Whatever it is, it’s a pretty beautiful place to be. I hope I get to hang out here for a while.
That’s another, harder part of the shift. I see time slipping so quickly through my fingertips. I want to bottle every toddler tickle-fight gigglefest. I hug my preschooler a little longer after a scraped knee. I sing the extra song to my six-year-old at bedtime, an official “grader” this year (as in “first grader”). I know it’s won’t be long before she won’t ask me anymore. I cling to the moments in which my third-grade boy holds my hand (in public!) and looks at me with a shy smile.
Then, in the world’s strangest paradox, I look at these beautiful young adults, heading off to new adventures, and I want to turn on a wind machine to power their sailboats. As I said about a friend’s daughter recently, being with her is like standing next to the sun. I want to soak in all that energy and vibrance! And my peers? I no longer see competition. I see powerhouses with unique brands. I can learn so much from them and I feel lucky to be around them, basking in their simultaneous confidence and vulnerability.
Being on the other side of the lookingglass is a strange place to be, but I think I’m good with it. From this side, I see all the beauty. I also see the pitfalls lying ahead for these beautiful kids, but I try to keep that to myself. You have to fall before you find out how strong you are to pick yourself up again. You have to struggle up the ladder before you realize that you can reach back to help the next person up a rung. You have to strike out on your own, a little bit stupid and a little bit risky, before you can learn who you are.
I’m still in that risky, stupid place. I’m still struggling and falling and picking myself back up. I know that there are older, wiser women, who have undoubtedly been through other shifts and who may be looking at me, with all the pitfalls ahead wondering how I’m going to navigate them and knowing that I’m going to pick myself up too.
So, to the graduates of 2017 heading into the real world and to all of the kids heading off to school for a new year (especially you freshmen!), I recall my own undergraduate commencement address, “Go, and feel the wind on your face.” I can’t wait to see where you go.