My daughter turned 23 this week, and so did my #52for52 project.
Significantly more time was spent planning and executing a celebration of the first event, which, predictably, resulted in a mild neglect of the second. But you know how much I like numbers, and coincidences, so you will not be surprised to hear that it was all too much for me to ignore. And so I’ve been thinking about my girl at 23, and about another girl at 23 that I knew a little, though I didn’t really get to know her until later. Even though you’d think I would have, since, well, I was her.
Anyway, there are a couple of things I’d like to say to them both.
The first thing is that you can do absolutely anything, but you cannot do absolutely everything.
I understand the confusion. After all, you were told, ever since you were very small, that you were so smart, so loved, so talented that there was nothing you couldn’t do. This is absolutely true. Emboldened with this knowledge, you choose paths that are widely regarded as ambitious, and difficult, like trying for a baby when you and your husband are both in grad school, or being brave enough to teach some of the most at-risk children in the entire country. Make no mistake: these choices, which will undoubtedly be called ill-advised by some, are the exact right decisions for you. This time will be a blur of excitement and exhaustion, and though it will be difficult, reminding yourself that “if it was easy, everyone would do it!” will remind you of how extraordinary you are. Following your heart and the wild, exhausting notions it provides will prove unimaginably fruitful in the present and will remain in the future a lasting source of pride and amazement in your younger self.
There may come a time when these or other admired and difficult paths may begin to feel less exciting and and more daunting, and the finish line increasingly imaginary, or farther from your sight. When you realize that no one is coming to give out the lifetime achievement(s) award, that this is all there is. That the journey really is the destination. And when you begin to nurture a private uncertainty that the rockiest, hilliest, hardest route is always and invariably the one with your name on it, the one you must choose. When you begin to notice that the voice in your head that has always said “Do more!” is almost-but-not-quite drowning out a quiet whisper for doing a bit less for everyone else and a little bit more for the smart and fabulous and clearly exceptional girl who wants to make everyone proud. When, no one is more surprised than you to discover, you find that you alone are the one most able to see her, take care of her, do what’s best for her in the way that no one else can. Only you will know when this day comes, but when it does, know that it can also be a brave and ambitious and difficult thing to take the sensible, slower path, to pay attention to the small, whispering voice. To do, perhaps, less instead of more, to just take care of the girl who can do anything, but not everything. To make yourself, above all others, proud.
And another thing.
At 23, you know, because you have already known loss, that you will be disappointed by people that you love. You may find yourself most hurt when it seems that they do not see you the way that you need to be seen, in the way you hoped they would and think that they should. And even in facing that painful reality, you will do your best, because that is what you always do, and sometimes that might go OK and sometimes it might go very poorly; those times might even leave you with scars that never completely go away.
But when you look back, from 52, you might see that sight-unseen girl a bit differently: younger than you seemed to yourself in real time, in a way that might make your middle-aged self a little weepy. It will be confusing to think of her then, for she seems more reasonably your daughter than yourself, and you will instinctively want to both hold and to mother the woman-child you were, championing her devotion and consoling her disappointment. And at the same time, and to a degree which is no more and no less than the first, you will see, with eyes born of perspective both bestowed on and earned by you over the last three decades, how unprepared she was, and all that she could not possibly have known. You see that young one still too unsure of her own visibility to consider what might simply have been the blindness of others, or the ways in which she put her hands over her face, making herself invisible even to herself.
You might wish you could do it again, now that you are wiser, now that you see the whole picture, both ahead and behind; your vision has grown, now, to include the outer edges of the field, the broader landscape. But at 52, you will have grown to know loss only more intimately: you know only too well that the past is really and forever gone, that there is no going back. That sometimes it is really too late for I’m sorrys and I didn’t knows, Here’s what I neededs and Help me understands. And, most of all, for Forgive mes, and for I forgive yous.
You will notice that you can look around for the now-young women, and in your heart you cannot help but to see, to hold these young ones up to the light. For it is there where your old eyes can look at them closely, and if you look long and hard, see them in the way you know that they long to be seen. You know that even though you are not able to go back to being that girl-woman you were—to care for her, to see her, to teach her, to forgive and to ask for forgiveness—it is not altogether too late.
Because if you look around at the wonderful young women—and, if you are very, very lucky, one of them might even be your own, exceptional daughter, who is so smart, so loved, and so talented that she can do absolutely anything—you will soon see, too, that as you do your best to hold and mother her and all of the women of her generation—seeing them, caring for them, forgiving the mistakes of youth—you do so for your young self, too. The one you got to know only later.
And who was, impossible as it may seem, once 23, on her way to 52.