I read a novel recently about a woman with a head injury who suddenly had no memory of the last ten years. She thought she was 30, but she was actually 40. She thought she was newly married, but she was in the process of getting divorced. She had no knowledge of her three children’s existence.
But the poignancy of the novel, for me, was her realizing the person she was discovering herself to be at 40, whom she was seeing with fresh eyes since she didn’t have any memory of turning into that person, well, she didn’t like her 40-year-old self. She had become the exact kind of woman she always kind of resented.
It sounds pretty contrived, now that I’ve tried to summarize it in a few sentences, but it really got me thinking. Would the me I was 10 years ago recognize the me I’ve become? What would my 23-year-old self think of my 33-year-old self? (She’d probably be surprised to find I had birthed two babies, for example, which was not on my to-do list.)
My first full-time job out of college was being the assistant to the director of recruitment and academic technology at Baylor’s Graduate School. On my annual self-evaluation that first year, I put as a 5-year goal “Write the next great American novel.”
I was kidding, of course, and my boss told me I should probably change my answer, but the truth was that I knew that job wasn’t my forever job, and it seemed ridiculous to pretend my five-year-plan had much to do with that position.
You’ll notice I haven’t yet written a novel. But I do have a chapbook of poems, so that’s something.
I got an email this week from a high school acquaintance. Since I’m not on Facebook, this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen this woman since we graduated 16 years ago, and even in high school we weren’t really close friends. We had Phys. Ed. together one year, I do remember that.
She sent me a message through my website, a brief note to say simply that she’d had a conversation recently about faith and hope with one of her friends, and it reminded her of the speech I gave at our graduation in 2000. She wanted to encourage me that my words had stayed with her this decade-and-a-half.
The speech I gave at graduation. Whew. That feels like a long time ago.
I was a really outspoken Christian in a large public high school, and so my speech–I was valedictorian–offered the gospel message, to no one’s surprise. It offered hope. It was a little cheesy, of course, quoting Mother Teresa and Emily Dickinson and others, but it offered hope. And it got a standing ovation.
Because hope is always a good message.
Some days it makes me grimace a little to think about my high school self, because let’s face it, I’m not so preachy these days. I have a quiet faith, a thoughtful faith, a compassionate faith.
But, the truth is, I’m still proud of the young woman I was. At my ten-year high school reunion, people I barely knew came up and and told me how meaningful my friendships with them had been. Because I was sincere at 18. I cared about people. I was compassionate and confident, kind and smart. I was tall without slouching. I was voted “Most Likely to Win the Nobel Peace Prize” of my graduating class.
Sometimes I think about what I’ve accomplished in the 16 years since I’ve graduated, and it doesn’t seem like very much. Not compared to friends from high school who, for example, work for NASA. And unless there are Nobel prizes for being able to push a double jogging stroller with 75 pounds of child in it, I’m pretty far from that sort of achievement.
Most days, I’m okay with that.
Most days, I look around our house of IKEA furniture and hand-me-downs, decorated quirkily with my paintings and your paintings, and I’m okay with this life your dad and I have built together. I’m okay with the physical world of it–our modest house and yard, our cars, our neighborhood, our church–and also the intangible parts of it–our friends and loved ones, our community in which we’re invested, the people who cross our lives unexpectedly but deserve our time, our attention, our eye contact. (It’s those intangibles that really matter. It was those intangibles that mattered when I was 18, when I was 23, still matter at 33, and will when I’m 43.)
Most days, when I think about raising two human beings in this world, two little human beings who are such mini-me’s already, I know that if you ended up turning out like me, I’d be proud of you. And even if I do nothing else with my life except raise you to be compassionate and courageous, I’ll be proud of myself.
Most days, when I sit in the swing outside and watch you play in the yard, creating impossible and nonsensical games together, I’m okay with the peace that comes from late-morning sunshine and a flexible season of life that allows me to enjoy it.
Many days, I’m even embarrassed by the extravagance of it.
Because my life is extravagant, here in the sunshine, great American novel or not.
I don’t know that my 23-year-old self would be able to recognize that sort of extravagance.
But I do, at 33. And I hope someday you do, too.