My teenagers ask me when they’ll know for sure that they’re adults, and I find myself at an utter loss. At almost 45, I still have the same question about myself. When will life stop being a cacophony of educated guesses, blind panic, dimly-grasped ideals and mysterious inspirations? Although the problems I face seem to get more varied and complex as I get older, my capacity to solve them still feels much like it did when I started college. At 18 I had a decent dose of native intelligence, the beginnings of an education, a noticeably acidic sense of humor and a profound cluelessness about how to understand the actions of other people. None of that has really changed.
My eldest starts college in a couple of months, and she can’t wait to get started. She can sense the host of possibilities ahead of her, the chance to spread her wings and experience the independence she has earned. But she’s also a cautious soul, and has a healthy awareness of the pitfalls that may be lurking along her path. She’s asking a lot of questions, this final summer, about how to make choices with no parent beside her, how to tell a bad choice from a good one, about how to be independent and a freethinker without abandoning real wisdom along the way. My heart aches as I hear her words, for I know that there is no advice I can give her except “Follow your heart but don’t ignore the proddings of your mind. And vice versa.”
There’s no way for me to protect her from the experiences I remember as if they were yesterday: the inexplicable rifts and splinterings that affect friendships, the betrayals and rejections and just plain weirdness that permeates the social lives of young adults just cutting their teeth on what it means to have a place in the world. I can’t begin to describe to her the experiences that make all the struggling worth it either: the friendships that last for decades, the occasions when everything in the universe conspires to create luminous moments of unforgettable joy, the pride and burgeoning confidence that come with mastering the details of life outside the nest. I try, of course, to give her some idea of what she might expect, but mostly I just stammer and misspeak, floundering in the impossibility of the task but too full of hope and pride and general breathlessness to keep my mouth shut. She handles it gracefully, and I like to pretend she might glean something useful from it, but I’m not betting on it.
How do you tell someone that the girl she sees in the mirror at 18 will still be looking back at her in 25 years? A little more competent perhaps, at navigating life’s shoals, or maybe a little more sanguine about disappointment or more disciplined about getting what she wants, but not so very different at all, in the end. How do you explain that all the experiences to come will equip her with tools and skills and perspective but will fail to change the exquisitely complete, glorious person she already is? How do you explain that time will show her who she is, but that it cannot tarnish her gleam or silence her truth?
If there is any lesson I wish I could instill into every one of her neurons, it would be this: trust yourself, beautiful girl. Believe in your own powers, have faith in your innate goodness of spirit and listen to your dreams because you deserve the best ones to come true. If it feels wrong, don’t do it, and if you can’t tell for sure and make the wrong choice, chalk it up as a learning experience and let it go. Figure out what risks you are unwilling to take and draw the line firmly, but don’t let fear of other people’s opinions keep you from expanding your horizons and exploring new frontiers. You are young and strong and bright, and while there are bumpy roads ahead, there are also wide new vistas waiting for you to see them. You are brave and smart enough to take your life in a thousand fine and useful directions and I trust your sense and good judgment to take you forward towards the woman you’ll now spend the rest of your life becoming.
These are long, warm summer days as I watch my fledgling gather her forces to launch into flight. I think often of my own launch so long ago, and of the world I entered back then, which did so much to shape my life and gave me friendships that endure to this day. I wouldn’t trade one day of those years, even though some of them were painful. I only hope that when she’s my age, my girl will feel the same. Only a few weeks left now, for me to see her face and hear her voice and bask in her presence, and I’m spending as much time doing that as I possibly can. And then it will be time for me to send her out, with my blessing, to start the solo part of her flight.
Bon voyage, my dearest girl. May you bring your best to the world and may it give its best to you.
©Mary Braden 2013