Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Memories of a January day

"Git," says my cousin as she waves me off toward the water. "We're digging a Big Hole." It's early January, and we're on the beach. She grins. Our opposite life stages dovetail conveniently in this moment. I'm craving time alone, away from my four-year old son. Her son is nearly thirty and making his fortune in Japan. She wants to remember what it's like to make Big Holes in the sand with a little boy.

So I walk, taking into my lungs the grace of being on a warm beach in the most desperate part of winter. By rights, I should be struggling through a drizzly, dark grey Pacific Northwest day, the thermometer hovering in the low 30s, the leftover Christmas cheer draining from my outlook. Instead, I'm strolling along warm sand, venturing into the surf at regular intervals to keep my feet accustomed to the water temperature. It doesn't take long at all for the mild chill to become warm on my toes.

Every possible phase and flavor of life is represented on the beach. There are surfing teenagers. There are people in their twenties, no doubt with jobs, but less tethered than those of us with children. There are parents like me with kids dashing back and forth to the water. There are three women in their seventies walking toward me with bare feet and the confidence that comes from not giving a crap anymore.

There's my cousin, in the prime of her life at 51. Her child is gone, but now she's the primary caretaker for her declining mother-in-law. She speaks of the present time as a place to stop and consider. She's beaten back Stage I breast cancer, and she's no longer willing to just push forward blindly. She demands a solid reason for being in any given situation.

It's different for me. Like so many of my friends, I slid straight from a quarterlife crisis into my thirties without ever having resolved the issues to my satisfaction. I love nature and the outdoors infinitely more than the law, but I find myself with a family and a mortgage and student loans, all those things you disdain before you sheepishly find yourself saddled with them.

I think this is where so many of us give up. Isn't it enough, we ask ourselves guiltily, to walk on a warm beach in January? Must we be fulfilled by our work as well? So many aren't.

Well, the other half of myself responds, perhaps it is enough, but only if you're not just telling yourself so. And I think there are lots of people who don't have to tell themselves so; they've found the right niche. But there are many more of us who haven't.

It's in this way that we're different from most of our parents and grandparents, I think. More of us are daring to change. A friend of mine hated her legal career, but it took a few years of anguish before she made a dramatic and successful switch to a different field. She told us about trying to talk about her situation with her grandfather, who had survived the Depression. They're still payin' ya, aren't they? he asked in a no-nonsense manner. Ouch. I think that question alone might have accounted for another six months of trying to live with her career.

When I think about the people who have no choice, who can't make a daring leap to try to satisfy some ephemeral need for fulfillment, I've come to have a different reaction from those who respond by feeling guilty and frivolous about pursuing their pipe dreams. It has started to feel more like a duty to take risks and reach for things, to pick through the clouds of depression and uncertainty and make an effort. To not do so, when one has the means and ability, seems like a loss.

This is a separate issue from the fear of it all, but it's a good first step.


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

There's a part in Good Will Hunting when the dumb friend says to the smart one, who has been wanting to stay with them and be a bricklayer forever: You have an obligation to all of us to reach for something more! We are stuck here but you have a choice.

I think in the same way we -- we heirs of the feminist movement, who have more security than any recent generation -- we have an obligation to reach for whatever will make us most fulfilled.

Of course we do still have to take care! and not leave our own children saddled with debt. Thus the dilemma.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

ps love the header

Trailhead said...

I remember that scene. I wonder, does the principle still apply to all of us who are changing careers in our thirties and forties after having already gone through an expensive and exhausting education? Probably. As long as you're not hurting anyone, why not? Yes, it's a sign of extreme luck and privilege, but that doesn't mean it ought not to be done.