The Great Continuum
This week I will make my way to college, my satchel a deadlift of course texts, to teach another year.
Four hundred miles away, my niece has just taken up residence in her freshman dorm at a large state university. She and her parents have completed the ritual acts of transition: outfitting her new room (bean bag chairs, bright pink and yellow rugs, towels and throws, a fridg and the other usual appurtenances). She is exuberant. She loves her new friends and her pre-med classes. No slouch, she is getting up at 6 each morning to practice for varsity crew try-outs.
We are traveling in parallel, my niece and I. I find myself looking at her as from the wrong end of a telescope, one in which she grows smaller and further away, and ask myself: Was I ever as confident and idealistic, as full of risk-taking zeal, as she is?
While she has been lining up the clubs, extra-curriculars and dorm committees she wants to join, I have spent time pondering how I will best balance the deeply restorative rhythms of summer with the high-pitched pace of the academic year.
As she has accumulated course books and gear like an eager squirrel, I’ve been purging and simplifying. Old clothes have gone to the consignment shop. Boxes of unused wedding gifts, ignored in the attic for years, have been given away. One day last week I even tackled the freezer, tossing half bags of frozen Edamame beans left over from a winter health-binge.
On first glance, the distance between my niece and me couldn’t be greater. Acceleration is her medium, growth her m.o. In the next four short months of the term, she will live through an entire growth cycle from seedling to harvest, intellectually, socially, and emotionally, as she is exposed to new ideas and experiences, and matures in them.
My pace is slower, my questions very different. Each day I wake and ask myself how I can serve my deeper purposes (and remain connected to these) while living the here-and-now incrementalism of the daily. I have found that I need to make space for beauty, prayer, poetry and a physical practice, to ground me and make this happen.
As my days begin their pattern of alternating realms — between my college students and my life of study, reflection, and writing – I realize anew the great continuum that connects us in a beautiful tension, symmetry and grace.
My students’ energies, curiosity and eagerness never fails to renew and inspire me. When I was 18, I had no idea what my life’s “deep purposes” were. If I think hard enough I can remember the brash, impatient young woman I was then, signing up for too many clubs and organizations, collecting friends in late-night talks when I should have been finishing papers, exploring unimagined independence. This was my work to do at the time, as it is my niece’s now.
What looks like “participation” at 18 comes, in middle age, to seem like overdrive. But we err if we label this diminishment. Our culture doesn’t have a suitable vocabulary for what we bring to life in our older years, but it is an essential presence.
I’d like to hope that by midlife most of us have shed the ambitions and motivations of “the hero” – that slayer of evils and triumphant icon of power — to don the cloak of the pilgrim. We are no less participants in life for this change – quite the opposite, in fact. Our focus and our m.o. have been transformed. We are closer to those places by the river of time, it seems to me, where we listen more often than we speak, we treasure more than we squander, let go more than we consume.
Whether we are classroom teachers, or parents, leaders or mentors, this is the gift we bring to the young. We don’t need to be stars of the varsity team, or homecoming queen, anymore. My niece and I text. She tells me about her plunges into ice cold waters at dawn. I ask what she wants me to knit for her to keep her warm. It all works — seedlings to harvest — the great continuum.