We’re traveling with two lovely 18-year-olds this week, and it has made me think a lot about age and how hard it is to appreciate our own unique place in the scheme of things. As I watch them watch the world, I remember being 18 and I can practically feel the nervousness of my stomach from that year.
It was 1969 and everything around me was shifting. I had just graduated from high school and boys I knew were being sent to a unexplainable war in Vietnam. Other kids my age were protesting the same war. Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon and Charles Manson was luring naïve young women into horror. Everything felt far away or hard or as if nothing was happening by choice. I was about to start college, but only because that’s what you did when you finished high school, not because I knew what I wanted or what I was going to study. I felt confused, depressed, and disconnected. All I could think about was wishing I were older, more powerful, more grounded in myself.
Now, at nearly 66, I glance my 18-year-old traveling companions and I’m not sure they feel the same angst I experienced. When I see them glide through a room, listen to them giggle, watch them sleep like kittens piled together in the back seat of the car, I wonder if the world seems easy or hard to them. It’s such a different place than when I was that age, and yet we’re all so similar. Most of us are scared and primitive, but we still do what we can to push ourselves to be out in the world on our paths. I think about that with these girls, wishing them the confidence I feel now that I’ve lived another 50 years.
The age part is nothing; the true joy lies in knowing that time and happiness are relative and generous.
To them, I imagine, my way of being in the world doesn’t look as much like self-assurance as it does an irritating self-righteousness that leaves little room for fun and laughing and playing. To me, it’s a relief to feel slightly more in control of my life than I once did. But it’s still no easy task to just be where I am at this moment. As I lament that I wasn’t as easygoing as these young women seem to me, I’m fully aware that I’m not quite as comfortable in my own 65-year-old skin as I wish I were.
Today, as I was standing on the Paris Metro gripping the bar above my head, another young woman not much older than these 18-year-olds offered me her seat. I almost laughed until I realized she was serious. I suppose I should have seen this coming when I stopped dying my hair several years ago, but even that doesn’t make it easy to ignore. The color of our hair is just one of so many markers along our individual roads, some tied to age and others to what we’ve accomplished and where we’ve been.
When my students used to tell me how behind they felt in their young lives, it was hard for me not to laugh then, too. They all believed they should be further along, with more classes completed, more money earned, more milestones reached. At my age, I feel almost the same way. At the beginning, the world seems huge and wild and as if you aren’t sure exactly how to corral it in enough to get something for yourself that feels both exciting and comfortable. During this last third, it still seems big and unruly, but I’m so much more aware of how few precious moments are available.
The discomfort, I think now, is just part of the package for some of us, like blue eyes or straight hair. It’s all an adventure, regardless of our ages. The key has to be to shift our focus more from the queasiness that comes from uncertainty to the wonder of that glorious green hedge just ahead. This is when I know that the age part is nothing; the true joy lies in knowing that time and happiness are relative and generous, and that there is plenty of both for all of us.