One of my favorite humans on earth turned 19 last week. Because she is 19, we adults who adore her considered ourselves lucky that she invited us for dinner to celebrate her birthday. Normally these days, she describes us as “friends of my mom’s,” which is as it should be, but it still smarts a little. Quietly, out of her line of sight, we still beam about her and keep our fingers crossed that her path will be rich and wide and only a little treacherous.
In a lovely but probably unconscious tribute to her past, the other young people at this recent dinner were kids she has known most of her life. Over Mexican food and the requisite game of “Cards Against Humanity,” the four of them entertained us—partly with their silliness, but mostly with the simple fact that the world is so new to them. The adults in the group ranged from their mid 40s to those of us in our 60s. We have sat across the table from some version of this group since the girl was tiny and would cry when we sang and she had to blow out candles. Now she just rolls her eyes.
Most people my age have made an art out of being safe, living within their means, following the rules, planning carefully, and being realistic.
I left this most recent celebration thinking so much more about big life issues than I did when she was small. Suddenly, it seems, these very recently gangly kids are now giving birth to their own grown-up lives. They’re taking risks, feeling scared and a little lonely, meeting new people, and being in the world in a bigger way than they have before. None of them is doing anything more than a gillion other 19-year-olds are doing probably, but I was struck by their self-awareness and their interest in the search for meaning for themselves. I remember 19 as a turning point year for me; maybe that’s when many of us start forming ourselves into real people.
In this group, one had taken a break from school to travel in Southeast Asia. Another, away at college in a strange city, had become a dog walker in her spare time to give her purpose and structure and a method to get to know her new home. The lone boy in the group had selected a small, distant east coast college because it offered what he saw as the perfect transition to the next steps. The fourth was planning her first tattoo and a summer study abroad trip. Although the details of their adventures were compelling, it was more their spirits that got me. I drove home that evening envying their freedom, their wakefulness, and their relative bravery.
When I picture those traits it occurs to me that adulthood asks us to temper them, which is probably a good thing on some levels. Still, I don’t love it that the older I’ve gotten, the smaller I’ve become. Rather than meeting my life with questions about "what next?" and "why not?" I limit myself with quick answers about why this or that is too hard or too much trouble or too scary. In some ways, I felt older that evening than I’ve felt in a long time.
I also felt more alive than I’ve felt in years. For all of the best reasons, most people my age have made an art out of being safe, living within their means, following the rules, planning carefully, and being realistic. These are all behaviors that have served us well as we’ve raised families, slogged through careers, mapped out our next steps, and prepared for the future. But most of us have forgotten the intoxicating feeling of dreaming big and taking the steps to make something seemingly fanciful come true. I also expect that those 19-year-olds at the table that night know so little about life that we undoubtedly appreciate their freedom and expansiveness more than they do.
What I’ve felt since the birthday dinner is the desire to go back to dreaming more, to letting myself ask "what if?" and to taking the risks I wish I’d taken back then. As I looked at those four across from me, I realized that we are literally on opposite sides of the massive chasm that makes up the bulk of adult life. They are putting a toe in here, gently pushing a roadblock there. I am on the other shore, lamenting my own caution but ever aware that it is not too late to make changes. To what? Stay tuned while I start to figure it out.