When I was 9, my parents bought me a new 3-speed Schwinn. My old bike had one speed and stopping it required learning to gently push one foot back to essentially “put on the brakes.” I don’t even remember what brand that little, blue bike was, but I loved it. Even though I had grown too tall for it, it was familiar.
As beautiful as the new, shiny white bike was, I was constantly spinning the wheels because I would forget about the hand brake. And for a long time, the thing just didn’t feel as smooth and dependable as my old blue ride. Finally, by the time I was 10, it felt like mine. I knew how to make it go as fast as I could pump it at any of the three speeds. I was also confident about exactly how far to turn the handlebars near a curb so the wheel didn’t catch and toss me to the cement. It took me some time to learn how that bike worked. Mostly it required figuring out my own responses to it and what made me feel most comfortable.
It’s bittersweet, this growing older—mastering so much and yet having so much less
time to relish it.
That’s also, it turns out, how it feels to get older. In my 20s, I felt as if I inhabited a totally unfamiliar body and life. Even though I’d lived for more than two decades, I was surprised at practically every one of my own actions and reactions. One day I would like something; the next day I’d hate it. I’d be excited about some activity for a month or so and then, in what seemed like a total surprise, I’d lose interest totally. My ability to read these changes was nil. I felt as if I was at the whim of something outside of my control. I did care deeply about what others thought of me, but often those “others” were people I didn’t even know. It would be someone who looked at me longer than usual on the Quad, or a person in the library who was seemingly disinterested in my quest for a book about Socrates.
At my age today, it’s not like that. I get to carry this lovely feeling of knowing myself wherever I go. If I wake up a little grumpy it doesn’t take long to identify the source of the feeling. I didn’t finish that task I’d planned to complete yesterday or I wish I’d had an easier conversation with a friend. Even better than that, I now know enough about myself that I can work my way into a better mood before I’m through with my morning coffee. As an angst-filled 20- or 30-something, I could be sullen for days and never even be quite sure why. I also had a terrible time being alone until I was at least 40. It got easier and easier as I got older, but for a long time, nothing felt comfortable about sitting with my own thoughts.
We are slow as humans. We’re gifted with big brains and crazy-ridiculous physical traits and yet it takes us a whole year to walk and talk. If you’re like me, it takes another 30 to figure out my emotional make up and understand why I feel what I feel when I feel it. I wouldn't be surprised if the true purpose of life is for us to just figure out what we're all about and then to grow accustomed to it. And I am so thankful that I have.
I felt that way on the Schwinn the summer I was nearly 11. I’d spin down the streets of Arden Manor like I owned the place, parking my bike and locking it safely next to the pool fence. At the end of diving practice I’d ride behind the school for a bit, brave enough to take the bumpy shortcut across the field and come to a safe stop next to Taco Bell. I’d conquered the initiation, learned the ropes.
These days, the same kinds of things can still throw me for a loop that got me when I was 19, but now I know what it all means, and I know how to calm myself down. I can sit for hours and stare at the clouds or lose myself in a book and never once wonder what everyone else is doing. It’s a relief to feel the same kind of confidence with myself that I felt on that Schwinn. It’s bittersweet, this growing older—mastering so much and yet having so much less time to relish it.