Legs curled under my body, I stole a few minutes from studying to sit on the floral couch in the chapel hidden in the attic of Williston Hall, scribbling in my journal. I’d sometimes sneak in here for an hour of quiet between classes since it was in the middle of campus and my dorm was a much farther walk away. Suddenly, the door burst open and a woman in her early 40’s entered with her two school-aged daughters. She peered around the room, eyes wide. “I spent so much time here,” she whispered. “And it hasn’t changed at all…”
In her, I saw my future self.
What will life be like when I’m 40? Where will I have gone? What will I have done? I thought.
Later in the day as I crossed Blanchard lawn on my way to class, I passed some alumni visiting for their twenty year reunion and one of them stopped me to ask for directions. Before turning away, though, he said, “Enjoy this. These are the best years of your life.”
The “best”? So it’s all downhill after college? I thought. Sad.
Now that I am nearing 40, I understand more of what that man meant. From his life of mortgages, insurance, bills, retirement savings, car payments and parenting, what my dad’s description of college as “living with your friends and studying a bit on the side” sounds pretty amazing.
I now have two teeny children who I avoid taking to the grocery store at all costs. But when I do, I catch some grandmother fondly admiring my two blondies and I know what she is about to say. “It goes so fast. These are just the best years!” she’ll call over from the other aisle. And if she’s especially anointed that day, she’ll add, “Enjoy them!”
Another woman left much the same message on one of my blog posts about motherhood recently. In fact, I think she actually used the words, “Those years with little ones were the best years of my life.”
I think that was the day we woke to my daughter giving herself a diaper spa treatment (I’ll spare you the details). I rolled my eyes, firmly closed the computer and resisted the urge to give a sarcastic retort in a public internet space.
From these experiences, I have to deduce that “the best years of our lives” are the ones we can finally look back on with the perspective and wisdom of our older self. They are the years we are living without realizing that those times will never come again. Those bodies will never be as young, those children will never be as precocious and hilarious, and those new experiences will never be new again.
The succession of exciting “firsts” in our youth is eventually replaced by a repetition of the same tasks day after day. The thrilling love affair with life dies out just as all illicit affairs eventually do. But it is replaced by the deeper, richer, more cultivated love that is less fickle and fleeting, but more gratifying.
Growing up, coming of age stories in movies and books always fascinated me. I was oddly conscious of my own story even as it unfolded. One summer as a 15-year-old, I jumped on the trampoline in the fading Florida sun with my brother and some neighbor kids and I had the thought, I won’t be able to do this again next summer. These days are coming to an end. I’m growing up.
I believe it is healthy to mourn the loss of our younger self. It’s also natural to look ahead in hopeful anticipation of the next new thing. But right now, I’m learning to admire the magic of an era while it still swirls and sparkles around me.
I’m discovering what it’s like to stand at the edge of the beach, let my feet sink down into the sand and be buried by the incoming waves. A natural “go-er,” I am learning to stay in this place long enough to memorize the details and appreciate the beauty I never noticed before. This is not my mode—to see my toes slowly disappear, letting the waves lap at my ankles and the Coquinas tap on my heels. My mode is to move, change, do, and go. “Let’s run and see what’s on the other end of the beach!” is more my style. I do not want to stay in one place. The fear of missing out is petrifying.
But now is the time for lingering. Now is the time for noticing. I have dreamed, studied, graduated, worked, played, traveled, married, moved and born children. Right now, there is nowhere to go but here.
And so I take in the view.
The critters scurrying in the sand. The sun blinking covert messages on the waves. The shiny dolphins dipping and laughing in the distance. What I fear I’m missing out on is a fallacy, because a glorious scene is unfolding even as I stand with my feet stuck in the sand.
It would be a shame to miss this.
I am just beginning to recognize that right now, here, in this place, I am living the best years of my life.