I think of the eye tests where the ophthalmologist says, “Which one’s better, One or Two?” and I ask to see One again. I try to keep Two in mind as it blinks off and One takes its place.
“I can’t tell you,” I say.
“It’s all right. Let’s try this,” she says. “Which one’s better, Three or Four?”
That was how I felt this week while my daughter and I visited Washington, DC to set up her new apartment far from home.
As she flies elsewhere to visit a friend, I fly home. I try to focus but everything is fuzzy. When did my sixty-one years of stories cease to be contemporary? Do I help her with my perspectives, or am I pushing largely irrelevant preconceptions?
Has she pulled ahead sufficiently to take what I offer when it helps, and to leave it when it does not?
~ ~ ~
At the university, I supervise people in their teens through their thirties. My two children are in their twenties. Colleagues and friends are in their forties through seventies. Special people in my life are my age plus ten, my age plus twenty, and my age plus thirty years. The last one is my father, who is 92; my mom died rather recently at age 89.
Backward and forward my views swing.
Memories were stirred a month ago when I attended my fortieth college reunion. Evenings nowadays I may reach out to or hear from an old friend. We may chat about what we did in those days, or what came afterward. Other evenings I may sit with my father who will reminisce. Triggered by his stories, I ask questions. I want to know how he squares who he was and what he did, with who he really is.
I am near the end of my formal career. At a recent conference, some early-career scientists wanted to know how I had managed the years they were currently in. They wanted to know how I squared who I was and what I did, with who I really am. How could I be who I really am, they pressed, when I was surrounded by job and circumstance? “Job and circumstance are part of who I really am,” I replied. And yet I have to wonder, is it true that we simply drift into who we are?
The future and the past are both reveries. There is no present. I slip from reverie to reverie as I go forward.
Daughter, the center date of my stories will slip further back in time. But Father, and even Mother, now gone: you and your stories are still relevant to me. Daughter, Father, and Mother, how do I make my vision clear?
I am cross-training for old age.
~ ~ ~
The apartment is a 345 square-foot efficiency. It is furnished with a pull-down Murphy bed, a clean white table, a couch, an area rug. Glasses and cups, a few knives, spoons. Forks.
She knew the apartment and the neighborhood from the Craigslist ad. She knew the landlord from a Skype meet-and-greet. She cherished the idea of living in her own space—no roommate—finally. She chose this rental above all others. She would have a bike.
I knew the apartment and the neighborhood from internet snooping because the ad was gone. Living alone, I thought, would be ideal for studying. I felt the apartment was distant from the law school she will attend in the fall. I wondered how she’d shoulder a bike to the third floor, and the safety of riding it in the dark.
We arrived to delight. She saw that the apartment needed her art and her textiles. I saw that it needed a supplemental table and an office chair. She saw that the neighborhood was lively. I saw that the neighborhood was pleasantly rowdy and looked safe enough. She tested nearby running trails. I cataloged nearby businesses. She was expert at installing and using apps on her phone, to help us get around. I was expert at asking big stores if they had coupons, to help us feel thrifty. We complemented one another in the best ways.
We couldn’t get my phone or laptop onto the internet. With her eyes, she asked me to call the internet provider, but with my eyes, I said no; this was her household. But I gasped, astonished at my refusal. I am the person who finds the numbers, the one on hold. I am the one doing calf raises or starting laundry while records are found, while signals are re-set.
I listened as she showed patience through the commands that would lead her to a person in tech support. I listened to efficient explanation of the issues. I listened to her unstudied navigation through the delicate balance of asking, telling, and respecting the person on the other end who has both more knowledge than my daughter and less. Suddenly, a hundred cooped up messages filed into my inbox as she offered a sweet thanks and bye-bye.
But I felt a time-shift separated us. Who thought she needed an office chair? Not the young me about to start a PhD program in 1984. The old me, who assumed that everyone needs an office chair.
And as we walked, mile after mile, we couldn’t quite sync. If she slowed to Skype with her boyfriend in Myanmar, I would turn on a podcast and then drop behind to give them privacy. Then she’d be waiting up ahead; the call had ended. I’d speed up to catch her, but mistakenly surpass her. I’d slow, and she’d speed. The illuminated numbers at an intersection would flash the seconds until the light changed: Eight, Seven, Six. She’d say, “Are we going to do it? Let’s go!” She’d jog lightly across the street. I would lunge, my body finding old injuries and new blisters. I’d climb to the sidewalk where she waited: another re-set so we could try to sync again.
~ ~ ~
My daughter was born in 1991, three days after my thirty-fifth birthday. She was a watchful infant and a wily toddler. Her first steps were a run, into the corner of a table at a pizza parlor; she still carries the scar. She had the confidence of a penguin, the curiosity of a chipmunk. “Can people that small walk yet?” I overheard. I would scoop her close and whisper in her ear. She would giggle and squirm away. She was a big-eyed cartoon dolly who found verticality and mobility. She tottered forward and sideways. She sought everything, everywhere.
A few years later, she would clasp my hand and lean away, like a flying chair in a ride at the fair. The connection of our hands was what kept her from cracking into orbit, tipping into traffic, shooting into a river, or flicking into the legs of a passerby like a branch in the spokes of a bike wheel. She had such confidence in our connection that she gave it no thought. I, in contrast, was the tether.
Gradually, our roles changed. She provided the direction. I helped her move along. Eventually, there were college applications, and I was timekeeper, listener, light editor. A person who gave the nod.
Just now, I think about my parents. They accepted my collect calls from college in Pennsylvania, and then from Alaska. They accepted calls through marriage, babies, divorce, and re-marriage. They listened, and if asked, gave feedback and suggestions. Mom commiserated or helped me celebrate. Dad’s was slow. He thought and re-thought. His thought seemed always deep, and he helped me (and still helps me) come to my own conclusions.
After my daughter finished college, she followed opportunity to Laos to work in a non-profit there. Our communication was sporadic, her experiences intense. She moved to Bangkok, Thailand, for a position in another NGO where she planned and ran programs in a half-dozen countries. Logistics, teamwork, and culturally appropriate collaboration were imperative, on top of competence, will, and awe. And so was the ability to watch the inequalities, and still push on. Her life bobbed down and up. On the one hand, she was piled with overwork and over-responsibility. On the other, she had unrivaled opportunities to “pull it off,” while slipping into new households, cultures, and landscapes.
At the same time, I experienced a surge of overwork and over-responsibility. I had unrivaled chances to “pull it off,” but I made a different call. My daughter rose toward challenges with gusto, but also with little power to do otherwise. I used what power I had to correct my un-meetable job expectations. As she enmeshed, I disentangled.
She made a decision: she wanted to learn more about public interest law. She moved to a third NGO, in northern Thailand to start her fourth year overseas after college. She kept it together. She studied for the board exams, turned in law school applications, and made choices. We checked in with one another—her with me, me with her.
Then early this summer, she flew home—to my home, I should say. She has already lived on her own overseas and at college before. Even earlier, she lived as her own, if not on her own, when I saw her every day.
~ ~ ~
At her age, I returned to a PhD program after having lived through a smattering of fast passions. I had earned an MS in Alaska, had worked on a gas pipeline in Alaska and Texas, and had married. We had moved to and away from a lovable life in New Hampshire, and had then worked as Peace Corps volunteers in Guatemala, a country whose beautiful landscapes contrasted with the welter of inequalities in comfort and education of its citizens.
I had stood hot, tired, and challenged. Amidst rows of corn on a steep mountainside, I had conversed with a farmer. He was as quick, logical, and creative as anyone. Of course, he was. His wife appeared up the trail, lunch on top of her head, a child on her back. She settled, and then started a fire to cook. She was my age. I had to ask, what would have been left of me, I had to ask, if all of my privilege had been stripped away?
Violent acts struck my Peace Corps cohort; a kidnapping, a rape, and a death. The next moment I had an office and a stipend at Stanford in the PhD program of my dreams; privilege had beckoned again. Fast passions were over. I knew it deeply: my serious track had just begun.
“This is exciting. You can go so many ways with this degree. It’s such a good match for you.” Publically, that is what my mother and father told me when I got into the PhD program. Privately, my mother told me my father had dreamed that he saw me being chased by a pack of wolves, and all he could do was watch.
“This is exciting. You can go so many ways with this degree. It’s such a good match for you.” That is what I told my daughter when she got into law school. At the right moments, though, there is more I would tell her, even though my experiences were long ago, and they happened to me.
~ ~ ~
First, I would sit across from her. We would be sipping smoothies we have just made. I would recount the story of the boy who put his finger in the dike to stop a leak. I would tell her that in my time of career decisions, we had a shot at changing the course of “development” to prevent irreversible, devastating effects on the Earth. I had thought it made sense to stand there to keep the dike from breaking. But I would tell her that because the dike is already breaking, sometimes she should run away.
Yes, she should live thoughtfully. Yes, there are ways to live and work that will make the devastation less bad. But yes, more than I did, she has the option to take part in what is light and bright. The world has exploded with constraints, but also with opportunities. “Meet. Ask. Listen. Share. Nourish friendships. Live well. Take advantage of what is on screens, on the page, in earphones. And seek nature,” I would tell her, nature, which is so efficient at putting us where we can find our light again.
~ ~ ~
Second, a year from now I would scoop my daughter close, and whisper in her ear, “Trust me on this, Daughter. It gets easier now. It does. It does.”
I would tell her that stress is elusive. There’s grueling stress, and there’s menacing stress. The grueling stress is just work; you get used to it. As for the menacing stress, it peaked early.
The grueling stress got me into grad school, and then motivated me to achieve. Then the menacing stress picked up. I became aware of the struggles of the post-docs a few years ahead. I tried to put myself in their shoes. They had been banking on positions that were not guaranteed. They faced compromises that seemed unsolvable. They faced hurdles of relationships, locations, funding—so many hurdles, and to succeed, I thought they had to clear every one.
But when I got to their spot, the stress became simply grueling again. The vision of the future that had drawn stress into me had matured: as I increasingly understood the parameters of the new game, the menacing stress flowed away.
The same dynamic would repeat in my roles as mother, wife, daughter; assistant, associate, and full professor. The duties were clear. The stresses became less menacing every time.
“Daughter, it is do-able. Hold my hand, or hold someone’s hand. Let a tether help you. When you feel the menacing stress, take solace that soon it will drain away.”
~ ~ ~
No, I would not tell her anything at all, unless she were to ask.
I grew up with my mother, who continued to grow up even after I arrived. My daughter grew up with me, and I am still growing up with her. My stories were from my time, and they shaped me, and thus my daughter. My daughter’s stories shape me, too.
My daughter does not need my ponderous words. Instead, I would stand across from her, my hands on her shoulders and her hands resting on mine. And so interlaced, we stay close.
In fact, these words are not for my daughter. They are for me.
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