My sister graduates high school this spring. She is 18 and grown-up and not – all at the same time. It is the life stage where you’re supposed to know – what to do, how to do it, what you want, where to go, etc., etc., etc.
I want to tell her it’s OK.
To not know. To not have a fucking clue what comes next or how to get there.
None of us know.
Yet, we go through moments where we think we might. Like the year I decided to be a journalist. I was in eighth grade and in academic love with words, with writing, with books and minds and the power of a sentence that was written like no one else could ever write it. I had a fantastic English teacher who pushed us farther than many wanted, but I craved the direction, the challenge, the insight he had into books and the way that world worked.
That was the year I watched every Chicago Bulls game on TV (thank you, WGN) and many times took notes so I could write a story about the game afterward. A newspaper story, like for the Chicago Sun-Times. I did this just for fun.
That was also the year I read “Hang Time,” a book by a Sun-Times columnist named Bob Greene, who somehow worked it out so his career would include following around Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, and then writing a book about it (two, actually).
I decided I wanted to do that.
And back then? Back then in the days where we were told by everyone who could that our dreams were within reach, that we could be whoever or whatever we wanted if we just worked hard enough for it? Yeah, back then. Back then, I decided that’s what I would do. Be a sportswriter. In Chicago. For the Bulls.
The dream morphed over the next several years. By my senior year of high school, I’d decided to replace Jane Pauley as anchor on NBC’s newsmagazine show, “Dateline.” Again, I thought this was reality.
So I majored in journalism, broadcasting first and then a double major with news-editorial (print journalism, in plain speak). But by the middle of my sophomore year, I dropped broadcasting. Want to know why? Because I’d decided learning about different types of microphones was boring and I wasn’t interested in studying for a test on them.
It’s unbelievable really, that someone with my work ethic and grade point average would have given up so quick.
But, I figured, I’m a better writer than broadcaster anyway, and wasn’t writing my true love way back when?
But I no longer had a dream. I no longer had a pie-in-the-sky goal. I had a boyfriend who pretty much called all the shots – about everything – few friends, straight As, some talent in writing, sure … and … huh.
Maybe this is all life is.
I got through college by doing what was expected, going to class, writing the papers, getting the internship. But none of it was inspiring. None of it felt like what my heart really wanted.
But it felt like what I was supposed to do. And I hadn’t yet figured out how to live outside the system we are all raised within – the 9-month school calendar, the 3-month summer vacation, the coaches and teachers and built-in praise, the straight As, the hustle awards … all those things that don’t matter. At all. Once you’re outside.
Even after graduation, I got married – I actually remember saying, “That’s what comes next, right?” (OH MY GOD, was I for real?!), and I got a job. At a newspaper. Because that’s what I’d majored in.
It was all uninspired. It was all supposed to. It was all headed … where?
Of course, memory is subjective and years give us wisdom we couldn’t have had back then, in the midst of it. But I think back to that time now with regret.
Life is short. Our days are not guaranteed. We get no do-overs.
So your twenties are hard, little sis. By the end, I felt like I knew enough to know what I wanted – and what I didn’t. That doesn’t mean I got there the way I should have.
Now, it’s different. And isn’t. But it is, really, truly. Everything we endure is a lesson, everything we experience helps teach us more about who we really are, what we really want, how we might be able to get there, with what partner we want to share the journey, the importance of treating what – and who – you value most in life the way a child would handle the Christmas gift he never expected to actually receive.
Life in its potential is infinite. We CAN – within reason – make our lives what we want them to be, if we go about it the right way, with grace and kindness and care and resolve.
Something I wish I knew, way back then: Life is so much more than we can ever know. When we’re 18. When we’re 22. When we’re 45. When we’re 75.
So, little sis, I want to tell you to make choices. Be bold. Be brave. Take chances. Do not ever-ever-ever let a boy make all the choices for you. He cannot know what is deepest in your heart. Only you get to figure that out. You get to steer your own ship, and that is a gift life, in its complexity, gives us. We are lucky if we find people by our sides to support us and make the road trip together.
Just as important: Treat others well, especially those you don’t want to lose. They deserve it. So do you.
Finally, let yourself off the hook. We all mess up. It’s life. Pick yourself up, and do it before you waste too much time, and get back on the horse.
Grab the reins. They’re yours. Go.