A couple of months ago I read Cheryl Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things.” To use a cliché, I couldn’t put it down. I inhaled her advice and tough love framed in with “sweet peas” and F bombs.
Since reading, I haven’t been able to get this quote out of my head:
There’s a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: “The future has an ancient heart.” I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true—that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.
I’ve passed these words along to a friend making decisions about residency, offered them as hope to a person trapped in indecision and spoken them during a celebration of someone’s recent accomplishment.
We both know and we cannot possibly know.
Ryan graduated on Sunday. We drove to D.C. on Tuesday to attend the graduation gala, a gathering of about 1,000 affiliates of the School of Business. It took us two tries to get to the right venue. Tuesday night black tie galas are, at least from my singular experience, a bit odd. It’s the middle of the week and staying out late on a Tuesday has consequences. Plus you feel a little silly getting all dolled up. We attended anyways and spent the night sipping cheap wine in a hotel ballroom, offering congratulations and inquiring about post-graduation plans. Most of Ryan’s friends worked through the MBA program, so questions about next steps were answered rather wistfully – there were hopes of new opportunities and moving on from current positions, but few graduates had concrete offers.
This graduation was markedly different than undergraduate commencement ceremonies where students receive diplomas and are then thrust out into the real world. This graduation lacked the same sort of punctuation and felt a whole lot like a Tuesday night black tie gala – situated very much in the middle of something else.
I began running a few months after I graduated from college. I’d just started my first full time job and remember being exhausted at the end of the first week. The thought of working like this for the next forty years nearly brought me to tears. It sounds silly now, but the prospect of professional life after college felt big and long and I feared it would be exhausting and monotonous. Up to that time life had been punctuated by graduations accompanied with clear transitions from one school to the next. The task was scripted and performance was measured. I had no idea how to navigate those first weeks of my career and felt at once trapped and completely lost at sea. So, I started running. I signed up for a marathon and found a training plan. Running added structure to a life space that otherwise lacked any sort of finish line, so I pinned on a bib and found my own. Punctuating my first steps into adulthood with mile markers and weekly long runs, I built endurance and began to gain perspective.
In the years since graduation from college, I still find myself wishing for punctuation — a pause between this and that— and a moment in time bearing witness to that which was in the past and this which is what will usher in the future. A college-style three month summer vacation would do nicely.
But, I guess that’s the thing about life (as Robert Frost famously said): it goes on. And, as such, transitions are rarely as anticipated and discrete as college commencement. The reality is that continues and it’s unclear where this next thing will begin. And so recently Cheryl Strayed’s words took on new meaning for me: whereas in the past I called them forth to bear witness, I now hold them close with great hope and expectation.
We both know and cannot possibly know.
Finish lines still matter and so we lace up and start running. We count the miles. We sign up for races and see how we measure up against the course. In running we test the edges of ourselves again and again. Along the way we find strength and a pack to run with. We learn to endure and we come to understand the incredible places we can go if we just keep placing one foot in front of the other. We run from here to there and move from this to that and in so doing we come to understand that we both know and cannot possibly know where these steps will lead us.