No doubt by now you’ve gotten the picture: double digits is a big deal. It’s arbitrary, really, and I know you didn’t feel markedly different between your last night of being nine and your first morning of newly-minted ten-ness, but as humans, this is a thing we do. We pick special occasions and we make a fuss and we celebrate; it is, I think, one of the loveliest things about us. For that reason, and others, ten is a really big deal. It is also, unfortunately for you and your friends, now very easy for moms and dads of children your age to frown at this or that behavior and say things like, “Come on! You’re ten-years-old!” Don’t let us engage in this lazy brand of parenting too often.
Due to the particular math involved in your birth date and my own, you turned ten the same year that I turned 40, another milestone, although it involved more “over the hill” cards and sarcastic commentary than reaching the decade-mark, which is all smiles and ice-cream cake, and aunts and uncles exclaiming, “How is she already 10?! I just can’t believe it!” People didn’t quite do the same to me - remark with disbelief and poetic language, questioning the very passage of time - but I did get to go out for beers and a late night Billy Joel singalong on my birthday with my 40-plus-year-old friends, who are still SUPER FUN, by the way, something I know is hard to believe. Being 40, which is a subject I’ll return to in a minute (because I know you are dying to hear about it instead of reading graphic novels about people your own age in your cozy bed) is much more interesting than I ever imagined at your age.
Ten, instead, seems to be all about reaching a precipice of sorts, standing on a hilltop and getting your first glimpses of the joyful, sometimes worrisome fireworks exploding just around the bend.
When I was in college at Boston University, I enrolled an interdisiplinary program that wove our humanities and science requirements into one interlocking block of study, led by some of the university’s most notable faculty with a focus on “big ideas.” It was called the “Core Curriculum” and it drew a lot of students like me, bound for English and Philosophy majors and not too keen on fulfilling the math part at all, except we had to, so we took courses like statistics, and learned that there are still word problems in college, thank god.
When I walked into the lecture hall on my first day of the program, 18-years-old, in corduroys probably, and having just tacked up a large poster of Bob Dylan on my dorm room wall, there was a quotation projected on a large screen suspended above the stage. It was by T.S. Eliot, from his poem “Little Gidding”:
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
This quote is used regularly in academics, self-help books, you name it, but I’d never heard it before that day, and let me tell you something. I LOVED IT. I loved the wonder and optimism that emanated from those words. And I loved the bustling lecture hall and the smiling, timid students who I was going engage in witty intellectual banter with over mochas later at the university coffee shop I just knew it!
(I loved collge, Nora. I loved high school, also, and I attribute those positive experiences to having amazing friends, who are still my friends to this day. I have no doubt you’ll also have amazing experiences and friends, which we can talk about later. Or actually, I’ll probably deliver an impromtu, self-righteous lecture on the importance of being a good friend, and maintaining friendships in general, on the way home in the minivan today, and I’m sorry in advance for that).
I’ve thought about this idea - which is not confined to the above quote - throughout my life. This idea of knowing. Knowing a place, a person, a feeling. Knowing yourself. And as I warned - ahem - promised above, I want to talk about being 40, just a little. Because when I was ten - and when I was a teenager, and in my twenties and even five years ago - I imagined that at 40-years-old, I’d be a more surefooted, fully-evolved version of myself. I’d be a cautious and adept decision-maker, accomplished writer, avid reader of thoughtful literature and less-avid reader of political tweets long into the night, despite expert advice that we should keep our phones out of our bedrooms if we want to sleep well.
I think young people should - deserve - to think this about their parents. That their parents have it figured out, at least mostly. And I’d never want to take that impression away from you or your siblings. Because in terms of your safety and happiness, we have got it figured out. We’d do anything to secure both.
What I’m trying to say, instead, is that in terms of the rest of it, like being surefooted and adept and accomplished and decisive; in terms of the “end of all our exploring,” so to speak, 40 feels like a hilltop, too, when what I thought was that it would be a plateau.
And it is fascinating. The 40-something set I know is dealing with the unthinkable and traversing the un-traversed. They are reinventing and revising. They are unsure and successful and globetrotting and home-bodying. They are changing the collective world and still figuring out their own.
Ok. I realize that a letter to a ten-year-old, and especially you, could have played out a different way. I could have remarked upon your amazing personality…enthusiasm and skepticism and confidence at once. Your self-possession, wise acknowledgment of your fears and how you embrace your talents. I could have written about your skills for taming your younger brother and sister - who are, let’s get real, impossible to deal with at times - as well as your true friendships with each, sharing what will one day be long-lived private jokes with Gabriel, and playing princess games with Aidy when I’m pretty sure you do not want to be playing princess games in the slightest; reminding her to be kind and polite and generous, and helping her steer clear of becoming Regina George from “Mean Girls,” which could honestly happen, Nora. You know it and I know it. I could have written about how good you are at helping take care of your cousin, Rory, and how you’re a natural with all little kids; how they gravitate towards you because of that.
I could have talked about current events and politics - and yelled, in all caps, about current events and politics, for paragraphs and paragraphs - highlighting the battles that I hope your generation will continue to fight. The problems that I hope your generation will obliterate.
But when I thought about you turning 10 all I could think about was the possibility buzzing in your future. Then I thought about being 40, and how although I didn’t realize it until now, that same possibility has an incredibly long shelf life. It’s buzzing, still.
I just wanted to make sure you knew that the exploring lasts forever. And although it’s sometimes difficult, it’s also so much fun.
I love deciphering author’s words, but feel strange in making a solid declaration one way or the other. I mean, I don’t know exactly what Eliot meant when he wrote his poem, but I know what I take away from it. The endless rewards of exploring and uncertainty. And as I mentioned above, I also think a lot about the knowing.
What I tend to think is that we get very few moments of pure certainty in this lifetime. I don’t view this as a negative in the slightest, becasue that’s what makes them so remarkable. I think we “know the place” over and over again, but that the feeling is necessarily fleeting.
I won’t (because I know you want to get back to that graphic novel) indulge in a litany of personal experiences here although I will say that my first meeting your dad, and our relationship since, has possessed that quality of certainty for me, and I’m so lucky for that.
Then, Nora, there was September 20, 2008.
I’ve talked about your birth many times over the years. How you did not want to come out. The reggae they played. The bright lights. The funny doctors. And suddenly, you.
All our wondering, all the possibility, bundled and wide-eyed, five days before your due date, like you couldn’t wait. The hospital room bustling with potential, decades and decades worth.
But in those first few minutes, it was like tunnel vision. Me and your dad, gazing back. No “what’s next? or why? or should I?” Just a perfect happy birthday. Just an inevitable, “of course.”