Although this happened a few years ago, I still remember those 20 young men and women, all high school seniors, winners of a scholarship from the LANL Foundation. Each took a turn talking about their plans for the future. I heard about future physicians, about future diplomats, about future engineers and scientists and teachers who would change the world or their home town, or maybe just one life, but that is enough.
As I stood listening to them, I couldn’t help but place myself among them, thinking back to my own youth and plans for the future, and how those plans always seem to meander from the expected straight path, all because life happens.
There is a saying that I thought was attributed to Yogi Berra because it seemed one of those trite ones he was famous for, but it is actually by Confucius. “Wherever you go, there you are” is deeper than at first reading. Placing the emphasis on the second “you” changes the whole meaning of the sentence. It can be a reminder that you always carry with yourself, wherever life takes you, your own ability for hard work and dedication, your own dreams and aspirations, your own potential to overcome adversity, and also your weaknesses and fears, whatever it is that defines “you.” That is fundamentally what we carry with ourselves, call it the most personal backpack, on this life’s hike.
Along the way, we might share the trail with teachers or mentors who show us how to make a fire or sound a bird call, to listen carefully to the noises around us, or maybe even point us toward the mountain that we should attempt to climb. Until we can carry our full and heavy pack, our parents lighten our load by taking care of our tent and our food and our water, sing songs to keep us going, and make us take a safer path than the rocky tallus that seems so much fun now but that will make our journey more treacherous and difficult later. But at some point, the journey becomes our own.
For me, leaving for college was that path that I took away from the one the rest of my family was following. I remember distinctly when that moment dawned on me, the combination of excitement and fear that announces that you are on your own. My parents had driven away, and I was sitting on my bed, a seventeen year-old sweating like a (jewish) pig in a mostly empty cinder-block dormitory building named Cary Hall at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
So I decided to go for a walk. RPI is on a steep hill. I walked across campus and down to the shores of the Hudson River in Troy, NY, one of the most prosperous cities in the state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but in the late 70’s its only claim to fame seemed to be that Uncle Sam used to live there. It didn’t take long to become acquainted with a meager downtown, so I turned around and started walking up, and up, and up.
The walk up that hill was transformational for me. I felt both the freedom and responsibility that my parents had left behind, like a little gift-wrapped package, as they honked and drove away. What was my future? What challenges would I encounter and would I surmount them? I desperately wanted to say yes, that I could and that I would. And with every step I took along that long uphill, the more resolute I became. I would grab RPI, and Troy, and life by the throat, and not let go until I had proven myself.
It sounds (and reads) melodramatic, but if you can remember being seventeen or been around one for any period of time, you know that melodrama is an accurate portrayal of the late teen’s mind. In retrospect, I did pretty well. Remembering that walk kept me from doing drugs and woke me Saturday mornings to head to the library and do those problem sets. I never worked as hard as that first semester freshman year.
My children have all left home for college a few years ago, and they each heard Dad’s story about going for “the walk” and my advice that they should do the same. Still, when the temperatures start to mellow, the flowers fade and the leaves turn, and winter is around the corner, when I see parents honking and leaving their teens behind, I remember that life is a hike that is sometimes downhill, and sometimes uphill, that we are our own best companionship, and that it is the uphills that often matter, and teach us, the most.