Common Threads

Recently, three of my cousins and I have challenged ourselves to write more and to share our writing with each other. We’ve already done one essay – “our childhood ambitions” – and for our second prompt, one of the cousins thought that we should try and create an essay using elements of the other three cousins’ essays. At first that sounded pretty simple, maybe even a little easy. Sitting down in front of a blank WordPress editor quickly let me know otherwise. To top it all off, a couple of overachievers (I love you both!) turned around and wrote two more essays on their own, both of which were fantastic and wonderful to read. I wondered how in the world I was going to tie all of our childhood ambitions together. Should I try and write about each of the original professions we thought we would pursue? Some of them? Our current professions? I could do that but I had no idea how to tie them all together. And then I realized that I needed to pull back and take a more global view of all of our previous writings. When I did that, I noticed some deeper common elements.

Edgar Byrd, our grandfather

The cousin who suggested doing this has already completed his essay. He had also seen some similarities among us. One thing that I got from his writing was that, although we are different people and lead different lives, our grandparents can sometimes be seen in who we are now and where our passions lie, a really neat way to honor them and for them to live on. I think that’s really cool and I’m honored to think that I can be compared to either of them. But I am going to suggest another, completely different common thread.

There is a saying that “youth is wasted on the young”. As I drift into my forties I am beginning to understand the meaning of this expression. If you are in your twenties or thirties this is not meant to offend, but there is a certain wisdom, an insight that can only be gained with age. Now, I’m not claiming to be the wisest woman on earth, I know I’m far from it. I’m only in my early forties, after all. And some of us have lived a lifetime even before the age of twenty. I just happen to think that there are some things that can be appreciated more later in life.

Very few people truly know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, especially when they are just starting college at the tender age of eighteen or so.  Years ago I heard someone on a talk show say he thought it was terribly unfair of our society to look at people so young, so inexperienced, and so lacking in maturity and ask them to make a firm decision about the rest of their lives; I can’t help but agree. Oh sure, some kids graduate high school knowing exactly what they want to do: They go to college and maybe even graduate school and become exactly what they set out to be. I know that quite a lot of those folks love their lives and are very fulfilled and I think that is so wonderful. What a blessing! But I also know a lot of those folks now who aren’t happy and feel that something is missing from their lives that they can’t quite put a finger on. Some of them know exactly what the problem is. They chose too early and now they’re “stuck” and, for a variety of reasons, can’t get off the hamster wheel. They don’t even know how to slow it down.

But some people figure out that what we think we want to do and what we should do are two completely different things, that sometimes when life interferes with our plans we are actually being done a great favor.  And I think all four of us are discovering that just now.

Each of us had very definite, albeit very different, ideas about what we wanted to be when we grew up. We all got sidelined or sidetracked, did things for the wrong reasons, or did them in a different order than we thought we would or should, and have had to come to terms with who we really are as individuals. We are all currently taking stock in our own lives and deciding whether or not we are truly doing what the heart wants, even needs us to do.

One cousin has discovered that elements of what she had always wanted to do as a child can be found in her current occupation, even though to the rest of the world it seems very different. She loves it. And she’s going at her own pace and does things at the time of her own choosing. She truly listens to her heart. When I was a kid I was frustrated a lot because I was compared to her constantly, since we are only about seven months apart in age. I heard, “Why can’t you be more like her!?” on a constant basis and I wanted so much to be different, to be my own person. Nowadays, I would say please, please, please compare me to her because I think she is one of the smartest, strongest women I know and I consider it a great honor to be compared to her.

L-R: Cousins – Jonathan, me, Tara, my sister Lisa, circa 1976 or 1977

Another cousin never lost sight of his original goal. Although he is just now beginning to do the kind of work he’d hoped to do when he was younger, he has always made sure that his feet were set on a path that would help get him to this point, no matter how long it took. And the amount of knowledge he has acquired along the way is just incredible. He’s practically a walking encyclopedia when it comes to American history, particularly the Civil War – and that includes what happened from perspectives on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, when he reads this, he’ll probably correct me on the Mason-Dixon thing. 😉 And in case his memory gets a little fuzzy, he has amassed so many resources on the subject I’d be willing to bet his personal library is the envy of more than just a few university libraries. Always the one to spot something no one else would have thought of, what he learned actually helped spark his interest in his childhood ambition. It even inspired him to go into the Army to try his hand at doing something close to his ultimate objective. He may have wandered around slightly off-path now and then but he’s always had a clear goal in mind and I admire that deeply. I wish I could say I have that level of focus. I think I’m just now learning how to have that kind of determination.

L-R: Daddy, me, my cousin Regina ((1973)

Although there are a few major differences, two of us have inadvertently led eerily similar lives. I am eight years younger than she is and when I was really little and hadn’t yet discovered the profession I thought I had wanted, I told anybody who would stand still long enough to listen that I wanted to be just like this particular cousin. For starters, we both look more like our grandmother than any of our other female cousins. We have very similar voices and a very similar way of speaking. That’s understandable, since we share DNA. But beyond genetic codes, there are other likenesses and in many ways I have unwittingly followed in her footsteps. I have an undergraduate degree in foreign languages, she in foreign studies. We are both fluent in Spanish. We both married very young – fresh out of college – and moved to Chicago. We both moved from Chicago to the western part of the United States, although I live in the northwest, she in the southwest. We both went back to school and earned Master’s degrees to become elementary school teachers. The year I was hired to teach second grade I teased her that I didn’t completely follow in her footsteps because she was a kindergarten teacher. At least not until she was asked to teach second grade. And each of us has recently put a foot down and raised our voices to the universe and said, “Enough!” Each of us has made a major life change – she walked away from an unhealthy marriage that nearly snuffed out her light and I walked away from an unhealthy career that nearly snuffed out my own light.  As I am considering what’s next for me, what will be best for me, learning to put myself first, she is doing the same. I am blissfully happy in my current non-career choice and she is blissfully happy in a healthy relationship. She is also considering a shift in her career.

My point is that had we not had all of the derailments – delightful or painful – that life seems to have enjoyed throwing at us throughout the years, we might not be in the healthy, grounded places we all seem to be in today. Maybe we’d have gone straight into what we had imagined as children that we wanted to do, and maybe we’d have been very happy and content. Then again, maybe not. Even my other two cousins – the ones who remained focused and took their time, finding their own childhood ambitions hidden within their current jobs – even they might not have appreciated it as much had it come earlier.

For all of us it seems that our forties is a jumping off place of sorts. (Okay fine, J, not you – you’re only 39!) This time in our lives seems to be a time of deep reflection and appreciation for where we’ve been, for where we are, and for where we are headed. My cousin wrote in his essay, “We have run our race, we run our race, we will run our race. Ever moving forward, eschewing our past yet carrying it alongside every step of the way. The aspiration to be set apart from the world around us, to not be a cookie-cutter stamp that matches our neighbor compels us to reach ever higher, more lofty goals.” I loved that.

Helen Gayle Welch Byrd, our grandmother

Maybe it really is our shared DNA that compels us to keep moving, reflecting, moving, adjusting, reinventing ourselves. A lot of our other siblings and cousins have found themselves doing the same thing, so who knows. On some level, I kind of hope so because my cousins, my new writing buddies are some pretty amazing individuals and I love the idea that I might be like them in some way. I happen to think we are all very smart, funny, compassionate, and talented people. I also happen to think we are four of the bravest people I’ve ever known. Regardless, I think each of us is looking forward to continuing to grow and learn and we are all very eagerly awaiting whatever is around the corner for us. I think our grandparents would be very, very proud.

3 Comments

  1. Love the couch! Oh, and your writing. I had no idea you weren’t teaching any longer. Yes, the profession is not for the weary…or for the sane, for that matter. It will suck the life out of you. But not nearly as much as corporate America. That will slowly turn your brain to Swiss cheese AND suck the life out of you.

  2. the couch is at another uncle’s house 😉 as for teaching, i decided to take a little break and realized my sanity was slowly creeping back. i knew i had to make it a permanent break. so i’m just taking my time, wandering the universe and getting it figured out.

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