I have lived in a college town for most of my adult life. Even though I am not an academic, life here is very tied to the academic calendar, and we mark the year by the arrival and departure of the students. Sunday I attended yet another commencement, as the daughter of a friend and sometimes musician for our Morris team graduated from Amherst, along with our former across the street neighbor. Listening as the student speaker made her address, I was struck again by how oddly similar my situation was to those new graduates, half my age.
She talked of how at this unique juncture of their lives, happiness was more in their own hands than at any other time in their lives, how they would be choosing the communities they would live in, the paths they would devote their energies and passions towards. It is true, for most people that is a once in a lifetime experience. Once you become committed to those communities, those careers, those relationships that define your life, you have less freedom to rearrange them, as you become mutually dependent on those friends, co-workers, your spouse, your children. That mutual dependence anchors your life and allows you a depth of experience, and therefore a measure of happiness, that is impossible to have when you stand apart, but those connections also constrain your actions. It is a trade-off well worth making as long as you have chosen wisely.
Thirty years ago I made those decisions, built those connections, and freely chose to constrain my life. In the process I defined myself as a husband, a father, and a member of this out of step community, a college town that knows it is not the real world and likes it that way. Those decisions about who I wanted to be and where I wanted to live warped my engineering career quite a bit, but I was fine with that, since I had the important things the way I wanted them.
Now I am a widower, a father of grown children, a grandfather. The core definitions in my life have shifted, and largely into the past tense. None of them are full time jobs any more. Even the choice of the community I live in was driven by the desire to find a good place to raise a family. At middle age, I am too young to define myself simply by what I was in the past. That is a huge part of me, but I have time and energy for more than that. But what? In that sense I am back where those new graduates find themselves, but only in that sense.
Thirty years of living a life we chose together has prepared me for my road ahead in a way no four years of academic study ever could. I have made those choices, built a life, seen what works and what doesn’t, learned the possibilities and costs of risk-taking. I know what you can get if you make the right choices. I just didn’t think I would have to do it all over again.