Life Between Checkpoints

“Where do you see yourself in five years?” chirps the interviewer, and on the other side of the phone I blink a few times before stuttering through a long-winded statement that boils down to cluelessness.

“Will you stay in the area much longer?” a childhood friend asks. We met in fourth grade, just a few miles from the apartment I live in today. The town we’ve known for 24 years feels duller by the day, but why would we leave if the people and jobs we love are still here?

“When are you getting married?” teases my Uncle Fritz. When sigh and look away, he warns that per bizarre Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, I, the eldest sister, will have to dance barefoot in a bathtub if a younger one beats me to the altar. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that I’m not Pennsylvania Dutch, nor are my teenaged sisters betrothed.

A few degrees of self-consciousness ago these questions made me anxious. Now I don’t mind making it obvious that I’m unsure of the future. I’m not aimless — I just think the most exciting circumstance is an unprescribed one.

In this pressure chamber of privilege where many of us were raised, life’s race is run in predictable and measurable increments, marked by little Checkpoints of Expectation. For me, recent Checkpoints like high school and college graduation were quickly followed by another, a steady paycheck. Even if you maintain that those benchmarks were set by a suppressive society (fair), or by parents or educators, there are a million and one reasons to be thankful to tread the path that perhaps .001 percent of human history has ever imagined. Still, once you’ve tossed your mortarboard cap and signed a W-4, it’s unnerving to run a race without supervision.

As my friends and I jog toward ambiguity, we turn to each other, out of breath, and ask: what next?

Some of us have at least an inkling. Those with pre-[med/law/physical therapy/etc.] degrees will peel off and head back to school within the next few years. The feds among us will bump up a GS level, the couples splashed all over Instagram will get engaged. People with stronger wills than I will run a marathon or buy a house. These are tangible Checkpoints that can be seen peeking above the mist the rest of us flail around in. Godspeed to those kids — now where the hell should the rest of us go?

(If you thought you were getting a Robert Frost reference here, apologies for the disappointment.)

I’ve never had COVID-19 (I think), but before the pandemic, I had a bad case of cabin fever and was addicted to hypotheticals. I was Zillow-ing cities I’d never visited, applying for European jobs I couldn’t legally obtain, considering taking the Foreign Service Officer exam. At one point, a friend and I applied to drive the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile across the country. It was bleak.

I was so caught up in how glamorous things could be that I didn’t realize how wonderful they already were. But the lockdown(s) lent me some perspective. With restrictions and without so many dreamlike options, I came to grips with my real motivations: I enjoyed being challenged every day at my writing job. I was happiest around friends and family. I felt at home with the variety and comforts of a city. I wanted regular access to dance classes and live music and free museums.

I loved my life already.

Call it faith, call it karma (wink) but 2021 taught me contentment. Every element of life doesn’t have to be — and certainly can’t be — optimized at once. Our days would get very dull if they did.

Here’s the disclaimer: this feeling of contentment is not the same thing as settling. Contentment doesn’t mean you should stay in your unfulfilling job or with your boring boyfriend or in your smelly apartment. Quit, dump him, move out.

I expect about two people to understand the niche cinematic reference to come here. In the 1975 original “Escape to Witch Mountain,” two orphaned kids with special powers are brought to the enormous home of an uber-wealthy dude (who’s certainly trying to exploit their gifts, but I won’t spoil it) who sets them up in an absolute dream room: tons of toys, cool clothes, an ice cream bar. Within a day of living at the mansion, the kids are upset — and can’t figure out why. The girl turns to the boy, and says, “It’s like we have nothing left to wish for.” I haven’t seen the movie in twelve-plus years, but that line left an impression on me.

Being content doesn’t mean we’re supposed to abandon our goals — I’d still like to move, pursue an M.F.A, have kids and a dachshund and a house. But I’m prepared to play the long game, savoring what I have now. I’ve a feeling one day my friends and I will look back on the days when we could go to Tuesday night concerts or sleep in on the weekends, when we only had to could cook for one and could take bachata classes or go to basketball games on a whim.

If you’re like me, and are constantly interrupting the task at hand (washing dishes, paying your electric bill, texting your dad) to speculate about the future, it’s time to pause. At this unique and liberatory stage of life, no one’s taking care of us. If we’re lucky, we also don’t have to take care of anyone else, at least for the moment — and those days could come to a close sooner rather than later.

In the words of Elena Ferrante: “It was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.” ― Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name

So enjoy the race!

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