“You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once. But don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”Michelle Obama
As children, we are all asked at some point what we’d like to be when we grow up. The answers come back, clean and categorical – teacher, astronaut, athlete, police officer. We expect, as kids and then as young adults, that we will become someone all at once, stepping off at our destinies like a train stop at the end of a line. To kids, growing up sounds like less of a journey and more like an arrival. In reality, though, while we cross finish lines and tick off milestones here and there, no one simply arrives. We are all, if we choose to learn and strive as long as we live, infinitely evolving, constantly becoming truer versions of ourselves.
From the moment my diploma was handed over to me in its smooth red case, the struggle to “become” began. I entered college as an undecided major and now move through post-grad life very much the same way. Everything sounds good to me, so commitment to just one future feels paralyzing. I began my own patchwork sort of self-education, knitting together podcasts, articles and coffee shop meetings in the mornings and evenings. I know nothing about which train stop I might get off at one day; only how I want to feel – useful, knowledgeable and dialed in to a role that makes a big difference in the lives of others.
I got to know Michelle Obama in a coffee shop between the pages of her memoir, Becoming. She addressed the swirling anxieties of twenty-somethings, of her search to take care of her own needs but not without passionately serving the needs of others. “One way or another,” she wrote earnestly, “I figured I’d work myself toward some version of feeling whole. There were days when all I wanted was to feel complete. I wanted to grab every last thing I loved and stake it ruthlessly to the ground.” Her words seemed stolen straight from the pages of my own journal. Michelle had my attention.
Energized by her story, I sought to learn more about how and with whom I might continue the work of becoming. A community conversation for Michelle’s book at the art museum brought just that chance. Standing at the front of the room was Justice Yvette McGee Brown, the first African American female justice on the Ohio Supreme Court. After speaking to the crowd with an intimate, bright wisdom that had the whole room hanging on her every word, she headed for my table for the breakout discussion. I sat straight up in my chair, quietly thrilled to have her up close and personal. Here was our own Michelle, a game-changing woman who had so gracefully blazed her own trail.
What followed was the sort of inter-generational exchange that I believe older and younger folks alike crave. Yvette, a trio of recently retired teachers, my friend Jimena and I sat around a table to reflect and connect over Michelle’s life and values. The older women, or as Yvette humorously put it, the ones in their “fourth quarter,” told Jimena and I of all they’d seen change and transpire in their lifetimes. They shared their own messy, twisting paths, of all it took to build themselves into the wise, polished leaders we saw in front of us. They spoke of the complex fallout of de-segregation; of the struggling young students they wanted to take home and care for. Jimena and I shared our desire to respond to all the troubles we were so painfully aware of in the world, and the struggle to address them and give back while burdened with student loans. Fresh young energy and seasoned wisdom led to a give-and-take that flowed easily between us all.
There can be such highs and lows when you take the work of becoming into your own hands. There are painful questions and directionless steps, but there are random, beautiful opportunities and connections too. At our table, the teachers and Yvette beamed. The encouragement from these 4th-quarter souls to a couple of 1st-quarter ones, and the appreciation Jimena and I sent right back, was warm and palpable. “I think you two will be just fine,” Yvette said to us with a reassuring tone only a lifetime could give you. “You have so much time. And if you’re asking these questions now, of how you will make an impact, then I think you always will be.” I smiled gratefully, calm for once about all I hoped to see and do in this life. There was time and space, I could see, to become.