I turned 40 this week, and in the midst of the lovely tumult of phone calls and texts, dinner with friends and well-wishes from many corners, my mother said something that crystallized my feelings about the day. “How did you get to be my age?” she asked.
I understood exactly what she meant. From a certain vantage point, there is a way in which time seems anything but linear. While days fly by, and years accumulate, the Self seems to somehow stand outside of time, to bend light in its own way. While I notice my kids growing up, my own discrete consciousness doesn’t age. My mind feels roughly the same as it did whenever I first tuned into its continuous stream. From this perspective, of course my mom and I are of one age.
A few weeks ago, I began teaching middle school language arts. “How do you know you are growing up?” I asked my eighth grade class as we launched our unit on personal narrative. Our school is K-8, and many of them have been enrolled since Kindergarten. “Look at you all!” I held up a picture of their Kindergarten class. “What did you care about back then?” The class was off and running. “Stuffed animals,” one said. “Remember how loooonng it seemed between each birthday?” another asked. “Sometimes I couldn’t tell the difference between imaginary and real.” “On the first day of school in Kindergarten I tried to dig a hole through the Earth.” “I remember thinking that if I tried hard enough I could really fly.” These eighth graders with their lanky bodies and changing voices, had memories tumbling out of them.
We read the Billy Collins poem, “On Turning Ten,” which ends with these memorable lines:
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
“Now that you are older,” I asked my students, “what sidewalks of life have you skinned your knees against? What are the realities you bump up against?”
“We moved,” one student said, “and I had to start over with friends.”
My own son slyly piped up, “I used to believe in my parents.”
“Right, adults are fallible,” I nodded, adding that to the list on the blackboard. “You all have probably learned that by now.”
They laughed knowingly, these thirteen-year-olds pivoting on the threshold between childhood and growing up. I could almost feel their consciousness beginning to bend time out of shape.
Later, I thought about that Billy Collins poem again. He’s right about one thing– there’s no denying the way we all bleed when we fall against life’s sidewalks. Daily it seems, I watch my eighth graders skin their knees against the pavement of their tricky social navigations.
And yet, there’s all this shining.
Unlike the poem’s speaker, I still believe there’s light under my skin. It’s this quality my mother is speaking to when she asks, “How did you get to be my age?” There’s a luminous stream coursing through each of us and time bends in its current.