Tonight I started thinking about the television show “The Wonder Years”. I loved that show, including the way it always left me feeling slightly melancholy with nostalgia for the early ’70s. I know exactly what triggered it: on my afternoon bike ride I crossed the Mississippi River by bridge twice, reminding me of how central a character the river has been in my life. I thought about the towns I’ve lived in along its banks, including Hastings, Minnesota.
I never think about Hastings without thinking about my yellow 10-speed bike. I miss it, and that makes me feel a bittersweet longing for my preteen life. Hence, “The Wonder Years” (“The series depicts the social and family life of a boy in a typical American suburb from 1968 to 1973, covering his ages of 12 through 17.” Wikipedia) Each episode was narrated by the adult that the lead character, Kevin Arnold, eventually became. In the series finale, the final narration goes:
“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house, like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back… with wonder.”
Cue one lone tear, gently gliding down my cheek.
1968-73 were some pretty great years in my own sepia-toned memories (though at 7-12 years of age, I was a bit younger than Kevin Arnold). It is easy to look back at those years with both nostalgia and wonder. But as I started down that memory lane one more time, a thought stopped me in my tracks – “NOW – these years – are the real wonder years”.
What?! These are the wonder years? Although the thought was my own, I questioned it. Truthfully, childhood is easy to idealize in its remoteness from our adult lives. And while our teen years are, indeed, full of discovery, they are characterized more by self-consciousness than by self-awareness. Most of us only feel the wonder retroactively, as we look back later, seeing the things we learned and discovered from the vantage point of understanding. The years themselves are anxious and angst-y. We learn by trial and error, we don’t actually understand the ramifications of much of what we do – we barely comprehend that there ARE or WILL BE ramifications, which allows us to experiment. In retrospect, this process of self-discovery seems wondrous.
Compare that with the reality of adult life, when we know that there will always be costs associated with benefits, when knowledge of our limitations tempers our vision of possibilities. When caution often precludes change. Suddenly, the wonder all seems to be behind us.
Unless we get lucky. For several years, I’ve been thinking about the changes that have taken root in my life as somehow unique. Unusual. A mid-life transformation that I was singled out for, gifted with. Admittedly, it began with a literal message from God (a fellow retreatant saying, “In prayer, I was given a message for Jenifer: God says he has a new path for you. Be ready.”) I am grateful, and still feel amazement at the changed life I am living and creating. But I’m also looking around me and seeing some truly incredible transformations in lives other than my own: Kathe has created a happy second marriage, moved from the suburbs into the city, and begun a career she loves, finally working for herself. Sue returned to her hometown after surviving a frightening end to her marriage and an actively malicious end to her job; she faced the demons of depression, and has created a life that includes a fierce passion for serving adult learners and the grace of time and closeness with her family. And then there’s Mike.
On Sunday, just a year after beginning his journey toward health and wholeness, Mike began the day running in a 15K with friends. The man who specifically told his trainer he wouldn’t run, voluntarily joined new friends to run further than he had ever attempted before. After the run, he changed into different spandex and we hopped on our bikes for 16 miles of riding, joining a community of friends for the afternoon. On Monday, he blew past a personal goal he was fearful he wouldn’t achieve.
I stand in awe, or as Rabbi Heschel called wonder: radical amazement. These stories and transformations (and others) have prompted me to think that perhaps that point just after the middle of our lives are the wonder years. The years when we wonder, “Is this all that I am meant to be and do?”, or, “What would it take for me to truly live a better life?” and that wondering leads to change.
Change is hard, and later in life – unlike in youth – we undertake it knowing it will be hard. Transformation requires commitment, tenacity, a willingness to follow through on actions that scare us. Transformation is work. Childhood and the years immediately after it have taught us this. So the real wonder is choosing change and transformation anyway. The real wonder years are the ones in which we keep choosing to change and grow despite having already experienced life long enough to know how it can test us.
Part of me will always wax nostalgic about my childhood. I’ll always miss that yellow ten-speed. The Mississippi River will flow through my veins no matter where I go or who I become. But I think the part of my life I will invest with the most awe and, yes, with the most wonder, is NOW.