Traditional milestones no longer accurately reflect the reality of our lives—moments of true growth happen when you weren’t planning for them.
What is a milestone? Any range of television commercials will tell you that it is (not necessarily in this order, but in keeping with the fiction of this whole notion), finding your soul mate, getting married, buying a home at a good interest rate, having children who frolic in the lawn, living to a ripe, old, healthy age with plenty of money for retirement and healthy, happy grandkids making sugar cookies in a sun-filled kitchen while a well-groomed Golden Retriever lopes across the spotless floor.
Of course we know that most people do not live this washed out, exclusionary, stereotypical depiction of the American dream, but if you watch daytime television, or if you’re vaguely aware of magazine articles pitched to the “average” reader or viewer, you’re overly familiar with these images because they’re almost impossible to ignore. Too bad this progression is uninteresting and, for most people, a handful of lies that doesn’t even come close to accurately reflecting the reality of our lives. It’s not the depiction of a milestone; it’s propaganda. Milestones are used to denote a particular part of a specific road or journey, marking distance from or to a pre-determined destination. They also (again, by strict definition) connote a certainty of being on the “right” road.
The problem with the idea of the “right” road is that it doesn’t exist. Almost 20 years ago I was a visiting student in Ireland, and one weekend two friends and I visited the Aran Islands off the west coast. Beautiful, haunted, the celebrated literary landscape of John Millington Synge and countless others. Rocky, foggy coastline; old famine walls stitched through impossibly green grass; houses standing stalwart and singular in the wind; clothes sagging from overburdened clotheslines. We three were set on walking to Dun Aengus, an ancient fort, right on the cliff, half of which had fallen into the roiling sea below. Two hours into our journey we were engulfed by a thick and tenacious fog. We held hands. We could not see each other or where we were going but we walked on, into and a part of the fog, sinking into and then lifting each other out of muddy patches. We bumped into famine walls and scrambled over them, ripping our jeans and cutting our hands. We kept walking, in silence, tacitly agreed on the idea that staying in motion would lead us to our destination or perhaps, if the strengthening roar of the sea was any indication, right over the edge of it.
We eventually found the fort, and the sky cleared enough so that we could see the edge of the land. Our view? Next stop, America. Up until that moment, as a 19-year-old who had seen almost none of the world and had fallen in love with my life through the prism of Dublin and then the Irish countryside, I had never felt so exhilarated, so terrified, so alive. And for almost four hours I had been completely lost, my legs were shaking from fatigue, my mind felt rattled from the stress of walking and waiting, my cheeks hurt from the wind, and my jeans were destroyed. I grew up in the Plains states, where mile markers indicate visible distances, recognizable landmarks, and most of the roads are straightforwardly flat. What can you truly learn from a mile marker? Very little. That day marked a new phase of life for me; it wasn’t marriage, or divorce. It wasn’t becoming a mother, or losing my child, or falling in love for the last time, all of which would come later, all of which would change me, but it was a different kind of love: love of the world, and how generous it can be in those small, unexpected moments.
We turned around as the sun fully emerged, and now we could see the path we had taken (or had we? There was no way to know), and that afternoon we all fell asleep on the beach to the sounds of seals slipping in and out of the water. It is this image—the light, the clouds, the sunshine, the heat of the sand, and the slip-song sound of the seals, that has comforted me in the days after my son’s death: Ronan, whose name meant “little seal.” Could I have planned, through a series of particular decisions corresponding to traditional “milestones” to find that image, and that day, that had meant so much to me? Never. But it has stayed with me all those years, together with the people who were a part of it, and a part of that year. I trace those memories and they are precious to me, as clear as any photograph.
Life is about scattered, secret milestones and occasional cliffs. The photographs and memories that stay with you in indelible and powerful ways are perhaps not the moments from your wedding, your divorce (which nobody documents with a camera, although maybe that should change, too), or maybe even the birth or death of your children, your parents, or spouse. Maybe it’s that one dinner party in the middle of winter when the snow fell against the windows and everyone was happy, even if just for one moment; maybe it’s the time you pawned your wedding ring and got a tattoo to mark the occasion; maybe it’s the time you woke up in the morning and recognized the feeling of happiness for the first time in years; maybe it’s the time you spent all day in a strange city, wandering around an art gallery by yourself, speaking to nobody.
It may not be someone else’s “right” road, but it’s your road, and you can travel it however you please. Milestones are not about points on a line; they’re about moments of the self when it is most tethered to the world, and also (and because of this) the most free.
For Colin Murphy
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.