It's early evening, and I'm taking a walk with a newly minted college graduate. With a daughter the same age, we seem to know plenty of young people who've just been sprung, B.A.s in hand, out into the wide world.
My companion walks purposefully beside me, finally getting to the question that is at the heart of our stroll.
"So," she asks, a bit wistfully, "how did you figure out what to do after college?"
I'm not sure I really figured anything out. I spent two years wandering around New York, more than a bisl tsemisht — a little confused. I wrote furiously in my journal in coffee shops. I took on receptionist jobs from temp agencies because with a bachelor's in liberal arts and no typing skills, that's all I qualified for.
Luckily, those jobs proved so tedious that they ultimately propelled me toward graduate school and a career. If I had to work for a living, at least I wanted to do something meaningful — and with better pay.
My young friend beside me might take a parallel path. She is talking about working for a year as an Outward Bound instructor or backpacking in Australia with a friend. I can imagine that when the nomadic life loses its thrill, she will probably move to a big city where many of her college friends have settled and start thinking about a profession.
She will doubtless have more colorful experiences in the woods or in Australia than I ever did during my time temping. Nonetheless, it's clear that she's nervous for her unknown future and envious of my settled state.
Ah, if only she knew how tenuous that state was! The truth is, we spend years building a cohesive family unit and then — poof! The younger members fly off to college, and then move to new cities afterwards. We develop expertise in a chosen field only to find that at midlife, we're often bored, burned-out or ready for something new.
Mind the 'Gap'!
In Britain, it's common for high school seniors to take a "gap year" and spend some time in the real world before entering university. I'm starting to think that we Jews in midlife need our own "gap year."
Maybe this will be a premise for a new reality show called "Second Chances." Contestants are given a six-month stipend to leave home (and their spouses or any other dependents) to follow their dream. The producer assuages any guilt feelings by flying in someone who takes over requisite household tasks and provides replacement income.
This allows the contestants to fully engage in their quests. Did you always want to teach college, travel to India or write a mystery novel? Is it time to learn fluent Spanish or take voice lessons so you can sing in a cabaret?
It's not that we can't engage in such activities during our regular lives. It's just that it would be nice to focus on them intensely and get a break from routine.
My young companion is heading off into the world with a surplus of stamina and spirit. Our generation's reserves are a bit less full. We have weathered the messiness and disappointments of living, and the world does not seem as welcoming as it once did.
Nonetheless, who among us couldn't use a little time away from dishes and mortgage payments to wander the streets, wondering who we are and what we're drawn to right now. If we're again a bisl tsemisht, then maybe that's a signal that it's time to take on a new chapter. Maybe the tsemishtikeit, the confusion, is an antidote for growing stale.
I hope I gave good counsel to my walking companion. I know that it's helpful to hear how other people went from feeling lost to finding their place in a home or community.
Still, I hope she won't be surprised that, if she does pick the Australia option, she may find me visiting for an extended period of time — that is, until the producer of "Second Chances" calls me home so someone else can get a well-deserved turn.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I.