In a matter of months I will be exiting my twenties and weaving the rest of my story as a 30+ year old. I have a photo album project sitting under my coffee table right now that gives a brief summary of my journey thus far. I finally have the photos in chronological order and I’m labeling each one.
It’s not the dates or places I remember easily. As I glance through countless road trips, weddings, holidays, jobs, and boyfriends, what I recall are my thoughts and feelings at the time when the photos were taken. Some of the memories make me smile, like the fact that I was holding a cigar behind my back in a Halloween party photo, having a great time fresh out of high school. Or the time after a late-night arrival at a state park when a friend and I woke up on a playground with an angry park ranger standing over us.
A different type of nostalgia makes me sigh. As an “older” young woman, I can pinpoint this type of nostalgia as regret over the insecurities I felt when so many of the photographs were taken. I regret being preoccupied with my ex-boyfriend’s tardiness when he came to my parents’ house during the holidays. I regret worrying about how I looked as a bridesmaid instead of immersing myself in the joy of a wedding. Of course, this general uneasy feeling was not limited to special occasions when I held a camera—it was most of the time. I did not think I was worthy of happiness. That is, until I learned to take the wheel.
As my adulthood solidified, however, I realized that my life’s milestones did not mean much unless my heart was there, too, feeling good. I started to focus on possibilities and moments instead of consequences and acceptance. I asked my college roommates if they thought I should run for office in my sorority; they shrugged their shoulders and looked at the ground. I did it anyway and won. I asked my parents if they thought I should take a summer internship position across the country as a wilderness ranger; they said “Well, are you sure you know what you’re getting into?” I sublet my apartment and left, and went on to get a master’s degree in natural resources in 1998. Eventuallay, I stopped asking people to guide me and started telling them my plans: “I’m going to run a marathon.” A few friends laughed in my face, but most of them were starting to learn, too. They asked when it was. I am training for my second race.
In my 1998 album, I have a photograph of myself holding up my newly earned master’s degree. It was not a particularly good year—my brother had been diagnosed with cancer, I was constantly sleep-deprived, I did not have a job, and my boyfriend moved to Florida, where he met a new girl. In the past I would have been overcome by these events, making graduation nothing but history book material—date and place. But my heart was really there, in the moment. My family said every time they saw me in the crowd I was smiling away. I am going to have the same smile on my face when I look through my future photo albums. And I am not asking you, I am telling you.Kate Helfrich likes to think of herself as a renaissance woman of the midwest. She holds a B.A. in English and a M.S. in natural resources; she has worked in environmental consulting from mowing grass to educating to writing business documents. Now she's a nanny and freelance writer. She runs six months out of the year and eats cookies the other six.
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