When I was twelve years old we took a family vacation to Arches National Park. If you are reading this and don't know what Arches National Park is then this is the moment we will pause for you to google.
And now I will say this: Yes, those pictures are really something, but they don't even begin to touch on the majesty of those formations. To see those rocks--yes, rocks--up close is magic. Absolute magic.
So at the age of twelve I set out with my family on a short hike toward the Delicate Arch. But as the mid-day sun rose, we were still trekking. The land was so flat and the sun was so hot and I couldn't see the thing in the distance. I remember thinking it would never end--that we would never get there. And then, just the moment I thought all hope was lost, we turned the corner on a rock bluff and there it was. 1,000 feet away and free-standing and surely crafted by some divine force.
It was...that experience of first laying eyes on it...only a few times in my life have I been moved by beauty in such a particular way. Eighteen years later and the memory still leaves me breathless. That particular formation is the intangible made manifest and to tell the story of it is to feel keenly the very particular way in which language fails.
But the story of first seeing the Delicate Arch is really the story of trekking towards it. It is beautiful, no doubt. But it was so startling to behold in large part because the journey to get to it was so arduous.
This week a very lovely reader sent me the following question:
I was curious, but what book(s) and film(s) would you recommend to your twenty-one-year-old self that might have said or illustrated something that you wish you would have known earlier?
And I had such a knee-jerk reaction to the question that I asked her if I could share my answer here.
If I could write a letter to my twenty-one-year-old self this would be it:
It gets better.
That's it. Those three words. Signed and sealed and winging its way into the past.
There are so many great articles on the internet that read something like this: 21 Things I Wish I'd Known at Twenty-One. But I'd like to posit that the title should actually be: 21 Things I've Learned in the Time Since I was 21 (and that is just as it should be).
There is not one thing I wish I had learned sooner. There is not one thing I think I was meant to know before I was meant to know it. There is no short-cut to growing up. I am so grateful for how arduous the path has been. I am so grateful for how long it took me to understand Rilke's words about loving the unsolved questions. I am so grateful for sadness and heartbreak and the mornings when getting out of bed felt more impossible than not.
I wouldn't tell my twenty-one-year-old self anything other than it gets better because I needed to learn every last thing on my own, and in my own time. Because it has been how I have learned each thing that has shaped the woman I now am--and the woman I'll be tomorrow and the day after, and the year after next. And I'm pretty okay with that woman.
One's only job is to stay open. To want to learn more and get better. To be engaged in the trek--aware that one is moving and climbing. To ask for help and offer it when able. Because we learn about trusting our gut only after we haven't. And we learn about love in the trenches of heartbreak. And we understand the value of showing-up only after we have failed. Cheryl Strayed wrote in Tiny Beautiful Things, "Every last one of us can do better than give up." And I rather think that's the point. To, as she says again and again, reach in the direction of the life we want. That's our job.
Because the experience of the view is shaped by the difficulty in getting there. And that is a very, very lucky thing.
And should you want to know more about my particular trek: