I was really exhausted the first time that it happened — running, literally, on caffeine and fumes.
It was around 11:00 pm and I was halfway through the hour-and-a-half drive home from law school — the same drive I’d made four days a week, every week, for the past two-plus years. I still had another year-plus to go. I worked all day, went to law school all night, and drove three hours a day to get to law school and back. When I wasn’t driving, or working, or sitting in class, I was studying. A lot. I hadn’t had enough sleep in years and, for years, I’d been stressed-out: worried that whatever I did at work, I should be studying for law school and that, whenever I studied for law school, I should have been doing stuff for work. I lived in terror that I was just foolishly wasting money that I should have been saving for retirement. I hadn’t balanced my checkbook in months, or taken my car in for an oil change, or met any friends for coffee since, well, since forever, it felt like. And, so, the first time that it happened, it was easy to dismiss as exhaustion talking, or the result of stress, or simple longing.
I was driving home in the dark and a huge stag ran across the road. It was Autumn, rutting season, and I was driving home through forest and open fields, so seeing a stag wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, but it had never happened before and, somehow, this stag (seen only for a split second) seemed full of portent. And, then, it happened. I felt my older self sitting next to me in the car, putting her hand on my shoulder and saying, “Hang in there. This is going to work out well. You’re going to be glad you did this.” And, then, she was gone, and I was still exhausted, and I still had a long way to drive before I got into my bed for too short a time, and I was still pretty unsure that I was cut out for this “competitive” business of the law. I blinked, rubbed my tired eyes, and said to myself that I really, really, really needed more sleep.
And then it happened the next night, and the next, and the next, and the night after that. . . . I’d get in the car to drive home from law school; I’d hit approximately the same patch of road; it would happen. I mentioned to my brother in upstate New York that I kept almost running into stags and he sent me a very clever little thing that attached to my car and made a whistle out of the wind to scare away the deer. But stags kept bounding across the road in front of me and my future self kept showing up on the seat next to me, telling me that I could do this, that I should do this, that I’d be glad that I’d hung in and done this. (I didn’t mention her to my brother, so I’ll never know if they sell little plastic things in upstate New York that are supposed to scare off your future self.) Eventually (and it took me many days longer than it should have done because I was too exhausted to think clearly), when she showed up, I pulled over to the side of the road, next to the forest into which the stag usually went bounding. I started to cry (which is pretty much, even now, my standard response to being too tired and then suddenly stopping) and I said, “Thank you. I needed this. I’m so tired and there’s still such a long way to go and I’m so scared that I maybe don’t have what this takes, and, if you’re here from my future to tell me that it will all be worth it and that it will all work out in the end — thank you. Is there anything I can do for you?” And she smiled and said, “Yes, make law review,” and then she was gone, and I rubbed my eyes, thought, “As if,” pulled back into traffic, and drove the rest of the way home to sleep for about three hours before work.
I never saw another stag, not even the next Autumn, but I often had a gentle notion that my future self was next to me, pulling for me, smiling knowingly when I made law review, got an offer to be a summer associate, made moot court board, won the evidence award, graduated Order of the Coif, got the job that I have.
And, so, of course, I think you can guess the rest of the story. I’ve been doing this “law stuff” for several decades now. And whenever I have a good day, I spend a few minutes going back to that long stretch of road, slipping into that almost-falling-apart cheap car, and sitting in the passenger seat next to that brave, scared, unsure young woman. I summon up a stag, to let her know that she’s about to hear something important, and then I put my hand on her shoulder. I lean in and I tell her, “You can do this. And, trust me, you’ll be glad you did.”
I like almost everything about my job, but preparing for appellate oral argument is maybe my very favorite part. And I spent all day today doing that with a group of really smart co-counsel working, really hard, on a very complicated legal issue. And then I came home, and summoned up a stag, and placed myself in the passenger seat of a car, hurtling through darkness in open country and forest.
I’ve done the same magic to get that same scared woman through breast cancer treatment, a few years after law school, and I still drawn on energy that I think an older, retired me is sending even now to this old woman trying desperately to win this case, and the next one, and the next. And to be a Nonna, and to keep up a garden, and to do responsible political magic, and to write a blog, and to, well, you know.
David Whyte says that:
We are here essentially to risk ourselves in the world. We are a form of invitation to others and to otherness, we are meant to hazard ourselves for the right thing, for the right woman or the right man, for a son or a daughter, for the right work or for a gift given against all the odds. And in all this continual risking the most profound courage may be found in the simple willingness to allow ourselves to be happy along the way.
I love hazarding myself for the right thing, the right work, for a better legal policy future, for my Son, my Dil, my G/Son. Maybe what would have surprised my younger self the most is just how happy I have allowed myself to be along the way. (That’s what I was trying to tell you with the bounding stag! It’s all supposed to be wild fun!) I love the path that I’m walking. I shan’t be gone long; you come, too.
Do you ever do this inter-temporal magic?