The Conductor’s Baton

A few weeks ago, while shopping for a baby gift, I noticed the array of colorful growth charts. I was immediately transported to our former kitchen doorway, notched in inches and smudged with pencil marks. I smiled, recalling the day I discovered my daughter lining up her friends to be measured on the doorframe. It seemed that—Carro or not—they, too, wanted their growth documented for posterity. 

I’ve had friends who, when moving, pulled down and took with them doorframes—to preserve the growth that happened within familial walls. But I wonder why we never continue to document our growth once we reach adulthood? Perhaps we’re unsure how to gauge growth when measured in emotional maturity, in critical thinking, rather than in inches.

Years ago, upon joining a college sorority, I became friends with Catherine, from my pledge class. Over time we discovered we had been born in the same city, at the same hospital, within twelve hours of each other. Since then, my birthday twin and I have routinely celebrated together. Oh, the discussions we have had over patio tacos! Long past doorway charts, our growth has been marked instead by time and memories: sweaty Jane Fonda workouts and humid summer lake days; wiling away noon hours in the breakroom at our summer job; first and subsequent loves that took our breaths away and parental losses that silenced all else. Together we have loved, lost and contemplated what was next. As our children romped on the playground, we pondered what the future would hold—for them and us. Now they are grown, and we still wonder what is next.

Recently I was talking with a 20-something about her preoccupation with what other people think of her. I confessed I used to be that way also, and she asked how I conquered it. Shrugging, I said I had simply outgrown it.

Perhaps every now and then we should stop and take stock—evaluate not only how much we’ve grown but what we’ve outgrown. For instance, my generation outgrew racism and feminine stereotypes. Isn’t the act of outgrowing something a more potent manifestation of growth? When we outgrow self-absorption, pettiness and envy, there is space in our souls for solace and solicitude. It’s not that we middle agers are unflawed; we have just outgrown hiding our weaknesses—and there is wisdom in that, for with wrinkles comes life’s greatest gift: the ability to laugh at ourselves.

Recently, I had the privilege of attending my son-in-law’s choral conducting doctoral recital. On the day before the recital, Lawrence showed me his conducting baton and pointed out the balance point, which gives the conductor control. He also explained the conventional wisdom: that a baton should be the length of the conductor’s forearm. Any longer, and there is the danger of over-extension and loss of control. All these elements enable this tool to help the conductor emotionally represent the music.

I wonder how balanced our metaphorical life batons are. So often I lose balance and over-extend. How easy it is to do and how difficult to outgrow that habit.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to reunite with college friends. Passing around old photographs, we marveled at the fact that for each faded picture, it took our collective memories to reconstruct that moment in time. How blessed we are if we have friends who can be memory banks for us. When I think of friendships that have endured over time, happy, carefree moments aren’t all that come to mind. I also remember our collective losses, the times when our hearts were heavy and we leaned in to each other. The wings we stretched together.

Every year, when our joint birthday approaches, I think of how Catherine and I have grown up together. I’m also proud of what we’ve left behind. Together we have outgrown the naïve ideas that life is fair or that grief is avoidable. Gone are those youthful expectations we set—for ourselves and others. Like the conductors wielding their batons, we are inching ever closer to achieving balance, to the precise movements that make life’s symphony magnificent. When we outgrow rose-colored glasses, how extraordinary is our view of the world, with all its vibrant hues.

When we gather for our birthday lunch this month, we will again revisit the tales of our youth. We will undoubtedly wonder what lies ahead for our families and for ourselves. But we won’t obsess over what the future holds—what we cannot control. 

We have outgrown that.

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