I was born twenty-three years ago on a Tuesday afternoon with all the pomp and circumstance one imagines would come with being the first grandchild on both sides of my family: a parade of relatives and friends, plenty of pictures, and lots of tears. I was ten days early, tiny, long-legged, and named after a Southern author whose works I wouldn’t read for another sixteen years.
I’ve always found the Tuesday part to be interesting. Part of this is because I always hated Tuesdays (partially because they were often violin lesson days, and I… was not very good at violin). Part of it is that old Mother Goose rhyme that I’ve always found so odd, as if the day on which you’re born can determine your fate: Monday’s child is fair of face; Tuesday’s child is full of grace; Wednesday’s child is full of woe… Well, someone clearly hated Wednesdays.
I always thought it was funny that my middle name was Grace. It felt like some sort of sign, like God or my parents had known ahead of time that yes, child–you, you will be filled right up with grace. You’ll have to be. When I was younger it felt like an impossibility: I was easily the clumsiest kid in my grade. Grace was a word I associated with ballerinas and soft piano music, not a long-legged pre-teen with braces and bruised knees. Humor has always been my coping mechanism, so I turned this fact of klutziness into a joke–It’s the biggest irony of my life, I’d say, that my middle name is Grace. I told my mom once that it felt like a curse: like she and dad had named me Grace and the world was determined to prove them wrong with every bruised elbow and skinned knee.
Well, she told me with a wry grin. If you can’t be graceful, you’ll just have to be gracious.
Somewhere along the road, I realized that was probably what she and my dad had wanted all along: not the child with perfect balance, but the child who understood her own messy heart and did her best to care for those of others. The child who could remember that while mercy was not getting the bad that you do deserve, grace was getting the good that you don’t deserve. The child who knew, on some level, that the best thing you can do in this world is just love, love, love, and hope that maybe, maybe you’ll leave this world a little better than the way you found it.
I’m not incredibly good at that, to be honest, but it’s a thought that I can get behind. Gracious, I would tell myself after running into another doorframe, street sign, mailbox, coffee table. Gracious, not graceful, as I tripped over my own cleats the day before my last softball game and scraped my knees up so badly I could barely walk for a week. Gracious, as I raised an eyebrow at the scattered marks of black and blue that rimmed my shins and elbows with no recollection of what I’d done to cause them.
(Once, I tried to keep a list of all the times I ran into things. I think I lasted for maybe two hours before I gave up–there were too many, and mom told me it was weird.)
The point is–I’m not a graceful person. I quit ballet when I was four years old after what I’m pretty sure was one month of lessons. I’m the girl who literally fell over while sitting down during one of my ninth grade math classes because that is how bad my sense of balance was. I don’t know how to take all of the information my brain is processing and apply it precisely to the movements of my limbs. But gracious–well, maybe I have a shot at that one.
I don’t want to make it appear like I’m an expert on being gracious. I’m not. I’m a just-today-turned twenty-three year old kid from Philadelphia who spends a lot of time dwelling in possibilities instead of dealing with reality. I can be a bit of an idealist, I’m definitely a perfectionist, and I have been known to have my fair share of Philly road rage when I’m behind the wheel. But even if I don’t always act like it, I do know what grace looks like. I know what it feels like. I know some of the shapes she takes in this world.
See, Grace is a community thing. She likes company. She can’t exist on her own, locked away in her own little tower like Rapunzel in a fairy tale. She likes the laughter between lovers, the peaceful lulls in conversation between old friends, the smiles a teacher gives to a student, the secret handshake between sisters. The tackle hugs at baggage claim, the nods of acknowledgment across a street. The tissue handed to a crying roommate, the deep breaths you were instructed to take, the scent of freshly made biscuits tickling your nose when you’re home for the weekend.
She looks like putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own, like prizing someone else’s comfort instead of yours, like calm words and soothing murmurs and a quick note stuck in your lunchbox when you weren’t looking. She looks like all those moments you think of when someone asks you what you like most about someone else. She sounds like hope. She feels like home. She’s kinda like karma in that sometimes if you go out looking for her, you’ll find her on a street corner tucked into someone’s bright scarf that looks just like the blue of the sky on that one day you’ll never forget. She’s kinda like love because a lot of the times, most of the time, she is love–love in action, that’s what she is.
She looks like all those times my parents made sure I could visit my best friend after we moved away, or made sure I didn’t walk into oncoming traffic, or told me not to be so bossy to my siblings. She looks like a friend’s fashion advice or even a reprimand, a reminder that you are not the be-all end-all here, missy, so sit tight and pay attention to the world around you for a change. She looks like welcome and tastes like generosity.
This has been a hard year for so, so many reasons. I don’t think anything anyone tells you will ever properly prepare you for finishing school entirely and heading into the world. It’s been over a year since graduation and I still can’t quite wrap my head around the idea that I actually finished college (because that’s something adults have done, you know, and I’m just a kid, right?). Joining the work force is disillusioning at best and completely inundating at worst. Leaving the structure and expectations of school has been quite difficult, not least because I finally realized how much of myself I had sunk into my academic career.
And that’s a good thing. It was good to sink myself into academics, to spend so much time studying and learning, always learning. I miss that more than anything. But it was also a good thing to leave that behind, even if this non-school-life is only temporary and I go back for grad school or, heaven help me, a doctorate. It’s a good thing to have free time that gets eaten up by game nights and novels without any pending threats of essays and exams. It’s a good thing to figure out what the working world has to offer and figure out why it isn’t working for you.
There’s been a TED talk about the key to success making its way around my facebook feed for the second time. The key to success, according to Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth (a Penn professor), is grit. Nothing fancy like an IQ score or even a reading comprehension exam–just tenacity. The ability to keep. moving. forward. No matter what. A special sort of stubbornness, if you will.
Now, grit is all well and good, and if you know anything about my family you’ll know we can each be stubborn as a mule if it gets right down to it. I don’t want to question Dr. Duckworth’s presentation of her research. Grit is clearly a very important factor… in her definition of success.
If I’ve learned anything from my twenty-third year of life, it’s that success comes in all shapes and sizes and can’t really be defined by any one set of measurements. There’s financial success–monetary clout is definitely an obvious definition. For a while, mine was academics–did you get the right grades? Did you pass that exam? Did you proofread that essay? But there are other definitions, too, of course–
Have you done what you set out to do? Are you happy? Do you enjoy your job? Barring that, do you enjoy what you do when you aren’t at work? Have you set goals? met them?
My favorite book in the whole world is probably Miss Rumphius. It’s a picture book–a National Book Award winner, actually–that starts with this little girl named Alice who lived with her grandfather in a house by the sea, where he painted figureheads for ships and told her the most wonderful stories of his time traveling the world. Alice told him that she, too, would be like him when she grew up. She would travel the world, go to far off places–and when she was older, she would live by the sea. Her grandfather tells her that is all well and good, but there is a third thing she has to do, too.
You must do something to make the world more beautiful.
It’s not enough to just live in this world and make money or good grades or live in the right part of town. Grit, that’s just surviving. Grace? She’s about thriving. She’s not your average definition of success, perhaps, but she makes the world more beautiful.
I know this is getting a little long-winded, but what it all comes down to is this.
Thank you. Thank you for everything. Thank you for the birthday wishes, whether they were in person or a message or a facebook post. Thank you for making this birthday one filled right up with kind words and good memories, with hopes for many more to come. Thank you for your words, and your wisdom, and your encouragement. Thank you for reading this, or most of this, or even just clicking “like” on the link. Thank you for your generosity of spirit, and your stubborn kindness, and your really, really bad puns and your really, really good book recommendations. Thank you for making me rethink what it means to be successful.
Thank you for making the world more beautiful. Thank you for showing me what it looks like to be a child of grace.