What’s Next?

Erin Olig has a degree in occupational therapy and is a homeschooling mom of five. She is a novice writer, chicken raiser, ukulele player, lover of life and attempter of new things.

When I was 12 years old, I had gumption.

I kicked off summer vacation that year by calling a cab and waiting nervously, picking paint off the front steps, until the driver arrived. I recall the heavy odor of cigarette smoke, the way my thighs clung to the warm vinyl and my mom’s cavernous, old purse folded over in my lap like a prop — a signal to the driver an actual adult would not be sliding into the seat beside me.

The cab stopped in front of a brick building, a day program for disabled children and adults. I dropped my dollar of baby-sitting earnings into the driver’s hand and marched toward my destination, easing my way into the manager’s oce and offering myself as a volunteer.

I vaguely recall mumbling something that I deemed inspirational about my lifelong dreams and unflinching work ethic. Thankfully, the wide-
eyed woman suppressed the amused grin that must have tempted her and offered me a seat (just as you would any other grown person with an enormous purse). I am certain I was not expected to be there every day when the doors opened, but I was. I had a dream, and it was driving me as reliably as the yellow cab that delivered me every morning.

I have a Polaroid picture of me that summer, wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and surrounded by my “co-workers.” My hair was puffed out from the humidity and my pale cheeks were covered in freckles. I was proudly gripping an envelope of cash which had been gathered by a grateful staff to compensate me for my considerable taxi expenses.

I didn’t have much else going for me that year; my dad wasn’t around and my mom was working hard to keep food on the table. I was struggling in the chasm between childhood and adolescence, but I had spirit. I believed. I believed that we were just one Whitney Houston song away from world peace, that my dad would finally sober up, and I believed in myself. I was the girl perched on the edge of the hard wooden bleacher bench nodding along at the third-grade assembly — the one where a motivational speaker passionately charges you, and your entire generation, with the changing of the world and leaves you with pink cheeks and plans to start an orphanage and inspire the world with all the poetry in your flannel-covered diary.

At 35, when I stumbled upon that photo, I did have everything going for me. I had married my best friend, pursued my career and was raising five beautiful children. Life was full. I studied the photo, holding it up to the mirror and letting my eyes wander back and forth between my face and hers, considering these contrasting layers of myself. Thee freckle-faced child felt as distant as a dream, and I struggled to see her bold optimism buried in my own tired eyes.

My mind slipped unexpectedly to an exchange I had with my mom recently while folding clothes at the dining room table.

“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that light in your eyes.”

It was a the kind of deceivingly simple statement that only a mom can make, the kind that stirs something in you so that the question behind it begins to root its way out and with it, a challenge. I was tempted to turn to her with wide eyes and an exaggerated smile and prove that I hadn’t dropped some part of myself like a stray sock along the way. But I nodded instead, mumbling something about the baby being up all night. I knew it was the wrong answer and found myself vaguely annoyed by my apparent need for self reflection, as though it were one more task, another load of laundry to fold, rather than the question I’d been needing to hear — the one that the rest of the world stopped asking years ago, back when every adult you met saw that glow of enthusiasm in your eyes and asked you hopefully, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

When we are young, people constantly ask us what we are going to be, what we are going to do when we reach that pinnacle of adulthood, finishing college and embarking on phase two of our two-part existence — when we would step out of the blur of childhood and strap on our future like a backpacker summiting Everest, thrusting our flags into the ground and screaming, “I made it!” but that’s not the end of the story, is it? Life is not a two-act play, but an epic saga, and we are forever changing and growing as the chapters unfold.

Somewhere along the way people stop asking you want you want to be when you grow up. In fact they stop asking what you want to be at all. And we stop asking ourselves.

And the light dims.

I tucked the Polaroid into the corner of my mirror and began writing a list. I began with things that made me happy, like black licorice and the smell of clothes hanging on a line, and continued to write until my hand ached and I began to feel the flickering of my soul, the catalyst which would transform my list into my rawest and most vulnerable dreams — the ones I had tucked away, neglected, because they seemed childish. And I sat on the edge of my bed with pink cheeks and giggled because I realized I hadn’t finished growing up, and I never would.

I picked up a pencil (yes, a pencil) and spent that summer writing a book while the dog barked and the doorbell rang and the baby dribbled apple juice down the back of my shirt. I still fold the laundry, but now I’m daydreaming about the next chapter I will write, or picture I will draw, or race I will run. And I don’t have to lecture my kids about following their dreams because they are watching me do it, and I know that the light they see in my eyes is worth a thousand words.

I will ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up, and I will charge them with the changing of the world, and when I sit down to coffee with a friend, or my mother or grandmother, I will ask her the very same thing and watch for the flicker of light in her eyes.

What are you going to do next?