Spring, 2020: the season of missed milestones. Beyond birthdays, anniversaries, and religious gatherings that were not celebrated together or much at all, major school events including final exams, spring arts performances, final athletic competitions, moving up ceremonies, and graduations had to be canceled or postponed.
My 17-year-old did not sit for final exams, stand before her school to give her senior speech, or wear the green dress she bought for the prom before leaving the house in a cloud of joyful anticipation. My 11-year-old in sixth grade did not eat cupcakes with her friends when she turned 12, did not perform an elaborate year-end dance with her grade, and did not play her first season of lacrosse. Thankfully, her teacher’s wife did have a baby as expected. The baby came early, right as the quarantine began, but was safely delivered in a momentous rush right into her father’s hands, at home.
In the spirit of finding gratitude for what is good amid what is bad and hard, I offer a meditation on milestones.
A Word’s Meanings
My father had an abridged edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and when I really liked a word or didn’t understand it, I would turn the book’s thin, densely printed pages to learn what I could. Preparing to write this essay, I looked up milestone in the OED, where I found three definitions that helped to orient me.
Milestone: 1a. A stone or (usually short) pillar set up beside a road indicating the distance in miles from that point to a particular place.
The first definition is deceptively straightforward; of course a milestone is a stone that marks miles. But what I had forgotten or not realized is that it marks the miles still to go. Remembering this helped me to focus my attention less on what we have lost than on what we have yet to discover.
Milestone: 1b. figurative. A significant stage or event in the progress or development of a society, a career, an individual’s physical and mental growth, etc; a measure of progress or change.
The second definition is figurative, but still straightforward. As people, we are very familiar with the cadences of human development, with its stages spanning early childhood, adolescence and adulthood. As learners, we are very familiar with the cadences of school, with its regular openings, closings, progress reports, and prescribed moments of pause and reflection.
If a milestone is figuratively a measure of progress or change, what, or really who, performs these measures? Ralph Waldo Emerson thought of teachers as milestones, writing in 1850 that “our teachers serve us personally, as metres or milestones of progress.” In school. the people around us — teachers, peers — act as milestones in our lives, telling us how far we have come and how far we have still to go.
The third definition provides a warning for us — especially when we’re in a pandemic, but also when we’re not in a pandemic.
Milestone: 1c. figurative. A stage to be reached (in a project, etc.), esp. by a specified date; a target.
When we feel we need to get somewhere specific, or in a specific amount of time, we can only feel stressed by our inability to hasten our journey. Think about the history of transportation — we went from walking to riding to driving to flying because the pace of our own footsteps was insufficient for our goals. Even a 1993 example given in the OED ignites stress — “OFTEL sets out ‘milestones’ for the companies to meet – so, for example, in a franchise covering 200,000 homes, the company might have to give 40,000 more homes access to cable each year.”
The Gift of Ordinary Milestones
Despite how it may feel, all has not been lost when it comes to milestones this school year. While my high school senior did not physically stand before her school to deliver her farewell speech, she did deliver that speech to her virtually gathered community, complete virtual final projects for all of her classes, and will graduate, online, with her peers. The milestones in her life continue to present themselves, and she continues to pass through them — albeit differently than what was expected.
In The Gift of an Ordinary Day, Katrina Kenison writes, “Being alive, it seems, means learning to bear the weight of the passing of all things. It means finding a way to lightly hold all the places we’ve loved and left anyway, all the moments and days and years that have already been lived and lost to memory, even as we live on in the here and now, knowing full well that this moment, too, is already gone. It means, always, allowing for the hard truth of endings. It means, too, keeping faith in the beginnings.”
Ordinary milestones invite us to loosen our grip on expectations and outcomes while holding tightly the things that matter most: loved ones, learning, safety, connection, community. Ann, Ari, and I look forward to sharing more of your stories when the next school year begins, no matter when, or what shape it takes.