Defining my identity is a process that has lasted as long as I have been alive, metamorphosing through the years as my relationship with myself and the world evolves in parallel. When I was young, I would explode with ideas when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. “An astronaut!” I would exclaim, “Wait no, a scientist!” Time swept past me as a river with no end, and the possibilities of the future for both myself and the life I could create seemed infinite. As I became older and began to get a feel for the world around me, my declarations were more sure. “I want to be an artist,” I would tell everyone who would listen, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind as I explained my plans, “I want to have a mansion in the middle of the woods with six floors and a dome on top. Look, I drew a picture.” That’s what the future was to me, something that could be designed as creatively and simply as a drawing on paper. A blank canvas with endless potential and no limits.
Life hit me the hardest in my early teen years. The sun didn’t seem as bright, I found no warmth in the embrace of my family, and my attachment to the world I was raised in gradually dimmed. If it hadn’t been for the sketchbooks strewn across my desk, I might have faded away entirely. My identity lost meaning to me, then, because I didn’t see any worth in it. The days where I did think about my future, I saw the river of time flowing through cosmos carrying countless grains of sand. Each grain traveled different distances and had a different purpose, and all together formed the might of the river as it plunged on, but it would not be any less great if one grain settled to the bottom. The future could go on without me.
When quarantine began, I was at my most vulnerable. I had already lost several of the people who meant the most to me because of parts of my identity that were less readily accepted by society. The months dragged on like icebergs on an ocean that knew no end. Halfway through the year I paused and took the opportunity to contemplate what a life that I would be content with might look like. A future where I was not only alive to experience the world as it surrounded me, but in which I would actively participate and find sustenance in. From the haze of a future I couldn’t connect with came the vague outline of places and people and situations that I realized sparked interest inside me. Perhaps—somewhere along the countless bends of the river decades down the line—I could settle against a shore and look back at the course I have taken and smile.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I am 17 now, and I face this question just as often in the present day as I did as when I was a six year old surrounded by crayons and smiling with the whole world in my eyes. I have a different answer to that question now than I did then, but the specifics of my destination are less important to me than they had been before. “I want to hold my pencils in one hand,” I might reply, “and the hand of a friend in the other. I would love to study psychology, to take a seat in my own office decorated with care and creativity, with a cat sitting in the sunlight that comes in the window and a plaque with my name upon it on the door right below the words ‘Art Therapist’. But I would also love to be someone who makes everyone around me feel as though they were coming home.”
One thing that I have come to realize is that life is as fluid as time itself, as meandering as the river that takes me through it, and the place I envision myself to be thirty years in the future may very well not be the place that I end up. Regardless of where I land, however, I can make the time I have spent getting there be just as meaningful. The papers in my portfolio are important, and so are the people in my life that give me the courage to submit them someplace where my career can be advanced. The degrees I plan to acquire after years of studying are valuable, as are the memories I’ll make on the road to achieving them. There is a balance, I believe, between concepts such as happiness and friendship and the material goals of success and accomplishment. When I look to the future, now, I don’t always know what I’ll find. I do know, however, that if I stand on the times of my toes and raise my hand as high as I can, I can look out across the water as it rushes past me and see a figure standing on the far shore waving back. A figure with eyes crinkled with pride and affection, looking back on themselves from the past, and knowing that they made it.