I was sitting in a nonsmoking booth in the diner off campus when I told my college boyfriend a vision of my future:
"I'm not sure where I am," I said, taking a sip of caffeinated coffee some hours after midnight. "Like, Africa or something, maybe?"
My hair is tied back into a ponytail, and I'm bending over, frowning, concentrating on something important.
He nodded, smiled, got it. It was the age of idealism: for staying up far too late and climbing up trees just because. It was the time for waxing positive about our potential: the impact we would make, the adventures we would have, the lives we would save through our art, our science, and our inspired and inexhaustible efforts.
In the years that followed, I wore that idealism like a mantle. It shielded me from skepticism, from doubt. It kept me grounded and on a path I believed would yield real and positive change in the world.
I earned a graduate degree in education and moved to the Middle East, teaching English to young men and women who had plans to move to America. My lessons also extended to a rotating cast of Abu Dhabi housewives who were searching for an elusive freedom outside of their homes and in the increasingly diverse Emirates workforce. I made friends with several of them, and we gathered in Hind's home (she had the largest majlis, a room lined with cushions and divans that was dedicated to hosting guests) to while away the oppressively hot Arabian afternoons.
In a world where the women were expected to be veiled outside of the home, the majlis was a space for expression, for freedom. We did henna. We ate cake. We laughed at the children. We told sad stories. We pored over wedding albums. We belly-danced, some (me) more poorly than others. We watched movies. We drank tea. We passed around cellphones. We drank coffee. We ogled handsome Egyptian singers. We shared rose-embellished memes.
Hind wanted to apply to doctorate programs. "I got married and had a son all before I was 30," she said with an easy smile. "Now I want a doctorate degree."
I don't remember exactly what she wanted to study, but I remember the confidence she exuded as her baby fed at her breast, her chin high, how certain she seemed of herself, her place in the world.
When I left Abu Dhabi, I continued my work teaching English. I can't tell you exactly when my mantle of idealism fell away, but its disappearance ripped me from the Earth's gravitational pull, and I spun out into the stratosphere. Out in space, I looked down and saw a great and terrible circle. The poverty, the greed, the high-fructose corn syrup. Ebola, cancer, and cyclists who run the red.
One day, my husband found me crumpled in a heap on the kitchen floor. He crouched down and held my shoulders, saying firmly into my face that I needed to make a change. He just wanted to see me happy again.
A few weeks later, I quit my job, encouraged by my husband to pursue my long-held dream of a career in writing. Immediately I felt lighter, giddy even, the unpredictability of my future feeding a youthful idealism I had thought long lost. Not two days later I discovered that the butterflies in my stomach were actually the early fluttering of my child.
So I became a mother and a writer all at once, both roles demanding more of my body and my mind than I thought humanly possible. And now, almost three years later, both are doing fine, thriving, even.
Still I often wonder if I am doing enough: for my family, for the world, for the sanitation workers whose lives are rendered infinitely easier if we just break down our boxes before putting them out on the curb. Whispers of doubt tiptoe into my mind in the minutes between half-snoozing through some Shonda show and skimming a few Buzzfeed listicles in bed before succumbing to exhaustion.
The other day, my daughter, seized by the sudden urge to again test the extent of the power she wields over the world, flung an entire bowl of Cheerios across the kitchen. I wiped her chin, and lifted her from her high chair, so she could "help Mama." (I know, I know. But you can't blame me for trying.)
I crouched on the floor in front of the stove, pressing a paper towel into the liquid, watching it spread to the edges. It was an odd little meditation, and I briefly lost myself in it. Musing on something or other: dinner plans, maybe, or an essay I was writing, watching the milk's slow bleed, saturating what it could, leaving pools of liquid in the grout between the kitchen tiles.
I tore off another square, and heard my daughter patter up next to me. I glanced up, and caught my reflection in the glass of the oven. There I was: stooped over, my unwashed hair gathered in a ponytail, frowning, concentrating. My daughter drew her face close to mine, and smiled into the glass. I smiled back.
Megan Ritchie Jooste is a Philadelphia writer.