Lately people have been asking me for advice, and I have not once but twice in a row now made the rookie mistake of actually giving it. I know that most people want to hear, “you go grrrrl!” even when they swear they’re seeking my best, most realistic counsel. But I didn’t say, “you go grrrl!” and the result is that two acquaintances are, apparently, never going to speak to me again. This isn’t, perhaps, the punishment they think it is, but makes me snort in exasperation and mutter, “They need to grow the fuck up.”
I think this about most people, most of the time, so it’s not like these two ended up on my asshole of the year list, but it got me thinking about what is so freakin’ exasperating about people who won’t grow the fuck up.
And I have come to the conclusion that what exasperates me most is the idea that life, past the age of eighteen or so, is supposed to have all sorts of shiny newness to it, all kinds of goofy happiness, and passion for your work and bucket lists to check off, and everyone holding hands, and no more war! and whatever fuck else that prevents people from having to live the lives that they have been given, the ones they have made.
They spend forty-five years making choices that dump them in the swamp, and then they don’t want to be in the swamp, and they want some fairy dust to get out of the swamp, and you tell them (because you know this from having spent some time in the swamp yourself) that magical thinking doesn’t get anyone out of the swamp, hard work does, and by their reaction you’d have been better off killing puppies. They could forgive you for that.
Here’s the thing. Life is full of shiny newness when you’re young. A first kiss, a first love, a first puppy. A first day away at school, a first BFF, a first job, a first car, a first house, a first child. But the firsts end. And the years go on, and all the shiny newness has worn off and you think there’s something wrong with you, or your life, so you make changes, you pick it up and smash it just to see what happens, and you remake it, but it is still not new. Now it has places where you had to glue it back together, and you got that one piece in backwards.
And you trace your finger along the mended parts, and you feel betrayed. You can remember what it is to be new to the world, but you can no longer feel it. And you go desperately in search of that feeling, like an addict. You want it back, the first love, the first tree you ever planted, but the firsts are gone, they are all fucking gone, every one of them, and now what are you supposed to do?
You want the newness back and you can’t figure out how. You leave your job, you leave your city, you leave your husband so you can find something new, a new job, a new city, a new husband, but they are none of them that different from the old. They aren’t firsts. They may be new, but not in the way you want them to be. They are just more verses of a song you already know by heart.
You are no longer new, either; you are old enough to know that the perfect job does not exist, but when you got your first job, you did not know that, you thought it might be perfect, you thought life might be, that it would be good and happy and full of light forever. But now you know better, and you can’t stop knowing, even when you try to talk yourself into naïveté again.
Most people keep trying, they keep trying to suspend disbelief and to talk themselves into naïveté, and they get pissed at you if you don’t help them in this endeavor, but they are missing the point.
All the new and shiny firsts have one thing in common: they are superficial. They are the surface of things. They have no depth, and neither do you, your first time out. You may remember your first kiss forever, but I know and you know that it was not also your best kiss, or your most meaningful kiss, or the last kiss from the one you loved with all you had. You have to have a first kiss to get to any of the rest, but that doesn’t mean the first kiss is somehow better than the others. It is a thing you had to get out of the way in order to get to something worthwhile.
I remember the shiny newness of the first time I picked up a pencil and wrote a sentence: a #2 pencil, a Big Chief table, the words, “I like cats.” Writing no longer feels new, and there is no novelty in untangling a screwed-up sentence because I have done it oh so many times before. But in the years since I wrote my first sentence, my abilities have improved, through long practice and many nights alone. Getting better has been work of the most deliberative sort, hard and painstaking, and never knowing if I will ever learn to get the words right.
It is not shiny and exciting, the damned page. It’s not restful and easy, wrestling with my desire to wander off and eat chocolate when I should be striving for clarity. It should be easier! It should be funner! It should not require so much fucking angst! That’s what we want to believe, and it is a lie perpetrated by the dewy-eyed who don’t know any better and the cynical who are trying to sell us something.
Here’s what you give up when you refuse to grow the fuck up. You give up the chance to master the work. To become wise. To know what life is, and to recognize that marking things off a bucket list is not it.
The firsts are over, all of them. That is not a thing to regret, but something to celebrate. It means that you are now, finally, finally, ready to do the work of your life.