Posts Tagged ‘Adulthood’

Thanks to the awesome of Twitter contests, I recently won an ARC of Catherynne M. Valente’s new book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which officially has the Best Title Ever. Apart from the usual squee that accompanies the acquisition of a new book, I was particularly excited by this one, having been¬†utterly blown away in February by Palimpsest, which makes reference to Fairyland as a sort of book-within-a-book. Let the record also state that any story featuring a wyvern-library hybrid – that is to say, a wyverary – is destined to occupy a special, warm nook in my heart, in much the same way that delicious chocolate placed within easy reach is destined to be nommed. That being said, approaching anything with greater-than-usual expectations always brings with it the proportionate fear of greater-than-usual disappointment. We do not want to be betrayed, and yet we brace for it, just in case, preparing to heal our hurt hopes by denying we ever had them.

Fairyland does not disappoint.

In fact, it is fair to say, it exceeded my expectations so profoundly, so beautifully, that I was left breathless. Here is the thing about fairy tales: you grow up with them, know them and love them, but even when you try to keep them close – even when you endeavour to remember them – somehow they still slip away from you, because childhood is transient. Even its strongest passions fade and splinter with time. The truths we believed in then are like stained glass windows, and as we age, they grow dirty, or break, or are cast in shade; glass falls away from the leading, and brightens only when some stray sunbeam fires the colours again. Adulthood makes us into archaeologists and scientists, probing at the things we used to love, asking what they mean and how they work, and even though such knowledge is worthwhile, it also changes us: we cannot unsee, unfeel, what it makes us recognise.

Or at least, we can – but only when someone like Catherynne Valente gives us a book like Fairyland. Because as much as the story of September, a girl from Omaha picked up by the¬†mischievous¬†Green Wind and taken to Fairyland, is written for children and young adults, it is also written for all of us who grew up – willingly or not, consciously or not, yet always inevitably – and never stopped wondering how it happened. Fairyland is not folklore as we remember it, but rather a successor tale to Alice in Wonderland: a story on the cusp of things, where adult knowledge has taken the simple rhythms of once upon a time and embroidered them into something richer, stranger: an allegory for everything we used to feel intuitively, but now have learned the hard way. Which isn’t to say that folklore itself is devoid of allegory or hard lessons – far from it. Rather, the resonance of those lessons is for other times and other places, cautionary tales about worlds and mores that no longer exist, so that even if we have been lucky or persistent enough to read the unsanitised versions of Little Red Riding Hood or Rapunzel, we take away only a sense of resonant history, and not a warning about the dangers of our own time.

But Fairyland is written now: its dangers apply to our own world, our own time. September faces fairy-perils, yes, but underneath, the real monsters are bureaucracy, fascism, censorship, prejudice, caste systems, detention and fearmongering; and though she wields fairy-weapons and is helped by fairy-friends, September’s real allies are courage, agency, egalitarianism, fairness, feminism, free speech and compassion. Late in the book, when the titular moment – circumnavigating Fairyland in a self-made ship – finally arrives, it is utterly piercing, an act of beautiful bravery. As September builds her raft from every material to hand, she is left, despite all this effort, without a sail; until she remembers that her own skin is nothing to be ashamed of, and gives up her dress to make one. ‘My dress, my sail!’ she declares, and when I read that, I closed the book and cried, because sometimes there is a truth to words that goes beyond their construction. I can count on one hand the number of stories that have had that effect on me. Fairyland is one of them, and I will never forget it.

Reading this book was like wrapping myself in a blanket. I didn’t read the words; they read themselves to me, and the voice in which they spoke was my mother’s, my father’s, my favourite teacher’s – a synthesis of everyone who read me stories at primary school, in class or the library or putting me to bed, and I suspect that I won’t be the only adult reader to have had that experience. Some stories go to the core of you, and this is one of mine. ¬†The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is an amazing, beautiful, funny, moving, frightening, powerfully imaginative book, and if parents are not reading it to their children five generations from now – or if, at the very least, Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t beg on bended knee for permission to adapt it – then there is no justice in the world.

So, OK. As those of you who’ve known me for any length of time can attest – and as I have once or twice admitted in the writing of this blog – I am a zeusdamn stubborn, conservative person. It is actually very irksome! Because stubbornness and conservatism are not behaviours I consciously cultivate; are in fact the very antithesis of the behaviours I like, let alone try to cultivate; and yet they are apparently innate enough that I am constantly forced to suspect myself of them, to press the ever-present bruise of my own laziness in order to determine whether I am being honest and discerning as opposed to reactionary and biased at any given time. As I am simultaneously the kind of person who goes around recommending books and films (for instance) to all and sundry with the expectation that they start to adopt my tastes, this makes me very close to belonging to two categories of person with whom I am otherwise deeply uncomfortable: hypocrites and preachers.

My only saving grace is the fact that I recognise this at least some of the time, and am actively struggling to change. But for most of my life, that hasn’t been true, with the end result that now, slightly less than a month out from my 25th birthday, I’m starting to wonder exactly how many awesome things I’ve been missing out on for no greater reason than my own intransigence. Which is, itself, a conceit, because I mean, come on: twenty-freaking-five. It’s not like I’m Citizen Kane crying out for Rosebud on my deathbed, here. Despite the fact that I’ve been married for three and a bit years, and in serious relationships for five-odd years before that, and in the midst of becoming a published author for about two years, and have finished a Bachelors degree, and have moved first states and now countries, and held down a frankly surprising variety of the sort of jobs I never really knew existed until I started applying for them, and all the sort of gunk that seems to fill up your late teens and early twenties if you’re lucky enough to live in a first world nation where you speak the national language and have been relatively well-off your whole life and have never had to contend with poverty or civil war or persecution or any major trauma; despite all that, I am, by the standards of both my own culture and the scientific community, barely out of adolescence. I am young.

But I am also much less young than I was even a year ago, or the year before that, or the year before that; and even though as a teenager it would never have occurred to me that I could sit here and be almost 25 and¬†so very different now to how I was then, I can still – just – stretch to remembering my teenage self, her views and preoccupations and ignorances, without universally cringing at how utterly infantile and stupid they were, so that any sense I used to have that I was already grown up must only ever have been wrong. I feel torn: can I deny that I’ve grown since then, and that those changes have been increasingly positive? No, I can’t: but does that automatically mean that whatever I used to be is therefore rendered incorrect, reprehensible? Psychologists say that one of the key stages of childhood development is the tendency to first disdain and then throw away those trappings of whatever age we have just outgrown, like a fledgeling tweenager tossing out her toys. I must still be a child, then, because more and more, I feel like every step I take to change myself is simultaneously a battle to refrain from mocking, not plastic horses and skipping games, but previous ideologies.

Once, as a first year university student, I wrote an angry letter to a Sydney newspaper about its inflammatory coverage of a series of car crashes involving adolescent drivers. It was terrible, yes, and those people had been stupid, but their reactionary condemnation of all youthful drivers – the suggestion that driving curfews be implemented, limitations imposed on the ability of teens to carry passengers – was out of line. No matter how much they raised the age limit for acquiring a driving license, I argued, and even taking into account whatever risk-taking predispositions we could all agree were more likely in the young, a significant part of the problem would still be inexperience behind the wheel. Some things you simply cannot learn through shortcuts, or any way but the hard way: sooner or later, we all make mistakes, because suffering their consequences is how humans learn, and even if nobody was ever allowed in a car before the age of 27, new drivers would still account for their fair share of accidents. Not because of their age: because they were new. And in the mean time, given that adult drivers would continue to account for the other eighty-something percent of accidents, what would happen if we broke the statistics down into age brackets? Would we find that the most elderly drivers were the least accident-prone, or that the probability of accidents would regularly decrease with age? Does getting older always make you better?

Turning five did not make me morally superior to my two-year-old self; just older and physically different. Turning fifteen did not make me morally superior to my twelve-year-old self;¬†just older and physically different. The same will be true again when I turn twenty-five, and thirty-five, and every age after that. In so many of these blogs, I’ve written about the frustrations I felt as a teenager, how it was hard to get adults to take me seriously and how they all appeared to have gone through a brainwashing machine at some point or emerged fully formed from alien pod-plants. Even though I could understand things at fourteen that were incomprehensible to my four-year-old self, that greater proximity to the adult world made it seem as though adulthood was a static realm towards which I was both inexorably travelling and closer to reaching than ever, so that any suggestion of considering how much I’d already changed as a way of anticipating how much farther I had yet to go would have seemed futile, insulting; as though, on the cusp of adulthood, I still deserved to be reminded of – judged by – those things I’d outgrown;¬†as though I hadn’t really grown up at all.

Which, of course, I hadn’t, because the whole idea was a lie. Nobody ever grows up. We just grow. But our language, which betrays so much of culture, suggests otherwise: hierarchies are linear, top to bottom: growing up means growing better. Nobody grows down. And yet up connotes even more than that. It makes us think of a fixed destination when there is none; it makes us want to not only cast off who we were, but disparage it as unnecessary, as though the very notion of ever being someone else is embarrassing, taboo; as though that prior person were utterly unrelated to every single subsequent incarnation.

Tonight, I have been reading Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E Butler, a single novel made from the collection of a trilogy of novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Having only just reached the start of the second of these, I came across a particularly beautiful quote. It is the reason I stopped to write this post; to consider why I had never read Butler before now, despite having heard of her, and to wonder if perhaps the reason I find her so moving, so compelling, is because I am reading her now. Would any of my earlier selves have understood?

Butler asks:

“Trade means change. Bodies change. Ways of living must change. Did you think your children would only look different?”

And I answer:

Not any more.

Back when I was a teenager, the prospect of turning into an adult troubled me. Surely, I thought, it must involve some sort of brainwashing: what else could possibly explain such a drastic shift in priorities? At best, the process seemed to involve forgetting adolescence more than learning adulthood, and what was worse, I couldn’t see an intermediary phase. One minute, you were a normal person, happily making mock of authority and sleeping through class; the next, you had an actual job and a proportionally decreased sense of humour. It seemed like such an unreal metamorphosis that despite all evidence to the contrary, I half-believed it couldn’t happen to me. Though my body might age, inside I would always be the same person I was at nineteen, forever hovering on the cusp of adulthood without ever properly crossing over.

I was wrong, of course, but it’s taken me until now to understand why.

At the time of this writing, I’m twenty-four years old. As a teenager, I never used to think about what being in my twenties would mean beyond the advantages of legalised drinking and enough disposable income to afford it as a passtime. Sure, I had plans for the future, but they were plans for me – for the person I was, a person I couldn’t actually imagine changing – and therefore disconnected from any notions of age. Besides, being in my twenties wasn’t the problem: twentysomethings weren’t old (or at least, not too old) and compared to my parents, teachers and lecturers, they weren’t actually adults, either. Perhaps that’s why I essentially looked forward to my twenties as something of a static state: except for the necessary profusion of twenty-first birthdays I could anticipate attending, nothing of adult significance would actually happen. I would study, socialise and carry on much as I always had, but without the hindrance of parental supervision. If someone had told me then that I’d be engaged at twenty and married the next year, I would have told them they were an idiot. Marriage was something adults did, and therefore high up my list of things I planned to avoid. Happily, it didn’t work out that way.

Near the end of high school, my favourite teacher took it upon himself to try and forewarn our history class about the perils that awaited us in the Real World. Seated on the edge of his desk and smirking only a little, he informed us, as adults seemed wont to do back then, that Life Would Go By Quickly. We might have planned on being young forever, he said, but sooner than any of us expected, we’d be receiving our first wedding invitations, and after that, there’d be christenings to attend. We laughed, but there was a gleam in his eye that put an edge to that laughter. Could he be right? Despite my determination not to grow up, I thought about that moment often in the following years, not least of all before my own wedding. As the first of my friends to tie the knot, I had unexpectedly caused the first half of his prophecy to come true. But that still didn’t make me an adult. Did it?

The truth is, my twenties have proven to be more significant than I ever imagined, not least because my definition of significance itself has changed. Slowly but surely, other friends have gotten married or engaged, announced pregnancies or split up, come out or moved countries or changed jobs. And slowly but surely, I’ve changed, too. I don’t remember the first time I decided to spent a quiet Friday night indoors rather than going out with friends, or what prompted me to start shopping with the intention of keeping a full cupboard rather than only ever buying the ingreedients for specific meals. But now, my end-of-week celebrations are as often held at home as not, and even when I haven’t been to the supermarket, there’s always enough food in the fridge for lunch. After years of being told by my mother to tidy as I go and thinking it a waste of time, suddenly, it’s starting to feel like common sense. The house still exists in a regular state of mess, but a lesser mess than it was even a year ago, and I’ve started cleaning more regularly. Where once I used to put off unpalatable tasks for as long as possible, now I find myself trying to get them out of the way. Friends come over for dinner more often than for parties.

And that’s just the obvious stuff.

There is no brainwashing, flip-switch moment to adulthood. There never was. There never will be. Trying to explain to my teenage self about the satisfcation of cleaning the house on a weekend would inevitably produce as skeptical a response as if she tried to convince an even younger Foz that playing with toy horses could be anything other than fun. No matter how long we’ve been alive or how much the process of living has changed us up to a certain point, somehow, we humans continually manage to convince ourselves that the only the way we feel right now is real: that being happy with ourselves is enough to make any further development impossible. But we are all changing constantly. The fact that I no longer play with my toy horses doesn’t mean that I was wrong ever to do so, or that the rightness I felt as a teenager was illusory: it just means that Foz-Now is different to Foz-Then, despite our being made up of the same essential components. And right now, at the tail end of a week which, for one reason or another, has made me feel that perhaps I am an adult after all, or at least firmly on my way to becoming one, it seems that the greatest threat to people of different ages understanding one another lies in the subconscious assumption that there is such a thing as just the right amount of life experience; and that too little or too much makes us either callow idiots or forgetful fogies.

The paradox of being human is that, once we learn something, we can’t unlearn it; but until we’ve learned it, we can’t imagine what the lesson will feel like. Now that I’m a twentysomething, I can’t go back to what I was before; but until they roll around, I don’t know what further changes my thirties will bring, either. I want to go forwards, but not at the expense of forgetting who I was. Because underneath all my old concerns about brainwashing lurks a deeper fear: that somewhere down the track, I could change into a person of whom my earlier selves would actively disapprove, not just because I was older, and therefore somewhat alien, but because my age had lead me to view my youth – or rather, the motives and passions of my youth – with contempt. Growing up no longer concerns me. Growing ignorant does.

Why do we remember some things, and not others? Mixed in with all the significant moments and epiphanies are any number of mundane recollections, things that stand out now only by dint of how much life has changed since then. I remember running across the tarmac at primary school, my half-empty bag swinging side to side across my shoulders. I remember kissing my first boyfriend by the science block at the end of recess, simultaneously thrilled and embarassed at the intimacy. I remember walking to the train station at the end of innumerable Year 12 days, fantasising about the end of school and the music I’d play to celebrate being free. I remember the first time I saw the man who would one day became my husband, shyly tidying his philosophy books off the dining-room table in a borrowed apartment. Small things. But they matter.

All these moments that make up my life are no less right for having been superseded. The girls I used to be are no less real for having been made to grow up. One day, the same will be true of the woman I am now. But until then, I write this down. I write, so that I might remember. And maybe – just maybe – it will be enough.

Three years ago, I stopped being a teenager. Five years ago, I finished school. A lot can happen in five years, and in my case, a lot has. But even so, it’s sometimes hard to remember that, insofar as the world at large is concerned, I’m an adult.

Five years ago (or six, or seven, or eight, or nine), had you asked me what Growing Up entailed, my answer would’ve¬†been pretty nebulous: adults were a strange¬†other species, inscrutiable and weird. Logically, I knew I’d someday turn into one. But what never really occured to me was the¬†fact that in order for this to happen, I’d have to stop being a teenager. That looks like¬†the¬†most obvious statement possible, until you consider what it really means. Not being a teenager is more than a biological age. Your intelligence hasn’t changed, but you think differently. Your perceptions have altered. Unthinkably, so have your priorities. Your place in the world has shifted, inch by inch, slowly reforming all¬†previous notions of what not-being-in-school and working would look and feel like.¬†Adults are weird because, logically, they should just be teenagers with more freedom, right? But they’re not. To a sixteen-year-old, it looks like brainwashing, or devolution: some awful process that zaps the fun right out of you.¬†But having noticed this difference, a part of you thinks: that will never happen to me.

Deep down, the teenage¬†Foz¬†thought that growing up meant becoming an ambassador for adolescent-kind, finally¬†walking in the adult world with power to¬†address¬†the frustrations, concerns and specific barriers which had, essentially, stopped me from doing exactly that as a teenager. Obviously, I wouldn’t be an adult who¬†tried to hang¬†out with teenagers ¬†– I’d seen people like that, and they were universally¬†odd, if not a little creepy. No. It would be more subtle: I’d simply be recognised on sight as having kept the faith. I’d be¬†a rare Cool Adult, because I’d remember what it was like. I’d know. I’d care. And my teenage self, after so long straining at the leash of her teenage world, would be vindicated.

But it doesn’t work like that. Had I stopped to think about it, or even (o, irony!) been a little older, I’d have realised that when you’re in school, you can¬†spot someone who isn’t a mile away. Mentally, such beings are tagged as Adult, or, in the case of uni students, Almost Adult –¬†either way, they’re still a different species. Any overtures of friendship are viewed with suspicion, and any attempts to identify with the teenage state result in raised brows or mockery. Hell, I’d done it myself – it was practically a sport. But until that point, I hadn’t really considered that the¬†barrier ran¬†both ways. Adults worked hard to keep teenagers out of their world, it had always seemed: all the¬†wariness, scepticism, evasion and mockery¬†directed their way¬†was¬†simply retaliatory action. Surely, though, if I genuinely remembered, I’d be recognised. Wouldn’t I?

Looking back, the naivete is bizarre, and a little uncanny. The idea of an adult seeking¬†teenage approval is something I’d always laughed at, wondered at, without the slightest realisation that this was¬†effectively what I’d been dreaming of. The kind interpretation is that I’d been ready to grow up¬†for longer than the world had been¬†willing to let me try: I’d had¬†enough adults telling me I was mature for my age and¬†acquaintances mistaking me for someone several years older¬†that I felt already halfway there. The¬†more honest¬†interpretation is that I gave no thought to mental improvement, or to the idea that a change in perception could be beneficial. My blythe assumption was that because I didn’t plan on changing, I couldn’t. Happily, I was wrong.

Nowadays, I still like to¬†preach about things that bothered me at school. Even though I’m¬†glad to have grown up, and despite knowing that the teenage me was far from perfect, I’m not willing to disregard everything I felt back then. Experience has only contradicted some of my complaints, not all, and¬†short of pulling an unlikely¬†Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, I’ll never have the chance to reconstruct¬†my social adolescence¬†in adulthood –¬†and even if I could, some hurdles are teenager-exclusive. That doesn’t mean adults shouldn’t try and address them; it just means we forget, the older we grow and the more we change, because they stopped presenting a problem to us years ago, or even registering as potential problems.

I wouldn’t want to be sixteen again if you paid me. But¬†if I’d never been sixteen – that awkward, mawkish, self-absorbed, silly, bright, passionate,¬†fraught sixteen – I wouldn’t be the woman I am now. Not even close. And that’s the debt we owe our teenage selves. They were the ones whose learned-from errors made us into¬†functional human beings, and they did it all in a world full of weird, uncomprehending¬†adults. Ultimately, I know I’ll forget most, if not all, of what it meant to be a teenager. Life moves on, people grow up, and when another five years of memories start pressing on my brain, frankly, I’ll need the storage space. But right now, I feel like I’ve¬†cottoned on to a fundamental truth: that while I’m here, fleetingly, on the last potential cusp of adulthood, it’s all come clear.

We all grow up. And none of us do. Life is a series of readjustments, and while there’s obviously a forward progression to our changes, that’s ultimately all they are: not good or bad, but changes. By age and necessity, physical strength or mental acumen, knowledge or wisdom, we¬†pass our lives in different spheres of the world, all overlapping, all separate. On a¬†deeper, simpler¬†level than thought or action,¬†we can’t help being who we are. A¬†toddler can no more leap into adulthood than a grandmother can shed twenty years; there is no whimsy to our¬†different ages.¬†We are¬†all more than the sum of our parts and past experience, but those¬†old echoes are still there.¬†A ninety-year-old man was not born ninety, and no matter how infirm he is, somewhere inside is a five-year-old boy, an adolescent, a¬†thirty-year-old, thirty-five.¬†We can bury our past selves, forget or repress, but not eradicate. Not truly.

One of¬†my biggest teenage complaints was how much adults had forgotten. How could they ever have been¬†like me, if they didn’t remember it? Without having¬†lived for forty years, it’s impossible to know how much the mind changes in that time, how many new memories come and old ones go. But perhaps that’s the point: if we can acknowledge¬†who we were¬†without automatic censure or dismissal, then we are one step closer to closing the generation gap. Because then, even without the memories, we know there’s something we’ve forgotten, and once we know that, we know we’re not infallable. So much trouble between generations comes from the view that the young are ignorant, the old are out of touch, and everyone in between is either too callow or too jaded to be of use. We close ourselves off in the here and now, blind to where we’re going and unhappy with where we’ve been, because social flaws are human, too.

But somewhere, part of me will always be a teenager. I might never be a Cool Adult, but if I can just¬†remember that being different wasn’t universally bad, then perhaps I can make a difference.