Posts Tagged ‘Fear’

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.

When I was just starting uni, a friend and I were walking through the Sydney CBD, hanging out and looking for jobs. We’d moved in to neighbouring colleges, and thought it would be fun to try and get work together. And so we rambled, as one does under these circumstances, and talked. By and by, we passed a homeless man with a begging cup. I went to walk on, but my friend rummaged in her purse, pulled out some coins and dropped them. At the look on my face, or maybe just because she’d stopped and I hadn’t, she stated that it was good to give – she could afford it, he clearly needed it, and so why not, when it was just spare change anyway? Impressed (because I was, in many respects, in awe of this friend, and just a little prone to emulation), I nodded sagely. On we walked.

Near Town Hall, we were stopped by some charity hawkers. This seemed like a good opportunity to investigate possible work, so we started talking to one of the young salesmen. Yes, he could give us a number to call – was very happy to do so, as it would mean a recruitment bonus for him – but only I was eligible: I’d just turned 18, the minimum age of application, while my friend still had another two months to go. We kept chatting anyway, because the boy was friendly, only to be interrupted by a foul old man, short and filthy, who came and asked if we could spare any money. Although repulsed, I saw a chance to impress my friend, and did as she’d done earlier, finding two dollars in my wallet and handing it over. The man grabbed it and ambled off. I turned back, expecting a smile or somesuch approval, only to find my friend staring at me, not quite aghast, but something very close to.

‘That man was an addict,’ she said. ‘Didn’t you see his teeth, his hands? They were stained yellow. He’ll just spend it on cigarettes. You just gave money to an addict.’

This was not the reaction I’d expected: I felt guilty, stupid and embarassed, as though the ability to tell which mendicants were deserving of aid and which weren’t was an innate, universal skill I’d somehow missed out on. I won’t pin all my subsequent non-givings on this one incident, because that would be both unfair and untrue; but it did make me feel agitated at the sight of beggars for some time afterwards.

As things worked out, I took the hawking job, at which I proved utterly useless, and after a week (or possibly two) I was fired, not having signed up a single person. So I did what most undergradute students do, and tried for work in a cafe. To my great surprise, was successful.

I worked at Corelli’s for nearly two years as a waitress, dishpig and general cold-drinks-mixer (not a barrista; I don’t drink coffee and certainly can’t brew it). It was a good job: the pay was $10 an hour cash in hand, most of which I banked, the staff were eccentric in a way I grew to love, and it kept me busy. It also exposed me to the Newtown Crazies – a collection of long-term homeless folk with mental disabilities. Newtown Crazies was how I thought of them: maybe that was partly from a sense of friendly possession, but mostly, I suspect, it came from fear. There were a few who came to the cafe, sometimes with money, usually not. One man sat on street corners with a box of washing power, constantly scooping and dropping it onto his hair, rocking back and forth in practised delirium. When he came in, his voice was cracked and unintelligible: he’s ask for a cuppa tea, and I’d flee to the kitchen, delegating responsibility to someone older and more sure. Another woman – aged, insofar as I could tell, somewhere between 50 and 80 – would come, swearing under her breath and swinging an ancient black bag, bare toenails yellowed and gnarled, accompanied by a grey-haired, gentle, simple man with a half-black beard and a soft, shaky voice. It was difficult to tell who looked after who: he could’ve been her friend, or son, or nephew, but they were always together. The woman would sit outside and ask for a cuppa tea and a cheese sandwich. We’d let her run up credit; and, occasionally, she’d remember to pay, or else someone from the shelter up the road would.

And they frightened me. I felt awful and guilty for it, but that didn’t change anything: on some base level, the fact that their behaviour was unpredictable and foreign, that they themselves were unreachable via conventional reasoning, made me edgy. I should have felt pity. I tried to, and sometimes did. But the fear was still there.

One day, the grey man came in without the woman, and conveyed to us that she’d been hit by a truck when wandering across the main road – I imagined her, swearing, bag swinging – and was now an amputee. She hadn’t given the doctors permission to operate on her shattered legs until it was too late: by then, the wounds had gone gangrenous, and they’d had no other option. We didn’t see her after that, or her friend, but at that moment of speaking to him solo, I felt sad. The grey man looked mournful, lost. He’d always been gentle, and I realised I’d never been frightened of him, at least. Not really.

As I walked to lunch today, a ragged man with crooked teeth stopped me on the street, touched me on the shoulder. He explained he was homeless at the moment, hungry, thirsty – did I have money for a burger? And I lied; I said there was no change in my wallet and walked on, feeling indescribably shamed. I’d panicked, because he touched me: I’d had my iPod in, and had baulked at the sudden contact. I kept walking, replaying the event. I passed another homeless man, bent and quiet, dispirited in silence. Was I angry that the first man hadn’t yet been broken, that he dared address me rationally? When I turned away, what failings did I assume on his behalf – that he was solely responsible for his current plight, that bad luck hadn’t touched him, that I had no reason to help? I had, and worse, and it was wrong. I felt sick.

As I paid for my lunch – a smoothie – I reached into my wallet and found six dollars in gold coins. I pulled them out, clenched them in my palm, and resolved to walk back past the man and give him the money. I’d make amends – stop and chat, even, tell a white lie that the coins were change from my lunch. I’d been shorter with him than I’d meant, because the touch had frightened me, his directness had startled me. Charitably, I’d been off-balance, but that didn’t excuse my actions. I knew that now. I’d go back, and do what I should’ve done to start with.

On my return, however, the man was gone. Someone else been guilter, more generous than me. He’d been telling the truth, after all – money in hand, I picutured him eating, gone straight away to keep his word. As I hadn’t kept mine. I’d been the liar, not him. I looked for the silent beggar I’d seen, but he was gone, too. I walked further, resolving to give the money to the first outstretched hand I saw, but no-one was there. It was like they’d evaporated. In the end, I spent 50 cents stamping a letter, then slipped the rest back in my coin pouch, cold and unspent.

Between then and now, I’ve had moments of charity – stopping to talk to a woman as she cried into torn paper towels on Southbank; giving paper money to a youth and his old dog – but nothing consistent. Why do I give to some, but not others? Whimsy, it seems, and whether or not the person scares me, but never for lack of money. Today, hopefully, I’ve learned better. 

If nothing else, I promise to open my eyes.