She didn’t mean it as an insult, but when a friend told me last night that I seemed so “clean-cut,” I couldn’t help but take it that way. It wasn’t just her; it was the third time I’d fielded a comment along those lines in the short time I’ve been in New York, and it had started to feel less like an out-of-the-blue assertion, and more like someone pointing out when I had something in my teeth. This was a truth of who I was, they were just putting a label on it. And while their words deftly amplified my anxiety, the ultimate concern over my increasing wholesomeness came from witnessing the degree to which my life had changed over the past few years.
As had happened before, hearing words like this immediately put me into something of a panic mode which consisted of detailing just how not-boring I was. I tried to check off the “cool” things I had done in some kind of Excel spreadsheet of youthful adventure, and I’d never felt (or likely looked) more stodgily impotent. The truth was, even if I used to shoot black-tar heroin into my veins as I sped away from the cops with a dead body in my trunk, it wouldn’t change the person that I am today. And that person, no matter how many upsides there are to being responsible, is not “cool” in the way we typically think of the word at our age. When I tried to recount the person I used to be — the person who had absolutely zero control over any aspect of her life, and who decided to do things based on what sounded most interesting on that particular afternoon — she didn’t even sound like a person I knew, let alone was.
I don’t want to be her again, of course. It’s nice not having to constantly break promises, or fear with a stomach-dropping intensity that something might happen to your car because you have 38 cents in your checking account. It’s nice to have a five-year plan (to the extent that anyone can really have one). It’s nice to have an office to go to, and coworkers to build relationships with, and a certain amount of trust that people can bestow in your sense of direction and judgment. But the hot mess I used to be — the one who lost her driver’s license for unpaid moving violations and yet still continued to drive on it until she got arrested — also lived in a spontaneous, joyful way that I fear I never will again. She had a lot of problems, but she also packed up and moved to Europe on little more than a whim. She wasn’t afraid to take a low-paying, low-respect job, because all she needed was a little money for noodles and drinks at the dive bar. She wasn’t afraid to crash on a near-stranger’s couch because she needed to see this new city, even if she could only look in at restaurants through the window. She wasn’t afraid of the real cost of adventure, and now she is.
There is a moment when you realize that you are an adult, and it often has nothing to do with you as an individual entity. It comes when you realize just how much is precariously arranged around you, how much you are responsible for, how much you stand to lose. You have finely-orchestrated bill payments, a job you have to build on, and people who depend on you, and a life you have invested in. You wake up early every day, and you find yourself yawning at 8 PM. It’s a life that becomes, in many ways, about delayed gratification, but which satisfies you in a way that you never believed possible. It seems, I think, like a life that you have stolen or have cheated your way into. “How am I suddenly my parents,” you think, “and why doesn’t it scare me more?” While the idea of measuring your degree of fun in drugs, alcohol, casual sex, and how late you go to bed has always seemed silly to me, there is a certain fear I believe we all have of leaving those things entirely (or even mostly) behind, in the name of something more structured.
In an interview he gave towards the end of his life, my favorite singer, Jacques Brel, said what I find to be one of the most meaningful things of all time about aging. He said,
We teach [a child] little by little to be prudent, to be well-behaved, to be thrifty — but not in terms of money, in the worst sense of the word. We teach him to save his energy. We teach him hope, but a bad kind of hope. We say, “things will happen to you,” but nothing ever happens. In my life, the only thing that ever happened was myself.
We teach them to wait for things. Rarely do we tell children that what they will see is what they will do. It’s rare to say that, at least, to my knowledge. [We should tell them] “Don’t wait for anything, except yourself.” Because it’s terrifying, seeing all of these people waiting.
The friend who told me that I was “clean-cut,” as it happens, is also a coworker. She later clarified that she meant that I rarely talk about doing “bad” things in my writing, even in a confessional-blogging atmosphere that puts a high premium on drugs, on sex, on revealing the parts of your life that society has always told us to hide. And there is value in doing this, but she is right that it has never been my style. In many ways, when I write, I think about my soon-to-be 18-year-old sister, who looks to me in life as a model for the kind of person she might grow up to be. With her, I would never encourage any of the mistakes that I have made, and fiercely want for her to find financial and professional independence. I want her to wake up early, eat a bowl of fruit, and only go out once or twice a week beyond 10 PM. I want her life to be one of options, and comfort created at her own hand. Though it generates a kind of fear in my own life, I want her to be thrifty with her energy, just as I have become with mine. I want her life to be about building, and not about burning at both ends. I want her to become an adult, even if it means she will field comments about how “clean-cut” she comes seems at parties.
But maybe Brel was right, and I am telling her to wait for the wrong things. Because even when the wrong things were happening in my life, it was always me. I was so thoroughly and recklessly myself, that maybe I would not have become the person I am had I always been focused on the future. Maybe, even today, I am focusing too much on what’s ahead and putting off too much of what I could be doing right now. But I have hope that there is a middle ground in all of this, and that it comes when you realize — in a cold-water-on-the-face moment — that you are really an adult, but that there is no part of this which has to mean you are boring.