Archive for category ABCs of Twenty-something Life
Grow up at the end of the alphabet like I did and you know what it’s like to come in last, to bring up the rear. But by now, even the Aarons,
Abbingtons, Adams’ and Andersons of the world know what it’s like to be last. Everyone takes a turn. And that’s the beauty of growing up.
Each and every one of us has failed at something, be it large or small, and came in last in one rat race or another. These last-place finishes have given us an appreciation for all the times we finish near the front of the pack, symbolically, in our careers, friendships and families. We’ll hit a dead-end from time to time, but we’ll learn from it. And that’s the beauty of growing up.
Every phase has its end. Crawling ends in walking. Puberty ends in maturation (maybe). Ill-fated relationships end in dramatic breakups or the sadness of heartbreak. High school and college end in the fanfare of graduation. Jobs end in tense meetings or freeing moments of “good riddance!” Friendships end gradually, mysteriously. Races end at the finish line, duh. And twenty-something life ends at thirty. We know these things from lived experience now, and that’s the beauty of growing up.
So Z represents the end, that’s easy enough to see. But if you think about it, you don’t actually see the letter Z used all that often in the English language. And I think that’s symbolic, too. It’s a little linguistic gesture of luck, wishing us all good fortune along our journeys and bidding us all this unspoken wish: May your beginnings be more frequent than your ends; may your ends bring new beginnings and may you always see that every end is evidence of the beauty of growing up.
You know what’s full of clichés? The letter X.
X marks the spot. Solve for X. Find the X factor. Xylophone, because nothing else starts with the darn letter. eXtreme, because, you know, that sounds like it starts with this end-of-the-alphabet annoyance. X-rated. X-files. Ex-girlfriend. X it out and start over.
If only we could start our twenty-something lives over and X out clichés, these overused ways of acting, speaking or thinking that make us stereotypical, predictable, tired, bland – further from our true selves every time we fall into one of them.
If we could have avoided clichés, maybe there would be no negative images of lazy, entitled Millennials, tapping away on our iPhones in Starbucks while planning a three-month trip to Europe instead of getting a job.
If the world around us could be free of clichés, maybe so many of us who struggle with any aspect of ourselves – be it our body image, our sexual identity, our faith, our career aspirations, our family background, our mental stability – wouldn’t have to feel so wrong, unsure or lost. If only, if only.
There’s no way to avoid clichés entirely, and some say there’s a reason they become so commonplace and overused: because they naturally apply to a lot of us. Fair enough.
So let’s not aim for perfection, here, because that, in itself, could be seen as cliché. Let’s just recommit to being ourselves, original and as unique as can be. It’s not up to me to offer any advice on how to do that.
“Why?” is a question we all famously ask as kids.
Why do I have to go to bed? Why is the sky blue? Why are the dinosaurs dead? Why do I have to eat my broccoli? Why don’t grown-ups eat snacks? And my personal childhood favorite, Why do I always have to take the first shower? The list goes on.
Kids want to know why because they’re inquisitive, common sense tells us, and because they honestly don’t know yet. They don’t have the school experience that tells them dinosaurs are dead because evolution … or some giant meteor, the big bang or whatever. They don’t have the life experience that tells them eating vegetables makes you feel good and showering is a daily necessity and grown-ups do too eat snacks … just usually not Fruit Roll-Ups and Pop Tarts. Kids ask why because they want to know.
But why is still a favorite question of mine at 27.
Why do I have to wake up so early? Why is the ice cream gone? Why is the laundry machine always taken? Why can’t I just go to bed? Why can’t commuting be abolished? Why does work have to eat up so much of my time? Why am I always thinking about food? Some deeper “why” questions pop up, too, like Why do I still worry about things I can’t control? Why do I dwell on things I’m worried about and talk circles around them until I come up with some solution? Why do I still hold the occasional grudge? Why can’t I grow out of these bad habits? Why as I ending up so much like an exact combination of my parents? Why do I believe? Yet why am I a weaker optimist than I used to be? Why do I still get overwhelmed by long lists of tasks and long-term projects? Why don’t I trust myself more? Why can’t I change that? And why can’t I have this adulthood thing figured out, already?
There are a lot of whys in this world, but they’re all worth pondering. Because when you come up with the answer to “Why?” you come up with purpose. When you dig to find out why, you’re on a quest to find meaning and truth. And those things matter. Why? Because we’re human. Because the purpose of life is to find meaning. Because we’re all trying to find our life’s work and devote ourselves to it, to find what’s real and stick to it. To be alive.
Sometimes, if the question is “Why?” the answer is simple: “Why not?” Sometimes it’s disappointing (to a kid at least): “Because,” or “Because I said so.” Sometimes it’s disappointing and incomplete, even to the most adult among us: “I simply don’t know.”
And all of those responses are natural and they’re all just fine. I’ll leave it up to you to determine why.
Every time I hear an organization call for volunteers, or every time I hear a story of some great work volunteers did, I think “I should do that.”
“Yeah,” I tell myself, “I really should start volunteering, start giving back.” It’s the right thing to do. I mean, plenty of people helped me become the at least moderately successful 20-something journalist I am today, so I should provide similar help for the younger generation.
I should volunteer in a way that makes the “highest and best use” of my talents as a writer, my endurance as an athlete and my feminist belief in equal opportunity and treatment for all, regardless of any factor, especially gender. I should do my best work at my job, be the best version of myself to my friends, siblings, parents, cousins, etc, and then, I should top it all off by volunteering for causes close to my heart.
We all should.
Lots of us do, and even more of us try. But for me, so far, no matter how much I might want to begin volunteering consistently, it just doesn’t happen. I’ll start off with the best intentions, and then life gets in the way.
I’ll decide I should volunteer with the Illinois Prairie Path because it’s one of my favorite places to run, it’s the first successful rails-to-trails conversion in the U.S., and heck, it attracts just as much garbage and weeds as any other outdoor space. So I’ll get my mind set on volunteering to keep the path clean and pristine for all the runners, bikers and walkers who find comfort in its suburban seclusion. Then life gets in the way.
I move to Chicago instead of the suburbs, and realize I won’t be very close to the path during the majority of my free time. I look at the website and see there aren’t really any volunteer events, or anything listed for volunteers other than a yearly “members meeting” in which you basically pay $25 to hear a status update about the path. Not really my idea of doing good in the world, or “giving back.”
In college, I tried to be a volunteer soccer coach for the nearby park district. My cousin had coached a little kids’ baseball team at a housing project during his college years, so I thought the idea of giving back by helping youths develop soccer skills and a love for running around was a great one. In a way, it was.
But then I learned more about the program. The practices were at faraway fields not easily accessible by bus or any other mode of transportation available to the car-less me. The games conflicted with the times of Illini football games, to which I’d already bought season tickets. And I don’t even remember now for sure, but there were probably all kinds of background checks and hoops the park district would have made me jump through before letting scary, intimidating me coach any little tykes.
Other volunteer efforts I’ve tried have been thwarted by more simple factors like a lack of time, an awkward uneasiness about dropping in somewhere once to “help out” never to be seen again, or a gnawing feeling that anyone with any skills could help out at a food pantry or a homeless shelter or an elderly meal delivery service, so maybe I should be serving elsewhere.
All this isn’t to say I haven’t given a second of my time to others. I helped with one of those used prom dress giveaways during college, and I prepared food for a soup kitchen once. I participated in one of those group volunteer events, where I basically scarfed down free bagels and did some light cleaning at a church that didn’t seem to know what projects could actually use volunteer help. I donated blood, but it took forever, bruised my veins and made me dizzy. In my most fulfilling volunteer effort so far, I’ve went back to my high school and to a middle school near my office to speak about my job as a newspaper reporter and give advice on how to break into journalism.
Still, I seem to be finding all the bad aspects of an activity as great as volunteering, and that’s totally not my style. So here’s the part where I begin to discover I’m on to something. All I really need to do is find the right cause, the right volunteer group, the right organization. I’m leaning toward some type of mentorship group, and/or Girls on the Run Chicago, or anything else I find that would let me do something uniquely worthwhile using the writing, speaking, running and feministing skills I’ve built through my education and life experiences.
It seems I want to volunteer for the right reasons – because I believe it’s important to pave the way for girls and aspiring writers or anyone who may be struggling with obstacles to success. And it seems all my strikeouts are leading to something – I don’t want to volunteer with some run-of-the-mill food pantry, even though those are necessary and really help people who otherwise might go hungry.
When it comes to volunteering, I don’t really think mine is the lead to follow. But I do know that in our 20s, we’re old enough to begin seeing the world outside ourselves. We’re old enough to give this “giving back” thing a real shot. So when we try to volunteer, we should strive to serve the right cause – one that fits our life experiences and interests – for the right reasons. Then, we’ll really begin to make the world a better place.
And we’re getting a lot better at it.
Twenty-somethings, I feel, are learning to cut each other some slack. We’re learning no one is perfect and everyone oversleeps or runs five minutes late from time to time. We’re realizing life can be exhausting, and sometimes, friends have to take the backseat to more pressing concerns, like insane weather or family medical emergencies, last-minute assignments at work or a simple desire to avoid extreme sleep deprivation. We’re noticing that anyone can say insulting things, but deciding that everyone deserves a second chance.
We’re learning these things because we’re making these mistakes, and that’s allowing us to understand why they happen. Understanding is a beautiful thing.
Understanding is applying our knowledge of situations we’ve faced to our treatment of others. It’s thinking before we speak and finding perspective. It’s staying cool when your college friend takes eight days to return your call and not feeling hurt when your former roommate who moved to another city doesn’t have time to see you when she’s home. Understanding is something I’m feeling from my friends more and more. And it’s a beautiful thing.
Maybe we’re only showing more understanding because we’re older and more mature, or because we still have so much in common when it comes to sleep schedules, careers, friends, dating, drinking, traveling, housing, cooking, eating, exercising – the stuff of life. Or maybe our new degree of understanding results from the increased connectivity we have compared to previous generations. Since we share so much of our lives online, we create more opportunities to see into each other’s world and appreciate what our different situations might be like.
Either way, we’re showing our new level of understanding most when it comes to forgiveness. We’re gaining the ability to forgive for missteps that previously might have annoyed us, like a friend canceling plans on short notice. We’re avoiding birthday drama and cattiness and replacing those bad habits with acceptance, tolerance, and even better, kindness.
We might not give ourselves enough credit for it, but we’re beginning to build a new strong suit, and it’s a helpful one for all involved. But I don’t have to spell it out because I know you understand.
Shucking corn in the shade beside a lake. Shooting hoops on a patch of concrete at a campground. Pelting my cousins with plenty of water balloons. Body surfing in a wave pool or tubing behind a waverunner.
I have fond summer memories of family reunions that seemed to last forever. We’d drive to somewhere in Indiana or Wisconsin or Ohio and my Illinois-based family would all convene in a big gathering of at least 25 people. There’d be group photos that inevitably turn embarrassing a few years later, games with unusual prizes only a grandmother can give, big meals with all the good ingredients (like pepper-jack cheese) that you don’t always buy at home, and spare moments of sneaky camaraderie with the cousins.
Reunions seemed never-ending and that was a good thing, even to a child’s impatient, instant-gratification-seeking sense of time.
Reunions now seem like they’re over in a flash, and that doesn’t strike me as a good thing, even to a twenty-something’s supposedly more thoughtful, rational mind. But it does make sense. It plays into one of the main warnings I hear about growing up: the older you get, the faster the time flies by. I never knew that theory would strike in the context of a semi-annual family gathering.
And then it did. It seemed as though I had only just arrived in DeKalb for our get-together at a picnic shelter in the city’s largest park, when it was time to pack up the extra jars of pickles and tupperwares of chopped tomatoes and head back home. The speed of it all made me a slight bit sad as I drove away from Illinios’ unofficial corn capital after saying a series of surprisingly speedy family goodbyes.
The days of walking around the reunion site with my cousins, prank-calling each other’s friends or making s’mores for dessert around a campfire seem to be over. They’ve been replaced with days of scrambling at the last minute to chop too many tomatoes and find that old red reunion polo with my name embroidered on it. They’ve been replaced with days of enjoying a break by hearing the stories of my aunts and uncles, but realizing all too soon that it’s back to my story, for better or for worse.
I never thought family reunions would be something to change with age, but boy do they ever. I never thought family time would pass any faster, but boy does it fly. And that doesn’t teach me anything, except that I need to listen.
Those warnings about the accelerating passage of time are all too real, and not even the love of family can change it. So stick around when family time comes close to ending. Tell one last story. Listen to two more. You might forget them in an instant. You might still feel like the time blazed by way too fast. You might still reminisce and sorta want to be a kid again. But you’ll be be better off for it.