Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Quit Telling Me I Suck, I Already Know

It's my birthday month. I don't know how else to start what is going to be an inevitable existential braindump any other way than to assume that this annual marked passage of time is somehow responsible for it. I started in the middle and now I have had to wind my way back to the beginning in order to make sense of any of it.

I'm almost 29. I didn't expect to be much affected by it. I expected next year to be the major blow to my being. The one with the big scary round number at the end. This year, I simply figured I would throw together some sort of shindig in which I would cleverly observe that it was my last birthday that started with a 2 - my last trip around the sun as a twenty-something. I didn't expect to get introspective and I didn't expect to suddenly feel suffocated by the reality that I was a certified grownup and that I felt like I still had the emotional and mental faculties of a teenager. Nothing makes a person feel more stunted than by a sudden realization that they have a lot of years under their belt that they were supposed to be using to gain wisdom and life experience but instead spent them passing from day to day with their head in the clouds.

I suspect I'm not alone in feeling like I don't have this adulthood schtick figured out just yet. I feel like an impostor most days of the week and on the days when I am safely ensconced in my personal apartmental sanctuary, I feel even more like a phony. I mean, sure, I've kept myself alive and functional in the last decade or so of independence, I've managed to secure food and shelter and pay all my taxes and even succeeded in keeping a cat alive for five years under my care and guidance. But I look around me and I feel like I know what I should be doing. People my age - and younger! - are having kids. They are directly responsible for the lives of other human beings. Human beings that they created. (It's also vaguely disconcerting to know that when my mother was my age, she had a five year old and a three year old running around.) On the other end of the spectrum, people my age are taking care of ill parents or grandparents and having to make medical, legal, and financial decisions. Something I am ill-equipped to do. I am grossly underinformed when it comes to such things, especially financial. I know I should have a 401(k) or a Roth IRA or something but I don't really know what those are. I don't feel qualified to make medical decisions on behalf of other people, if such a thing should be required, which someday, it probably will be, since I am the oldest child.

I haven't the slightest clue what I'm doing.

Youth is a plausible excuse for a lot of shortcomings. It offers you a learning curve that people are more or less understanding of. It takes time to learn all the grownup stuff you need to know. But I'm rapidly reaching a point where I can no longer hide behind youthful ignorance because I am barreling headfirst into the murky waters of middle-age. It's not acceptable for me not to know how to get a loan or shop for a new car without my dad's expertise and assistance or how life insurance works. It's irresponsible for me to let my gas tank run to the E without filling up, it's selfish of me not to think about calling my parents every week, it's downright shameful that I don't know how to use the broiler on my oven. I don't know how to fix a sink or shampoo carpet or fold a fitted sheet. I don't even think to clean my light fixtures or windowsills even though they are kind of nasty and insect-filled. I don't know how to negotiate for a better price. The list goes on and on and on until it leaves me curled up in the fetal position under a blanket on my futon. I don't even have a real couch. Hell, I don't have matching furniture.

Gearing up for my high school reunion nearly sent me into an existential tailspin simply because of the acknowledgement of the passing of time. Ten years. Which is both a lot, and not a lot, at the same time, and suddenly seems like much less when you realize that, on average, most people only get eight of those particular increments, if they're lucky. I've already wasted almost three. Though I suppose "wasted" isn't fair - the first two were spent largely preoccupied with the simple business of growing up. We use up almost a quarter of our lives just getting to the point where we can start living them. Not to incite panic or anything, but at some point in your twenties, you're going to be faced, probably more than once, with the realization of your own mortality. You are going to lose someone. Possibly multiple someones. I was hit over the head with this fact in the year that I turned twenty-two, which seems like an impossibly long time ago. I barely remember being in my early twenties, it almost feels like it didn't really happen. I've been the age I currently am, forever. I have always been this age. Obviously not true, but it feels like it.

And then you think: my life is almost half over. Or maybe not. Maybe it's only a third of the way over. Or maybe it's actually 95% over and you're going to die in two weeks. You have no way of knowing. It's incredibly morbid and incredibly unsettling. Sure, no one expects to die before "their time"-  but that's the thing. No one expects to die before their time. And yet, people do. Every day. It's tragic and shocking and what makes it even more tragic and shocking is that it could easily be any one of us, at any time. I could get hit by a bus this afternoon. I mean, I hope I don't, but that's my point: life is fragile and unpredictable and yet all we can do is keep on living it and keep looking both ways before we cross the street.

But while our mortality is what makes life so beautiful in its immediacy and its fleetingness - it's so easy to forget about. And so those flickers of amazing human compassion and understanding light up our neurons for a few moments, and then we go back to the mundane, which roughly translates to being mean to each other and constantly making each other feel bad about ourselves in order to advance our own agendas. Humans are equal parts selfish and selfless - we like to help others (because it makes us feel good about ourselves?) but we are constantly told - and tell others - that the key to it all is to look out for #1. So that is what we do.

In the meantime, a lot of modern-gal helpfulness is disguised as motivation and advice, in a really passive-aggressive sort of way, at least in the current culture climate of North America. I can't speak for anywhere else. This is what I know.

We are bombarded with messages about what our lives are supposed to be, and this is especially true if you hang out on the Internet. I'm supposed to quit my stable job with a steady paycheck to go into business for myself or chase some ambiguous dream. I'm supposed to travel a lot and visit places that I can't afford to go. I'm supposed to network to within an inch of my life and I'm probably supposed to have a mentor (though what I would do with one, I don't even know). I'm supposed to be engaged and planning a picture-perfect wedding, or have an apartment (or house) that is decorated neatly and yet slightly eccentrically, but also pretty enough to grace the pages of a magazine or at least someone's Pinterest board, or I'm supposed to be procreating and taking awkwardly-posed maternity photos. I'm supposed to work out often enough to have an acceptable body, yet it's never exactly specified when I am going to find time to do this. I'm supposed to be self-aware, self-actualized, intentional, purpose-driven. I'm supposed to be charming and demure and polite and yet equally sassy and wise and savvy to the world. There's a quote floating around that declares You have just as many hours in a day as Beyonce - accusing me of being lazy and that if I was trying hard enough to manage my time and prioritize, I too could be fabulous and adored. I could be more. Here's the thing: Beyonce is a mega-celebrity. She doesn't have to do the mundane shit that plebeians like myself do. She actually has a lot more time than I do because her hours aren't bogged down with the same stuff mine is. And it's this kind of demotivational bullshit that makes me silently scream, "enough."

I cannot live up to these standards. I'm not sure anyone can.

In actuality, my life looks more like a tangled mess that people would scoff at. It's not picture-perfect and it's not pretty. I frequently sleep until the very last minute and don't give myself time to groom myself to perfection every morning. My apartment is a mess, it's small and filled with all of the clutter of the previous twenty-eight years of my life. It's far from immaculate and it's kind of a crap-hole most days and I'm embarrassed to have people over because not only do I not have anywhere to put them (did I say small? I meant tiny), but I feel them silently judging me. Sometimes not-so-silently. I sometimes chug a bottle of diet soda (oh, the cancer I will have!) to jumpstart my energy in the afternoon; I will frequently eat pre-packaged, overly-processed foods that are in no way organic or even composed of pronounceable ingredients, because I don't have time for anything else. I'm lumpy and squishy and frumpy and my appendages aren't even in the same universe as "toned" or "trim" and I'm sometimes catty and grouchy and thoughtless. I would love, just love, to quit my job to sit and write a book, but here's the thing: I have to live. I have to have a paycheck so I can pay my rent and my bills and eat and have health insurance and dental insurance. I'm not sure I would have the focus to sit down and hammer out a bestseller (or even a "seller") anyway. It's impractical and foolish, so I'm doing the responsible thing, but the world tells me I am betraying myself and my dreams. I'd like to know how the world is financing itself, frankly. Besides, having a 9-to-5 job isn't quite the urban horror that people make it out to be.

But that's not even the problem, not what I sat down to write today. It's just a side rant that's been bubbling up every time I see some preachy or life-coachy advice. I hate being called Sunshine or Gorgeous or Darling and I hate sticky-sweet messages of motivation and the verbal pom-pom shaking and the false praise and the blanket statements of following my heart. My heart can be an idiot. My heart doesn't have to pay the bills. It can't just "go do" the Thing I've been wanting to do. And I'm sorry because I have friends that are totally in this, they're building a brand or a mantra around it, and that's great. For them. It's not applicable to my life. My life is rooted in lower-middle class reality, hovering dangerously close to the poverty line, knowing all too well what it feels like to have maxed out credit cards and to overdraw your bank account paying your electric bill. My early twenties were dodgy; the job market was dodgy (still is, really), and it's not like I came from money. I come straight from the heart of middle America, and that is the simple fact of the matter. It was something I resisted for most of my adolescence, craving the mystical "more" - I was bombarded with messages that the only way to consider my life a success was to run like hell from the small town where I was born and raised, get a fancy job, make something of myself, never settle for less than I "deserved."

I don't deserve shit, and neither does anyone else.

Those messages are kind of damaging, because they are as deeply ingrained in my psyche as those of ideal beauty and body shape/size. They tell you that simply living your life day to day means you have failed. You will never be a whole or worthwhile human being until you achieve greatness. You need to do something with your life. Something remarkable. And it's always on someone else's terms, someone else's definitions. Someone else gets to decide what counts as being successful and I'm pretty sure that all notions of success are, somewhere, rooted in some past marketing campaign that was trying to get someone to buy into something at some point. It worked. It always works. Someone always makes money off of your pain and insecurities. It's twisted. Here, buy some waterproof mascara so you can look pretty while you cry yourself to sleep.

Do I sound bitter? Maybe I am. Am I jealous? Sure. I wish I could have the easy-breezy free-spirited life that I'm told I should/could have. I would love to travel and be location-independent and completely and totally in love with my life. But maybe, mayyyybe, I'm just kind of tired of hearing about it, because it's unrealistic. I'm frustrated by constantly being told that I'm not doing it right. That I'm not enough simply by being me. I'm tired of being made to feel bad about myself because I'm not exceptional. I'm so sick of feeling like I need something to brag about, some defining specialness that I can lord over others. I'm not special. I keep fighting that notion, trying to convince myself that I'm uniquely awesome and should climb on up some invisible pedestal. But I'm not. I'm not special, I'm actually far from it. I'm so unbelievably average that it's almost painful to think about.

So here I am. I'm 28 and change, saving up a few more pennies until I have an even dollar to make it to that next tier. I have done nothing of note during my adult life, nothing to brag about, and no real reason to believe that that's going to change anytime soon. I am not a free spirit. I am not living with intention. I am floundering my way through existence the best way that I know how and it's pretty much the opposite of intentional most days. I have no idea what happens next. I feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and yet my presence seems to be so magnified in my own daily existence that every little move I make seems huge. It's paralyzing.

I hesitate to hit the post button (so I've been stalling by continuing to ramble, because everyone knows that that always makes it better) because I've been trying so damn hard to cultivate a positive attitude to combat all the secondhand negativity that seeps into my life like smoke into lungs. I'm whining, and I know it. Or at least I started to somewhere in the middle. I kind of hate the fact that I can't even go on a tirade without apologizing for it. I continue to be just as insecure as I've always been. Like me, dammit. I beg of you. Validate my existence. Ugh. But there's really no use in pretending that I'm not, I guess? It would almost be lying by omission. Isn't that the point of blogging, anymore? To be honest? Even if that means you are wittingly revealing all your flaws and shortcomings. Even if you are kind of being a whiny brat and/or going on frustrated verbal flailing sprees. Even if, even if, even if. I don't care, I guess. I've never been one to follow all the blogging rules anyway. I guess I'm just trying to justify being such a turd. Sorry I'm bitter at your brag-worthy lives. Out loud. In public. I'm a jerk. I'm sorry. But I had to get it out of my system. Not that any of those people read this blog or care what I have to say. Even so.

So, there it is. I will be honest. I'm lost and confused and bitter and depressed and suffocating in my I'm-An-Adult mask. I've been trying to figure out what it means to be a full-fledged human adult and what the hell I'm supposed to be doing with this pocket of time that I was so graciously given custody of. Turns out, I have no idea, I am simply more aware of the fact that I have no idea, and I'm really cranky at all of the outside forces rubbing salt into my particular wound. It's kind of an ugly process, self-awareness, and I don't feel any better now than I did when I started typing, but, hey, at least I wrote something.



Kelly L said...

Here's the thing, the fact you're aware that you lead a life, just a life and not something in a pinterest board means you're a step ahead of most. A lot of the dreamers in this world are actually idiots. I happen to know one and I'd never, I repeat never want to be her. Her life sounds unbalanced, dangerous and horrible. Even if she is chasing her dream.

I do agree that I'm sometimes envious of that older generation my parents are from that were totally ok, and proud even to work blue collar jobs and be right in the middle of the middle class. My parents are simple people, my dad was a meter reader for 45 years and he was always proud of what he did because he had a job and it paid for his family. And sometimes I just want to be more like him. Because when he got done with work he was still himself, he was never his job, never will be. We could all learn a little from people like that.

Loves ya Kell and happy early birthday

Kelly L said...

That actually raises a really interesting series of thoughts for me. My dad has been working the same job for 30+ years, running a machine - I think at one point he turned down a potential promotion to be a foreman because he didn't want it. He just wanted to do his job. My mom was an RN before all her crazy health problems flared up. She loved it. AND YET - despite how content our parents may or may not have been, I think it was the mentality of that generation that they wanted "more" from their kids. So they pushed us to do more. Go to college, get a fancy job. I think subconsciously a lot of that pressure came from them (all with the best of intentions, of course) just as much as it came from any external forces and other peers.

Acknowledging that I have just a regular ol' life is one thing, but actually letting go of all the illusions (delusions?) I've had for so long is another altogether. I need to reteach myself how to be happy where I am because it is SO INGRAINED into my head to always be wanting more, always striving for more. Because even if I am perfectly content, there's always that nagging voice in the back of my head telling me that I'm not living up to my full potential.

The notion that we need more, need to be more, is crippling us from just being... fine. Happy. Content. Satisfied.


Kelly L said...


Kelly L said...

Darling, I have just one thing to say: fitted sheets are the devil and no one, I repeat NO ONE, can properly fold them. If someone tells you they can, they are lying. If they show you a YouTube tutorial, assume it's all special effects.

On the serious side though, this post really sums up a lot of things that have commonly gone through my head. Thank you for writing it and posting it for us all to read and think about!

Kelly L said...

I want to read this, but just got back from working all weekend at renegade and sitting in the car and not sleeping all weekend. i will read. but right now it's TLDR. It's up in my browser for later though!!

Kelly L said...

Made it. Thanks for writing this out. Lots of this is going on in my head too. You ARE special even If its just to me, your cat, your bf, and your other friends and family.

Kelly L said...

Oh man, i love this. There are parts i agree with so hard. There are so many things i want to quote i can't even. Kelly, you're an excellent writer.

"I'm doing the responsible thing, but the world tells me I am betraying myself and my dreams. I'd like to know how the world is financing itself, frankly." <--This, in particular. What if everyone just picked up and followed their dreams?? We'd have a billion novels and restaurants and photographers and zero custodians and customer service representatives. The world would fall apart.

Every day i wake up at 6:30 for work and i start to try to imagine some way that i won't have to do this anymore. When i pay my house off i can take a year off and try to write a bestseller. If i grew more of my own food that would save us enough money that i wouldn't have to work. If i learn a little more about web development i could work for myself right now. Blah, blah. Was it the Dalai Lama or someone who pointed out that all unhappiness stems from wanting to be someplace else? As in, wanting things to be different than they are. That's what the internet is SO JAZZED about—change; improvement—and it's the root of unhappiness. We seriously need to just unplug from that shit. Or better yet, let's use our graphic design skillz to create a series of demotivational graphics. "Give up on your dreams" "Settle" "Quit crying and work your 9-to-5." hehe ;)

I identify with the "i'm not special" feeling. So much. And yet, like Calee said, you are special to your family and friends. And it seems like a condolence prize, but it really is true and important. We were all raised to believe we were special shining stars and bound for greatness and it's just not true. But we could be. But we're probably not. But that's okay!

And other people here have said this, but nobody has every "grown up" thing figured out. You figure that crap out by trying and failing and asking a bunch of people how the eff you're supposed to do it.

I need to read through this again and quote more things. Whee! :D

Kelly L said...

"I'm pretty sure that all notions of success are, somewhere, rooted in some past marketing campaign that was trying to get someone to buy into something at some point. It worked. It always works. Someone always makes money off of your pain and insecurities." <--THIS.

Kelly L said...

This is an awesome comment. Seriously.

Kelly L said...

I think so many of us are right there with you on this. The older I get, the more I become determined that being a grown up is a totally made up thing. I'm ridiculous. And I'm also 29. And I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up.