I ran across the blogfest “The Year I Turned 18” the other day. I stopped to think a minute then quickly grabbed my pen and a paper because, let’s face it, I suck at math. I set out trying to figure out what year I turned 18. Don’t laugh so hard. After I laboriously added 18 to my birthdate, I immediately realized I could have just thought about it being the year I graduated from high school. The difference is that I don’t link those things together in my head. In fact, sometimes I actually have to stop and think how old I really am and, by that, I actually mean taking pen to paper and subtracting my birthdate from the current year.
This trait has always puzzled me. I used to consider it a major problem, but nowadays I realize it’s simply a part of how I don’t think – or don’t process my thoughts, actually – in any kind of straight, linear way. Or as I prefer to think of it: I connect dots.
When someone mentions their fourth-grader, I picture what, in my mind, seems an appropriately sized human. If you ask me outright that child’s age, I squirm. I have no real idea.
It’s always been that way. As an English and history major, I remember blocks of time, of genres, of movements, of eras and epochs, of styles and events. I can hold forth on impressionism – and how it affected music and art and history and literature – but I can’t really pin down the era outside of a fairly nebulous span of years. Want to know about Greek literature? I can do that in spades, but I’ll not be able to give you the linear concept of the years it spans. It seems that my sense of time ends in “-ish.”
Go ahead. Ask me what year I turned 39. (Uh, let me get back to you on that.) But if you ask me what defined my life when I was on the cusp of 40, I’d say it’s about when I moved to my current job and life pulled together really well. If you push me, I can pull that actual year out of my hat, but not at first. I have to circle it a few times before I get there.
I hit 18 in 1975. What I remember is this:
I was moody, I wrote poetry that bordered on melancholic (I still have some of it). I longed for connection with others that was authentic and true but that always seemed to be out of reach. In looking backward I think it was more likely that I denied it for myself.
I won the National Council of Teachers of English award for writing skills despite having dropped out of journalism (the only one allowed to withdraw passing) due fully to a clash of principles, values and fairness between me and my instructor rather than because I couldn’t do it well. How was I to know that episode would follow me to graduate school and rear its head during my graduate assistantship interview? I still landed the job as grammar nazi there.
I graduated in early June. I wore a white dress under my white robe, sat in the evening sun in the football stadium and walked across the stage along with 750 other graduates. I ranked 11th.. I had a friend I’d hung around in church and in high school, but she had moved away in her junior year. She surprised us all by returning to take her diploma with us, and that was pretty special, I thought.
Over the summer I worked, collecting taxes and balancing every single day (I may not like math but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it).
I decided to attend a college I’d never even visited but fell in love with after encountering some enthusiastic students and a recruiting video featuring lots of gorgeous nature, the chance to create my own major, and the song “The Happy Wanderer” (…And as I go, I love to sing, my knapsack on my back. Val-deri, Val-dera, Val-deri, Val-dera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…”) I remember the sense of adventure that stirred and how it resonated, especially after my sixth reading of The Lord of the Rings trilogy that year.
When I went to a summer weekend for prospective students, I encouraged my parents to leave me there and head for the mountains instead. As a result, that weekend I was a loner and felt pretty much out of place among the families and legacy students. Even so, I moved two hours from home in August, dealt with a roommate who was as unlike me as a dog from a monkey, but found my niche with older, established students.
I went home nearly every weekend that fall semester with the excuse that my sister, pregnant with the first child in a new generation, was due and I didn’t want to miss it. How fortuitous! My nephew was late, which allowed me to coast for more than a month on that single excuse. I remember vividly my first trip home – I sneaked a ride and told no one. I quietly walked to the open front door – and stood watching my family, who had gathered for dinner. It was a bittersweet moment. Here I was on the outside, not quite willing to announce my presence, yet wishing fiercely that they’d notice me and rush to greet me, a sort of prodigal child. (They did.) I can’t help but think that bears a deeper excavation on my part one of these days.
I began the year as a devout Methodist struggling mightily to make sense of an intensely emotional religious experience. I ended that year without ever finding answers or any further sense of presence, and falling away from churchy things.
In the end, the year I turned 18 was less a specific year than a balancing metamorphosis in time – not quite high school and not quite college, yet a little of both. It was, perhaps, the point of moving from childhood to adulthood, and not just because the law said so. It was the glitter of dew on a brand new leaf that nourishes and allows that leaf to unfurl and progress and grow into whatever it might become.
And what I’ve realized is this: I don’t track the years, I track the experiences. I enjoy them, I live them, I love them. They matter tremendously, but once they’re done, I let them go. Their linear progression matters very little to me, and instead, they crash into all the other years that make me “me.” They bump and jostle for space, and in so doing they transfer bits of themselves to others and take bits of others into themselves. Eventually, it’s all one life, all one experience, all one process.
For the most part, I’m oriented on future possibilities, not past activities. It doesn’t mean I don’t love every single moment (well, most of them), but I don’t have them filed away in chronological order. It’s about the culmination of all those years. It’s not about the years themselves.