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Personal Essay: “On Age”

One morning last fall, huddled up in a classroom with other eager writing students, our professor spoke about how one could measure the passage of time, of generations by associating it with the kind of events that occur in someone’s life that are shared with large numbers of people. What she meant were the kind of large events that they affect millions of people, sometimes even crossing national and language boundaries. She mentioned the assassination of Sweden’s Prime Minister in the mid-80s as an example of such that an event for her generation, then smiled and added that naturally for most of us it was just something we had heard about during our history class in school. She then proposed that we all sit down to write about a large-scale event appropriate for our generation: The events of 9/11.

I have quite vivid memories of that date, even though I live on the other side of the planet, so I took to the task with gusto, describing all the little details of that September day over a decade ago. The first unreal snippets of news about the planes, to coming home to the never-ending news broadcasts from New York, to holding vigil by my computer, waiting for friends to check in and let the rest of us know they were okay. But when I sat down in a group to listen to some of the others student’s memories I was a little shocked. They were all young children at the time and either did not comprehend the scope of the event, which meant that they had to have it explained to them by parents or teachers. Some of them were even so young their parents intentionally left them out of the loop.

Though I was already aware of the age difference between me and most of the others in my class, this was what really made it hit home how old I was, that made me feel my age press down on me like a Looney Tunes style anvil, an effect I suspect our professor was aiming for. In fact, I think I might have even mentioned my vague snippets of memories from that Prime Minister being assassinated, as I was going on five that year (comparable to how many of my US friends have some vague memories of the Challenger disaster, which occurred the same year). This age difference, as wide as it takes for the Chinese Zodiac to cycle through all its animals in some cases, was one reason why I felt it hard to connect with many of my fellow students and this one class, which opened up my eyes fully to it, sure didn’t make matters easier.

Before then I had not really given the thought of age and my own age much thought. I had been content to just drift along, growing steadily older without thinking about what my slowly advancing years actually meant. I might have brushed against it now and then, but it never stuck to my hull. But now during lunch breaks I heard some of my classmates speak of some of their hopes for the future, perhaps marrying their boy or girlfriends and having children. I was entering that age where women are told to hurry it up a bit, because our eggs aren’t getting any fresher. A woman in her 30s has a higher chance of delivering a child with Down’s syndrome or experience complications. (Kind of like how I read that guinea pigs shouldn’t have their first litter when they’re over a year, as their pelvis becomes more fixed.) With my age put in stark contrast to these younger people, I experienced my first twinge of panic.

As I was so much older, why had I not progressed further in my life? What had I been doing for an entire decade? These people had been going on sabbatical after high school and backpacked their way across South-East Asia. They’d started a bluegrass-jazz band that toured the country every summer, they’d worked, they’d partied and they’d committed themselves to a strict training regimen. They’d made friends and they’d learned how to scuba dive. All of this by an age when I had still been futzing about in my first round of college, getting that degree I would never use in my professional life. And it was no use comparing myself with the one person who was older than me. He was a gay man who had survived the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, one of the first to receive the good kind of medication that has turned HIV from a death sentence to something you can live to a fairly advanced age with. Age for me implied wisdom and though I was older than most of my peers, I certainly did not feel all that wiser than them. Even comparing where I was creatively was no good. When I brought up in class that I had finished a draft for a novel the year before, I was then informed that one of them had completed a novel for a high school project and another had both written a novel and also self-published it and had a handful of bound copies of it sitting on his bookshelf.

Stepping outside of my class it became even harder to not think about my age and what I was supposed to have achieved at this point in my life, if one looks at the rest of society. The next door neighbors have a daughter that is close to my age and she is married with two children and a dog, settled in a new job after going off maternity leave. The reason there is such a thing as a 30-year crisis is that this is the age where you are expected to have a career going, you’re supposed to have at least a steady boy/girlfriend and according to our biology, having a child at this point would be preferable. This is meant to be the age of settling down, of letting your roots sink into a spot, of dedicating yourself to raising a new generation, while still contributing to the household income, so you might afford a trip to some sunny locale once a year.

This image creates pressure, not just for people like me, who wasted their 20s figuring out who they were and what they wanted out of life, but also for those that were just plain unlucky. Maybe they could never get a good education; maybe they had problems finding a good job and are just making ends meet. Maybe they just never found a good partner to settle down with to have the babies they actually want. That the latter category exists is proven by the slowly growing number of single mothers, who decide they can’t wait any longer for mister right and get themselves with child through sperm donations.

In the past year I have slowly tried to push past those feelings I had and the inadequacy my age created in me. I realized that obsessing about age is draining and you need to devote that energy to more productive things, like finding happiness and maybe in some way try and change the world we live in. And since I don’t really plan on giving birth, I can just shut off the biological clock aspect of it.

I hate to say it, but in some ways, age really is just a number. The only aspects of it that we can’t ignore is the biological effects of it, our bodies don’t last forever and eventually we will become aware of that. In the meantime, there are no actual rules for how to live your life, any actual landmarks or achievements you must have reached. Only you decide what is important for you and your life. If you really want to have a career, then you probably already did that. If you wanted to become a singer, no one really had to tell you do go for it. If you wanted to be a mother and raise a family…Well, I’m guessing you already have that. I do think that the things we were made to do, what we were made for come to us in time, it does not go by some clock or a timer.

I have found my passion in writing, in creative expression, in cooking elaborate meals and baking things on a whim. Though I might be forced to have a day job to support myself until the day I can generate enough income from my own efforts…Well, then so be it. If that happens when I am 40, then that’s no big deal, as long as I am happy and content with the life I lead at the time.

If there is but one thing I might still hope for, it’s to have a good person in my life to share that unpleasant process of aging with, but I think that kind of desire is universal and really not that easily found for everyone. I think I will just have to be patient, with the wisdom that age has given me.

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