By Anne T. Donahue
When I was 13, my aunt suggested a new Christmas tradition: instead of her buying me something I may or may not wear, she proposed that I stay over at her place, watch Ally McBeal, then descend on the mall the following morning. There, I’d pick out my own present and take control of my aesthetic destiny.
I’m 36 now and I still consider that hangout a dream. My aunt was – is, and always will be – mercilessly cool. She took us to Chapters and let me buy whatever magazine I wanted. She enforced a strict no-talking policy during Ally, minus her kindly explaining who everybody was and why I should care. She toasted bagels in the morning and poured me a massive mug of coffee. She let me take my time getting ready, and took note of my new Body Shop lip balm that I considered perfect and great. Our hang ended with my revelation that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up: someone who made other people feel welcome, who watched cool TV shows, and who could expertly navigate the mall. She defined adulthood.
Of course, she wasn’t alone in painting the picture of what I wanted my future to be: when my other aunt and her then-fiance (now-uncle) took me mini golfing and to an Adventureland-esque amusement park, I sat in the backseat of their car and revelled in the sweet sound of Hootie and the Blowfish, certain my life couldn’t get better. Years later, my dad and his brother (the coolest of uncles) let me tag along on their Saturday morning garage sale adventures which tended to precede a day spent “running errands” – a phrase that meant everything and also nothing. I couldn’t want to find my own errands to do and garage sales to find. I obviously didn’t understand that behind these memories, everyone was dealing with their own shit.
Which is, of course, what adulthood really is (and especially now): a relentless gong show that currently seems only to be getting worse, heaven help us.
But who knows how to deal with it? I don’t have a clue as to how I can minimize grief or heartache or any number of feelings that have become our norm over the last two years. I have no suggestions as to how to lower one’s blood pressure or squash the instinct to sit still and look at nothing in particular while counting the ways in which everything feels bad. And I think anybody who claims to know the secret to feeling better is a liar. Because try as I might, I can’t deep breathe my way out of missing someone who has died. Or Calm™ my way out from under the blanket of mortality that’s wrapped itself around me, my family, and almost everybody reading this.
So my solution is stop trying to claw my way back to life before or to buy into the belief that aging is a collection of achievements I’ve yet to make. Instead, I will give myself the luxury of dipping back into what I thought being a grown-up once was; to revel in small things like good bagels and a lip balm I like and to buy a magazine I really want. When I can, I’ll drive around with my friends and listen to the music that once made everything seem possible and so mature – even if it’s Hootie (especially if it’s Hootie). And I’ll treat the mundanity of errands as a luxury. Because that’s exactly what they are: things to do with low stakes and no social media-worthy results. Simply the ins and outs of getting through the day, perhaps begun with big mug of coffee on a sunny morning that for a few precious seconds reminds me that I’m doing the thing I thought was so fancy once.
Of course, I know I can’t be a kid again. And I know I can’t go back in time, nor would I want to. But I can finally use my need to control something for something other than the anxious rituals I’ve put in place to make our nightmare-reality seem liveable. This time, I can kickstart the part of myself who was once stoked to go to Home Depot and pick up lightbulbs. And I can hear nineties pop and remind myself how listening to it years and years ago filled me with promise for the future. (I was wrong! But that’s okay.) And I remember what made me so happy about those once-upon-a-time hangouts with my family and parents and pals’ big sisters: the revelation that little things can mean so much. And no, this can’t and won’t fix us, but it can be the balm we need just to make it to the next day.
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