Monday, August 19, 2013

The Obscure Sorrow of Turning 26

"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor."
—Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby
I turned 26 last month. This, I'd thought, was not a particularly remarkable birthday to celebrate—turning 25, a quarter century, is what gets all of the hoopla. Yet in recent weeks, I've seen several references to the idea that one's twenty-sixth birthday marks the end of foolish youthful hedonism.

There's this humor piece on The Hairpin, "Thank You So Much For Being With Me to Celebrate My Twenty-Five-and-Twelve-Month Birthday," by Julia Meltzer:
As a twenty-five-and-twelve-month-old, it is completely appropriate that I spend Saturday nights locked in my apartment with the five of you and two boxes of Franzia playing Settlers of Catan, Drinking Rules Edition. Max and Joe, I still think that longest road trade was sketchy! No but seriously, when I turn twenty-six that will all be over. I will start going to casual dinners at sophisticated restaurants with friends I haven’t seen in soooooo long, having One or Two Cocktails, and heading home to watch an independent film with my serious boyfriend before knocking off a quick journal entry and falling asleep in a haze of contentment. 
(As many 26-year-olds do, I alternate between the "watching indie films with my serious boyfriend" phase of my life and the "drunken Settlers of Catan" phase. Nonetheless, I relate to what Meltzer is saying about the gap between our real lives and our ideal lives. It's one of my favorite subjects.)

Then there's this, from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
Midsummer, n. A feast celebrated on the day of your 26th birthday, which marks the point at which your youth finally expires as a valid excuse—when you must begin harvesting your crops, even if they’ve barely taken root—and the point at which the days will begin to feel shorter as they pass, until even the pollen in the air reminds you of the coming snow.
(Are you familiar with The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows? I only just discovered it, but it is the best. It puts words to all the secret aches and regrets and doubts that characterize life as a sensitive soul in the 21st century, yet so often go unacknowledged. The kinds of delicate, poignant, but universal emotions that I want to write plays about.)

Maybe this is just confirmation bias, turning 26 and then suddenly becoming more aware of/interested in other writers who talk about this.

Or maybe it's that I was born into a huge cohort of Internet-equipped, navel-gazing youths, all full of So Many Feelings, all convinced that we're the first people ever to feel this way, and compelled to share our uneasy angst with the world. We're attending our five-year college reunions, and listening to the new Vampire Weekend album, and watching things like Frances Ha and Girls that speak to the anxieties of our generation; and we link to Buzzfeed articles about "growing up in the '90s" and wallow in nostalgia for a childhood that suddenly feels so far away; and I'm amazed that we don't all melt into one quivering blob of jelly, overwhelmed by the weight of all these obscure sorrows.

(Nota bene: I originally typed "quivering blog of jelly." A Freudian slip.)

And when the more practical voice in your head speaks up to tell you that nostalgia is a foolish waste of time, that your life is actually going pretty well, that you have no reason to castigate yourself for being an "irresponsible youth" because you're a type-A perfectionist who's had maybe two hours of true irresponsibility in your entire life... well, it can be tempting to wish that that voice would just shut up, even though it speaks the truth. Angst and nostalgia are so seductive, and it seems like it'd be so beautiful to stand with everyone else, in confusion and misery, and feel All the Feelings.

As a matter of fact, today is my five-year anniversary of moving to San Francisco. I love it here, and I also realize that during these five years I have matured, ridding myself of many of the self-delusions and false beliefs that held me back, and generally becoming a much happier, better-adjusted person. I'm more outgoing and confident; I have a better understanding of others' motivations, as well as my own. In many respects, I feel like I lead a charmed life (for which I try to cultivate gratitude). This anniversary should be cause for a (responsible) celebration! Yet my joy is tempered with a sense of "Okay, Marissa, you've had five years as an aimless flâneur; now it's time to get down to business, figure out what you want out of life, purge yourself of everything extraneous, and for God's sake, start saving for retirement! You are going to need to push yourself a lot more in the next five years in order to accomplish everything you want to do in your twenties."

In the first blog post I ever wrote after moving here, I quoted Angels in America: "Heaven is a city Much Like San Francisco."

And now, five years on, I'm saying to myself, "The Great Work begins."

And here's another question: now that I am 26, am I too old to refer to myself as a girl? My blog header calls me "a girl with an answer for some things and a question for most things," and in my Twitter bio I'm a "would-be girl-about-town," but at what point does that word start to become ridiculous when applied to a grown, adult woman?


Ryan Fleming said...

I really enjoyed is, as someone who is also turning 26 soon and had a lot of the same pseduo-angst to work out. Amidst several doom-and-gloom or unrelatably specific blog posts on the topic, this one really spoke to me. Thank you for writing!

Marissa Skudlarek said...

Ryan, that's so kind of you to say. Thank you for reading and commenting -- and happy birthday!