growing up (or not)

The dumping zone

Nothing in my house is new. I wonder if I could live among objects that don’t carry stories. Would I feel welcome at home? Or like I’m walking through a museum with blank placards, peppered with sticky notes of prophecy? You’ll have wonderful and awful conversations on this couch. Breakfasts will happen at this table, and here, maybe, you’ll rest.

This short telephone table here, it holds my keys and detritus, it’s the dumping zone. But before this, it sat in a living room with one purple wall. It held up a tacky blue lamp, next to the couch that was the only new thing in that house. My sister’s glitter-speckled nail polish spilled onto the tiny table as we piled together on the couch and floor, tangled dog and human limbs, laughing and arguing about movies over milkshakes.

This tiny table sat next to those moments of assemblage I remember as possible home – doors fully open but not mine every day. There were beds I could sleep on. Sometimes it was my sister’s, under the abstract floral curtain. Sometimes it was my brother’s floor, on a spare mattress, staring up at the shadows of a Lego pirate ship.

Sometimes I found myself on the hide-a-bed in the basement, in later years, in those times when I was banished from my main home.

From my own bed, I watched treetops sway out the fifth-floor window. I’d crack it open in the middle of the night and blow secret cigarette smoke out, looking up at stars and down at police cruisers, watching them while they waited for our apartment doors to open. And maybe the next day I’d be banished, grabbing a few dresses in a plastic bag before stomping out into the uncertain world. I’d bounce around other beds, and then finally back to my most possible home.

I’d never known such darkness as there was in that stony basement. I’d lose myself in Sims, building imagined fantastical homes suspended over pools, designing little lives that fit into neat patterns. I found a secret hack to refill the bank account. It was so impossibly simple on that screen, a dream I lived until 4 or 5 am before crumpling into the hide-a-bed.

Early morning felt no different than midnight. I’d stumble upstairs anyway, accept the offering of a sandwich in a brown paper bag and try to live the Sim-perfect routine, the one I’d mastered in the dark basement, except in the daylight world. Go to school, go to work, study. Find a home, go to it.

The basement could have been my home too. It was an offer to get away from the too-soon onset of adult life, from fighting. Just go to school and be a kid, they said. You don’t need to maintain home just yet, just live. Just live here.

But I fought and begged for my tiny corner, my room on the fifth floor. I pleaded, why can’t I just pay some rent and call it even? I wanted a door I could lock, a window I could quietly smoke out of, an explosion of branches reaching up into the sky, pulling me out of this mess on the ground.

Long after we left the fifth floor and the others moved away, I searched for new possible homes, for places that could hold the possibility of tangled dog and human limbs on a couch. I held onto what was left, bits of furniture and scraps of stories, patched them together, and called it home.

The dog lived out her years here and died on the kitchen floor, and I cleaned up a bit, then a bit less. I quit smoking and looked out the windows at the one spare treetop. And I pulled out this old table again, rickety but still holding steady. It greets me when I come home. It’s the dumping zone.

All the pieces, all the time

Even when I can break projects down into manageable chunks, or work on them at a reasonable pace, I still have moments when I feel like I’m being pulled in a million directions at once. I wish for that elusive singular focus, to comes home every day to that one thing that drives me.

When I was a kid, there was a question that adults always loved to ask: What do you want to be when you grow up?

From 8-12, I might have said “Writer”, or “Baseball Player”. And then it turned into “Musician”, “Rock Star”, “Cook”, and I tried those things in real life and they were cool, but I didn’t have any grand imperative to keep going, to take them all the way. I didn’t envision a title, a career, a final place that I could set as a destination where I could stop and say “I’ve arrived”.

I had a friend who said she wanted to be a marine biologist. It confounded me. Where did she get that from? Is it because she liked dolphins, and that was a title for a person who did dolphin things? She held the same answer for years, and I wondered where her conviction came from, her aim so steady and true.

Running into another friend just after high school, I offered that same tired query, and he replied “Thoracic surgeon”. I nodded in slight confusion, then looked it up when I got home. I was perplexed. Not just surgeon – he had a specialty nailed down already. The specificity of it boggled my mind.

Perhaps I overestimated the commitment behind these pronouncements. Perhaps everyone else who had a clear answer on hand had just that – an answer on hand for that redundant question, knowing that answering properly is part of what’s expected of young folks. They should aspire to be something, or to want to be something, even if the adults know it’s impossible.

The adults will nod, like they’ve had some insight into young person’s brain, or at least have some reassurance that this one has a plan. They will be something. They’re not just going to keep dying their hair and playing in punk bands and fucking shit up, though that was legitimately my plan for a while. (I suppose I’ve just refined my aims slightly. Still dying the hair, still playing music loudly, still fucking shit up, but on more of a discursive level.)

I’d prefer to think that most people are also secretly confused and fumbling through this world while somehow presenting a tidy and polished exterior. I’d prefer that over a suspicion that’s been shadowing my whole life, that Other People have that thing called Knowing What To Do With Their Lives and I’m totally missing it.

So I line up my rainbow-fill array of interests like a package of pencil crayons in their pristine beginning-of-the-school-year completeness, and pack them into my backpack. This is the assemblage of things that are me, that are always with me, that are always overfull, zippers straining, scraps of paper and half-inked pens spilling out of the edges. How can I carry just one notebook, just one novel, just one magazine? I want it all, all the time.

Every night, I dump my backpack onto the couch and sift through all the stuff. I gaze longingly at a tiny minimalist purse hanging among a dozen tote bags, the elusive dream of paring down, of needing less, of carrying just one small piece at a time.

Who am I kidding. That’s never been my style.

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