This morning I woke up thinking about when I was nineteen and how life felt at that age. Like most young lives, things were complicated for me then. Life felt precarious in the way of odd shifts in diners and hotels, the occasional trip to the food bank, and months when rent was hard to make because the paycheque bounced or your services were no longer needed. I hadn’t yet planned to go back to school and lived in an old Victorian house with seven people, three old hippies on the main floor, and four young women upstairs. (There was a rule that the old guys were not allowed in the upper part of the house. Ever.) There were only three bedrooms upstairs, but one of my housemates had nested in a storage space in the wall by the bathroom because she had nowhere else to go.
By this point I had seen enough that I knew what I wanted my future life to look like, but I didn’t know how to get there. I couldn’t draw a line from the place where I was teetering to something more defined. Because if there is one word I might use to describe that my life back then, undefined is the one that comes to mind. I went along, I went around, I consumed a lot of drugs and alcohol, I hung out, I wrote when I felt moved by the muse (almost never), I went to parties, and so on. I don’t mean to imply that I was passive. I felt firmly like myself, had opinions and a strong personality which my old friends could tell you about, I’m sure. But I had no idea that I was still becoming, that this self would continue to emerge over the years and decades to come, and so many inputs would come to shade the outline.
What I was specifically thinking about this morning was the feeling of time and how as much as I struggled at that age, time was not something I wrestled with in the way I do now. Looking back, I must have been busy. I mostly worked full time; I had to walk everywhere because I didn’t want to waste money on bus fare; there were myriad friend and household dramas to attend to. But despite the fact my days were fully occupied, I don’t remember feeling the need to “fit it all in” that I do now. I didn’t have a day-timer or keep a calendar of any kind, and though I must have written my restaurant shifts down somewhere, most of my days happened in the present. I was at home and someone phoned me about a party, so I went. I was walking around the city and ran into some friends and so we went drinking or dropped some acid. I left messes behind me, and my savings account was the glass milk bottle where I put the tip money I hadn’t spent during the week. But as stressful as a chaotic life can be, it wasn’t frantic in the way my days sometimes feel now.
I think what it comes down to is the fact that I didn’t have the notion of the productive self yet. Just as I didn’t know how I would ever get from my life then to my life now (and yes, besides the government job, this is what I wanted it to look like), I didn’t feel defined by what I got done in a day, week, or month. I felt like just keeping on was enough and there was no plan beyond my weekly shift schedule. I also hadn’t come to the realization that life is pretty short, all things considered, and there would come a time when I would worry that about the number of years left in which to do all the things. At nineteen and twenty, time seemed limitless to me, that there was an endless amount of it in which to figure out what to do (as the cliche goes “my whole life stretched out in front of me”).
Back in the early 1990s, no one knew yet that the brains of young adults weren’t fully formed. Neuroscience and neuro-imaging is a pretty young field after all, and our culture told us that eighteen/finishing high school was adulthood, and I believed that. But looking back it seems more true to me that adulthood happened later, closer to my mid-twenties, and a big part of that was this shifted relationship to time and my own future. Granted, by twenty-five I had completed my first degree and started working for the government, those inputs being the starting blocks of my adult shape, but it was somewhere in there that I started to understand future time quite differently. By the age of thirty it was apparent that a lifetime was not limitless. That I had to make choices about what I spent my time doing. Which doesn’t mean I made all the right choices, but that I saw my present as connected to my future in a new way.
And that’s what drives me now, creating the pressure on my days. I vied for a more stressful job because the pay increase will positively impact my pension. I go to the gym because I see that fitness in middle age is tied to a healthier old age. I write and weave whenever I can because otherwise how will I say or make all the things I want to in this lifetime? And lately, I have started to prioritize phone calls and visits with my parents more often because I can see with a terrible clarity that they will not be around forever. The future is finite and makes our present that much more precious.
When I was nineteen I washed my clothes in a clawfoot bathtub because the laundromat was too far to walk to and there was no money for a cab. I ran the tub full of tepid water, put in the laundry and soap, and used my feet to agitate the clothes until the water turned grey. From there I went through the laborious process of wringing out each item, leaning over the high wall of the bathtub on my knees, before hanging them on the line in our garden (or in the bathroom in the winter months). Just doing laundry took me an unbelievable amount of time back then, but I never felt pressed for it. Cleaning the clothes in this way was just another thing to do, and I didn’t understand it as taking me away from something else.
But although my activities were more present-focused at that age, my life wasn’t easeful. My sense of time and how to spend it was different, but I was bound by an inability to plan and focus my life in a positive direction. And I think I overstate it now when I say that my actions in the present are only guided by future reward. One phase of a life compared to another has the danger of becoming a caricature as we pluck moments for examination while leaving behind others. But still, I am lost in it a bit today, thinking about the nineteen year old who didn’t know how to get here in this life, and realizing that it happened all the same.