backwards with time

Ahh, a photo of a photo of my last night working at the bar, pulled from a friend’s FB. Slightly older than 19, but turns out, that was during the dark ages, when digital documentation was less mainstream.

My dear friend Peter recently got engaged. Peter is 34. His fiancé is 19. Before you get all judgey and become the expert on all marriages, just know there isn’t anything you can think that hasn’t been thunk or anything you can say that they haven’t heard.

Believe me, when it all started I gave him just as hard of time as anyone, but that’s because I love him with a genuine friendship that’s lasted over ten years and I am allowed to give him shit about everything because we have an understanding, and none of it contains actual judgement.

It’s so easy to sit in that peanut gallery and have an opinion, an opinion shaped by our own experiences, feelings and thoughts. An opinion shaped by what we want for our future, and knowledge of our past, years of so-called wisdom tucked under our belts.

But the thing about life knowledge is everyone cinches their belt with a different complex web of time, containing individual pieces of wisdom we personally choose to carry into the next year. Would it have been a good idea for me to get married at 19? No. Absolutely not. When I think about what I was like at 19: a sophomore at UW-Madison, working at a college bar, the one and only State Street Brats, an establishment that colored my college years and introduced me to my dearest friends I still have today; spending my days studying, my nights tending bar, and all free time day or night drinking, a strangely successful  combination; a flurry of days that perhaps only college graduates understand, cherish, and fondly reminisce upon. I was just entering my PLC (Poor Life Choice) phase that I wouldn’t emerge from for over a decade. I couldn’t even make good decisions when it came to dressing myself (so much photo evidence); pretty sure I was in no position to decide who to spend the rest of my life with.

But that was my 19. And my 19 is not everyone’s 19.

That became ever so obvious when I taught English at an inner-city Milwaukee high school, where many of my seniors were 18 or 19. I cried a lot that year, reading personal essays on life experiences, experiences I hoped to never have. I ingested these experiences and buckets of knowledge that shaped my students and learned about the pieces of wisdom they tucked beneath their own belts. At 26, I remember thinking I hadn’t experienced enough life to relate to these kids, to adequately teach them anything. I remember thinking my belt of wisdom looked a little too shiny and new compared to some of the old worn and torn belts I saw in my classroom. One of my students, Jazmine, walked into class three days after giving birth to twins. Three days. I silently gaped at her as she logically explained she wanted to give her babies a better life than she had, and to do that she had to graduate high school, and to do that, she had to pass my English class. To do that, she had to come to class, because she couldn’t afford to lose the attendance portion of her grade. She shuffled to her desk, weighed down by her invisible belt.

When my friend Erica was 19, her first ever one night stand ended up turning into a marriage and three beautiful baby girls. Having only ever been with her husband, I once asked her if she ever wondered what it would be like if that night had remained a one night stand. Sometimes, she said, but she was just so damn happy with how her life turned out that it really wasn’t worth the thought. You can’t miss out on what you don’t know.

And then there’s my friend Jay, who wanted nothing more than to saw off the top of his car and make it a convertible when he was 19. Like I said. Everyone’s 19 is different.

I am not saying Peter’s fiancé is this wise old soul who has lived a thousand lifetimes. I am saying I have no idea what her 19 is all about. But I’ve met her. And I like her. She keeps Peter in line, and Peter will be the first to tell you he has a line that needs keeping. Her 19 is different from my 19, different from Erica and Jay’s, different from my students’, and that’s okay.

In a recent conversation with my convertible-less friend Jay, he said his problem with relationships is he doesn’t see many (if any) couples growing, other than in their consumption and population. Personally I think that’s too often a result of people not taking time to grow as individuals first. As Jay put it, they spend their life working toward building dreams that aren’t their own.

As if to confirm something in our random textual conversation, I stumbled upon these words today in the book I am currently reading about a woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail because she doesn’t know what else to do (been there):

“I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life,” she’d wept to me once, in the days after she learned she was going to die. “I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.”
~ Wild, Cheryl Strayed

And I don’t think Cheryl’s mom is the only one who ever realized that on her death-bed.

Even if Peter and May are making a mistake, it’s theirs to make. Besides, I know people my age who have been married and divorced already. Couples with less of an age gap, those who waited until the “right” age, who thought they had found *cough* the one, who thought they were in love, who were in love. And they couldn’t make it work. So why shouldn’t Peter and May give it a go? There doesn’t seem to be a perfect science to this love and marriage dance. Some people grow together, some people grow apart. Some people just stop growing at all.

And then there are those of us who feel like we’re growing backwards with time.

Thinking about his 19-year-old self, Jay mused, “Actually, many times I feel like I had a much better grasp of who I was and wanted when I was 19. My existential years in college didn’t help other than drawing me out of nihilism.”

Even though I countered that he probably just didn’t know any better at 19, that his world was a whole lot smaller back then, and even though there is probably some truth to that, I know all too well what he means. The more life I live, the more I feel like I have no idea what I am doing as I discover how much I have yet to learn, until I eventually conclude I know nothing at all.

That’s when I turn up the music and pray that I make it through.

Folk always told me that my heart would grow

The older the man, yeah, the stronger the stone

Am I losing my mind?

Am I growing backwards with time?

Some say with age that a purpose comes clear

I see the opposite happening here

Are we losing the fight?

Are we growing backwards with time?

I was young and love was fun

Now it’s so serious

Now all the fun has equal pain

There’s something wrong with this

For all I know there’s more I don’t

Oh the little I have learned

For every year of knowledge gained

Is a negative year I’ve earned

Folk always told me that my heart would grow

The older the man, yeah, the stronger the stone

Am I losing my mind?
~ Backwards with Time, The Avett Brothers

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