We’re in the middle of summer, only a few days away from my twenty-sixth birthday. It’s hard to believe that I’ve lived in this city, in the same Manhattan apartment, for nearly three years. I can’t help but think of all the nights I’ve sat on my fire escape, how little this uptown street has changed in that time, and how much I have changed.
In the last couple months, I’ve been talking and listening to my friends who are around the same age I am. We all seem to be feeling the same – our lives are changing, our inner worlds transforming even as the world outside looks the same. We feel we are in transition – moving into the next quarter century, not quite sure what this one will bring, but feeling that somehow we should be more prepared, have more answers – instead of this strange quasi-adulthood where we feel we’ve made a start, but our ideas of what we want to do, who we want to be, and how we’re supposed to get there are still only partially formed, tentative, vulnerable. Fragile. Sometimes I can barely stand on my own feet. No matter what my goals are, it’s hard to summon the willpower and motivation to go through with them on my own. And then there are those of us – myself included – who know that a chapter is ending, and we’re asking ourselves, what now? A professional career? More school? Starting a family?
How many of us think of our parents and grandparents and realized that at our age they were already married, had kids, or started the job they worked most of their adult lives? And where are we? What are we – other than uncertain? ...
I feel like I’ve been running a race only to realize partway through I have no idea where the finish line is. Or I thought I knew, only now it keeps moving, either fading away into the distance, or getting frighteningly close. Or have I only been running in place this whole time, going nowhere? And it seems no one can tell me – or at least not with any of the conviction I’m so desperate for – where I should be heading or what to expect when I get there.
There is one thing I’ve come to learn and tried to accept – no one else can make my decisions for me. No one else can choose the path I must take.
Calling this a Quarter-Life Crisis seems kind of silly, I know, complaining about one of those first-world problems I should consider myself lucky to have. I recognize this is a problem related to choices: not in having too few, as our parents or grandparents might have suffered, but in having too many. There are so many possible paths lying in front of us, yet it’s not clear where any of them lead. It’s scary, overwhelmed by options at the same time we’re burdened by obligations.
Almost two weeks ago I woke up and realized it was July 1st. My first thought was shit, I gotta pay rent. My next thought was oh shit, I gotta write my thesis. I had taken two semesters for the project then gave myself the summer when I found out how hard it was to teach and write at the same time – only to wake up on July 1st and realize that my mid-September deadline is only two months away and my teaching load is even heavier than before. Working 30 hours a week with summer school students in a building with no air-conditioning doesn’t leave much energy left over for writing about James Joyce and cognitive theory. But what did I expect? I’m a big girl now – almost twenty-six years old – so it’s going to have to get done.
And that’s just the big stuff. I still have to exchange my Maryland driver’s license for a New York one before it expires, fill out my mom’s social security benefits paperwork, pay a ridiculously overdue library fine, and go grocery shopping. And so on. When it comes to getting these things done, I’m discovering that my inner child is a great big baby, or at least a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, stomping her foot and saying “But I don’t want to!” It’s very hard to summon enough motivation to overcome just how much I don’t want to do all these tedious chores, especially when they don’t bring any immediate rewards. Keeping a tight schedule and a strict budget doesn’t appeal to the petulant little girl inside of me. But I know too that I’m not a little girl anymore. I can’t depend on my parents to take care of me either. One of them is no longer living, and when the other one calls to check on me and mentions my responsibilities, I’m tempted to say “Dad, I’m a grown-up now. Stop nagging me.” Yet the other unspoken voice says, “Dad, it’s so much. I wish someone could help me keep it together.”
It took me a while to put my finger on what was really bothering me – the lonely and lost feeling of not having somebody here with me. Not having a parent, sibling, partner, friend, or roommate to be a kind rational voice, encouraging me to keep appointments, pay bills, make onerous but necessary phone calls, to help me run what my brother calls the “cost-benefit analysis,” weighing the effort it takes to complete a task against the pay-off that comes with getting it done. A caring person to keep me from constantly battling myself and never seeming to win. To support me when I feel I just can’t do it anymore.
Stress and loneliness are not new problems. They’re just hitting me particularly hard at his time of my life. The other day one of my students asked me how old I was. It took me a second before I could answer. I forget my own age a lot – depending on who I’m with and what I’m doing, I think of myself as 23, 27, 30, 13, or some other indeterminate year. Maybe the little girl sensed I needed some help. “Are you twenty-five?” she asked. I paused, calculating, then chuckled. “Yep. At least for another week.”
I think back on past years: on my 24th birthday, I ended my night out in Brooklyn in the backseat of a cab wearing a tiara and complaining to the Ecuadorian driver in broken Spanish about my machista ex-novio. The very patient and amused driver told me I couldn’t be sad on my birthday because I was a princess. On my 25th birthday, my sister and stepfather came up from Maryland to visit me and we toured Central Park and got buzzed on margaritas. I ended that night hungover before sundown, sobbing in the shower that my mother didn’t live to see me turn 25. My little sister comforted me while I babbled incoherently in wet hair and a towel and reassured me we didn’t have to go out.
This year as my 26th birthday approaches, while in the midst of writing my thesis and pouring my energy into students who either make my job the best in the world or hell on earth, I’ve started having intense dreams again about my mother. There is no way to describe the happiness in the dream when I think she’s still alive, and there is no way to describe the sadness that hits me when I wake up and remember the truth.
But truth is something I have to live with – just like everybody else going through the ongoing crisis called life. My 25th year brought a lot of changes, as no doubt every year will. I have found that age brings self-assurance; if not in knowing exactly what I want, then certainly in knowing what I don’t want. I’m much less susceptible to other people’s bullshit. I know how to admit I’m wrong and stand up for myself when I’m right. And with every year that passes, I am confident that I know myself better. It is a painful knowledge that comes with a high price – frustration, loss, despair, anxiety. But it is also a knowledge that comes with great rewards – assertiveness, freedom, compassion, and the acceptance that I can only do the best I can with what I have.
Here’s saying goodbye to 25. Here’s to the human condition that comforts me in knowing that my pain is experienced the world over and that suffering – and hope – unite us all. And here’s saying hello to 26 – a new year, a new opportunity, a continuing chance to live and love and learn.