You Will Be Young for a Very Long Time
The first time I thought I was too old to start something, I was in high school.
I was learning Spanish and really taking to it. The thought of traveling to another country and being able to communicate in a foreign language was incredibly exciting. So when I got the opportunity to live with a host family in Spain one summer, I asked my parents for permission to go.
There was only one problem: My aunt had read an article on how the language pathways in the brain shrivel up and die after age two, and she presented this to me just as I was contemplating my summer opportunity. I would never be fluent in another language. I had missed my chance. Two-year-old me had slacked off and now 16-year-old me was going to pay for it by never speaking intelligible Spanish.
I didn’t go to Spain. What was the point? My 16-year-old brain, with its geriatric pathways and decrepit connectors (I’m not a scientist), would only embarrass me in front of the native speakers.
I wonder what could have been had I gone anyway. Maybe I never would’ve been able to carry on a lively conversation with fluent command of the language. But now, 20 years later, I could’ve been close.
I’ve since lived in a foreign country where people were eager to try out their English on me. (I did not speak their language, nor did I try.) Many of them were true novices, but I don’t remember them embarrassing themselves; I remember their enthusiasm and sincerity. They understood something I didn’t: The pursuit of something has value on its own, regardless of whether you ever master it.
I didn’t realize this at 16. And I’ve still never been to Spain.
I was 25 when I freaked out about getting old for the first time.
My boyfriend and I had been dating for two years when we decided to break up amicably. We were both planning to move away within the year, and it seemed natural to start consciously uncoupling. Our social circles were hopelessly intertwined, so we still saw quite a bit of each other. When he started dating a 19-year-old college student, I was fully aware.
Nineteen-year-olds go to France. Twenty-five-year-olds get boring, entry-level jobs and start preparing for death.
I took the news of his relationship quite well, at first. I didn’t feel much older than 19 myself; in fact, at 25, I was still in college and finishing my bachelor’s. I did not have an adult job or a grown-up apartment. I was serving tables and living in a woman’s basement a few blocks from campus.
Then I learned more about my 19-year-old rival. She was planning to move, too. Well, study abroad in France for a semester. She was nearly fluent in French, and after a semester in southern France she would have the language mastered.
It became abundantly clear then that I was no longer 19 and would never be 19 again. Nineteen-year-olds go to France. Twenty-five-year-olds get boring, entry-level jobs and start preparing for death.
So, at 25, I was too old for France.
Did I actually want to learn French? Maybe. But what I really wanted was to have all the options; to feel like the world was my oyster. At 25, I could recognize that I had still been a ball of potential energy at 19. For some reason, I couldn’t recognize that at 30 I’d look back and think the same thing about my 25-year-old self.
My generation has been derided for its inability to grow up. I think the assessment of my cohort as a late-blooming bunch is accurate. In the absence of adult guidance, I know I made a series of less-than-good decisions from age 16 to 25. Some of these decisions limited my ability to stay young and carefree, but they also prevented me from growing up in the traditional sense. I thought I couldn’t go to France because of my student loans, and I thought I couldn’t buy a house because of my student loans. I was left in a kind of limbo; still young and unencumbered, but also lacking the means to encumber myself with anything.
I feel like I’ve heard millennials cited in the media more than just about any other phenomenon, including climate change and systemic racism. (I guess millennials were moving back in with their parents, and that was a big fucking deal, too.) Maybe I’ve been hyperaware of it because they are talking about me, but I detect a slight obsession with people born between 1981 and 1996. (Or 1981–2000, or 1983–1996; I’m included in all the ranges, and the only difference is whether I’m an old millennial or the oldest millennial).
That I ever wasted time worrying about something as arbitrary as youth is sad.
The effect of being lumped together with people much younger than me is that I’ve been made to feel young longer. Even when I turned 30, an age I previously considered undeniably old, the media was still talking about me like I was a delinquent teenager.
As one of the oldest people who grew up with a computer and eventually a cellphone, there is a gulf between me and the preceding Generation X. My older colleagues sometimes marvel at my skill with technology; “Oh, you millennial,” my fortysomething co-worker will swoon when I demonstrate an Excel formula that I just Googled. I may be internally worried that my eggs are as shriveled and dead as my language pathways, but in her eyes, I’m basically Ariana Grande: young, carefree, and unbelievably fast at texting.
I’ve come to regard youth as more than an age range; it’s any time in your life when you still have all the options available to you. You might swerve in and out of youth depending on your life circumstances. For some things, youth can last a long time. For others, you start to age out before you’re ready. I remember the first time I left a party (and I mean a real rager) because I was tired and needed to get up early. I was sad at the time, but there was nothing inherent about my younger self that allowed me to stay up late, except that I had so much less to do the next day. The subsequent hangover actually allowed me to ignore how vacant and dull my life was; it gave me something to do.
Once I had real interests and money to get myself out of the house, I didn’t need the distraction of a party to feel young and cool. I just was young and cool in the way your teenage self imagines you will be based on TV and movies: I traveled with friends. The ceilings in my progressively nicer apartments got progressively higher. I cultivated interests that required some kind of investment. I still had student loans, but I had a medium-good job, and after several years the monthly auto-debit became as routine as the taxes I paid out of every check.
That I ever wasted time worrying about something as arbitrary as youth is sad. I now look at my 35-year-old face in the mirror and think, This is what I was worried about all these years? This is an age I’ve dreaded? I was actually worried about this face, this body, this life?
My brother and I have a younger half-sister. She is a freshman in college and has a completely different set of parents than we had. Her mom, our stepmom, is the kind of involved parent who knows when your essays are due. Her dad, our dad, is a completely different man than he was when my brother and I were young. He’s softer, more empathetic.
Recently, my brother expressed some concern about our sister. An impressively intelligent and lovely person, she had chosen the impressively non-lucrative major of Latin, with an impressively esoteric minor in classics. “Should we talk to her?” he asked me.
My brother and I both made questionable decisions in our college careers; my brother spent five years at a private college earning an engineering degree. I hopped between schools for seven years before finally being granted a degree that I’ve never used in my professional life. We both graduated with debt. We both wish some mythical grown-up could’ve stopped us from doing all of this.
But what advice do I really have for her? Personally, I think she’s nailing it, life-wise. She’s pursuing a degree with a full-ride scholarship and successfully managing a class load that includes some difficult courses. She got a tattoo that I was relieved to discover was well-done and inoffensive. When I declined her request to buy her beer recently, her response was: “Of course. I respect that.”
The only advice I can give a girl who is wiser and better adjusted than I ever was is this: You will have multiple lives, and you will morph into many versions of yourself. It will never really be too late to start something, and you can quit almost everything you start. Your Latin degree might end up being a nonstarter in the real world, or maybe it won’t; so much of life comes down to luck. There can be more degrees. There will be so many chances. And no matter what anyone says, you will be young for a very long time.