Sandra Cisneros, a well-decorated Mexican-American poet, novelist, and short story writer penned a story that forever influenced my conception of age, and frankly, the way I perceive myself. It’s called Eleven, and you can read it in its entirety here. The most important thing about it is that she conceives of a person’s age and development as an onion, with concentric layers, or like a tree with rings. Like a tree, you’re never one age. You’re all ages that you’ve ever been, starting with the innermost core, and adding layer by layer, never discarding the previous renditions. So when you’re eleven, you’re also ten and nine and eight and seven and so forth. If you think about it, it’s a good explanation for why we can act like we’re five at thirty. Or twenty-seven at fifty.
Consider this: you’re probably the most difficult person you’ll ever have to deal with. The toothpaste in the sink. The flatulence in your car. The extra weight you carry just above your waistline. The degree you don’t use or never finished. All you. You’re X age and you still forget to brush your teeth sometimes. You let the trash pile up a bit in the wastebasket. You’re your worst enemy sometimes. That’s you. All you.
Just look at the amount of self help books in any book store. Self help groups. Therapists. Journals. Remember that the self help books share retail space with histories of wars, testament to our inability to figure out those relationships as well. But in the end, all you have is you. You know what they say: wherever you go, there you are.
Knowing that grown-ups aren’t grown up is old hat to me. Facing that with myself is excruciating, though. On Saturday I finally tromped downstairs to the parking lot with t-pins in hand to pin up the felt against the inside roof of my car. It had been flapping there for two years. It took twenty minutes to fix. I’ve spent far more than a combined twenty minutes putting it off for those two years. I exhibited the follow-through power of a 20 year old until I took care of the eyesore.
Quite recently, my best friend called me out on something. It hit me hard. I cried with the force of a seven year old who’d hurt her dad and only comprehended its depth after the fact. Furious remorse took the place of calm understanding of something that needed altering now and in the future. The calm came later. But only after the seven year old came screaming through like a poltergeist.
At the dunes in Destin, Florida last week someone asked if we should explore a path that was bathed in the light of Magic Hour — that golden light that filmmakers love that bathes earth for such a temporary time just before sunset. A canopy of trees ahead shone reddish gold for just ten minutes that day, and I saw it. A white path led into their depths, which were surprisingly black, deep, and inviting behind the jaws and teeth of the white trees that bent over the path’s entrance. I jumped up and down in the parking lot and yelled. It was as if someone asked me if I wanted to go to Sea World this weekend and I put my whole body into my “fuck yes.” Age escaped me, unavoidably.
This weekend, I found myself thinking about someone I knew a long time ago and admired. I damn near lapsed into a crush again as I tasted the memories. At this age, no longer do I crush on individuals. I understand the danger of decentering myself. I know that the catharsis will burn me like a weak acid if I sit in it too long. I know for a fact that I will have wasted my time. I kicked away the seed of irrational love that presented itself to me as a mirage. It’s that fast-growing fondness that is enjoyed most in your early twenties when you find many people and their mysteries still sexy and inviting. I know better. I scolded myself.
I angrily choked the complacency of just two years ago yesterday. I hate that version of myself with a shameful blackness and without grace. Yet it’s still “in me” enough so that I have to fight it with the religious fervor of an exorcism. Twenty-four months, twelve months, and six months erase nothing. The goddamned onion that Cisneros mentions must be real.
I still startle in response to danger when there is no danger anymore. I flinch. That was years ago. I’m here now. That was back there. There is no danger. No one is hurting me anymore, and I know it. Tell that to someone living with Post Traumatic Stress, or even bad memories. It comes from your gut. Time lines are inefficient in explaining why things seem out of place. We don’t experience life linearly. We only read about it that way. Again, the onion is undeniable.
I’m done trying to cure it, the onion. It’s not a crutch to explain bad behavior without fixing it. But it allows me, my own worst critic, a degree of humanity when I gaze upon my personal ineptitude. It allows me to understand real growth as opposed to arbitrary fresh starts that are never brand new versions of me in spite of my best wishes.
Eleven, like Rudyard Kipling’s If and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, along with advice from my best friend and other influential people will always be part of my personal canon of understanding that I carry with me. Most of the chaff has been sifted and I cling to these few things that seem like answers in a world that will never offer them. I love them. I know them well. They are my private parents and friends and cabinet of advice in contrast to the self help available for a price at the bookstore…. unpurchased, but rather gathered.