Friday, October 05, 2012

Futures and Pasts

The author, 26, exactly a decade ago
As you know, I don't believe in alternate universes. But I do believe in past selves. Well … I don't believe that past versions of myself exist somewhere and are either doing the same things I once did or new things because that would be believing in alternate universes, and you won't catch me that way. Uh …

Let me back up. I believe that there exist remnants from each "era" of our lives within our psyche/spirit/soul in the present. They may represent a span of years or one year (or six months or less), but they are all part of the mix. They aren't separate psyches because that would be multiple personality disorder. These are just tendencies/quirks/beliefs/habits that were born of another time in our lives and for whatever reason have largely gone unchanged up till this present second. They may never go unchanged. I don't know.

For example: Sometimes when I lie down, I like to press my head into the nook of the couch arm and back and really just — erf — snug it in there. It's pleasurable for some reason. From what I learned in childbirth class, a baby in the normal birthing position sits upside down in the pelvis with his/her head pressed against the mother's pubis bone. Maybe this tendency of mine goes back to the womb and its warm comforts. I'd kind of like to think it does.

Now, now, now … you say. Is our present behavior just a second-to-second juggling of past selves bursting through, asserting themselves? And if not, what exactly are the "new" characteristics of our current self and how did they come to be? Are they more evolved responses from the past or newly created behaviors in response to brand-new situations? What is the self, for that matter?

Hey, I don't have all the answers. But I truly believe something — no matter how small — remains within us from each past period. With that in mind, lately I've thought about what my 26-year-old self — that guy in the picture above — brings to the mix. See, today is my 10th anniversary of living in the city of Chicago.

Many of you reading this have lived here longer so maybe it's not so impressive. But for me, I've never stayed in one town or city for such a span. I've been milking the circumstances around my moving here for a while on the blog, I know. Well, you can consider this the final chapter.
Oliver Cromwell, Protector of England

I'm not a religious person, but 2002 is the closest thing I've experienced to a rebirth in my life. And in many ways, 2003 was even more important. All the superficiality, vanity and self-centeredness I'd embraced in the years before began to melt away. Oliver Cromwell — who was terrible for my Irish ancestors — was said to have felt much the same thing when he found god in his 30s (in the 1630s).

I've always thought him an interesting figure, but I can't claim that what happened to me was quite so emboldening — you know, to make me ride into battle believing god would prevent me from being killed. I just began to act more like a real person and not a poser, as I'd been since I was 18 or so, in varying turns.  

Of course, it wasn't easy. It was probably the hardest year of my life. And that's why I believe my 26-year-old self helps me today when I'm called upon to endure something painful, particularly if it's psychological.  

At 36, having been in a relationship for so long now, the memory of being a single man in my 20s fades a little bit ever year. But I can still say with certainty, despite this erosion, that living as a young transplant in a big city is hard. I'm not just talking about dating and all that. I mean buying groceries, making dinner, paying bills, doing laundry. The necessities. All by yourself.

Even just walking the streets. I recall the low-level pathos that laced the solitary trips to the super-shitty grocery at Rockwell and Division. Heading down Division to the Rainbo or Gold Star, beyond the Roberto Clemente High School baseball field and alien-shaped St. Elizabeth's Hospital, cars passed but people were absent — and this was often before midnight.

I've read the writing of others who've described these very same feelings in these very same places, so I know I wasn't alone. It had to be a combination of a time in one's life and Chicago itself.

But I can’t lament my circumstances at 26 too much. Like other places I've lived as a young adult, I fell into a ready-made social situation when I arrived, surrounded by many great people right off the bat. Somebody up there surely likes me. What I had to face instead were things inside myself — things I'd been running from since I was a teenager. Things I still face today as I write this.

My nerves were so raw back then, and I forever was on guard for the next episode, paranoid something I was doing in my behavior or diet would bring on new suffering. It was a gauntlet I had to endure to mature, get better, find myself — whatever you want to call it.

I wonder if all young people go through this in their 20s — even those who look like they have everything together. Most around me in Chicago back then seemed to be in the same boat — searching for something, unsure, often failing. Each in their own way. I'm happy to report that we all at least survived.

In August 2003 I was about to turn 27. I remember sitting on the extremely small second-floor porch outside the coach house on Cortez, working on my very first play. There were sunflowers in Bill's backyard below me that had started to wilt, and the birds were picking the seeds out of their centers.

Carl Yastrzemski, LF, Boston Red Sox
At that moment I felt like an adult for the first time in my life. Maybe I was influenced by something I'd read around then, that a psychologist determined true adulthood starts at 27. This idea was backed up as recently as yesterday, by Robert Pinsky in his essay on how he and Carl Yastrzemski both separately decided to truly commit to their crafts at that age.

By 27 I had a full-time job in my field, a writing path and a serious girlfriend. Did those things make me an adult? I don't know. I believe it was a deeper change, not like a switch flicking but more a solidity that welled up from my very center, permeating all my cells. It felt good. And I couldn't have gotten there without 26.

When things get tough nowadays — thankfully much less than they used to — my 26-year-old self gets me up in the morning to go to work, help around the house, take care of my kids, and generally keep my feet moving instead of lying in bed, broken apart.

He's there when I need him — see, he had it much harder. But he also did a lot of things he never dreamed of, in a place he never thought he'd live. And because he stuck with it, my life has become a thing of great wonder and beauty. Thank you, 26. Cheers.

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