The Transformation of the Mind
There's something that has been on my mind for some time...middle age. Not the reality of it, which is inescapable unless you tragically expire before hitting those years, but the actuality of it. And what I mean by that is the process of middle age: the transformation from young adult to middle aged. That limbo state between youth and the golden years.
I see it as a transformation of the mind. We humans go through these from time to time. There is a time, for example, that you stop thinking with the mind of a child and go into that limbo state known as the teenage years. You're not really an adult yet, but you're not a child, either. You begin to think about the future in concrete ways, which differ greatly from the gossamer concept of the future that a child possesses. As a child, the future is this almost unreal concept, this time and place where you don't have to sit in the corner when you do something bad and you can decide where you want to live instead of being taken along by the adults in your life, the ones old enough to make these decisions that have so much bearing on your young existance. The idea of work is practically foreign; you think about "fun" jobs like being a firefighter or a cowboy or a teacher. Wouldn't that be nice, your child-mind says. You could be a dancer or a policeman and you'd never have to eat spinach again!
And then that first, crucial transformation into the teenage mind-state. You get your first job and realize that work is, in fact, WORK. The idea of money and bills becomes a reality. Those "fun" jobs of childhood begin to look like a lot less fun: firefighters and cops risk their lives, modern cowboys are hard to come by and teachers get paid next to nothing in our backwards, modern society. College becomes this obstacle to overcome before true adulthood can take place for so many of us. And how to pay for college is, for far too many teens, the real obstacle in their path. You begin to consider your options. Is trade or beauty school for me? How about the military? Am I creative enough as a writer/singer/dancer to make an actual living out of it or will I be condemned to live in my mom's basement as a result?
But far more important than the concept of your financial future, to my mind, is that other change that occurs in those adolescent years: the creation of your own personality, values and morals, seperate from your family, teachers, friends. I believe this transformation to be of the upmost importance, but you'd never know it from a look at how we as a society teach and speak to children. The emphasis is always on career and money. What do you want to be when you grow up? If you want to go to college, start on those prep classes now! And just how do you plan to support yourself, young man? I hope you're prepared to get rid of that hair, missy, if you want to make it in the corporate world!
And all the while, the teen struggles with issues that will affect their lives forever, but these struggles are overlooked or pooh-poohed by the adults around them. Or worse, made to seem completely unimportant. Ridiculous, isn't it? This is the transformation of the mind that is so very painful, because it's the first. And worse, you're not your own person yet. You still must live by the guidelines and mores of others. And too often, those others don't give a damn about your struggle. They tell you the most ludricuous things, like "these are the best years of your life!" I remember hearing that at 15 and thinking, "Oh, shit, I hope not." Who in their right mind would want to live those awful, painful, stressful years over again? Talk about torture.
But let's go back to those issues. Being a teen means questioning. Are my parents right? You wonder. Do they follow the right religion? Do they have the right political values? Do they feel the same way I do about sex, drugs, parenting, morality? And if it turns out I don't agree with them at all, how can we still respect each other and be a family? Does creating my own set of values means losing them?
It's a rough go. Everything you took for granted once, you can never do so again. Beyond remembering this for myself, I am now seeing my own 15-year-old go through it. My own set of cultural values insist that I not interfere with him. He must find his own way, as will his sisters after him. I can share my way, my views, my heart...but he must go where his Path will lead him. My job is to love him no matter which Path he takes.
My father, who has the same culture I do, did not even try at that task. His world is very black-and-white: his way, or the highway. I don't know why he chose to disregard his own upbringing, his ancestry, in this matter. I don't think I'll ever know. I'm not even sure HE knows, at this point. I do know that when I began that transformation from child to teen, it was made very clear to me that I went his way, or I could fuck right off. There was no doubting that certain Paths, should I take them, meant that he would disown me. His love was absolutely conditional. He could not love, for instance, a gay child. That would never happen. Acceptance meant, in his mind, that we accepted HIS way. He was under no obligation to accept ours, and had no inclination do so. This is reason number one on my list of why I live 2500 miles away.
My mother was cut from a different bolt of cloth alltogether. She always made it clear to us that her love was unconditional. When, during that teen transformation, I chose to look the way I do...my father was outraged. He forbade photos of me to be displayed in his home. I was not permitted to go to certain family events. I was unacceptable, and therefore, outside his ability to love or even tolerate. My mother, on the other hand, simply shrugged her shoulders and said, "If this is want you want, I want it for you." Ironic that I learned truly what the Cherokee belief of noninterference with another's Path, even your own child's, meant from my Irish mother. I don't think I could have survived that transformation without her, because as it happened, my Path took me as far from my father's as one could go. My values and beliefs are, in almost every instance, opposite from his own. It has made a relationship between us strained at best, nonexistant at worst. We're sort of in the middle at the moment. And that's probably where we'll always be.
And so, I am taking my cues from my mother in so many ways. I think about how accepting and supportive she was during my teen transformation. I miss her so very much, words fail me in an effort to articulate it. Especially as now, I am going through that second big transformation: middle age.
When the teen transformation happens, there are a lot of pitfalls along the way. Lots of big, big mistakes to be made and learned from. We as a society accept this...it's why teenagers are still considered children and their liability is limited as a result. We all went through it, and most of us survived it. So there's a certain level of societal empathy at work, and safety nets in place to help along the way when needed.
Now, the middle-age transformation has some pretty big pitfalls associated with it as well. The big difference is that you're on your own this time. No more safety nets. You're walking that tight-rope for real. And this time...more than just your life and your happiness could be at risk should you fall.
We all know what I'm talking about here: the dreaded mid-life crisis. This happens when the transformation is too much for some people to take. The idea that their youth could be over frightens the hell out of them. So they take grand measures, silly and transparent measures which will absolutely make them the butt of a million jokes, to stave off being old. Men buy tons of Rogaine and Viagra, hit the tanning beds, buy tight pants and a convertible. Women get breast implants, Botox, mini-skirts and the next tanning bed over. It fools no one. Yet, it doesn't stop them, either. And while we all laugh at the 40-year-old schmuck with the bad hairpiece and the brand-new Harley who's hanging out at the club...we all know that those middle-aged pitfalls carry with them, for some people, some serious falls that can ruin lives. They have affairs, they get divorced and split the kids up between them. They re-discover their old college buddies, Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, and end up looking up that ladder with 12 steps. Depression, drug addiction, gambling. And then, as if all that weren't enough, Bad Health shows up at the party. And why does it do that? Because partying and carrying on like an idiot is best left to people who still think turning 30 makes you old. Doing it at 40 can ruin your life, your spouses' life, your kids' lives. Not to mention ruining your liver.
And worse, they affect that transformation of the mind, that change in the way you think and the way you see the world. Bitterness comes to roost. You start thinking about that old song, "I knew the truth at 17, that love was meant for beauty queens." How devasting those lyrics, when your breasts have fallen victim to gravity and your first wrinkles have shown up just in time to watch your husband of 20 years take off with a 20-year-old who wasn't even born yet when you had your first date.
I have friends who have been divorced, once, twice, even three times. I see the pain, the emotional toll of it. And I remember how it feels to be a kid when your parents split up. I was unusual, in that I was relieved my parents were getting a divorce and I still count it as one of the best things that happened in my childhood. But I have siblings, and it wasn't a great thing for some of them. I'm not going to discount their experience just because I happened to go the other way on it.
That bitterness a few of my friends and family are feeling...I am not immune to it, just because I'm still married. It seems that a lot of people seem to think that if you don't have a mid-life crisis or you don't go through a divorce, you don't really have a transformation into middle age, as if there must be a catalyst beyond simply getting older. I disagree strongly with that.
And if a catalyst must needs occur...am I not going through my own? My MS is progressive now. I am losing my mobility, my independance. Pain and struggle are a daily occurance in my world. How can that not affect the way I see the future as it stands for me? How easy, to become bitter...as easy, perhaps, as those who have those more traditional catalysts of divorce and heartbreak.
We all go through these transformations...all of us except, of course, the terminally immature. You know who I'm talking about...the people who still act and behave the same way they did when they were in high school. It's all a big episode of "90210" for them. They are exhausting to deal with. In most cases, I choose not to do so.
But for the rest of us, that standing on the line between young and old happens even to the happiest of people, the most stable and most successful. It's how our soul develops, I believe. It's how we experience the human experience. Without these times of self-reflection and soul searching, of questioning and seeking, without those...we aren't really human at all.
In my culture, we believe that wisdom can only come from experience and age. We revere the Elder. I'm not saying that every person of elderly age is wise...I think we all know that isn't so. But our best shot of gaining that wisdom still comes from living life, and learning from the triumphs as well as the pitfalls.
So to my fellow compatriots, looking back on the life youth gave us and looking forward, with some anxiety and some anticipation, to what being older will give us still...I ask you to keep one thing in mind: we can survive it.
And besides, with all that Viagra...it's a lot easier to survive it than it used to be.