When I was nine, I couldn’t wait to be in my twenties and all the question marks that entailed. At that point, most of my ideas around being an adult came from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Adventures in Babysitting. People did real-life things in their twenties, like had boyfriends and jobs and cars and stayed up way past 8pm. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I knew I wanted to get there fast. Freedom of choice, late nights, making memories, finding trouble; I couldn’t wait for the future adventures of awesome adult me.
In my thirties, I referenced my twenties like they lived next door. I’d start a story with “A few years’ back…” and later realize it had been ten. I had my first real ma’am in my thirties, where a pimply-faced worker bee scanned my face for way too long before deciding I was old enough to be ma’am-ed. I considered slashing his tires to prove how young and dumb I was, but I wasn’t that young and dumb, so I didn’t. I worried about 40 for the first time and I guess being somebody in what was now a shrinking time frame. Girls at parties said, “Oh my god, I didn’t know you were [whatever age], I thought you were [a much younger age]!” It flattered and annoyed me, these plucky young women who thought 38 was ancient and 25 was some kind of prize. I wouldn’t do 25 again, not for a lifetime supply of cheese. Was age even really that important?
In my forties, I started wondering out loud if age was really that important, and was met with mostly silence and eyerolls. I talked about my twenties with part-awe (how am I still alive after so many bad choices?? oh, me!) and part-wistfulness (remember when I could wear heels?) for all the things I thought would happen but never actually did. No older French lovers, no artist retreats, no picking up at a moment’s notice to travel the world and have adventures or explore the countryside, wherever that was. I never did – not once – ayahuasca in the jungle with Tom Robbins or some other literary giant. None of these things happened because 1) I’m not a blond chick in a movie and 2) I was too busy barely surviving. I was broke and also broken, or at least in the process of breaking, and not for the first time. I bumbled my way through that decade, making lovely people cringe and simple things harder, never knowing what direction to go in. So far, this is what I remember most about my twenties.
My friends in their fifties and sixties often distance themselves from Ye Olde Twenties of Yore with “Oh, that was ages ago!” It was some other life they survived, a life before kids and gluten allergies and professional reviews, before the real heartache and overly-complicated stuff of humans. “Back when I could rock a bikini!” “And I could still eat bread!” “Remember that insane girls’ trip to Mexico?” “We didn’t know how good we had it!”
Then: “God, that was a thousand years ago.”
Some of them credit their twenties for all the good life stuff that followed: college, marriage, kids, a business — their bulleted accomplishments began in that decade. Others dismiss it as misspent youth and a graveyard of mistakes. Many distance themselves without knowing it, putting an invisible barrier between the 20-year old they were and the 60-year old they became. See, I’m not that person anymore. I am actualized. I’m still in the process but play to my strengths. I’m responsible. I’m a grown-up. I have children in their twenties. A once-silly story takes on heavier perspective the older one gets. “Remember that time we went to Mexico and met those random guys and partied all night? Then we lost Jen? Oh my god, so fun!” turns into “We went to Mexico without permission from our parents and we were very lucky nothing bad happened. Your Aunt Jen almost died. My god, we were so dumb!”
I imagine our twenties can be both – so fun and so dumb. My twenties were the decade I gave birth to my son (something good) and also hit the bottom (something else). Life kept going whether I wanted it to or not. That’s something I realized in that decade: life only has one gear, and it’s forward. Keep moving or get left behind. I learned that the hard way which, incidentally, is also the way I do life.
When I’ve listened to my mother, aunts, and friends in their seventies talk about their twenties, it’s like they’re visiting an old friend who makes them laugh: wistfully, appreciatively, deeply. There is much gratitude over being past some those teeth-cutting challenges – navigating new marriages, baby-related sleep deprivation, working hard and being broke – but a yearning for other things like sleeping in, the energy and ease of young bodies, the late nights of wine without acid reflux, sweet memories of parents still living. Most of the people I know in their seventies are eyeballs-deep in grandparenting now, and bathing in that big-love connection most littles bring to a growing family tree. New blood always gets the old blood pumping.
My over-80 friends – yes, I have some of those (everyone should!) – brag about their twenties. The things they lived through, the naughty stuff they did (always qualified with “It’s nothing like it is today, but back then, this was scandalous!”), the huge responsibilities men carried at wartime, the huge responsibilities women carried at the time with very little power. No distancing themselves from foolish acts or daredevil decisions; if they remember it, they relish in telling me all they got away with.
In truth, the stories are less about actual trouble – since trouble is a moving target, depending on the era and its technology – and more about how carefree they felt in that particular body, whether it was in a military uniform or their mother’s wedding dress or a bathing suit at the lake. There were also a lot of things they did back then that you can’t do now, like smoke in a hospital or get drunk on the job or segregate the races. The women say “You don’t know what I had to endure just so you could work, or vote, or go outside without a bra.” Still, I ask them to tell me because someday, I’ll pass their story on to other women so we can all know – in our brains if not in our bones – what those who came before us did to make the world bigger.
I wonder why our twenties are this barometer for so many things. Some friends lament over all the stuff they didn’t get to that somehow seemed twenties-specific — drugs, oat-sowing, wacky road trips, hot pink hair. Others remember it as when they were young, fun, and blissfully unencumbered. Most people use their twenties as a comparison point: I wouldn’t do that, I’m not in my twenties anymore! Maybe if we were in our twenties. Oh, to be 22 again…. Much of it is marked by the things I didn’t do: Didn’t finish college. Didn’t find meaningful work. Didn’t stay married. It’s this worn, static canvas of my earliest battles, mostly with myself — which is exhausting to look at, if you’re me.
Is it the beginning? Is it the marker for when our lives actually begin to take shape? You acquire shelter, a job, a couch, a sex partner; you make food, watch movies, pay taxes. You’re in the constant acquisition of people and things that say something about you and sustain your human growth. You’re in the process of becoming, and we put a lot of energy into that process. People call you a person, and so I guess you are. But what is a person, really?
…I can hear my philosophy-degreed husband rubbing his hands together with intellectual glee, gearing up for a circular lecture on the meaning of personhood. SAVE YOURSELVES.
My twenties have always been something that I distinctly felt like I did wrong. I rejected the becoming part and stayed fairly stuck in my own shit. I’m curious how I will remember and speak of them when I am older — in five years, in ten years, at the end. At 41, they still seem like a decade of pain with some fun stuff mixed in — a time where I learned a lot about myself, and survived the most challenging thing of all: me. I hope someday to speak of my twenties like they’re an old friend who makes me laugh. I hope they don’t feel like ten years of failure for the rest of my life.