I have recently begun to engage in behaviors that cross that internal dateline between “child irresponsibly allowed to own property and vote” and “adult.” For instance, I recently purchased a coffee table, one made of actual wood with an actual grain. It will be replacing two Ikea particle-board tables I got from a classmate for free in graduate school and set up side-by-side in front of my couch. Hey, context is everything, and context said those two free, black laminate step-up-from-overturned-milk-crates were a coffee table, okay?
Buying real furniture, of course, is not a cause of adulthood, but a result; I now have income sufficient to spend it on nicer things to bark my shins on in the dark, and I’m choosing to spend it on those things rather than beer and vintage Star Trek memorabilia. It’s something else entirely that signals the real, internal shift into true adultitude.
That, dear reader, is not giving a flying fuck. Allow me to explain.
I was what one might call an unfortunate adolescent. I grew to my adult height at the age of eleven and stopped, leaving me with no real comprehension of where my suddenly ungainly limbs were in relation to the rest of my body. I had the self-consciousness of the newly pubescent, which, somehow, resulted in my choosing to wear a wardrobe composed entirely of baggy, elastic-waist jeans, sneakers which I had colored in with gel pens, and white cotton turtlenecks. I also developed a then-undiagnosed illness which caused me to drop 20 pounds and develop bulging eyes, a goiter, (which was, of course, referred to by my classmates as an Adam’s apple,) and hair roughly the consistency of a really well-used broom. Because middle schoolers are constantly about fifteen unsupervised minutes away from cannibalism, none of this escaped the notice of my peers, and they were vocal about their opinions. If I could have developed a super power of my choice, it would have been invisibility, and I wouldn’t have minded it if had been permanent.
In short, I cared what people thought about me. I cared a lot.
I spent the next decade or so rehabilitating my self-image and doing what growing up is all about: figuring out who the hell this person I was stuck as really was, and her place in the order of the universe. Over time, the confidence of finding my strengths and making true, lasting friends grew, and I stopped spending my time worrying about whether I fit in just right. But underneath that, I still cared what people thought, and worked hard to be what they wanted. I learned to straighten that bushy hair, and started wearing a uniform of real jeans, better t-shirts, and shoes that looked like they did when I bought them. I chose a few, safe ways to express myself: I wore big, dangly earrings, and bold, black liquid eyeliner. But I was still very attuned to the feelings of people around me. Did they think I was funny, or weird? Was I too loud, or too quiet? Was I talking too much about nerd stuff?
If you think this story ends with me letting my freak flag fly, dyeing my hair purple and getting a face tattoo, let me realign your expectations. I work in an office: the kind where open-toed shoes can earn you a raised eyebrow, let alone a non-standard hair color or visible tattoos. And nor am I advocating for abandoning the chains of society for the anarchist freedom of solitude! But what I’ve come to realize, and what I think marks my move into this weird world of being an adult on the inside is this: There’s a difference between playing the game and making it your life. Being an adult is knowing when and how to “fit in” without slicing off bits of your real self to force it into a puzzle that wasn’t built for you.
So I do what I have to do. In the spaces that require it, I conform. But I never, ever, try to squash the things that set my heart on fire.
Because it doesn’t matter if it seems like no one else gets it. First of all, it’s a big world: someone out there shares your passion for deconstructing the gender paradigm of Middle Earth in the context of 20th century race relations. Second, who cares if no one else understands? When you’re no longer thrown into the shark tank of primary education, you can start to find the people who actually see what makes you wonderful. Even if they don’t quite follow exactly why Sam Gamgee’s nurturing subservience parallels the mammy archetype of the American South, they’ll see your passion, and love you the better for it.
So, being an adult, really, is knowing that you’re allowed to take off the mask; you don’t have to wear it until your face changes to match. Care just enough to get what you want and do what you’ve got to do.
The rest of the time? You don’t have to give a single, solitary fuck.