I’m in the back room of my mother’s house, the house I grew up in. I like this room because one wall is almost entirely made of windows, and I can look out to the hills lined with eucalyptus, the dry summer grass now the color of lions. When I was in college, I would stay in this room when I came home for summer break; I liked waking up and seeing the hills that looked to me like Africa or Australia.
Ten years ago, as a new college grad, I remember sitting in this room, wondering what I was supposed to do next. I had done what I was supposed to do up to that point: I had gotten a college degree, even if it was an English degree from a half-assed northern California state school that specialized in training people in forestry and marine biology. Now what? Nobody had told me what to do next. And an English degree hardly points you in any specific direction when it comes to finding a career, or heck, even just a job. I sat on the floor of this room anxiously reading the want ads in the paper, and the ads for vocational training schools, wondering if I should go back to get a certificate in something useful, like home health care. I even went so far as to call one of those 1-800 numbers for some computer-skills training school that promised I’d be gainfully employed and earning six figures within two years. I remember feeling full of despair. There were so many choices, and not enough information; no real boundaries to the rest of my life. How would I choose what step to take next?
Now here I am, back in this room visiting my mom for her birthday. The summer fog is slowly starting to lift over the yellow hills. And, like 10 years ago, I wonder what to do next. I’ve come further, done more of what I’m supposed to do, although not everything. I stopped short of getting married and having kids. But still, I have a career, such as it is, I have a house, I have a 401(k) plan, and health insurance (such as it is). Now what?
I’ve always envied people who have some passion in their lives, something to wake up to, something they’d do without question if they didn’t have to work. Play music or create art or write books or help elect progressive political candidates. I’ve never really had that, or at least not consistently. Probably the closest I’ve come was when my ex- and I were collaborating on book projects that I thought were truly historical. History ignored us, but it felt monumental at the time.
Before that, I had a boyfriend who broke up with me partly because I didn’t have a creative outlet that I was passionate about. He was writing a novel and plays, and had a myriad other things that drove him. I didn’t. I enjoyed a lot of things, but there was nothing I felt like I just HAD to do, no matter what. After we broke up, I spent a few months trying to force myself to discover a passion. I tried writing, and wrote every day for a little while, waiting for some masterpiece to reveal itself. I had always written, even trying my hand at short stories, but somehow never ended up finishing anything. I didn’t have the compulsion to write, the way all the writers I know do. Then I decided I’d be a freelance nonfiction writer, something I’ve always wanted to do but never had the commitment to get started. When I didn’t have the attention span for that, I decided I’d be a painter, and painted a few canvases that are still hanging in my bedroom. I was going to start a web page, a magazine, learn how to be a graphic designer, be more politically and socially active. But nothing really took. You can’t fake passion – at least not that kind.
I gave up on that, and instead found a career, formed and ended relationships, met people I call my friends, tried to be a good friend/sister/daughter/employee/citizen, searched my soul, bought a house, learned to drive 20 years later than my peers. Now I’m here, a grownup who gets regular physical and dental checkups, with a mortgage, a retirement account, and three weeks of paid vacation a year. So now what? There are no more developmental milestones to look forward to and no secret creative passion to fall back on. I don’t know what to do next. Do I just keep doing what I’m doing – work, garden, take care of the house, hang out with friends and family, read a lot of books, worry about money, do the requisite soul-searching and self-improvement when appropriate, occasionally travel, sleep, then get up and do it all over again? Is that why I did what I was supposed to do, for all those years? It doesn’t seem worth the effort.
I feel pathetic whining about not having enough in my life, when I have so much, have been so lucky, have worked hard and been successful in many of the ways our culture measures success. I’m not rich, but I have a home and food and a comfortable bed; I’m not a Barbie doll, but I’m not bad-looking; I’m no jock, but I’m fit; I’m no social butterfly, but I have some good friends. It’s true I’m single, but I’ve had dry spells before. I should just revel in what I’m lucky enough to have, right? But humans need something to strive for, even if it’s just the next expensive trinket from Apple or the next raise at work. And when you’re not interested in trinkets, a raise would have to be pretty stupendous to make much of a difference, and you’ve chosen not to go the same route as the majority (well-paying career, nice car, marriage, a home in the ‘burbs, kids, summer timeshare, paid-off mortgage, grandkids, retirement, death), when there are no magazines or cable TV stations for your particular demographic, then what? There’s nobody to point the way; you have to make up your own way. And I have to admit, right now, I’m not sure what that way is.
When I tell my friends this, most of the time they try to tell me that I’m really doing OK. That there’s nothing to worry about. They reassure me that I’m all the things I want to be – a concerned citizen, a good friend and family member, creative, aware, living a balanced lifestyle that I can be proud of. People I respect respect me, imagine that! Maybe my friends are right, and I should quit bellyaching, but usually I just feel like they don’t get what I’m saying. It’s probably why I’ve become practically obsessed with finding a romantic partner; I’m looking for something ‘out there’ to challenge me and make me grow. Something in my life that’s not predictable, someone to teach me things I don’t know and maybe don’t even want to learn.
Maybe it’s the 7-year-itch, with 3 years added (I’ve always done things a bit slower.) Maybe it’s whatever comes between a quarter-life crisis and a midlife crisis. Maybe it’s that damned Mercury in retrograde again. Maybe it’s repressed anxiety masquerading as a crisis. Maybe it’s normal.
Ten years ago, sitting in that back room at my mom’s house, I despaired of ever figuring it out. And I was wrong. Now I just have to trust that I’ll find a way through again, that my new path will become apparent the way it did back then. Maybe this is the lull, the time I’m supposed to sit with what I’ve been lucky/talented/hardworking /aware enough to have earned for myself, and appreciate it against the inevitable times when things will be harder. Hopefully the path, whatever form takes, will be apparent enough for me to take the opportunity and follow it, and in another 10 years I’ll be sitting in another room, thinking about how much I’ve changed, and wondering what my next adventure will be.