I don’t do transitions very gracefully. Like life stages, or moving into unfamiliar territory. I usually muscle through them, or I ignore them, shirking from reality as long as possible. Or I free-fall with zero preparation, hoping for the best. Not bad strategies when combined and used appropriately.
But it’s all so tiring.
And here I am, entering another one, middle-age. Sure there are road maps, my parents, my friends. But lately I’m inspired by some recent findings on human growth and development.
A brand new life stage is now being recognized, called emerging adulthood. It spans the years roughly between eighteen and twenty-five, on the heels of adolescence, and before marriage and children. My kids are right in the middle of it.
There is always new research about our brains. It was once thought that they stopped growing at around ten years old. Now, it’s generally accepted that they may not finish maturing until we’re into our twenties. If they ever do, I say.
Typically, we’re branded adults at eighteen, and expected to be completely independent by twenty-one. But this new generation wants more time to figure things out – to travel the world, to try out new, creative endeavors. They just want some space to grow.
They are individualists, but schooled in cooperative learning. They’re well-informed, and see things through a global lens. Raised in the shadow of the Twin Towers, they have witnessed perpetual war, all fought on foreign soil – experienced, for the most part, through their digital screens.
Faced with a hyper-competitive, labile economy, they distrust the notion of job security. So they are much less likely to settle into one career. Instead they’re inventing new, more flexible models for work that they are passionate about.
And they are profoundly disappointed in how we’ve destroyed the environment.
Amazingly, they are idealists. They are grounded, capable problem solvers, dedicated to community service and activism. They’re committed to fixing the broken world they’ve inherited.
These aren’t just my observations, it’s well documented.
And this leaves us in a fundamentally new place. Because our kids are developing later, and we are living longer, we’re gaining bonus time together. And whether they’re actually moving back home or not, we can share notes.
Because they are staring into the wide abyss of adulthood at exactly the same time that we are transitioning into the maw of middle age. Both of us are delving into periods of upheaval and shifting identity.
Both of us are experiencing the uncomfortable peeling away of the thin, protective layers, the wrappings around our tender larval selves, that we’ve grown so comfortable living in.
And I believe that, like theirs, our adult brains keep changing too. Not necessarily the hard-wiring, but the software – it’s constantly adapting and evolving.
I can’t remember the three meals I wrote down for the grocery list, but I woke up from a dream this morning where I was delivering a monologue onstage, memorized from a play I was in as a teenager.
I forget the password I’ve created just seconds before, but remember exactly the words my daughter used for lightning, when she was two: light-wing.
Information comes back to us in ways unique and strange. Stuff gets filed away, to be used later on when it becomes weirdly relevant.
But we still cling to the old growth charts to mark our progress, against some ideal, and against one another. We give too much credence to basic physiology. We want to pass through every childhood stage first, and to slip past adolescence quickly, and then, weirdly, to revel in a state of perpetual youth.
Growth is so much messier. The penciled ruler marks on my kitchen wall don’t tell the whole story at all. First off, that yardstick says, the first one in the ground wins. Kind of true, but I don’t really like that story so much.
Life stages are less a straight edge and more like a spiral. We’re continually overlapping, wandering through a labyrinth of growth lines, and revisiting the past. Junior high school is still with us.
I have a memory of coming home after school in seventh grade, exhausted, depleted from trying to act mature. Obsessing, dreading what lay ahead in eighth grade. But knowing it was inevitable, ready or not. I felt ill-prepared, immature – like skin peeled too soon from unripe fruit. Too tender to be out there in my knee socks with the girls wearing hose.
Maybe that’s why, years later, when I taught yoga, my favorite group was middle school. When the students came into class, I recognized the vibration of hormones and cortisol, thrumming the air around their exhausted, stressed-out bodies. I knew they spent their entire day worrying, judging themselves, feeling exposed.
But something in them was so alive, so fresh, and struggling to break out, like the blemishes erupting through their shining faces. Their fearless creativity, their dissonant perspective, was so raw and vulnerable, and so powerful.
And when they lay down on the mats in child’s pose, I could feel them sink deep into their perfect selves, into their safe interior chambers. A place they didn’t have to be hard and critical, where they could trust their bodies. Where the only thing measured was one deep breath into the next.
We are all transitioning between life stages – we’re all tweeners. And we have more in common than not.
We’re caught in this mysterious interface between our aging bodies, our life experiences, and our brains. But we’re wild improvisations, not tightly scripted stories.
And so I’m back to stories. Where I always seem to begin and end.
I wake in the night with them, they’re sometimes troubling, often bittersweet. But I always listen. Because they’re vivid memories from the past, ready to be re-read. Or they’re a germ of an idea for the future. And I believe they come to rest on my pillow exactly when I need to pay attention.
But some days, they feel more like closing doors, like time is running out. That I’ll never accomplish the things I might have. That I’ve struggled just living day-to-day, being grateful for the small gifts, but it hasn’t added up to a whole lot.
Shouldn’t maturity at least bring a measure of acceptance? Yes and no.
My son said to me recently, No one gets out alive, Mom.
My sweet little sunbeam. I thought he was being completely dark and cynical. But it was part of a conversation about how he believed humans will eventually become extinct, just like every other living creature. And that ruining our environment might just be part of the necessary, evolutionary plan. Or something like that.
Anyway, he seemed upbeat about it, and he meant it in the most positive way, like it’s a no-brainer that we’ll destroy everything and all die off. And that we are arrogant to think otherwise – but no worries.
See what I mean about them?
But that’s just it. It’s not a race, and it’s not a competition. And we live like we have forever, but we don’t.
And I remember, during that conversation, all I could do was laugh hysterically. I don’t know why, fear probably. Nervous laughter. Abject horror that I’d created such a monster. But I just thought it was funny. Life and death kind of funny.
Because laughter is my go-to, preferred strategy. Better than avoidance or serious contemplation. Effective in every tight spot, every tough transition. It might seem feeble and inadequate, or an inappropriate response – but it always takes the pain away, at least for the moment.
And it still hurts, but there’s a little bit more room to breathe.
Like my yoga students, at the end of class, on their backs, in the final corpse’s pose. Their favorite pose, but also the hardest. To gently surrender to the weight of muscles and bones down into the mat. To release into the cradling earth.
Discovering the deep silence that is never completely empty, but waits, beneath the skin, to germinate, to rise. And letting go of self-consciousness, and the fear and the pressure, and simply accepting. It takes courage to be so vulnerable.
And afterward, I loved seeing them stir, peek at one another, and rise up slowly from the mat, like trampled grass springing back. And they’d sigh deeply and slouch back to class, the lesson of corpse’s pose toted along inside of their bodies.
We were learning to trust the spaces between the inhale and exhale. Where repair and new growth actually happens. Not in active poses, but in stillness.
In spirals, borne on our breath, in each tiny moment, swirling through us. In circles, in waves and webs and electrical currents – through coursing blood and pliant bone.
Not in forward muscle movement, with reaching and striving – but in release.
These days, I think about those kids, and the emerging adults in my own family, and their way of approaching things. Quirky and original, dark – but with a sweet, off-beat sense of humor. They’re brave.
And I want to be just like them as I grow older, as I’m measuring out the time I have left, simply one moment to the next.
In and out, one deep breath at a time.