Every morning I watch the commuters on the train. The demographics are varied: mostly business folks and college students, with a few rough looking individuals lightly peppered throughout the journey. Eye contact is minimal as everyone jockeys for a seat. Those relegated to standing grasp the yellow bars and focus on their iPhones and Kindles. The green line comes every 15 minutes, and while I am never on the same commute time each day, there are always plenty who get off at the 7th Avenue stop and head to their cubicles and offices. Those who are lucky enough to have a window can absorb the natural light. The rest of us catch glimpses of it when we pass by those more important than us on the office food chain.
Walking down the path towards the looming state office building, side by side with real employees, makes me almost feel like I belong there. My ID badge looks like any other state employee badge, and my business cards bear the state seal and my job title and department. It is not a job, however. It is a VISTA assignment. A lightly paid (when the government isn’t shutdown) full time volunteer position.
I have been doing AmeriCorps for three years, and I loathe to admit that out loud. When someone asks me about my terms in National Service, I feel the need to explain immediately why I’m a third year alum. I usually say something quickly like, “Yes, this is my third year, but it’s a long story.” I’m older than everyone in my program except for one, and I’m older than three of my “colleagues” on my floor.
I am one year into my thirties, and dealing with the reality that this is not where I thought I would be at this state in my life. Each day I ask myself:
“Self, where are you going, what are you doing, and who the hell are you?”
Self responds with something snarky, like:
“You are too old for a quarter life crisis, and you certainly are not the 21st century’s answer to self-important existential philosophy.”
Snapshots of my inner-monologue aside, these feelings of uncertainty and insecurity are particularly acute on weekdays. During the aforementioned morning commute, I look at the students with envy and just a hint of resentment. Last fall I was in the throes of applying to the PSU Graduate School of History. I also applied for every scholarship, assistantship, and mentorship I could find. I told myself from the day I decided to apply that if I did not procure funding, I would not go, as I am already indebted to the federal government and Sallie Mae for my undergrad, and it would not be prudent to take out more loans for a graduate degree that would only take me places had I been awarded one of those additional positions. In February, I learned I was denied the mentorship. In March I learned I was accepted into the department. In April I learned I was denied an assistantship. Such is life. I kept my word, and chose to forgo graduate studies.
This fall, in addition to watching the students head to college while I head to my VISTA assignment, I also feel jealousy towards those adults on my commute who appear to be heading to a legitimate, paid, and benefits-laden job. When I was accepted into this recent National Service program, I was actually incredibly excited. I chose to make a career in public health after I accepted the fact that my dreams of life-long nerdgasm as an author and history professor would not come to pass. I thought that getting into a state VISTA program would be my proverbial golden ticket into the workforce. Then something unexpected happened: in the past week the department in which I am housed has gone through a major upheaval, and everything, including my assignment, is in question. I do not have any job security right now, and it is a terrible feeling that reminds me of my vulnerability as not just a National Service member, but as someone living in an uncertain world of government shutdowns, office sharks, endless foreign wars, and a country so divided I wonder if it will the extreme gap between parties will ever begin to heal.
Not helping matters is the insecurity I feel being one of the oldest amongst my AmeriPeers. Older and wiser folks like to tell me that “everyone has their own path” and “you are almost there.” My mom tells me, “You were delayed because of your cancer. Really, it’s like you are only 28.” Does that mean being 28 and single and career-less is more socially acceptable to society than the same at 31? I think not. It is hard for the ego to be the one person out of my close friends who is both single and career-less. So many people around me seem to “have it all” or be very close to getting there.
I suppose “it all” is entirely subjective. For me, it is a career I love, a faithful, honest husband, healthy children, being debt-free, and having a roof over my head that has my name on the deed. This is what I thought I would have at 31. Instead, I am in my third year of AmeriCorps, living at home, and the only deed that bears my name is my car (which I own but did not purchase myself), and the old bat isn’t looking too hot these days. Blacura has turned into a bad Toby Keith song. “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” This is what plays in my head as I try to keep up with my current love interest while he is driving his car, the make and model of which I will not name, except that the slogan is “The best or nothing.” He likes to drive fast. #showoff
(On a side note, I like to think that he also applies that quote to our relationship. “BC: Have the best. Or, have nothing, and then die old and alone playing fantasy sports.” #Kidding.)
(But I digress.)
I do understand that I “have it all” in the ways that matter most: food, shelter, income, a wonderful family, great friends, and my health is (mostly) in tact. I know this on a fundamentally rational level. However, when do we, as humans, operate on a rational level 24 hours a day? My emotional side takes over more often than I would like, and I feel particularly insecure over the fact that “it all” feels to be so far out of my grasp, especially considering that two men have used my AmeriCorps service as an excuse to break up with me. Both of them are moving full steam ahead in their careers and saw my lack of a salary, high earning potential, and a baller 401k package as a hindrance to marriage/kids/whitepicketfence. It was as if I, and my future career success, were only being defined by my current AmeriCorps service, and therefore I am not good enough because I am behind our peers.
Shortly after the first breakup, I discussed the AmeriExcuse in detail with one of my best friends. He explained to me that the right man would want to be with me for me, not for my career; he will want me to be happy with what I am doing and will support me on my journey to get there. My friend said that if his lady friend wanted to quit her job as a veterinarian and begin a knitting business, he would say, “Great, what can I do to help?” He ended his rant saying that my ex could eat a bag of dicks. (Okay, maybe that last insult comes from me, but that is neither here nor there in this story telling process.)
When I heard the AmeriExcuse from the second breaker-upper, I kept my friend’s words in mind, and did my best not to let it cut to the core in the same way. It stung at first, but I did not let it fester. That is, until the recent office upheaval. When shit and fan collided at work last week, I began to wonder if I should be attempting to find that forever person when I am still in transition. What do I really bring to the table, if I am not bringing a sense of financial security in a world where people are now asking about credit scores on the first date? (That has never happened to me, but I read an article discussing the increased frequency in which that question is asked and how the answer can make or break your chance for a second date. Egads.)
So back to asking self-important questions, like: what do I bring as a 31 year old living with her parents who now has a boy haircut and is AmeriCorps-ing for a third year in a row? These are the things I know: I bring a lot of sarcasm, because there are not many things that make me as happy as an incredibly witty, well-played comment. I’m a smart, sometimes funny, usually stubborn, non-athletic, clumsy, wine-drinking, coffee-chugging, filthy sailor mouth having, atheist cancer survivor who needs to remind herself of her better qualities when she is using sarcasm for the millionth time not just to gain a laugh, but as a defense mechanism to keep people at an arm’s length away.
Sarcasm has been my bead and butter for the duration of my post-cancer life. I think I developed my sharp tongue after being at the mercy of doctors and treatment protocols. Something about not having control over your life tends to make you snarky and quick to point out life’s absurdities. However, one year into my thirties and I am learning something about myself, my sarcastic nature, and how that plays into my relationships. Humor is important to me, and if I feel like someone’s sense of humor isn’t inline with mine, I know it will not work out. I need someone to with whom I can banter, point out life’s ridiculousness, and laugh for hours, the kind of deep belly laughter that makes your abs sore for days. I need someone to poke fun at and get the same in return.
Then I came across this not too long ago:
“Show me a sarcastic person and I will show you a wounded person. And I can tell you where their wound is, too.” (original source unknown)
I thought a lot about this quote, and have concluded that there is a fine line between sarcasm and wit, and it is one that must be tread carefully. Sarcasm is too often used as a means of hiding how one really feels, and I am increasingly aware of how often and with whom I deploy my army of sarcastic words. I have built up a little wall around me, like one of those invisible fences for dogs. I move forward until the warning bell goes off, because if I step any further, I have the all too real potential of being zapped.
I believe that something happens to us as the remains of childhood slip away: we become aware of the caustic world in which we live, and that impulse to show another person our soul begins to fade. We get hurt and collect baggage. As Florence* so beautifully put it:
And I’ve been a fool and I’ve been blind
I can never leave the past behind
I can see no way, I can see no way
I’m always dragging that horse around
In adulthood, something funny happens. As we become aware of the harsher realities of life, we form a vision of perfection to which we stubbornly cling, which allows us to shelter our souls from any potential storms. Doing this sets the dangerous precedent of being too afraid to allow yourself to love what is imperfect, which is our only option in genuine love.
The scary thing is this: Letting yourself love imperfection means you allow yourself to accept another person for all of their flaws and faults. It means you love and cherish them despite what renders them perfectly human. To do means you are also placing yourself in a position to have your own flaws and faults exposed, judged, and ultimately used to make a decision about whether that person will also love you back. To set aside your dream world is to let go of whatever fantasy you have held on to that protects you from life, because to hold on to fantasy prevents you from ever living reality.
So, what is my reality? (I know, again with the existential questions. I’m like an older, female, but equally annoying, version of Holden Caulfield.) My reality is that I ride the train every morning with commuters, students, and the occasional “what is that guy doing up at this hour? Did he even go to bed last night? What is that smell? Is that HIM? Oh god, I think that is him. If I move, will he know I moved because of him? I don’t want to hurt his feelings, but I think this might turn into that Seinfeld episode where the funky stench followed everyone who sat in that car, and I don’t want to walk around smelling funky.”
(Again, I digress.)
My reality is that I am a third year AmeriCorps member. I am 31, I am not broken, and I need to keep pushing forward. I can remain haunted by the words of lovers past and present, or I can realize that there is someone who will accept me for all my good and bad. One of life’s scariest experiences is dating someone, because there are only three possible outcomes: you get rejected, you are the one doing the rejecting, or you promise to love that person forever in front of your friends and family, after which you get to dance and eat cake.
So I will keep riding the morning train with everyone else who probably has the same hopes and fears as I do. Maybe they are asking themselves the same questions that I ask myself every day. I will learn to let go of envy, because my life is not to be compared with others. I will continue walking into work in order to build a career that I am proud of, a career that is meaningful and successful. I will begin to do the scary relationship thing and really let my defenses down in order to have that day where I get to dance and eat cake with my forever person. I will do all of this, because it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back. So I’m gonna shake him off.
*Florence and the Machine, “Shake it Off”