Updated: Jan 31, 2021
“There will always be children and there will always be old people. We spend most of our lives somewhere in between . . . but of course each of us is infinite.” — Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World
One. It’s August 9th and I’m flying home to see family. I’m congratulating myself on a summer well-spent in New York—I didn’t get fired from a job I liked, I watched Seth Meyers bake with Martha Stewart live*, I got better at telling my eating disorder (instead of my dietitian) to fuck off—and now I’m dreaming about all the things I can do back home and all the things I can do again when I’m back in New York City, too.
As the plane takes off, I lean down to grab my book when I spot a woman across the aisle flipping through a stack of papers herself. Pleasantly surprised to have found a fellow reading buddy, I stick my head out further only to make out the words: “CREMATION SCHEDULING POLICY.”
I look away, feeling sorry for her loss and sorry for my intrusion. I lean as far back in my economy seat as I can, which is to say not that far at all before the kid behind me starts pummeling back with his feet. I flip to page 194 of David Sedaris’s Calypso. I close my eyes, thinking.
Two. There are two pieces of advice I’ll remember from the summer. One was given to me by a co-worker, a South African whose dresses were the colors of canaries and earrings the size of her smile. I told her I didn’t know what I was doing next with my life; she replied me too, and I’m ten years older than you.
But that’s okay because
“Amy, careers are made of decades, not of years.”
You’re still so young at this point in your life that there’s not really a wrong choice. Do well to remember that and you’ll do well—whatever the choice is.
Three. I’m thinking, how strange it is that this woman and I are both on a flight home to visit family, except that everyone I’m seeing will still be alive.
Four. I’m thinking, I have been alive for a little more than 20 years now, which is a little over than 10,512,000 minutes and a bit longer than 630,720,000 seconds. If the average life expectancy for a US female is reaching 80 years, that’s about 31,536,000 “just a minute”s or 1,892,160,000 “just a second”s more I can ask for to reflect on the rest of my life—to pause and think and figure out just exactly who I am and
how are you and
what I want and
where we are and
where we’re going and
“You cannot stop your birthday from coming, so you might as well celebrate being alive.” — Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World
Six. I remember that “The Neptune Society” is the name of the organization providing the woman’s cremation services. I look it up when I get home and find that it is the “largest provider of affordable cremation services in the nation,” with “over 40 years of experience . . . in carrying out final wishes with dignity and respect.”
I may not run into that woman ever again, but I will run into the same questions I had as I sat across from her over and over and over… Questions about life and death, mortality and morality, dignity and respect.
“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all of its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story . . . not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole.” — Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
Eight. Between the peaks and valleys of youth and old age, I find myself one year closer to middle age.
But if life is one continuous story, it doesn’t matter what age I am, really, as long as I have reason to keep it going. And while perfect days make for bad stories, I’ll do my best to remember the ones where I feel like I’m on Cloud
Nine. Which by its very name is not a destination on Earth, but more like some ethereal happy place to be forever searching for. I guess that search is the part that actually makes for a “good story.” The part that makes us human.
But like any normal human, I’ll still daydream about Cloud Nines out there, because one day I hope to land on one after my own ashes are scattered by The Neptune Society.
Ten. It’s easy to daydream when you feel like you’re young and you have all the time in the world to regain what could be lost. Time, money, relationships, health, love—anything, really. Maybe being young is about being naive. Maybe it’s about believing our first-grade teachers when they tell us the sky’s the limit. Maybe it’s about still believing when we tell our own kids one day that they can be anything they want to be, too.
Eleven. And obviously we don’t have all the time in the world, but being young also means being bold enough to hit “snooze” once in a while, to take a deep breath and remove ourselves from contained chaos and realize that, hey,
“It’s nice at night to work puzzles or play board games or just hang out, maybe listening to music.” — David Sedaris, Calypso
Thirteen. Remember when turning thirteen was the biggest deal in the world?
Fourteen. The second piece of advice I’ll remember from the summer was given to me by Elizabeth Alexander, current president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, poet, teacher for 30 years, mother of two sons, and a self-prescribed “tough love” kind of lover.
We are having tea in her office one afternoon and I ask:
“What did you do to become a writer? How did you just decide one day that that’s what you wanted to be? Why?”
She laughs and tells me there’s no secret formula, really. Everything boils down to one simple belief:
“If you must, you will.”
And it really, really is—because the answer is so imprecise yet so specific.
It is a non-answer that prompts me to search for my own answers, not only for writing but for all those unanswerable questions of life that will keep me searching forever,
because I will feel like
Fifteen. The age I watched my sister leave for college and realized there was a whole ocean outside of our little fish bowl.
Sixteen. The age my eating disorder began eating me inside out. The age I began crawling into my own self-constructed self-destructive labyrinth.
Seventeen. The number of books I’ve read this year, eight of which touch on the idea of aging: Kitchen Confidential, Springs of Oriental Wisdom, The Catcher in the Rye, The Joy Luck Club, Unaccustomed Earth, Being Mortal, Infinite Jest, The Light of the World, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Calypso. The good, the bad, the ugly. The insightful. The nostalgic. The talk of “golden days,” a period they are telling me I’ve only just begun.
“It was that moment in a family’s life when everything is golden, literally. Our tans were phenomenal, but so was our outlook. Ranging in age from twelve to twenty-four, my brothers, sisters, and I gazed into the future and saw only promise.” — David Sedaris, Calypso
Nineteen. The age I started crawling the fuck out of that labyrinth. The year I finally felt what depression and anxiety feel like. The worst seconds of my life—and some of the best. Because they made me feel old and wise enough to finally feel young.
Twenty. I haven’t loved every second of life so far, but I’ve liked a lot of them and sure as hell needed the ones I didn’t to make me the 20-year-young I am now.
“Only” about 1,892,160,000 seconds left in my story.
I’m not too worried, though. I’ll be okay when some of them are just okay. I’ll even be okay when some are absolute shit. I’ll probably not feel okay, but that’s part of the story, too. All I can do is be present. Listen. Speak up. Cry. Laugh. Love. Dream. Act. And fail—really fail—so I can finally understand what success means when I keep going.
And also remember my story so I can write it and write it so I can remember it.
If I must, I will.
“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.” — Zora Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
*thank you, Nisarg, for sharing your Late Night with Seth Meyers tickets with me.