The Definition of Growing Up

In honor of LOST, an amazingly brilliant show that is . . . sigh . . . in its final season, allow me to take you on a time warp. We will travel back to 1996 when I was 15 years old in Auburn, California, laying on my stomach in my front yard and daydreaming of what I thought my future might look like. I was propped up on my elbows with an old beach towel underneath me to keep all the microscopic bugs in the grass at bay. The dry, all-encompassing heat of this July afternoon was slowly fading with the bright orange ball that was angling itself toward the horizon line, and I was perfectly shaded by the large oak tree above.

The view from where I was perched at the top of my front yard was like a visual masterpiece. There was an acre of lawn that sloped down into a grassy hillside and was ideal for things like Slip ‘N’ Slides. At the bottom, it flattened out into a large expanse bordered with pine trees that each carried their own unique story. My mom once told me that they had actually been past Christmas trees belonging to the family that first owned and built our home. Each year they would buy a tree, decorate it, sing around it, arrange presents underneath it, until it became such an important part of their memories that they could never bring themselves to just toss it into the garbage can come January. Instead, they surveyed the front yard, located the perfect spot, and dug a new hole for it to take root and grow and continue its place in their lives.

To the left of the lawn were my neighbor’s horses grazing in their pastures; to my right were a different neighbor’s cows and possibly even goats. The goats were rather unpredictable; you never quite knew when they would show up, give a little bleat, butt each other gently, and then prance off again. Directly in front of me was the yard of yet a different neighbor who lived across the street. These neighbors had a shallow pond that was usually the home of a flock of ducks that took a liking to it.

I really wasn’t kidding about that whole visual masterpiece thing.

And I would love to say that I appreciated every single moment of it, as I do now, but when I was younger, that simply wasn’t the case. On that particular day in 1996, I was actually dreaming about what my life would be like once I finally got out of this tiny little town, once I got to experience the excitement and the energy of living in a city. There I was, every bit as blonde as I am now, wearing cut-off jean shorts and pink plastic jellies on my feet, journaling intently and trying to conjure up some sort of image of what my life would be like when I grew up. I wasn’t sure of all of it, of course, but I was pretty certain I had the next fifteen years of my life down pact. From the dreamy, idealistic recesses of my 15-year-old head, here is the future I envisioned for myself:

I would break free of what I thought of as a boring town, go to college somewhere in Los Angeles, and do very typical Southern California things, such as rollerblading on the beach, and eating at hip restaurants with funky music and cool decor. In college, I would quite likely meet my future husband. I especially looked forward to the prospect of this as a freshman at Cal State Long Beach, a school whose student body alone is roughly three times the population of Auburn. Naturally, I would meet the man of my dreams in college, and then we would graduate together, or at different times, depending upon his age. Because I would likely be finished with my BA by the age of 23, I imagined that Mr. Wonderful and I would continue dating for a few years, post college. We would start our exciting new careers and then perhaps marry at the tender age of 25.

I always thought 25 would be the perfect age to marry when I was a teenager.

Then the hubby and I would enjoy our first few years of marriage, travel whenever we could, and save up to buy a condo. Best-case scenario, I would be pregnant at 27 and have my first baby at 28. That was as far as I got in terms of planning my future, and it was literally the way I thought my life was destined to be. The timeline seemed so perfect—airtight, if you will.

And yet, here I am.

I will be 29 in only a few more months and I am not married; I have neither kids, condos, nor a full-time job with benefits, and because of my massive deficiency in all of these categories, I decided, about 4 months ago, that it was indeed time to “grow up.” Time to relinquish my status as a full-time student and start pursuing that ever-elusive career. Time to be responsible. Time to have a bit of stability in my life.

But how might I do that? I thought long and hard and landed on the idea of teaching English at a private high school. It seemed a perfect fit. I didn’t have a credential, but I did have a Master’s Degree and experience teaching college. I even found a company that specializes in staffing teachers at private schools throughout the West Coast. I did my research, drafted an eloquently written cover letter (with the much needed advice of my mother and sister-in-law, that is), and added the finishing touches to my resume. The timing was right, the stars were aligned, and my official application was only one click away. Except, I couldn’t bring myself to send it.

I had literally been waiting to do this for the past four months because I knew the schools wouldn’t start hiring for fall until around February. I had been planning and talking about it and anticipating it, yet something inside me seemed to be urging me not to go through with it. Call me lazy, call me irresponsible, call me Peter Pan if you really want to, but in my heart of hearts, I think I’ve suddenly realized that I am not ready to grow up in the way society expects of me.

It hasn’t exactly been an easy pill to swallow since going against the crowd is something I have always struggled. I’m one of those people who strive for smiles and happiness and butterflies, especially in my human relationships. I dislike conflict and often dive headlong into my mediator role the second I detect any disagreements between friends, classmates, or co-workers. Like a detective, I get out my magnifying glass and hunt for ways to calm everyone down, as though it were my sole responsibility.

My other self-imposed responsibility is maintaining a constant state of peace within my own personal relationships. Many would call this a noble under-taking, and on some levels it is, but at other times it is done more out of panic than anything else. You see, I don’t usually have conflicts with other people, and on the rare occasions when I do, it feels a bit like wearing an ill-fitting jacket. Someone else’s jacket. Rather than admitting that it is something I chose to buy in haste without trying it on, rather than getting creative and looking for ways to alter it and make it fit, my initial reaction is usually to fling this coat off and throw it in the fire. And then run while it burns. Out of site, out of mind.

See, now we’re back to happiness and butterflies.

Over time, this sort of behavior has slowly seeped its way into my decision-making process, which at certain moments, causes me to make decisions simply for the sake of making other people happy. For example, wanting to have a full-time job because that’s what real adults do. Wanting to have a life that looks like everyone else’s just for the sake of looking like everyone else.

Yet, the irony of this is that my life never has been what you would call conventional. I wasn’t married at 25; I was teaching English in the Pyrenees Mountains of France. At 27, I wasn’t pregnant with my first child, but I was finishing up my MA and starting to teach at the university where I got my two degrees. If anyone had told me when I was a freshman living in the dorms at Cal State Long Beach that I would one day be teaching at that very university, I think I would have died laughing.

Nope, nothing about my life has been conventional. So why start now? Teaching high school full-time can wait. The sixty-hour workweeks of grading, lesson planning, attending meetings, and calling parents can wait because right now, I’d rather keep my part-time, no-frills, low responsibility jobs simply because they will allow me the time to continue working on my writing. And a full-time teaching job won’t. At least not for the first few overwhelming years of it, anyway. I have enough friends that are high schools teachers to know that this is true. It may not seem like a very grown-up decision to some, but in my own unconventional way, I think it is one of the most grown-up decisions I’ve made in years.

And if my life really was an episode of LOST, and I could travel back in time and talk to that fifteen-year-old girl laying on her front lawn and dreaming about her future, the one thing I would tell her is that she shouldn’t be afraid to have a lot more imagination.