I’ve started and stopped several End of/Beginning of Year posts in the last week. First, I was going to do one of those decade-end roundups, the first one I’ve been cognitively-aware enough to engage with. Something about those lists, though, leaves a strange taste in my mouth, so I decided against it. Then, I was going to talk about how this Christmas was one of my calmest ever, and realized in beginning to write about it that I wanted to write about narrative (like I always do) and about the stories we tell about our consistency and our progress as people. We are so desperate not only for a story about growing up but growing into ourselves. These are the stories we tell on decade recaps, especially in this decade of tumult and crisis.
We are so desperate not only for a story about growing up but growing into ourselves.
So, my Christmas. It might have been the calmest I’d ever had. This is the case for many reasons, one of which was particularly bittersweet. I am no longer a child, and my Christmas joy is no longer the axle around which the dreaded seasonal wheel turns. Staged gift-openings and tree-trimming and stomaching miserable sips of eggnog because holy shit there are raw eggs in there are no longer required of me. At the same time, I fret less about “ruining Christmas,” by being insufficiently happy, a worry which inevitably resulted in me being –– you guessed it –– terribly unhappy. Every year, the festivities would yank me by the neck and lock me into a joy I wasn’t ready for, performed both for myself and for others. It has only been since coming to college and becoming an adult that I have stopped going to my grandparents’ house to trim their tree. Even at sixteen, my participation in the ritual was mostly for their benefit, not my own.
(And that’s what’s exhausting about Christmas, isn’t it? That it’s all for someone else?)* That’s how it’s been for me. When I was little, one year, I had a piercing headache, and told no one for what felt like an eternity. I had an unreasonable number of gifts to open and didn’t want to disappoint my family members –– all oriented around me, watching my progress –– by asking for a break.
This year, however, was its own kind of break. On the 25th I went with my parents to my grandparents’ house, and we drank water or coffee and my grandfather mutedly crunched a soft, spherical mint and we gave each other gifts, from each other and not from Santa. We were like adults. We are. And that’s why it’s all so bittersweet –– because I’m twenty-one now, and all my birthdays from here on out are supposed to make me sad, not happy. I’m supposed to be growing up and away, leaving pieces of myself behind as I progress to what’s being called my “next chapter.” But who’s writing?
When I first came home for winter break, my nightlight was dying. This is not a metaphor. My ceramic sheep nightlight shoots white light from five holes on either side of its fluffy-looking body, glow far softer and more limited than the night lights I grew up using. All my life I’ve been either afraid of the dark or uncomfortable enough in it to warrant letting light in while I sleep. This is still somewhat true. But in the last week, the bulb has burnt out and I haven’t replaced it. My shades are partly up, letting in the moonlight, and I’m finding it’s all I need.
In 2010, I was either just about to get, or had just recently gotten, the white furniture set I still use today. I thought I might be “bicurious,” a word I knew from Glee, and was terrified of my own interest in girls. I myself was a girl, inasmuch as anyone can ever “be” a gender, which is to say I felt like I was a girl because/and important people like doctors and the government agreed with me. I had just turned eleven and was in the seventh grade. In 2012, in a wild confluence of events, I took the entrance exam for my private high school while sitting beside the girl who would become a close friend of mine for years to come. That summer I had written a “manuscript” whose length I was incredibly proud of: a story in vignettes about my OCs and the first single project I had ever written to reach over one-hundred pages. I had for years been deep into research on Asperger Syndrome, which was a disorder until 2013, and then magically evaporated because medico-psychiatric discourse said so. I found all that hysterically funny. In another novel, we’d call this foreshadowing, and the author a bit heavy-handed.
In another novel, we’d call this foreshadowing, and the author a bit heavy-handed.
There were other things, too. There was my reckless promise at age fifteen that I would never live at college, said by phone from China, my first overseas travel destination. There was my second “long” manuscript, longer than the first, this time relentlessly fixated on body horror. It was in my high school years that I cultivated an increasingly-knowledgable hatred of gender, medicine, psychiatry, and the state, through both academic inquiry and daily experience. I discuss in my thesis the same painful politics I observed with fascinated confusion ten years ago, falsely assuming that truscum were an “internet thing” and that all the trans people magically got along. I became an adult in these years, in a way totally separate from age. I was fourteen when I realized I could only speak about myself in someone else’s language, that a stranger or strangers could bruise me without touching at the mere utterance of a diagnosis, a pronoun, a word. More a set of realizations, these were sometimes embodied and sometimes thought, though I suppose everything is a little of both.
It’s easy for me to look at all of the factors in my life, many of which were governed only by circumstance and chance, and locate there some essential part of me. I could point to my young-self and say, there’s a proto-queer and proto-writer and budding academic that hates the very structures/strictures that make the institution of academia hum. It’s not that saying these things is wrong, exactly, but it is turning my life into something it isn’t: a linear narrative, something that fills its imagined promises. Everywhere I look I see people marking out the decade as if having fulfilled some existential quest that 2010, by its nature, brought forth. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last month, it’s that we all want a coherent story of self, but also a glow-up story, one of magical and radical transformation into who we truly are.
We want to make up (for) lost stories about ourselves.
Narrative guides like astrology (sag/cap/cancer) and personality tests (enneagram type 1; INTJ) are some of the worst culprits of this. Astrology perhaps combines it best: your exact spacetime of birth suggests your personality and predicts your future. In a world in which truth feels –– and is –– an unstable thing, and without irrefutable proof of why we are the way we are, why we want what we want and do what we do, we look to the stars or to online quizzes. We want to make up (for) lost stories about ourselves.
Adorno criticizes this brutally, likening the use of astrology and similar practices to fascism. I don’t think that fascism is any more inherent to astrology than writing is to me, and I’m suspicious his anti-essentialist critique doesn’t account for its own reductionism. Still, however, astrology and other shorthand narratives do tend to take the disparate pieces that invent ourselves and homogenize them, and more than that, claim to have birthed them. Suddenly I am curious and long-winded because I am a Sagittarius, because I somehow contain a Sagittarian essence that made me so. Suddenly, I have always been a writer, and my stretch back through the decade is in fact an act of mining for proof. Likewise, when my nightlight dies and I finally do not replace the bulb, I am suddenly fulfilling a story of growing-up that I have been told is inevitable: this is the same logic that undergirds fears of “regression” when adults sleep with stuffed animals.
In reality, I’m a lineage of people who perceive themselves to have experienced the same thing. I’m not the same person, glowed-up. I’m a whole new set of cells that shares a memory and little else with the old set.
Linear narratives of my life would have me “growing out of” my nightlight and my homesickness, tacking gender, sexuality, neurotype, and course of study as movements toward a truer self and as progress away from childhood during this decade, in which I have been a child, a teenager, and an adult. In truth, though, I’ve just been me, which is to say, I’ve been no “one” at all. I’ve been a bunch of disparate people whose only stable likeness is a shared memory (flawed as it is) and who, in the absence of anything else to hold me together, feels inclined to make those decade-wrap posts in which I talk about myself like we’re one person. In reality, I’m a lineage of people who perceive themselves to have experienced the same thing. I’m not the same person, glowed-up. I’m a whole new set of cells that shares a memory and little else with the old set.
I still think Adorno was a bit too hard on astrology. I still use it as a way to make (sense of) myself in the shadow of an anti-essentialist politic. Without an essence, quasi-spiritual, nonsensical approaches to what makes me “me” are all we’ve got. Perhaps I’m also being too hard on year-end lists, or even the framing of one’s life from an author’s eye view. After all, the latter is what I’m doing now. At the same time, I’ll be glad when December turns to January, and January to February, and we will stop inundating each other with lists about the pasts we lay claim to, decades we’ve passed through but still attempt to hold.
Happy New Year!
*That was not intended to be a reference to Jesus, Christianity, or any other spiritual/cultural “reason for the season,” but if the Santa boot fits?