When I was a smallie, I always thought of being a grown-up as a finished state, a perfected art, no more polishing, no more learning. I thought of this in a good and a bad way: The good was that I would feel settled, secure and done. The bad was that this state was unchangeable, and if I happened to cross the threshold into Real Solid Adulthood at a time of sadness or difficulty, that I would be stuck like that to the end of my days, like a scrunched up face locked in place by a vengeful wind. This worried me, Little Me, but I was lucky to have school years that were mostly bearable and sometimes even joyful, twenties that were deeply compelling and interesting, and I always had confidence that far surpassed my abilities, which kept my spirit buoyed.
In recent years though, for various reasons, that confidence dwindled, ebbed away, and distilled itself into a small and ever-receding pool. Youthful confidence is boundless or non-existent, it rarely falls in between the two. I was either crippled by doubt or defiantly steadfast in my ambition and correctness. As age crept up, though, so too did my need to pause and question before an action, and so grew my hesitancy.
A great love of mine, a great comfort at difficult times, was my ability to talk to strangers. Not always in a deep way, but just to chat at a supermarket till or in the nook of a bus shelter on an October evening. Like my mother and her’s before her, I see it as a gift; a love of conversing, of sharing, of offloading. For someone with a troubled heart or mind, it is a moment to break a pattern of constant, compulsive thought. For someone with a happy mind, it is an opportunity to engage joyfully with the world around them. For me it was both. Even now in moments where I feel a need to be alone, to be silent, I never begrudge another the ability to greet me or strike up a conversation on a bus or a plane. I know their need, and it is more often than not one of seeking joy or seeking comfort, and I would deny neither.
In these recent years of confidence-ebbing, I found these moments became less and less common for me. I questioned myself before talking, I found doubt in conversations with strangers, fear in moments that had previously brought communion. Part of it came from living abroad, from feeling unstable in a foreign language or accent, but part of it was also the approach of Real Solid Adulthood, of thinking “this is the way adults behave, and I am an adult now.” Adults have difficult things that happen to them, and they are stoic and silent because of these things. Adults carry on about their business and adults manage their turmoil deep in their bellies, which actually isn’t really managing it at all.
After a job change that was rather a large kick in the arse, and the death of my Dad, which is one of the largest kicks in the arse you can get to be fair, I felt resigned to this new way of behaving. The Alice that spoke to people, who was excited to tell and hear new things, to be open and enthused, that was an Alice of youth, and that time was over now, and I was ok with it. I often pondered it, sat quietly thinking how funny it was that these swathes of our personalities could just disappear but this was what Little Me had prepared me for: That Adulthood would arrive, and the shutters would descend and that would be that.
I became, in a way, stagnant. I don’t mean this as an airy metaphor. I literally moved less. My presence stilled to a sluggish heave. I drank more wine, I ate more food, I became slower, a drawn-out lurch towards hibernation, but this was what adulthood was, wasn’t it? You moved less, you became more proper, you dealt with those things, those huge life-changing things that everyone said you’d never get over and you just never got over them and that’s why I was how I was now. That’s how you were, that’s how people were. Those losses, those pains, those devastating blows, why *would* you get up in the same way after them? I would live now under their shadow, like I always thought I would, but it was funny all the same to see it happen, to watch such a bright colour get erased from my palette.
The good things in life went on, of course, still love, still food, still family and friends, still travel and books and song, but that sense of outreach, that sense of a stranger as a friend continued to wane. More doubt and more anxiety crept in to quiet corners, and I stiffened myself mentally to bolster against it. I was trying to keep the same measures, the same surroundings, and the same reactions and just carry on through whatever was happening, this adjustment to adulthood. No pausing, no stopping, just carry on, keep going and get it dealt with.
Time, (as much as I fucking hate a cliche), truly is a healer, and also an oracle, a beautiful witch, a blessed God. As much as I tried to carry on with my normal way of doing things, I came to a point where I knew that progress was only possible through change, and that for me, change meant a pause, a stop, a calmer approach to life. More focus, more reading, more routine, and more normality. I knuckled down to work I love, went back to studying, and began to move. I ran clumsily again, I did yoga despite not really being able to touch past my knees, and I swam and spent hours in rotisserie level saunas. I dunked my head under water and held my breath, reacquainting myself with my own silence. I began to run faster, and with more ease, my lungs becoming less of an enemy and more of an engine. I stopped drinking, and started to try to listen when my body was high or low or tired or riddled with anxiety. I just tried to be, in me, in that moment, with myself and whatever was surrounding me. I could only do this recently, to have tried this even 6 months ago would have been as unthinkable as flying to the moon.
Three days ago, I went for a run during the day, sweaty and difficult on a freezing North Sea promenade. Afterwards, I stopped for a coffee in a little shop near a circular green lapped by trams. As I sat at the table, my glasses steamed up from the welcoming heat, I began to chat to the waitress, we laughed and pinged snippets back and forth, and when she walked away, a woman sitting in a far corner acknowledged me, and we smiled at each other, glad of our place in a warm and cosy spot on a freezing day. Glad of each other. My gift has come back, my ability to interact, and without even realising it I fixed myself. A chat to a stranger as glorious as a sign from the heavens. A “hello” is a blessing.