Am I grown up? I have been asking myself this question for 40 years, since I was 17. At that very young age the question was mostly rhetorical — of course I was grown up: I had graduated from high school and was headed to a big university; I had a driver’s licence and could navigate Los Angeles freeways; I wore make-up and high heels with regularity and reasonable sophistication; I had finally ditched the wash-and-set hairstyle preferred by my mother and let my hair curl at will. I was doing me by degrees, and every degree was thrilling, all I imagined grown up would be.
Even as inevitable disappointments and unwelcome lessons of adulthood piled up, the initial teenage thrill of striking out on my own never left. Even when I got roadblocked by depression, the vision of a path leading up to my own cosmos hovered in the background of my life, beckoning, reminding me why I was here at all. It helped that the soundtrack to this vision was always the glittery disco beats of my adolescence — Dancing Queen, Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, Ring My Bell, Sky High.
Me Generation view of life
Not everybody thought this worldview made sense. Older black people, those who had powered through segregation and the move from the South to Los Angeles, were almost puzzled by this Me Generation view of life as an occasion to fulfil yourself. When I was in my 20s, a great-uncle asked what I was doing these days. I sprang into detail about some writing projects I had in mind, courses of study I wanted to pursue and why. He nodded and said that was all nice, but in the meantime maybe I should apply for a government job. “Benefits,” he said, in the same solemn tone that Mr. McGuire said the word “plastics” to Benjamin Braddock, the college graduate in the movie The Graduate who was trying desperately to figure out his future.
Sentiments like his were making me wonder (usually when depressed) whether striving toward maximum selfhood was immature, a way to deflect adulthood rather than accept and embrace its dictates. The fact was, I could afford to deflect it more easily than most because up until the age of 38 I hadn’t acquired the usual markers of responsible adulthood, chiefly a husband and kids. (I did marry at 38, but we never had children.)
For a long time there was no one and nothing in my way, no compromises to make daily between my life and someone else’s. But this could be disorienting — if I wasn’t acting grown up, who could tell me? What if my outfits were ridiculous but I failed to see it? These doubts always passed, like storm clouds, and I re-emerged embracing the solitude of being single and the joy of having a room of my own.
High school reunions
My version of grown up is not the version lived by most of the people I went to school with. This has become increasingly obvious at high school reunions, which I’ve attended faithfully since my class held its first one, the 10-year, in 1989. Back then I was hitting the dance floor while people sat at tables sharing keychain photos of babies and toddlers. By the 30-year, those babies were in college or working; at the 35-year, the shared photos were of grandchildren, taken on smartphones. I was still hitting the dance floor and earnestly singing anthems like Ain’t No Stopping Us Now. Classmates joined me, and some busted admirable moves. But it was clearly nostalgia for them, a nod to a time when they were unencumbered and fabulous. I didn’t have any nostalgia because I was still trying to get to fabulous, still trekking that upward path to self-realisation — I was a writer, but still not the writer I always imagined myself to be. For a lot of people my age, that path of exponential possibility has long been beside the point. Other people are travelling it now.
I’m now 57, and the 40-year reunion of my class of 1979 is this month. I will go because I’ve always gone, because for me, unlike for many other people, high school was the best time of my life, the most formative with the most lasting effects. I will dance, in an outfit that probably could be worn by a 30-year-old, if not a 17-year-old. Am I grown up enough? Somebody will have to tell me if I’m not. Or maybe they’ll follow my lead.
Erin Aubry Kaplan, a contributing opinion writer, teaches writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles