We’re scrambling out the door for school.
It’s the first day back after the winter break and my third-grade son Quinn is lamenting what awaits him. “Ms. Palmer says we’re going to have to write everything in cursive this semester. I don’t want to do that!”
I look at him and say, “Well, buddy, you love art, and writing in cursive is like turning your handwriting into art. So just try to make your writing beautiful.” He looks at me as if I’m crazy and says, “Your handwriting isn’t beautiful.”
Which is when my seventh-grade son Aidan breezes through the room and nonchalantly offers this on his way past: “That’s because he’s an adult, Quinn; he traded beauty for functionality a long time ago.”
For most of the world, the age of majority—the age at which adulthood legal begins and childhood legally ends—is eighteen. But oftentimes childhood ends way earlier than that. Because the dividing line between childhood and adulthood isn’t a legal distinction.
The dividing line between childhood and adulthood is an unfortunate trade.
Aidan’s comment hurt not because it was hurtful but because it was truthful. Somewhere along the way, I traded beauty for functionality. I traded presence for planning, wonder for work, and playfulness for productiveness. It was a slow trade, over the course of a several years. But by the time I was in the fifth grade, lying awake at night, itching the anxious hives on my legs, reviewing the errors of my day and planning for the perfection of tomorrow, I was already as adult as adult can be.
At some point, most of us make the trade.
The exchange can take many forms: mystery for certainty, tenderness for protection, vulnerability for violence, bravery for safety, love for infatuation, compassion for competition, joy for jest. Its guises are infinite, but the effect is always the same:
We think we’re growing up, but really, we’re only growing old.
Several months after Aidan’s observation, I’m standing in the post office. The intervening months have been filled with intense functionality, as I focused on the successful launching of my first book. Now, I’m mailing off a copy of Loveable to someone, and I’m rushing because I’ve sandwiched three important phone calls into the next two hours.
And the post office isn’t functioning the way I want it to.
There is only one man ahead of me in line. But there is only one employee, as well. And she is more concerned about the man’s story than she is about certifying his mail. He starts talking about his dogs. She asks lots of questions. He gives lots of answers. She’s getting distracted by his stories. He sees no problem with this. Me, though? I’m seeing red.
But I don’t want to see red.
In grade school we had a rule: no touch-backs and no trade-backs. Well, I want a trade-back. I want to trade functionality back in for beauty. I mean, for crying out loud, right here in the middle of a post office, one human being is showing genuine interest in another human being, and the other human being is feeling so loved and cared for that he’s unfurling his story for her. It’s completely dysfunctional, in the best sense of the word. It’s utterly beautiful. And I want to slow down and embrace it. So, I wonder to myself, how did I wait in line when I was a kid?
Then, instead of seeing red, I see yellow.
I’m not sure where the memory comes from, but suddenly it is there. I’m standing in line at the local Dairy Queen—just a small hut with two windows for ordering. I’m no older than six. The lights overhead are yellow to keep the bugs away, but the bugs congregate anyway. Their buzzing mingles with the buzzing of the bulbs. While we wait, I put my hand around one of the metal support poles. It’s slimy but it doesn’t occur to me to worry about germs. Instead, I begin to spin slowly around it.
I smell the sweet promise of ice cream wafting from the hut.
I feel the warm humid air of a summer that stretches out forever.
I see sticky stains on the ground and I try to step on them.
And I spin. I spin in circles, going nowhere fast, returning to where I began, over and over again. I spin. I spin inside the mystery. I spin inside the wonder. I spin inside the beauty of an utterly ordinary evening. I spin…
I see yellow, as the postal worker waves me up. We trade smiles.
Because I know the trade I really want to make. My kids have been showing me the truth of it for thirteen years now: true adulthood is not about being more grown up. True adulthood is about growing young again.
True adulthood is the best kind of trade-back.
True adulthood is a second childhood.
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