All the Ages I’ve Ever Been

I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be. This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages – the delayed adolescent, the childish adult – but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide.

Madeleine L’Engle
A Circle of Quiet

I first came across these words when I turned 18, long before I ever cracked open L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet. Since then, they’ve been a sort of mantra for me, a reminder that even though I’m getting older (28 now, alarmingly close to the big 3-0), I have gained something, not lost something, every time my birthday rolls around; I’ve added another 365 days’ worth of experience and (hopefully) wisdom to my haphazard collection.

But the 8-year-old I once was is still kicking around inside me. The melodramatic 16-year-old, too. And there’s 21-year-old Ali who dove headlong into marriage and her first job… she’s always tapping on my shoulder, asking: “Where the snap did the past 7 years go?”

All that’s really changed is that I now have a bleary-eyed, time-strapped, mildly ambitious 28-year-old elbowing around the rest of me.

I’d argue that this outlook is essential to my sanity. What does adulthood mean if it’s detached and isolated from the experiences that formed it? If I have to shut down the very parts of me that helped shape who I am today, how is that growth?

That’s why I so enthusiastically celebrate the things that have influenced me over the years – from the highbrow to the lowbrow and every point between. Everything that’s had a hand in helping me determine who I am, what I think, and how I understand the world matters to me, and always will. I’m fascinated by any story, piece of music, or form of art that has ever resonated with me. Because I want to know why it resonated. What part of me did it speak to? What can I learn from that?

It doesn’t matter how something is dressed. I am genre-blind. In terms of fiction, I only see and hear story and character, whether it’s Leo Tolstoy or Marvel comics. In terms of music, I’m equally fond of dancing like a fool to electronica and sitting still for hours to drink in classical. Over the years, my influences have come in many different forms, some of them more sophisticated and acceptable for “adult” tastes than others. I don’t really discern. I’m too afraid of missing out on something great – I’ll wade through piles of drek to find a good story, a good song, anything compelling or meaningful. It could be hiding anywhere. In real life, complexity and simplicity, the adult and the childish, the wise and the foolish, the beautiful and the odd… they all overlap in countless different ways.

So why do we insist on segregating them?

I think it’s a tragedy that so many adults feel the need to shame the kid in them out of existence.

Recently, someone took me to task for my love of children’s fiction, accusing me of chasing after “golden childhood days” – as if these stories are some safe harbor where readers are protected from harsh truths about the world. As if childhood is always golden.

The thing is, young people are always aware when you’re talking down to them. When I was a kid, I was frustrated by books that didn’t force me to reach beyond the range of my current experience. Authors like L’Engle were some of the first to introduce me to big questions about human nature, cosmic purpose, and the inherent darkness and goodness always at war beneath the dull surface of everyday life. These kinds of stories gave me license to define where I stood in a complicated and confusing world. They were immensely formative. They are why I still read young adult literature today: anything that formative has power, and I’m interested in that power. I want to understand it better.

Which brings me around to a point that a lot of us forget, in our quest to be ever more “grown up” in the eyes of others: Children are more open-minded than adults.

Kids are sponges, taking in everything without a filter. It can’t not affect them. Meanwhile, as we grow older, our worldview tends to calcify. New ideas, or new angles on old ideas, start to bounce off us like so much debris. We become jaded and resistant to change.

As an adult, I have to actively fight this. I need to make a conscious effort to remain open and absorbent, allowing new ideas and experiences to impact me as much as possible. Doing that requires thinking, feeling, touching, smelling, tasting, seeing, and hearing through all of the ages (lenses) available to me. I risk becoming stagnant otherwise. I risk forgetting who I am.

In My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman’s beautiful memoir about life, death, belief, and personhood, he says: “To be innocent is to retain that space in your heart that once heard a still, small voice saying not your name so much as your nature… you must protect this space so that it can protect you.”

Some days, that’s harder than it sounds. But it’s worth the effort. Sure, who I am now is my primary concern (and who I am becoming is even more important), but I never want to forget who I’ve been. In a lot of ways, my younger self understood the world in keener and deeper senses than Adult Ali. She could see farther, because she hadn’t yet started building walls around herself.

I praise you, Father, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.

Matthew 11:25 (NIV)

Marilynne Robinson once said that the best advice she ever received was: “You have to live with your mind your whole life. You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.” Building involves adding, not taking away.

I guess it’s as simple as that, in the end: Getting older should be about addition, not subtraction. And I suppose this post is my long and rambling way of saying that I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who claims otherwise.

Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

C.S. Lewis
On Three Ways of Writing for Children