When I was in college, I worked for the university newspaper, a small, chaotic operation cleverly named “The Loyolan” after, well, the university. Although I held several positions there over the course of my college career, my most favorite and coveted job was that of “Perspectives Editor” aka, Op-ed editor, which I had my senior year at school. I loved working at that paper – the crazy deadlines, the sense of perpetual mania, the eternal search for a better edge, a better story (not to mention the promise of dinner from Beach Pizza every Tuesday deadline night) – that job was my life for a good part of my college existence. And I’m not gonna lie – what made it particularly endearing was the fact that once a week I got to spout off my own personal opinions to the world in an editorial column, a piece whose only purpose in life was to rant, rave, and generally point out the glaring ridiculousness of whatever was happening in local or campus-wide news, or just simply to bitch about something worth bitching about. The column was called “Disillusioned Youth” and disillusioned it was indeed.
That editorial lived the good life until May 2002 when my professional student life came to an end and I entered the world as a qualified, knowledgeable, and responsible adult. I use those terms loosely. For those of you not familiar with the narrator at the age of 21, I can pretty much assure you that she fit none of the above-mentioned requirements. Manic, beer loving, I-have-a-degree-in-English-and-am-totally-unmarketable-in-my-home-country? Now we’re getting somewhere…
For reasons I will get to in a minute, I’ve been thinking about that column a lot lately, and internally reflecting a bit about who I was at that age and what I, presumably, had so much to journalistically fuss about. I attribute this current pontification to the present circumstances of my social circle in Lilongwe, namely the fact that I am fairly sure that half the people I now spend a significant amount of time with may or may not have been born in the year 1986. So far as I recall, this was a pretty good year. I was in Mrs. Bradley’s second grade class. I excelled at swimming lessons at the Oak Park pool. I developed a distinct and unrepentant obsession with “Little House on the Prairie” and an undying hatred for flowery, puffy, or overtly girly dresses. Overall, the late 80s had a lot going for them, even if we all do lament the whole crimped hair, shiny bubble skirt, tapered jeans with double socks thing.
But here’s the thing about being born in 1986: It makes those of us born in or around 1980 look like Bea Arthur from the “Golden Girls”. And you know how much I love me some Bea Arthur, I’m just saying – six years can oscillate between being a blip in the grand string of time or an epic eternity depending on how the cookie crumbles on any given day.
Truth be told, for those of us who are from the U.S. and did the whole American college thing, there isn’t really that great a divide between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-eight. Our formative early adult experiences were pretty much etched in the same Bud Light soaked stone – whether it be 1998 or 2005, the propensity for ridiculousness knows no age and I am pretty sure the game of “asshole” hasn’t changed it’s rules since about 1972.
But the thing about this whole seemingly minor age differential is that it does, on occasion, bring up the fact that we’re all looking at the world from slightly different points on the horizon. The late 70s, early 80s crew are a little closer to that spot where the sun meets the hills, where as the rest of those crazy kiddos are looking a little bit farther up at the big, blue, wide-opened sky. Most of us, most of the time, don’t give two thoughts to any of this but every so often the difference between blue sky and shades of the setting sun makes an appearance – it’s those times that make me step back and look at the horizon twice.
I had a conversation the other day with one of these ‘86ers. We were on our way down to Blantyre, driving down the only highway that runs the length of the country. As we passed through village after village, we started talking about village life and more specifically, about what it would be like to live amongst the people in those tiny little towns and start a grassroots program from the bottom up – wondering and thinking how amazing and powerful it would be to just show up in a village and live there and make something incredible happen at the most basic, clearest level of need. It was a simple statement, a straightforward observation and we chatted a little while about what that would be like and how it really would be development work at its very core. The discussion drifted and ebbed, a new song came on the stereo, and off we went to continue our meanderings down the dusty, pot-holed highway.
That’s the moment. There’s your difference. That seemingly miniscule conversation is the distinction between a time as long or as short as six years. What I heard in that brief chat, what got sifted through all of those words, was this immense sense of hope and enthusiasm, and the thought that tangible hands-on impact was wrapped up in the very idea of adventure itself. What did my internal monologue have to contribute to this discussion? Little more than the sound of an old, ticking grandfather clock and the recognition that that bold piece of my formerly twenty-two year old spirit has kind of checked out. It’s left its grubby, beloved knapsack at the trail’s edge, traded in its hiking boots for heels, and has lazily walked away into the city sunset. At twenty-two, I would have looked out that window and said the same thing. At twenty-eight I look out the window and I think that living in the village would send me to levels of insanity I can’t even properly describe in words.
My initial thought is to be sad about this, and to want to mourn a bit for the pieces of myself that I’ve outgrown whether by the force of time or as a matter of choice. But I think that’s not the way to go in this case, despite the fact that it feels natural to pine for younger times or at the very least, to feel a bit anxious about the reality of being on the rapidly diving bell curve toward the age of thirty. But that just sort of misses the point of all of it, don’t ya’ think?
The person I was at twenty-two and the person I appear to be at twenty-eight still share a continued capacity to be open to possibility, chaos, and change, only these days that capacity is dotted with end-line asterisks like the need for running water, sleeping arrangements that do not involve dodgy hostel dorm beds, and the promise of a consistent Internet connection. But that’s the way it’s actually meant to be – from individuals just out of university to those of us a little farther down the line and those farther down still, each of us is exactly where she or he is supposed to be right now. If I was still cool with living out in the bush and frolicking around the world with nothing more than a backpack at this age I probably wouldn’t be doing the work I now do. Is that a matter of age? Or experience? Or both? Yes and no. Here, in this random hodgepodge of development and aid workers, there is an unintentional momentum moving everyone forward. Along the way, we pick things up, we let them fall away, and we grow – older, occasionally fatter, but hopefully wiser – as we trudge along this continuum. It’s the metaphorical equivalent of the kindergarten buddy system – hold the hand of the person next to you, pull each other through the valleys, push one another up toward the roads, follow someone down through the hills, and walk with your buddy up to that point where we will all inevitably have to split up and go our own separate ways.
I look back on the days of “disillusioned youth” and realize that it wasn’t disillusionment I was trying to capture at all. It was hope, and a sense that the world was movable even when it looks as if it tipped right over on its side. And I see that now in the faces of those friends at the very beginning of that chain. They’re in the trenches, running through the muck, smiling through mud-caked faces, and laughing through the early beginnings of something pretty amazing.
So does that make me old? Magic 8-Ball says, “Ask again later.” Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. In the meantime, there are lessons to be learned from the 1986 crew before I pass into unremarkable old age. Case in point? Jorts. That’s right, I said, “jorts” — jean shorts. Confused? Baffled? Mildly horrified that you might have to attend an entire party themed in this manner at some point in the not so distant future? Yeah. Me too.