My boss and I were measuring locks today in an art deco office building. Measuring locks is exactly as glamorous as it sounds. I know. Living the dream. At any rate, we walked past an old fire extinguisher cabinet, and inside it was fancy brass dial with a lever which you could flip to “summer” or “winter.” It looked like some kind of failsafe switch from an episode of Lost.
We stared at the Instrument of Weather. And then we stared at each other. “Go ahead, turn it!” my boss said. “You first,” I said. We thought this was endlessly amusing. Because someone has obviously forgotten to flip that switch, given that it is almost seventy degrees again, in December. I have not one iota of Christmas spirit yet, despite the tree and the garlands and the Moravian star hanging from my porch. The timing feels off.
Parallel story: it’s Birthday Month, as one of my friends pointed out last week, causing me to make a scrunch face. I’m not ready for that, either. It’s not a big birthday, it’s just that this one sounds worse than the last one. I also don’t think this particular number matches this particular life stage. But, as I’ve been reflecting all week, my numbers never really match up. This may be confusing, but it’s where my mind is right this moment: muddled. So bear with me.
When I was a small child, I was approximately forty. I was serious and responsible and a huge worrier. I remember asking for a grown-up cake for my fourth birthday. My grandmother made me one, two layers with elegant white icing, and a figurine of a Victorian lady walking her dogs across the top. I remember thinking, “Finally. Someone understands that I’m not a baby anymore.” So I was THAT kid.
It wasn’t until my teenage years that I was really a little kid, because I stayed smaller than everyone else, absolutely forever. I felt like an eight-year old, until I grew seven inches the year I turned sixteen. By then everyone else was acting twenty-five.
When I went to college, I had my fifties. My dad had a debilitating stroke, and I spent my early twenties feeling like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, trying to hold everything and everyone together. I was at the hospital every day for six months, while other people were off at rush functions and frat parties, doing college kid things. I couldn’t have been less interested, given the context.
Then I graduated and I worked as a young public school teacher. During that era, I was SO middle aged. I enjoyed my classroom years. I had friends. I was on a bowling team. I had summers off, mostly. But I worked my tail off, relentlessly, nights and weekends. For five of those years I had to be at work at 6:45 a.m. 6:45, I tell you. How could anyone have a personal life, during those ten months of every year when I worked late, took work home, and had to be back at work at 6:45?
And then I went to grad school and was eighteen for a few years. There were all-nighters, and I lived at my desk, and survived on coffee and junk food and switched back to jeans and soaked up all the knowledge I could.
Two years ago I graduated from that whole era, and now I’m not sure what the heck I am. Certainly not my actual age, by which point there were a whole bunch of other things I was supposed to have accomplished, when I was off instead doing other things. Looking back on the last year, I think I’ve finally entered my twenties. I’m starting a new career, and spending all my money and free time on concerts and travel, and hanging out with friends, having more fun, worrying less. Sadly, I’m entering my twenties just as my driver’s license says something very different. I’ve decided that’s probably ok. I think you should enjoy your twenties, whenever they show up. And I’ve never been one to follow rules that don’t matter much. My friend June, who is ninety, says life is a lot more fun since she’s declared herself past her “dotage. ” In your dotage, she says, you’re hung up on your age and try to fight it. She says post-dotage is a lot better. You just roll with it. I like that idea.
What I need for this Christmas season, though, is some five-year-old self, some childlike wonder. I have two Nativity sets; one my mother gave me, made of hammered tin, and one I bought years ago in Ghana made of brass. Y’all know, I hope, that you can’t just put the Baby Jesus in the center, BAM, like that. He has to start out far away, in another room, and travel a little bit every day until Christmas morning. Right now, both mangers are empty; both sets of Wise Men are waiting, and all the animals are gathered expectantly. Because I am, in large part, still just a big kid, I scooch each Baby Jesus a little closer every day, and hope that by the time they’re ready to make it into the living room and join the rest of the crowd, I’ll feel some of the Christmas magic. And it will all fall into place, just as it should.
Addendum to the above: I just returned to the art deco office building to take a picture of the summer/winter failsafe switch and it is gone. What should we make of that?