Becoming a parent (or maybe just getting older) makes you reevaluate what matters, the values and philosophies that inform a cultivated life. It can also cause you to reflect and then attempt to chase back the youthful past, forever slipping through your fingers as you slink toward middle age and discover an entire generation exists beneath you with their own experiences and culture (that is to them, the only way.) And you see clearly, if you’re careful; how you really once had not a care in the world and all the time in the world. Obligations yes. Life or death? Not so, though it seemed so. Not to disparage those times before parenthood or the suffering all sentient beings experience. They and all their inherent difficulties, insecurities, and frailties are valid. But you do reflect. You can’t not. I imagine it takes a good five to ten years to accept you’ve had children and there’s no going back. So you start going back in your mind, all the time, and it is easy to notice that your mind goes to the places you didn’t appreciate or that you deemed ugly for being messy.
You start going back through the catalog the formative years the teenage years. Wild, reckless, miserable and maudlin or maybe free and euphoric with all the possibility. Maybe you were loved well and so it hurt a little less. Or maybe, like most of us, you were terrified. And you scrutinize all of it because you’re trying to chase it back and you wish you had savored it because you can’t get it back. It was all so imperfect. Do you wish it had been perfect instead? You probably wouldn’t remember it, if it was. And what would that have done? Would it have gotten you to this same place? Holden Caulfield started missing everybody. I sometimes miss that I didn’t realize I was going to miss it, so eager I was to get beyond being a kid.
Everything is photographed and filmed now, thoroughly filtered, polished and shined up, captioned, explained, Liked and Loved. If it’s not up to contemporary standards, it can be Cancelled. And because we know it will be captured, we are tempted to try harder to achieve a sort of flawless beauty and flawless morality. You see that today and think, was it supposed to be that perfect, being fifteen? Was I supposed to know how to dress and speak and get along with others? How to apply eyeliner and pose for a picture? Weren’t we more concerned with finding a way to get cigarettes and new thirty dollars jeans and not blow our brains out from the emotions we could not reconcile? Weren’t we supposed to be young and reckless? Aren’t we still encouraged to drop our defenses and laugh at our humanity?
Because otherwise it hurts too much, the shame of imperfection. When you compare yourself to what the world has deemed appropriate, meaningful, decent – looking the part and playing the part of a liar – you will always fail, and you will be criticized for trying to find value in what is, frankly, actually valuable. Forgiveness, compassion, nuance, inevitable failure that inspires the human spirit to triumph once more – this is no longer revered. So tricky, so sneaky, that shame, for how can you savor and appreciate and revel in anything if you deem any other way unworthy? To just want to get it over with until you are finally perfect and the world says so? It cannot happen. It will not happen.
For a while in my twenties, I thought beauty was a problem, some socially constructed measurement device that created inevitable lack and therefore would drive one to purchase that which will always be elusive to human beings. It was only as I matured and then understood that essence sometimes does proceed existence that I realized beauty is inherent, sacred, special, and that I had been taught to hold a grievance against the sacred, because our culture is resentful and problem-oriented – our culture doesn’t understand or believe in human nature – and doesn’t know they are. But we don’t need to bemoan that which is unobtainable. It is all always a little out of reach. We all feel a little maladjusted to this earth. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But it can be truthful – isn’t that all ye need to know? A beautiful subject or object can matter, just as an abstract internal experience can be beautiful, and can exist inside something ugly, off, misunderstood. I began to believe beautiful things were simply snake oil, because it’s wrong to worship things. I rejected the materialism of my parents and culture, but I didn’t understand that I was rejecting the wrong idea. Materialism is thoughtless consumption without appreciation and care, and it is believing that nothing exists outside the material world. The sacred exists between the beautiful objects and what they make us feel, this energetic landscape that is mysterious and precious – the spiritual and earthbound joined.
We have both thrown away beauty and exalted it to such a high standard that we have lost appreciation for the ordinary, the mundane, the gaps and spaces, the artfulness of a well-lived life. As Frances Ha said, I like things that look like mistakes. Everything now must be strong and powerful, full of achievement, making a statement, changing the world! but what excites me the most these days is the delicious cup of coffee, the neutral toned cozy sweater, the skin of my son’s cheek, the made bed. Homemade burgers and a game of Backgammon. Washed and combed hair. Sun and light. The kindness and forgiveness of others. The ones who say, I get it, and mean it. The person who changes her mind, isn’t so sure. Gentleness.
I didn’t understand this before. I had a fierce determination to improve, and I wore myself out. I thought it had to look like something, like what it looks liked for others, or what I thought others expected. I didn’t let myself be comfortable and enjoy the morning light. I didn’t let myself take it less seriously, because I thought taking it seriously meant profundity. What a boon to discover that relaxing into everything, celebrating everything, making everything a thing of beauty, even the scrub brush at the sink, is when it all becomes the absolute most meaningful.
And as a parent (or maybe just an older soul) you do sometimes wish you could be seventeen again, just for a moment, but the kind of seventeen that existed long ago, or maybe still exists, though we don’t see it, where you could feel, believe, say the wrong thing, look ugly in a photograph, get too high, that you could go back and feel all that again, how important it felt, how much you imagined it would last forever.