I don’t have too many years on you, but it’s about to be one year more. Emily (yes, that new friend of yours Emily) and I went to see a musical at the Fox this week and she shared how unhappy she’s been, how hard the transition has been for her from college to working life. The same month I turn 28, she’ll turn 25, just like you will.
First, let’s put some words to what you’re going through.
Your life is a house and the house is on fire.
You didn’t really notice until now, ignoring the hot door handles (I just won’t go in there right now) and the watery eyes (I’m just tired) and the heat (Adulting is hard). But the smoke inhalation is catching up with you and it’s so much easier to breathe when you’re crawling, not walking, from room to room. And, no, that’s not normal.
Your life is a house and the house is on fire.
You’re inside. This is your life. It’s been on fire for a while and you don’t really know how long this has been going on. Heck, maybe it’s always been on fire but your parents and your brother and your plans and your childhood expectations have been running the hoses all this time. But that’s stopped. Your parents don’t live with you anymore and, even if you were to move back, you’d find that your house is still on fire.
So what to do? Abandon the house? This works great for some people. They grab a few items and walk away like a hero in an action movie, carrying a rucksack of photos or a pillowcase of books or a wheelbarrow of porcelain figurines and houseplants. Maybe they are carrying a child wrapped in a blanket that will forever smell of smoke. As the roof catches and the ribs of the front rooms become visible and the entire grey maw collapses in on the insatiable flames, these people are walking steadily up the street, and they don’t know where they’ll end up, but they aren’t looking back. They’ll build a new house somewhere, a new life, and that’s okay.
That’s also not really your style, but who am I to tell you what to do?
So your life is a house and the house is on fire, but maybe the fire’s mostly in the kitchen. Maybe you can take a sledge hammer and a lot of baking soda and save the rest of the house. You will absolutely need a new kitchen, probably a new roof and half of your living room, too, but you can more or less rebuild it the way you want it. You can improve things: a new layout and a sunnier paint color and maybe a bigger porch while you’re at it. But there’s fire first. You’ll find fire in rooms you didn’t know had been touched, maybe didn’t even know existed.
Here’s the really important bit: no matter how many industrial fans you bring in and no matter how many consecutive days you open the windows to the restorative powers of the breeze, your house will probably always smell faintly of smoke. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Most people’s do. However, if you can’t stomach that, grab a pillowcase and a wheelbarrow and put on your tennis shoes.
But remember: you were in that fire. You’ll smell the smoke again—for years—on your shirt, between the binding and the pages, on the porcelain unicorn (even though you know that shouldn’t be possible). You’ll smell it in your hair. It’s not really things you’re smelling, it’s you. You were there. You are there right now.
Your life is a house and the house is on fire. And you don’t have to do anything. You can keep crawling around on the floor, wiping soot from your face, and coughing into damp washcloths. You can pretend nothing is wrong. But the fire will consume you. And if you survive it, you’ll be left without a house, without an armful of books and a porcelain unicorn balanced on top. Even if you see the destruction coming, sitting in the least hot corner of your bedroom with your knees pulled to your chest, watching the flames creep closer to you. Even if you wait to break out the window until the last moment. If you do nothing, you’ll be left with nothing.
But I know you. I know you are surprised and maybe crying, but this is making sense, isn’t it? As much as it did the first time Kayla used this metaphor in front of me. We talked about it a little, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I know you are practical, proud to be sensible and strong, and you are. I know sitting in the corner isn’t your style, as least not for long.
A couple of caveats, dear past me:
1. Whether you decide to fight for your house or give it up, you won’t be able to move into a fully furnished two bedroom condo with a balcony tomorrow. It takes time to build, to populate, to choose. Even falling into a life that feels surprisingly full isn’t actually a full life. A week in Key West when you’re my age will tempt you to feel like it is. (Don’t go looking for that week. Let it come to you.) But there are massive holes. It’d take so long to get to Kayla, to your parents, to your brother. Zika is coming north (don’t ask, it’ll also come without any help from you). Where would you go to church? It’s an expensive place to live and the workers at Judy Bloom’s bookstore are volunteers. Take the vacation, but don’t believe the lies of it. Or of any vacation.
2. The fire department exists for a reason. Call in help. Call in professionals. If you want to fight and rebuild what can’t be saved, call the people you trust not to stand around smirking and not to nick your accent pillows. Hand out buckets and send them to the creek for water. Call in professionals who can bring in the big hoses and the axes and the fresh muscles and the experienced advice.
Don’t be embarrassed if your neighbors see the fire truck in the driveway. That truck is going to help you save your life. And some of the people who see will come to help, to check if you’re okay, to offer a casserole or a hug. Maybe you’ll make a really good friend out of it. Maybe someone you know now will tell you about the time her house was on fire, and then you’ll have a great friend.
If you decide to give up this house, these people can help you pack, or they can let you sleep a few nights on their couch. They can help you lay a good foundation on higher ground. They might be able to donate an extra box of tiles or a pile of lumber or their son’s barely used armchair and ottoman.
Call in professionals when building, too. Who wants to do their own brickwork? Who’s any good at brickwork? (Remember, I’ve seen you ice a cake.) You aren’t being weak; you’re being wise.
My life is a house and right now I smell smoke. Maybe it’s in my hair and maybe it’s on this bedspread. Maybe it’s from grey-black clouds above my head and maybe it’s from a heap in front of me. I won’t tell you what I chose, what colors are on the wall or even if I have walls, but you know Kayla and Emily and musicals and our parents and our brother and Key West are here, so maybe you have an idea.
Happy Early Birthday, almost 25-year-old Katie. Next summer will suck. Call all your grandparents. Invest in Apple. Hug those babies. Write, write, write.
You’ll survive. Promise.
Almost 28-year-old Katie