Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Second Teenhood

Let me say this now: I am having the teenage life I always wished I had. At age 35. To my parents’ utter horror.

My younger brother and I are the only ones currently living with my parents; my three sisters each have their own apartments, two of whom have a roommate. While my brother still clings to the idea that he is a self-sufficient grown-up by sometimes handing over “rent” money to my mom (and you see the pain written all over his face) when she reminds him that he once promised to help out with the bills, I have completely abandoned all pretense. For the past year, I have conducted myself as a shameless teenager—never once volunteering to pay any sort of house bill; blinking wordlessly, unhelpfully, from my mom to my dad to my brother as they discuss which adult is going to do what adult chore that day while I eat my breakfast and burp; then locking myself in my room to read, write and listen to my iPod…only coming out to stand in front of the open ref surveying the food, eat again and hang out.

I often sit in the garden in the afternoon, with my feet up on a chair, drinking my mom’s orange juice, thinking, What did I ever do to deserve this, God? (Burp.)

I remember doing the exact same things when I was an actual teenager, but I do not recall also feeling this light and free and fortunate—the feeling, I imagine, of one of those medieval, docile prisoner-slaves carrying huge, heavy sacks on their shoulders as they climb a hill and who are finally unchained and miraculously set free. Except that I wasn’t a very docile prisoner-slave. I was, rather, of the rage-against-the-machine mold.

As a teenager, I refused to accept that simply because of my age and my material dependence on my parents, they had the power to deny me certain basic civil liberties. Such as the liberty to go and watch my crush compete in a skateboarding competition. Or to stay at a party past 11:00 PM. Or to watch a concert with friends. Or to not attend mass—or pray the rosary--when I didn’t feel like it. Or to wear torn jeans and a t-shirt without my dad going stark raving mad ala Dr. David Bruce Banner and end up cutting those jeans to smithereens in his own fit of rage when I refused to change to “more decent clothes”.

I felt burdened and oppressed. And my reaction to this was to be defiant, defensive, combative, angry. I seemed to be in a constant state of “Fuck off, fuckers!”

As if.

A prisoner-slave can bang at her cage and rattle her chains all she wants, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s still just a prisoner-slave who is exactly where her masters want her to be: rooted to the spot and within their line of sight.

I saw teenhood as a prison, a slave ship, and so there was nothing I wanted more than to break free, to jump overboard—to be done with high school and go off to college or to get a job already, move out and not have to live by anyone else’s (house) rules but my own. I couldn’t wait to get to my 20’s, which I came to view as the Promised Land. To my mind, my life in my 20’s would be an existence populated by mature people—people who were kind and secure enough with themselves to never impose their beliefs and opinions and will on others, who never think themselves better or worse off than anyone, people who gladly live and let live. It would be a life, in other words, where I wouldn’t be seen as just a dumb rebellious kid who didn’t know what was best for her; and I wouldn’t have to fight so much to have my opinions heard or my choices respected.

I thought that when I hit 20, the attitude towards me of the adults in my family would magically change. No such luck. For years I’ve wondered about this. Why was it, I wondered, that no matter how mature and capable and grown-up I feel at work or with my friends, all that disappeared and I would find myself regressing into the angsty, juvenile, “rebellious” teenager that I had been years ago whenever I was surrounded by my parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, even my siblings and cousins. It was as though all my hard work at trying to reach the level in which the adults treated me like an equal meant nothing. It almost seemed like it didn’t matter that I was already living on my own, paying my own bills, cooking my own food and basically fending for myself. I don’t think anything frustrated me more. Many times, I’ve been tempted to throw a fit at one of the frequent big family gatherings—you know, kick and pound the floor with my fists, screaming at the top of my lungs, “I’M A GROWN-UP, GROWN-UP, GROWN-UP!!! Treat me like a GROWN-AAAAAAAP!!!!” 

Then, a couple of years ago, a miraculous clue (what Oprah refers to as an “Aha! moment”). I had borrowed one of my sisters’ copy of Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul  and I came across this passage: “The more we try to cover up our ignorance, the more it is displayed. The more we try to act cool and suave, the more obvious our inexperience. The more adult we try to be, the more childishness we betray.”


Over the following months, I slowly realized that there was in me a teenage girl who felt robbed of her youth because I was in a hurry to make her grow up, to be “mature” and “responsible” (so that she could hightail it out of her parents’ house already). I was pretty tough on her--didn’t allow her to make mistakes, to be wrong, to ask for help or to admit that she was scared of many things. I didn’t even allow her to have a little kiss with a boy she liked (“Do you want to get pregnant? Be a hapless teenage mom who never gets to go to college or do anything with her life except feed the baby and fight with your equally hapless teenage husband? That is, if he even marries you.”) nor to have a boyfriend because “all teenage relationships are juvenile” and God forbid if I’d let her be anything but serious, thoughtful, mature, responsible, selfless, independent, strong. No wonder she rebelled, showing up as much as she could in my 20’s and 30’s--defiantly wearing a t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, refusing to learn to wear make-up or my mom’s “real” jewelry (instead of the beads and “friendship bands” and Kabbalah string that adorned my neck and wrists) because they looked like something older people wore—demanding, “I want my time! Give me my time!

I began to suspect that she—this incredibly disgruntled, disenfranchised teenage part of me--was the reason I couldn’t truly progress in my life, the reason I couldn’t honestly see myself as a grown-up. There was just so much unfinished business there, and her outbursts and juvenile antics were betraying my immaturity at every turn. In short, the girl was cramping my style.  

So last year, I finally decided to give the rebel-biyatch her time. Swallowing my pride, I asked my mom if I could move back home and be her and my dad’s dependent for a year. I promised myself I would not give me a hard time about not earning any money, about not contributing to the expenses at home and to just happily, gratefully be “selfish” and “irresponsible”. Meaning, I would just do what I enjoy, do what feels natural to me without any sort of guilt or anxiety or worry or judgment about not doing what I am “supposed” to be doing. No more overly self-critical speeches of “By now, at this age, you should already be this and that, you should already have this and that…” No more crazy-impossible expectations of myself (i.e. being everything I ever wanted to be RIGHT NOW) .No more being my own restrictive parent. No more raining on my own parade. No more getting in my own way. No more swatting my parents’ hand away when they try to help me out—no more arrogant and defensive I-can-take-care-of-myself-thank-you-very-much.  

Hay, please, enough of that. In other words, nagpakatotoo na talaga ako--the full-blown, all-out version.

Since fully embracing my teenage self—that part in each of us that needs to be free to make “mistakes”, that doesn’t know all the answers and is OK with that, that does things just because it wants to; that part of us that eternally lives on the exciting border between childhood innocence and wonder and adult knowledge and strength—my world has really opened up for me in ways that I had only wistfully imagined for years. More than ever, I feel that the life I’ve always wanted for myself is becoming real.

Just a month ago, I finally did something I’ve always wanted to do in high school but never found the nerve: I auditioned for a play. (Scary hyena delirious grin here.) It’s not something the adult me would have done—acting in a play was way too self-indulgent for her; even more self-indulgent than writing. Besides, the adult me had too many inhibitions, too many what-if-I’m-doing-this-all-wrong concerns cramming her head. She would have successfully talked me out of even thinking about auditioning. Lucky for me, I had already vested my teen self with equal, if not more, muscle power. And so off she went, determined to just enjoy herself.

A week later, I got a text message from the theatre company telling me to check my email. In it, I was told that I got the part. Rehearsals to begin in January 2009. I tore through the house screaming. Edith, our household help, thought I had been possessed by one of the elemental spirits that live in the mango tree at the back of our house.   

I can’t believe how free I feel right now. Everyone, I think, should give themselves the chance to revisit the part of their lives that feels a bit off, that makes them wish it were somehow different, and then make those changes. In no part in a person’s life is that possible than adulthood. In fact, I think that’s what adulthood is for—to allow ourselves second, third, fourth chances at childhood, teenhood, even adulthood…or as long as it takes to get it right, to feel that our lives are exactly the way we want it. We’re now in a position to acquire the tools needed to fix what we think needs fixing or to give  ourselves what we need.  

I realize that the reason I was so resentful of and defensive around my parents’ and other people’s expectations of me was that they merely mirrored my own impossibly high expectations of myself. I couldn’t stand their disappointment with me because I couldn’t stand my disappointment with me. I needed to find a way to be kinder to myself, more compassionate and accepting--more than I already thought I was being. 

My mom used to always ask me this question, “So what are your plans?” It was always such a tricky question, like a bomb that could go off any moment. I never knew how to negotiate it. It made me feel that the life I was having at the moment wasn’t legitimate or valid enough and that having “plans”—future prospects—was going to make it so. So then I’d either go into a full detail of my “plans”, my dreams, and then feel my mom’s attention drift off, which I always took as her unbelief in what I was saying and then I’d end it with a curt, “Forget it, it doesn’t matter”, or I’d feel cornered and, thus, give a defensive “Basta.”

But when I made the decision to free myself of unhealthy, killer expectations—and to just let things flow naturally by embracing everything that I am, to just be—I found that the most liberating, most empowering answer to my mom’s question was, “None. No plans.” Then, with a grin, just because I couldn’t help it: “Oh, there’s one: I plan to stay in this house forever.” It is such a perfect conversation ender; my mom rolls her eyes, sips her tea and totally drops the whole thing.

These days, the happy, grateful, angst-free teenager that is me goes with her dad on regular movie dates—his treat, always; my mom leaves baon for me, without my ever asking, when she goes out of town; and they no longer insist that I attend mass with them. In fact, my dad tries—unsuccessfully--to bribe me into attending their Catholic group’s frequent lectures/seminars (“After that, we’ll have midnight snack…at Pancake House!” Nice try, Pops.) I tell him, “Sure!…if you come with me and hear service at my church this Sunday”, to which he makes a face and stomps away…possibly being his little boy self.

I can’t really say I blame him. After being a parent for the past thirty-six years and trying to be an "adult" all that time, the guy needs a break sometimes.



Anonymous said...

I'm so happy for you getting the part!!!

...agree with you on being kind to one's self. I've found over the last year that it can spell a world of difference...whenever I don't forget, that is. :D


Lami said...

Thank you, my dear!!! ;) Wish you were to watch my deboot ;)

...Problem is, we tend to be very forgetful creatures, noh? ;) And then we fall back into our old chaka patterns. Haaay...Such hard work, this ;)