Jul 18, 2011
It was springtime in Oxford and the cherry blossoms were blooming and there was something not quite right. This was supposed to be the buoyant time of year, but I kept waking up in the hot blue depths of the pre-dawn with no breath, my heart beating too fast. I remembered feeling like this once or twice before, or maybe it was more than that: I remembered feeling like this for weeks at a time, but I thought I had put all that behind me. So now I thought: am I dying? Well, maybe. But also maybe I have felt this way before and asked myself the same question, needlessly, and been okay, so maybe I will also be okay this time too. But then I thought: well, perhaps this time is different. I thought that perhaps in the morning, if I was not dead, I should make an appointment with the doctor. All those vertiginous nights and I had learned nothing! But in the end I never made an appointment with the doctor, not about that, anyway, and I kept waking up, which was, I eventually decided, a good sign.
When I began to examine my situation, I realised that at the heart of it was this: I could not decide anything, but I was running out of time. I was both very young and very old simultaneously: maybe the tightness in my chest was simply the weight, the vice-grip of missed opportunity. But also I looked around and everyone was older than me. My friends were all older than me. My boyfriend was older than me. We kept talking abstractly but also very seriously about babies, each of us trying to impart some sense of urgency to the other whilst also, at the same time, trying to make light of the situation, to stop the progress in case we had misunderstood each other. He was five years older than me: that was a lifetime, it was nothing. I was still young, to have children, but he was old, even though he was young too. I kept thinking about it this way: as if age somehow mattered.
Only of course it did matter. Age had always mattered. I had always been younger; I had been propelled forward, skipped a grade, left to flounder with my patchy understanding of long division and joined-up writing, encouraged to consider myself intellectually precocious even while I struggled with basic social interactions. But now I was reading articles in the newspaper about how fragile fertility really was, which did not help things, because I was already worried, again needlessly, again powerfully, about fertility. I wanted to go to the doctor and ask, but I did not know how to, and I did not want to have a conversation about how young I was, how much time I had left, because I was not young! I had so little time left!
His grandfather kept asking why we were not yet married. It had been four years and I suppose it was not an unreasonable question. We asked ourselves the same thing, too, and I could never find a satisfactory answer except that we weren’t. It was very simple, really. We had lived together from the start and there had never been any doubt about the seriousness of our situation, of our strange devotion, and yet even when we did talk about getting married we talked about it as very young people are apt to do: as a thing for the future. And yet here we were four years later, the future was upon us! So we simply hadn’t caught up with ourselves. But it was hard to say this to a 90-year old man who wanted to see his first grandson married. You see? Age did matter after all.
But the real issue was that I could not decide anything. For instance I could not decide if I wanted to commit to children. I mean, I did, really. I thought about my own parents, who had not the benefit, as we ourselves had, of all this time and youth. My mother was 36 when she had me, but this was not, I had begun to realize, really the conscious decision I had always imagined it to be: it was not necessarily about feminism, or about putting a career first, or even about indecision. It was on the other hand at least partly to do with the fact that she simply had not met my father sooner, and so had not the same luxury of time that we, theoretically, had.
But then again I thought about how little I had done so far and how much I did not want to feel useless. I thought about how unprepared we really were. Neither of us had any money to speak of or any prospect of earning very much money ever. We did not own a house and although we had a very understanding landlord in Ireland who did not charge us very much to live in a beautiful terraced house with a big garden in East Oxford down the road from our favourite pub we had very little stability, because while this arrangement might last forever, or at least for a long time, it might also not, and if it did not, I couldn’t see what we’d do. We’d been utterly ruined by living in this beautiful house and I did not know where else in Oxford we could go and be happy as we were happy in this place, at home as we were at home here at home.
But then perhaps it would not matter: we had always said, for instance, how we wanted to move to the US at some point. I couldn’t even decide about this, now: I was so happy in Oxford (even when I was desperately unhappy), I had such a sense of community (even when I felt lonely), I rode my bicycle through the city centre every single day and every single day I was overcome with this sensation that I belonged here: or at least, that I wanted to belong here. The beauty had not gotten old and familiarity had not ruined the novelty of finding myself here, of all places. So where else would we go, and why would we go there? But at the same time we liked the idea of being the sort of people who could get up and go, who could raise children in two countries, or three. And he was deliberately setting up a portable life: a career that allowed for flexibility.
This was another problem: careers. I had none. I did have a job, where I spent eight or nine hours every day, with people I liked very much, performing tasks I mostly had no passion for. But anyway a job is not a career, and the real problem is that I could not do the things I really wanted to do. I could not write, much, because I had no time and no energy and then whenever I did write it came out all jumbled and depressed, or else I worked on a novel that I could not decide what I felt about. In some ways I thought it was very good but there were also ways I suspected it was very bad, and I was afraid of finding out which bits were which, in case I had to confront the fact that I would have to do something very seriously different with it to make it readable. And of course I knew that even if it was readable, it wouldn’t necessarily be what I wanted it to be, and even if it was what I wanted it to be, it wouldn’t necessarily be published, let alone read. So it seemed a bit of a dead-end, or at least, not the best way to spend what precious time I had to myself.
With the rest of my hours I slept and swam. And I thought about how I wanted not to have to swim every evening with the rest of the weary workers: all of us slogging through our days, slapping our arms against the water, mouths moving open like fish lips as we rolled our heads to the side to receive air. I wanted to swim at midday, maybe. Or midmorning. Or mid-anything. Just anytime that was the time I chose and not the time that had been given to me.
So then I thought that if I felt that way about my time, perhaps children were not right, because the thing I knew, one of the very few things I knew, about children was that when you had them you had no control anymore over your time. You would be awoken again and again in the night and then for twenty years you would give yourself to something else. But then I thought that this was just what I needed: a real reason to not be selfish, not a fake reason, not a salary or a fear.
There were certain things I did know. I knew that I was in a holding pattern, I knew that something would have to give or be given, and soon. I knew, too, that in the end we would be alright, that it did not matter if we did not have a house or even if we were not married, and that since we did after all love each other there was no real reason to think that we would not find a way to support a family if we wanted to. I knew also that I did not want to raise a family on unhappiness, and the situation I had got myself into was an unhappy one, because it was not one in which I was doing something I wanted to do. I knew that I had to write something. I knew that I had to keep swimming, because it was the first thing I had found in a long time that gave me the peace of mind they say exercise is supposed to give you. I used run, but the problem with running was the impact: I got a bad knee from it (this was why I had started swimming in the first place), my side often hurt and I would have to cut the run short (later the doctor told me that this was because of my hip and too many years of running on hard surfaces). I had liked running, and I still liked it, but not in the same way. It left me tired, which is a good feeling to have but not always as good as feeling simply buoyant. I guess perhaps it was just that the act of floating seemed a small miracle. My own mother could not swim, and yet I had been given the ability to, I had had lessons and an upbringing by the beach. And my grandmother, now in her 80s, had been swimming practically her whole life and still did it regularly.
I even knew that all my obsessive worry was irrational, and that I was waking up in the middle of the night for nothing, and that I was very lucky in very many ways, and that I was thinking too hard about too many things that were too far in the future for me to have any control over. But even so I kept worrying and I kept waking up.
My thinking was very circular. I would think for a time – any time, in the middle of the night, or the middle of the day, halfway through a meeting, staring at a slide being projected onto the wall or at my desk looking out at the tennis courts and watching a pair of white-haired men send the ball back and forth on the grass courts. And then I would reach the place I had started: a question, a series of questions. I would find myself unable to understand if I knew what I wanted or only knew what I thought I wanted (or were these the same thing?), if I was able to move forward or not. So I would keep staring out the window. And meanwhile, all the while, time was passing me by, or I was moving with it, or anyway I was getting older, if imperceptibly.
Perhaps this is what they mean by growing up: the awareness not of mortality – nothing so grand – but simply of each moment. The ability to literally feel the length of a second or an hour, and to place that second or that hour in context, to know how much it means. But in any case I did not really want to be grown up: I only wanted to sleep through the night, I only wanted to find it not such an effort to smile at people or even at myself in the mirror. I wanted to cut my hair short, even though I worried I never would, in the same way I wanted to say, ‘I want to start a family now, because why not?’ even though I knew I would not say that, yet. I worried what would happen but also wanted to know what would happen if I did do these sorts of things.
I told myself that in a way, once before, I had done something like this: I had simply moved to Oxford, which went against logic, which was not the easy or even necessarily possible thing to do, and yet I had done it and it had been easy and we had made it possible. And it was the best thing I had done, it was one of the only things I could not convince myself, if I tried, to regret: no amount of convincing would make even my wretched anxious self think that that had been at all a bad idea, even if it had not always been good, even if I had not always been smart about it, even if we had struggled.
So I thought I should be comforted by that.