Moving up and moving on in the irresponsible generation.
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This is what happens when you let hipsters name a neighborhood. East Nashville, identified by some in recent years as East Nasty, is becoming the prime location for young people to settle in the Music City. Very residential streets, affordable houses, toward the edge of city limits – you know the story. This is where 20 and 30 somethings are buying their first homes.
Whatever your thoughts about hipsters with tight pants and exorbitant facial hair with, of course, more than a hint of irony, a mortgage and a deed are probably not part of the picture. But that’s what East Nashville is becoming, because that is what young people are becoming.
My sister, the artist, is one of those new homeowners. As I was sitting there in East Nasty last weekend with my gourmet ice cream (one scoop brambleberry crisp, one scoop goat cheese with red cherry), it was running through my head. For some reason, this connection between my dwindling 20s and buying a home has become a landmark in my mind, an intersection that I am having trouble with.
Around age 22 – that was probably a big transition for you. Find a place to live, pay your own rent, balance how much money goes to groceries and how much to alcohol and going out. That’s a well-known transition, and sometimes a crisis.
There’s another, silent crisis somewhere around age 28-32. They rarely make movies about it. When you are 22, you can do anything you want, but you have the power to do nothing important. When you are, say 30, you have had maybe a little success, a couple promotions. You also have the power to cause real pain, and potentially mess up someone’s life with a poor decision. An overwhelming disaster at 30 is a fall from a slightly greater height than at 22.
Back then, you could go to Monaco if you wanted. You still can, but you know you can’t go zipping around to live in a new place every year. Maybe it’s the income, maybe it’s a dependent, maybe you’re just tired of that kind of thing. But you just can’t.
Despite all the trappings, we all know a 22 year old isn’t really an adult. And it’s not just that a 30 year old should be, but that I am gradually being sucked into it by a thousand impersonal forces. And here’s the problem: unlike a graduation or some such thing, no one is there to receive us.
Hemingway, Pound, Eliot – their coming of age was surreal. They were men, for sure, but they were also lost. There were none to call them out and none to receive them into the responsibility of the next stage. We have not the severed relationship with our culture as they had, but the result is not so different.
It’s not that I can’t suck it up and deal with it. I do that every day. It’s that I am gradually sliding (or eliding) across some great cultural chasm. It’s invisible from the outside because it’s nearly indescribable from the inside. There is a social place for 25 year old hipster “adults” and there is a social place for 35 year old dads with mortgages and we know what to do with both of them. A 30 year old is rather like a 12 year old – we’d prefer to think he didn’t exist.
It would be easy if 35-year-old-dad-with-mortgage were the simple next step. But I look at that and I’m not loving it, for whatever reason. And anyway, there’s no group of such adults waiting to accept me into their arms in ceremonial affirmation.
So will East Nashville subsume the aging hipsters into the next adult step? Will it pry them away from immaturity on its own terms, or on theirs?
It’s not really a cultural question as much as a personal one. What will be the base points of stability in my life, now that I am looking for them? Churches frequently fail to see this: how many 30-32 year olds would be amenable to dropping in a back pew if it gave them a shot at regular meaning, a sort of anchor among other things. They are not always ready for wholesale conversion, but it’s hard to underestimate at this age the draw of symbols, potlucks, and the seriousness with which others take it.
I’ll be 30 at the end of this year. I don’t care much about the number increasing. But I have two kids already, and that is certainly forcing this issue. You may not, but you might have bought a house, or you might have made a bad decision and severely hurt someone, or been severely hurt, or you’ve had some success you are growing into. You know it is real because you know it is in your soul.
Deep poetry flows in this moment of life. It may come again later in a mid-life crisis, or in the autumn of senescence, or when someone dies. You cannot exactly say what summons the spirit. Whatever is going on is writing the script that will sing my next decade, and I do not know how it will sound.
“Don’t pass through the next few years and not pray,” my pastor told me over breakfast sandwiches in DC. I was voicing my anxiousness to finish my current education and work. “It would be better to take five years than to do it in three years and not pray at all.” Those words have been sticking with me.
For now, I continue on the trajectory away from youth and inexperience. I forget for weeks at a time and then, in a moment of reflection, I wonder what the hell I am becoming. Certainly no one can answer for me, and just as certainly I cannot choose it.
I am for the first time able to think seriously about who I will be at the end of decades, with respect to my position now. A man of prayer? Faithful to the wounds of a friend? Attentive to the Holy Spirit? Father? I fail them every other day, but fashions and moods – and my 20s in general – are failing me faster.
When I was 22, I looked forward as a dream. Today, it is like looking through a telescope, and I am gathering my strength as I approach the land I am eyeing.
God, give me the long obedience of years.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.