(or the art of Growing Down)
A previous, very silly, birthday
Yesterday was my birthday. I was dressed as a ninja cow at a festival, squeezed into a west-country barn full of ‘Almost Farmous’ revellers. We were ‘The Moo Fighters’, naturally. Seconded only by ‘Daft Skunk’.
The weekend consisted of dancing, laughing, drinking, firing water pistols at unsuspecting crowd members and generally indulging in large dollops of mischievous fun.
All perfectly acceptable fun for us youngsters, right? The issue being that I turned a wizened 34. My birthdays haven’t much changed since I was 18 and today my bones ache. Peter Pan is alive and well and, as a casual glance around the festival would suggest, he’s not alone. You can spot him easily – he’s the one with the bags beneath his eyes.
Are we eternally young, or merely adulesents? I wonder at what point we’ll become too old to find squirting people with water on a dance floor and then hiding most entertaining, and whether or not that constitutes a good or a bad thing?
I hope never. I’d like to nurture many of the wonders of youth – the lack of responsibility, humour, mischief, laughter, untidiness, carelessness, late nights, giggling, dancing that immaturity brings. I’d much rather live in a Roald Dahl novel than one by Austin, or Tolstoy, with their endless stream of grown ups, or children masquerading as adults.
We have many interwoven, sometimes contradictory, relationships with youth and growing up.
I was a late developer. As a summer baby, I was always playing catch up with hairier and taller friends in my year, some of whom had 11 months ‘extra time’. Not inconsequential when you’re a wee nipper on a frozen ruby pitch. Amongst those peers, I’ve now friends who’ve had three children, are captains of industry, divorcees, widows, drug addicts, alcoholics and celebrities. Some seem exceptionally grown up, with houses in expensive parts of London, pristine wardrobes, pensions and all the dinner party chat that complements their choices.
Others… well… haven’t. Yet some of the latter are more emotionally mature than the former and have had ‘richer’, more interesting lives. One friend could be described as the ‘furthest behind’, in terms of their careers… is one of the wisest, most worldly, experience-rich person I know. Another, a great friend who writes wonderfully here has just set off backpacking around the world, one-way, in his mid-thirties.
I’ve never understood the rush to grow up. Being one seems to mean attending parties where conversation never steers beyond pleasantries or politics. It means subverting ones true beliefs or self-expression. It results in wearing a uniform of chinos, collared shirts and boat shoes. It can mean rounding out all the passionate edges of youth and becoming ‘just another’ conformist. Add a bunch of reality, a sprinkle of boredom, a dash of failed ambition and a liberal sprinkle of responsibilities, loneliness and hard work to the mix and slow bake… and before we know it we’ve become a grown up. Past tense.
And yet, on the flip side, I’m envious of those adults who seem settled, self-confident and aware.
At a wedding a week ago the electronic music selection resulted in every person over forty retreating to the bar, save for one sixty-something who wasn’t scared to get involved. I’d rather be that person. Yet I want to do it because it feels authentic, not because of psychological stunting, or because I refuse to accept I’m the age I am. I’d like to be the godfather than a child goes to for both fun and sage advice, not one or the other.
Being ‘trapped in escapism’ is often an attempt to maintain the freedom of youth and avoid responsibility. Responsibility and maturity, particularly emotional maturity is, in my mind, always a good thing and yet so is a youthful energy and disposition to trying new things. Youth evokes passion, dreams, a healthy recklessness and hope that a weary elder can swat aside in the desire for routine, conformity and comfort.
So what to do? Can we bounce around like a child at a festival one weekend whilst holding down a job that requires huge responsibility, without giving one or the other short shrift? Can we extract the best from both maturity and immaturity?
There are good examples of a balance – The Dalai Lama, despite the weight that comes with being a religious leader, has a lightness, a giggle and a curiosity to match any child. David Attenborough, when asked about his passion said, “Many people ask me when I became interested in natural history. I’ve never met a child who isn’t, so I ask in reply at what age other people lost interest in the wonders of the natural world. I just never did”.
It’s a great shame when someone becomes too sensible to swim in the sea, dance, laugh, play practical jokes or takes things too seriously because they might look silly or get dirty. Both this beautiful poem as well as our deathbed regrets suggest that retaining the better parts of our youthfulness is important, and hard.
Let us nurture the wonders of youth. Let us be sillier, swim more rivers, make more mistakes, keep in touch with friends, work less hard, walk barefooted earlier, pick more daises and allow ourselves to be happy. I’ve started already this summer and it’s working. Come join.
(And I must leave you with this, which is the view from my window as I write this…)