Becoming a grown up

[First published on The Ruminator on 26 June 2015].

I used to think that no-one ever really grows up. There are all these milestones that are supposed to signify maturity, but as I passed each one – turning eighteen, leaving school, turning twenty one, graduating a few times, getting married, turning thirty, having a kid –I didn’t really feel any different. I concluded that everyone must feel like this, and the grown-ups are the ones who figure it out and get on with faking it.

I was wrong. Maybe it doesn’t happen to everyone, but suddenly, at 32, I do feel like a grown-up. I’m pretty sure there’s no going back, but that’s okay. It’s nice over here. Bittersweet.

It happened on a Friday night. I was at a Don McGlashan gig with my partner Dave and his best friend from high school. It was our second night out in 20 months (not coincidentally, also the age of our toddler).

It wasn’t just that our big night out was a seated gig that started at 8.30pm, nor that my first reaction to seeing the audience assembled in the foyer of the Paramount Theatre was “wait, these aren’t our peers are they?”. It definitely wasn’t anything as predictable as the fact that we’re now those parents with nothing to talk about at social events but whether our kid sleeps through the night (she doesn’t). That’s just par for the course when you do nothing but work, manage a chronic illness, and parent a toddler.

No, it was something else.

Don McGlashan is currently touring his latest album, Lucky Stars. At the gigs, he plays the new album in its entirety in the first half, and peppers the pick of his other solo albums with some Mutton Birds and Front Lawn classics in the second half. It’s really good.

My epiphany started during the title track, in which McGlashan describes having an epiphany of his own after dropping his daughter off to her acting job on Shortland Street. It’s a simple song about realising how lucky you are to be standing on the forecourt of a petrol station in Henderson at five in the morning. You know. Oh, you don’t?

I’ve had to spend a lot of time in the last year learning how to find joy in the small things. Walking on a stony beach with a small child. Spreading a hot packet of fish and chips on the floor on a Friday night. The view of Wellingon Harbour from a commuter train window. I’ve never filled up in Henderson, but I know what Don means, and that knowledge was not easily won.

At half time, we stood in line for an ice-cream. We chatted to a few people we haven’t seen for 20 months. It occurred to me that we were all carrying around some heavy shit. My family is still recovering from a tragic event three years ago. A friend lost his brother last year to suicide. Another lost his partner. Someone else lost a family member in the February 2011 earthquake. And those were just the ones I knew about.

And us. It’s not just because we have a small child that we haven’t been out for so long. It’s mostly because the combination of Dave’s illness and my anxiety means that in our new reality, it’s not something we’d usually attempt (in our household a Don McGlashan gig warrants special effort). In the recent past, I’ve thought this makes us exceptional, more than usually unlucky. I’ll be honest; I’ve spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.

But I started to think, licking my ice-cream back in the darkened theatre, that rather than set me apart, these experiences are my passport to life as a grown-up. The older we get, the more experiences we accumulate. After thirty years, it’s not surprising that they start to include the tragic, heartbreaking, and incredibly difficult to bear. To bear them anyway, and go on finding the joy in small things – that’s what grown-ups do.

I know that it took me until my thirties to figure this out makes me one of the lucky ones. You’ve probably known this for ages. Like Dave, who lost his dad at fifteen.

I was thinking about that when McGlashan played “Andy”, perhaps the best-loved Front Lawn song, a letter to his dead brother. I’ve heard it many times, but this was the first time it made me cry, big fat tears smudging the mascara I’d dug out especially from the back of the bathroom cupboard. Does his heart, I wondered, still break for his brother every time he plays it? Was that what I heard that made me cry? Or was I just thinking about my own family, our friend’s brother, Dave’s dad?

Dave’s dad was also called Andy. Long before I met Dave, he learned the chords and changed the words to sing “Andy” at his sister’s twenty first:

She turned twenty-one tonight. If you were still alive you’d be just short of fifty-eight. Oh Andy, don’t keep your distance from me…

There’s a framed letter and CD cover in our sleepout: Songs from the Front Lawn, signed by Don for Dave, after Dave’s friend wrote to Don to tell him about it.

What a gift. Not just the letter and signed CD, but the song itself. To sing about something so personal, put it out into the world, and respond with grace and humanity when others take it and use it to make sense of their own lives.

They say the most personal is the most universal. I’m sure without the universal resonance of Don McGlashan’s personal songs, I would have eventually come to appreciate that the difficult events of the last few years have made me a more fully formed human, but I’m so glad I made it out of the house to figure it out in the Paramount Theatre on that Friday.

I watched my apparently middle-aged peers file out after the second standing ovation. I thought of them going home to relieve babysitters, worry about the whereabouts of teenagers, set the alarm early for Saturday morning sport, or climb into bed next to warm bodies. I thought about those who were going home instead to holes where those things should be. I held on tight to Dave’s hand as we walked to the car.

Much later, our daughter woke, distressed, in the middle of the night. I fed her in my arms, and waited until she rested, heavy limbed, completely at ease. Then I carried her to her bed, like a boat across the water.