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On becoming

It’s my birthday and I’ll write if I want to. Also maybe cry.

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
7 min read
On becoming

Dear diary: Today I’m thirty-one.

It's an age that I can still imagine thinking of as being impossibly old. I’m picturing myself in Grade Four French class and right away I’m back there in my tiny ten-year-old body, learning the names of pizza toppings en françaisfromage, l’ananas, champignons—staring out the window into the grassy playground field and waiting for recess so I could pull out my lime green GameBoy Color and hike it down to the other kids to go play Pokémon together. So close, and yet so far. I can remember it like it was yesterday, and it also feels a world away.

Even remembering this time last year feels both incredibly close and impossibly far. This time last year my whole brain felt like an open wound. I had massive anxiety and was consulting videos on YouTube about whether or not we should be washing our groceries, we were barely two weeks into working from home, and the impossible hugeness of this global pandemic was just beginning to dawn on us, like seeing another planet float up over the horizon.

For my 30th birthday last year, all festivities were curtailed as we were in the middle of a no-gather order. So instead we video-chatted with friends around a virtual bonfire and my husband and I turned our living room into a bowling alley. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

This year, I thought we might be able to get away with a little birthday shindig involving trampolines and glow-in-the-dark dodgeball with friends, but a week ago our province announced another lockdown (four weeks this time) as a “circuit-breaker” amidst a sudden spike in our homegrown COVID cases; our highest numbers since the pandemic began. It’s hard not to feel like we’re right back where we were a year ago. Despite our dystopian surroundings (I asked a friend while walking the other day, “What do you think the new restrictions will be?” and I had an out-of-body experience like I was watching a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984), I’ve still been able to hang outside with pals (“thank fuck for skating,” a friend texted me while we were watching the new lockdown news presser), and make some new friends at our community’s skate park.

Let me tell you—if there’s something that’s underrated as an adult, it’s making friends. How freaking cool is it to find another human that likes the same things as you and wants to hang out? When you’re young and hanging out all day in school together with other kids, there’s often nothing to do but make friends. You take it for granted. Then, years later, you find yourself in your mid-twenties passing away your time at a nine-to-five to pay the bills and all of a sudden you think, “Crap. When is the last time I made a friend?” And not a work colleague, because as lovely as they are, it does feel different. I mean a good ol’ pal you can be your raunchy, weird self with. The kind of person who, given enough time together, you could text at 3 A.M. about a looming existential crisis.

This one-year anniversary also marks the passing of my opa, who died the day after my birthday. I still miss him completely. And I would give almost anything for just one more day with him. To hang out, playing cards and recording all his stories about growing up during the war in Holland, about travelling the world playing music with the band, about our family. Anything.

Since he passed I’ve known what I want to do as part of my celebration of his life: I want to go to the village in Holland where he grew up and scatter some of his ashes there, then do a bike ride through the Netherlands and eat some crazy good cheese in his honour. Last year, even though travel was cancelled, I thought surely by spring 2021 things would open up again and I’d be on my way to Holland right now, just in time for tulip season. But alas, life has other plans.

If there’s one thing you learn growing up it’s that life often has other plans. I’ll still aim myself at getting to Holland in the near future, but who knows. Living is kind of like playing pinball but instead of having both hands on the left and right flippers, you only get to control one and the other is controlled by an angry penguin, and he keeps pecking you and aggressively hitting his flipper at random, and you just have to do your best to keep up and try to get the ball where you want it to go without shaking the machine too much. That’s life.

Something I’m coming to understand as I get older though is that time doesn’t travel in a straight line. You don’t necessarily become further away from your younger self as you get older. I feel closer to some of my younger memories now than I did as they were happening. At the time I may have recoiled or been in such a hurry to fly away from myself and grow up, but now as an adult, I float over the shoulder of my past self like a time-travelling ghost and wonder, “How did this happen?” Or I cheer myself on, thinking, “Go for it!” I console myself when things don’t work out or when I made bad decisions.

A big illusion I suffered under when I was younger was a conviction that everyone else was more important than me. They just seemed that way. From the swagger with which they carried themselves, to how they didn’t ask me questions, to how everyone else just seemed to have things to do with great urgency.

I remember a media and culture class I took where I had the “ding ding” lightbulb moment that money was just something people “made up.” That currency was an invented thing. Money wasn’t real. That idea spun my head around for several weeks. If money wasn’t real, what else wasn’t real? What about all the puffed-up, so-called important people going around ignoring me and pushing me away? Was their self-importance fake as well? Turns out, it was!

Life is all just make-believe. We’re all playing at what we think life is, the way we think it should be played. But there is no right answer. We’re a bunch of sentient life on a ball of dirt that is somehow miraculously supporting our existence and spinning through the galaxy and no matter the fancy stories we tell ourselves, it pretty much boils down to just that. We’re a petri dish.

For someone who loves games, it took me so long to understand that the game of life is just made up. I spent so much time waiting to be “called in” or “seen” or “chosen.” But the truth is, no one has the agency to call you in but yourself. You don’t need validation from those around you if what you’re doing is true. That’s one of the biggest realizations I had during my twenties. I wish I’d learned it sooner, but I’m glad I learned it at all. Right?

I put a lot of stress on myself in those early years. Stress to perform and be acknowledged on an artistic as well as a financial level. If I could put one poem in a bottle and send it back through the sea of time to my past self, it might be this one:

It’s dark because you are trying too hard.

Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.

Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply.

Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.

I was so preposterously serious in those days, such a humorless little prig.

Lightly, lightly – it’s the best advice ever given me.

When it comes to dying even. Nothing ponderous, or portentous, or emphatic.

No rhetoric, no tremolos,

no self conscious persona putting on its celebrated imitation of Christ or Little Nell.

And of course, no theology, no metaphysics.

Just the fact of dying and the fact of the clear light.

So throw away your baggage and go forward.

There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet,

trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair.

That’s why you must walk so lightly.

Lightly my darling,

on tiptoes and no luggage,

not even a sponge bag,

completely unencumbered.

― Aldous Huxley, Island

I wouldn’t have waited for permission to do the things I wanted. I would have chosen myself sooner. Especially as a younger woman, I waited far too often for the permission and acceptance of men to enter a space. I didn’t realize their bravado, like money, was fake. I didn’t realize I could create my own stage, hold my own show to counter theirs.

I took their power for granted, and in doing so, granted them power.

Learning to see through the scrim of the universe and realize that what I thought was magic was actually invisible rules of society would have allowed me to pass through them far quicker, instead of standing outside like a cat, pawing at the glass and not realizing all I needed to do was push through.

The year after I got my undergrad degree, I worked in a law office where I once transcribed a very nice graduation speech for a lawyer I worked for. In it, he gave the advice to the then-graduating class that life was like a buffet, where you go up the first time and take a bit of everything, then the second and subsequent times you go back, you put more of your favourites on your plate, and leave what you don’t like behind. I think it’s a good metaphor, and it has stuck in my mind.

I would go a step further and say that not only is life like a buffet, but it’s a buffet where people keep trying to shove things you don’t want onto your plate and you have to defend it like an aggressive goaltender while simultaneously pursuing that favourite piece of chicken you like which is actually hidden under a dubious-looking aspic and which someone across from you keeps hiding with a napkin while looking the other way and whistling. Oh, and the waiter thinks you should be smiling and keeps reminding you by raising his eyebrows in your direction and tapping his cheek while grimacing. There’s also that fucking penguin again in the corner, asking you to go play pinball. !#*$er.

Life is a messy shitshow. But it is what it is. You have the cards you have. My opa was a phenomenal Cribbage player, and if there’s one thing I learned from him and my nana in our innumerable games of cards, it’s this—you play the cards you have. People respect you for how you play the game, not how many times you win. People respect your character. People respect the boundaries and goals you create for yourself.

You are never unworthy to just sit at the table and play the hand you’re dealt, to try and get the ending you want. So play the game, baby.

Blanket Fort

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