How we become real

I think the 20s are some of the most difficult years in our lives. Yet no one tells us that. Instead, pop culture depicts the 20s as a decade of  partying and, if you watch slacker movies, a time to avoid growing up.

I thought of the ten years between leaving my teens and turning 30 as the ‘make it or break it’ years. Along with all the freedoms I’d yearned for came all kinds of choices that were, for the first time ever, solely mine to make. With those choices I would create my life. But how do you make critical choices with so little understanding of what you really want?

“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how.” That’s what author Ursula Le Guin counseled. So I began looking for those guides.

I was no more courageous than the next seventeen-year-old girl slipping out the front door in search of her life. My predominant state of mind was fear.  Fear of the unknown, fear of not measuring up, fear of not making it, even though I didn’t know what “it” was.  All I knew for sure was I was going to get an education.

That was no mean feat in my middle-class, middlebrow home, where it was understood only my brother would get financial help to go to college. He was a boy and would one day have to support a family. The assumption that I would get married and be taken care of by my husband was the cultural backdrop. There were no high school advisors, no mentors, no older family members who could show me the ropes.

I  had three things going for me, a willingness to risk, a hardheaded determination and luck. My teachers and the diverse people I met on an urban campus steadily drew me into the wider world.

But it was authors and poets that led me on my inner journey. I took their advice, followed their road signs and, when I was heart weary, I gathered strength by the communal fires they’d created in their poems and stories.

As in all things, if you’re seeking, the right voices come. Over time I collected the works of a small cadre of writers whose voices consistently nurtured and beckoned me onward.

They posed all the right questions.  Poet Mary Oliver asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  Then she gave advice that’s held up over time. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Still, following that advice was not easy. Knowing what my soft animal body loved required getting out of my head and into my heart. It required alone time to get to know myself and a willingness to face uncomfortable truths. My guides were sticklers for truth because they believed the truth sets us free. From judgment, from thou shalts, from what will they think?

My guides also demanded I open my eyes. As a southern child I’d absorbed To Kill a Mockingbird. In college, I read James Baldwin who taught racism is a lack of understanding for sure, but worse, its underlying lack of empathy makes everyone poorer. And scared of life.

Anais Nin warned, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”  That meant gathering the courage to try despite my insecurities, untested abilities, past failures, or the discouraging voices of those around me. Maya Angelou coached, “You have to start developing courage as you do any other muscle. You have to start with small things and build it up.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson promised, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

I chose to believe my guides and, like fledglings everywhere, I stretched my wings and trusted I could fly. With time, I internalized the wisdom of my guides and used it to create my life. Which jobs to take, which men to love, when it was time to move on or change course. When I hit a wall, my guides counseled to look for the lessons in failure. Poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen offered my twenty-something self his hard won perspective. “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

In our 20s, perhaps more than any other period of life, we choose guides that speak our private mother tongue. Your guides and my guides are unlikely to be the same, but all guides have something in common. They use language like ancient shamans used rituals, to conjure a gift for the spirit. When guides speak, something deep within stirs and restores an inner balance to heart, mind and soul.