Grown-ups don’t watch cartoons.
The summer before I entered second grade, my grandfather lived in an apartment about an hour away. I spent a weekend with him in late July, cozying up by the coffee table where he taught me how to play card games and smiling in the galley kitchen where he introduced me to the glory of frozen mini-Snickers bars. On Saturday afternoon, he took me to the movie theater.
“Are you sure you want to see The Lion King again?” he asked. “Didn’t you tell me you’ve already seen it twice?”
I looked up at the Black Beauty poster next to the ticket booth and wondered for a split second if I should choose that instead. Maybe my grandpa would enjoy Black Beauty more than The Lion King? But he’d asked what I wanted. I wanted to tell the truth, and I wanted to see The Lion King again, so that’s what I told him. He chuckled, said, “Okay!” and stepped up to purchase our tickets.
I tried to ignore the nagging voice in my head.
Grown-ups would not pick the same cartoon three times in a row. Your grandpa will just think you’re a silly kid now.
My parents invited family friends over for dinner. Kids ran amuck in the house and backyard. I played with my fellow kids for a while, then invented excuses to go downstairs as my peers invented plotlines for playing house. Why did they want to play house when they could watch real house live in living color, right there in my parents’ kitchen?
I filled my fifth cup of water and looked for a book or toy no one needed while I listened to the adults’ conversation. After a few trips, I worked up the courage to interject my eight-year-old thoughts into the grownup discussion.
My mom’s best friend smiled at me.
“You really don’t like being a kid, do you? You want to be grown up.”
My cheeks burned.
“No, it’s not that I don’t want to be a kid,” I protested. “I . . . I don’t know how to explain it.”
The adults smiled at each other and I slipped back upstairs.
What a failure. Now they’ll think I’m even more of a little kid than they would have if I’d stayed upstairs.
My mom opened a letter from a friend and showed it to me. The stationery featured a black border with teacups on it, as if the mismatched contents of a china cabinet had been imagined onto the paper.
“Can you guess which teacup is my favorite?” Mom asked me.
I confidently pointed to my favorite teacup, certain she and I would love the same one.
“Nope,” she said.
Shocked, I selected another. Wrong again. After four guesses, I gave up, and she showed me her favorite—a pattern I never would have chosen for myself, or, therefore, for her.
I couldn’t believe it. Until that moment, I’d believed my mom and I had near-identical taste, not by chance, but because I’d worked to ensure it. I made a concerted effort to pay attention to what she liked, to adore what she adored, to find lovely what she found lovely. If I could behold and admire the same types of beauty she did, then maybe I’d be seen as mature like her. If I couldn’t, well, there went the voice again.
If you’re not like your mom, then you’re not like an adult, just like you’re not really like a kid.
Each of these moments sit etched with dissonant pain in my brain still today. But I see now what I couldn’t see back then. Despite my best efforts, perfect mimicry of specific adult behaviors would never succeed in bringing me the secrets of maturity and grown-upness I so deeply craved.
The road I would have to learn to walk—the road I’m still learning to walk—looks much less like copying admired adults and much more like learning to take a step at a time. It looks like growing into myself. It looks like embracing my own thoughts, desires, and tastes.
I am finding that I can follow in the footsteps of the older, wiser people I esteem without binding my feet to perfectly fit their shoes.
Growing up, I felt stuck between childhood and adulthood. Now, I feel caught between head and heart, recluse and collaborator, logician and mystic. But rather than attempting to choose a side, I’m slowly learning how to dignify the tensions, how to honor processes and middle places. And I hope that someday, when I want to watch the same movie three times, or can’t perfectly explain myself in conversation, or like a design no one else does, that I can stand strong in a quiet confidence—and hopefully give others permission to explore their middle places too.