I’m a latecomer to the whole Glee thing. For about a year and a half, I ignored the show, even though I am an avid fan of television and musicals and people spontaneously breaking out into song. I knew the hype existed, but it existed on the periphery of my awareness, like seeing something out of the corner of your eye and not registering it with your brain. Plus, my sister told me she thought the show was crazy — maybe she said crazy in a good way but the impression I got was more like, “WTF is going on with this show and where is this all going in general?” At the time, I had enough WTF to figure out in my life without taking on the fictional kind.
Which is all a long winded way of saying that I eventually became a fan of the show — did I mention how much I love it when people on screen suddenly break into song? As a result, I watched the episode they screened two weeks ago called “Hold On To Sixteen.” The episode is named after a line in a John Mellencamp song. It’s a song about two teenagers in small-town America, but the Glee song that really inspired this piece is the one they sang at the end of the episode — “We Are Young” by Fun. This is the chorus:
Tonight, we are young
So let’s set the world on fire
We can burn brighter
Than the sun
Now tell me if that is not just one of the most audacious declarations of youth ever.
Is there anyone younger than a teenager? Superficially, of course, the answer is obviously those lovable lunatics we call toddlers and more recently, that problematic group of people that sociologists have termed pre-adolescents. As a sidenote, I don’t remember ever being a pre-adolescent. I was a kid and then I was a teenager. In between was just a lot of confusing stuff like getting my period and looking down at my chest and realizing it was growing. Let’s not go there.
My point is that teenagers are young in the true sense of youth — it doesn’t occur to them that they are going to get older. They exist in a golden stasis in which they are by and large immortal. And while anyone at any age can legitimately feel young, once you get past teenagehood, you start to feel the next years of your life hurtling towards you like an unstoppable train. You become aware of your own physical and mental aging process. My sixteen year old self could never get older than she was. My twenty-four year old self is very aware that she is getting older every minute she sits here in front of her computer screen, typing out this article.
By the time we get to the point where we’re graduating and holding down first jobs and moving in with partners and letting go of first loves, so much of that new human being shininess has worn off that we resort to riffling through old journals and declaring our defiant love for all things ’80s (or ’90s, depending on when you were born). If I could tell my sixteen year old self anything, it would be this: Remember how it feels. Hold on to sixteen. Lean into it. Keep those feelings safe somewhere because you’re going to need it, again and again and again. Faith and love and dreams and greatness.
At twenty-four, I cannot in any context of the word be called old, and yet I can never be as young as I was when I was sixteen. I can feel it happening. Every year the world intrudes more on my inner life. I can feel the edges of reality creeping into my scope of vision, into the way I see things and view myself. When I was younger, I imagined that the mythic land of my future would be epic in a grand way. I can’t say exactly what about the future I thought would be epic, but the feeling was there of excited anticipation of the day I would break free from teenagehood and embark on the grand narrative of my life.
But the older you get, the more you realize that life is anything but epic. Life is built on a series of mediocrities, the waiting in between for the moments of light and movement and beauty. You have to learn to see the epic in the small details, the beauty in the ordinary, the greatness in the every day. You can live a small and good and valuable life by doing the things you love and honoring the people you love in quiet ways every single day. I acknowledge the value in this and I intend to live my life this way, but no one tells you this when you are a teenager and everything is a frenzy of urgency and hormones, when you’re not fully who you will become yet, just a human being in chrysalis, always on the verge of becoming. My sixteen year old self actually believed that life could be epic in a storybook way or a movie way or a teen drama way.
Every so often I catch myself wondering how our lives got so complicated. How did it come to pass that I suddenly have so many decisions to make and that these decisions will actually have consequences? What was it that Sylvia Plath said?
Such a minute fraction of this life do we live: so much is sleep, tooth-brushing, waiting for mail, for metamorphosis, for those sudden moments of incandescence: unexpected, but once one knows them, one can live life in the light of their past and the hope of their future.
I guess those moments of incandescence are what I mean by epic. The gaining of wisdom, besides being an achingly slow process in my case, can sometimes be very sad, and I believe that growing up makes you a little wiser with every experience. Hearts break, people yell, life disappoints you sometimes. But I like to think that the sixteen year old I was knew something of the truth when she decided that those moments of incandescence are what we should all be searching for.