How To Like It (Stephen Dobyns)
These are the first days of fall.
I chose this today because it’s raining, because last night was overcast and cool, the wind brisking against my cheeks and making them heat up (maybe the wine helped). Because this is a poem about learning to live your life, learning how to choose one path from all the paths that you have in front of you, and this is what I always think about when my birthday rolls around.
There is a point that each of us has when we run out of milestones. Most of the people I know grew up planning to go to college, trying to make good grades so that they could get into a good school. Then they went off somewhere and spent four years, more or less, writing papers and taking exams, planning to graduate on time, to get a good job and an apartment. That happened, too. And then the milestones end, and you have a moment where you wake up in the morning and you’re getting ready to go to work, and you think, “This is my life now. I will do this forever until I die.”
It shocks you, because you’ve spent your life up to then living in a state of waiting, knowing that your situation was finite. But now you’ve got nothing to wait for. This is what it means to be grown up.
It doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone – some people are waiting on the milestones of “get married” and “buy a house” and “have kids,” so it takes longer for them. Some people get caught between one milestone and another; maybe they sabotage themselves in order to stay in a place they understand, or maybe things just don’t work out well and they’re unlucky.
Once you’ve had the shock you have to figure out what you want to do about it. You can create your own milestones. “I want to write a novel” or “I want to travel to Japan.” This is when people start formulating their bucket lists, or obsessively reading other people’s. Or you settle in to the person that you think you’ve become, you make that person’s skin fit (or make yourself fit).You feel that “memories which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid” you feel that you have grown solid. You have collapsed from a quantum state of all the people you could have been into the person you are, the person that your memories have made you. And yet there’s still that urge, “the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.”
There’s a part of me that’s like the dog in the poem, the animal part. I want to stay up late, to dance, to stuff myself on burgers, to behave badly. I want to be a rebel, a wild version of myself. Not worry about the consequences and just feel things. And the man in the poem, that’s me, too. I want to be romantic. I want to be myself in a movie about leaving on a journey, I want to drive all night until the sun creeps into my rearview mirror, until I find the lights of a city entirely new to me. I want to take every turning, have every experience.
And that’s the trouble when you’ve passed all your milestones. There’s nothing to tell you what next, to tell you which turning to choose. The kinds of choices you make now – where to take your holiday, what book to read, whether to go to a show or stay in – there’s nothing about one that’s necessarily better than any other. So you get paralyzed (at least I do), you stall and dither and in the end you retreat to something comfortable, something you understand. That’s how you end up:
staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept-
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.