Chrysalis

I didn’t become an adult on my birthday.

Some people are born into adulthood. They emerge from the womb with miniature top hats cocked playfully over their delicate fontanels, with handbags and sensible shoes coordinated to match their Huggies. For them, infancy is an indignity to be suffered through, the umbilical yoke a temporary setback on a path they already recognize as their own. Their youth is spent in constant practice — toting around plastic babies, hammering wedge-shaped nails into a toy workbench, pushing Pop-o-Matic vacuum cleaners across the living room floor. From here, progress is quick and easy to chart: they eventually become what they already are.

Consummate adults are easy to pick out in a crowd. They walk with what appears to be (or what the rest of us envy as being) a sense of genuine purpose. They know where they are going, and because of this, they walk without fear, through the lobby, across the parking lot, down the street, on air.

Others are paralyzed from the beginning, before they even learn how to move. The flashing lights of the world overwhelm, steal the very first breath away, and they can only watch as the real people keep on passing by. When they are old enough, their hands, knowing no other practical aspiration, reach for a pen …

It is early December, and I am looking out the window of my office. The sky is white. The leaves on the ground, once red as lips, have been sun-bled to a pale ocher. Rustled by an occasional breeze, they brush against the planks of the fence and fall where they may. This is nothing new; this is autumn, as scheduled. Still, I write it down in my notebook.

I write this:

I know I am not a grown-up today. The dishes tower in the sink. Laundry spills out from the hamper. On the coffee table, dust has formed a layer thick enough to slice. It is the afternoon and I have yet to change out of my pajamas.

This is my cocoon. The window, like an eye, shutters itself closed when I blink, then reopens. In the instant, I have no way of proving this to be false. Caged in its yard, my house might be its own animal. We are both buried in leaves, recumbent. Buried in words.

In the past two years, I have filled eight notebooks. I do not know if this is an accomplishment — I rarely go back and read them. The callus on the middle finger of my right hand has grown to the size of a maple seed peeled from its helicopter. But the words … they may as well be superimposed over top one another on a single sheet, a palimpsest one thousand five hundred ninety-nine times over, an inky mess.

As fast as I write — as much — I still am not prolific. I have little to show for it. Little that I am proud of. I am 24 and writing has, as yet, failed to rescue me from my job, taxes, or car payments. It has not made me more confident, responsible, or independent. The routine of it has stunted me in some ways, in fact.

Rarely do I feel like I am living in an authentic moment. Everything is immediately enveloped in language. My friends and I dine by candlelight one evening and the experience is already narrated for us. Later, as we walk along the harbor, I look out over the water and realize I am only seeing in two dimensions. It is supposed to be beautiful — the flat, black, polished glass cradles a counterfeit moon. The scenery is beautiful, my mind tells me. I feel nothing. The storyteller corrects me: You are having a good time.

Words reduce existence into thought-sized, disconnected chunks. This is unavoidable; this is how we understand the world around us. Something is always lost in the translation, however. I want to learn how to break through this wall, to divorce sensory perception from the residue of narrative detail. I want to see everything for the first time, again. I know it is possible — to hatch oneself into a brighter and lovelier reality.

I did not write on my birthday a little over a month ago. It was a conscious decision. I wanted to remember the day in its most visceral sense. And though the particulars are not carefully mapped out in an entry dated October 25th, 2003, I do not stretch the truth into so many words now by saying it was magical. It was.

One of my birthday gifts was a black and silver soccer ball. Clad in a waffly gray thermal shirt and an old pair of jeans, I took to the outdoors. The sky was white then, as it is today. The leaves were crimson — lipstick kisses everywhere. I ran and ran, dribbling the ball in circles around my backyard. I took a few shots between the trees, feeling the satisfying weight of the hexagon-covered orb as it delivered itself from my foot. I ran until I was winded, until I was dizzy. My body was unused to the strain of physical activity, and my eyes were unfocused. Everywhere I looked, I saw rings of light, edged in prisms.

I had to rest on the porch steps for a second. Blinking. The white shingles that make up the siding to my house were glaringly bright, despite the fact that they were and are in desperate need of repainting. They appeared to be moving. Or, rather, something appeared to be moving over them.

I opened my eyes wider, to see. Ladybugs — hundreds of them, maybe thousands. They were crawling over top one another, making their determined paths up the vertical length of the house. Occasionally, impeded by one obstacle or another, they would buzz in temporary flight and then resettle. Some landed in my hair, brushed against my face. I thought I was hallucinating. I turned to see more of them nibbling on our pumpkins, eating eyeholes into would-be Jack O’Lanterns.

I laughed, delighted. It was far better than I could have written it.

But that day has passed.

I have returned to my notebook — there is no real way to choose oblivion and carry on living. And, without language, I wouldn’t be able to tell you this: it is okay and even necessary to wrap yourself in words and dreams — to look on from some distant star as the Earth spins temporarily without you — as long as you remember to sleep yourself awake.

I add:

I didn’t become an adult on my birthday, like I dreamt I would, like I secretly feared I would. Nor did I remain the same.

From time to time, I catch the flicker of a polka-dotted wing out of the corner of my eye and I am reminded that any given moment is a new world to emerge into.

Article © 2003 by Sarah David