Caroline, Loreli and I were sat chatting the other day and suddenly Caroline asked how old I was. When I replied she turned to Loreli and said, “See I told you.”
Did they have a disagreement about my age? Caroline remembered I’d posted it in my Cairo Scholars ad, and Loreli said, “Oh it’s only because you said you have your Master’s already and you’re doing your PhD now, I thought you might be older. Not in a bad way,” she added hastily. (I wasn’t offended anyway.)
“And because you’re so tall,” said Caroline.
It has always been thus. As a child and a teenager not only did I tower over my peers but people routinely treated me like I was older than my real age. I responded in kind and got used to acting like a grownup fairly early. (You can imagine how popular this made me amongst my peers.)
But I don’t really feel especially mature. In fact most days I feel about eight years old, masquerading as a grownup in dress-up shoes. And some days I wish I were still eight–it all seemed so much easier then, I think to myself.
But that’s not actually true. The difficulties I had at eight or fourteen or twenty-one all felt at the time as difficult as the problems I face now. The difference is that I’ve chosen to move forward and keep trying on increasingly difficult challenges instead of just stopping and growing complacent with the skills I learned at twenty-one, fourteen and eight.
Samantha, my British director and dancer friend, said the other day that most of the friends she has known since she was young now seem so old to her. She doesn’t feel that way. They all seem so caught up in feeling secure and settled – making sure the fridge matches the dishwasher, she said – that it’s almost like they got stuck.
A strong part of me wants that kind of simple but solid security; a part of me wants freedom from all these problems of my own making. Sometimes I just want to walk away from all the difficulties of my admittedly very exciting life. Most people my own age are in fact more settled: jobs that are turning into careers, working their way towards a home of their own, marriage. Some of my friends already have kids. (Granted, with my lifestyle I meet a lot of people like me, researchers and travelers and all-around dreamers whose biggest fear is getting stuck. But we aren’t like most people, I think.) Compared to an overflowing toilet on a tilted boat in the Nile on a day you lost your ATM card and didn’t think you’d be able to call home to sort it out – and knowing nobody was making you do this, it was all completely voluntary – all that other stuff sounds a lot more manageable.
But I suspect two things: first, those lives aren’t really as serene as they appear from the outside and they have their own challenges to keep them jumping, and second, Samantha is right. To keep ourselves sharp, curious and vibrant, we need to seek challenges and the unexpected. If you’d told me when I graduated from Sarah Lawrence that within three years I’d be shipping off to Cairo for six months, I’d’ve smiled at you like you were delusional and I wasn’t sure where you’d hidden the axe.
Do I want to throw a tantrum sometimes, lie down in the middle of this big beige city and kick and scream until I get carried home? Yes. Absolutely yes. But then I remember I’m far too tall for that sort of thing.