Swimming in a fishbowl, year after year

My mother used to tell me when I was still living at home that high school was like a fishbowl. Proximity distorted things so they looked much larger than they actually were. It was easy to hear this advice and far more difficult to listen to it, to internalize or accept it. It didn’t matter that in some logical part of my brain I understood that she was right, understood that things that felt like a big deal actually weren’t, because what you see before you with your two eyes, it seems big. Panoramically, all-consuming-ly, big. Once high school was over and some time and space had passed, things shifted into their normal size and shape, taking up the space they should have and maybe always had.

What I realize now is that high school isn’t the only fishbowl, that it isn’t like you graduate at eighteen and can suddenly see everything with clear, undistorted vision. The fishbowl doesn’t belong to a specific period, it is a very specific perspective that one can unwittingly adopt for any length of time—for an entire life. The fishbowl perspective is all about looking at things up close, up so close that everything else around you blurs until you almost can’t see it. It’s about the magnification of objects, the distortion of reality, the exaggeration of importance. And if you don’t force it to, it never has to end.

College, in many ways, is almost more prone to the fishbowl perspective than high school ever was, and not just because we don’t all have our mothers standing in the kitchen explaining the distortion to us while the water boils. We are in a tiny, self-contained community with its own physical domain, its own rules, its own lingo, its own order. How terrifyingly easy it is to completely lose sight of the outside world, to stick your head so far into that fishbowl that sometimes it seems like nothing else exists but what’s right in front of you. I think we can start to lose sight of who we are in a larger sense, of the things we want and the things that matter to us. We unconsciously slide into focusing only on our immediate surroundings so that suddenly the only things that matter are ten points on a test or finding a date to a formal or how to punctuate a text message. The magnification is real, and it is considerable.

The inherent danger that lies in looking at the world through a fishbowl is that the real big things, the overarching things, get eclipsed by the inflation of small things, of things in your immediate surroundings. It is possible to start losing sight of the truly important things, the things that matter long-term, the absolute truths due to the swelling of the immediate present. By shifting to fit the environment we see ourselves in, to accommodate the amplification of the things around us, we begin to shrink ourselves, fold ourselves into uncomfortable positions to fit the space we have left. Suddenly it seems we can forget entire parts of who we are in order to focus on things that are only fleetingly important.

Another thing I am reminded of is the classic old lady/young woman optical illusion that contains two possible perspectives on the same image. In one viewing, the picture depicts an old lady with a large nose wearing a scarf over her head, and in the other, a young woman facing away from the viewer with a feather in her hair. Most people either see one image or the other, and some find it impossible to see anything else. What it is important to remember is that both are there, and training your eyes to be able to switch back and forth is both the difficult part and the crucial part.

It is not to say that nothing small is important, that tiny things about your everyday life can’t be amazing and beautiful and significant. The key is to be able to tell the difference. Some things get distorted and enlarged and magnified so that suddenly we are spending innumerable precious moments worrying or thinking about things that aren’t worth our time, and some little things that could make all the difference get lost in the shuffle. It’s all about perspective. It’s all about recognizing that size and importance don’t always map precisely onto each other.

And also it’s important that no matter which version of the picture you see first, that the other version is always there, even if it takes your eyes a while to see it, to remember it exists. When I feel like I’m getting too caught up in the things directly in front of me and starting to forget what lies outside the fishbowl, starting to only be able to see one version of the picture, I have to take a step back and think about the pillar-sized things, the constant things, the things I can feel deep in my chest. I think about the way my heart swells when I stand in the mountains, the tingling on my skin when music seems to activate every cell in my body, the sting behind the hollows of my cheekbones when something happy makes me cry, the shaky adrenaline that ripples through my veins when I do something that scares me. It’s about the people who are three-dimensional in your life, about the things you care about so deeply you almost can’t breathe, the places that feel like they’re in your bones.

It’s not to belittle the importance of everything around you, to write off the impact of every day actions– it’s simply to say that sometimes a healthy dose of perspective can be everything– the difference between losing yourself and holding on to yourself, the difference between being happy or unhappy, the difference between getting a headache, and really, really, seeing.

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the illusion of adulthood

I remember vividly the first time I ever visited Northwestern– I was in the eighth grade and spending a weekend in Chicago with my family. It was what I would later recognize as a fairly typical blustery, gray fall day and my parents insisted on showing us everything, where they’d met and where they’d walked– where it had all begun. There was an exhibit on the Beatles inside Deering, a random detail that would be forever ingrained in my first impression of campus, to the point where just hearing “Ticket To Ride” would make me think of the ivy crawling all over the stone walls of the library. The daydreaming began then, starting to envision myself as this taller, more defined person who would one day walk on these paths and into these buildings. I watched the college students of 2003 walking around purposefully with their backpacks and a distinct, visible comfort in their environment. I remember how old they seemed, how evolved– like fully formed adults living in a realm far away from my own. At thirteen, twenty-two seemed impossibly old.

In a way it still does. It seems impossible to have blown by thirteen, to have waded through high school, to have not only gotten in and gone to Northwestern like I’d wanted, but to now be finished with it, to have it be almost behind me. The answer “twenty-two” sounds strange when I give it, like I’m just waiting for someone to catch me in a lie, because how could i be twenty-two? Wasn’t I just thirteen and daydreaming about this future? Wasn’t I just seventeen and driving to ski practice? Wasn’t I just twenty and still trying to figure out my major?

The emotional truth of an age and the factual reality of it rarely seem to match up, one always slightly behind or ahead of the other. It was easier as a teenager to deny that you were growing up, to feel like adulthood was some sort of hazy, shimmery mirage in the distance you were never actually going to get to. You could get away with that kind of thinking through high school and even through most of college, but for me and my classmates adulthood is now an imminent, concrete, looming reality that it feels impossible to look away from. I guess I just always assumed that when it finally came I’d feel more like the evolved, fully-formed person I thought I saw when I was thirteen.

I’m coaching third and fourth grade girls at Orrington Elementary school in Evanston this quarter through the awesome organization Girls On The Run, helping them train for a 5k race in June and teaching a curriculum that promotes positive self-esteem/body image, teamwork, and a healthy lifestyle. My co-coach Phuong (pronounced Foon) is a spunky, energetic mother of three (soon to be four) adorable little children who love to run laps with the girls around the field on the playground. The girls on the team are all seven and eight years old, an age I distinctly remember being–the age I started writing everything down, even though the most creative part of any of it then was the spelling. It is unbelievably refreshing to be around a group of people whose biggest concern is getting a green rubber band as a lap counter instead of a blue one, who don’t want to talk about ordering caps and gowns or discuss post-graduation plans.

We were discussing the 5k at practice today and explaining to the girls that they each need to bring an adult running buddy who will race with them (largely to make sure they don’t get lost–there are over 5,000 girls running the race at Soldier Field on June 9th) and what constituted an adult seemed to be a concept they couldn’t quite grasp. Many wanted to know why they couldn’t run with high-school aged siblings, and Phuong reiterated that the buddy had to be at least eighteen, so as long as the sibling was at least that old it was fine. One of the girls looked at me inquisitively. “How old are you? Can you be a running buddy?” I replied that I was twenty-two, the taste of it in my mouth as I said it even stranger in front of a group of elementary schoolers, and Phuong nodded, telling them that I was an adult and someone my age qualified as an acceptable running buddy. The cognitive dissonance that this caused me was tangible and uncomfortable, again producing a feeling that at any moment someone would step up and say “But wait, she’s not a grown-up…”

I looked around the playground, kids running through puddles on the asphalt, flinging their little bodies across the monkey bars, jumping off swings and landing in piles of thick wood chips. I remembered all these things about my own elementary school in Massachusetts, the low wall near the kindergarten classrooms that kids used to jump off until one of the recess monitors yelled at them to stop, the giant field next to the school we played capture the flag in during gym class, the tetherball courts that always had lines fifteen people deep. But then I looked at the parents standing on the pavement, watching their kids out of the corners of their eyes and chatting with other parents, and I realized that somehow, at some point I had become closer to them than I was to the girls sitting in a circle around me. Somehow along the way the time in my life where I stood with the parents had begun to loom closer than the time I’d swung on the monkey bars at recess.  Somehow I had shifted into the adult realm without meaning to, without trying.

But the thing is that no one ever means to, no one ever tries, or if they do the sense of control they feel is a sham. Time moves along steadily at an absolute, unchanging rate no matter how it feels to us emotionally (for a reflection on that, click here), and we have the exact same amount of time to be every age that we are. I had become twenty-two just like everyone else before and after me had ever or would ever become twenty-two– by waking up and standing up and walking around and looking around day in and day out.  Maybe no one ever really feels as old as they thought they would at any age. Maybe emotional truth and factual reality will never see eye to eye when it comes to time. Maybe you just have to fake it until you make it.

As the girls ran laps around the field at the end of practice Phuong and I stood near the backstop reaching out our hands for high-fives as they passed in groups of two and three, engaging in what I could only imagine was typical adult-to-adult chatter. Her two-year-old son Gabel ran up to us, his cheeks flushed and covered in little flecks of dirt from the infield, his tiny little chest heaving with ragged breath. He grabbed the leg of his mother’s jeans to steady himself as he tumbled toward us, still at the age where kids haven’t quite figured out how to stop the momentum of their own bodies yet. “Stella and Evie said putting wood chips and water on the tree would make it grow another one!” He pointed to his sisters kicking water from a puddle toward a bush they had piled high with wood chips. Stella’s jean legs were dark with puddle water all the way past her knees and Evie had mud all over her hands. Phuong shook her head, her eyes rolling at the sight of her children. “Tell them only only the wood chips work, Gabel, not that nasty puddle water.” Gabel’s eyes widened and he nodded, scampering off across the field hollering to his sisters. Phuong threw up her hands and gave me a look as she laughed. “Sometimes, you’ve just got to make it up as you go along.”

I know now that the put-together college students I saw when I was thirteen were probably hungover and late for class, thinking about the million other tiny things that were making their lives the chaotic mess that college often is, and that even superhip young moms who seem to be completely on top of things sometimes have to improvise when their kids start kicking around in puddles.

So maybe no one ever really feels as old as they are, and we just have to accept that time will make us into whatever it wants to on paper, but that the rest is up to us.  Maybe the best we can do is just make it up as we go along. Maybe that’s all anyone has ever really done.