I never really considered my twenties until now. But here I am.
How can it be that I’m now old enough to be left for a younger woman? To have to attend a funeral on my birthday? To embrace apathy by fixating on work, which mercifully leaves little time for self-reflection at the end of the day (supplemented with weed at night to ensure dreams don’t come)?
As a post-grad twenty-two year old I am “not waving, but drowning.”
I know I’m not alone. Five years ago I could solve any anxiety in a friend with a motivational Pinterest quote, a recollection of a Jim and Pam scene from The Office, a reminder that turning 17 or 18 or 21 would begin life anew, make it all better. My friends and I now make it through the day sending strained texts that note at least how close the end of the day is, listening to artists sing, “grey skies and I’m drifting, not living forever,” and sharing absurd memes. Always memes.
Overwhelmed by time, daunted by the state of the country and world we have to grapple with now, working through childhoods and relationships and selves, selves existing alone, we are struggling.
While there’s great comfort in this despairing collective as my fellow twenty-somethings do what is often referred to as “coming of age,” my eyes have recently been opened to another individual facing similar transformation.
Madeleine Kunin, age 84, former three-term governor of Vermont, former deputy secretary of education and ambassador to Switzerland, wife, mother, feminist, professor, and poet, is coming of age too.
Plainly listing Kunin’s accomplishments undermines the ease with which she blurs the lines between public and private life to present a full, complex existence in her newest memoir, Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties, if it can be classified as a memoir at all. Vignettes of life as an aging woman are woven through with poems and photographs, setting Kunin’s work up as a collage in crimson, a color she meditates on in the first chapter. Pragmatic joy shocks and radiates from the beginning: “I can fling my arms wide when I want to,” she writes in her foreword, “or I can keep them positioned at my side.” The path long, the options many, the reality sobering, the joy contagious—I’m listening.
And yes, it feels great to listen to a powerful, distinguished woman speak about her career. Many readers will come to the book eager to learn more about Kunin’s life in politics, especially as midterms approach. As more women than ever run for office this fall—in fact setting up to shatter 1992’s “Year of the Woman” (finally)—Kunin’s book offers anecdotes to prove how far we’ve come even in her lifetime. A scene in which her male colleagues nominate her for the stereotypically-female role of secretary of the Joint Fiscal Committee has stuck with me, not for the ache of a woman de-legitimized before she’s even entered the room, but for the conclusion of that story: “This past year I saw a newspaper photo of the newly appointed Joint Fiscal Committee. All four members were women.”
Her journey as a politician is undoubtedly captivating, but this is no place for juicy secrets and political drama, nor one for overwrought hopes for herself and her world, or for despair—here, we have true candor.
And she candorously lets us see everything, from the tears shed behind bathroom stall doors to the shape of her changed body in the mirror post-swim. These honest experiences, free of the voyeurism from which so many similar female experiences are imagined, are scenes I’ve never read about before. Despite my recent degree in English literature, I can confirm that white male perspectives on love still dominate curriculum, and female coming-of-age stories either end with some kind of amazing new beginning—The House on Mango Street; Brown Girl, Brownstones; The Bell Jar—or, most often, a marriage—Jane Eyre, and many, many others.*
But falling in love and having sex at 71 years old? The loneliness of walking home with a single piece of salmon and one potato for dinner? Rarely have I read of the masculine experience of these circumstances; never have I read of a woman’s life such as this. I cannot fully describe the catharsis of reading a dynamic, eminent woman discuss both loneliness and love, vulnerability and determination, but I know I feel acknowledged in my transitory state when I read her words.
And here lies Kunin’s greatest talent in her writing: her ability to situate her life within the context of all the other lives existing around her. Following a cathartic final chapter, Kunin’s afterword features the speech she gave at the Women’s March in Montpelier in January 2017, a call to action and a call for hope post-election. Given how pragmatically hope appears throughout the book as Kunin faces what time she has left, the addition of this speech at the end does not feel impractical: “The pendulum has swung so fast from Obama to Trump that we are experiencing whiplash. I assure it will swing back again—when we push hard.” Personal anxieties aside, I would argue that more people my age than not realize the privileges of their lives and the power of empathy among us to improve life on a global scale. We may need some SSRIs and Frank Ocean’s “Biking” on repeat to get through the day, but we’ll do our part to do well for others.
With echoes of Whitman, Kunin writes in one poem: “I am multiples/and I am none./It is late,/it is done.” The lines are just as true for her as they are for me. Our paths are long, our narratives constantly under re-evaluation. Right now, the path before me feels too long; I seem to have too much time left and I really don’t know what to do with all the life before me. Reading about the diversity of experiences contained in Kunin’s life has given me perspective on how much can possibly happen in my own life, and I appreciate that. But my takeaway from it all is simpler—maybe less hopeful but certainly as true: “I acknowledge the transformation I am experiencing—physical, mental, and emotional.”
Comings-of-age never really stop, and ultimately that’s probably a good thing. To those in the gap with me and Madeleine: take firm note of the feelings of loss and then fling your arms wide, if only to prove that you can take up some space in the world. There’s room for it all.
*My notable exceptions to cliched female coming-of-age stories have recently come in the form of graphic narratives; check out Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke.
“Not waving but drowning” Stevie Smith
“Come Back to Earth” Mac Miller (Swimming Album)
Coming of Age Madeleine Kunin
NOTE: Mac Miller died on September 7, 2018